Many have said that the discovery of life beyond Earth would change our perception of the universe and of our place in it. They are wrong.
Others have surmised that finding alien life would not appreciably change the attitudes of the public at large. Nadia Drake has found that laymen in the United States, at least, wouldn't be much phased by the discovery of simple (i.e., non-intelligent) alien life. As for intelligent life, in 1994, a poll conducted on behalf of the Cato Institute declared that Generation X had more faith in UFOs than in the continuing viability of Social Security. Granted, this says more about Social Security than it does about intelligent alien visitors.
The focus of this essay is not on the general public; rather, it is on the scientific community, itself. I say that the discovery of alien life would not appreciably affect the current body of scientific knowledge (aside from the particulars of the discovery, itself), nor would it affect most scientists except for those on the team that would make such a discovery.
I base my judgement on two things. First: In recent history, many reputable scientists publicly professed the certain existence of alien life to little effect on the wider world. Second: Established theories all but demand that alien life already exist.
As to the first reason, to wit: In recent history, many men of mark in the scientific community have publicly defended their certitude of the existence of alien life without scandalizing the public or their peers. This mostly concerns the planet Mars.
As early as 1865, Emmanuel Liais speculated that the dark features of Mars that were observed through telescopes of that time were the result of vegetation. Eighty-five years later, most scientists agreed with him. In the June 25, 1950 issue of the New York Times, Waldermar Kaempffert wrote “Science in Review; Some New Answers to the Old Riddles of Mars Are Presented to the Astronomers.” (warning: Paywall) Here's a quote:
Most astronomers now concede that the dark color that comes and goes seasonally on Mars is evidence of some low form of vegetation. Like others before him, Dr. Tombaugh suggests that lichens constitute this vegetation.
Here is some historical context. When that article was published, American public schools often opened with a prayer or Bible reading, a practice which would not be outlawed until a dozen years later. And, in 1951, Pope Pius XII endorsed the Big Bang theory as compatible with the Bible.
More sensational than mere vegetation was the claim that Mars harbored intelligent life capable of infrastructure projects visible from Earth.
In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli observed dark lines on the surface of Mars which he called canali, which means “channels” or “grooves” in Italian, but was mistranslated into “canals” in English. Although not everyone in the scientific community agreed that the observed features on Mars were actually canals, many did, including men of no mean rank. Percival Lowell became the chief proponent of the idea that Mars harbored intelligent life. He openly speculated on the nature of Martian society in The Atlantic Monthly in 1895 (warning: PDF file) and in the New York Times in 1911 (PDF). His obituary in 1916—the middle of World War I—matter-of-factly stated that he had detected 550 canals (PDF) on Mars.
Here is more historical context. This idea of Martian canals first appeared near the end of the reign of Pope Pius IX, the most self-consciously reactionary pope of modern times. It also occurred in the midst of the Third Great Awakening of Protestant religiosity in the United States.
Some scientists continued to show respect for the idea of Martian canals—even if tinged with skepticism—as late as 1957. That was the same year that Sputnik was launched and when Elvis Presley was filmed on The Ed Sullivan Show from the waist up due to his indecent hip gyrations.
As to the second reason, to wit: All of our certain knowledge of biology, chemistry, and astronomy implies the existence of life beyond Earth. Neo-Darwinism plus the Mediocrity Principle equals life all over the place. It is the apparent absence of alien life which most perplexes scientists, not the prospect of its presence. That's the whole point of Fermi's Paradox. It is called a paradox because the premises point to alien life, and not just any alien life, but space-faring civilizations as common as dirt; yet this is not observed.
Here's another way of looking at it. Has any legitimate scientific career suffered for advocating that alien life probably exists? If not, then that idea cannot be especially radical. That becomes especially notable in the case of creationists.
Religion & Alien Life
Here's a short digression into the so-called “science versus religion” narrative.
By common acclaim, creationists are supposed to be the gold standard for scientific obscurantism. In regards to the point of this essay, it is relevant to note that many of them are not averse to the notion that simple life exists beyond Earth:
The intelligent design crowd doesn’t rule out the existence of what it calls “simple life” on other worlds.
- fourth paragraph from the bottom
If an idea is believed by both the mainstream and the fringe, then—by definition—that idea is not controversial.
And this is not limited to modern religious believers.
From ancient writers, such as Megasthenes and Ctesias, the medievals came to believe in such marvelous races as the Monopods, who each hopped along on a single enormous foot, and the dog-heads, who had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs. Working on those reports, patristic and medieval scholars debated whether such creatures were human and worthy of evangelization. Science fiction author Michael F. Flynn noted that St. Augustine of Hippo “had written that if the monstrous races did exist, they were created according to God’s will and, if they are human and descended from Adam, they must be capable of salvation.”
The case of Giordano Bruno is also instructive. He argued for the existence of other worlds in the universe:
“…which contain animals and inhabitants no less than can our own earth, since those worlds have no less virtue nor a nature different from that of our earth.”
- On the Infinite Universe and Worlds
Third Dialog, Ninth Point
Some people take his trial and burning at the stake in the year 1600 as proof that traditional religion is opposed to the idea of life beyond Earth. In fact, Bruno was burned at the stake on purely theological grounds, such as denying the virginity of the Virgin Mary, denying transubstantiation, and claiming that Jesus was just a magician.
The point of this digression is that alien life cannot be a radical concept if fourth-century bishops, sixteenth-century inquisitors, and twenty-first-century creationists can ponder the matter with an open mind.
From the evidence given above, I conclude that no scientist would be much affected by the discovery of alien life. I do not refer to some experience of inner wonder or other such pedantic psychobabble. I mean that, with the exception of those directly involved in such a discovery, few scientists would be professionally affected by it.
Here is a way to test my claim. Would any scientific career suffer if alien life were confirmed to exist? Presumably, those who have disparaged the possibility of alien life would see their careers imperiled. So who would be denied tenure as a result of it? Which research programs would be denied funding as a result of it? Give names of men, women, and institutions.
As far as I've been able to find, those scholars who have expressed any skepticism on this topic are either entrenched in a specialty where the discovery of alien life would be of no relevance, or they are of such eminence that they could weather any fallout.
Consider the Advocates section of the Wikipedia article on the Rare Earth hypothesis. All of the scientists mentioned in that section are past retirement age and have already made names for themselves in their respective fields. Notice this for yourself as you go down the line.
- Stuart Ross Taylor, aged 92, is an emeritus professor who studied the geology of the Moon.
- Simon Conway Morris, aged 66, is best-known for studying the Burgess Shale fossils and for coming up with the idea of the Cambrian Explosion.
- John David Barrow is a 65 year-old cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and mathematician.
Doing the same kind of rundown on the concept of The Great Filter yields the same result.
- Robin Hanson, who came up with the idea, is an economist. Academic economists don't suffer even when their theories fail to predict what happens in the realm of economics, let alone anything else.
- Nick Bostrom is a philosopher. If alien life were to be discovered, he'd likely be one of the first men invited to a colloquium to debate the matter; perfect for burnishing a philosophy career.
And so on for those who criticize the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
- George Basalla, who called extraterrestrials as imaginary as the spirits of mythology, is a historian and emeritus professor at the University of Delaware. He is 90 years old.
- Massimo Pigliucci called SETI “almost science.” He teaches philosophy at CUNY-City College.
This is not the latest attempt to fix general relativity, nor is it yet another twist to string theory. Anyone of any standing in academia who is willing to criticize the idea of alien life is shielded from the consequences of being wrong. In any other debate, one would say that “it's all over but the shouting,” except for one thing: so far, there is no proof of life beyond Earth.
Nobody Really Cares
Here's a scenario to lift your spirits.
Astronomers discover a terrestrial planet in orbit around a nearby star. The best analysis of the most subtle scans reveal beyond a reasonable doubt that its surface is blessed with a delightful, year-round, shirt-sleeve climate, bedecked with Elysian isles from pole to pole amid mild seas teeming with seafood and whose lustrous waters soothe the skin. The loam of that world groans beneath the weight of flora whose flowers charm the eye and heal all ills, between whose boughs flit tame fauna the taste and texture of whose flesh would make the most discriminating gourmand forget about bacon.
Learning of this, the man on the street appeals to NASA on means of passage only to be disappointed that we can't so much as get an instrument pack out there in anything less than ten thousand years.
The discovery of such a world is the best scenario to hope for. Such a reaction from the public is the most reasonable one to expect.
The average man is not a scientist and does not have the mindset of a scientist. Most people only respect the pursuit of science for the benefits that it personally gives to them. A smaller fraction of middle-brows read popular science accounts in order to preen before their peers or to “win” a flamewar on an Internet forum. Among any of these people, the excitement at the discovery of alien life would dissolve with the next news cycle.
Those who think differently are insufficiently cynical. Think back on all of the scandals of recent memory and how often your peers (and you) predicted that this would change everything; for sure, this time. If the man on the street will not blow up on matters which directly affect him, then proof of fish at Europa or forests near Tau Ceti can't be expected to move him, either.
Combine the chronic apathy of laymen with the fact described earlier, that—excepting only those scientists who actually find alien life—no one would be professionally affected by it. Maxwell's equations this ain't. No theory with significant academic cachet would be disproven. No experimental result would be invalidated. No engineering practice would be amended. Our way of life and our way of doing science would not appreciably change after finding life beyond Earth.
Any talking heads in the legacy press who try to make a career for themselves by playing up the supposed “revolutionary finding” will have to keep their comment sections closed or else they will be deluged with references to precedents like those I have just given as well as any which I have missed.
In conclusion, I repeat the test which I have given, earlier. If the discovery of alien life really would be so revolutionary, then that means that—at minimum—some scientific careers would suffer if it were to happen: academics would be denied tenure, projects and programs would lose funding.