Intergalactic Thoughts with Down to Earth Implications

Astronomers have reviewed data being collected by the orbiting Kepler observatory.  They are concluding that there a literally billions of solar systems that could have an Earth-like planet within the Milky Way itself.  

Apparently, astronomers are looking for planets about the size of Earth, which means the gravity is neither too strong or too weak and around the same distance from their sun. 

The idea is to find a planet in what astronomers call the "habitable zone" which is like the Goldilocks for planets.  It is warm enough to have liquid water, but not too hot where the water cannot sustain life.  Once such a planet is found, theoretically, it can be examined for the content of its atmosphere. 

While this all sounds reasonable, there is a fundamental flaw and that flaw is emblematic of a disturbing way of thinking that adversely impacts a wide range of our activities.  Essentially, the problem is confusing the individual and the group or network.  

For example, obviously Earth has the right conditions for life.  The planet is warm, but not to warm.  These is now sufficient oxygen and nitrogen.  There is lots of water.  However,  life on Earth would still arguably not be possible if it weren't for Jupiter.  This may sound startling to many, but the gravitational pull of Jupiter likely prevented large asteroids from hitting Earth and destabilizing its environment.  

The reductionist thinking that makes it seem that life needs a narrow set of condition is flawed.   It is not about the individual, but it is about a network.  The solar system supports life on Earth.    This means that in addition to finding planets in the "habitable zone", astronomers should also be looking for those that have a Jupiter as well.  

Consider human beings.  As only now can be appreciated, most of the DNA in our bodies (as in something on the magnitude of 99%)  is not human DNA, but bacteria.  The bacteria helps our bodies perform normal functions including digesting and processing food, regulating cholesterol and perhaps even sleeping.    

We have co-evolved with the bacteria.  The power source in cells is understood to be the mitochondrial.  It has its own DNA, which means that at some point in the evolution of life, it was a separate organism.  Yet the approach to evolution is dominated by concepts like competition and the "survival of the fittest".     The competitive approach has a place for sure, but so does the more cooperative form of evolution.  

This complicates the narratives we want to tell.  The operative paradigm may not be hierarchy, which seems to arise out of scarcity, but network (see Fredrick Thayer's book from nearly 40 years ago End of Hierarchy!: End of Competition).  Some observers bemoan the end of hierarchy in international affairs. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini write about a G-Zero world, where  hegemonic stability does not hold.  The hierarchy of indispensable nations has broken down, chaos will reign, they warn.  

Yet, there is another interpretation.  In a Foreign Affairs article a few of years ago, Ann Marie Slaughter suggested the 21st century may be the networking century.    Perhaps we are in a transition phase between hierarchy and network.  They appear to be two conflicting organizational paradigms.  It behooves us to try to interpret our problems and challenges using both models.  Whether looking for Earth-like planets or trying to understand the European Monetary Union, we may find that the networking paradigm is more useful.   

Intergalactic Thoughts with Down to Earth Implications Intergalactic Thoughts with Down to Earth Implications Reviewed by Marc Chandler on November 12, 2013 Rating: 5
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