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The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Antiquity to 1900

Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)

Abstract

This chapter provides an overview of the Western historical debate regarding extraterrestrial life from antiquity to the beginning of the twentieth century. Though schools of thought in antiquity differed on whether extraterrestrial life existed, by the Middle Ages, the Aristotelian worldview of a unified, finite cosmos without extraterrestrials was most influential, though there were such dissenters as Nicholas of Cusa. That would change as the Copernican revolution progressed. Scholars such as Bruno, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes would argue for a Copernican system of a moving Earth. Cartesian and Newtonian physics would eventually lead to a view of the universe in which the Earth was one of many planets in one of many solar systems extended in space. As this cosmological model was developing, so too were notions of extraterrestrial life. Popular and scientific writings, such as those by Fontenelle and Huygens, led to a reversal of fortunes for extraterrestrials, who by the end of the century were gaining recognition. From 1700 to 1800, many leading thinkers discussed extraterrestrial intelligent beings. In doing so, they relied heavily on arguments from analogy and such broad principles and ideas as the Copernican Principle, the Principle of Plenitude, and the Great Chain of Being. Physical evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials was minimal, and was always indirect, such as the sighting of polar caps on Mars, suggesting similarities between Earth and other places in the universe. Nonetheless, the eighteenth century saw writers from a wide variety of genres—science, philosophy, theology, literature—speculate widely on extraterrestrials. In the latter half of the century, increasing research in stellar astronomy would be carried out, heavily overlapping with an interest in extraterrestrial life. By the end of the eighteenth century, belief in intelligent beings on solar system planets was nearly universal and certainly more common than it would be by 1900, or even today. Moreover, natural theology led to most religious thinkers being comfortable with extraterrestrials, at least until 1793 when Thomas Paine vigorously argued that although belief in extraterrestrial intelligence was compatible with belief in God, it was irreconcilable with belief in God becoming incarnate and redeeming Earth’s sinful inhabitants. In fact, some scientific analyses, such as Newton’s determination of the comparative masses and densities of planets, as well as the application of the emerging recognition of the inverse square law for light and heat radiation, might well have led scientists to question whether all planets are fully habitable. Criticism would become more prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, and especially after 1860, following such events as the “Moon Hoax” and Whewell’s critique of belief in extraterrestrials. Skepticism about reliance on arguments from analogy and on such broad metaphysical principles as the Principle of Plenitude also led scientists to be cautious about claims for higher forms of life elsewhere in the universe. At the start of the twentieth century, the controversy over the canals of Mars further dampened enthusiasm for extraterrestrials. By 1915 astronomers had largely rejected belief in higher forms of life anywhere in our solar system and were skeptical about the island universe theory.

Keywords

  • Nineteenth Century
  • Solar System
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Martian Atmosphere

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Providing full references for all the quotations by and information about the over one hundred authors discussed in the essay would be cumbersome. This has led to our decision to reference most of the quotations and some of the information to these two widely accessible books.

  2. 2.

    See Chap. 2 of this volume, “Early Modern ET, Reflexive Telescopics, and Their Relevance Today,” by Dennis Danielson for complementary analysis of the changes brought about by the Copernican revolution.

  3. 3.

    Westman (1980) identifies only ten Copernicans of the sixteenth century, at 136n6. But see Westman (1975) for ways in which the Copernican system was used as a calculational device without adherence to the physical system.

  4. 4.

    For more on Bruno’s life and thought, see Yates (1964) and Singer (1950). See also Rowland (2008), but note the critical review of Gregory (2012).

  5. 5.

    For an account in English of the trial, including what materials we do and do not possess, see Finocchiaro (2002).

  6. 6.

    For Newton’s text and a full explanation, see Crowe (2006, 194–99).

  7. 7.

    James Ferguson and Emanuel Swedenborg and a number of scientists made this claim. See Crowe (2008, 172, 218).

  8. 8.

    For further information on Gruithuisen and on the intense debate on lunar life, see Crowe (1986, 202–8), and Sheehan and Dobbins (2001, 49–118).

  9. 9.

    For recent analyses of the “Moon Hoax” see Sheehan and Dobbins (2001, Chap. 7), and Goodman (2008).

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Correspondence to Michael J. Crowe .

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Crowe, M.J., Dowd, M.F. (2013). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Antiquity to 1900. In: Vakoch, D. (eds) Astrobiology, History, and Society. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_1

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