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Finding Alien Life
“…Scientists… look for signs of what is needed for life on Earth—basics like water and proper temperature.”
In this simple statement, from The World Almanac for Kids 2006, the word “Earth” is the most important. It is important because it underlines what could be a grave scientific mistake. It tells us that, in looking for extraterrestrial life, scientists look for things we need for life on Earth: things humans need.
In looking for life on other planets, scientists look for things so common to us humans—water, the right temperatures, oxygen, methane gas that implicates that life exists (or did), and a familiar planetary structure.
According to “Seeking New Earths”, a recent National Geographic article:
“If they [the scientists] manage to discover a rocky planet roughly the
size of Earth orbiting in the habitable zone—not so close to the star
that the planet’s water has been baked away, nor so far out that it has
frozen to ice—they will have found what biologists believe to be a
promising abode to life.”
On a similar note, the DK book Universe calls Mars “the most likely location” to find alien life.
These sorts of statements show scientists’ possible naivety about intelligent alien life forms. In our search for intelligent life beyond Earth, we are basing--from what I’ve seen--what would be habitable for intelligent life only on what is habitable for humans.
We seem only to look for a sense of familiarity in looking at new worlds. In order for an environment to support intelligent extraterrestrials, does it have to be able, possibly, to support humanity?
The answer, in my opinion, is no. What we know of biology and how we survive is tied to the Earth and humanity. Think of it this way. Say the Earth, for example, is the United States. Now suppose that another planet is similar to a small foreign country in Africa or South America. This foreign country has its own economy, traditions, food, religions, culture, clothing and people, all of which are very different from our own. And yet, though this country is so foreign from ours, it supports life perfectly well.
So why can that not be the case with another world? Just because its atmosphere and environment are odd or different compared to Earth’s does not mean that it does not support intelligent life. If it works well on Earth for there to be many environments, why could that not work the same way for intelligent alien life?
I think that it is ridiculous—even a bit arrogant—to think that a planet must be a near-twin of Earth to support intelligent life, especially when there is evidence supporting the fact that life could exist in foreign environments—environments in which humans could never survive.
According to Universe, organisms called extremophiles “have encouraged the idea that life can exist in a wide range of conditions.” Extremophiles are “organisms that thrive in extreme conditions”, such as “deep in ice sheets or around boiling hot water vents in the ocean floor” (Universe). So why could intelligent alien life not survive in extreme conditions?
Even if aliens look like humans, or are at least humanoid in form—which I see as a distinct possibility—why should they have the same exact biological structure and DNA as humans? This would be, after all, an entirely different world, with quite possibly an entirely different planetary structure, so why should the inhabitants of this world not have an entirely different DNA structure, with inner workings adjusted to the environment in which they reside?
We live on a planet that has an average temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit, but depending on location and time of year, is much colder or hotter. Is it not a plausible possibility that intelligent alien life could survive in extremely cold or hot conditions that no human could? In extreme weather we’ve never had on Earth? They could have adapted to the environmental conditions in which they live over time, just as some animals that have come to live exclusively in caves, for example, have. Or, being intelligent alien life, they may have developed the technology to survive in extreme conditions, through use of machines or the creation of an artificial environment. If scientists on Earth are theorizing technology that could make it possible for us to colonize Mars through the creation of an artificial environment, why could intelligent alien life already have fully developed this technology? Or perhaps intelligent life on an extremely hot or cold planet has learned to live underground. It is also possible that for intelligent life on another planet, the extreme environment in which they live is totally normal. Maybe they would regard our atmosphere as extreme.
Why would we rule it out as a possibility? Why would we look only for mirror images of Earth, assuming that intelligent alien life could only exist there?
Perhaps we are too self-absorbed to think that an alien’s inner structure and ability to survive could be the polar opposite of ours. Perhaps it’s comforting to think that an alien world would be exactly like ours, with the same atmosphere, the same landscape, and the same temperatures; or maybe it is our fear of the unknown.
In the movie series Star Wars, there were quite a few different planets, with environments of their own. Hoth, for example, was the planet of snow and ice; Naboo was the garden planet; and Coruscant was a city planet. What if it were the same in our solar system, only a more extreme version, with intelligent life on worlds that could not possibly sustain humanity?
I assert that scientists are perhaps too wrapped up in their knowledge of humanity and its’ familiarity, and this does not allow them to look beyond and realize, for example, that intelligent aliens could be able to withstand extreme temperatures and environments, and therefore their worlds could be very different from ours.
In conclusion, I do not know if aliens exist, or even where they would exist, but I believe that scientists need to examine not only the worlds that resemble Earth, but all planets they can. After all, there could be hundreds of civilizations we’re not even noticing.