The Human Impact of Discovering Alien Life, with Astrobiologist Steven J. Dick

October 14, 2014

Our universe is made up of billions of galaxies. The cosmos is so mind-bogglingly vast, that it’s hard not to suppose that we aren’t alone, that life must exist somewhere else besides our own planet. Last month, some of the world’s leading scientists gathered at an Astrobiology Symposium run by NASA and the Library of Congress to discuss where we stand in our search for extraterrestrial life.

This week on Point of Inquiry, Steven J. Dick, the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, discusses the progress that has been made in the search for extraterrestrial life, and what the potential ramifications may be if and when we make this most monumental of discoveries — that we are indeed not alone.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, October 14th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Harpo’s Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Last month, some of the world’s greatest scientists gathered at the Astrobiology Symposium run by NASA and the Library of Congress to discuss the latest research into the fundamental question of extraterrestrial life. A star speaker was one of the world’s leading astrobiologists, a former astronomer and historian of science, former director of the NASA history office. Charles Lindbergh, chair at the National Air and Space Museum. And now the Barracas Bloomberg NASA chair in astrobiology at the Library of Congress to discuss nothing less than the meaning of life. I’m delighted to be joined by Stephen Jadick. Stephen, thanks for being with us. 

My pleasure. 

So take us back to where your interest was first piqued in this. I mean, when you were an astronomer and a historian of science, we. Was this always in the background of your kind of wonderment about science and astronomy, the possibility of life? 

Yes, I think so. And it’s not just me. I think it’s a lot of people, because when you look up at the sky and you see all those stars, you wonder who or what is out there. And that’s what was the case for me. So when I went into astronomy and history of science, I was interested in this whole debate about whether or not there was life out there. That was something like 40 years ago. There’s been a lot of progress since then. We still don’t know the answer. But there’s been a lot of progress both on the science and in terms of the history of science, knowing what the beliefs have been in the past and how that might play into the possible impact when we do find life. 

Would you have expected back then that we would have known by now? 

Not necessarily. I mean, that’s a very difficult thing to pin down. There are all kinds of aspects to this in terms of microbial life and intelligent life and whether or not there are planets out there. The thing that I would have expected, which has come to pass, is that we have found planets everywhere. We’ve only looked at a small part of the sky in terms of the Kepler spacecraft, which was put up there, Zord for three years to look for planets. And that only looked at one part of the sky. And basically what the Kepler spacecraft finds is that planets everywhere and a lot of them are gas giants. But a lot of them are also Earth sized planets in habitable zones. Now, that doesn’t mean they have life on, but it means that we should start to look for what they call bio signatures to see whether there might be the indications of life on those planets. So, yes, I did expect that we would find planets and we find them in abundance. 

How do you kind of think about the calculus between seeing exoplanets, planets that could have a life and the likelihood of there actually being life on them? Is there a way to weigh that? 

The way to weigh it is to say that the laws of physics and we believe the laws of biology are universal. When I say laws of laws of biology, I mean natural selection as it operates here on the earth will probably operate on other planets under those conditions. The Copernican presupposition here is that the laws of physics are universal and that, you know, there are planets out there. We didn’t know that before, but we’d know. We know that now. So, so far that Copernican principle holds that the laws that apply here apply out there, not only in physics, but also in biology. We know as far as we can see that the laws of physics are universal. Now we’re trying to find out if biology and the laws of biology, such as natural selection, of the principles of biology, such as natural selection, are universal. That’s what this is all about. 

So take us back to one of the fundamental questions of astrobiology, which is how life began here and evolved here. You’ve just said that let’s assume for the sake of argument that natural selection is a universal principle. What about the actual initial genesis of life, the making of life out of non-living substances? Do we know that that’s sufficiently universal? What what indications do we have? 

Well, no, that’s true. The origins of life is a very difficult problem, and we still don’t know exactly how life originated on the Earth. So we do have to be careful not to assume what we’re trying to prove. I mean, we are trying to find out if there is life out there. So you certainly can’t assume that. And the big take is the origin of life. And then further on down the origins of intelligence. But I think there are some hints when you look at the origin of life on Earth, you know, the Earth is about four and a half billion years old. And the earliest life forms were around already three point eight billion years ago. So not all that long after the earth cooled down. And what they call the late, heavy bombardment ceased. Life was here. And so that either tells you that it’s fairly easy to originate or that perhaps it came from outer space, not as life, but as the organic molecules, the building blocks of life that could have come in on comets and that sort of thing. 

And looking at the history of evolution here on Earth now, inevitable, I hate to use that word, but let’s use it for one of the better one. Is it that intelligence would have emerged out of natural selection? And how possibilities is it that there are other worlds teeming with lots of life that spend billions of years evolving but never actually get what we would think of as being conscious intelligence? 

Right. Well, we just don’t know the answer to that. I mean, that’s the honest answer. We just don’t know. Intelligence took a long time to develop on the earth. And of course, it depends how you define intelligence. And this was part of what we discussed at the meeting. How you define life and intelligence. 

I mean, some people think there are dogs and cats are intelligent so that there are other animals on the earth that you could certainly classify as intelligent, like dolphins or even octopuses. I buy I guess. 

I guess I’m speaking. Yes. That does get me started on octopuses versus octopi. You’ll have linguists. We’ll have all of our all of our all of our listeners who are linguists are going to write in. But I guess I’m talking about the kind of intelligence that would put a fingerprint on the cosmos in a way that we could detect it. You know, dolphins maybe, maybe smarter than us, but they’re not gonna they’re not going to be more visible to another civilization trying to spot them. 

Right? Well, that’s exactly what Frank Drake tried to calculate 50 years ago when he made the first search with a radio telescope down and Greenbank in West Virginia. He was looking for a possible radio signal. And so he came up with the Drake Equation. He wanted to know maybe about how many intelligent civilizations out there could be detected. 

So he put in all these factors having to do with the origins of life and and the evolution of life gives pause and unpack those factors, cause I think the Drake equation is kind of interesting and people will enjoy being reminded of it. 

Oh, sure. You begin with basically the numbers. He was looking at our own galaxy because that’s all but he could see with his radio telescopes at the time. So you begin with either the rate of star formation or basically the number of stars, sunlike stars out there that could have life. And then you whittle let down by talking about how many stars might have the proper well, how many fast how many stars have planets, which he there was no empirical evidence at the time. But we now know almost all of them have planets. And then you whittle that further down by how many have conditions for life? How many actually have life developed on? And then how many of those have actually developed intelligence? And then a final factor, which is the lifetime of a technological civilization. In other words, if you have civilizations at last a million years, you’re going to have a lot more of them out there that you can detect than if they only last a thousand years. Of course, as you go further and further down the parameters in that equation, things become more and more uncertain. We know about the number of stars in the galaxy. And now we know something about the number of planets in the galaxy. But the time you get down to the lifetime of the technological civilization, of course, we have no idea. Because if you define a technologically communicative civilizations lifetime, we only have one data point. That’s ourselves, which is about about one hundred years since radio was developed here. So it’s still a wide open question about how how much intelligence might be out there. But this is what you call exploration. We don’t know the answer. 

We have to explore to find out on that final question of how long technologically advanced civilizations are likely to to last some. 

Some get pessimistic when they look at the fact that the universe is not teeming with radio waves and with with other civilizations that we can detect and take that to imply that perhaps technologically advanced civilizations snuff themselves out pretty quickly and that that’s why we’re not hearing anything. What do you make of that pessimistic case? 

I don’t buy it because we’ve only had radio telescope technology for a little over 50 years. If you take a picture of the galaxy, which is our own Milky Way galaxy, which is one hundred thousand light years across, we’ve only looked in terms of radio searches at maybe a few hundred light years. So if you drew a circle on a picture, the galaxy could be disappointed. Point that we’ve looked at so far in terms of looking for radio waves coming from possible technological civilizations. And then you have the problem of what frequency do tune in on and that sort of thing. It’s like a radio channel with billions of frequencies. How do you know at what frequency to look? So I think we’ve only just begun the search. In a way, it’s it’s one of the largest in theory, one of the largest research programs that you could have looking for life in the universe, not only in our own galaxy, but but elsewhere. Now, there are other arguments that I do take seriously that might put limits on this. And, for example, the famous what’s called the family paradox. In other words, family asked way back in the 1950s. OK. Everybody’s talking about intelligent life out there than where are they? That’s the paradox. You don’t see them. So where are they if they’re out there? And it turns out that if you have interstellar travel, for example, they can actually travel even the speed of light or a sort of good fraction, the speed of light around the galaxy that within a few million years the galaxy should have been colonized. But we don’t see them unless you believe in NeuroFocus, which a lot of people do these days, especially in the United States. But most scientists don’t see that the evidence is compelling. And there I think that Sagan’s dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence comes into play. So I do think the family paradox is a serious kind of argument that we don’t see them. Where are they? We should have seen them. But then you can come up with. 50 or 60 or 100 reasons why they we don’t see them. Maybe they don’t have interstellar travel. Maybe they don’t. You know, they don’t like to. They’re not very social. I mean, there are all kinds of reasons that we might not have seen them or heard from them, for that matter. 

Yeah, I think I’ve heard Neil deGrasse Tyson suggest that maybe if you got to this to the position at which you was so advanced that you were able to to master interstellar travel, you would also be wise enough not to want to go around conquering everybody. Otherwise, you would have killed yourselves off before then rather than conquering. 

There are other options. I mean, you maybe you would want to study in an anthropological kind of a way. 

Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. Is it possible that we’re looking for the wrong thing when we when we look when we scan the skies that we don’t really know exactly like what are the best ways to try to detect another civilization when it could be a million years more advanced than awesome by using technologies that we can’t possibly fathom? 

Oh, I think that’s absolutely true. And one of the things we did at the meeting was try to somehow transcend dance percenters and try and somehow get out of our heads, not only in terms of defining life and defining intelligence, but when you talk about communication. I mean, you know, we think radio communication would be is the best way because that happens to be what we do these days. But who knows what we’re doing in a in a hundred or a thousand years and suddenly civilizations could be much older than that. And aside from that, the nature of intelligence, we don’t really know. I mean, there are people I’ve written on this myself who believe that biological intelligence, flesh and blood intelligence is just a passing phase, that, you know, for example, if you believe that artificial intelligence is possible, that would be the way to go. Any society that can improve its intelligence will improve its intelligence, possibly through artificial intelligence. And so if you’re looking for basically machine intelligence out there, maybe you’re looking for something quite different that would not be sending radio signals. And furthermore, they wouldn’t have to be located on a sun like star. They could be between the stars, which doesn’t really help you in the search. But it’s entirely possible that out there, out there and we don’t know how to communicate with them or don’t know what kind of intelligence they are just to pull you up on that. 

If they were between stars, how would they get energy? 

Well, I mean, they could be rubbing between stars. You probably would have to suck some energy up every time you come close to a star. The stars are far apart. But if you’re traveling a significant fraction, the speed of light, you can always get your source of power as you pass by a star. So I don’t think that would be a problem for a sufficiently advanced technological civilization. 

Well, since you raise artificial intelligence, let’s go down that that rabbit hole and get all metaphysical. 

Do you think that is is part of your sort of prognosticating about the future of of humankind and the evolution of civilizations, that it is possible to, in some sense, upload our consciousness in a rakers, wiley and kind of way and have a singularity at which we are free from flesh and blood, but can still feel like ourselves? 

Well, I think that’s certainly one of the logical possibilities. Now, of course, this is a this is a big problem in philosophy in terms of whether or not you can even make artificial intelligence. Some philosophers think and some scientists do that that you can’t in principle make artificial intelligence something that would be more intelligent than we are. And of course, if that’s true, then you wouldn’t have a what I call a post biological universe. But it’s hard to believe that that’s not true in principle. If you have civilizations that are a million years older than ours, that they would not have figured out some way to build an artificial intelligence, which would eventually possibly take over from biological intelligence or interact with that biological intelligence. 


I mean, I think the philosophers of mind who have a problem with that would not necessarily say that you couldn’t make some kind of intelligence artificially that was capable of of doing more and doing bigger and thinking faster and and doing better and sort of extinguishing biological life. They’d just question whether or not that is actually intelligence in terms of having a sense of itself actually feeling like it understands the experience of being alive in a way that biological intelligence does. Do you have any take on that? 

Well, that’s right. I mean, you can see that in a in a small way in movies like Horror, you know, where the guy was interacting with the with the computer there. It’s a great question. And, you know, I think we did have a couple of philosophers of mind in the at the meeting. They didn’t specifically address that. But it is one of the great things about astrobiology when you start talking about these things is that it makes you really question your basic assumptions. That includes not only life and intelligence, but also these kinds of questions about communication and artificial intelligence. So I don’t know the answer. But I just think the logical possibility is there and that we need to not be so parochial that we think we don’t think that it could could have happened already out there if there were a civilization that was so advanced that it had created artificial intelligence using computers or whatever, and that and that intelligence had then eradicated biological life. 

So there was artificial intelligence giant supercomputers running a civilization of their own. Would you regard that as our having discovered extraterrestrial life? 

Yes, what I would it’s what I would call a post biological intelligence that Intel just does not have to be confined to biological. And I think that we could, you know, post biological intelligence could well be out there. In fact, I’ve written a paper, what I call the intelligence principle, that any society that can improve its intelligence will improve its intelligence and call it sort of a Darwinian race for intelligence, and that if you did not improve your intelligence when you could, then you would be left behind. And so this may well have happened out. They are giving the you know, the universe is something like thirteen point eight billion years old and seven or eight billion years conditions have been proper, you know, with stars and galaxies and planets that life could have developed. So given billions of years of not only physical and biological evolution, but cultural evolution, I think post biological intelligence is entirely possible. 

So let’s realist’s this back from the Heti space we were at to that timmo practical medicine and your area of specialty, which is what would happen sociologically, culturally here on planet Earth if we do discover life elsewhere. 

What’s your starting point for that? 

Well, yes, that’s a huge question, of course, and it is what I’m looking at here during my year at the Blumberg Sheriff Library Congress. There’s been quite a bit of work done on this, surprisingly and notably in the field of theology, ever since Copernicus geocentric theory came out five hundred years ago. There’ve been sporadic questions about Howard. OK. Copernicus made the earth a planet and the planet’s potential earths. So if there’s life out there, you know, how would that affect our theologies? And there’s actually a growing field of what’s called asteroid theology these days asking exactly that question. And of course, you have to break it down in terms of which theology you’re talking about. We had a Jesuit here at the meeting whose paper title was Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? And of course, that’s looking from the Christian point of view. And his answer was only if the extraterrestrial asked would you best. But there has been a in the recent decades, more and more discussion about this sort of thing was not complete consensus either. Some people think that you would find some way to embrace this idea of extraterrestrial life because the alternative is extinction. And I think religions are not going to become extinct. They proved themselves pretty. What’s the word? 

I’m looking robust, I guess. Yes, pretty robust. Yes. 

They stick around, pull you up on that a little bit since we’re sort of a secular podcast as well. You know, there there are societies and countries which are almost entirely secular. The Danes are basically essentially a nation of atheists. Australia is pretty secular. 

That’s right. That’s right. But of course, the Danes, Palin’s it ever gets to a billion Christians, a billion and a half Muslims. 

We can save and we can only go. 

Well, yes. And, you know, the eastern religions, I think, would not have as difficult a time as the one so-called Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam. 

And, Judy, as, yeah, those big monotheisms would have a lot of trouble, I think. I mean, it’s such a it’s such a fundamental part of the ethos that there is a certain type of people who are chosen, either all people in the world or a particular people from a particular land, and that the universe was basically constructed around them. The creator of the universe had them specifically in mind. If you then realize that the universe is teeming with with other living things, what does that duty of theology? 

Well, that’s right. And you have specific doctrines in Christianity, for example, the incarnation of redemption. So you have to immediately start asking, do you believe when a planet hopping savior, which I think would be a problem and some of the theologians have said that, well, they’ll find some way around that. Others think that that would actually be a big problem. I remember a meeting that we had at the Vatican years ago where this was discussed and the director of the Vatican Observatory at the time said that he thought this would be a big problem and we should not try and sweep it under the rug. So in any case, the theology part of it is just the beginning of the questions that come to bear if you discover intelligent life. I think there are others having to do with the philosophical questions like, you know, well, the great philosophical questions is the problem of objective knowledge. How universal is our knowledge? Would extraterrestrial intelligence have the same kind of knowledge of the universe that we do? And of course, the immediate thing that you would think is surely what if we if it’s objective, they have to have the same kind of science that we do. They have to have the same kind of mathematics. And that’s certainly what scientists would say. But if you talk to philosophers, they’re not nearly as sanguine about that. 

That there’s something in philosophy of mind these days called embodied cognition or embodied mind theory. In other words, is your brain your mind? Depends on what body you’re in. And the use certainly would see things from a different point of view if you had different sensory perceptions and that sort of thing. And the question is, you compared your knowledge on the Earth with extraterrestrial intelligence knowledge. Would they see the universe in the same way? And I think that’s a very interesting question. 

It is. I mean, it’s hard to imagine. I mean, presumably the ratio of the radius of a circle to the circumference of a circle is going to be the same, regardless of whether my brain is in the body of a human or in the body of some crazy extraterrestrial. No. 

Right. You would think? 

Yes, I would say that there are there has been a whole book written on us by one, these body mind theorists by the name of George Lakoff, whether it is mathematics come from. And of course, aside from them, you know, certainly you wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t expect to have the same kind of mathematics in terms of necessarily base 10 or that sort of thing. Brad, would they have developed a geometry and calculus and that sort of thing? 

Well, I mean, at the end of the day, either a bridge is going to stand up or it’s going to fall down. Right. I mean, either a rock, it’s going to make it to the next planet or it’s going to miss it. So you have to be using some kind of tool that what do you call it? Our math. Or another kind of math. A tool that actually works in the real world. 

That’s right. You would think so. Yes, I agree with that. 

So talk about the cultural impact. What happens to our thinking about ourselves as as I don’t know, in nation states, as as cultures as discrete. Bulls, if we discover that there’s another civilization out there. 

Well, I think it might affect. Well, first I should say that it very much depends on the scenario. We’re talking about extraterrestrial intelligence here, I expect, and I think most people in the field of astrobiology expect that microbes are going to be found first. And so you can ask what’s the impact they’re going to be if we find microbes and then you immediately think as well. That wouldn’t have much impact at all. But then you look at history and you remember, for example, in 1996 when we discovered our NASA announced the possible nano fossils, these tiny fossils in a Mars rock which had landed on the Earth. And you remember the at least the short term reaction there was quite amazing in terms of media coverage. And the White House immediately got involved. There were congressional hearings and that sort of thing. And that was not even a microbe. That one was a possible fossil. Which, of course, we now know is probably not fossilized life. But I think that shows you somewhat was at least the short term reaction would be. So you have to look at different scenarios. And also, if you find microbial life, I think it would be an indication that life does develop easily, at least if it’s an independent genesis. For example, if we found microbes on Mars and it was independent from the Earth, didn’t come from the Earth yet, then then that would be an indication that life does originate easily. And given enough time, you probably also would have intelligence. 

Isn’t there now a plausible theory that less arose independently, even here on Earth? I was reading something about someone saying that there’s some of these micro organisms, these extremophiles, you know, that cling to the bottom of volcanoes at the seabed floor may have actually evolved independently. Do you have any idea where the research on that is? 

Well, these are called hydrothermal vents. These are eight or ten thousand feet down below the ocean. And people have gone down in the Alvin and other submersibles to study those. It’s an amazing thing when you go 10000 feet down. Extreme temperatures and pressures and you still find life, by the way, that shows you, I think, how tenacious life is and how it might arise in environments, extreme environments outside of our own planet. This also goes to the question of the origin of life on Earth. Some people think that it had a cold origin in the ocean like that. Other people think that it had a different kind of origin. So that question, I think, is still very much up in the air. And that’s part of the whole origins of months of question. 

What would happen if we were able to ascertain that there was a civilization out there? What are that? You mentioned the cultural impact of finding microbial life. What if we found civilization to life, just even if we were merely detecting its presence and didn’t know anything about it and weren’t communicating with it? 

Right, right. Well, OK, there are depends on, first of all, whether you can communicate with them. And secondly, if you can’t communicate what they say. If you just have a let’s suppose, as you say, you just have what we call we call a dial tone that, you know, they’re out there. Some people would would think that that might not have much of an effect at all. And in the short term, they might be right. But I think in the long term, you would have an effect in the same way that, for example, the political theory or the Darwinism, you know, has had an effect. Those theories didn’t immediately impact people, but certainly they’ve changed our world view in many, many ways. And I think I like to use that kind of an analogy, because I think when I call the biological universe the idea that life is common out there, common endpoint of cosmic evolution. I think that that why I’ve lost my train of thought. 

I think I get what you what you what you’re pointing to, which is, you know, is life the inevitable outcome of cosmic evolution. Right. 

So I was just as an aside, because it popped into my head, I was interviewing Stephen King, the author on that post live recently. And we and we were talking a bit about religion and faith. And he was saying that for him, the whole fact of human existence just seems to miraculous not to have some kind of purpose behind it. He’s not a religious guy. He don’t go to church. He does. He’s not really a believer in the afterlife. He felt like he basically used the term intelligent design. He felt like the staggering improbability of the world being the way it is, is just too marvelous not to think that there’s something behind it all. Does this come into your. 

Well, obviously, that’s pretty anathema to most of our listeners who are pretty, pretty strident atheist for the last part. But does that come into your thinking about your line of work? 

Sure. That goes the problem of teleology, you know, purpose and of course, teleology has been. Well, if you go back in history, that’s what they thought, of course, that God, you know, intelligent design in terms of God was the way the world worked. But science has tried to get away from that and particular biology in terms of life, having some purpose or certainly any any end goal. And I think unless we’re completely on the wrong track in science, which I don’t think we are, that we we need to keep teleology out of it. I think the only thing that we see is that there is a tendency toward complexity in the world. And as as amazing as it does seem, that you have the origin of life. It did happen here on Earth. And when we when we find out whether or not life is is actually possible out there, whether it whether it’s actually out there, it will go some ways towards answering this question about even though it seems unlikely that it has happened. I mean, you could still say that God created it all. But for scientists, that doesn’t really answer the question. 

It just raises the fact that just raises some degree, raises more questions. 

So I think the great thing about astrobiology is it does raise these great questions and makes us question all of our assumptions about these various things, including teleology in the universe. But right now, I don’t see a place for teleology in terms of life in the universe. 

Lastly, put on your historian of science hat for a moment. Are you when you look at the evolution of human civilization. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we’re headed? Where we’re at? The trajectory we’re going? 

I’m I I’m as I say, I’m an optimist by I try to be an optimist, but and certainly in the short term, you go through these periods as we’re going through now, where you sort of tend to lose hope when you see how many problems there are. But somehow we have muddle through. And this goes to the problem of what is the lifetime of a technological civilization. You know, civilizations have risen and fallen on the earth over the last 5000 years. But civilization, big sea with a big sea has been around in one form or another for the last 5000 years. And we seem to be progressing. That’s another question. The nature of progress. And we don’t need to assume that progress is always going to happen. But. So far, civilization seems to be, with all its problems, still managing to stay afloat, at least if not make progress. And so I’m optimistic that we will find solutions to our problems. We’re never gonna live in a utopia. But I think that we will find a way in and possibly other civilizations out there have found a way. I’m not among those who think that others we should be looking toward civilizations out there to bring us salvation, which some people talk about. But if we do discover another intelligence out, there are many technological civilizations. I do think it’ll show that it is possible to do to happen and that we may well make it here on Earth ourselves. 

Stephen Dziedzic, thanks for cheering me up. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Great talk to you. OK. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.