Saturday, June 7, 2008

Who's afraid of a verdant Mars?

I'd never heard of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, but my first encounter was none too encouraging. The Institute's director, Nick Bostrom, in this article, hopes that the Phoenix lander doesn't find any signs of life on Mars. Because if it does, our chances of making it to Talos IV just took a big hit.

The article works by turning a small observation into the foundation of a huge conclusion that the observation just can't support. It goes like this: star trekking civilizations appear to be rare - in fact, we don't know of even one. So there is a Something that makes it hard for creatures to evolve to Star Trek levels of civilization. This Something goes by the name of the Great Filter.* What is it that makes it so hard to develop that far? We don't know - small sample size and all. If we're lucky, it's just that life itself is so darned hard to evolve, because then we can look at ourselves and say, "Hard part's over."

On the other hand, if it turns out that microbes are a dime a dozen, then maybe the big challenge - the Great Filter - still lies ahead of us. Yike! The end is near! Or there's a good chance that it's nearer than we hoped.

Given that examining Mars won't increase our sample size very much, and given that the extreme distances in space make it plausible that civilizations might never contact one another, that's way too much to conclude. In this case, Bostrom's entire argument hinges on absence of evidence, but that absence is rather easily explained. I think I'll root for those microbes anyway.

*which, paradoxically, arises in any swamp patch that is not sufficiently sincere.

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