TED Conversations

Eben Rose

This conversation is closed.

How can we surmise that chemical evolution may lead to Earth-referenced attributes of life as if it is a universal law?

Our experience with life and intelligence is wholly Earth-referenced, yet SETI and the discipline of astrobiology assert that life-as-we-know-it is unquestionably "out there". Why? Is it a reasonable assumption that chemical evolution inevitably leads to "us-like" properties wherever conditions are "just right'? How restrictive is the notion of "just right" conditions? Wouldn't such conditions need to be EXACTLY like Earth's historical conditions in order to arrive at Earthlike outcomes?

Taken at the level of molecular organization and building up from there, the probabilities of generating a bacterium, even given Earthlike initial conditions of, say, 4 billion years ago, are beyond astronomical. A probability distribution is associated with each stage of synthesis along the evolutionary path, and these are affected, too, by ever changing and largely unpredictable externalities, such as irradiation and impacts. The outcome of these probabilities then provide the prior conditions that affect the shape of the next probability distribution. All of these compounded probabilities have been integrated over geological timescales to arrive at Earth's version of life. How could recognizably similar outcomes be extrapolated to the integrated histories of chemical synthesis taking place on other worlds?

Indeed there are huge numbers of stars and galaxies in the vast universe, and we have all been lured by the numbers game that turns the even the minutest probability into an inevitability. But we should always temper our searches for ET to that vastly smaller part of the universe that is in any way accessible to us from our own spacetime well. At some scope of distance, the search for ET crosses the boundary into cosmology with contact across times and parallel universes that are not part of the ET search.

SETI and astrobiology proffer deterministic metaphysics of inevitable life within our accessible universe as if it is science. Is it science or just wishful thinking?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Jun 7 2012: You lost me right there when you said

    QUOTE: yet SETI and the discipline of astrobiology assert that life-as-we-know-it is unquestionably "out there".

    The word "unquestionably" made me think that the whole basis of your "idea" is questionable. Some time ago I read lots of things about the possibilities of life in other planets. All those, some written by people on SETI, talked about the difficulty we might have since we could not expect that life would be as the life we see on earth. Unless you used too wide a definition for "life as we know it," I think you built yourself a straw-man to fight against.

    Be well.
    • thumb
      Jun 7 2012: Central to the work of SETI is the Drake Equation: N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L

      N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
      R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
      fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
      ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
      fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
      fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
      fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
      L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

      Factor fl can incorporate a permissive definition of life, such as those experimental products of Martin Hanczyc, but factors fi and fc are highly restrictive and speak to a very self-referenced version of intelligence and civilization.

      As Claudio Maccone, a member of the Permanent Study Group of SETI, wrote in a 2010 paper in reference to factor fc above, that ET will have done “…just as we have done since 1900, when Marconi started the transatlantic transmissions” (p. 1367). His portrayal of the Drake Equation in this paper presents the singular Earth example as one in a population of “us-like” variants for which “us-like” is defined as the center.

      My question, differently posed, is upon what basis SETI can derive a probability distribution function (pdf) from one data point.
      • Jun 9 2012: Eben,

        You only complicated your straw-man. I do not see how or why the existence of an equation that tells us the kinds of factors necessary to calculate how many civilizations might be out there that could communicate with us, automatically means that the equation implies that this is inevitable. If instead of unknown-factors it had constants, then I would incline towards believing that your cartoon has any resemblance with reality. Everything I have read from SETI/astrobiology, indicates that they are very conscious that those factors have their problems. Lots of research to try and figure them out. Thus, they know that they can't derive a distribution out of one sample.

        Whatever Maccone presented does not mean that he thinks that he can put a precise number to represent that factor, that he presented our own planet does not mean that he imagines ET as being life-as-we-know-it, unless he were using quite a wide definition for life-as-we-know-it, and then there would be nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with using a Marconi metaphor either. I bet that if we read carefully what the guy has published we would not end with this cartoon of yours.

        Be well.
        • thumb
          Jun 9 2012: Okay, then, let me put this question another way that uses another example so that hopefully you see that it is not a straw man but is indeed the crux of the argument.

          Winged flight, as one extant property of Earth's biosphere, is shared by insects, most birds, and some mammals. One may suggest that flight is an emergent property that would inevitably rise in the biosphere, i.e., if not by insects then by birds or mammals. On closer examination there is less of a convergence of evolution at play if one considers that birds and mammals may have perfected flight in large part because flying insects were ready prey. The point here, though, is whether we can say that organic matter, if given enough time to evolve, will inevitably (or at least with a high probability) lead to winged flight.

          Winged flight is one property of our extant biosphere. The human version (or, more specifically, SETI's version) of intelligence is another such property. My question is whether any such highly derived property as winged flight, human-styled intelligence, or for that matter, leaves, internal digestion, predator-prey relations, etc., are all simply what happens when (to quote SETIan Jill Tater in her TED Prize speech) "...a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolve so long that it begins to ask where it came from." All of these 'emergent' properties are present in Earth's biosphere. We see them. We recognize them. We identify with them. On what basis can we claim that any one of these self-identified attributes is an inevitable consequence of chemical evolution in any other possible world than the one that we know?

          Consider Neil DeG Tyson's take on it: we are some >98% similar in DNA to chimps (other estimates are ~95%). These are our closest relatives, also evolving 4 B yrs under identical conditions, but we can barely access chimp intelligence face-to-face. SETI & Shostak see this narrowly defined emergent property of "us-like" intelligence as probable in the cosmos. Why?
        • P C

          • 0
          Jun 10 2012: Eben, perhaps another reason why we have such assumptions within the Drake Equation is that this would represent the main kind of intelligent civilization that we best understand. Given your Ph.D., have you considered asking Drake himself?
      • Jun 10 2012: Eber,

        Now you got me completely flabbergasted. Your winged flight seems to have a fundamental philosophical fault. I know you just made it up. That is not the problem. The problem is that you are saying: "suppose that flight in animals other than insects was pushed by flying insects, thus non-independent of the first flying shit." Well, you might as well be saying "suppose that winged flight will only arise under the proper circumstances." Well, nothing incompatible with that and "winged flight might be an emerging property of life on Earth" as long as you subscribe to this property being able to emerge "given the proper circumstances." This is quite clearly all right. Under your imagined scenario winged flight would be unknown without the flying insects. How is that different to "... a subset of planets bearing life might develop intelligent life, and a subset of these planets might have such life developing technologies ...." We don't expect every animal to evolve into winged life. We don't expect every life-bearing planet to evolve intelligent life, and so on.

        So, again, quite the straw-man. That some researchers might be inclined to think that it might be "inevitable," given the incredible number of planets out there, is not a problem. They have their reasons. Without reading and understanding those reasons, while presenting the whole thing as if research was based on certainty that "life-as-we-know-it" evolves "inevitably" out there is a straw-man. Example: I don't see how "a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium" could be "life-as-we-know-it." So, why would you use those words (life-as-we-know-it) if not for rhetorical effect?

        Be well.
        • thumb
          Jun 11 2012: I wonder what you would propose is the "real" question to ask that is not, as you say, a straw man. SETI absorbs a great deal of metaphysics in the theory that sustains its quest. The title of Shostak's talk is that ET is 'probably' out there. My question-- and I leave it as an open question-- is where the boundary lies between reasonable and unreasonable expectations that Earth's historical outcome of emergent properties could be repeated elsewhere not only possibly, but 'probably'. With one historical outcome to draw from, how do Shostak or other SETIans proclaim that ET is 'probable'?

          I have read and understood the literature of those researchers who you cite are inclined to think that such an emergent property as "us-like" intelligence is probable, if not inevitable. This was the topic of my dissertation and remains a problem for which I am deeply engaged in finding a reasonable answer. Some properties, such a rudimentary replication, spontaneous formation of coacervates, peptide formation, etc. have been demonstrated in labs under controlled conditions. But on the other side of the coin we have on Earth a highly derived, highly evolved set of properties that we associate with our own existence that have indeed emerged in the natural biosphere. It does not help us much to say that the emergence of such properties is thermodynamically permissible. The question -- and it is not a straw man -- is what law (perhaps a kinetic law) necessarily directs the trajectory of evolution toward the "us-like" emergent properties that are SETI's target in any other world than the one we know.

          We would not so confidently say that, among the billions of Earth-like planets in the galaxy, that surely another besides Earth will have Spanish-speaking inhabitants. But why not? It happened on Earth naturally, after all; it is thermodynamically permissible.

          Please tell me why is this a ridiculous argument, but seeking other 'technological civilizations' is not ridiculous?
      • Jun 12 2012: Eben,

        You keep insisting on building up your straw-man. Look at this and this only for now:

        You say: "is what law (perhaps a kinetic law) necessarily directs the trajectory of evolution toward the "us-like" emergent properties that are SETI's target in any other world than the one we know."

        This is an awful and obvious straw-man.
        1. SETI is not saying that life elsewhere will be like life on earth. I know, I have read some papers, and actually, they seem rather intense on the idea of finding life that does not look like life-as-we-know-it.
        2. SETI is not saying that there being life, it will necessarily evolve properties like those that evolved here. Remember I talked about subsets of subsets at all? Do you know what "subset" means? Do you understand that the equation you mentioned above is about subsets, and not about laws that necessarily blah, blah, blah?
        3. You use "emerging property" as if it means some kind of magic. Like speaking Spanish. SETI is interested in studying what makes intelligence in order to figure out the possibilities for such a thing to evolve. For now they assume that it is happening, but nowhere do they suggest that it will arise in the very same way it arose here. They might be hopeful, but that's different to saying that everywhere it will happen by some inevitable law.
        4. Life and our intelligence are not just "thermodynamically permissive," but thermodynamically driven. As much as you might think that intelligence is an "emerging property" (meaning some kind of magic?), intelligence arises from compounded properties of life. That does not mean that it will necessarily evolve to a technology-producing state, but it does mean that there is nothing magical about it, and thus it might occur elsewhere.
        5. Your comparison to Spanish is a gross equivocation fallacy. Which makes your straw-man even worse.

        Clear so far?
      • Jun 12 2012: Eben,

        To finish my interaction with you, given that you love compounding your fallacies. Had you said something like "I don't think that intelligence has any probability to appear anywhere else, and thus SETI is a waste of time." I would have said that you are entitled to your opinion. Maybe I would have argued about how and why you think so. However, you accuse the SETI and astrobiology programs of an absolutist position whereby intelligence and technology will evolve necessarily everywhere where life arises to the point that both life and intelligence will be, for sure, "as-we-know-it." You transform half their sentences into a meaning that they don't have. Example, your accusation about "as-we-know-it" would hardly survive a second look if you paid attention to such phrasing as "primordial mixture of helium and hydrogen."

        Thus, you come across as irremediably ignorant, proud to be so. You show some poor, if convoluted, thinking. Seems like you hold a stubborn position regardless of evidence against it. I have no idea how you are approaching your research on the origins of life, but seems like your understanding of anything SETI, astrobiology, intelligence, life, set theory, and thermodynamics, is rather shallow. Seems like your reading of other's people research reduces to their TED talks, while ignoring anything else.

        I might be wrong, but that's exactly how you have come across this far. So, have a good conversation. I don't think that I can interact much more with you.
        • thumb
          Jun 22 2012: I have contacted the TED officials to referee your comments. I had hoped in starting this conversation that I could gather others' insight into the boundary between deterministic processes that are predictable from physical laws and historical outcomes that are affected by stochastic processes that confound prediction of specific outcomes. Set theory does not illuminate nor solve this dilemma, and since this is the question I posed in this conversation string, it is not a straw man despite your entreaties.

          Perhaps you have some insight to offer– certainly you have a strong opinion– but I think the purpose of these discussions are to offer suggestions and insight and to gain insight from others, not to bully and insult others.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.