March 12, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Much Ado About Nothing

How much can you say about nothing?  Some people can say quite a lot.  One astrobiologist just wrote a large book about it: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon (Harper Collins, 2003).
    Larry R. Nittler reviewed this new book in the March 12 issue of Science.1  Nittler describes how interest in alien life fell into the “scientific sub-basements of ‘exobiology’ and radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)” after pictures of Mars in 1965 revealed disappointing deserts of lifelessness.  But thirty years later, three developments led to a resurgence of interest in alien life: (1) the discovery of extrasolar planets (see 07/21/2003 headline), (2) evidence for probable oceans under the ice of Europa (see 02/11/2002 headline), and (3) claims of fossil bacteria in a Martian meteorite (see 03/18/2002 and 05/15/2002 headlines).  NASA launched its Astrobiology Institute in 1998 (see 08/23/2001 headline), imbuing new respectability into the study of alien life.  Nittler explains, however, why astrobiology is essentially the science of nothing:

Given the current surge in scientific attention to alien life, it is easy to think that recent developments constitute a revolution of sorts.  However, our actual knowledge of alien life remains the same as it has been for centuries and can be summarized by a single word: nothing.  Nonetheless, in Lonely Planets David Grinspoon provides a masterful synthesis of the history, science, philosophy, and even theological implications of extraterrestrial life.

So what can be said about nothing to fill 460 pages?  Grinspoon divided the nothingness into three sections: history, science, and belief.  In the history section, he examined beliefs about alien life from Kepler to the present.  Nittler’s review points out that pessimism about alien life has been rare.  Up until the 1960s, for instance, most people believed the dark patches on Mars were signs of vegetation.
  In the science section, Grinspoon “weaves a tale of cosmic evolution from the Big Bang through the formation of the solar system and the evolution of life on Earth,” Nittler says (see 07/15/2002 headline for more on Grinspoon’s beliefs).  The author “strenuously argues against” the Rare Earth hypothesis of Peter Ward and Robert Brownlee (see 12/19/2000 and 01/14/2003 headlines), preferring to trust in “the adaptability of life to different environments and especially the role life has played in shaping Earth’s unusual characteristics.”  As to this role, and its meaning for the definition of life,

Grinspoon uses the Gaia hypothesis (that Earth can in some sense be considered a “super-organism” of interconnected biogeochemical feedback mechanisms) and complexity theory to argue for a more generous definition of habitable worlds.  He holds that a key characteristic of “living worlds” should be chemical disequilibrium, with large flows of energy and/or matter.  By these criteria , he suggests, we should also be searching for cloud creatures on Venus and sulfur-based critters on the volcanic Jovian moon Io.

(For more on Gaia, see 12/18/2003 headline.)
The third section of the book deals with beliefs about aliens, from UFOs to SETI to politics.  There is the ubiquitous Drake equation, speculation about the future of human evolution, and much more.  Given that most evolutionists dismiss claims of UFO abductions and conspiracy theories, Grinspoon is surprisingly open-minded about the nothing we know.  But the reviewer detects a little hypocrisy:

His emphasis continues to be on keeping an open mind.  SETI assumes that aliens would continuously broadcast radio transmissions for thousands of years.  Anti-UFO skeptics argue that UFOs are not alien spacecraft, because “aliens just wouldn’t act that way.”  But both assumptions are based on preconceived notions of alien behavior , about which we actually know nothing.  (Grinspoon falls into his own trap as well, dismissing popular ideas about UFOs basically because they are so “B-movie.”)

Grinspoon doesn’t think humans are intelligent yet.  He seems to measure intelligence in global terms, and so does Nittler.  Here is where politics enters the discussion about nothing, where it is difficult for either of them to know where rational discussion ends and wild speculation begins:

The book becomes increasingly personal in the final chapters as Grinspoon delves deeper into more speculative ideas regarding spirituality and the nature of intelligence.  He muses that humans are not yet truly intelligent and that to become so will require much better collective behavior as a species.  He seems overly pessimistic in his assessment of our likelihood of becoming such a species, based on our propensity for perpetrating violence on one another.  I would argue that such developments as the global eradication of certain diseases and the advent of international courts to try war criminals paint a more optimistic picture than the examples he gives of SETI@home and world music.  The author closes with even wilder speculation regarding species immortality and machine civilizations.

Nittler sees the author as a product of the 70s, considering Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan were “family friends” of the Grinspoons.  “This background clearly colors his thinking about his subject,” Nittler says, “and his optimism about the existence of alien life sometimes comes off as wishful thinking informed by too many Star Trek episodes.”  But overall, he compliments the book for its writing style, and the fact that Grinspoon tries to be clear about where the science leaves off and the “intellectually squishy natural philosophy” begins.  “In the end,” Nittler concludes on a happy note, “Lonely Planets is an entertaining and thought-provoking book about a great deal more than nothing.


1Narry R. Nittler, “Astrobiology: Looking for Life in Far Distant Places,” Science Volume 303, Number 5664, Issue of 12 Mar 2004, p. 1614.

We didn’t say the book was about nothing: he did.  We didn’t say the book contained wild speculation: he did.  We didn’t say the author was selectively open-minded: he did.  We didn’t call it a “tale” of cosmic evolution: he did.  We didn’t use the phrases “intellectually squishy” and “wishful thinking” to describe Grinspoon’s ideas: he did.  Cloud creatures on Venus, sulfur critters on volcanic Io, machine civilizations, international courts as a measure of intelligence… good grief.  Yet Nittler calls this book a “masterful synthesis” of ideas on – well, nothing.
    That makes Nittler a co-conspirator, an accessory to the crime of allowing stupid ideas to get good press in America’s premiere science journal.  If a creationist made claims on this level, they wouldn’t get past the National Enquirer.  The code of silence in the Darwin Party requires that none of the brethren are to be publicly humiliated.  Even if lightly tapped with padded gloves, they must be praised as defenders of the “tale of cosmic evolution.”
    Don’t be fooled by the talk about “spirituality” and “theological implications” of finding alien life.  We know what they mean, and it’s not asking “what must I do to be saved?” (see 03/11/2004 headline).
    Both men unfairly attack Kepler (see our online biography).  Nittler lets him get away with libel: “Grinspoon reminds us that Johannes Kepler was a “philosopher/freak who walked the fine line between genius and delusion.”  Speak for yourselves.  Both of you would do well to read the life and writings of the father of planetary science, and learn to respect his integrity and intelligence.  His wildest speculations were tame compared to these.

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