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Would life on Mars mean doom for humans?

Posted on | May 1, 2008 | Comments Off

I just enjoyed a fascinating read by Nick Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. Nick explains why discovering evidence of life on another planet would almost surely indicate a very low probability that humans will ever explore space and colonize other planets.

Interestingly, if life were discovered to once exist on Mars, the probability of our eventual extinction would be entirely relative to the evolutionary state of that life form. The more advanced the life form discovered, the more likely that we’ll never venture much past our own moon.

In only six pages, Bostrom gives new urgency to Dr. Hawking’s insistence that we as humans begin devoting considerable attention to colonizing other worlds. While Bostrom does not mention or even allude to Hawking, his argument firmly reinforces the need to get serious about space if we’re at all assuming that our species is capable of leaving this planet.

When I use the word “evolution” in any context, I am not at all discounting the idea of intelligent design. What Bostrom is saying applies if we’re the result of a biological accident or Genesis. As such, when reading please don’t infer anything other than our demonstrated persistence in adapting when you read the “e” word. Inferring anything else will only pollute the read and cause you to miss many very interesting points.

I am a SETI geek, I really enjoy taking part in the distributed project to crunch data from radio telescopes. For years, I have been hoping that something analyzed on one of my computers might yield a discovery. After reading Nick’s article, I’m actually elated that all SETI has found in a half century of operation is a stolen laptop computer.

If there is a great barrier' of probability (implying agreat filter’) that decides if a species will reach a point in their evolution to colonize other worlds, I would hope (with everything in me) that this filter exists in our past, not future. Such a filter would have very tell tale signs, something in our evolution (or adaptation if you like) that occurs only once. Developing the ability to reproduce sexually would be a good example of a possible great filter, so would any number of things.

If something discovered on Mars pointed to an extinct life form that reproduced sexually, or something even more advanced, this would indicate that the `great filter’ is surely to come, not behind us. This would suggest that there are technologies that we have yet to discover and play with (an example Bostrom gives being high energy physics experiments) will be very, very likely to wipe us out. We would need to master this technology to travel to distant galaxies, so discovery seems unavoidable. Score one for fatalists.

Remember, this `great filter’ is something that will occur only once in our evolution, nothing matching that description has happened in millions of years.

The negative, meaning the fact that we have found no intelligent life (or signs of extinct life) in our observable universe indicates that we (could) have been the lucky ones that passed through such a filter. Unless other intelligent life is discovered, we have every reason to believe this to be true. Every day that we find nothing is another day where everything points to the fact that such a `great filter’ is behind us, not ahead of us.

Read the article, its a bit dry but very interesting and also gives counter arguments.

If evolution is a dirty word for you, simply think of it like this, did God test us yet? The fact that we (as far as we know) are still alone in this big big universe means that yes, God did and we passed.


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