April 8, 2007


The Anxious Search: Are We Alone? (Tom Bethell, April 2007, The American Spectator)

Second Story Books in Bethesda has a good selection of out-of-print science books and I drop by from time to time. I was surprised to find recently that they had a whole shelf of books about the search for extraterrestrial life. Here are just some of the titles, all published in the 1990s:

We Are Not Alone (1993), Are We Alone? (1995) Are We Alone in the Cosmos? (1999), Is Anyone Out There? (1992), Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? (1995), A Brief History of Life on Other Worlds (1998), The Hunt for Life on Mars (1997), After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life (1997), Beyond Star Trek (1997). I could add half a dozen more, and others have appeared since, including Rare Earth (2000), Where Is Everybody? (2002), and on and on. Since 1981, four books have been published with the title Are We Alone?

So what's this all about? The novelist Michael Crichton commented on one aspect of this comedy in an entertaining and instructive lecture at Caltech in 2003 -- "Aliens Cause Global Warming." There is "not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms and in 40 years none has been discovered. SETI is a religion," he said. Then he gave us a brief tour of nuclear winter, second-hand smoke, and finally global warming, wherein science always defers to politics. We are seeing a "loosening of the definition of what constitutes legitimate scientific procedure," he concluded.

But Crichton skirted what for me is the most interesting question: Why have we invested so much hope in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? [...]

Some of us want to believe in extraterrestrials because an article of our secular faith holds that there is nothing exceptional about human life. This is dogma, lacking any justification, but it has already been codified as the Mediocrity Principle. The Earth, life, mankind, and civilization are humdrum, routine developments; nothing out of the ordinary about them. And if that is so, we should expect to find such life all over the Galaxy.

Some scientists and philosophers go further, and take pleasure in denigrating the human race. They jeer at the rest of us for ever having considered ourselves to be important in the cosmic scheme. A little lower than the angels, indeed! Some of us still vainly place ourselves at the center of the universe without realizing that Science dethroned us long ago.

The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer -- he worked on the San Francisco docks for 25 years -- noted that intellectuals of the past century had done all in their power "to denude the human entity of its uniqueness"; to demonstrate that we are "not essentially distinct from other forms of life." He contrasted Pascal's comment that "the firmament, the stars, the earth are not equal in value to the lowest human being," with that of "the humanitarian" Bertrand Russell: "the stars, the wind in waste places mean more to me than even the human beings I love best." Somehow, we take that as a sign of our maturity.

The fact that rigorous science/reason tended to undermine secularism made the rise of bogus science inevitable. Science was just an end and when scientific means came into conflict with that end they had to be disposed of.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2007 10:38 AM

I have not read that quote of Russell's, but it doesn't surprise me. It just shows he knows nothing about love. Or about himself.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 8, 2007 12:24 PM

How exactly does "real" science/reason undermine secularism?
And what specific romantically politicized notions are you and the author of this article speaking of when you refer to humans as being "essentially distinct from all other forms of life"? Last time I checked with my collegues in the Biology Department, they pretty much all regarded human beings as animals. I think one of them told me that we share 99% percent of our genes with mice? Life is life is life; we all live together.

Posted by: gupta at April 8, 2007 4:38 PM


So you would marry a mouse? Have dinner at a French restaurant with a cow? Play golf with a giraffe? Try to sell a house to a sea urchin? Gaze at the sunset with a gila monster? Discuss Kant with a Komondor? Spend your last nickel to save a beached narwhal?

Nothing wrong with us being animals - but if you forget the rest of the story, you might as well live in a cage.

And when you say 'romantically politicized', is it because you disagree with Hoffer, with OJ, with Pascal, or with the soul itself? Why is their position political at all?

Posted by: ratbert at April 8, 2007 6:48 PM

No one takes the Biology Department seriously on matters of science, least of all scientists.

The great Ernst Mayr was honest about it not being real science:

" One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution."


Posted by: oj at April 8, 2007 7:11 PM

Of course humans are animals, but we are special animals. To consider us equivalent to mice or beetles is unscientific and one of those boneheaded ideas that only an intellectual would fall prey too. The opposite extreme, to deny our animal ancestry and characteristics and even the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and intelligence, is just as wrong.

OJ quoting Mayr?!? The man would have made mincemeat of your opinions on biology. Exhibit #1: a few paragraphs later, when he explains how one of Darwin's ideas is "the exact opposite of such a typological concept as racism," contra your "Darwinism=Racism" silliness.

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 8, 2007 10:55 PM

One would hardly expect a decent man to embrace the racism inherent in his adopted ideology. Heck, it made guys like Gould and Lewontin stop believing in Darwinism.

Mayr is honest about the superstructure which makes him incoherent on the specifics.

Posted by: oj at April 9, 2007 6:16 AM