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 Life Beyond Earth

  Life Beyond Earth

By Joel Achenbach

I am witnessing something amazing. It is happening everywhere. It’s not inherently good or bad, but it does give us pause and make us worry about where it’s all going. I’m talking about the rapid, chaotic, and sometimes destructive reengineering of the planet by human beings. (Oh, THAT.)

We’re just a single species among the billion or so organisms that have blessed this planet. There are far more beetles than primates, and if you wanted to talk about success over the long haul, you’d point to the bacteria. But humans have a narrative talent, an ability to model the past and future, a sense of our place in the universe—a self-consciousness—that appears to be unique. We are hyperadaptable. We can live in a laboratory at the South Pole or in a deep-sea submersible or even, potentially, in a colony on the planet Mars. Or we can stay home, and cook big pots of soup, and play Wiffle ball in the backyard (my choice). And we can sure burn up a lot of resources and crank out a lot of garbage.

I think of this in terms of genotypes and phenotypes. Genotypes are strings of nucleic acids that instruct cellular structures how to make a protein (so the biologists tell me). Phenotypes are what you eventually arrive at: an organism with a certain shape and way of doing things. Human civilization is our extended phenotype, and it’s truly dazzling, literally changing year by year. (I am always shocked to realize that just a few years ago no one had ever surfed the Web.)

Oh, wait. I’m supposed to be writing about extraterrestrial life. Did I start with a huge digression? Not really. In my article for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, as in my book Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, my investigation of the idea of ETs always doubled back to a scrutiny of human beings. We don’t actually know much about alien life. We have no sample. We only have guesses, plausibility arguments. By necessity we have to work with the one example that we know, which is terrestrial life, Earth life.

To know what’s out there, we have to figure out what’s going on here. And where we are taking our own civilization.

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