In April 1897, Pearson’s Magazine, a rather influential London literary publication, although launched only about a year earlier, published one of the eeriest prologues ever to appear in the world of belles lettres. The author was a 31-year-old former cloth retailer and biology student by the name of Herbert George Wells, who two years before had created a mini-sensation with his first novel, The Time Machine, controversial for both its outrageously speculative scientific premise and for its radical social criticism. Now, he did it again, having started the new novel, The War of the Worlds (to be published in book form the following year), with this dramatic warning:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
The famous progressive rock version by Jeff Wayne produced in 1978, gives an even more fascinating introduction by condensing Wells’ second to sixth sentences into ‘Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets’ – rather frightening in the superb narration of Richard Burton. It is even more pertinent from the point of view of the present book. In The War of the Worlds, Wells, once a pupil of Thomas Henry Huxley, the legendary ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, struck a perfect balance between dramatic and philosophical discourse. The then reigning Kant-Laplace theory about the formation of the Solar System predicted that the planets’ ages correlate with their distance from the Sun, so Mars was considered older than the Earth, which would, in turn, be older than Venus, and so on. The Copernican principle – and naturalism regarding biogenesis! – suggested that, if Mars is habitable at all (and many influential astronomers thought so), it is likely to be the home of a biosphere older in comparison to the terrestrial one. The same Copernican principle, coupled with naturalism with regard to the origin of intelligence (or noogenesis), led Wells to assume the existence of Martians as an intelligent species older than humans. The hallmark Victorian belief in progress in both biological and cultural domains led Wells, and many other thinkers of his day, to translate this greater age into greater intelligence and into greater capacity for manipulating nature, i.e., more advanced technology. However, more advanced technology needs not, and here Wells parted company with many of his optimistic contemporaries, pacify essentially biological – or sociobiological – aggressive instincts of a dominant species. Coupled with the climatic and ecological degradation of their home world (also stemming from the Kant-Laplace theory conjoined with the dominant paradigm of Lyellian gradualism), these instincts led the Martians to undertake the interplanetary expansion and colonization of the nearest habitable ecosystem – our Earth. As noticed by Wells’ protagonist, who is perpetually torn between paralyzing fear and an irrepressible curiosity, while Martian invaders brought horrible destruction and death to humans, they did not seem to act any more irrationally than humans do when clearing a forest in order to cultivate land or irrigating a swamp to build housing. Such actions are not regarded as obviously morally repugnant even today, in this epoch of heightened ecological awareness. In the end, the invasion from Mars fails, but not due to any action of humans – supposed pinnacles of the terrestrial evolution. Instead, the Martians, who are of course well adapted to their own biotic and abiotic environment, are defeated by the simplest terrestrial life forms – bacteria to which they had evolved no resistance, bacteria that have lived on our planets for billions of years, thus prompting again the question whether it is sensible to talk about progress in the context of biological evolution. Consider how deep is the gold mine of philosophical issues (and I mention just the most obvious ones) contained in what is still occasionally – and ignorantly – dismissed as ‘just’ a science-fiction thriller! And it is a contingent fact of history that as a consequence of Wells’ writings more than a few men have hitherto ‘considered the possibility of life on other planets’.
In contrast, consider the plots of recent movies – also fin de siecle, as was Wells’ novel – like Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) or X-Files: Fight the Future (1998): a prominent role in both is played by an ancient meteorite that fell to Earth in times past and brought microscopic alien life forms to our planet (both influenced by Robert Wise’s 1971 classic Andromeda Strain, based on the 1969 novel by Michael Crichton). This has been for quite a long time, since Lord Kelvin and Svante Arrhenius, known as the panspermia hypothesis, one of the hotly debated topics in contemporary astrobiology. Now microorganisms, bacteria and viruses, are the invaders from space, if anything more threatening than before. The details of science are, of course, wrong (an interesting question for science, technology and society studies: why is it so difficult to get the science right in any major film?), but the general idea is the same as the one underlying the current efforts of researchers, technologists, and even politicians, to institute efficient planetary protection protocols. The famous Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, adopted by the United Nations in 1967, explicitly puts the same fear and caution in legalistic terms, by proposing that parties to the treaty
shall pursue studies of outer space including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter, and where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.
This admirably non-anthropocentric statute (it lists adverse consequences for other celestial bodies first and those for the Earth after; with good reason we shall return to it in Chapter 6) is just as useful a gauge of our thinking as are the motion pictures mentioned above. Like the discussion of extraterrestrial life at the end of the nineteenth century, in the cultural context it was unavoidably framed by the Schiappareli-Lowell ‘discovery’ of Martian canals, as well as debates on Darwinism vs. other theories of evolution and, last but not least, the late-Victorian anxiety about the conflict of civilizations, so analogous discussions at the end of the twentieth century are coloured by our fear of deadly pandemics, as well as the post-Cold War anxiety about the conflict of civilizations. The difference – and a very real one – consists of the ongoing astrobiological revolution, which has opened wide prospects for an objective assessment of the perennial questions about life and intelligence in their cosmic context. Scientists are understandably reluctant to talk about revolutions in what is usually perceived as day-to-day research work. But an avalanche of both observational and theoretical results from various fields, starting about 1995, being incorporated into a wider synergistic whole, together with large-scale organizational changes and restructuring, give any observer at least some indications that we are living through a real revolutionary epoch. That the revolution could become even more radical, as more and more fields and themes are involved and interconnected, is one of the central topics of this book
Excerpt from Milan M. Ćirković, The Astrobiological Landscape, Philosophical Foundations of the Study of Cosmic Life, Cambridge University Press, 2012.