Ve Sidra Magni, The Anthropocentric Principle - Ve Magni

The Anthropocentric Principle: relentlessly pursuing ourselves in space

Did you know there is at least one species confirmed to have survival skills in the micro-gravity vacuum of low Earth orbit? The humble tardigrade. I say “at least one species” because we’ve found one, and we haven’t tested many (not that we should be putting critters out into orbit).

After discovering one “nearly indestructible” species that can survive after being freeze-dried for 10 days in space, and being extremely surprised in the process, with the radiation at the very least expected to do the little buggers in, you’d think that the stance on other unsupported extraterrestrial survival of exotically adapted species would be “probably not, but who the hell knows”. But look at Popular Mechanics’ headline on the so called water bears’ trailblazing success: “Secrets of the Water Bear, the Only Animal That Can Survive in Space”

The only animal. The only animal. Not “the only animal so far”. Not “the only animal we know of”. The only animal.

Life is abundant on Earth. From the trees of lush rainforest canopies to frozen wastelands, life is everywhere around us. It’s so abundant, in fact, that every time scientists think they’ve found the limit of Earth’s abundance, another admittedly startling discovery is made in yet another improbable environment. The tardigrades survived in space, but well after that discovery was made, species were discovered at the bottom of the Mariana Trench and below the arctic ice shelf, two places that scientists say they would never have expected to find life.

When astronomers look at exoplanets and assess their potential for life, the criteria are that they must be within a “habitable zone” that allows for liquid water, they must be a certain size, must have a certain kind of star, must be rocky—basically, they must be Earth. But exactly how many extraterrestrial bodies have we examined for life? We’ve looked at the Moon, our tidally locked little rock buddy with no atmosphere, and Mars, a rocky planet without a real magnetosphere. But the other candidate in our system at the moment is Europa, one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons with a vast ocean kept liquid by tidal forces underneath its icy crust. It has some rockiness under all that water (way more water than Earth has), but is it in the habitable zone? Is it Earth-sized?

This article about Kepler-186f announces the glorious news that at last we have discovered an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a star! Its probable rocky composition makes it a likely candidate for the potential of maybe possibly being a place where life could be according to people who are still wrong on a regular basis about where life can exist upon Earth. But listen to the phenomenal hubris of this assessment:

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth. Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

You know of just one planet where life exists. You search for planets that look like Earth. You are searching for life that looks exactly like ours.

“We must be prepared to take into account the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.” – Brandon Carter

This is what I call the anthropocentric principle, my philosophical cousin of Brandon Carter’s anthropic principle, which I described in my “Wormholes, time warps, and anthropocentric dreams” post. The anthropic principle is a philosophical and mathematical principle suggesting that the universe must exist in a certain configuration to both allow for our sentient existence and the observations we make of it. My extension of it, the anthropocentric principle, is that our perception of the universe must exist in a certain configuration that allows ourselves to be at the center of the observations we make about everything around our existence.

In reality, life probably would exist wherever else it does in the universe whether or not Earth became the special little snowflake it did—one-thing-leads-to-anotherness of it all aside, if you took the matter in our solar system and reallocated it to other systems in our galaxy, I sincerely doubt the universe would be very different. But even putting that aside, why would anyone make a sweeping deterministic statement about where life can or can’t exist on planets in a vast—unbelievably, unknowably vast—universe when we can barely keep track of life on Earth aside from a pathological need to gratify our own importance? According to us, there shouldn’t be fish under the arctic ice shelf or at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. There shouldn’t be an animal that can survive dehydration in the vacuum of space for ten days, because we say so. But there they all are, not caring what we think.

Rocky planets a whole 40% larger than Earth have been discovered in the “habitable zones” of other stars, but it wasn’t big news the way this “Earth cousin” was. 40% larger? How could life possibly exist there? What madness, what insanity! Earth is only so big, and we live on it! Shouldn’t life be recognizable to us since we have eyeballs that see things a certain way? And shouldn’t we be able to recognize life in the dimensions we occupy, even if some theorists end up being correct about the larger number of dimensions of space? This anthropocentric principle is the real habitable zone, the narrow zone where our eyeballs and tools and ideas exist.

We’re tiny and extremely insignificant in this enormous universe, and yet even the people who should be most aware of that superlatively scientific fact still see themselves first in the mirrors of their telescopes. There may be any number of species out there doing the same and looking right past us.