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Life on Mars? Searching for Signs In the Cosmos, and on Earth

Forty years ago, David Bowie asked the musical question, u201cIs there life on Mars?u201d Bowieu2019s song embodied an escapist sensibility, a longing for life elsewhere to break the doldrums and despair of living on Earth.

Forty years ago, David Bowie asked the musical question, “Is there life on Mars?” Bowie’s song embodied an escapist sensibility, a longing for life elsewhere to break the doldrums and despair of living on Earth. Filled with vivid imagery, the song reflects humankind’s eternal longing to be part of something larger than our mundane lives. In essence, it taps into an acute desire to discover that there’s more than meets the eye to this existence.

As such, the search for extraterrestrial life is equal parts theological, philosophical, and practical. With the Curiosity rover now cutting swaths through the stark Martian landscape, we may soon have an answer to this perpetual question, at least partially. More to the point, it’s entirely plausible that (at the least) vestiges of life will be found to exist wherever there is (or was) water, and Mars almost certainly fits that bill. The impending confirmation will do more than alter our creation mythology — it will force us to rethink whether the heavens are merely there for our taking as the sole cosmic occupants.

Still, while space exploration possesses a romantic quality, in reality the enterprise is far closer to a survey mission for future resource extraction to service human needs and desires. It would be nice to embrace discovery for its own sake, or even for its metaphysical import, but that’s not what pays the bills. Consider this assessment of the current mission to Mars from U.S. News and World Report:

“Famous astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.’ It’s a noble concept, says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a group encouraging humans to explore the planet, but it’s off base, he says. ‘I think Sagan’s statement is basically political correctness gone berserk. It’s completely wrong. Ethics needs to be based on what’s best for humanity, not what’s best for bacteria,’ he says…. NASA’s [Catharine] Conley, who is head of the agency’s Planetary Protection office, says exploration has to be done in a ‘controlled manner’ to avoid ‘destroying stuff we will want later.'”

Apparently, the integrity of life for life’s sake is seen as secondary to what space discoveries can do for us. Our hubris extends beyond the domain of Earth’s atmosphere, constituting a high-tech form of ‘manifest destiny’ that places humankind at the top of the pyramid in a universal struggle for existence. In fact, as if to confirm this, NASA’s operative definition of life is: “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.” Putting aside the question of whether this definition would exclude humans for some fundamentalists, the larger implication is that “life” is a political construction consistent with the values of acquisition, competition, and survival of the fittest. It is, in short, merely an extension of our master narrative; while we might long for something more than this life, by definition we have deemed that it’s not possible. One almost wonders: if we encounter a race of thoroughly cooperative, non-acquisitive humanoids, would we deem them alive?

This is the nature of our self-fulfilling reality. For all of our imaginative capacities, modern humans seem to have a hard time conceiving that things could be any other way than they are now. We tend to forget that the rhythms and requisites of our lives, the ones we take at face value and validate with every keystroke and card-swipe, are little more than a blink of an eye in the overall course of human existence. Until the advent of the industrial age, people lived relatively similarly for eons — not static, but basically consistent in terms of their position in the web of life. Even NASA’s elaboration of life recognizes the primacy of change within a stable system as its hallmark:

“Living things tend to be complex and highly organized. They have the ability to take in energy from the environment and transform it for growth and reproduction. Organisms tend toward homeostasis: an equilibrium of parameters that define their internal environment.”

Still, NASA cannot escape the anthropocentric underpinnings that cast life within the linguistic and ideological confines of a dominant culture that increasingly subsumes every aspect of our existence: “To grow and develop, living creatures need foremost to be consumers…” This may be technically true, perhaps, but it’s unfortunate in its phrasing — and yet utterly consistent with the dualistic sense of Darwinism as an irreducible biological and social phenomenon.

We may in fact turn out to be “the fittest” vis-à-vis any life we might find on Mars, or elsewhere in our solar system. Shall we take this as a cue to reaffirm our ostensible superiority? Or might it serve to inculcate a dose of much-needed humility, as we come to terms with being less than singular in a cosmic tapestry of living things? As in Bowie’s lyrical vision, it may well be the case that “the film is a saddening bore,” but surely this is due more to our perception of life as little more than a relentless struggle to survive in the face of deadening ordinariness.

Finding life on Mars would be an amazing discovery, one that I truly hope we realize — not to alleviate the mundane trappings of our existence, but more so to bring their lessons into sharper focus. What we need is not escapism from the boredom of this life, but rather a departure from the notion that life is inevitably defined by the same patterns of consumption and competition that have rendered it so tedious in the first place. Perhaps in the end, the discovery of life in the cosmos will lead to the realization that there are still signs of it on Earth after all…

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