Many people are MADLY curious about the possible existence of a planet similar enough to Earth to support intelligent life.
While satisfying curiosity is a fine goal, the discovery of such a planet might also tell us something about solving our problems here on Earth.
Humans have always been—among other things—feisty, nasty, and ambitious. They jealously hoard what they have, and ride armed and roughshod over their neighbor’s greener pastures. The worse qualities of our species have been a problem for millennia, but now that our planet has been made so small by technology, it has become more and more difficult to restrain our most animal impulses and unleash instead the better angels of our nature.
We cannot see the future, but in the past century something has become very clear: there may not be much of a future for Homo sapiens. Between a quickly warming planet, the continued threat of nuclear weapons, and the danger of overpopulation, the notion of a world of global peace and prosperity seems increasingly improbable.
But perhaps we can look beyond our sky, to another world similar to ours. Elsewhere in the Milky Way could be a world full of intelligent beings much like us—requiring food, water, and sleep to fuel their larger than average brains. Most likely they also would be very different from us as well, with tentacles, feathers, or claws. They may not procreate like we do, but they surely would have some powerful reproductive drive, or else they would not have come to dominate their planet.
Presumably, they once fed themselves by instinct, by hunting and gathering, until some form of agriculture emerged and they began to develop skills, language, and social structure. Governance and transportation would inevitably have followed as they populated more of their home planet. Soon, faster communications would have become a necessity. Throughout all this development they would likely have retained their drive to compete, dominate, and destroy. Eventually, they must have found themselves much in the same pickle we are now in: depleting their planet, locked in conflict, edging ever closer to extinction.
Perhaps they proved to be a more intelligent life form than we have so far and brought their best brains together to pull them back from the brink.
And very likely they too looked to the stars. “Our strength as a species,” their best thinker might have said, “has always been our will to dominate. Today we find ourselves locked in ever-more destructive attempts to dominate one another. Let us turn from those conflicts to face a new challenge, something we have never truly overcome: the void. Let us transform our aggressions into the fuel that will propel our rockets across the vast emptiness and spread across new worlds. Let us put aside our petty local quarrels and begin in earnest the only fight that has ever truly mattered: against nature herself and the fate she assigns to all species.”
The first step was to grow ever more efficient. They had to create a system to ration and allocate resources to the world and the space program to which it had become devoted. Maybe it was not completely fair, but most members of their species were excited by the new idea and were willing to sacrifice for such a goal.
They changed their educational system and manipulated their reproduction to create generations of not just engineers and astronauts, but of the poets and artists that fueled the planet’s fervor for exploration. They repurposed their factories of war into research centers and beat their swords into pumps and nozzles and fins until their spacecraft were ready to expand across the galaxy.
One day their rockets will find our sun and we will really learn great and terrible lessons about humanity.
We will likely learn that we are like them, capable of reorienting ourselves to such a noble, peaceful struggle. But the possibility remains that we will learn that we cannot overcome our fear of the unknown and hatred of the stranger.
Either way, we will come together as a species, for better or for worse.