On December 5, NASA announced that its observatory spacecraft Kepler had discovered its twenty-second planet. This planet, Kepler-22b, is noteworthy for being in orbit in a habitable zone. Kepler-22b is closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun, but Kepler-22b's star is weaker than the Sun. The composition of the planet is unknown, but if it has an atmosphere its surface temperature would be approximately 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
This knowledge is already all easily accessible. The reason for Kepler-22b's fame, of course, is that it might sustain living organisms. But what if it does?
I think it would be incredibly exciting and humbling if we were to discover life elsewhere in the universe. On a day when I'm feeling especially optimistic — utopian, even — I can imagine that the discovery of some form of "intelligent" life on another planet would finally make good on what Freud identified as the second great humiliation of human history, Darwin's work on evolution.
The first humiliation, Galileo's discovery that the Earth isn't the center of the universe, was supposedly followed by another upon Darwin's discovery that humans aren't the center of life on Earth. (Followed again by Freud's discovery that the Ego isn't even the center of the human mind.) But regardless of whether we acknowledge the importance of Darwin's theory and accept its antihumanist implications (and plenty of us deny one or both), we don't behave as though we understand the humiliation. And the thing about humiliation is that it's only valid if its object feels mortified.
Humanist hubris has produced a lot of suffering. Witness the killing of animals for meat. Witness the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), the factory model of industrial slaughter. Witness the increasing consumption of meat in the United States and worldwide. Meat is a a symbol of affluence and virility, a signifier of intersecting privileges. Meat is also the corpse of a once-living being.
On most days, when I'm feeling more fatalistic about human openness to the possibility of humility, I suspect that if life were discovered on Kepler-22b the first thing we'd want to do after we'd recovered from the initial awe would be to exploit it. Here's the thing about extraterrestrial life: it isn't exceptional. Of course we don't know whether any exists, but if what makes the prospect of it so enthralling is the element of foreignness or unknowability, then I've got good news: there's plenty on Earth.
An article in Nature reports that there are 8.7 million +/- 1.3 million eukaryotic species on Earth, more than 80% of which are undiscovered. The extinction rate is now something like 1000 times the background rate. Human activity is producing a mass extinction, yet we've cast our curiosity beyond the limits of our own environment?
One explanation for our interest in aliens is that we're compensating for our disavowal of the undeniable force of the encounter with the earthly Other. There are millions of aliens, we've just managed to group them all into a few categories: domesticates (pets, food, clothing, and so forth), exotics (entertainment), pests and threats (prey), and miscellany (collateral damage). Systematization and exclusion are critical functions in the structure of nonhuman exploitation, and until humans recognize the alien in the animal — that is, until they feel shattered at the humiliation of their difference, rather than secure in the pride of their superiority — I pray that life on Kepler-22b be stealthy.