New Species and Understanding Earth

Interview with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter
Consequences for Humanity

Will understanding our place in the universe help us recognize our common humanity?

Ann Druyan: Why should we care? Well, imagine that we do inhabit a galaxy of worlds. And imagine that all those beings-if there are beings on any of those worlds who are conscious-have evolved in the same spatial quarantine that we have. So there’s a period of infancy just as we’ve experienced, in which we imagine ourselves the only beings, the only world in this vast galaxy and even vaster universe. And imagine that there comes a time when we are sufficiently mature, and they are, to develop the methods of science, and to be emotionally mature enough as a civilization not to need to be the infantile center of the universe. That rite of passage, that recognition of these other worlds, of these ways of living, of being, of seeing, of thinking-that’s a great moment in the history of our species, as great as leaving the oceans to come up on the land. There’s a tendency we have to think that we are the end of history, that we are the end product of science. And lots of great discoveries have been made. But I keep thinking about all those possible worlds, and the fact that we’re just around the corner from really finding them, and how, as Seneca wrote, we’re just standing in the anteroom of the temple of nature. I think it will have a huge effect on us.

Earth as seen by the departing Voyager spacecraft: a tiny, pale blue dot. Credit: NASA

Of course, most urgently I hope that it will effect the way we see each other. Obviously, the violent spasms of superstition and fundamentalism that are torturing our species and our civilization right now are a kind of last ditch battle against the completely inescapable insights of modern science and the scientific revolution. I think what should happen is that we won t be able to help but recognize our genetic commonality with each other, our shared history, and the fact that the things that divide us would be unrecognizable, undetectable by species of other worlds with their own separate history and evolutionary pathways.

Kathleen Connell: So what you’re suggesting, perhaps, Ann, is a new perspective that on the one hand, recognizes the unity of our species, but at the same time allows for our incredible diversity.

Ann Druyan: What I’m doing is merely echoing Carl Sagan’s brilliant impulse to make us look at this tiny planet, at the pale blue dot, and to see it in its real context, in its actual circumstances, in its true tininess. I don’t know anyone who’s able to really see that one-pixel Earth and not feel like they want to protect the Earth; that we have much more in common with each other than we’re likely to have with anyone anywhere else. And, I’m echoing Carl’s dream of exploring the universe, of putting our house in order so that we’re in a position to actually explore the universe, and to really find out how it works and how it’s put together. So while science has been a traumatic experience for a lot of people-and maybe it precipitated some of this upheaval-it’s also in the end the only hope that we have to get through this period of adolescence that’s been so violent and so disturbing.