I have a test case that I’d like to get responses to, one that tests a certain kind of utilitarian intuition, mixed however, with an interesting conflating factor.
Suppose that the next generation of space telescopes will allow us to spot habitable worlds around quite a number of stars within, say, 100 light years of earth. Suppose that some of these will be around much smaller stars, whose lifespan could be up to 10 trillion years. That might be too small; life would work better around larger stars, with higher energy light and planets that are less likely to be tidally locked if in the habitable zone. So let’s imagine that we are concerned with planets that seem likely to stay in a habitable zone for 100 billion years up to a trillion years–a long time.
Now suppose that our biochemists come up with a formula for the building blocks for earth-style life such that, if unleashed in a planet with liquid water, we could be very confident that the most basic forms of life would start to grow there. Finally, suppose we could put these building blocks into canisters that would allow them to be sent out to these other planets. It would take a very long time. Suppose we can only get them sent off at something like .01% of the speed of light. Then a planet 50 light years away would not be reached for 500,000 years. Still, if we can get our aim right, and perhaps give it some ability to adjust course once out of the solar system, it would get there. Finally, suppose we could be confident that when it got there, the outer shell would burn off in the planet’s atmosphere, allowing the contents to spill into the planet’s air, land, and seas.
Evolution would then have a very long time to work its magic, and we might have good reason to believe that within some millions of years, multi-cellular life would form, and that life then would be off to the races, if it is not already doing fine before we try to seed it.
Would we want to do this? It is much more likely to work than sending humans off to find other habitable planets. If intelligent life can evolve here, we should expect that it can evolve elsewhere, at least if it starts from the same building blocks. Should this be an ethical imperative, because life is good? Or do we not really care about life in the abstract, and want only to preserve the sorts of life we have here on earth? OR–the confounding factor–do we worry that we would somehow be despoiling the universe with something akin to an invasive species?
I have my own inclinations on this, but I’d really like to hear what others have to say.2