Rare Earth

Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee wrote an intriguing book, published in 2000, whose title is "Rare Earth" and subtitle "Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe". In what follows I suggest that while they are convincing in the title, they have most likely failed in the subtitle.

The Rare Earth Hypothesis states that microbial life is common in the universe but advanced forms, from simple multicellular organisms to large animals, are uncommon and may even not exist outside Earth.

Throughout the book the authors elaborate on the several factors that make Earth unique as a habitat for the evolution of advanced life forms.Earth has the right mass, sits at the right distance from its star,which in turn has also the right mass. Earth follows a stable orbit,has a large Moonthat stabilizes its rotation axis tilt, which has the right value foravoiding severe seasons. More, Earth has a giant neighbor – Jupiter – that prevents impacts from comets and asteroids, and it has plate tectonics that ultimately provides a global thermostat mechanism by means of recycling greenhouse gas, especially carbon dioxide.Earth has a magnetic field of the right magnitude so as to shield thesurface from energetic cosmic particles. Earth sits in the rightgalaxy, at the right location, in a galaxy that has the right heavyelement abundances. Furthermore, a dozen or so mass extinction eventshad driven biological evolution towards the highly developed mammals present on Earth today.

Thecombination of such specific conditions has led in the course of timeto the development of specific life forms, all DNA-based organisms.Life on Earth is intrinsically a rare chemical phenomenon. Here theauthors are probably right: Earth as a laboratory is rare, the possiblechemistry is rare, the resulting life forms are rare.

There are two problems though in extrapolating the "rare" reasoning above to complex life in the whole universe. First of all, life is not a chemical phenomenon,rather, it is a physical phenomenon. A living organism is a system thatby energetically interacting with its neighborhood has its entropydecreased. In other words, it maintains itself in a state of ordercompared to the disordered neighborhood (Monod, 1971). Secondly, beinga physical phenomenon, life may manifest itself in unconceivabledifferent chemical and non-chemical processes. They are in principle asinnumerable as the different environments that exists in the universe,and may be even spread "serene in the space between the worlds" likethe structured minds envisaged by science fiction author Ken MacLeod (2000), or like Fred Hoyle's living interstellar cloud (Hoyle, 1957).

Wardand Brownlee's book is in the order of the day for two seeminglydifferent reasons: the Rare Earth hypothesis will soon be testedbecause the search of extrasolar planetsare almost reaching the earth-like domain, with many planned spacemissions worldwide, and, their somber suggestion that "the rise of anintelligent species on any planet might be a common source of mass extinction" due to their profligate use of planetary resources. Present global warming warnings show that they might not have erred in the latter.


References

Hoyle, F. (1957) The Black Cloud, Buccaneer Books, Inc., New York

MacLeod, K. (2000) The Oort Crowd. Nature, 406, 129

Monod, J. (1971) Chance and Necessity: an Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York

Ward, P.D. and Brownlee, D. (2000) Rare Earth, Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, Springer, New York

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