Imagine that you traveled billions of miles into space and met an alien being which resembled you enough for you to be able to communicate with it. Would the similarity between you and the alien prove there is an underlying pattern in nature which all evolution follows? That pattern could be used as evidence of design, or rather, of God.
NASA has awarded over a million dollars to research on the “the societal implications of astrobiology” to examine the question, but the argument is far from new. The plurality of worlds-theory has been part of our thinking about nature since the scientific revolutions of Copernicus, Galieo and Newton.
In 1714, William Derham, a curious country vicar from Worcestershire, published a book entitled Astro-theology : or a demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from a survey of the heavens . Derham, who raised himself from poverty, was fascinated by the new science of his age, collecting insects and studying the nature of sound. Astro-theology was just one of many such books at the time. Derham argued that a multitude of inhabited worlds existed in outer space, and that from it “we may learn not to overvalue this world” “What is all our globe but a Point, a trifle to the Universe” he asked.
A few decades later, some of Derham’s arguments were picked up by another clergyman, William Paley, a bookish man immobilized by chronic pain. In his work Natural Theology (1802) Paley draws the contrast between and rock and a watch. One thing was purposefully made, the other not. One was intelligent, the other not. The human eye was another example of a complex creation that served a divine purpose.
Charles Darwin spends parts of his monumental Origin of the Species (1859) arguing against Paley. Darwin shows that species develop through gradual steps and that adaptation was linked to reproductive success or survivability. There was no need for God. In the Darwinian cosmos there was no given outcome to evolution, which means that the inhabitants of Derham’s “other worlds” might not look anything like we do. Indeed they might not evolve at all.
However, the fact that God was no longer needed, does not mean that he could not be present. Recently Conway Morris has argued for a theist evolution, using a principle called convergence. Morris claims that there are physical constraints on the evolutionary process which in the end provides a direction and a temporary purpose. While Darwin dismantled William Paley’s description of the eye as God given by showing that it evolved through many stages, Morris demonstrates that nature re-invented the eye many times. Each time independent of the other. This proves that the evolutionary process does indeed move towards specific goals, though we cannot know its final purpose. So if we traveled to another planet, the aliens we encountered would look eerily familiar, according to Morris, simply because the rules of the evolutionary game are such that the final outcome is given.
In his 2005 book Life’s Solution Morris (lecture below) applies his principle of convergence to space, and uses it to predict the nature of the aliens we might one day encounter. “My strong hunch” Morris has stated “is that a human-like intelligence is a cosmic inevitability, but I have never said it should reside in a human-like brain”.
The argument of design was one of Darwin’s most important theoretical problems. It has been ridiculed by biologists for over a century. However, through their search for extraterrestial life, NASA has provided new fuel to an old enemy of science. For many the search for E.T. is not only an answer to the question of whether we are alone in the universe, it has become a religious longing.