“Local” in a Cosmological Sense

9 June 2013


The Conceptual Problem of Earth-Originating

LocalSupercluster we are here

Biota, Intelligence, Civilization, and Institutions

There is a subtle conceptual problem involved in identifying earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions and their long-term, large-scale development. If industrial-technological civilization continues in its trajectory of development, we can expect our species and our civilization will spread throughout our solar system and eventually to other star systems. By now, this is an idea familiar to everyone. When earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions are found on other planets of our solar system, in built environments orbiting planets or the sun, or throughout other planetary systems of other stars, what will we call ourselves and our civilization?

You are here galaxies

That is just the beginning of the potential complexities. As earth-originating species and institutions spread across the galaxy, this cosmological expansion will constitute an adaptive radiation of an order of magnitude beyond any adaptive radiation that took place on Earth, when all earth-originating biota were confined to Earth. An adaptive radiation of such magnitude will likely mean changes of a proportional magnitude. This proportional magnitude will involve not only expansion in space but also expansion in time. Adaptive radiation may take advantage of the time-dilation properties of a relativistic universe, distributing organisms or institutions across both time and space. This latter form of adaptive radiation, when the institution concerned is civilization, I have called a temporally distributed civilization (cf. Spacetime Constraints and Possibilities). In the same spirit we might speak of temporally distributed species, intelligence, and institutions.

Earth-originating life and its corollaries (for intelligence, civilization, and institutions are corollaries of life), once established off the surface of the earth, i.e., once established extraterrestrially, becomes extraterrestrial life even though it is earth-originating. Moreover, given the spatiotemporal scale of the universe, earth-originating life that expands extraterrestrially will rapidly adapt itself to local conditions, undergoing adaptive radiation. As a consequence, this extraterrestrial earth-originating life (and its corollaries) will come to differ from the earth-originating biota that has remained on the earth, even as this life that has remained on the earth has itself continued to evolve and therefore differs both from extraterrestrial earth-originating life as well as the earth-originating life that was the common ancestor of both.

Milky Way poster

It is even possible that earth-originating life might expand in cosmological-scale adaptive radiation, some great catastrophe could subsequently befall life throughout our galaxy (such as a massive gamma ray burst from the supernova), sterilizing most of the living worlds, after which life would again expand into the galaxy from its remaining protected niches, perhaps even returning to a sterilized earth. Is this, then, terrestrial life, or extraterrestrial life? It is easy to see how we might dramatically multiply our terminology at this point. There will be Earth-originating biota (EOB), Earth-originating civilization (EOC), extraterrestrially-originating biota (ExOB), extraterrestrially-originating civilization (ExOC), and so forth. Is this helpful? Does it matter? Well, the particular label we use to describe life and its vicissitudes doesn’t matter, but what does matter is the natural history of life, and when life attains the capability of projecting itself over cosmological distances, the natural history of life will involve just such cosmological considerations as I have recounted here. Natural history will become cosmological history, and astrophysics will be as relevant to life and civilization as is geography to geocentric life and civilization.

Milky Way Orion Spur you are here

I have worked on a variety of terms to try to accurately express the large scale structure of life in the cosmos, and most of my formulations to date have been unsatisfying. I have expressed the idea of the origin of life and civilization as eobiology (following Joshua Lederberg, the prefix “eo” means early, so “early biology” or the origins of life — cf. Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-) and eocivilization (by analogy with eobiology — also cf. The Terrestrial Eocivilization Thesis). I have expressed the idea of non-terrestrial civilizations as exocivilization (cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations). One way to express the idea of earth-originating biota, intelligence, civilization, and institutions would be with the term terragenic. While “terragenic” is not a particularly attractive word, it does communicate the meaning I would like to convey in an intuitively accessible fashion. Also, it immediately suggests its complementary term, which is a much more satisfying word: xenogenic.

Earth is the locus of all that we know of life, civilization, and technology in the cosmos. In other words, all known life is terragenic; all known civilization is terragenic; all known technology is terragenic. We could narrow the focus a bit more and note that all known civilization is anthropogenic and most known technology is anthropogenic (as I observed in The Genealogy of the Technium, there are instances of terragenic non-human technology in the form of non-human animal tool use), with the human beings responsible for these anthropogenic creations themselves being terragenic. All of this is true at this early point in the history of humanity and its civilization, but this will not always be the case. The adaptive radiation of life into the cosmos will mean that the terrestrial origins of life, intelligence, civilization, and institutions may become clouded in a distant and complex past in which life and its corollaries emerge, expand, adaptively radiate, are extirpated, and re-emerge and re-adapt from sources of life no longer terrestrial.

We are now in a position to make the necessarily distinctions between terragenic exocivilizations and xenogenic exocivilizations, or even terragenic astrocivilization and xenogenic astrocivilization. For example, a xenogenic terrestrial civilization would be the result of alien invasion and extirpation of human beings in order to build their own civilization on Earth. All of these terms might be useful and accurate, but until we have dramatic examples before our minds to fill in this schematically formulated concepts they will seem a bit empty and artificial. This is not real objection except for our intuition.

One way to express the earth-originating character of all known life and its corollaries and to project this on cosmological scales would be to adopt the word “local” as it is employed in cosmology. In astronomy and cosmology there is a use of the word “local” that is both revealing and instructive. “Local” is what includes us — like the local group of galaxies or the local cluster of galaxies — while that which is non-local does not include us. When astronomers mention the “local group,” the “local cluster,” or the “local supercluster,” they are talking about, respectively, the group of galaxies that include our Milky Way, the cluster of galaxies that includes our Milky Way galaxy, and the supercluster that includes our own Milky Way galaxy. By analogy and extension, we can easily understand “local life,” “local intelligence,” “local civilization,” and “local institutions.”

It is often said today that, “Galaxies are the building blocks of the Universe.” I’m certain that this has been repeated by many cosmologists; I don’t know who originated the line, but it can be found, for example, as the first sentence of Carlton Baugh’s review of The Road to Galaxy Formation by William C. Keel (Nature 421, 791-792, 20 February 2003). Our local galaxy may prove to be be source and origin of life, mind, intelligence, technology, civilization, and institutions for the cosmos at large, in which case the petty distinctions we will make as earth-originating life makes itself at home in our local galaxy will come to mean but little in the long term. In this case, the only sense of “local” that will really matter is that of our “local galaxy.” Thus the Milky Way become not merely a building block but the foundation stone of a universe of life and its corollaries.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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