Book Review — Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 4)

Book Review — Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 4) June 2, 2012

[ I’m reviewing this book because I liked it, but also for a larger reason which will become evident here, and in the weeks ahead. ]

[ Also, in case you missed it: Part 1Part 2  — Part 3 ]

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin

What’s So Special About Us?

When you think about it, just our one solar system alone is evidence of the rarity of our type of life. Out of the presumed trillion or so objects orbiting the Sun (counting the planets, asteroids, the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud), only one of those objects managed to produce living things (as far as we know). Lifelessness is the rule, life the extreme exception.

But then again, out of that unlikely sample, one out of trillions, the one we know of produced not just life but intelligent life. Even discounting the Observer Effect – however unlikely it is, we’re here to observe it because we’re here to observe it – you have to wonder.

Yet Gribben believes – and argues convincingly – that life, including intelligent life, is unlikely.

It is not possible to quantify all of the steps in the chain of circumstances that has led to our existence, no matter how much fans of the Drake equation might wish to do so. But is it clear that the probability of many, if not most, steps in the chain is small. Planets are common – but not Earth-like planets. Life is likely to emerge in the oceans of an Earth-like planet – but it is unlikely to evolve into complex multicellular creatures. And so on. You may feel that I err on the side of pessimism. But however optimistically you assess the odds of arriving at something like Troodon or a South American monkey, the final nail in the coffin of the hope that intelligent creatures like ourselves might be common in the Milky Way lies in the string of coincidences that, putting it simplistically, turned a monkey into a man. It required, simultaneously, ice over both North and South poles, a variety of climate zones, the geological changes that produced the East African Rift system, and a planet with just enough wobble to produce the Milankovitch Ice Age rhythms! We are a very unlikely species.

On the last two pages of the book, under the subhead “No Second Chance,” Gribben concludes with a sobering point: Our current civilization grew up on coal, oil and minerals, the deposits of which were close to the surface and easy to get to. But that happy state of energy affairs – usable fuel, easy to get to – is no longer the case. BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is an indicator of how far and how deep we’re having to go now to get petroleum.

If we drop the ball on civilization, if we suffer one of those SF-scenario crashes from which we expect to dig ourselves out in story-book fashion and go on to that glorious future we all like to imagine … we will have little or no fuel to build up to even our current level of technology. (How many cars and planes and ships do you think we’ll have, how many steel foundries, how many glass factories, how many publishing houses and printing plants, how many electrical generators and computer manufacturers will be fueled by … what, wood? How about zero?)

So not only might we be the only intelligent life in the galaxy, but this — this right here and now — might be our only shot at civilization.

The indomitable human spirit is ever with us, but so is the spirit of The Cold Equations.

The counterpoint to this book — to me, science fiction fan and gomer-level-futurist — is only a feeling. I have some things I want to believe.

But then again — to me, skeptic and atheist familiar with desires of the heart that must stand the test of actual evidence — I can’t let myself get too optimistic about the “truth” of my own hopeful passions.

They’re out there somewhere, I want to believe. Except I have no evidence of that, only hope. The evidence I do have is that they’re not out there.

No, the evidence doesn’t rule them out. But all the arguments that “they” might exist, that we’ll find them, that they’ll talk to us, or just that we can take comfort in the belief that they’re out there doing all the good, wise things we can’t seem to do — being civilized, ending war, solving the problems of energy and population, moving out into space — is hemmed into a very tiny corner by what we DO know.

The possibility of intelligent aliens somewhere out there appears vanishingly small. The fact that we want to believe in it, or that it’s common sense that, hey, if we’re here, they’ve got to be out there somewhere, is not as convincing as it once was.

And if the best argument we’ve got is that in our very large galaxy (or an infinite universe, if you want to go for the big one), it’s inconceivable that life hasn’t happened somewhere, somewhen, may do no more than justify our own possibly-one-of-a-kind existence.

Overall, I rate this book “Oh Shit, Yeah.”

I feel that I haven’t done it justice in this review, however lengthy. And I’m aware that the book’s argument – We Are Alone – is not a popular one. Not something we’re comfortable with. But it IS an argument worth hearing. If you’re like me, it will tip your philosophical axis, at least briefly, and set you thinking about certain other uncomfortable, but probably necessary things.

Read it. Buy it, get it from the library, whatever. And really think about what it means that life on Planet Earth might be a happy aberration from the norm. That intelligent life on Earth is a fantastic, incredible, unlikely-as-all-goddam-hell accident that may not have occurred elsewhere.

Here ends the review.

Here starts some of my own impressions brought about in the reading of it. Don’t blame Gribben for any of what comes next:

Here we are on Planet Earth, possibly the only intelligence in existence, anywhere, ever – and as far as we know, that’s exactly the case, right?

But … dayyum, kids.

What we’ve done with this unimaginable gift is … just this. What you see around you. Yes, we’re happy with the computers and the vaccines, the venti mocha lattes and the sports cars. We’re happy with all the loud, bright, fun stuff all around us. It helps us ignore the pit of ugliness and ignorance in which we enjoy them.

Wait … Ugliness? Ignorance?


Point: We allow our fellow humans to starve. To death. Right here and now.

Point: We can shoot down children in the street, and feel like something good happened, or at least that it wasn’t all that bad. That we can afford to ignore that it happened.

Point: We kill whales and mountain gorillas for meat. We kill bears and tigers for entertainment. Or we allow it to happen.

Point: We can allow our neighbors to stone to death or murder young women who are guilty of no crime greater than falling in love, or having sex, or even being raped.

Point: We demand that people caring for the sick and disabled be tested and approved by society for their qualifications, but we assume that equally helpless (and infinitely more impressionable) babies should be thrown into the care of people, sometimes other children, even, with zero qualifications. Worse, we even fight against educating those will-be mommies and daddies, or providing them with the tools to not have children.

Point: We’re actually using up the “bounty” of the oceans, casually destroying entire species, and then switching to others, because hey, we’ll eat damned near anything, and fuck it, nobody’s really keeping track.

Point: We have guys walking around who started a recent war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, for no reason other than that they could profit off the sale of weapons and such. They continue rich and influential, cosseted and guarded, even fawned over by the media, when they should more properly be lined up and shot, in public, by a selection of victims’ family members.

Point: We have FOX News, and similar “entertainments,” convinced as we are  that Freedom of Speech is broad enough that we must-must-must defend it, even for those who have deliberately built — consciously engineered — a massive organization to lie to us, put fear into us, confuse and dishearten us, who slap the very idea of that freedom in the face, all so they can make good money at it.

Point: We spend more on killing and imprisoning people than on educating them.

Yeah, THAT ugliness and ignorance. Meanwhile …

We might be the one. The only. The never-before and never-after intelligent life in the galaxy. Or the universe.

It’s time we stopped defining “intelligent life” to axiomatically mean “us.”

We need to define it as all the somethings we imagine it might mean. All those things it should mean. The stories about the wise, wonderful aliens, the glistening civilizations that we imagining them walking and flying around in, it’s time we stopped putting that off on imagined intelligent aliens and started expecting it of ourselves.

Uh … NOW would be a good time.

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