We ain’t alone, on Earth (probably)

Man has always been fascinated with the idea of there being other forms of life in the vastness of space, and from the middle of the 20th century, we have been relentlessly searching for extra-terrestrial life. Scientists have spent years searching for life in space, making postulate after postulate, sending outmanned and un-manned space crafts, and collecting and analyzing tons of data. What if what we have spent decades and billions of dollars searching for in vain is actually right here, right under our nose? What if there was another form of intelligent life, right here on earth, unknown, unseen, undiscovered?

About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by its oceans. The oceans span 360 square kilometers of the earth’s surface and the deepest point in the oceans is estimated to be over 10 kilometers deep. Look at it this way: if you were to drop Everest into the ocean at this point, there would still be loads of space left over for a sky-scrapper at its top. Marine life displays a wider diversity than terrestrial life, and the classification system for marine life requires broader categories than terrestrial life does and contains more phyla. In fact, 30 of the 33 phyla that make up the kingdom Animalia describe marine life, and 15 of those 30 phyla are exclusive to marine life (Nybakken & Webster, 1998). This led scientists to conclude that life on earth started from the ocean and then evolved into different species as influenced by the environment. Life started out in the ocean roughly 3 billion years ago, and terrestrials didn’t come into the picture until 400 million years ago (Benchley & Gradwohl, 1995), making terrestrials “pretty young things” compared to the ocean dwellers.

Despite covering 71% of the earth’s surface, the ocean, and indeed life within it, is poorly understood by man. It would seem that since marine life accounts for 30 out of 33 phyla, more marine species would have been discovered and described by now. According to marine biologists James Nybakken and Steven Webster, 1.5 million terrestrial species have been identified and described, while only 250,000 of the estimated 400,000 marine species have been identified [2], and that from just about 5% of the earth’s oceans explored. In fact, we know more about the planetary systems in space than we know about the earth’s oceans, and we have sent more people to space than we have sent down to the deep sea (BBC, 2008).

So, the question now is, what if deep in the oceans’ depths, some intelligent life has evolved but never made it to the surface? Is it too far-fetched to postulate that somewhere in all that unexplored and little-understood depth, there is actually some form of life that is intelligent? If it is true that life evolved from the oceans, what’s to say that life did not continue to evolve at a more sophisticated rate in the depths than it did on land? You might ask, how can it be possible that we haven’t discovered them, or even heard a single peep from them? Well, for starters, for all of man’s intelligence and technological development, we have only been able to explore just 5% of the oceans so far. Imagine what the other 95% could hold. And just the same way we haven’t advanced far enough to explore their dark, mysterious kingdom, they might be just as oblivious of life above the surface. As a matter of fact, only three humans have ever ventured down to what we believe to be the deepest point on earth’s seabed, the Challenger Deep located in the Pacific Ocean. In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh descended 35, 797 feet into the Challenger Deep and stayed just 20 minutes. They didn’t get to see much of the sea bed or collect much data because their submarine disturbed the sand on the sea bed and reduced visibility (CBC News, 2012). In 2012, Hollywood director, James Cameron (best known for the Terminator films, Titanic and Avatar) descended to 35,000 feet in the solo-pilot submarine Deep-Sea Challenger (CBC News, 2012).  He spent over 3 hours down there, hardly enough time to say hello or stay for dinner. With such limited exploration, it is very possible that we have gone unnoticed by these life forms (for all we know, they could have chalked up all that dust that Piccard and Walsh kicked up as some weird and unexplained phenomenon, just like we’ve been scratching our heads about the Polar Vortex and all the unusually cold weather it brought with it). My guess, though, is that they probably know about us, and being smart, they’ve decided to keep us oblivious to their existence. Who can blame them, eh?

You might argue further that how can this life form, should it exist, be considered “intelligent” if it exists in such “adverse” conditions as we believe to exist in the oceans’ depths. The first hole to pick in this argument is the fact that we are definitely limiting the definition of “intelligent” to our own biased and somewhat skewed criteria. I mean, we consider man to be “intelligent,” and yet we seem to have a one-track mind obsessed with either killing off our species outright or rendering our habitat inhabitable (the fact that we consider man intelligent says something about our intelligence!).

Is another question worth chewing over is this: who says that the true proof of evolution is the ability to breathe through lungs or walk on two legs? What if this hypothetical life form in the oceans’ depths has developed some intricate respiratory system that would boggle the human mind? What if they have developed sophisticated technologies that make life under all that pressure possible? What’s to say they haven’t evolved in a planar way that makes them impervious to pressure? What if they have evolved way beyond homo sapiens and have even more intricate sensory receptors that would make eyes look like relics from the age of the dinosaurs? Their sensory receptors could be so sophisticated that they could have a different level of sensitivity than humans to electromagnetic waves, seismic waves, radiation, and even other categories of physical phenomena that we don’t know diddly squat about, and those could be their “eye” and “ears” down there. The truth of the matter is we just don’t know, and going by what we do know about evolution and all we don’t know yet about our planet, it is possible for such a life form to exist. In my humble opinion, we had better be careful not to piss them off with our treatment of the environment. They just might decide they’ve had enough of our nonsense and decide to kick us off the planet. Just saying.

One last possibility is that we’ve encountered these deep-sea inhabitants, and we’ve all been oblivious of each other. Who knows, maybe one of them was out for a stroll when James Cameron rocked up, and he said to himself, “yet another weird tree has floated this way.”. Depending on how these beings have evolved, our sensory receptors might very well be inadequate to sense them. If they exist in a 2-D plane or even a plane with more dimensions than ours, we might yet be decades from developing technology that would be capable of discovering them. According to Stephen Hawking (1996), “one can define Life to be an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder and can reproduce itself. That is, it can make similar, but independent, ordered systems”, so we can’t disqualify them from being “life” just because they don’t exist in our known plane. And if the only pictures you’re coming up with in your head are of cyborgs or creepy-crawlies with tentacles and ten heads, you’ve been watching too many Sci-Fi movies.

Considering that the sun is estimated to still have about 5 billion years’ worth of hydrogen to burn before winking out, we can technically say that the earth, which is just about a hundred million years younger than the sun, will be around for quite some time yet (provided we don’t blow it up first). Adding to that the fact that multi-cellular organisms have been around for just 600 million of the earth’s 4.5 billion years (Choi, 2017), it is safe to say that there is loads of time to explore and discover more about our planet, or even to maybe evolve ourselves and finally earn that title “intelligent life”. One thing is sure, however: there is so much more than we know out there, or should I say, down there.


References

  1. BBC Video. (2008). The Blue Planet: Seas of Life [DVD]. United BBC Home Entertainment.
  2. Benchley, C., & Gradwohl, J. (1995). Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea. Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.
  3. CBS News. (2012). James Cameron reaches record 7-mile ocean depth. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/james-cameron-reaches-record-7-mile-ocean-depth/
  4. Choi, C. Q. (2017). How did Multicellular life evolve? Astrobiology at NASA: Life in the Universe. Retrieved from https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/how-did-multicellular-life-evolve/
  5. Hawking, S. (1996). Life in the Universe. [Lecture]. Retrieved from http://www.hawking.org.uk/life-in-the-universe.html.
  6. Nybakken, J.W. & Webster, S.K. (1998). Life in the Ocean. Scientific American, Inc.

Comments 1

  1. Obi wrote:

    “Adding to that the fact that multi-cellular organisms have been around for just 600 million of the earth’s 4.5 billion years (Choi, 2017)”… This has got to be the best reference I have seen in a serious while. Underrated.

    Posted 14 Mar 2019 at 3:24 pm

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