John Marshall

Life on Other Planets

(Spring 1959)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.2, Spring 1959, pp.61-62.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Of Stars and Men
by Harlow Shapley
Beacon Press, Boston 1958. 157 pp. $3.50.

Man is not alone in the vast universe. There are sentient beings on remote planets in a lower or higher stage of development than ourselves.

The former director of the Harvard Observatory makes this startling deduction in the light of the most recent and reliable astrophysical data and biochemical discoveries set forth in this book.

The advance of science has stripped mankind and his platform of all privileged positions as world factors. The earth is not even in the center of its own galaxy. It is the third planet of the sun family which is located in the outer rim of a galaxy containing a hundred thousand million other stars. And this local galaxy of ours is only one of many million billions more.

Nor can earth-dwellers claim special location in cosmic time any more than in space. This earth, presumably born about five billion years ago, is rather young as planets go. Thus life can have originated sooner and evolved for longer periods elsewhere in the universe.

Shapley adopts the hypothesis of Canon Le Maitre which attributes the genesis of the universe to the explosion of a “Primeval Atom” some fifteen billion years ago. This led successively to the expanding universe in which the original matter has become more and more diffused, to the birth of the chemical atoms, to the formation of galaxies and stars, and eventually of planets like the earth.

Just as the sun is an ordinary example of a star, so the earth is made up of the same elements, though in differing proportions and combinations, and is subject to the same physical laws, as the countless bodies in the rest of the universe.

Such facts provide the basis and background for the proposition that life is as much of a material phenomenon as any other feature of the physical world. Life can emerge on the surface of a planet wherever the requisite material conditions and chemical combinations are on hand. These include the proper chemicals for making protoplasm, the suitable temperature, the right weather. In the past thirty years biologists and biochemists such as the Englishman J.B.S. Haldane and the Russian A.I. Oparin have thrown considerable light upon the conditions needed for the generation of living organisms from lifeless chemicals and the probable ways in which life first appeared on this planet.

Life was not created miraculously, supernaturally, spontaneously or at one stroke. There is no impassable division between non-living and living substances. Living organisms were first formed as the outcome of long and complex chemical processes out of the pre-primal thin soup of hot water enveloping the earth. In an atmosphere containing methane and ammonia, water vapor and hydrogen, certain electrical strokes helped synthesize the amino acids that underlie the proteins that underlie organisms.

What natural processes and chemical reactions accomplished on earth several billion years ago is now being duplicated in part in the laboratory by scientists like Stanley Miller of the University of Chicago. They are artificially synthesizing organic compounds, making amino acids out of combinations of gases with the aim of reproducing the elements of life.

If life was naturally generated on earth, as more and more scientific evidence affirms, then what are the chances that it exists elsewhere? Shapley calculates that the universe holds over one hundred thousand million billion stars competent through radiation to maintain the photochemical reactions at the basis of plant and animal life. There are at least a hundred million suitable planetary systems.

The probability is that sentient beings have likewise evolved on some of these myriad other planets. These other planetary organisms may very well have acquired a sensory equipment different from ours. Human sense organs were adapted to the peculiarities of solar radiation and are limited in number, range, and effectiveness. Our sensations depend largely on vision alone which is restricted to less than two octaves of the radiation spectrum; from red to violet. Since we are such primitives in sensory development, it is more than likely that living beings elsewhere have evolved means of response to other and broader aspects of reality.

“On the basis of the new estimates of the great abundance of stars and the high probability of millions of planets with highly developed life, we are made aware – embarrassingly aware – that we may be intellectual minims in the life of the universe,” Shapley observes. “I could develop further this uncomfortable idea by pointing out that sense receptors, in quality quite unknown to us and in fact hardly imaginable, which record phenomena of which we are totally ignorant, may easily exist among the highly sentient organisms of other planets.”

Shapley concludes his stimulating essay on the relations of mankind to the expanding universe by inquiring into our chances of survival. He estimates that there is

“... less than one chance in a million for trouble with astronomical bodies, less than one in a thousand for serious difficulties with climates, volcanoes, world-wide floods, or dessications; and perhaps less than one in a hundred for planet-wide incurable disease.”

The gravest threat to the continued existence of homo sapiens does not come from nature. As a Humanist, Shapley makes mankind as a whole responsible for this situation. “He is his own worst enemy.” In reality, the culprit is one specific segment of our society, the imperialist planners of atomic warfare, who threaten us with annihilation. The human race is not contemplating suicide; it faces mass murder.

Have living beings elsewhere ever grappled with such a problem – and how did they solve it? Since they are unlikely to rush to our rescue in time, we shall have to settle it with our own forces and resources. Meanwhile, it is intellectually consoling to learn that, no matter what happens to the human experiment on this planet, life can rise up and move on in other regions of the universe.


Last updated on: 11.2.2006