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The Place of Evolution in the ETI Myth

Now, you the reader might say: astrobiology is straight science! Why all this talk about myth? I grant that the mythical structures may require a bit of analysis to become visible. Let me provide that analysis now.

Such a myth would be a cultural construct, a window frame, so to speak, through which we look in order to view the world out there. In ancient times, myths were stories about how the gods had created the world in the beginning; and this beginning explains why things are the way they are in our contemporary experience. In the modern world, we think of ourselves as turning to science rather than myth to explain the origin of things. Yet, what ancient myth and modern science have in common is that they both provide a worldview, a frame for understanding and explaining what we experience. Or, to say it a bit more precisely, science contributes to the myths we modern people believe. At work in modern culture is an identifiable framework - a myth, if you will--within which we cast the questions we pose to the mysteries evoked by our experience with outer space.

The ETI myth begins to reveal its shape as Frank Drake gives voice to speculations reflecting contact optimism. “Everything we know says there are other civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology, and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in medicine” (Cited by Richards, 2003, p.5). Note how this optimism extends well beyond mere contact with ETIL. It includes optimism regarding the solution to “sociological” problems such as poverty and energy while giving us a leap forward in medicine. What Drake believes is that science is salvific, and extraterrestrial science would be even more salvific than earth’s science.

The ETI myth is structured around evolutionary assumptions. Here is one of the assumptions: life must evolve wherever the conditions are right; and there simply must be extraterrestrial planets where this is possible. “Life is the product of deterministic forces,” writes biologist and Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve. “Life was bound to arise under the prevailing conditions, and it will arise similarly wherever and whenever the same conditions obtain. There is hardly any room for ‘lucky accidents’ in the gradual, multistep process whereby life originated. This conclusion is compellingly enforced when one considers the development of life as a chemical process” (de Deuve, 1995, p. xv). As long as the right chemical conditions exist somewhere in outer space - in the Goldilocks location--we can expect life to evolve and develop and progress. And, perhaps, some day we will meet this extraterrestrial life form. At the level of assumption, this evolutionary belief has worked its way into the ETI myth.

Based on the Green Bank equation of 1961 (see the Drake equation above), de Deuve speculates that “the figure of about one million ‘habitable’ planets per galaxy is considered not unreasonable. Even if this value were overestimated by several orders of magnitude, it would still add up to trillions of potential cradles for life. If my reading of the evidence is correct, this means that trillions of planets exist that have borne, bear, or will bear life. The universe is awash with life” (de Deuve, 1995), p.121). With such contact optimists speculating without empirical evidence that the universe is teeming with life, it is easy to imagine our culture developing images of just what that life might be like.

This biologist continues to feed the growing myth with apparent scientific veracity. “My conclusion: We are not alone. Perhaps not every biosphere in the universe has evolved or will evolve thinking brains. But a significant subset of existing biospheres have achieved intelligence, or are on the way to it, some, perhaps in a form more advanced than our own” (de Deuve, 1995, p.297). When science becomes mythologized, we speculate with egregious confidence that our partners in outer space could be more highly evolved - “more advanced” - than we are.

Now, speculation belongs to good science, to be sure. Yet, when non-empirically founded speculations begin to frame a worldview that fills the sky with projections of superior intelligence, superior science, and perhaps even the power to save earth from the inadequacies of its evolutionary past, then we can see how a framework for a myth is being erected.

Carl Sagan similarly embraced the ETI myth. Yet, the Cornell exobiologist recognized that this belief structure is based on speculation rather than sufficient empirical evidence to deem it scientific. “I would guess that the Universe is filled with beings far more intelligent, far more advanced than we are. But, of course, I might be wrong. Such a conclusion is at best based on a plausibility argument, derived from the numbers of planets, the ubiquity of organic matter, the immense timescales available for evolution, and so on. It is not a scientific demonstration” (Sagan, 1994, p.33).

These scientists have taken a number of non-empirical and speculative steps from the Drake equation to myth-like images of ETI more advanced in intelligence and even spirituality. Might these more advanced intelligences represent our own future? Might they speed up earth’s evolution and transcendence of our own past?

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