Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Micah Saul: So, ready for anoth­er one?

Aengus Anderson: I am indeed. This inter­view is going to be Dr. Chris McKay, and he’s a sci­en­tist at NASA, which makes me sort of child­ish­ly excit­ed to get to go talk to a NASA scientist.

Saul: Yes. It’s always been real­ly cool liv­ing so close to Moffat and Ames just you know, dri­ving down to band prac­tice and look­ing out the win­dow and say­ing, Oh hey, that’s NASA.”

Anderson: Yeah. This is this is going to be fascinating.

Saul: So, some quick back­ground. Dr. Chris McKay is a research sci­en­tist at Ames in Mountain View.

Anderson: And he stud­ies Mars, and more than that, he studies…well, he’s inter­est­ed in life on Mars. And he’s also spent a lot of time in real­ly extreme envi­ron­ments on Earth, think­ing about life (and we’re talk­ing, you know, microbes obvi­ous­ly) that can sur­vive in Antarctica or in the Atacama desert in Peru. Extremely cold or dry places

Saul: Right. So, that’s awe­some. Why is he here?

Anderson: He’s going to look at the present and the future as some­one who spends a lot of time think­ing about oth­er worlds, and some­one who also spends a lot of time think­ing about oth­er life.

Saul: We should, I guess, just briefly talk about what we’re hop­ing to get. Like what sort of par­al­lels can we draw? What should your bat­tle plan be?

Anderson: I think prob­a­bly the most impor­tant thing is to to learn a lit­tle bit about how he thinks about life off the plan­et, and his inter­est in that. Chris has spent a lot of time think­ing about the ethics of what we would do if we encoun­tered that life. And you can’t real­ly be think­ing about the ethics of life off the plan­et with­out think­ing about the ethics of life on the plan­et. So I think he’s going to be a very dif­fer­ent view on a theme that we’ve seen in a lot of our inter­views here. The ten­sion between the anthro­pocen­tric and the bio­cen­tric. He’s thought a lot about ter­raform­ing, which is chang­ing the cli­mate of Mars, and he’s been involved in a series of debates over the ethics of doing that.

So I’m real­ly excit­ed to sort of hear, what is a guy spends all of his time think­ing about life off-world—

Saul: How does that influ­ence his think­ing about our world.

Anderson: Right. And what sort of future we should be striv­ing for here.

Saul: Cool. Well, have fun, and we’ll talk later.

Anderson: Yes indeed we will.

Saul: Excellent.

Anderson: Okay

Saul: Cheers.


Chris McKay: Well, my back­ground is sci­ence, obvi­ous­ly, but more specif­i­cal­ly in the ques­tions relat­ed to the search for life on oth­er worlds. And nor­mal­ly when peo­ple think about the search for life on on oth­er worlds, they think about SETI. Sitting at home lis­ten­ing for a radio sig­nal, we make con­tact with an alien intel­li­gence, and they tell us every­thing we need to know. 

But in fact the part of the search for life that I’m involved in is quite the oppo­site. We are going out to oth­er worlds— Nearby worlds; we don’t have much choice. Mars, Europa, Enceladus, worlds like that. And search­ing for evi­dence of life there. So it’s a com­ple­ment to the radio tele­scope search for intel­li­gent life or sig­nals of intel­li­gent life. This is an active search for micro­bial life or microor­gan­isms that might be grow­ing in one of the near­by worlds in our solar system.

And the par­tic­u­lar ques­tions that I deal with is what do we search for, how do we search? And these are sci­en­tif­ic ques­tions and our approach to them is to go to places on earth where life lives in very harsh envi­ron­ments like the Antarctic, dry val­leys, or the dri­est place on earth the Atacama desert in South America. And we study how life lives in these very dry, or very cold and dry loca­tions, and then we extrap­o­late to oth­er worlds.

But I’ve also got­ten very inter­est­ed in the So what?” Why does this mat­ter? Why do we do this? And also so what in that what do we do if we actu­al­ly find it? I make an anal­o­gy with the dog chas­ing the car. What’s a dog gonna do if it actu­al­ly catch­es the car? The dog hasn’t thought that far ahead, and in many ways our search for life on Mars and the oth­er worlds of our solar sys­tem is like that. Very few peo­ple spend time think­ing about well, what do we do if we find a life form on Mars that is total­ly dif­fer­ent than any­thing we’ve ever come across before? What does that mean?

And so that to me is the new fron­tier in the human thought of what is it going to be like to encounter a dif­fer­ent type of life, even if that dif­fer­ent type of life is microscopic?

Aengus Anderson: How does your look­ing to ideas of life in space cause you to reflect on the world we live in now?

McKay: There’s an inter­est­ing feed­back on think­ing about life on Mars. I’m going to use Mars as a place­hold­er but in fact Europa and Enceladus are also pos­si­ble worlds with life. But sup­pose we find micro­scop­ic life on Mars. Well, I think that that micro­scop­ic life would be very inter­est­ing sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly. And it would war­rant a lev­el of moral con­sid­er­a­tion that we don’t nor­mal­ly attribute to microor­gan­isms. So it’s caused me to step back and think a lit­tle more about life on earth and all the microor­gan­isms here that we take for grant­ed. We don’t even think twice about killing mil­lions of them every time we brush our teeth or wash our hands. It’s an inter­est­ing inter­ac­tion that we have with these microor­gan­isms. They’re almost invis­i­ble. And yet they are a pow­er­ful force on the earth. They are respon­si­ble for the recy­cling of the ele­ments that make up liv­ing things. They’re respon­si­ble for a lot of our inter­nal diges­tion and meta­bol­ic activ­i­ties. The human body has ten times more microor­gan­isms than it does human cells.

So they’re an inte­gral part of the way we as humans live and the way the earth as an ecosys­tem func­tions, and we tend to ignore them. They tend to be invis­i­ble. And we cer­tain­ly don’t give them any moral con­sid­er­a­tion the way we do say, polar bears and pan­das and oth­er charis­mat­ic megafauna. 

And that’s prob­a­bly okay, because those lit­tle guys are pret­ty tough. They don’t need us to pay atten­tion to them. There’s no way we can hurt them. We can’t change the envi­ron­ment so that they would go extinct the way we can for say, polar bears. But still, it’s inter­est­ing to think about them and to real­ize how much our lives depend upon them, and how we tend to ignore that. And the dif­fer­ence if we go to Mars, we might find life that is only micro­scop­ic, it doesn’t have this window-dressing of large macro­scop­ic organ­isms that we have on earth and that we tend to think of his life. So it caus­es us to rearrange our def­i­n­i­tion of what is life.

Anderson: Do you think that will actu­al­ly shift the par­a­digm of thought back on earth, just about how we think about our place in the universe?

McKay: It could shift the par­a­digm of thought in a lot of ways, depend­ing on what we find. If we find life that’s very dif­fer­ent, very dif­fer­ent, it will force us to think in a new way about life on Earth and life beyond the Earth. Maybe, for exam­ple, we find life on Mars, and as we study it we real­ize that that type of life could nev­er devel­op into the com­plex, intel­li­gent life that has devel­oped on Earth. And that in fact Earth is rare and that micro­bial life may be com­mon but the secret ingre­di­ent, if you will, that could lead to intel­li­gence is not. That would give us a very dif­fer­ent appre­ci­a­tion of our role in the universe. 

On the oth­er hand, we may go to Mars and find that the life is very sim­i­lar to life on Earth. We could then expect to be just one of the many kids on the block. And I think those answers could give us dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and affect the way we think about our­selves and affect the way we approach expand­ing beyond the Earth into the rest of space.

Anderson: One of the one of the inter­est­ing themes that sort of pops up on all the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had has been this ten­sion between bio­cen­tric thinkers and anthro­pocen­tric thinkers that’s sort of come out in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways even though it’s not usu­al­ly the explic­it thing we’ve been talk­ing about. But because this is a con­ver­sa­tion about the future and what we want to be doing with this world, that comes up again and again in terms of how we make the deci­sions we make, and the moral weight of oth­er liv­ing things. What got you inter­est­ed in the moral side of some­thing like a microorganism?

McKay: There is a com­mu­ni­ty of people—I’m part of that community—that are inter­est­ed in the explo­ration of Mars and in the human explo­ration of Mars. Many of the mem­bers of that com­mu­ni­ty view it as some­thing that is being done for the sake and for the inter­ests of humans. And then if we find life on Mars, it’s an obsta­cle to human explo­ration. And so, to char­ac­ter­ize their point of view, it would be well put it in a jar, stick in the lab, send the bull­doz­ers in. Wouldn’t let a few low­ly microbes stand in the way of human progress and happiness.

And the argu­ment there, it’s not entire­ly absurd, is that the source of all val­ue ulti­mate­ly must be human choic­es and human inter­est. So there­fore human inter­est and choic­es tri­umph, and we only should rec­og­nize val­ue in oth­er organ­isms in that they con­tribute to human inter­ests and human val­ue the way ecosys­tems on earth obvi­ous­ly do. And in that case it’s hard to make an argu­ment them microbes on Mars should stand in the way of human set­tle­ment and human uti­liza­tion of that planet.

The oth­er point of view, which I tend to, is that no, what’s of intrin­sic val­ue here is the rich­ness and diver­si­ty of life in the uni­verse, not just a human val­ue but that life itself has to be accord­ed some val­ue here and some moral respon­si­bil­i­ty. And that if we find microor­gan­isms on Mars, we can’t treat them the way we treat microor­gan­isms on Earth. And the rea­son we can’t is because they are the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a sec­ond type of life that we have to assign val­ue to if we respect the rich­ness and diver­si­ty of life in the universe.

And I sum­ma­rize my think­ing on that, I think it’s impor­tant one, from a prac­ti­cal point of view, which is that every­thing we know about bio­log­i­cal sci­ences, med­i­cine, agri­cul­ture, dis­ease, what­ev­er, is based on study­ing one exam­ple of life. Life on Earth. Life as we know it. If we find anoth­er exam­ple that’s dif­fer­ent, a sec­ond gen­e­sis, and inde­pen­dent ori­gin of life, com­par­ing those two might enable us to answer ques­tions that we would nev­er be able to answer if we only had one exam­ple to study. That could pro­vide prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits for humans as well as bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to man­age ecosys­tems, etc.

There’s also a philo­soph­i­cal advan­tage to pre­serv­ing a sec­ond gen­e­sis and study­ing and search­ing for a sec­ond gen­e­sis, and that is under­stand­ing the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of life in the uni­verse. Are we the only life in the uni­verse, or is life wide­spread? It’s an impor­tant fun­da­men­tal part of our knowl­edge about the uni­verse, and I put it in the same cat­e­go­ry as know­ing about galax­ies, know­ing about stars, know­ing about the Big Bang, know­ing about the cur­va­ture of space-time, and so on. It’s in that same category.

Then my final argu­ment is they’re our neigh­bors. Imagine some­time in the dis­tant future we do meet intel­li­gent beings and they say, Well, how are you guys doing? What have you done?” And we say, Oh, well we dis­cov­ered the neigh­bors and we killed them and moved in on their plan­et. But there were only microscopic.”

That doesn’t sound any­where near as good in terms of our col­lec­tive résumé as, We found the neigh­bors and they weren’t doing very well, and we helped them out. And now there’s a thriv­ing plan­et there full of this dif­fer­ent type of life. We con­tributed in a pos­i­tive way to the diver­si­ty of life in our part of the galaxy.”

Anderson: Now, all of those seem like they’re still pret­ty— I can under­stand them an anthro­pocen­tric terms, right. They increase our under­stand­ing of the world and help answer ques­tions. They help us essen­tial­ly feel that we’ve done the moral­ly right thing, in terms of pro­tect­ing or help­ing oth­er life. But when we think about pro­tect­ing and help­ing that oth­er life, that is still defined in our terms. With a lot of the ques­tions I talk to folks about, I try to get to an idea of the good that under­lies it. Is there any­way to have an idea of the good for say, a microbe on Mars, that is kind of on the microbe’s terms. Or is that actu­al­ly beyond our abil­i­ty to philo­soph­i­cal­ly even relate to?

McKay: It’s a good ques­tion and it’s a good point you made. It’s cer­tain­ly true that all the argu­ments I pre­sent­ed are couched in the terms of the human per­spec­tive and human val­ues and human choic­es, and even the envi­ron­men­tal ethics, I sub­mit, is based on human val­ue. Sometimes I don’t know how we can escape that, because we are we are the only moral agents on the scene right now, and so the only way to attribute val­ue is when we attribute it. There is a cer­tain cir­cu­lar­i­ty to that in terms of, So I should there­fore respect its val­ue, but I’m the one that assigned it the val­ue.” So there is a cir­cle there.

There’s a sep­a­rate ques­tion, which is if we do go to Mars and we find there’s life there, how do we decide what is good for that life? That’s a very hard ques­tion. And we don’t yet know the answer to that, and we may not know the answer to that until after we dis­cov­er the life and dis­cov­er what its nature is. We even have a hard time answer­ing that ques­tion on Earth in terms of what is the good for an ecosys­tem, or what is the good for a com­mu­ni­ty of species on Earth. Because the assump­tion tends to be that well, what is good is what was. The way con­di­tions were before humans inter­vened.” That was what is good. But that’s a log­i­cal­ly fal­la­cious argu­ment, to say that some­thing is good just because that’s the way it is.

We don’t real­ly yet have abil­i­ty to, in some sort of objec­tive way or some sort of ana­lyt­i­cal way, deter­mine what would be good for an ecosys­tem or for a com­mu­ni­ty or for a world, in a bio­log­i­cal sense. It may be that there is no unique answer and we have noth­ing bet­ter to do than to appeal to his­tor­i­cal prece­dent, although I find that argu­ment weak and unsat­is­fy­ing. Or maybe as we study life more and get more exam­ples of it and study it as a phe­nom­e­non in more detail, we will begin to under­stand its nature and be able to for­mu­late ideas of what is the way to max­i­mize the good for bio­log­i­cal systems.

In a sense, you can make that as a par­al­lel to our devel­op­ing under­stand­ing of what is good for a human being. We’ve put a lot more time into study­ing and under­stand­ing human beings, and over the cen­turies and mil­len­nia I think we have made some progress in under­stand­ing what is the good for human beings and sep­a­rat­ing it from eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues. Issues like slav­ery we now real­ize can­not be addressed on an eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal lev­el. They must be addressed on a fun­da­men­tal good-for-a-human lev­el. And so despite set­backs, we’ve made progress in our under­stand­ing what is the good for a human being, and one could look for­ward to the day where we make sim­i­lar progress in under­stand­ing what is good for life in gen­er­al. But I argue that find­ing oth­er exam­ples of life will be part of that learn­ing process for us. 

Anderson: With things like the good, how do we arrive at that? I start­ed this project with a con­ver­sa­tion with a rev­erend, and he has sort of a moral­ly objec­tive good. Do we have to have a moral­ly objec­tive sense of good to ever val­ue some­thing like anoth­er form of life on anoth­er planet?

McKay: Yeah, when we deal with humans we have a bet­ter track record, we’ve made more progress. But as you point out, we’ve done so part­ly by rely­ing on what I call these crutch­es. Like divine rep­re­sen­ta­tion; we are all chil­dren of God there­fore every­one should have cer­tain basic rights. It would be pre­ferred if we could reach that under­stand­ing with­out hav­ing to rely on those reli­gious crutch­es and be able to just see that it is in the nature of human beings that they should have these rights and these oppor­tu­ni­ties to live full lives and work on mean­ing­ful work in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­ers, inde­pen­dent of where they were born. And one day we will see that as just has sil­ly a cri­te­ria of dif­fer­enc­ing between peo­ple as we see col­or of hair col­or of skin right now.

It’s much more dif­fi­cult to extend that to oth­er life forms, although a lot of peo­ple are try­ing and I think that we need to do that. Part of the rea­son it’s dif­fi­cult is because with humans we have a sin­gle set of human beings and we have long since appre­ci­at­ed that all mem­bers of that set should be treat­ed equal­ly regard­less of the details of their capa­bil­i­ty. Obviously that sim­pli­fies the prob­lem when you think about human beings as a set wor­thy of moral consideration. 

And also human beings are moral agents. They have moral deci­sions. Which is part of why they’re all treat­ed equal­ly. So when we look at life the prob­lem is more com­pli­cat­ed because we have a range of organ­isms from large organ­isms (cats and dogs, apes and chim­panzees) that have many of the behav­iors and attrib­ut­es that we humans have, down to things like veg­eta­bles and microor­gan­isms, which seem almost at times as they’re inan­i­mate. So it’s much hard­er to come up with a gen­er­al approach that treats all of life. But I think we have to, because we appre­ci­ate that life is a dis­tinct and dif­fer­ent state of exis­tence than non-life.

And I go back to my point that one way of achiev­ing that under­stand­ing is to find oth­er exam­ples of life. One way that we increase knowl­edge is to find more data. And in the past, in sci­ence for sure, that has been the main way we’ve increased our under­stand­ing, is to find more exam­ples and study it more. Those dread­ed com­pare and con­trast prob­lems that you got in grade school, those are the ones that real­ly help you under­stand. And that’s part of why I search for a sec­ond gen­e­sis of life. So that we have some­thing else to com­pare to so that we can see what is com­mon and what is special. 

Anderson: It seems like at the root of all this there’s a sense that maybe the low­est lev­el of good I’m get­ting in our con­ver­sa­tion here is that life is good. A diver­si­ty of life is good. Does this lead us to sort of util­i­tar­i­an con­clu­sions? When that’s the build­ing block that we’re work­ing from, does that mean that cer­tain forms of life (a dead­ly microbe) is some­thing that has less moral weight just in a strict­ly util­i­tar­i­an sense because it could actu­al­ly reduce holis­tic diversity?

McKay: I agree with the state­ment that life is good. In fact, when I look at the uni­verse, I say where is the source of val­ue? Where do we see the word good, or a way to ascribe a good? The only thing I see is life. I see lots of things where I could ascribe the word beau­ty. The rings of Saturn, the moon at night, galax­ies, the Milky Way. They’re beau­ty. But when I think of some­thing that’s intrin­si­cal­ly valu­able that, that rep­re­sents good, the only thing I see is life. And so some­how life must be the source of that. And it’s a won­der­ful choice of val­ue for a cou­ple prac­ti­cal reasons.

One is that it can enhance val­ue. Life, because it repro­duces and grows, can be spread. So val­ue is not a fixed quan­ti­ty but in fact can grow and spread. And we humans are part of that, and we can help it spread. So we can actu­al­ly be vec­tors of the good. We can help spread the good, help cre­ate the good, help trans­fer it to oth­er worlds and so on. So I like many of the attrib­ut­es of assign­ing life the prop­er­ty of intrin­sic good. 

Turning it into a spe­cif­ic mech­a­nism to choose or make deci­sions with­in that cat­e­go­ry of life is very hard, as you’re say­ing. Do we priv­i­lege cer­tain life forms because we like them, and not oth­ers because they’re poten­tial­ly path­o­gen­ic and dan­ger­ous? Who will stand up and vote for mos­qui­toes, right? And yet they’re part of life. They’re as alive as any­thing else. So turn­ing it into a set of nor­ma­tive prin­ci­ples that we can use in every­day issues is very very hard. And I don’t think we’re yet at a posi­tion to do that.

Anderson: Do you think there actu­al­ly are sci­en­tif­ic answers to bet­ter ways to man­age life on Earth? Or is that always going to be sort of a qual­i­ta­tive thing, you know because there are a vari­ety of things that we could emphasize?

McKay: I think that there’s not a unique answer, but I do think that we can learn to do a bet­ter job. There is room for improve­ment. And sci­ence is one of the tools, not the only tool but is one of the tools, that we need to use to make that improvement. 

Anderson: So as we think about sci­ence and improve­ment, are you opti­mistic about sort of, our short-term future?

McKay: Yeah, I’m opti­mistic on the short term as well. I don’t think we will go through a cri­sis such as a fall of civ­i­liza­tion or some­thing like that. We’ll have prob­lems. Global warm­ing is inevitably going to cause sea lev­el rise and coastal cities will be in an uproar, but those will be small-scale prob­lems com­pared to the scope of the human enterprise.

I look in the future and I see con­di­tions on the whole get­ting bet­ter. I see more con­cern for less­en­ing glob­al equal­i­ty. I see more con­cern for main­tain­ing cor­dial rela­tion­ships between nations and groups. I see inte­gra­tion of large previously-antagonistic groups. And the prob­lems I see, like glob­al warm­ing and coastal flood­ing, they’re seri­ous but they’re not going to detract from the over­all pos­i­tive trends.

So I tend to be an opti­mist. We are like ver­min, and we will be hard to kill. Humans are so resilient, they’re so inno­v­a­tive. We have a his­to­ry of suc­cess, and so I am opti­mistic. That that doesn’t mean that every­thing we do is good. But I think that we will pre­vail because we are very adapt­able. We’re very clever. The sit­u­a­tion may be pret­ty grim before we act, but even­tu­al­ly we pull through. So I think we have a long his­to­ry in front of us as well as behind us.

Anderson: And how about for oth­er life? Do you think oth­er life on the plan­et is going to con­tin­ue to thrive?

McKay: Well there it’s a more dif­fi­cult ques­tion. Certainly some species on earth are going to be in for a very rough time. And I’m not sure that we’re gonna be able to do much to help them oth­er than pre­serve their genet­ic inven­to­ry in some iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ments like zoos and pre­serves and whatnot.

So, I don’t think our record in deal­ing with the oth­er species on earth, par­tic­u­lar­ly the large species that are more sen­si­tive to eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions, is going to be a good one. They are the ones that need the lifeboat, not humans. They’re the ones who need the lifeboat. And what can we do? And I real­ly am pleased by things I read about peo­ple start­ing projects to pre­serve seed banks and plant diver­si­ty. We need to start think­ing that way in terms of ani­mals, too.

Anderson: Are you opti­mistic that we can come togeth­er and have enough of a con­ver­sa­tion to fig­ure out how to at least save some of these, and is that moral­ly good enough?

McKay: Well, I think we have to. We’re in the house and the house is on fire. And rather than have a debate about who start­ed the fire, we need to col­lect every­body, dogs and cats includ­ed, and get out. And I think that’s the sit­u­a­tion we have here. I work in the polar regions so I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the ques­tion of polar bears. It’s too late to have a dis­cus­sion that says, Well we should stop glob­al warm­ing and there­by stop the melt­ing of the Arctic ice.” That is behind us. We now have to ask what can we do to save that genet­ic diver­si­ty, to save that species. 

We could sep­a­rate­ly have a dis­cus­sion on what can we do to min­i­mize dam­age in the future, how do we sur­vive the run out of the sit­u­a­tion we’ve cre­at­ed. But I have to share some of what you said, and it’s kind of a pes­simistic view, that we’re going to be hard-pressed to main­tain civ­i­liza­tion the way we would like it to be and main­tain the nat­ur­al ecosys­tems the way we would like them to be. And that’s a chal­lenge that we face.

Anderson: What we lose if we lose them? I mean, we lose diver­si­ty, so there’s some­thing about that. But if we trade that for a cer­tain lifestyle that we like, and if we were the ones who orig­i­nal­ly assigned val­ue to that, is any­thing lost to us?

McKay: Yeah, I’d say that’s a hard ques­tion. And I could only answer it from my own intu­itive sense which is that the loss of these species is not a pro­found loss if you look in the scope of evo­lu­tion. There’s been many many many species lost. The dinosaurs. Fabulous, amaz­ing species. The dif­fer­ence here is that we are the cause of the loss. So it’s not that the species are lost but that they’re lost because of us. There’s a fun­ny thing in human per­spec­tive, which is that some­thing can hap­pen, and if it hap­pens by by nat­ur­al events it’s much less of a prob­lem than if it hap­pens because some­body caus­es it.

And so, for rea­sons I can’t real­ly artic­u­late, I bring that same per­spec­tive to species extinc­tion. So the fact that the dinosaurs went extinct, it’s a fact of his­to­ry; doesn’t both­er me. If the polar bears go extinct, if that was only a fact of his­to­ry, it would both­er me. But if we caused it, it’d both­er me in a much more pro­found way. And it’s more pro­found than just the objec­tive loss of that par­tic­u­lar species. You could ask me to explain, well why is it? Why does that blame aspect both­er you? And I can’t real­ly explain it. It’s the moral respon­si­bil­i­ty of our actions as moral agents that adds that extra com­po­nent somehow.

Anderson: We’ve talked a lot about oth­er plan­ets, and oth­er forms of life, and the moral val­ue of life, and con­cerns of the present. I always like to sort of wind down with talk­ing about the idea of the Conversation. Do you think that’s some­thing that we need, or do you think that’s some­thing we’re having?

McKay: I agree it is some­thing that we need, and it’s some­thing that hap­pens. The real ques­tion is can we be pre­pared for it? So, in my own domain, I see a time when we do dis­cov­er anoth­er type of life. My hope is that before that time to have done enough dis­cus­sion and think­ing that when the ques­tion does become rel­e­vant there’s a body of thought that can help guide that con­ver­sa­tion. And in a sense it’s the same in many of these oth­er areas we’ve talked about. These are ques­tions and issues that will erupt. And if we’re pre­pared when they erupt, we can steer them and guide them in more use­ful ways than if the erup­tions take us com­plete­ly by surprise. 

Anderson: Something else that I sort of won­der about that I think ties into that is, for a lot of these ear­li­er con­ver­sa­tions in his­to­ry they were in areas where if you were an edu­cat­ed per­son you could real­ly own all of the intel­lec­tu­al mate­r­i­al that was out there, and that’s not pos­si­ble now. And that seems like that changes the dynam­ic for a con­ver­sa­tion. Do you think, let’s say with think­ing about life on Mars, for exam­ple, is a con­ver­sa­tion that we could even have in a larg­er social context?

McKay: I think that you’re cor­rect there. We live in an era of spe­cial­iza­tion. There is some val­ue in crosstalk and cross-fertilization. But I think we have to accept that we now live in a world which is so com­plex that it will be frag­ment­ed and work with­in that frame­work. I don’t think we can end that or go back to a day when we had sim­pler lives.

Anderson: So you don’t wor­ry about peo­ple who are in oth­er groups not hav­ing their voic­es rep­re­sent­ed in per­haps a cer­tain conversation?

McKay: I think it’s hard to get com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I think we strive for that. It’s like, you’re in a big group, you’re at a par­ty, you try to talk to every­body. But you real­ize that there’s too many peo­ple here to talk to every­body, so you do what you can, you do the best you can. And I think that’s the approach we do here. I don’t think you say, Well, this party’s no good for me. I’m going to go to a place where there’s only two peo­ple in the room so that I can have a real con­ver­sa­tion and that’s all I’m going to do.” That’s a step backward.

I per­son­al­ly would not want to do that. I like the diver­si­ty and rich­ness of our cul­ture and our tech­nol­o­gy. I think those are things to be cel­e­brat­ed, as they are things to be guid­ed and man­aged as well.


Aengus Anderson: So I’m back from the NASA research sci­ence cen­ter with hang­ers and run­ways and old Navy buildings.

Micah Saul: Pretty awe­some, right?

Anderson: It was real­ly cool. I’m not going to lie. The five year-old in me who was like, I want to be an astro­naut,” just reap­peared and I was like, Man. At least I made one life choice that got me down here visiting.”

Saul: Yeah 

Anderson: So, real­ly cool con­ver­sa­tion with Chris McKay today. Very dif­fer­ent direc­tion than the oth­er ones.

Saul: I was real­ly excit­ed that he was just able to real­ly quick­ly say like, Okay, no. There is intrin­sic val­ue. This is fun­da­men­tal­ly good,” and defin­ing what the good is. And not shy­ing away from from those words in spite of and even rec­og­niz­ing the sort of reli­gious con­no­ta­tions that they often car­ry, which is what I believe may have caused Dr. More to shy away from the notion of intrin­sic value.

Anderson: Right. It’s inter­est­ing that Chris was able to… Well, that he talks about intrin­sic val­ue but he does it from a sec­u­lar standpoint.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Were you per­suad­ed by that?

Saul: Um…in a way. I think it’s fun­da­men­tal­ly a con­tra­dic­tion. But it’s one that I per­son­al­ly also live under.

Anderson: Okay. Explain the contradiction.

Saul: I don’t believe that you can remove the trap­pings of con­text. And since our soci­ety is fun­da­men­tal­ly based on Judeo-Christian thought, at its core there is still an a— you know, Max More’s ara­tional sort of base. 

Anderson: So for Chris that is, life is good and diver­si­ty of life is good.

Saul: Yeah. So I think it’s total­ly con­vinc­ing to me. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s any way you can remove the his­tor­i­cal con­text and the reli­gious context. 

Anderson: Yeah. I was inter­est­ed though that he was sort of able to think about the idea of get­ting bet­ter. You know, get­ting bet­ter at mak­ing choic­es about life in a way that maybe doesn’t get you to this pic­ture of the objec­tive good, but it does, almost through tri­al and error or maybe through reflec­tion, it gets you to bet­ter tak­ing care of life, bet­ter sup­port­ing diver­si­ty. And maybe it will nev­er get you all the way.

Saul: Yeah. Interesting. One of our major themes going through all of these con­ver­sa­tions is the back and forth push between bio­cen­trism and anthro­pocen­trism. What would you say Chris McKay is?

Anderson: You had to turn this around on me didn’t you?

Saul: Yup.

Anderson: I would say that he is both.

Saul: I agree.

Anderson: On one hand, talk­ing about Mars and if we dis­cov­ered life on Mars, it has intrin­sic val­ue for him. So if you found some sort of bac­te­ria dor­mant in the ice on Mars, you could go, Well, this had exist­ed in its own ecosys­tem. Let’s bring that back.” And for him that would be a bio­cen­tric good. At the same time, doing that is sort of an anthro­pocen­tric thing. It’s an impo­si­tion, in a way, on that organism.

Saul: That brings up what I thought was an inter­est­ing con­tra­dic­tion that I’m strug­gling with. I’m try­ing to use words that aren’t loaded here. But the desire to help that life along… Our actions in the envi­ron­ment always have reper­cus­sions that we could not have pre­dict­ed, or we didn’t predict.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: What are the reper­cus­sions of help­ing this life along?

Anderson: And, if you believe it’s worth help­ing Martian life along, how should we be chang­ing our course of action here?

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Because we know that our soci­ety affects a lot of oth­er crea­tures in ways that are detri­men­tal to them. It’s not encour­ag­ing diver­si­ty of life on the plan­et. But it didn’t seem like he shared Jan Lundberg’s con­vic­tion that we need­ed to real­ly throw out the engine of indus­tri­al civilization.

Saul: No. It didn’t. That wasn’t even on the table as some­thing that he would ever even think about.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: He says that yes, we could prob­a­bly low­er our ener­gy con­sump­tion some. But he views progress as being for­ev­er march­ing forward.

Anderson: That was anoth­er inter­est­ing response to Lundberg, the notion that the past, by virtue of hav­ing been the past and hav­ing been less affect­ed by us, is not nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter than the present. Which again seems con­tra­dic­to­ry to a notion that greater diver­si­ty is good. The past would’ve had a greater diver­si­ty of animals.

Saul: Sure.

Anderson: And the present has a low­er diver­si­ty, and we are the causal agent in between. Do you need an objec­tive good that is ulti­mate­ly, from a sec­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic stand­point, unachiev­able? Is it always going to be that we are liv­ing with those two things in ten­sion unless you have an objec­tive answer to that? It seems like life is either good and diver­si­ty is good, in which case you should pro­tect it always. Or, it isn’t and it doesn’t mat­ter if you wipe out some species.

Saul: How do you arrive at that objec­tive good? How do you deter­mine what that is?

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Is there actu­al­ly a sci­en­tif­ic def­i­n­i­tion of good? 

Anderson: Chris him­self says it: sci­ence is one tool of many. And maybe it can’t always answer those ques­tions for you know. In a way, the posi­tion we put him in when we’re ask­ing these ques­tions is we’re ask­ing him to fall into Hume’s com­plaint. We’re ask­ing him to talk about what is and infer what ought. And what ought is always going to be the ara­tional, moral values-driven jump.

Saul: Right. Another par­al­lel I saw with one of our pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions. He was talk­ing about the choic­es we’re mak­ing now affect­ing us for thou­sands of years.

Anderson: Right

Saul: And that’s very much in line with Alexander over at the Long Now Foundation.

Anderson: Absolutely.

Saul: For many of the con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had so far, the future that we’ve been talk­ing about is tomor­row. And it’s inter­est­ing to talk to peo­ple for whom the future is a thou­sand years from now.

Anderson: It feels so sci­ence fic­tion, and it’s incred­i­ble to talk to some­one whose actu­al work is kind of in the world that we think of as sci­ence fic­tion. And he takes these very seri­ous­ly as moral issues.

Saul: Absolutely.

Anderson: And I am glad some­one is doing that. And we’re going to have anoth­er in our line of incred­i­ble peo­ple tomor­row with Dr. Timothy Morton.

Saul: Yes. Let’s…

Anderson: Reconvene?

Saul: Reconvene in a bit and give a lit­tle brief intro on him, and send you on your way tomor­row morning.

Anderson: To beau­ti­ful sun­ny Davis, California. 

Saul: Ah, yes. Home of the Aggies. 

Anderson: That was Dr. Chris McKay, record­ed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, May 282012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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