So… are we alone?
Our family went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago recently. (Hold your applause for our academic achievements until the end, please 🙂
There was an exhibit there called Evolving Planet, which tracked everything that’s lived on the planet since the place cooled down enough for amino acids to start forming. Now, disclaimer; we consider ourselves minimally practicing Christians, and this isn’t meant to be a theological debate. I will say that I figure if God created us in His own image, He would have given us the capacity to ask questions like these and try to figure out the world around us. Where those questions take you is a matter of your own faith, which should be a private matter. I figure since I’m mentioning Evolution, I need to say something…
Anyway, the exhibit mentioned that there were four mass extinctions in our planet’s history, each time wiping out 70% or more of life on the planet. It wasn’t just that meteor that killed off the dinosaurs and gave us oil- it happened four times! It really made me think; how did that affect the life that eventually developed? It seems like every time there was a great cataclysm, the most adaptable life lived on and flourished, as you’d expect. What if the planet’s massive changes had managed to kill off everything and life had to completely start over? What if there had never been any of these events, and life never had to evolve past slimy fish-like creatures that figured dry land was for weirdos? What if life evolved, but they blew each other up, like we seem to always be on the verge of doing?
There are a lot of stars and planets in our galaxy; scientists claim at least 100 billion stars and as many as 17 billion Earth-sized planets. Whether these planets can or do support life is going to be hard to figure out. You’d have to think that the law of averages would cough up at least a few that have life, wouldn’t you? I know people who think every third planet must have life, and others that think we might just be alone. I just hope there’s no super-intelligent race monitoring Earth right now; if they catch any reruns of Jersey Shore or that show with Honey Boo Boo, they’ll probably vaporize the planet in order to spare the rest of the galaxy from us humans.
Just think about Earth’s place in the solar system. A few million miles closer, and the sun’s benevolent forms of heat and radiation would result in an irradiated and overly hot planet. Too far out, and everything ends up much like Wisconsin in the winter; too cold to support life.
Old school sci-fi writers didn’t seem to mess much with the concept of aliens as we know them today. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Doc Smith’s Lensman series, etc, often completely ignore the topic of alien life. Then there’s the more recent sci-fi offerings such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, and more. They truly embrace the idea of abundant life.
So, where is the middle ground? Is one right over the other? As an author who writes sci-fi, I was torn between how many aliens to include in my own series. I wanted to acknowledge the concept of alien life, but frankly the story I was writing wasn’t dependent on having an ‘alien of the week’; it was a smaller scale story about the people of one little group of folks just minding their own business. My quest to balance aliens with not having to force too many of them into the story actually led to the plot of the whole series: an ancient race that had spent a hundred thousand years tweaking the genetics of primitive planets they discovered, even seeding unpopulated ones with their own chosen forms of life. This allowed me to concentrate on my story without having to think up new and weird aliens every chapter.
It also makes me think: is it possible such a thing has happened out there? Just imagine if Earth had been able to skip a few million years of stagnant evolution. There are planets and solar systems much closer to the center of our galaxy than us, which means they probably formed long before Earth and had a jump start on life anyway.
Hopefully they have better TV shows than we do…