Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Do we have an obligation to ensure that life continues after life on Earth can no longer be sustained?  Its inevitable that life on this planet will end.  Eventually the sun will gobble up the earth and incenerate everything on it.  So should we start preparing a panspermia project to send life from Earth to other places in the universe?

Michael Mautner thinks so.  So lets take a look at his argument.  The article summarizes his argument as follows: 
As members of this planet’s menagerie, and a consequence of nearly 4 billion years of evolution, humans have a purpose to propagate life. After all, whatever else life is, it necessarily possesses an incessant drive for self-perpetuation.
So first, it says that evolution has produced ust to have a purpose.... to propogate life.   Life intrinsically has an incessant drive for self-perpetuation, therefore we have an obligation to continue the perpetuation of life elsewhere in the universe. 

I think this argument has all kinds of problems with it.  First, its not clear that evolution gives purposes to anything.  To say that implies that evolution is some kind of reasoning force to begin with, trying to accomplish something.  Evolution is nothing of the sort.  Evolution is simply the name we put on the a feature of biological development through reproduction.  Evolution doesn't want, desire, or even aim to make better things.  Evolution is RANDOM.  Through random chance, animals, plants, etc, are given new traits, which either aid in survival, reproduction, or do absolutely nothing, or hinder survival or reproduction.  It is perfectly plausible that evolution would produce animals that are poorly suited for their environment, and yet they continue to exist because of luck (however unlikely it is).

So evolution has randomly given human beings a purpose.... to propogate life.  How does purpose get transmitted or developed through evolution?  Conceivably it could be hard-wired into our genes and consequently our brains to make us behave in this particualr way (nevermind that this trait may not in fact be present in all human beings).  I don't find this terribly plausible, but I'm feeling generous and concede the point. 

So we have a evolutionary purpose.  Does this translate to a moral purpose?  Do I have moral obligation because my biology compels me to?  This is dubious at best.  I may have an evolutionary drive to fight or flight, but that doesn't make it morally acceptable for me to fight or flight.  I may have a moral obligation to do one and not the other.  Genetic or psychological predispositions do not give us moral justification for acting in any way at all.  Someone who is predisposed to rage doesn't suddenly have an obligation to attack people any more than a woman who is ovulating has an obligation to seek out a partner.

Increasingly its becoming more common for people to believe the opposite, that we have an obligation NOT to reproduce, in order for future generations to live a more comfortable life.  Overpopulation concerns are essentially concerns about the future generation's comfort and living standard.  But overpopulation concerns, and panspermia plans are ultimately dependent upon an idea that we have an obligation to future generations.  I've already argued that this isn't as obvious as most people think it is in end of the world scenatios, which this is

Another puzzle is that Mautner suggests that we send bacteria to seed other planets.  If he is serious in the idea that we have an obligation to propogate ANY life, not just human life, because of evolution (how that happened might be an example of my point about the randomness of evolution), then we currently have an obligation to breed bacteria and not kill off bacteria.  Arguably, we could justify killing some bacteria in self-defense, but we should be actively trying to raise the number of living things on this planet, not just human.  Since we could more easily increase the number of life by increasing bacteria more so than any other life form, we should start cranking out agar mats and seeding it with whatever it is that we can. 

Am I being too hard on him?  I feel like I am, but I just think his argument is as absurd as I'm making it sound.


  1. To take from the article in question, “Securing that future for life can give our human existence a cosmic purpose.” This statement seems to beg the question "what is the meaning of life?" If all of us are inevitably going to die, and all life on this planet, despite our reproduction, will one day come to an end, then why bother? My answer - because it is better to live than not. It is better to have existed than not (I disagree with Silenius on this one). For that reason, life continues to propogate. I wouldn't argue there is a moral imperative to procreate, any more than there is a moral imperative to cry, laugh or eat. They just happen because there is a biological urge to do so. When posed with the question of whether or not to let the Universe go stale and lifeless or to attempt to send life to other worlds, again, it is better that life does exist than not, so, I think we should. To distort Nietzsche a bit, creation (art) gives our life meaning, or more accurately, it is the meaning of our life.

  2. I agree with you here... I think the general consensus would be that we would all prefer life to continue after the earth is gone, but to say we have a moral obligation to make it so just because thats what evolution would want is silly. He's applying morality to an amoral process.

    (This is Kyle Ames from Phil 100 by the way)

  3. I don't buy into the idea that if there is no life in the universe that the universe would be stale... Volcanos would still erupt, oceans would still pound against the land, comets would still collide with planets, black holes would still suck up matter. Its a pretty active and amazing place even without life.

  4. Wayne seems to be taking the same view as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. Yes, the Universe will still have many interesting processes happening, but without any intelligent being to witness them, then what is the point? If a tree falls in the forest and no one (including any animals) is around to witness it, does it really matter that it fell?

  5. heh, I >AM< Dr. Manhattan!
    true... whats the point if there arn't intellgent beings to witness them.... but whats the point if there are? The existence of the universe, and the existence of life doesn't require a point or purpose.