Rare Earth hypothesis
In planetary astronomy and astrobiology, the Rare Earth Hypothesis argues that the origin of life and the evolution of biological complexity such as sexually reproducing, multicellular organisms on Earth (and, subsequently, human intelligence) required an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances. The hypothesis argues that complex extraterrestrial life is a very improbable phenomenon and likely to be extremely rare. The term "Rare Earth" originates from Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000), a book by Peter Ward, a geologist and paleontologist, and Donald E. Brownlee, an astronomer and astrobiologist, both faculty members at the University of Washington.
An alternative view point was argued in the 1970s & 1980s by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, among others. It holds that Earth is a typical rocky planet in a typical planetary system, located in a non-exceptional region of a common barred-spiral galaxy. Given the principle of mediocrity (in the same vein as the Copernican principle), it is probable that the universe teems with complex life. Ward and Brownlee argue to the contrary: that planets, planetary systems, and galactic regions that are as friendly to complex life as are the Earth, the Solar System, and our region of the Milky Way are very rare.
- 1 Rare Earth's requirements for complex life
- 1.1 The right location in the right kind of galaxy
- 1.2 Orbiting at the right distance from the right type of star
- 1.3 With the right arrangement of planets
- 1.4 A continuously stable orbit
- 1.5 A terrestrial planet of the right size
- 1.6 With plate tectonics
- 1.7 A large moon
- 1.8 Atmosphere
- 1.9 One or more evolutionary triggers for complex life
- 1.10 The right time in evolution
- 2 Rare Earth equation
- 3 Advocates
- 4 Criticism
- 4.1 Anthropic reasoning
- 4.2 Exoplanets around main sequence stars are being discovered in large numbers
- 4.3 Rocky planets orbiting within habitable zones may not be rare
- 4.4 Uncertainty over Jupiter's role
- 4.5 Plate tectonics may not be unique to Earth or a requirement for complex life
- 4.6 Free oxygen may neither be rare nor a prerequisite for multicellular life
- 4.7 A large moon may neither be rare nor necessary
- 4.8 Complex life may arise in alternative habitats
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Rare Earth's requirements for complex life
The Rare Earth hypothesis argues that the evolution of biological complexity requires a host of fortuitous circumstances, such as a galactic habitable zone, a central star and planetary system having the requisite character, the circumstellar habitable zone, a right sized terrestrial planet, the advantage of a gas giant guardian like Jupiter and a large natural satellite, conditions needed to ensure the planet has a magnetosphere and plate tectonics, the chemistry of the lithosphere, atmosphere, and oceans, the role of "evolutionary pumps" such as massive glaciation and rare bolide impacts, and whatever led to the appearance of the eukaryote cell, sexual reproduction and the Cambrian explosion of animal, plant, and fungi phyla. The evolution of human intelligence may have required yet further events, which are extremely unlikely to have happened were it not for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago which saw the decline of dinosaurs as the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.
In order for a small rocky planet to support complex life, Ward and Brownlee argue, the values of several variables must fall within narrow ranges. The universe is so vast that it could contain many Earth-like planets. But if such planets exist, they are likely to be separated from each other by many thousands of light years. Such distances may preclude communication among any intelligent species evolving on such planets, which would solve the Fermi paradox: "If extraterrestrial aliens are common, why aren't they obvious?"
The right location in the right kind of galaxy
Rare Earth suggests that much of the known universe, including large parts of our galaxy, cannot support complex life; Ward and Brownlee refer to such regions as "dead zones". Those parts of a galaxy where complex life is possible make up the galactic habitable zone. This zone is primarily a function of distance from the Galactic Center. As that distance increases:
- Star metallicity declines. Metals (which in astronomy means all elements other than hydrogen and helium) are necessary to the formation of terrestrial planets.
- The X-ray and gamma ray radiation from the black hole at the Galactic Center, and from nearby neutron stars, becomes less intense. Radiation of this nature is considered dangerous to complex life, hence the Rare Earth hypothesis predicts that the early universe, and galactic regions where stellar density is high and supernovae are common, will be unfit for the development of complex life.
- Gravitational perturbation of planets and planetesimals by nearby stars becomes less likely as the density of stars decreases. Hence the further a planet lies from the Galactic Center or a spiral arm, the less likely it is to be struck by a large bolide. A sufficiently large impact may extinguish all complex life on a planet.
Item #1 rules out the outer reaches of a galaxy; #2 and #3 rule out galactic inner regions. As one moves from the center of a galaxy to its furthest extremity, the ability to support life rises then falls. Hence the galactic habitable zone may be ring-shaped, sandwiched between its uninhabitable center and outer reaches.
While a planetary system may enjoy a location favorable to complex life, it must also maintain that location for a span of time sufficiently long for complex life to evolve. Hence a central star with a galactic orbit that steers clear of galactic regions where radiation levels are high, such as the Galactic Center and the spiral arms, would appear most favourable. If the central star's galactic orbit is eccentric (elliptic or hyperbolic), it will pass through some spiral arms, but if the orbit is a near perfect circle and the orbital velocity equals the "rotational" velocity of the spiral arms, the star will drift into a spiral arm region only gradually—if at all. Therefore, Rare Earth proponents conclude that a life-bearing star must have a galactic orbit that is nearly circular about the center of its galaxy. The required synchronization of the orbital velocity of a central star with the wave velocity of the spiral arms can occur only within a fairly narrow range of distances from the Galactic Center. This region is termed the "galactic habitable zone". Lineweaver et al. calculate that the galactic habitable zone is a ring 7 to 9 kiloparsecs in diameter, that includes no more than 10% of the stars in the Milky Way. Based on conservative estimates of the total number of stars in the galaxy, this could represent something like 20 to 40 billion stars. Gonzalez, et al. would halve these numbers; he estimates that at most 5% of stars in the Milky Way fall in the galactic habitable zone.
Approximately 77% of observed galaxies are spiral galaxies, two-thirds of all spiral galaxies are barred, and more than half, like the Milky Way, exhibit multiple arms. What makes our galaxy different, according to Rare Earth, is that it is unusually quiet and dim (see argument below), representing just 7% of its kind. Even so, this would still represent more than 200 billion galaxies in the known universe.
A reason that our galaxy is considered rare by Rare Earth is because it appears to have suffered fewer collisions with other galaxies over the last 10 billion years, and its peaceful history may have made it more hospitable to complex life than galaxies which have suffered more collisions, and consequently more supernovae and other disturbances. The level of activity of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way may also be important: too much or too little and the conditions for life may be even rarer. The Milky Way black hole appears to be just right. The orbit of the Sun around the center of the Milky Way is indeed almost perfectly circular, with a period of 226 Ma (1 Ma = 1 million years), one closely matching the rotational period of the galaxy. However, the majority of stars in barred spiral galaxies populate the spiral arms rather than the halo and tend to move in gravitationally aligned orbits, so there is little that is unusual about the Sun's orbit. While the Rare Earth hypothesis predicts that the Sun should rarely, if ever, have passed through a spiral arm since its formation, astronomer Karen Masters has calculated that the orbit of the Sun takes it through a major spiral arm approximately every 100 million years. Some researchers have suggested that several mass extinctions do correspond with previous crossings of the spiral arms.
Orbiting at the right distance from the right type of star
The terrestrial example suggests that complex life requires water in the liquid state, and a central star's planet must therefore be at an appropriate distance. This is the core of the notion of the habitable zone or Goldilocks Principle. The habitable zone forms a ring around the central star. If a planet orbits its sun too closely or too far away, the surface temperature is incompatible with water being in liquid form.
The habitable zone varies with the type and age of the central star. For advanced life the star must have a high degree of stability. Stars with an age of 4.6 billion years, middle star life, are at the most stable state. Proper metallicity and size are also very important to stability. The Sun has a low 0.1% solar luminosity variation. A solar twin star, would be a star with low luminosity variation. To date no solar twin with an exact match as that of the Sun has been found, however, there are some stars that come close to being identical. The star must have no stellar companions, other close by stars as in binary systems, would disrupt the orbits of planets. Estimates suggest that 50% or more of all star systems are binary systems. The habitable zone for a main sequence star very gradually moves out over time until the star becomes a white dwarf, at which time the habitable zone vanishes. The habitable zone is closely connected to the greenhouse warming afforded by atmospheric water vapor (H
2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and/or other greenhouse gases. Even though the Earth's atmosphere contains a water vapor concentration from 0% (in arid regions) to 4% (in rain forest and ocean regions) and -as of June 2013- only 400 parts per million of CO2, these small amounts suffice to raise the average surface temperature of the Earth by about 40 °C from what it would otherwise be, with the dominant contribution being due to water vapor, which together with clouds makes up between 66% and 85% of Earth's greenhouse effect, with CO2 contributing between 9% and 26% of the effect.
- Rocky planets that form too close to the star to lie within the habitable zone cannot sustain life. Hot stars also emit much more ultraviolet radiation that ionizes any planetary atmosphere.
- Hot stars, as mentioned above, may become red giants before advanced life evolves on their planets.
Small red dwarf stars conversely have small habitable zones wherein planets are in tidal lock—one side always faces the star and becomes very hot and the other always faces away and becomes very cold—and are also at increased risk of solar flares (see Aurelia) that would tend to ionize the atmosphere and be otherwise inimical to complex life. Rare Earth proponents argue that life therefore cannot arise in such systems and that only central stars that range from F7 to K1 stars are hospitable. Such stars are rare: G type stars such as the Sun (between the hotter F and cooler K) comprise only 9% of the hydrogen-burning stars in the Milky Way.
Such aged stars as red giants and white dwarfs are also unlikely to support life. Red giants are common in globular clusters and elliptical galaxies. White dwarfs are mostly dying stars that have already completed their red giant phase. Stars that become red giants expand into or overheat the habitable zones of their youth and middle age (though theoretically planets at a much greater distance may become habitable).
An energy output that varies with the lifetime of the star will very likely prevent life (e.g., as Cepheid variables). A sudden decrease, even if brief, may freeze the water of orbiting planets, and a significant increase may evaporate them and cause a greenhouse effect that may prevent the oceans from reforming.
Life without complex chemistry is unknown. Such chemistry requires metals, namely elements other than hydrogen or helium and thereby suggests that a planetary system rich in metals is a necessity for life. The absorption spectrum of a star reveals the presence of metals within, and studies of stellar spectra reveal that many, perhaps most, stars are poor in metals. Because heavy metals originate in supernova explosions, metallicity increases in the universe over time. Low metallicity characterizes the early universe: globular clusters and other stars that formed when the universe was young, stars in most galaxies other than large spirals, and stars in the outer regions of all galaxies. Metal-rich central stars capable of supporting complex life are therefore believed to be most common in the quiet suburbs[vague] of the larger spiral galaxies—where radiation also happens to be weak.
With the right arrangement of planets
Rare Earth proponents argue that a planetary system capable of sustaining complex life must be structured more or less like the Solar System, with small and rocky inner planets and outer gas giants. Without the protection of 'celestial vacuum cleaner' planets with strong gravitational pull, the number of asteroid collisions may have been larger, and a greater number of mass extinction events may have occurred.
Observations of exo-planets have shown that arrangements of planets similar to the solar system are rare. Most planetary systems have super Earths, several times larger than Earth, close to their star, whereas the Solar System's inner region is depleted in mass with small rocky planets and none inside Mercury's orbit. Only 10% of stars have giant planets similar to Jupiter and Saturn, and those few rarely have stable nearly circular orbits distant from their star. Konstantin Batygin and colleagues argue that these features can be explained if, early in the history of the Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn drifted towards the Sun, sending showers of planetisimals towards the super Earths which sent them spiralling into the Sun, and ferrying icy building blocks into the terrestrial region of the Solar System which provided the building blocks for the rocky planets. The two giant planets then drifted out again to their present position. However, in the view of Batygin and his colleagues: "The concatenation of chance events required for this delicate choreography suggest that small, Earth-like rocky planets - and perhaps life itself - could be rare throughout the cosmos."
A continuously stable orbit
Rare Earth argues that a gas giant must not be too close to a body where life is developing. Close placement of gas giant(s) could disrupt the orbit of a potential life-bearing planet, either directly or by drifting into the habitable zone.
The need for stable orbits rules out stars with systems of planets that contain large planets with orbits close to the host star (called "hot Jupiters"). It is believed that hot Jupiters formed much further from their parent stars than they are now (see planetary migration), and have migrated inwards to their current orbits. In the process, they would have catastrophically disrupted the orbits of any planets in the habitable zone. To exacerbate matters, Hot Jupiters are much more common orbiting F and G class stars.
A terrestrial planet of the right size
It is argued that life requires terrestrial planets like Earth and as gas giants lack such a surface, that complex life cannot arise there.
A planet that is too small cannot hold much of an atmosphere. Hence the surface temperature becomes more variable and the average temperature drops. Substantial and long-lasting oceans become impossible. A small planet will also tend to have a rough surface, with large mountains and deep canyons. The core will cool faster, and plate tectonics will either not last as long as they would on a larger planet or may not occur at all. A planet that is too large will retain too much of its atmosphere and will be like Venus. Venus is similar in size and mass to Earth, but has a surface atmosphere pressure that is 92 times that of Earth's. Venus mean surface temperature is 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F) making Venus the hottest planet in the Solar System. Earth had a similar early atmosphere to Venus, but lost it in the giant impact event.
With plate tectonics
Rare Earth proponents argue that plate tectonics and a large magnetic field are essential for the emergence and sustenance of complex life. Ward and Brownlee assert that biodiversity, global temperature regulation, the carbon cycle, and the magnetic field of the Earth that make it habitable for complex terrestrial life all depend on plate tectonics.
Ward and Brownlee contend that the lack of mountain chains elsewhere in the Solar System is direct evidence that Earth is the only body with plate tectonics and as such the only body capable of supporting life.
Plate tectonics is dependent on chemical composition and a long-lasting source of heat in the form of radioactive decay occurring deep in the planet's interior. Continents must also be made up of less dense felsic rocks that "float" on underlying denser mafic rock. Taylor emphasizes that subduction zones (an essential part of plate tectonics) require the lubricating action of ample water; on Earth, such zones exist only at the bottom of oceans.
Ward and Brownlee and others such as Tilman Spohn of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research argue that plate tectonics provides a means of biochemical cycling which promotes complex life on Earth and that water is required to lubricate planetary plates.
Plate tectonics and as a result continental drift and the creation of separate land masses would create diversified ecosystems which is thought to have promoted the diversification of species, and that diversity is one of the strongest defences against extinction.
An example of species diversification and later competition on Earth's continents is the Great American Interchange. This was the result of the tectonically induced connection between North and Middle America with the South American continent, at around 3.5 to 3 Ma. The previously undisturbed fauna of South America could evolve in their own way for about 30 million years, since Antarctica separated. Many species were subsequently wiped out in mainly South America by competing Northern American animals.
A large moon
The giant impact theory hypothesizes that the Moon resulted from the impact of a Mars-sized body, Theia, with the very young Earth. This giant impact also gave the Earth its axial tilt and velocity of rotation. Rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature and makes photosynthesis viable. The Rare Earth hypothesis further argues that the axial tilt cannot be too large or too small (relative to the orbital plane). A planet with a large tilt (inclination) will experience extreme seasonal variations in climate, unfriendly to complex life. A planet with little or no tilt will lack the stimulus to evolution that climate variation provides. In this view, the Earth's tilt is "just right". The gravity of a large satellite also stabilizes the planet's tilt; without this effect the variation in tilt would be chaotic, probably making complex life forms on land impossible.
If the Earth had no Moon, the ocean tides resulting solely from the Sun's gravity would be only half that of the lunar tides. A large satellite gives rise to tidal pools, which may be essential for the formation of complex life, though this is far from certain.
A large satellite also increases the likelihood of plate tectonics through the effect of tidal forces on the planet's crust. The impact that formed the Moon may also have initiated plate tectonics, without which the continental crust would cover the entire planet, leaving no room for oceanic crust. It is possible that the large scale mantle convection needed to drive plate tectonics could not have emerged in the absence of crustal inhomogeneity.
If a giant impact is the only way for a rocky inner planet to acquire a large satellite, any planet in the circumstellar habitable zone will need to form as a double planet in order that there be an impacting object sufficiently massive to give rise in due course to a large satellite. An impacting object of this nature is not necessarily improbable.
A terrestrial planet of the right size is needed to retain an atmosphere, like Earth and Venus. On Earth, once the giant impact of Theia thinned Earth's Atmosphere other events were needed to make the atmosphere capable of sustaining life for a long time span. On Earth the Late Heavy Bombardment reseeded Earth with water lost after the impact of Theia. The development of an ozone layer formed protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide are needed in a correct ratio for life to form. Nitrogen is needed for amino and nucleic acids. Lightning is needed for nitrogen fixation to happen. The carbon dioxide gas needed for life comes from sources such as volcanoes and geysers. Carbon dioxide is only needed at low levels, in Earth's atmosphere it is at 0.04 percent (400 ppm) by volume of the atmosphere. At high levels carbon dioxide is poisonous. Precipitation is needed to have a stable water cycle. A proper atmosphere must reduce temperature extremes between day and night (the diurnal temperature variation).
One or more evolutionary triggers for complex life
Regardless of whether planets with similar physical attributes to the Earth are rare or not, some argue that life usually remains simple bacteria. Biochemist Nick Lane argues that simple cells (prokaryotes) emerged soon after Earth's formation, but since almost half the planet's life had passed before they evolved into complex ones (eukaryotes) all of whom share a common ancestor, this event can only have happened once. In some views, prokaryotes lack the cellular architecture to evolve into eukaryotes because a bacterium expanded up to eukaryotic proportions would have tens of thousands of times less energy available; two billion years ago, one simple cell incorporated itself into another, multiplied, and evolved into mitochondria that supplied the vast increase in available energy that enabled the evolution of complex life. If this incorporation occurred only once in four billion years or is otherwise unlikely, then life on most planets remains simple. An alternative view is that mitochondria evolution was environmentally triggered, and that mitochondria-containing organisms appear very soon after first traces of oxygen appear in Earth's atmosphere.
The evolution of sexual reproduction as well as its maintenance, is another mystery in biology. The purpose of sexual reproduction is unclear, as in many organisms it has a 50% cost (ﬁtness disadvantage) in relation to asexual reproduction. Mating types (types of gametes, according to their compatibility) may have arisen as a result of anisogamy (gamete dimorphism), or the male and female genders may have evolved before anisogamy. It is also unknown why most sexual organisms use a binary mating system, and why some organisms have gamete dimorphism. Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that sexual selection drives speciation (the formation of species); without sexual reproduction it is unlikely that complex life would have evolved.
The right time in evolution
While life on Earth is regarded to have spawned relatively early in the planet's history, the evolution from multicellular to intelligent organisms took around 800 million years. Civilizations on Earth have existed for about 12,000 years and radio communication reaching space has existed for less than 100 years. Relative to the age of the Solar System (~4.57 Ga) this is a tiny age span, an age span in which extreme climatic variations, super volcanoes or large meteorite impacts were absent. These events would severely harm intelligent life, as well as life in general. For example, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, caused by widespread and continuous volcanic eruptions in an area the size of Western Europe, led to the extinction of 95% of known species around 251.2 Ma ago. About 65 million years ago, the Chicxulub impact at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (~65.5 Ma) on the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico led to a mass extinction of the most advanced species at that time.
If intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations did exist and with such an intelligence level that they could make contact with distant Earth, they would have to live in the same time span in evolution. The nearest Earth-like planets are around 4.2 light years away; probable planets as Proxima Centauri b around the star Proxima Centauri, a star considered to be 4.65 Ga; 0.15 billion years older than the Sun.
Under the assumption that both the explosion of life and the development of civilization were to be relative to the planet's age, they would have spawned 723 Ma and 12.691 ka, respectively. The time between the life explosion if that had existed on an exoplanet and the dawn of civilizations is thus very large and the time between civilization and radio signals evenly so.
The chance of bigger impacts in the time span of evolution to intelligent life depends on the amount of shielding by larger bodies, such as our system's Jupiter or the Moon. The chance of a large impact and resulting mass extinction happening in a multi-planetary "protected" system is, however, impossible to predict.
Rare Earth equation
The following discussion is adapted from Cramer. The Rare Earth equation is Ward and Brownlee's riposte to the Drake equation. It calculates , the number of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way having complex life forms, as:
- N* is the number of stars in the Milky Way. This number is not well-estimated, because the Milky Way's mass is not well estimated. Moreover, there is little information about the number of very small stars. N* is at least 100 billion, and may be as high as 500 billion, if there are many low visibility stars.
- is the average number of planets in a star's habitable zone. This zone is fairly narrow, because constrained by the requirement that the average planetary temperature be consistent with water remaining liquid throughout the time required for complex life to evolve. Thus = 1 is a likely upper bound.
We assume . The Rare Earth hypothesis can then be viewed as asserting that the product of the other nine Rare Earth equation factors listed below, which are all fractions, is no greater than 10−10 and could plausibly be as small as 10−12. In the latter case, could be as small as 0 or 1. Ward and Brownlee do not actually calculate the value of , because the numerical values of quite a few of the factors below can only be conjectured. They cannot be estimated simply because we have but one data point: the Earth, a rocky planet orbiting a G2 star in a quiet suburb of a large barred spiral galaxy, and the home of the only intelligent species we know, namely ourselves.
- is the fraction of stars in the galactic habitable zone (Ward, Brownlee, and Gonzalez estimate this factor as 0.1).
- is the fraction of stars in the Milky Way with planets.
- is the fraction of planets that are rocky ("metallic") rather than gaseous.
- is the fraction of habitable planets where microbial life arises. Ward and Brownlee believe this fraction is unlikely to be small.
- is the fraction of planets where complex life evolves. For 80% of the time since microbial life first appeared on the Earth, there was only bacterial life. Hence Ward and Brownlee argue that this fraction may be very small.
- is the fraction of the total lifespan of a planet during which complex life is present. Complex life cannot endure indefinitely, because the energy put out by the sort of star that allows complex life to emerge gradually rises, and the central star eventually becomes a red giant, engulfing all planets in the planetary habitable zone. Also, given enough time, a catastrophic extinction of all complex life becomes ever more likely.
- is the fraction of habitable planets with a large moon. If the giant impact theory of the Moon's origin is correct, this fraction is small.
- is the fraction of planetary systems with large Jovian planets. This fraction could be large.
- is the fraction of planets with a sufficiently low number of extinction events. Ward and Brownlee argue that the low number of such events the Earth has experienced since the Cambrian explosion may be unusual, in which case this fraction would be small.
The Rare Earth equation, unlike the Drake equation, does not factor the probability that complex life evolves into intelligent life that discovers technology (Ward and Brownlee are not evolutionary biologists). Barrow and Tipler review the consensus among such biologists that the evolutionary path from primitive Cambrian chordates, e.g., Pikaia to Homo sapiens, was a highly improbable event. For example, the large brains of humans have marked adaptive disadvantages, requiring as they do an expensive metabolism, a long gestation period, and a childhood lasting more than 25% of the average total life span. Other improbable features of humans include:
- Being one of a handful of extant bipedal land (non-avian) vertebrate. Combined with an unusual eye–hand coordination, this permits dextrous manipulations of the physical environment with the hands;
- A vocal apparatus far more expressive than that of any other mammal, enabling speech. Speech makes it possible for humans to interact cooperatively, to share knowledge, and to acquire a culture;
- The capability of formulating abstractions to a degree permitting the invention of mathematics, and the discovery of science and technology. Only recently did humans acquire anything like their current scientific and technological sophistication.
Authors that advocate the Rare Earth hypothesis:
- Stuart Ross Taylor, a specialist on the Solar System, firmly believes in the hypothesis. Taylor concludes that the Solar System is probably very unusual, because it resulted from so many chance factors and events.
- Stephen Webb, a physicist, mainly presents and rejects candidate solutions for the Fermi paradox. The Rare Earth hypothesis emerges as one of the few solutions left standing by the end of the book.
- Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist, endorses the Rare Earth hypothesis in chapter 5 of his Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, and cites Ward and Brownlee's book with approval.
- John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (1986. 3.2, 8.7, 9), cosmologists, vigorously defend the hypothesis that humans are likely to be the only intelligent life in the Milky Way, and perhaps the entire universe. But this hypothesis is not central to their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a very thorough study of the anthropic principle, and of how the laws of physics are peculiarly suited to enable the emergence of complexity in nature.
- Ray Kurzweil, a computer pioneer and self-proclaimed Singularitarian, argues in The Singularity Is Near that the coming Singularity requires that Earth be the first planet on which sentient, technology-using life evolved. Although other Earth-like planets could exist, Earth must be the most evolutionarily advanced, because otherwise we would have seen evidence that another culture had experienced the Singularity and expanded to harness the full computational capacity of the physical universe.
- John Gribbin, a prolific science writer, defends the hypothesis in a book devoted to it called Alone in the Universe: Why our planet is unique.
- Guillermo Gonzalez, astrophysicist who coined the term galactic habitable zone uses the hypothesis in his book The Privileged Planet to promote the concept of intelligent design.
- Michael H. Hart, astrophysicist who proposed a very narrow habitable zone based on climate studies, edited the influential book "Extraterrestrials: Where are They" and authored one of its chapters "Atmospheric Evolution, the Drake Equation and DNA: Sparse Life in an Infinite Universe".
- Howard Alan Smith, PhD., astrophysicist and author of 'Let there be light: modern cosmology and Kabbalah: a new conversation between science and religion'.
Cases against the Rare Earth Hypothesis take various forms.
The hypothesis concludes, more or less, that complex life is rare because it can evolve only on the surface of an Earth-like planet or on a suitable satellite of a planet. Some biologists, such as Jack Cohen, believe this assumption too restrictive and unimaginative; they see it as a form of circular reasoning.
According to David Darling, the Rare Earth hypothesis is neither hypothesis nor prediction, but merely a description of how life arose on Earth. In his view Ward and Brownlee have done nothing more than select the factors that best suit their case.
What matters is not whether there's anything unusual about the Earth; there's going to be something idiosyncratic about every planet in space. What matters is whether any of Earth's circumstances are not only unusual but also essential for complex life. So far we've seen nothing to suggest there is.
Exoplanets around main sequence stars are being discovered in large numbers
An increasing number of extrasolar planet discoveries are being made with 3,608 planets in 2,702 planetary systems known.[when?] Rare Earth proponents argue life cannot arise outside Sun-like systems. However, some exobiologists have suggested that stars outside this range may give rise to life under the right circumstances; this possibility is a central point of contention to the theory because these late-K and M category stars make up about 82% of all hydrogen-burning stars.
Current technology limits the testing of important Rare Earth Criteria: surface water, tectonic plates, a large moon and biosignatures are currently undetectable. Though planets the size of Earth are difficult to detect and classify, scientists now think that rocky planets are common around Sun-like stars. The Earth Similarity Index (ESI) of mass, radius and temperature provides a means of measurement, but falls short of the full Rare Earth criteria.
Rocky planets orbiting within habitable zones may not be rare
Some argue that Rare Earth's estimates of rocky planets in habitable zones ( in the Rare Earth equation) are too restrictive. James Kasting cites the Titius-Bode law to contend that it is a misnomer to describe habitable zones as narrow when there is a 50% chance of at least one planet orbiting within one. In 2013 a study that was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated that about "one in five" of all sun-like stars are expected to have earthlike planets "within the habitable zones of their stars"; 8.8 billion of them therefore exist in the Milky Way galaxy alone. On 4 November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of sun-like stars and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. 11 billion of these estimated planets may be orbiting sun-like stars.
Uncertainty over Jupiter's role
The requirement for a system to have a Jovian planet as protector (Rare Earth equation factor ) has been challenged and this has a bearing on the number of proposed extinction events (Rare Earth equation factor ). Kasting's 2001 review of Rare Earth questions whether a Jupiter protector has any bearing on the frequency of complex life. Computer modelling including the 2005 Nice model and 2007 Nice 2 model yield inconclusive results in relation to Jupiter's gravitational influence and impacts on the inner planets. A study by Horner and Jones (2008) using computer simulation found that while the total effect on all orbital bodies within the Solar System is unclear, Jupiter has caused more impacts on Earth than it has prevented. Lexell's Comet, a 1770 near miss that passed closer to Earth than any other comet in recorded history, was known to be caused by the gravitational influence of Jupiter. Grazier (2017) claims that the idea of Jupiter as a shield is a misinterpretation of a 1996 study by George Wetherill, and using computer models Grazier was able to demonstrate that Saturn protects Earth from more asteroids and comets than does Jupiter.
Plate tectonics may not be unique to Earth or a requirement for complex life
Ward and Brownlee argue that tectonics is necessary to support biogeochemical cycles required for complex life to arise and predicted that such geological features would not be found outside of Earth, pointing to a lack of observable orogenic evidence, specifically in the form of mountain ranges and subduction zones. There is, however, no scientific consensus on the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth. Though it is believed that tectonic motion first began around three billion years ago, by this time photosynthesis and oxygenation had already begun. Furthermore, recent studies point to plate tectonics as an episodic planetary phenomenon, and that life may evolve during periods of "stagnant-lid" rather than plate tectonic states.
Recent evidence also points to similar activity either having occurred or continuing to occur elsewhere. The geology of Pluto, for example, described by Ward and Brownlee as "without mountains or volcanoes ... devoid of volcanic activity", has since been found to be quite the contrary, with a geologically active surface possessing organic molecules and mountain ranges like Norgay Montes and Hillary Montes comparable in relative size to those of Earth, and observations suggest the involvement of endogenic processes. Plate tectonics has been suggested as a hypothesis for the Martian dichotomy and in 2012 Geologist An Yin put forward evidence for active plate tectonics on Mars. Europa has long been suspected to have plate tectonics and in 2014 NASA announced evidence of active subduction. In 2017, scientists studying the Geology of Charon confirmed that icy plate tectonics also operated on Pluto's largest moon.
Kasting suggests that there is nothing unusual about the occurrence of plate tectonics in large rocky planets and liquid water on the surface as most should generate internal heat even without the assistance of radioactive elements. Studies by Valencia and Cowan suggest that plate tectonics may be inevitable for terrestrial planets Earth sized or larger, that is, Super-Earths, which are now known to be more common in planetary systems.
Free oxygen may neither be rare nor a prerequisite for multicellular life
The hypothesis that molecular oxygen, necessary for animal life to exist is rare and that a Great Oxygenation Event (a condition for Rare Earth equation factor ), could only have been triggered and sustained by tectonics as occurred on Earth, appears to have been invalidated by more recent discoveries.
Ward and Brownlee ask "whether oxygenation, and hence the rise of animals, would ever have occurred on a world where there were no continents to erode". Extraterrestrial free oxygen has recently been detected around other solid objects, including Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter's four Galilean moons, Saturn's moons Enceladus, Dione and Rhea and even the atmosphere of a comet. This has led scientists to speculate whether processes other than photosynthesis could be capable of generating an environment rich in free oxygen. Wordsworth (2014) concludes that oxygen generated other than through photodissociation may be likely on Earth-like exoplanets, and could actually lead to false positive detections of life. Narita (2015) suggests Titania as a geochemical mechanism for producing oxygen atmospheres.
Since Ward & Brownlee's assertion that "there is irrefutable evidence that oxygen is a necessary ingredient for animal life", anaerobic metazoa have been found that indeed do metabolise without oxygen. Spinoloricus nov. sp., for example, a species discovered in the hypersaline anoxic L'Atalante basin at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in 2010, appears to metabolise with hydrogen, lacking mitochondria and instead using hydrogenosomes. Stevenson (2015) has proposed other membrane alternatives for complex life in worlds without oxygen. Independent studies by Schirrmeister and by Mills concluded that Earth's multicellular life existed prior to the Great Oxygenation Event, not as a consequence of it.
NASA scientists Hartman and McKay argue that plate tectonics may in fact slow the rise of oxygenation (and thus stymie complex life rather than promote it). Computer modelling by Tilman Spohn in 2014 found that plate tectonics on Earth may have arisen from the effects of complex life's emergence, rather than the other way around as the Rare Earth might suggest. The action of lichens on rock may have contributed to the formation of subduction zones in the presence of water. Kasting argues that if oxygenation caused the Cambrian explosion then any planet with oxygen producing photosynthesis should have complex life.
A magnetic field may not be a requirement
The importance of Earth's magnetic field to the development of complex life has been disputed. Kasting argues that the atmosphere provides sufficient protection against cosmic rays even during times of magnetic pole reversal and atmosphere loss by sputtering. Kasting also dismisses the role of the magnetic field in the evolution of eukaryotes citing the age of the oldest known magnetofossils.
A large moon may neither be rare nor necessary
The requirement of a large moon (Rare Earth equation factor ) has also been challenged. Though even if it were required, such an occurrence may not be as unique as predicted by the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Recent work by Edward Belbruno and J. Richard Gott of Princeton University suggests that giant impacts such as those that may have formed the Moon can indeed form in planetary trojan points (L4 or L5 Lagrangian point) which means that similar circumstances may occur in other planetary systems.
Rare Earth's assertion that the Moon's stabilization of Earth's obliquity and spin is a requirement for complex life has been questioned. Kasting argues that a moonless Earth would still possess habitats with climates suitable for complex life and questions whether the spin rate of a moonless Earth can be predicted. Although the giant impact theory posits that the impact forming the Moon increased Earth's rotational speed to make a day about 5 hours long, the Moon has slowly "stolen" much of this speed to reduce Earth's solar day since then to about 24 hours and continues to do so: in 100 million years Earth's solar day will be roughly 24 hours 38 minutes (the same as Mars's solar day); in 1 billion years, 30 hours 23 minutes. Larger secondary bodies would exert proportionally larger tidal forces that would in turn decelerate their primaries faster and potentially increase the solar day of a planet in all other respects like earth to over 120 hours within a few billion years. This long solar day would make effective heat dissipation for organisms in the tropics and subtropics extremely difficult in a similar manner to tidal locking to a red dwarf star. Short days (high rotation speed) causes high wind speeds at ground level. Long days (slow rotation speed) cause the day and night temperatures to be too extreme.
Many Rare Earth proponents argue that the Earth's plate tectonics would probably not exist if not for the tidal forces of the Moon. The hypothesis that the Moon's tidal influence initiated or sustained Earth's plate tectonics remains unproven, though at least one study implies a temporal correlation to the formation of the Moon. Evidence for the past existence of plate tectonics on planets like Mars which may never have had a large moon would counter this argument. Kasting argues that a large moon is not required to initiate plate tectonics.
Complex life may arise in alternative habitats
Rare Earth proponents argue that simple life may be common, though complex life requires specific environmental conditions to arise. Critics consider life could arise on a moon of a gas giant, however the requirements and their complexity increase rather, if volcanicity is absolutely required for life. The moon must have stresses to induce tidal heating, but not so dramatic as seen on Jupiter's Io. The paradox here is the moon is within the gas giant's intense radiation belts, sterilizing any biodiversity before it can get established. Dirk Schulze-Makuch argues that there is no evidence to support this conclusion, hypothesizing alternative biochemistries as a method for complex life to arise in completely alien conditions. While Rare Earth proponents argue that only microbial extremophiles could exist in subsurface habitats beyond Earth, some argue that complex life can also arise in these environments. Examples of extremophile animals such as the Hesiocaeca methanicola, an animal that inhabits ocean floor methane clathrates substances more commonly found in the outer Solar System, the Tardigrade which can survive in the vacuum of space or Halicephalobus mephisto which exists in crushing pressure, scorching temperatures and extremely low oxygen levels 3.6 kilometres deep in the Earth's crust, are sometimes cited by critics as complex life capable of thriving in "alien" environments. Jill Tarter counters the classic counterargument that these species adapted to these environments rather than arose in them, by suggesting that we cannot assume conditions for life to emerge which are not actually known. There are suggestions that complex life could arise in sub-surface conditions which may be similar to those where life may have arisen on Earth, such as the tidally heated subsurfaces of Europa or Enceladus. Ancient circumvental ecosystems such as these support complex life on Earth such as Riftia pachyptila that exist completely independent of the surface biosphere.
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