If the prospect of mass extinction described by scientists like Peter Ward (previous entry) engenders gloom, one must reflect further on the sense of solitude that science confirms. The demise of a treasured Earth as it is known by human beings ought to compel us to reflect on what, after all, we always needed to reflect upon even without the image of mass extinction: that which is impermanent and evanescent versus that which we may grasp and clutch and try to turn into an essence, at least for one’s own solitude and inspection. Like a drifting apart, we reach helpfully beyond our sphere, hoping to salvage what floats past and away from us, but are left empty and wondering.
But this solitude is ironic. We must place our Earth, our very selves, into this category of evanescence. We contemplate our own emptying and that emptying which our own species engenders. And that solitary part of us sees the epic of life and existence around us and wonders how it can be conscious of itself as distinct, apart, and yet aware and complicitous in small incremental ways.
Such is the sorrow that underlies the poem of Issa when his little daughter died:
is a dew-drop world —
Solitude is sharpened by the further realization of scientists (again, like Peter Ward) who offer no contextual relief from the bleakness of the grand cycle of mass extinctions. For some time, especially in recent decades, there was an absurd expectation even on the part of scientists that life in the rest of the universe was somehow more persistent, more intelligent, more hopeful.
Looking to popular culture, illustrating this hope was the classic 1950’s science fiction story in the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” conjuring hope, a hope in redemption. Plunged into the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War era, an alien from a distant planet comes to Earth to warn its inhabitants to stop their ways. Most reviewers saw the story as an analogy: Christ comes to Earth to tell humans to stop what they are doing. But nobody listens — or at least one is left wondering at the end of the film if ever they will. We have our message so it isn’t our ignorance or misunderstanding that impedes us. The story isn’t over yet — but the prospect of mass extinction, the acceleration of those factors bringing the next cycle into being, remain and intensify.
So a message from beyond will not change things, and it hasn’t for thousands of years. Clinging to the possibility of external salvation, though ruthlessly thwarted since the dawn of humanity, was a hope evident in the notion of extraterrestrial life, of intelligent life in the universe. Carl Sagan popularized the Drake equation to postulate a the existence of a very high number of intelligent life forms in the universe, and from this drew a measure of hope that humans could not be the highest form. Surely Leibnitz was wrong to say that we lived in the best of all possible worlds — but, argued Sagan or others, should this dissuade optimists from expecting that grander worlds flourish beyond the stars?
Peter Ward (in his book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe – 2000) points out the simple fact that intelligent life means complex life, highly complex life. What Sagan and others postulated as life may certainly be widespread: microbes and simple forms. But the factors that turn these simple forms into evolved products such as plants, animals, and consciousness is extremely rare.
Here is a partial list of necessary factors enumerated by Ward:
- right distance from a star
- right star mass
- right galaxy
- right planetary mass
- stable planetary orbit
- stable satellite(s)
- right plate tectonics
- right atmosphere
- right magnetic field
- right temperatures
- right chemicals and minerals
- right water at surface
- right atmospheric pressures
- right biotic diversity
And so forth … not even entering into the subject of biology and the excruciating complexity of DNA and similar factors. And ultimately we don’t even know if these factors necessarily add up to anything except by chance. The cycles of mass extinction are also cycles within an Earth that is incredibly benign to life, and recovers over the eons. Whatever comfort that is to the notion that life (if not intelligent life) is salvageable despite the cycles of extinction.
Buddhism always reminds us that it is a very rare thing to be born a human being. And science certainly demonstrates that insight today in a forceful way not appreciated by cultures and societies of the past. Or indeed still not appreciated today, when the life of individuals and whole peoples, let alone plant and animals species, are expended in the same futile drive to demonstrate survival. Being conscious of this flaw in human behavior is itself a very rare thing. Otherwise, one might see it addressed at last, if only by diligent individuals seeking enlightenment. But let us not take the simple-mindedness of Leibniz and transmute it into projections of extraterrestrial salvation, either scientific or otherwise.
We are rare beings on a rare earth, and it is only our solitude as individuals — not our hard and futile work with others to redeem the world, which is culture and societies — that can open our minds and hearts. We require a rare understanding, a sense, an inkling, of understanding. Only hard work on our consciousness, and a deep appreciation of our solitude, can bring some semblance of order to that rare thing we call life — our lives.