Monday, October 16, 2017

Life: Hard to Originate and Easy to Evolve

Suppose the origination of life happens in the way developed in this blog: only after an Earth-Moon collision, when many organic molecules are created in the inferno, only to cool down and form an organic ocean on top of the water ocean. Asteroid collisions, which are likely common among solar systems, don’t provide enough cooking of the atmosphere’s CO2 to provide the huge mass of heavier organics needed. If that is the case, and the Earth-Moon collision is in itself a rare thing, then life won’t originate, even on planets which are perfectly capable of supporting it.

On top of this, suppose that once life originates, by which we mean cells with external membranes and a DNA-like coding, it simply keeps going despite all the planet can throw at it, like basalt flows and atmosphere alterations, ice ages and scads of tsumanis, dirty volcanoes, and tectonic sheet collisions. These two assumptions taken together, and both are reasonable, mean that an alien civilization looking over the nearby galaxy with some giant telescopes and other interesting sensors, would decide that there are many worlds capable of being planets like theirs, but which didn’t. Maybe none did, or only one out of a thousand. What would they choose to do?

If they had had a Buddha-equivalent long ago in their past, teaching that life was the important thing, no matter what kind, and this belief spread and became the dominant philosophy during their industrial grand transformation, then by the time they reached the pinnacle of technology, there would be no question as to what they should do. They should seed the galaxy, wherever it would work.

There would really be just about no place to go and migrate to. Without life and its transformation of a planet, there are probably insuperable obstacles to an alien civilization going out and colonizing one. There is no dirt, nothing to eat or burn, nothing to breathe, maybe very hot or cold, in short, an unappetizing place to visit. Granted, it might be possible to burrow underground, mine enough uranium to support a colony, but without a logistics lifeline to the home planet, very difficult.

Seeding, on the other hand, might be a piece of cake. A one-way probe with a genetic lab inside could make some generic cells, and then dropsondes to put them into some shallow sea along the coastline. Yes, the dropsonde would have to have a re-entry shield, but this is not difficult. Once in, it would be necessary to wait some billions of years to have a habitable planet, so that can’t be the plan. The plan is pure Buddhism, support life in all its manifestations, even potential ones on a far-away exo-planet, even if it does you no good at all.

Even without a Buddhist tradition, there is little else for the alien civilization to do. It can do its own astronomical calculations, and figure out how long it could last, if enduring to the bitter end is what they want to do. Perhaps their eventual extinction would be easier to accept if they knew there were a hundred other planets that would likely evolve intelligent life. Quite an accomplishment, in some points of view. Taking a galaxy barren of life, and turning it into a future galactic network of civilizations is an accomplishment to dwarf all others. The time necessary to evolve from seed cell to city-building would vary by a factor of two or three, so there may never be many around at any one time to communicate, but there might be some overlap.

Those planets which were the rarity, ones which evolved life on their own, might be left to simply do what comes natural to such a planet, develop a civilization. Where does that leave Earth? We might think we understand the origins of life, but maybe Earth missed the mark, and there was one pre-condition we didn’t have and so life had to be seeded here, some three or four billion years ago. If that is the case, we might look around at all other potential harbors for life and see what other planets were seeded, and how far they have progressed along the expected path. Are we early achievers or the last of the bunch?

On the other hand, maybe we are the unique among the unique, the only planet to evolve life among the few planets which could have, as only we had the formation event, like an Earth-Moon collision. If so, we shouldn’t waste much of our time and resources looking for other civilizations, as there wouldn’t be any. Doing our astronomical homework and figuring out how likely an Earth-Moon collision is would help nail down this possibility, so we know if there might be one more somewhere on the other side of the galaxy or if the total is exactly zero, except for us.

This reinforces the need to figure out what the origination mechanism is for life. If it truly is very, very rare, but planets which could have done it are not at all rare just unlucky in the life lottery, then we have to ask ourselves a question. Do we want to go Buddhist? If there really are no planets with any life on them, sailing around the galaxy trying to colonize something is a long shot. But if we can start up life on other planets, should we? Does life mean something to us, or should we just enjoy our time here on Earth and then blink out of existence without a whimper? One aspect of this choice is that it provides a goal for us here on Earth. There is the terrible dragon of nihilism waiting for those civilizations which have no meaning to their existence. Even if we don’t have to go and seed life on other planets, we can make a choice to do so and adopt a goal for the human species, turning meaninglessness into meaningfulness. There is no way to answer the question of ‘should we’ as there is no shoulds in the laws of physics. There are only choices.

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