We Are Unique


Bedside Reading 2

We are unique
from “This Will Make You Smarter” edited by John Brockman




Marcelo Gleiser Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Dartmouth College


Gleiser’s response to the Edge question of 2011 ‘ What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

“This concept must affect the way we perceive who we are and why we are here. It should redefine the way we live our lives and plan for our collective future. This concept must make clear that we matter”

“…. the notion that we humans on a rare planet are unique and uniquely important.”

“I will argue that modern science, traditionally considered guilty of reducing our existence to a pointless accident in an indifferent universe, is actually saying the opposite. Whereas it does say we are an accident in an indifferent universe, it also says that we are a rare accident and thus not pointless.”

A counter view is that we are finding more and more exoplanets, and the laws of physics and chemistry are the same across the universe so there are many possibilities for life to be common. But this does not presume intelligent life.

“… the existence of single-celled organisms doesn’t necessarily lead to that of multicellular ones much less than to that of intelligent multicellular ones.”

“As we look at planet earth and the factors that enable us to be here, we quickly realise that our planet is special. Here’s a short list

  • the long-term existence of a protective and oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • the ozone layer
  • the magnetic field protecting from lethal cosmic radiation
  • Earth’s axial tilt stabilized by a single large moon
  • plate tectonics which regulates the levels of carbon dioxide and keeps the global temperature stable
  • Our sun as a smallish fairly stable star.

consequently its rather naive to expect life – at the complexity level that exists here – to be ubiquitous across the universe.”

Nothing to disagree with here. Despite our insignificance on the cosmic scale it is not hubris to consider ourselves unique within our own back-yard as intelligent life and more so whilst we wait confirmation [if any is possible] about our own solar system and stellar neighbourhood. So whilst accepting a Copernican viewpoint on all matters regarding space, as a life form, we should have an attitude towards our continued existence and evolution that whilst not teleological should act as if it is a precious but random gift.

This essay goes hand in hand with the earlier one by  Martin Rees.

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