The Red Planet has been getting a lot of attention recently, between India’s low-cost MOM probe entering Mars’s orbit, NASA’s MAVEN doing the same, and the Curiosity rover reaching the most potentially fertile site yet for signs of ancient life. Elon Musk has even talked about building a city there. For most people who look out at the night sky and wonder whether we’re alone, Mars holds our best hope for proving that we’re not.
But not for Nick Bostrom. The famed futurist, author, and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, thinks that any sign of life we find on Mars would be a bad sign, an argument he developed in a 2008 paper entitled “Where Are They?: Why I Hope The Search For Extraterrestrial Life Finds Nothing.”
He wrote that would be good news if we find Mars to be completely sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.
Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple extinct life form — some bacteria, some algae — it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something looking like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life we found, the more depressing the news of its existence would be. Scientifically interesting, certainly, but a bad omen for the future of the human race.
Scientists around the world are hoping that NASA’s Curiosity rover will find silicon in these rocks on Mount Sharp, an indication that this might have once been an environment for life. Nick Bostrom hopes the rover finds nothing of the kind.
Simply put, evidence of life on Mars would suggest that life in the universe is not uncommon, and that would mean that there may be a scary reason why we haven’t encountered any other alien civilizations: that the hard part of becoming an interstellar civilization is surviving our technological adolescence without destroying ourselves.