The Giant Petri Dish
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
I am a big fan of Elon Musk. Even though many people find his mercurial personality to be disdainful, I find him to be a true visionary. Personally, I am thankful that someone with his vast resources has dedicated his life to solving the greatest existential threats facing humanity. From climate change to artificial intelligence to space travel, Musk is single-handedly responsible for accelerating some of the most vital technological innovation for humans in the 21st century.
Recently, I have been reading extensively about SpaceX and Musk’s efforts to safely land humans on Mars. Most experts believe that we will not be able to send a crew of astronauts to Mars until 2040. Musk believes SpaceX will have the technology to do so by 2026. Let’s assume the truth is somewhere in the middle and Musk achieves his goal by 2033. Hands down, this will be the most disruptive and inspiring event of our lifetimes.
First of all, can we just take a moment to admit how remarkable it is that this is even possible? Humans only achieved machine driven flight a little over 100 years ago in 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully flew their airplane. This accomplishment came at a time when the primary mode of transportation for most humans was still horses. Astonishingly, sixty-six years later, we would go from their crude prototype to the Saturn V rocket, which would be responsible for landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. If Musk is successful, we would be colonizing another planet a mere 130 years after the first flight!
Put another way, Homo sapiens have been on this planet for 100,000 years. It wasn’t long ago that our ancestors were wandering around in forests, scavenging for food. Flight, for 99.9 percent of human history, has only been possible in our dreams. Then, all of a sudden, in literally 1/1000 of the time our species has been roaming the planet, we have undergone a technological quantum leap. In 1903 humans still lacked the capability to reliably grow crops to feed our population. Now we are on the cusp of becoming a spacefaring species.
What this tells us is that technological innovation is exponentially expansive. One discovery opens the door for hundreds of derivative innovations and so on. This is known as the law of accelerating returns and what it suggests is that once a civilization hits a tipping point, the technology begins snowballing at such a pace that within a very short time, what was previously believed to be impossible becomes a reality.
The issue I want to consider in this post is whether the possibility of the progress we are experiencing here on earth is happening elsewhere in the universe. Are there other civilizations on other planets that have developed similar or better technology to move beyond their planet to other worlds in their solar system or beyond? I want to explore what this innovation tells us about God, the universe in which we live and, ultimately, the reason for our existence.
The Deep Field
In 2003, NASA scientists decided that they were going to take the Hubble Space Telescope and point it at a patch of sky where no previous telescopes had seen anything. They wondered if perhaps they would be able to find a star there where it looks like there was nothing. So every time the Hubble came around the earth to that particular spot, they would point the lens at this little dot for about 20 minutes to see if they could collect any light photons. They did this 400 times and, in the end, they took all of this data and compiled it into a high-resolution photograph.
Interestingly, when the photo came up on the screen for the first time, they didn’t find one lonely star as they had hoped, but rather they found 10,000 galaxies. A galaxy contains an average of 100 billion stars. In this empty patch of space, they had discovered more than 1,000 trillion stars. This little experiment, known as the deep field observation, became famous because it caused scientists to realize that if this little spot contains 10,000 galaxies, then the universe itself contains around 125 billion galaxies.
Those numbers are so huge that it can be hard for us to wrap our minds around the scale of the how big the universe actually is. For a little bit of contrast, consider that the largest star in our own Milky Way galaxy is called VY Canis Majoris. VY Canis Majoris is 2,013 times larger than our sun. If you placed it in our solar system, VY Canis Majoris would extend just beyond the orbit of Saturn. You could fit the earth inside of VY Canis Majoris 70 quadrillion times. Amazingly, that’s just one star that makes up 100 billion in our galaxy.
Every single one of these stars in our galaxy and the galaxies beyond ours has planets spinning around them. Most of those planets are either too hot or too cold to sustain any kind of life. But some of those planets are in what scientists call the goldilocks zone, which means that the temperature on the planet is just right for life to thrive. Scientists estimate that there are some 5 billion planets in the habitable zone of stars in our galaxy alone. The possibility that at least some of those planets have some form of bacterial life is about 99.9%. Whether or not those planets will have the necessary conditions to allow that bacterial life to evolve into something more complex is hard to say.
Take our earth for example. For most of the existence of the earth, the conditions for sustaining life beyond that of a simple bacteria were not very good. In fact, if we could jump in a time machine and fast rewind through the earth’s 4.5 billion year history, you would see that, for most of that time, the earth was a big ball of ice that was far too cold for life to thrive. It’s only in the last 2.5 billion years that the earth was able to heat up enough to create the atmospheric conditions where evolution could really take off.
Although many people assume that life on earth was inevitable, it’s important to realize that there was no guarantee life would evolve into its present form. A lot of factors had to fall into place for life to thrive on earth: increased temperature, a magnetic field to reduce radiation from the sun, floating tectonic plates, water, a large moon to create tides, the correct mixture of nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere, a large planet like Jupiter to prevent the earth from constantly being pelted with catastrophic asteroids just to name a few.
Once these factors aligned, life began to change and evolve very rapidly. This reality on our planet points to something I find to be amazing about our universe. If the conditions for evolution present themselves, then life will take advantage of those circumstances. This proclivity for life to thrive is built into the fabric of the universe and with so many habitable planets strewn throughout the universe, the likelihood that we are the only intelligent organisms in the universe is infinitesimally small. We are likely one of many advanced civilizations throughout the universe.
Viewed from this perspective, the universe is a giant Petri dish for life. Every time you walk outside at night and peer at the stars in the sky, you’re not just looking at light. Every dot that you see in the sky represents the possibility for life to exist. There are literally billions of little life experiments taking place throughout the universe. Many of them are very simple bacterial life-forms, but some of those life experiments are intelligent life-forms like us. Similar to humans, each of those intelligent life-forms came about through a long process of evolution. If our species is any indication, the transformation from bacteria into intelligent life-form requires a timeline on the order of several hundred million years, if not billions of years.
Kill or be Killed
The reason why the evolutionary process takes so long is because the principle function of life is to survive. Every organism wants to maintain an equilibrium with its environment so that its genes can survive as long as possible. When that equilibrium is threatened and an organism is no longer able to pass on its genes uninhibited, then adaptation becomes necessary. There are lots of ways that an organism can adapt to ensure the survival of its genes, but the reality is that most organisms must settle for their genes being passed on in a species that can survive the times.
For instance, in humans, our genome is 98.2 percent junk. In other words, 98.2 percent of our DNA does nothing. These genes represent the DNA of other organisms that went extinct millions of years ago, but live on in our DNA. Indeed, 99.9 percent of all the species that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct. This fact tells us something important about anyone who you see living here and now—we are the product of survivors.
Indeed, if you could trace your lineage backwards, not just to your human ancestors, but to every species in your line that contributed to your presence on earth, you would see they all had one thing in common—they made the best of their situation and managed to pass their genes onto the next generation. That takes tenacity. That takes verve. That takes a certain level of selfishness because, if they weren’t looking out for themselves and their own well-being, then they would have died before passing on their genes and you wouldn’t exist.
Therefore, if you’ve ever wondered why humans tend to be so selfish, it’s not because Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit that was off limits. The reason why humans possess such a propensity to be selfish is because of evolution. Selfishness is built into our genes because we needed to be selfish in order to survive. Although we have never met aliens from another planet, this inclination towards selfishness is, more than likely, a natural characteristic of other intelligent life-forms throughout the universe.
Tampering with Mother Nature
What makes us unique as human beings is the fact that we have evolved a high level consciousness. Even though there are many other organisms on the planet that possess lower levels of consciousness, we are the only organisms on this planet that are truly self-aware. Although we think of ourselves as advanced compared with the other species on our planet, we are still in the infant stages in terms of what our consciousness can do. I would contend that it is only in the past 100 years that we have truly begun to appreciate what our minds are capable of creating.
We are on the cusp of a revolution where we are no longer subject to whims of natural evolution. Thanks to new technologies like CRISPR, we can manipulate our genes in such a way that we can direct our own evolution. This prospect might sound scary, but it is the natural consequence of the advances of a conscious mind. Which tells us that if there are other organisms in the universe that are conscious, then they will have taken the same steps towards directing their own evolution. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to assume that at a certain point, all intelligent life takes the reigns from the natural evolution God set into motion and becomes self-directing. Indeed, I would argue that this is exactly what God wants us to do.
As we discussed above, natural evolution takes a long time and the conditions for life to thrive on a planet depends on a lot of factors falling into place. However, when intelligent life gains the capability to manipulate its own the genome, then we don’t have to wait thousands of years hoping that nature will select for a particular gene set. We can select those genes instantaneously or create new ones more to our liking.
Some will automatically come to the conclusion that such manipulations are unethical because we do not have the right to play God. However, this stance assumes that God is somehow intimately involved in each step of the evolutionary process. The universe may be designed to create the conditions for intelligent life to evolve, but I don’t think God is actively making the choices that would lead to our creation. There’s a lot of random chance involved in our creation. Indeed, not only do I believe God desires for us to manipulate our genome, but that such manipulations are an ethical necessity.
Of course, the question that ultimately arises when we begin tampering with genes is who gets to decide what manipulations are appropriate and inappropriate? I think we all agree that the eradication of diseases from our genome is an important necessity. However, beyond diseases, where do we draw the line? Should we allow science to manipulate our genes so that we can be stronger, faster, and smarter? These types of questions have been the source material for the dystopian futures of many science fiction novels and movies. I’m not the one to answer these larger questions, but what I do know is that, with genetic manipulations, we can eradicate the most pervasive threat to our species—selfishness.
The Survival Paradox
The paradox of human life is that the very trait that gave rise to our existence is the same trait that will ultimately destroy us. Within each human being is a battle between our genetic predisposition towards ensuring our own self-preservation and the expression of selfless love towards our fellow human beings. We can see the consequences of this battle every day when millions go hungry, lack proper housing, flee their lands and die because of war and violence. If we cared more about our fellow human beings, this kind of suffering would not be tolerated. Clearly, self-preservation is winning because we are not willing to give up what we have for the benefit of others. And why would we? Selfishness is a powerful biological force.
This is where most people exit the argument. They say, “This is the way it is and it’s not going to change.” But we live in a time and place where remaining as we are is simply not an option. The reality we must face as a species is that unless we change the complexion of how we interact with the world, our time on this earth will quickly come to an end. We possess the technology to eradicate our species in a variety of unpleasant ways and our population is growing to the point where the earth will no longer have the resources necessary to sustain our existence. Indeed, many scientists predict that we are on the verge of the sixth global extinction in the earth’s history. The first five were caused by natural events. The sixth will be caused by us.
This is why Jesus’ teachings on love are so very important in guiding us towards our new genetic future. The world that Jesus envisioned in God’s kingdom is the very type of thinking that could get us out of this mess. Recall that in God’s kingdom everyone has enough to eat; everyone has clothes to wear and a roof over their heads; everyone is treated for their illnesses; nobody is forgotten. In other words, in God’s kingdom, we don’t take more than we need and we are selfless enough to share our resources to ensure that nobody suffers unnecessarily.
In order for this to happen, the whole of the human race would have to value loving others over protecting ourselves, which isn’t going to happen overnight. It would take thousands of years for us to breed the selfish genes out of our genome and we don’t have that kind of time. This is why I believe God intends for every conscious species to eventually begin manipulating its own genome. Left unchecked, the selfishness inherited from evolution will always threaten to eradicate the species.
Therefore, by genetically rooting out the selfish nature of human beings in favor of selfless altruism, we can create an environment where we can survive peacefully over a much longer timeline. Thus, I believe that the kingdom of God is not something that will come when God intercedes on our behalf and merges heaven with earth. Far from it. God desires for us to create the kingdom on our own and God wants us to do so by using the technology created by our minds to make it possible.
The Meaning of Life
Humans are constantly trying to parse out the meaning of life. In particular, we are trying to understand why we exist at all? Although philosophically there are an infinite number of resolutions to that question, fundamentally, there are only two possible foundations for our existence—intention or random chance. If we are here by random chance, meaning that the universe and life came about without any design or predetermined cause, then the meaning of life is truly relativistic. In other words, if our existence is random, then we are left to create and determine our own meaning.
On the other hand, if the universe has a cause and was induced by a force or being, then we are left to ponder the question, “Is there some overriding purpose or meaning that force or being wishes us to understand?” If we step back and view the universe from an objective perch, then it would seem that the universe feels like one large experiment. The universe operates under a certain set of principles (gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force). When those forces are combined with the matter (hydrogen, helium, etc.) sent forth at the Big Bang, all that’s needed is long timescales for that matter to create stars and planets. Out of trillions of stars, some of those planets will have the evolutionary conditions that give rise to basic life and some planets, like ours, will give rise to intelligent life.
From my perspective, these conditions feel intentional. Obviously, I have no proof for this assertion and I could very well be wrong. However, if these conditions are intentional and if the course of evolution on our planet is indicative of other planets, then it would seem the course of evolution is driving towards intelligent life. This would mean our ability to manipulate our own genome and populate other planets cannot be unique to us. There must be other civilizations that have achieved the same feat.
This brings me to my conclusion. Within this experiment that we call our universe, there does seem to be a purpose that we are only just coming realize. The universe is our playground. Our purpose is to explore and enjoy that playground. In order to explore and enjoy the universe, we need knowledge of how the universe functions. The purpose of each generation is to build upon the foundational knowledge provided by the previous generations. For humans living today, our present wisdom is the accumulation of 5,000 generations of humans. Let us not take them for granted. We owe them a great debt because without their observations, we would not be as close as we are today to exploring the stars.
But knowledge isn't the only goal. We, like our ancestors, have the opportunity to enjoy the love and friendship of our fellow humans while we learn. Those relationships bring deep meaning, purpose and enjoyment to our lives. Hence every generation of humans passes along the memories of those who mattered and the knowledge of how the universe functions. In this way, every generation enables us to better appreciate and experience the beauty of the universe. Thanks to what they have passed onto us, every new generation has a greater capacity to experience the beauty of life compared with the previous generation.
Why does all of this matter? Since Christianity tells us that God is the very fabric of the universe, such appreciation is what draws us closer to God. Put simply, the experience of the universe is the experience of God, which, for me, is the meaning of life. Therefore, I look forward to the day that our species sets foot on another planet. Their experiences will broaden my own and allow me the opportunity to become more in touch with the beauty of our existence.