“Even a simple single-cell bacteria or the equivalent of shower mold would shake perceptions about the uniqueness of life on earth.” So writes Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press concerning GJ581g, a newly discovered “Goldilocks planet.” This extra-solar-system planet is just the right distance from its sun, which is neither too hot nor too cold, and just the right size, neither too big nor too small, to hold an atmosphere and liquid water. This is the necessary environment for life as we know it to evolve. Like the life in the grout in my shower. It is an exciting prospect. This discovery suggests that other planets contain the right stuff for primordial soup, and the implication is, once again, that the earth must relinquish its place at the center of the known universe.
It is a curious notion that we share, quaintly parochial, that the earth is somehow special. The idea is an inherently religious one. Ancient peoples, beginning at least with the Sumerians, understood their world as apparent reality. The sky moves around us, not vice versa. Human beings, the apex of primate evolution, see the universe through self-crafted lenses. Lenses that we keep close to our eyes at all times. If there is life out there, and they come here, they will be the outsiders. We were here first. The Bible helps to shore up this homocentrism; the crowning achievement of divinity, according to Genesis 1, is us. Even scientists have long been reluctant to release the idea that we might just be one among many, a single, relatively common occurrence of life in a vast, indeed endless, universe.
Our species evolved as a religious one, feeling that God somehow gave us opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords for a reason. (Presumably because God has opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords.) From the very earliest of times we have considered ourselves unique on this planet and unique in this universe. Although reason has long suggested otherwise, and although scientists would often be the last to admit that it is a religious idea, we have grasped tightly to human singularity and defied the universe to prove us wrong. Once we actually discover that life out there, what will we do? If our past track record is any indication, we’ll head to that planet with Clorox in our hands and a divine mandate in our heads.