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Stephen Freeland | Life on Earth and Elsewhere

Stephen Freeland joins Jim to talk about astrobiology, the rich benefits of a multidisciplinary and faith-centered approach to the subject, and his take on the possibility of life, intelligent or otherwise, beyond our planet.

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Stephen Freeland joins Jim to talk about astrobiology, the rich benefits of a multidisciplinary and faith-centered approach to the subject, and his take on the possibility of life, intelligent or otherwise, beyond our planet.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on June 10, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Humans have long been captivated by life outside of our planet. While mainstream speculation about aliens is usually confined to the fictitious worlds of Hollywood films, respected scientists have also made sophisticated arguments for their existence. To sort through these claims, as well as recent news of unidentified aerial phenomena, we turned to an expert in the field. 

Our guest today, Stephen Freeland, is a Christian who has been exposed to a wide range of academic science—he went from studying zoology to computer science to genetics before settling into a career as an astrobiologist. He talks with Jim about what astrobiology is, the rich benefits of a multidisciplinary and faith-centered approach to the subject, and his take on the possibility of life, intelligent or otherwise, beyond our planet.


Transcript

Steve:

Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, are literally the center point of all physical reality. So whatever I’m finding, and whatever we find in the future, that will be the lens through which I’m looking at it. But I think it is inevitable that our reasoning towards understanding of God, our formal theology, will be negotiating new findings in science. And I think the most important message is, this is why it’s so important for us to mix, mingle and share information in a godly spirit.

I’m Steve Freeland and I work as an associate professor of biological sciences at UMBC in Baltimore.

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. I would guess that about all of us at some point in our lives have found ourselves wondering if there is life beyond our planet. Particularly, we seem to be fascinated with the possibility of intelligent life. We earthlings have told each other stories about alien encounters for millennia, and more recently those stories have become a mainstay of Hollywood movies. Our curiosity, longing, and worry about having extraplanetary friends (or enemies) keeps extraterrestrials in the news even today. 

Our guest today, Stephen Freeland, is an astrobiologist, a profession which he helpfully defines in this episode. But Stephen also has experience in a wide range of scientific disciplines, with degrees ranging from zoology to computer science. I asked him to bring his expertise to bear on recent news surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena, which the U.S. government is set to report on at the end of the month, and to talk us through some of the more rigorously scientific claims made recently about extraterrestrial life. Steve is also a Christian and helpfully reflects here on how his faith intersects with astrobiology. Through it all, he emphasizes the importance of humility in this work, a practice reminding us of our own limits and finitude, and showing how this can bring us a deeper sense of wonder at our place in the universe. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Part One: Origins and Aliens

Jim:  

Steven Freeland, welcome to the podcast, we’re so glad to be talking to you. 

Steve:

Thank you right back at you. 

Jim:

So you are an astrobiologist, which sounds like one of the coolest things that a person could be. And you’ll need to give us a little explanation of what that even means. But let’s work up to that if we could with starting with your interest in science more generally, because I note that you have a PhD at Cambridge in genetics, a master’s degree from York in computer science and a bachelor’s degree at Oxford in zoology, that already covers a lot of territory and suggests a pretty wide ranging interest in science. Where did that come from? What were you like, as a wee lad growing up in England?

Steve:

Worst person to ask, I get my own filtered memories of it. But I think the simple version is to say that I was raised the son of a biology teacher who had converted to a method… or not converted, but felt a calling to the Methodist ministry. Actually, at the time I was born, so all of my childhood memories, he was a church minister, but coming out of biology teaching, and sort of just, I think, with hindsight, welcomed me at all stages at all levels to look for alignment between the two.

Jim: 

But what kind of interest specifically say in the natural world or in scientific things, do you recall as a kid?

Steve:

So we grew up in the country, I think, is the short answer, meaning that back in those days without internet and one car for the family, you basically play by yourself a lot outside in nature. I remember a lot of dog walks, and I remember all the usual children’s things, building forts and camps and whatever. Yeah, honestly, that’s probably the most honest beginning I can give you.

Jim: 

And then going to university, you decided on zoology?

Steve:

Yeah, I think I think that it’s true to say that in school, I was doing well at science, K through 12 school. And somehow, no, to be fair, it turned into biology, was just getting better grades there. You know how that can kind of begin a love affair. You start to feel validated in something like I’m good at this. So that was what led in a smooth line to undergraduate degree in zoology.

Jim:

Yeah. And do you have any intentions at that point, career wise?

Steve: 

No. In fact, I think in other conversations, one of the biggest things I remember from my undergraduate days, especially at Oxford, is sort of an elite institution, which was roughly half people who were the old world and half people who’ve got their own scholarship. So for me, that just blew my mind. I was with just a different set of people and a different set of ideas than I’d ever had, and maybe halfway through the degree, it began to dawn on me that real people somehow ended up doing this job. So always coming late to the game. But I think halfway through my degree, I was like, I wonder if I could do this?

Jim:

Why then the change to computer science?

Steve:

I can give you a straight answer, and that I can give you a context. Straight answer, after graduating Oxford, I was curiously unprepared for anything in graduate PhD. So after a couple of cycles of not getting a PhD placement, I got this training program. And to be fair, it wasn’t strict computer science. It was a very avant garde program at a little York university and taught biologists enough computer science and mathematics, that they could then apply them back against biology. And that really opened the floodgates in terms of career options for me.

Jim:

Did you go straight from there, then to Cambridge and your PhD or something else first?

Steve:

I believe that both sides of the master’s degree was sandwiched the year before, with no success in applications to PhD, but a three month adventure on a desert island in the Seychelles. And then about six months as a librarian, finding out how much that job is not what people think it is. Afterwards, I think I worked for the UK Government collecting statistics for another year because the academic cycle tends to go slowly. And then the PhD at Cambridge. Yeah.

Jim:

Okay. Let’s rewind the clock just a little bit again, then and talk a little more about your religious upbringing. You said your father was a Methodist minister or at least became one. What do you recall of religious life and religious experience as a kid?

Steve:  

Good question. And it could go longer than we have time for. So let me try and focus on what matters, raised with church as an absolutely central part of our lives. And I say that church as well as faith, but church was, Sunday was a big day. And so we were there every week. At the age of 10, dad became a chaplain actually at a school and it was a school for girls. So At that point, we started going to the village church, which was much more evangelical. And sort of ran the gamut from what outsiders might call fundamentalism at one extreme through to just sort of mainstream charismatic evangelical at the other. So that was a lot of my teen years. And that was where I guess faith came alive for me. And very much in the charismatic tradition at that point.

Jim: 

Have you ever found your commitment to Christianity conflicting with what you started learning about the world scientifically?

Steve:

Not that I remember. And trust me, I go through the same faith struggles that everybody does, probably more so. But strangely, and maybe thanks to dad, thanks to God’s grace, but never actually with science. I even remember interviewing for Oxford, and just at the very tail end of the interview, they said, look, I see here, you’re very active in your church as a teenager, are you gonna have any problems with evolution? Because that’s a big part of zoology here. And just say more out of faith than knowledge, then that I didn’t think there would be problems, I felt there would be a way that would… The challenge was always to reconcile the two.

Jim:

Why then do you think that science does present such a challenge to so many Christians? And perhaps that’s a particularly American question to ask. Right? And perhaps some of that has to be explained by the context here.

Steve:

I feel like I’m in the hands of experts for answering that question when I talk to you. You know, I mean, it’s got to be a complex answer. 

Jim:

Do you look at the situation, then here in the States, you’ve lived in the states for how many years now? 

Steve:

21 years now. 

Jim:

21 years? Do you still look at the situation here, particularly with regard to science and religion, with some curiosity and thinking, what in the world, what have these people done here that have created such a tempest in a teapot that need not be there?

Steve:

I mean honestly, I think a lot of the time, I find myself claiming that that’s more of a myth than people think. But maybe I’m mixing the wrong circles. I’ve certainly had church contacts here or whatever. I’m just surrounded by people who feel like I do that there’s a glorious mystery. You know, I don’t know. So teaching at a state university in Maryland. And my core teaching as a young professor was evolution. And it was an odd feeling walking in there to 300 students at the start of each semester, knowing that statistically, half of them were going to have a problem with what I said. And sometimes commenting to colleagues, I’m not sure that’s true about other biology courses. But even here secularly, I think people said, yes, but evolution is so important and we want you to try and navigate with them. I think the simple trick you pull here is to say, I’m not asking you to believe me, I’m asking you to hear me and understand better. And if you disagree, I want you to come out with better disagreements at the other end of semester.

Jim:

Do you have any interesting stories from teaching this over the years to students, half of whom didn’t believe what you were telling them? Stories of people coming to accept it, perhaps are stories of people that thought this was a big barrier to Christian faith and realized it’s not?

Steve:

I wish I had a really sort of glowing in-a-box testimony. But I would say generally no, I don’t have one testimony. But I’d say over and over again, some encouragement at the end of semester for people of all stripes to say, We’re so glad we took that, we feel like we understand much more. And we’re able to make choices now. And understand, yeah.

Jim:

Well, certainly there are Christians who have adamantly proclaimed that there could not be life on other planets, particularly intelligent life, because that would undermine a core Christian understanding of our place in the universe. And among the created order, you have some interesting things to say about that, which I’m just going to tease right now and leave hanging for a bit, because I think we need some further background. So start, if you would, on this more scientific side of our conversation by explaining what is it that an astrobiologist does?

Steve:  

Great question. And I think that you might get many different answers from different people about what astrobiology is, but my answer is it’s almost a label that you choose to wear as a second hat to whatever it is you’re doing. And by wearing it, you choose to bring yourself into community with other people from very different backgrounds researching different things. But it’s sort of a statement about a joint interest at something further out there. So I might end up talking to chemists or people who study meteorites, because we all choose to wear that second label, even though our primary label would be biologist or meteoriticist.

Jim:  

What are some of the other subdisciplines, then, that are important to have in that conversation?

Steve:

I think if you view it the way I’ve just said, it’s all disciplines. It’s amazing how many different disciplines have something interesting to contribute, if they choose to sort of think about these bigger questions. But certainly at the core of it as a natural science is physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology.

Jim: 

If you were to go to an astrobiology conference, I assume they have such things? What might be the representation of people’s primary area of training that would be interested in something like that? Is it split evenly among those? Or does one tend to dominate?

Steve:

I think more and more so it’s split evenly, which is an exciting development. I think if you went back 50 years, I hope it’s fair to say, although you might get community and diversity, 50 years ago, it would have been dominated by chemistry, and the trying to create life out of chemistry or understand the chemical reactions that led to life. And these days, you’d find planetary scientists who themselves are a mixture of what we might call geography and astronomy, chemistry, certainly physics, certainly biology, a lot of biology, and so on and so on. It just goes on. 

Jim: 

And speak a little bit then about some of the goals of astrobiology. What are you hoping to find, hoping to discover?

Steve:

I think it is often misperceived as trying to discover something new—life out there. And those inside of it. I hope it doesn’t sound obscure if I say I think what we’re really trying to do is place what we already know about ourselves, and our own biology and our own planet, into a more cosmic context, with the idea that if the secular vision is right, life emerged on scientific principles here. And the more we understand about that origin, emergence, diversification and subsequent evolution, the more we understand about ourselves, as well as the universe we live in.

Jim:

Address a little bit, if you would, the Drake equation. That was something that for many years, kind of dominated the, at least the public understanding of what’s going on scientifically, with regard to search for life elsewhere. Tell us what that is. And perhaps its strengths and shortcomings for organizing a field of study, like astrobiology these days?

Steve:

Sure. So the first thing to know about the Drake equation is it’s not an equation in the sense that we often think of in science, it’s not E equals MC squared, it was actually designed and you said it so beautifully. It was designed to lead discussion, there was a particular meeting back in the 60s. And one of the contributors brought this as a framework for thinking about the place of life, how we think of life in the cosmos. So that was Frank Drake. And it is a series of terms that, if you multiply them together, sort of produce an estimate for the number of strictly speaking intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe that we might find. But it was never intended to be solved. In fact, his point in bringing it forward was to say, if we break it down into these terms, from the probability given the right conditions that life will emerge, the number of planets and so on. That gives us a framework, a way to talk and many of these are unknowns, and that’s my point today, we break it down, we can sort of begin to zero in on some unknowns that would be worth progressing on.

Jim:

So in the news, lately, there’s been quite a bit of UFO hysteria, right? By the end of the month, we’re expecting a report on what the government knows about these, what they call unexplained aerial phenomena that fighter jet pilots and others have witnessed. What do you know about this? Have you actually met and played with the aliens that were hiding in Area 51? 

Steve:

I certainly have not. 

Jim:

Is there anything of scientific interest in this that’s going on right now in the news about UFOs?

Steve:

I mean, there have to be things of scientific interest, even if it turns out to be experimental technology from Russia and China, which seems thoroughly plausible to me. I mean, first thing to say, way outside my area of expertise, and outside the area of expertise, or even interest of most astrobiologists. I shouldn’t say interest. We’re interested in what they’re saying. But it’s outside of us. It’s different. So it’s fascinating. And I think one of the best things we can remember is just that sense of curiosity and wonder, there’s clearly more universe that we understand. And if nothing else, that’s a good thing to think about. And it doesn’t feel ungodly to me to at least ponder that the universe has always been bigger than we understood.

Jim:

But there’s nothing in any of these that, say, is persuasive to you, as this really is life from outside of our solar system or outside of our planet, at least?

Steve: 

The way you worded that so carefully, I can give you a categorical no. There’s nothing there that convinces me that we’re dealing with alien technology. Could we be yes. And I’d love to be the foolish scientist who’s on podcast a week before we find out. But that, to me, is the spirit of science done well is sort of to remember what we know, to make informed progress towards what we don’t know. And occasionally to be massively surprised, right? But no, there’s nothing there. That convinces me that aliens have been real all along. Although who knows? 

Jim:

So there was an article in The New York Times last week by an astrophysicist at University of Rochester saying no, this isn’t very convincing yet, evidence yet. It seems way more plausible that there are other explanations than that some advanced alien with technology that can seemingly break the laws of physics would somehow get caught trying to spy on us or one of our jets, but isn’t part of the problem with with thinking about alien life is that it could undoubtedly be so different that the normal categories through which we try to explain and understand such things may not even remotely apply?

Steve:

I think that is a very valid point. And I think that actually, there are two points there worth discussing. Firstly, if some of the life has reached a point of intelligence and sentience and space travel and curiosity, then their civilization, their cultural evolution and technological evolution, completely unknown at this point, the rules as to whether they would or wouldn’t find the same things as us. Maybe a good physicist could tell you oh, yeah, you know, speed of light, that’s something you’d communicate with. But there’s one. And then the other one is this big separation between the emergence of life elsewhere, and how that life would then evolve. I think 25 years ago, it was safe, orthodox evolutionary theory to say we have no reason to believe that life evolves towards anything from secular grounds. So towards intelligence, we don’t know. 25 years later, there is a debate, and it’s one that greatly interests me about convergence and repeatability. But it’s still a sort of minority position that’s at least growing into a valid debate that says maybe, maybe there are directions that we don’t understand, but will do. And maybe there’s evidence for that. So you know…

Jim:

Explain that a little bit more, because I think this is really interesting, particularly as we bring our Christian convictions to bear on this, but start with the science itself and that directionality, that at least a minority of people are starting to see and how life may emerge and develop over time.

Steve:

Yeah, I mean, really, your paradigm shifter there that you want to look at would be Simon Conway Morris at Cambridge. Much more concerned, at least for people like me, who study life’s origins, he’s concerned with late evolution the last 500 million years. But he’s really led the argument that we have systematically biased ourselves against seeing the amount of convergence the amount of times that evolution twice, three times, 27 times in different places and at different times, finds the same solution. So it may be that we don’t currently understand why an anteater would be an outcome of evolution as a directional outcome, but it happened twice. And that’s telling you something. So Simon has worked a lot to build an argument that there’s at least a case to be answered that there is direction and predictability in evolution. My work is much more at life’s origins. But I must admit that a lot of what I do and see at least resonates with his argument from three and a half billion years later. And I think we support each other in saying there’s a case to be answered here. 

Jim:

So I read his book back 10 years ago or so perhaps. The Life Solution one? Correct me if I’m wrong, though, isn’t the subtitle of that something like inevitable humans but in a lonely universe? Was it part of his argument that this would not happen more than once?

Steve:

Yes. I think it’s fair to say if you asked him today, he would say that would be the bit I would change 10 years later. Not at all sure about the universe. I think I’ve heard him say it to me in conversation once with Faraday, we will Yeah. And I certainly think that’s the position I hold. I think that that’s where his science was just, it’s moved fast. And it was just a tiny bit out of date, the lonely universe bit.

[musical interlude]

Colin:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints. You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the biologos website, biologos.org.

Part Two: Life Beyond Earth and Our Curiosity 

Jim: 

Okay, let’s leave the world of UFOs and wild speculation and go to just normal kinds of speculation about the kinds of evidences that should have a little bit more scientific credence to them. Because every so often, we get these more serious scientific claims of compelling evidence for there being life elsewhere in the universe. A couple of these have been just in the last year. And I’d like for you to give us a kind of overview of the evidence and of the scientific consensus about what is the most reasonable interpretation of that evidence. So the first comes from a Harvard professor, this is not crazy land, right? Avi Loeb, who claims that an object came through our solar system a couple of years ago, that was so unusual that the best explanation is that it was an alien spaceship or some other artifact of aliens? What can you tell us about this?

Steve:

I mean, I love the way you word things so carefully, you’re clearly very good at this job. No, that wasn’t the best explanation. I do disagree with him on that. But if I may, I want to take us back one last time to the UFOs. There’s something in that debate, this is important, that science needs to, at its leading edge, it needs to constantly balance new ideas that shake what we thought we knew, against old ideas that seem to be well established. So I don’t want to leave that behind as we travel to Mr. Professor Loeb and say, I think he made some really interesting points, I think, done right, and in the right measure, if nothing else, this stimulates people to refine their arguments about why they think he’s wrong. I mean, there were a couple of mysteries about that object. It was long and cigar-like. It’s albedo, it’s shininess was wrong. And it sped up at the wrong time as it went around the sun. And I think that’s fascinating. I would hope that a mature discipline of any kind could withstand an occasional paper provocatively, that says are you sure? Do I think it’s the best explanation? No, am I glad it is on record that they at least challenged us? Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. But what I gather from people beyond my discipline is that they feel they can account for those phenomena. Although, you know, I think it was sobering to me working with the astronomers in Hawaii for four years to realize how much we allow artists’ impressions to fill in details of the data we actually got.

Jim: 

I’ve seen some very nice pictures of this.

Steve:

Right. And you have also seen some radically different pictures of dinosaurs that may or may not have feathers or choose their colors. I mean, when I grew up, they were all green for some reason. And there’s a lot we add in so I think it’s good to have that on the back burner. But I don’t think it was compelling evidence yet.

Jim:

Can you tell us at all in layman’s terms, what the argument is for and against this object being something of extraterrestrial origin?

Steve:

Only if I begin by saying that one of the reasons I call myself an astrobiologist, go to the conferences, and talk to people, is that this is way outside my discipline. So what was the evidence? That it was long and thin, and we tend to think that things wandering through space should be spherical, more or less, right? Or at least rocks if they’re smaller rocks, and if they’re large enough, they sort of morph over time into a sphere. So it was the wrong shape. It was shiny, to a level that would be consistent, as he said, rather evocatively of sort of burnished metal, right? And as it went around the sun, it sped up, which could be because the sun’s heat was turning ices into gases, which act like little jets, but it seemed to come at the wrong time. And it was more consistent with what I think Mr. Loeb himself has proposed in the way of light sails, how to harness a star’s energy to speed up on your travels, as you swing around it. You can even read that in good old 2001, the very good science fiction, that there’s an argument there about how to do it. So those were the arguments that said, this is odd. I think the astronomers say yeah, you could get a shard of something that would be long and thin. The albedo is sort of, things have different albedos in space, and shooting. This shining is sorry, yes, the reflectance of light and the speeding up. I think it just hinges on whether or not there were gas jets that were undetectable. And I hope I’m right about those three and I hope my astronomer colleagues don’t shoot me for getting part of the detail wrong on that.

Jim:

Okay, let’s move to a second one, which using radio telescopes pointed at Venus, some scientists claimed a few months ago that they detected the chemical compound phosphine in its atmosphere, and that the best explanation for how it got there is that it’s a byproduct of microbial life. What do we know about this now?

Steve:

Again, the best explanation is where all the money hinges because what they said was sort of logical. And it’s been proposed for a while it’s been a minority position, but say that were live to have arisen on Venus. And remember that when Venus and Mars were born almost identical to Earth, and then followed very different trajectories in terms of how their atmospheres evolved. Which means that these days, the surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead. So the point was that the microbes would probably migrate into the clouds. Certainly, we know a lot more about microbes in our own atmosphere these days, didn’t used to think there were many. And now we know it’s replete with them. So all of the logic of sort of where they’re coming from checks out and phosphine would be a very interesting gas to find sort of analogous to free oxygen, it looks like that would be an unstable thing to find in the absence of it being produced regularly. But I see again, that there is a sort of counterpoint and I was just reading a few minutes ago, very respected colleague, Vicki Meadows, who says, actually, it’s not at all clear it was phosphine. I think it’s consistent with sulfur dioxide, which is a very common gas in a very volcanic planet. So the best explanation—science lives there. And I think what changes is the weight of evidence that makes something into the best explanation, rather than a new finding, just bursting onto the scene. Clearly, if aliens landed on the Rose Lawn, that would be bursting onto the scene. A lot of the rest of it is a debate that has to be modified over time, as we build context.

Jim:

Did I see something here just this last week that there’s been a new mission to Venus that’s been approved? Does it have anything to do with looking for phosphine?

Steve:

Ah, I missed that and I apologize. I would say that if it was going there, I’d be surprised if it focused on that. Because it is sort of, there’s so much basic stuff we don’t know about Venus, and just getting near enough to the surface to see it. There’s that wonderful Russian probe that lasted for 20 minutes on the surface and took some photos, and that’s pretty much all we know. You know, yeah. So I would imagine it’s sort of an all round understanding of the planet. In fact, here’s a point just to make a loop forwards. So much of what we think we know about climate evolution on our planet, is deeply informed by what we think happened on Mars and on Venus. And so there’s so much that we’re just learning that maybe on the surface is less interesting, but it’s really important right down to our existence here today.

Jim:

Even finding microbes in the atmosphere of Venus seems far less exciting to I think, lots of people at least much less exciting than aliens driving their cigar shaped spaceship past our planet, right? And how big of a discovery would it be to find even microbial life somewhere else?

Steve:  

I mean, it would be huge. It would be a universe redefining finding. I think the first question that sober scientists would need to ask is do they look like contamination? We do know now, however improbable it sounds, we have lumps of Mars rock on Earth meteorites that are pieces of Mars, because something slammed into Mars. And in the debris that was thrown up, some of it escaped the gravitational well, drifted around in space, and then landed on Earth. So rocks move between planets, rocks can carry microbes. And we have a growing humility to how tough microbes are to withstand space travel, a lot of if’s in there. But the first question I want to ask is, are we looking at cross contamination of one life event in our solar system, that even so it’s a universe redefining event to think moves between planets. But then if it was genuinely an independent origin of life, again, truly universe redefining, because of the tiny baby steps that we have taken to ask the question, is there life on even our neighboring planets? If there is life there, it’s indicative of life being far, far more common in the universe than we ever dared hope. Although a lot of science would now be consistent with saying that’s not an unfair expectation.

Jim:

One of the difficulties with looking for life elsewhere is at the moment, we have a sample size of one that we’re trying to base this on. What are the difficulties involved with that and extrapolating to how life may or may not be developing elsewhere?

Steve:

I mean, they’re real and this is where it matters to understand that a lot of astrobiology is actually a second hat for studying life on this planet, particularly life in the context of the environment. What was the planet like? What was the atmosphere like? What was the chemistry? So that’s why we study it so closely, it is the one example we have. But by understanding it, not as a given difference, but as something that happened on a ball of rock that we know as Earth, we learned so much about what we think is happening elsewhere, we believe. So to actually answer your question, we now know that life on Earth started far, far earlier than we used to imagine. In fact, it seems to have started almost as soon as this planet ceased to be a ball of rock. So this planet was born 4.5 billion years ago, and it was cooling down. And by 4 billion years ago, we think there was life on it. So that’s point one, it arose almost instantaneously geologically. The moment this was no longer lava. 

Point number two, it’s built out as the most commonplace stuff in the universe, we can plot the chemical elements, and say, oh, yeah, life on earth is built up of the stuff that is most abundant. Here’s a little factoid, it’s not the chemical elements, but the most abundant chemical compound in the universe is water. So bad sci-fi about aliens coming here to steal our water, why would they, they could go anywhere. But we’re the most commonplace stuff, and we were almost instantaneous. In fact, maybe if I just leave it at those two, because there’s a lot in those two. But the third one, to find that there are chemical building blocks still at work in our bodies today. My love, the amino acids, there’s a set, an alphabet of 20 that is used by pretty much all of life on Earth of the last 3.5 billion years. And about half of that arrives on comets, arrives on meteorites, but it’s also synthesized in the atmosphere of a small lifeless rock. So when you sort of build that picture, and when you remember how many exoplanets we’re finding, and when you look at the vastness of our galaxy, let alone the universe, you realize that almost any narrowing of the definition to what it means to be an earth-like planet, there are countless of them. And using the most commonplace stuff, life can arise instantaneously. 

Jim:

So let me try to summarize what you just said there. Correct me if I’m misinterpreting anything you said. But given the facts, that life arose very soon after the formation of our planet, that water is the most abundant chemical compound there is, that at least a good percentage of the amino acids that it takes to make up our DNA is found in asteroids, and given that there are so many earth-like planets out there, what I hear you saying is, it seems perhaps inevitable was the was the word from Simon Conway Morris’ book, it seems inevitable that there would be other life lots of other life out there in the universe?

Steve:

Much more succinctly put beautifully. And yes, I would say…

Jim:

Is that correct? Is that the conclusion you draw from all of that?

Steve:

Yeah, I mean, I can add detail to all that. It’s not just the amino acids, you find sugars and nuclear bases, those are unstoppable products of organic chemistry in the universe, and still the basis of life as we know it today. Life seems to require water, it’s one of the only things we can find that it absolutely requires. Yeah. So just keep adding frills on that. But yes, what you just said. And this idea that the best explanation at any time is constantly shifting as context grows, and one side rises and the other falls. Right now I’d simply say the onus is upon those who want to say we’re a freakish accident, that shouldn’t be read, they need to show me why. Because I’ve seen nothing that matches that point of view in the last 25 years.

Jim:

Is one of the responses to that, though, that okay, you show me any shred of evidence that is conclusive that there really is something else out there because we haven’t found it yet. Or perhaps I should ask it in terms of what do you think are the most promising avenues of research for finding life? How are we trying to find it now? And what are the hopes in the coming years of new technologies and such that will help us along that way?

Steve:

Sure. So cut to that question, then, the answer is we know so little. Officially, I think it stands to say that the only sort of formal experiment that the world has taken to test for the presence of life, outside of our, a mission to test for life outside of our planet, was Viking in the 1970s. We’re right on the cusp of NASA being there again on Mars, and Mars is our neighbor planet. And we’re talking a little bit about what we’re seeing in Venus. Now, to be fair, as technology grows, there are folk looking at the atmospheres of exoplanets far, far outside our solar system. And there are multiple fronts, but the real message is that we’re in our first baby steps of actually doing anything to test for it. So I think it is an important part of the sort of the archetypes of science that somebody is out there saying, show me the evidence. Good, that’s healthy science. But the real issue is we haven’t tested much yet. And in fact, at this stage, a wealth, a majority of astrobiology is still trying to understand better the story of life on our planet, particularly its origins, to better inform the tests that we might be making elsewhere.

Jim:

Tell us a little bit about how life on a planet like, so you’ve given us the example of we have our nearest neighbors, Mars and Venus, that have very different environments today, but that we were all born in similar kind of contexts? How is it that life changes a planet? Versus how does a planet’s sort of natural resources guide the development of the life that is there?

Steve:

Yeah. And I could have added that to my list earlier on about how we are redefining life’s probability of emerging. Because the short answer is that we now know, mostly within the last 25 years, without a shadow of doubt, that life on this planet has transformed this planet. And what, maybe 50 years ago, we might even have said were conditions for life and very unusual features various were produced by life, not causes of life. So that much is one of the most exciting sort of areas of growth. And for my tastes, your question is one of the most exciting in astrobiology. How does life change planets? I think again, we’re only beginning of daring to understand that that is the case. I think one of the clinches on this was to discover that the oxygen in our atmosphere was produced by life. And that’s a sort of, you know, I’d say 25 years that that’s been gathering speed, I bet my experts on that issue could point roots of the idea much earlier. But over the last 25 years, it’s gone from sort of nobody knowing that or consensus, believing it, to everybody knowing that and believing it within the community. That the origin of oxygen producing photosynthesis, what eventually evolved into plants. That was the origin of all the oxygen in our atmosphere. And oxygen is such a reactive gas that then triggered a change in everything, changed the fundamental chemistry of the planet. So you know, the really sort of vague cutting edge these days, it’s wondering what life, what else life is doing. I think the argument that really intrigues me, although it’s a hypothesis at the moment, is that life does seem to have a curious effect of stabilizing conditions on the planet. And it may be part of the story why Venus and Mars ended up very different. Could be that if there ever was life there, it failed to stabilize them. And there’s a lovely paper by Charley Lineweaver from about five years ago, in Astrobiology Journal, where he makes this argument as a hypothesis worth investigating that life stabilizes planets. Now, many listeners may sort of harken back to Gaia, a big theory that was emerging in the 70s, still basically scientifically rejected because the science doesn’t make sense. Except the empirical evidence may be beginning to lead us to say life is certainly doing more to planets than we ever dared dream. 

Jim:

Slightly different question: how is looking for mere life, perhaps microbial life even, how is that kind of search for life different from looking for intelligence elsewhere in the universe?

Steve:

I think strangely, we’re slightly better at knowing what we’re doing when we search for life, simple life. The compound problem with looking for intelligent life is you’ve just added in a new variable—intelligence. So SETI, who are the sort of ground central for thinking about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, privately funded, and importantly, different story there. But the point is that I think so much of their work is trained to think deeper about what we can rely on as being intelligence, what does intelligence mean? What does it look like? As part of then thinking, well, what can we then safely think we might be searching for? And that’s a whole different problem from the origin of life, where we’re really sort of tied up in thinking about how conditions can lead to the emergence of the molecules that we know do very well at life here on earth.

Jim:

At the astrobiology conferences, is there a clear separation between the SETI people and… Or do they not even come to biology conferences, or are these very different communities?

Steve:

They are only different communities in the sense that they are one piece. In fact, you know, if you look at the Drake Equation they’re one term of the Drake Equation. The majority of astrobiology when I go to conferences, is more concerned with what this might think of a simple life. But SETI folk and other individuals interested in, say, techno signatures, what would we see out there with our telescopes? The same question. They’re absolutely welcome. They’re a part of this conversation. But they have that one extra variable that inevitably draws them closer together, because they’re deep in conversation. What do we think we know about intelligence? What is it? How would we look for it? What would it look like? And that just is a different question that isn’t relevant to everybody else. Right? So it’s not in any sense that we don’t trust each other. Or we don’t, anything like that. It’s just that there’s a different question at work there.

Jim:

How do you assess the answers they’re giving to those questions? You as an astrobiologist, who sees the SETI people making claims about what intelligent signatures may or may not be? Do you think they’re on the right track at all? Or is there anything of value there?

Steve:

I think they’re more expert than me. So I love what they’re doing. And I think that what I know of it tells me that what I love most is their humility to not understanding, not claiming yet. They’re not making clear claims yet, I think, about what intelligence is or what we should look for. But it’s a very sort of exploratory, very clever, sometimes very mathematical. And, you know, if mathematics is a universal language of the universe of reality, then that might be the sort of thing you tap into if you wanted to send a signal. And they’re big into that, but with a real humility, to what intelligence is, and what it might be wanting to do. 

Jim:

You made a comment a bit ago that SETI is privately funded and it sounded like there’s some intriguing thought behind that. What difference does that make that it has not been funded by government agencies necessarily?

Steve:

It’s just a curious fact, for listeners who find this topic interesting that there was a law passed in the 1990s that expressly forbid the use of federal research funds to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Jim:

Seriously? I don’t think I knew that.

Steve:

Yes. It was a classic piece of sort of fiscal responsibility, you know, why waste taxpayers money on this? So forgive me, I’m gonna point fingers because it’s just a curious thing. It was Newt Gingrich. Now I have to admit, I actually asked the head of NASA exobiology, she’s younger than me. And she doesn’t remember this. But she knows it’s true. And I said, could you get me the straight dope on that? And if I can find it, I’ll put it in a comment on the podcast, right? But it was one of those things that just made eminent sense in a fiscal world of the 90s. To say this is us being fiscally responsible. But what it did was force SETI to find the bulk of their funding privately. But I think in some ways that can be almost as much of a blessing as a curse, because it can free one, to ask things in a different way. 

Let’s go all the way back to Professor Loeb, or phosphine. There are always unknowns. And there are always paradigms. And there is some truth in saying that the paradigms of science hold us back from progress. You know, there’s a machine at work where the people who are seeing it the current way, are the ones with funding and papers who are judging what now enters the party. So I think sometimes it can be a good thing to get some input from left field even financially. 

To be fair, I should add one more thing when I was talking to the NASA exobiology head after I talked to you, she made it clear to me that a relatively recent and rather subtle transition, they are now allowed to fund research into what technical signatures would look like. And that’s them testing the very edge of what they’re legally allowed to do. They’re not allowed to find anybody looking for it. But they’ve decided that legally they can fund people just to show how much that question is considered to be one legitimate part of the astrobiology gamut.

Jim: 

Well, let’s draw our conversation to a close by turning a bit more philosophical, if we may. Because I’d like to ask what does all this mean? What does it say about us as humans that were so enthralled with UFOs? Or with the idea of extraterrestrials and why that gets Christians fighting with each other about how to interpret it theologically? Or why we’ve spent so little government funding looking for life elsewhere, or at least for intelligent life elsewhere. Take your pick of those questions and reflect a little bit on your profession. And perhaps the UFO craze as part of this too. Why are we so enthralled by all of this, do you think?

Steve: 

I think because we are made, created to be curious creatures; that is clearly part of God’s plan for us. And the universe is always bigger and more wonderful than we know at present. Right? I’m not a good enough historian of science, but to take you back to the time when a similarly fractious argument was dividing theologically unsecular science, about the existence of other moons. Right? I mean, that was, or the imperfection of our moon, there were whole paradigms at stake, that the church of the time was sure that it had theologically correct. The imperfection of the moon would indicate that the fall extended beyond our atmosphere to a medieval theology. And that was not okay. The existence of things orbiting the moons orbiting Saturn was not okay. The universe has always been more wonderful, bigger, more complex than we currently understood. And God clearly intends us to be curious. I mean, deeper messages, our curiosity can go bad, our curiosity leads us into trouble from the Garden of Eden onwards. But clearly, we need to be curious. And there’s more to discover. I think a cruel critique would say that our theology always sort of subsides into what sci… no, it’s more than that they co-evolve. Our faith and our theology co-evolve with a wondrous universe as we discover one fraction more of the unknown.

Jim:  

So some people will get nervous about you talking of theology evolving, right? I think it’s pretty clear that it has, in fact, done that. So even some of the controversy you mentioned about moons and the time of Galileo and such. I think the controversy was spurred much more by the church being nervous that these scientists were now trying to interpret scripture. Which I think in Galileo’s defense, it was, let me try to provide an alternate explanation for what scripture may be teaching here, rather than him trying to instruct the Church of how we ought to interpret scripture. But isn’t there some element of that and some worry among Christians, that when we start talking about little green men, especially, and the questions of the fall, and then it very quickly comes to questions about the incarnation, Jesus Christ became human right? How do you process those more theological leanings and interpretations of this work that you’re doing?

Steve:

And just before I do so, let me go back to where you began that statement, theology evolving. I’m not talking about God evolving, theology is the logos of theos, right? The logos of God, and logos is a human invention, literally logos was sort of Aristotle’s logos was at least how that word is… Reasoning our way towards a better understanding. So it is our understanding that I claim undoubtedly evolves, not God, and not what’s going on, I will choose to enter tomorrow and every day, I hope for the rest of my life, believing that Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, are literally the center point of all physical reality. So whatever I’m finding, and whatever we find in the future, that will be the lens through which I’m looking at it. But I think it is inevitable that our reasoning towards understanding of God, our formal theology, will be negotiating new findings in science. And I think the most important message to get to the tail end of your question is, this is why it’s so important for us to mix, mingle and share information in a godly spirit. Astrobiology will do that across the disciplines, but I see something godly even in that. I think for Christians, it is so important to theologians and philosophers, to be talking to the scientists about what is going on, so that it develops in a seemly and right manner. And I just wanted to say at the tail end of that, I think I reflected when we were talking previously, that I’ve seen more attention from Christian theologians to this, good attention, than I have from the secular new atheists, for example. And that would be indicative of us doing it right I think. That God intends for us to communicate, to build relationships and to share our insights from different perspectives as part of our faith journey.

Jim: 

As a data point for the conclusion you just drew there, a couple of years ago at the AAR meeting, the American Academy of Religion, I attended a session that was a debate between between two people about if there is intelligent life on other planets, would Christ have to incarnate die and resurrect there as well? Or was Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection on Earth sufficient for all life in the universe? Do you have a kind of hot take on that question and what that would mean, given your Christocentric statement you made earlier?

Steve:

I mean, only that that’s where I approach as a singularly unqualified man of faith to say that to me, it feels that this event was the central event, but to show how complex these questions get if you want to be serious about them. I was recently sort of, for various reasons, on a journey that was making me realize that the physicists say there’s no such thing as now, throughout the universe, now does not exist. Time is relative, that was Einstein, that was E equals MC squared. So even our concept of time would need to be thought of in a scientific context to say, what was it mean for an event that took place at a particular moment on this planet? These are deep, complicated questions, I just proceed as a man of faith, saying, I know that Christ’s life, death and resurrection, were good enough to save me and all of this planet. And we’ll get there together as we learn more about the wondrous universe in which we live.

Jim:

So there was a charge to humans in Genesis 1, to be fruitful and multiply fill the earth and subdue it. And that charge has been taken in various ways over the ages. But I think most Christian theologians today think it’s somehow linked to us being the image bearers of God to creation that we’re to be stewards over the created realm. How would life on other planets, whether intelligent or not, affect or inform that kind of calling of humans to be stewards over the created order?

Steve:

I think my answer to that ties back to some of the scientific talk, a repeated note of humility. How much we don’t know, how much we don’t understand, how much our history shows us that we will understand things that will shake the foundations of what we thought we knew. So when it comes to stewardship, I think it will open our eyes to new deeper visions of what that word means. And we can only begin to grow our sense of what stewardship means hand in hand with what we’re discovering, right? I mean, I think a peculiar secular detail is that NASA is more and more quietly aware and slightly worried about our potential to have taken Earth microbes to other extraterrestrial bodies and planets by accident, because some of these microbes are far hardier than we have. But that could be a new element of stewardship is sort of not bringing the equivalent of rats on ships to Mars before we’ve understood what’s there and what its beauty is, and perhaps in an ideal world, have really reflected together spiritually as well as scientifically about what that’s telling us about our role as stewards. Perhaps sometimes our role as stewards, and the most godly thing we can do is slow down, pause. Remember how little we know and try to prayerfully and carefully proceed open to new interpretations of what we thought we were being called to do.

Jim:

Very nicely put. Do you have any advice, Steve, for aspiring young astrobiologists?

Steve:

Absolutely. First of all, do it. It’s great. It’s such a good, it’s fun to be curious. Remember what I said about a second hat. I think the hardest thing I have to tell students here when they tell me they want to be an astrobiologist is great. Now pick which degree you want to do in which PhD you want to do, because it’ll always be that second hat. It’s not that it comes second. It’s the way to become an astrobiologist is to figure out what within the realm of math and science and engineering, what interests you, what are you good at, and then choose to apply it to sort of this community effort. So become a mass spec expert on organics, or become an evolutionary biologist, find what you’re good at, find your calling. Isn’t that good advice for all of us? Find your vocation, I really do believe in the reality of God’s vocation for us. And within that choose to ask, at least part of your time, what does that tell us about what life is how it comes to be? And what does that cause us to reflect upon as a society, spiritually as well as scientifically?

Jim:

Well, thank you so much for your work in this field and for the wise counsel you bring. For your Christocentric perspective on a very large universe and our growing knowledge of it. And thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we can do it again sometime.

Steve:

It is my absolute pleasure. Please try and get on some of the great theologians who know more about that side of things than me. Yeah, you know the names I’ve mentioned them to you before, but there’s some great people out there thinking of really exciting talks that I just love hacking into on podcasts. Thank you for this work.

Credits

Colin: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Stephen Freeland

Stephen Freeland

Stephen Freeland is an Astrobiologist and the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at UMBC in Baltimore. Building from a bachelors degree in zoology (Oxford), a Masters’ degree in computer science (University of York), and a Ph.D. in genetics (Cambridge University), his personal research came to focus upon the earliest evolution of life on our planet. After a postdoctoral fellowship to Princeton, Steve worked for eight years as a biology professor at UMBC before leaving to serve for four years as the project manager for the University of Hawaii node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (where he worked to facilitate scientists from diverse disciplines working together to derive insights into the origin, distribution and evolution of life in the universe.) In 2013, he returned to UMBC in order to run one of the oldest interdisciplinary studies programs in the country (where he works to support students in creating and executing of unique undergraduate degree programs that combine two or more traditional academic disciplines.) Raised Methodist, Steve explored many different denominations before coming to land at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal church in Baltimore (Saint Bee’s). He is the proud husband and father in a blended family that comprises and three daughters who bring such joy and energy that only his amazing wife can rescue him to go for a quiet walk with the dog.

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