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SETI Astronomer Says Life's "Not All That Special" Even as His Own Program Suggests Otherwise

A CNN.com video is making the rounds in which SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak hunches his eyebrows in a worldly-wise manner and shrugs off the possibility that there's anything "special" about life: "Every time we learn something new about the universe, what we learn is that our situation doesn't seem all that special. And that suggests that life is not all that special either." Reporter John Zarrella, meanwhile, is all agog about the number of supposedly Earth-like planets being discovered and explains, "The body of evidence is growing that we are not alone."

Here at ENV, we've touched on the premature nature of such celebratory pronouncements. Guillermo Gonzalez notes that "While these exoplanets are being discovered, astronomers are discovering additional constraints on the habitability of planetary systems." The more planets we find, the more we realize how numerous, complicated, precarious and mutually dependent the conditions are that would be needed to support life.

But never mind. Go back to Shostak's comment and take his premise for granted. Let's say it's true that the more we learn the more it seems "our situation doesn't seem all that special." Yet the well-known fact is that SETI Institute has yet to detect any echo of extra-terrestial intelligence. That's a big part of the reason that this year SETI had to shut down, for lack of funding, its Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, a $50 million ear trained to the sky, its 42 dishes listening for radio transmissions from elsewhere in the Milky Way. Simply stated, no results = no money.

If it were true that the conditions for life are common around the galaxy, yet no intelligent life has checked in with us so far, that would seem to suggest that life itself -- as opposed to the conditions that might make it hypothetically sustainable somewhere -- is very special indeed. In the total absence of evidence for actual life out there, the more common those conditions are, the more special -- i.e., not readily evolved by natural means alone -- life must be. Does that not follow, Dr. Shostak?