“Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

I’ve argued often here that imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is a mere projection of one more or less accidental cultural formation of one species on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world of homo sapiens.

Now, James Tour, a synthetic chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, publishes an open letter making a case he summarizes as follows:

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.

Tour’s argument touches on not only exobiology, but SETI, and so, by extension, ufology and the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), let alone the Neodarwinist consensus. Our inability to reasonably and confidently posit how life arises from nonliving matter on earth surely alters at the very least airy speculations involving the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox, let alone the persuasiveness of the ETH.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because we can’t formulate exactly how life arose on earth that it hasn’t occurred elsewhere under different conditions or in different forms, which would be merely another tenuous generalization from our own situation and current state of our knowledge. Nonetheless, Tour’s argument surely reveals the ignorance and hubris that underwrites the widespread belief in the ETH (let alone Disclosure (to say nothing, here, of Neodarwinism)), exposing, in turn, how it is rooted not so much in science or reason but in ideology, psychology, and imagination.

Most pointedly, Tour’s article might serve to sensitize us to the mind-boggling singularity, precarity, and preciousness of life—all life—already existing here, on earth, moving us to attend to it and its preservation, such biophilia having always been at work in its own surreal, dialectical way in our rumours about the UFOs and their pilots and, indeed, in the messages they have communicated to us.

8 thoughts on ““Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

  1. Could the existence of distant life ever be positively confirmed through telescopic and other remote techniques, or are we going to have to actually take the substance/organism into our human or robotic hands?

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  2. Good question! A quick web search turns up various strategies for the remote detection of life, and I get the feeling exobiologists are fairly confident of confirming its existence.

    Of course, as Tour’s open letter argues, even were we to confirm exoterran life, that wouldn’t bring us any closer to knowing how it originated in the first place.

    And, as you likely very well understand, it’s the philosophical and cultural critical implications of that present ignorance that intrigues me.

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    1. If the life form had a genome that we could sequence, some answers would likely be provided (as well as questions raised). If it didn’t have a genome, that in itself could be a clue.

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  3. A form of life without a genome wouldn’t be life as we know it. (Whether viruses are alive is a question: they do not reproduce independently, they are not mobile (“animate”), they do not exchange material with their environment, etc.).

    But what question would either form of life answer? It seems to me their ultimate origin would still be a mystery.

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  4. “Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations.”

    Our probes have been fairly limited. We have barely scratched the surface of Mars, and cannot rule out present or past microbial life underground. Nor can we rule out life in the internal ocean of Europa.

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    1. Granted. This is one of the present challenges of exobiology, that we only have the earth to go by and our knowledge of other planets is very limited. On another hand, the opening of Tour’s text (I link) posits a more radical thesis: “Life should not exist. This much we know from chemistry. In contrast to the ubiquity of life on earth, the lifelessness of other planets makes far better chemical sense.”

      His is a strong claim, but it balances the blithe assumption we know let alone understand how life on earth began, how inanimate matter animated. This problem is of course not unrelated to my more general critique, oft repeated here, of the perverse anthropocentrism of imagined extraterrestrial intelligent, “advanced” life.

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  5. He posits that thesis with very little justification, it seems to me. The laws of physics and chemistry clearly allow the existence of the compounds he names and of life itself. So he must be saying that any route from simpler molecules to those compounds and to life is not impossible but merely extremely improbable. But how can he know that, since we clearly don’t know all possible routes? Not to mention that organic molecules with up to 13 atoms already exist in interstellar clouds.

    The apparent lifelessness of Mars is adequately explained by its generally hostile environment. We don’t need to postulate a universal cause in the laws of chemistry.

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    1. He argues based upon present knowledge of biology and chemistry (did you have a chance to read his open letter?). Surely, “The laws of physics and chemistry clearly allow the existence of the compounds he names and of life itself,” but if doesn’t follow we know how matter becomes life (Schroedinger makes a similar observation early last century).

      So, on the one hand, absolutely, we cannot a priori claim no life of any kind exists anywhere else; however, nor, on the other, can we proudly assume we know who life arose or that our present knowledge is sufficient to win that knowledge. It’s that astounding fact that there is life here, now, we know not how, I drive home at the end of my post to stir a biophilia at odds with the necrophilia that dominates technological (capitalist) society.

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