In academic philosophy today, an interest in extraterrestrial life is regarded with some suspicion. This is a historical anomaly. In Ancient Greece, Epicureans argued that every possible form of life must recur infinitely many times in an infinite universe. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as modern astronomy demonstrated that our Earth is just another planet and our Sun just another star, the default hypothesis among informed observers was that the Universe is filled with habitable planets and intelligent life. One principal argument for this ‘pluralism’ was philosophical or theological: God (or Nature) does nothing in vain, and therefore such a vast cosmos could not be home to only one small race of rational beings.
My goal here is to explore some unexpected implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and my conclusions are very speculative: extraterrestrial life would lend non-decisive support to several interesting and controversial philosophical positions. The discovery of life elsewhere would teach us that, while the Universe does have a purpose, human beings are irrelevant to that purpose. Aliens might well worship a God who is indifferent to us.
Stop me when this sounds scary familiar: A historic boomtown becomes ground zero for a feverish technological revolution that promises to transform life as we know it. Shaggy-haired software developers suit up in blazers and T-shirts to preach the gospel of e-commerce. Venture capitalists mingle with hackers and erstwhile cyberpunks at rooftop launch parties lousy with designer drugs and exotic animals. Rents climb, evictions soar, and locals mourn for the city’s soul, consumed by 20-something carpetbaggers lured out west because “the dot-com version of Dutch tulip-mania offers better odds of instant wealth than making partner at Merrill Lynch.” Netscape is public. America is Online. It is the age of irrational exuberance. It is San Francisco in the mid-1990s.
The energy of the World Wide Web and the dot-coms permeated nearly every aspect of pop culture: It could be seen on Friends and Party of Five, heard in the punk-pop bass lines of Green Day’s Dookie, and tasted in Frappuccinos, sun-dried tomatoes, and ginseng-boosted smoothies. But if there was one food that captured the buoyancy of the new economy, an edible icon of the bright and delicious future promised in the ’90s, it was the wrap — the flashy generation X lovechild of the burrito and the designer sandwich, the vibrant torpedo of a new culinary order. Wraps converted a guileless nation of white-bread sandwich eaters into insatiable consumers of Thai chicken, Peking duck, baba ghanoush, and wasabi. “If a burrito is an airplane, then a wrap is the space shuttle!” contemporary cookbooks proclaimed. “In a wrap, anything goes.” Even cottage cheese. Even sloppy joes.
Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied. It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots that stretch back for around 6,000 years. As I’ve written before, these tales aren’t quite as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing. Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation—and that’s certainly how Migliano sees it. Among the Agta, her team found evidence that stories—and the very act of storytelling—arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.
That we must begin by acknowledging how rare it has been in human affairs for anyone to want a “basis for human equality” does not mean that equality is a mere fiction. That only we moderns have begun to act on it hardly implies it is time to give up. It may suggest, however, that we need less to abstract beyond our place and time for a permanent vision of the way human beings really are than to focus more on how modernity has made belief in human equality something that increasing numbers of people find meaningful. We can even resolve to fight harder for that equality without denying that our ancestors would have railed against it, or worrying that only God can guarantee our beliefs that all humans are both equal and equally special.