The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent Life -- The Last Gasp of Human Pre-Eminence
Humankind's Fall From Pre-Eminence
Humankind's sense of pre-eminence, identity and self-worth have suffered mightily since the middle ages. Among the chief causes are:
- The discoveries by Copernicus that refuted the earth as the center of the universe;
- The discoveries of other celestial bodies of remote identity and distance;
- The theories of evolution, quantum mechanics, multiple universes and black holes that relegated humankind to some odd, accidental and infinitesimally small exception to an immense and impersonal universe.
The premise of this article is that, in the face of the degradation of human pre-eminence, those that support, promote and fund the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life are not only curious about finding intelligent life, they are also intrinsically motivated to do so.
The question of what constitutes intelligent life is outside the scope of this article. However, it should be noted that until recently there has been very little challenge to the notion that humankind represents the highest form of both life and intelligence.
Creationism -- Unquestionable Human Pre-eminence
Prior to the Copernican declaration in the mid-1500's that the earth was not the center of the universe, western-world intelligentsia of both the religious and scientific communities believed strongly in human pre-eminence. This belief in human pre-eminence related strongly to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun, planets and anything else in the firmament revolved around the earth. After all, the Bible had declared that when God created everything, he spent much of his seven-day week making the earth. Furthermore, on the day God created the first man, Adam, God imbued Adam with intelligent life sufficient to understand God's spoken direction about the forbidden fruit. Later, God firmly established human pre-eminence by telling Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply, and to hold dominion over all the rest of creation, again presumably because they had the intelligence to do so.
Evolution -- Questionable Human Ancestry, but Smarter Than Ever
By the time Darwin established the theory of evolution in the 1800's the notion of the pre-eminence of mankind had already suffered loss. Copernicus started the ball rolling 300 years prior by demonstrating that the earth, and therefore humans, were not the physical center of the universe. Then others followed Copernicus with celestial observations that further dwarfed the physical status of the earth and humankind. So then comes Darwin with his findings of evolution that led to questions about the pedigree of humankind's ancestry. At the same time, however, the burgeoning industrial revolution salved the wounded collective ego with marvelous inventions that not only marginally improved the lives of the impoverished, but also kept alive the notion of human pre-eminence.
Ok, So We're a Speck of Cosmic Dust, But We're the Smartest Kids in the Universe, Aren't We?
Although Copernicus did not have the tools to even imagine that there were gigantic cosmic entities at unimaginable distances away from the earth, he nevertheless was the first in a long line of astronomers who inexorably demonstrated that the Earth was a tiny speck of cosmic dust. First there was the earth and the sun, and several other planets, and then of course other stars, and then our own galaxy filled with a hundred billion other stars, and then, in the twentieth century, discoveries that revealed many billions of other galaxies that each possessed their own billions of stars.
What's a poor human to think? Humankind's status had tumbled from the pinnacle of all creation to an infinitesimal cosmic blip.
Some have expressed the great loneliness of humankind in a universe where no other intelligent life exists. The search for extraterrestrial intelligent life may be an outgrowth of humankind's sense of isolation in an immense and impersonal universe.