The Copernicus Complex: Is Human Life Special or Mediocre?
Is Earth's intelligent life unique in the universe? In the upcoming book The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, Columbia University Director of Astrobiology Caleb Scharf explores the changing schema through which we interpret information and theories about our universe and the potential for extraterrestrial life, a filter that might bias our perception of our own findings which he calls the Copernicus Complex.
The Copernicus Complex is, in short, "the dysfunctional relationship we have with the rationale that humans, and all life on Earth, must be cosmically mediocre, insignificant, not special... while still battling our innate tendency to feel very important."
An infographic from Scharf that helps explain the general concept:
[Credit: Scientific American]
The name comes from Nicolaus Copernicus, the first to theorize that the Sun was central to our universe and the first to challenge the geocentric model, a theory that was based on little evidence besides an intense desire on our part to quite literally be the center of the universe. And while scientific thought has increasingly emphasized the decentralization of the universe, human nature has remained relatively unchanged. So we've developed a complex in which we want to believe that we are somehow unique in the universe, but are loathe to accept the notion as a result of the sheer vastness of the universe making us feel very small and insignificant. And yet, there are actually some data points, particularly in the field of biology, that may support our human-centric notions. Scharf seems to be proposing something of a middle ground between these two binaries and arguing that negotiating a balance is essential to formulating an accurate theory of our place in the universe.
On the one hand, it seems that human life is anything but special in the universe. Earth is, in many senses, nothing more than a relative speck. The observable universe is now more than 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles, and the general consensus is that space is constantly expanding, leading many scientists to believe that the universe is, in fact, infinite. Earth is one planet orbiting one star, while our galaxy alone contains approximately 200 billion stars, many of which have their own planets. According to the most recent estimates, there are 100 to 200 billion galaxies in the universe, each of which has hundreds of billions of stars. In light of those facts, the idea that we are somehow unique in the universe seems laughable.
That being said, in the field of biology there are certain indicators that human life is "special" in some ways. Our relationship between our size and complexity inhabits "this border, this interface between the complex diversity of the biologically small and the limited options of the biologically large." Not to mention that our relationship between our biology and the physical laws of the universe seems finely tuned in many ways. Many scientists believe in a fine-tuned Universe, or that if any of the universe's fundamental constants, such as gravity or electromagnetism, were changed slightly, then the entire universe would be radically different and unsuitable for life as we know it. (This concept changes if our universe is one in a multiverse; many multiverse proponents believe that every possible universe exists with every possible set of physical laws, which would explain the "fine-tuning" and the fallacious appearance of uniqueness or intelligent design.)
Scharf also makes the point that our solar system is slightly unusual; while 60 percent of solar systems contain a "super-Earth," or an Earth-like planet that is several times larger than Earth, while our solar system does not. Our sun is a type of star that is not particularly common, and our orbits are wider and more circular than those of most planetary systems. All of these anomalies lead Scharf to call our solar system "an outlier, a little bit off from the norm."
He then postulates that life may be relatively rare because it can only exist in a narrow timeframe and specific place in the universe in which there is a balance between order and chaos. Our solar system is a relatively calm and stable one, whereas many have undergone complete rearrangement. And the universe in general is relatively calm at the moment, but the young cosmos was hot and rapidly expanding, and in a few billion years the universe will likely collapse into total chaos in the form of black holes, and then the black holes will give way to complete darkness. "All indications are that today we also live at an interface or border in time, a transition between a period of stellar and planetary youth and one of encroaching decrepitude. Our existence in this period of relative calm is, in retrospect, not so surprising. As with so many other aspects of our circumstances, we live in a temperate place, not too hot or cold, not too chemically caustic or chemically inert, neither too unsettled nor too unchanging."
The fact that we are in a relatively calm period in the universe may also indirectly mean that we are somewhat unique: "Now we are again in a period of gentle transition. Dark energy, stemming from the vacuum itself, is accelerating the growth of space, helping to quash the development of larger cosmic structures. But this means that life is ultimately condemned to a distant future of bleak isolation within an increasingly indecipherable universe."
He seems to make it clear that this is not any kind of metaphysical "uniqueness," but rather a possible scarcity of life as a consequence of the relationship between requirements for life and the state of the universe. "Such a rule about life does not necessarily make living things some special part of reality. Biology may be the most complicated physical phenomenon in this universe-or in any amenable universe. But that is possibly as special as it gets: a particularly intricate natural structure that arises under the right circumstances, between order and chaos. And this conceptualization of where life fits into the grand scheme of nature leads directly to a way to resolve the conundrum between the persuasive, but unresolved, arguments that life must be abundant and that it is exquisitely rare." I would argue (and this is possibly Scharf's underlying point as well) that his theories lead to the conclusion that the "balance" between human uniqueness and mediocrity involves the idea that the universe is not the way it is in order for us to exist, but that we exist in this particular moment in the universe because it's at a certain stage in its evolution that is ultimately independent from us.
The book will be available on September 9, and an excerpt is available in this month's Scientific American.