Review Of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy Of Alien Life

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/19/09


  Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy Of Alien Life, a 2004 book by astrobiologist David Grinspoon, is a terrific science book because it is informative, solidly written, and gives insights into not only history but its writer’s life and philosophy (natural and otherwise). It’s only flaw is that it shows some signs of being dated, even just five years on. As example, Grinspoon declares Mars is likely a dead world, for its lack of water. But, last year, water was indeed, discovered on Mars, and far more of it than thought just five years ago. Also, more extrasolar planets have been discovered in the five years since the book’s publication than in the nine from first discovery till then. The book is divided into three major sections (and many chapters): History, Science, and Belief. The first chapter deals with the historical beliefs in life on other worlds from ancient times through modern times. The second deals with what is a requirement to get life going on other world; and Grinspoon takes dead aim at some of the claims made in other books, most notably a book by a writer that I took to task, Peter Ward, called Rare Earth. The third section follows the belief in extraterrestrials, including modern ufology.

  Grinspoon’s prose succeeds because, despite the book’s imposing 416 page length (which could easily have lost 60-80 pages to its and the readers’ benefit), and despite his lack of a natural prose poetry like Loren Eiseley, he threads the middle between pop cultural appeal, via the use of personal asides and specific examples of how science directly affects the lives of the masses, and sound science laced with philosophic wonder. As such, and despite no aliens asking to be taken to our leader, Grinspoon remains optimistic of the chances that life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, and relatively sanguine that intelligence does, also. That stated, he does give due to the more pessimistic sides of the argument, as well as tackling things from the UFO true believers to Fermi’s Paradox to the famous Drake Equation, including ways he thinks it might be refined after almost half a century. The book also contains anecdotes about Grinspoon’s interactions with others in the assorted fields he mines, most notably the late astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, as well as his being influenced by the science fiction of writers as diverse as Isaac Asimov, Olaf Stapledon, and Arthur C. Clarke.

  The book is at its best when it takes a long deep look into the things that are knowable, such as the history of this field, and the passages on Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s classic book, Entretiens Sur La Pluralité Des Mondes (Conversations On The Plurality Of Worlds), one of the first science books specifically aimed at a mass audience by not being written in Latin, but in French. The book also shines when taking a look at attempts to fabricate life, from the Miller-Urey experiments on. When he is on familiar turf, Grinspoon is practically giddy and this makes for a light and fun read. The only times the book bogs down is when he delves too deeply into scientific minutia (mostly in the book’s second section) that, while important to the overall theme of the book, takes the reader away from the proverbial ‘larger picture,’ and gives a bit too much credence to certain fringe ideas, like James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia Hypothesis, while being a little too dismissive of other fringe ideas, such as UFO enthusiasts’ arguments in favor of their cause, because he simply plays right into their paranoia about ‘respectable’ scientists all being co-opted by some black ops scheme. Grinspoon might do well to heed his own admonition about ‘the gaps in our data may be filled by our desires, by the power of suggestion, and by the undeniable force of consensus in forming opinions.’ Another slight distraction in the book is when Grinspoon writes of a famous astronaut who seems to buy into the UFO true believers’ claims, and is deemed a bit loopy by Grinspoon and others. I don’t know if he was threatened with a lawsuit, or not, but it’s obvious from the context that Grinspoon is referring to Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut. The reason for the oddity is that Mitchell has always been up front and publicly open about his belief in the paranormal, so anything that Grinspoon could state would not be taken as defamatory in the least. Grinspoon even manages to work the offbeat old Soviet quasi-religious idea of cosmism into the mix; not to mention the equally dubious idea of scientism.

  Having noted all these factors, it should not be in the least bit surprising that the book’s subtitle is called The Natural Philosophy Of Alien Life. Natural philosopher, after all, was what most of the pre-Industrial revolution era scientists were called in their day. It has only been since the onset of scientific modernism that science fully branched off from philosophy, into the realm of the testable, and the ascendance of the scientific method, doubtlessly the greatest invention in the history of mankind. And with this invention, Grinspoon examines the possible abodes for life with a scalpel- from the Jovian moons Europa and Io, to Mars and Venus- which he actually thinks has a good chance for life in its clouds, even to the more speculative idea of life on extrasolar planets. He also pores over older ideas like panspermia, and the more controversial idea of directed panspermia (sort of the alien lovers’ equivalent of Intelligent Design). Grinspoon also does a good job with selecting epigraphs for each of his chapters, such as philosopher Bertrand Russell’s witty quote that, ‘When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also add that some things are more nearly certain than others,’ although he slathers it on a wee bit thick, as each chapter has two epigraphs where one or none may have sufficed.

  Despite these minor indulgences, the overall tone of the book is a surprisingly self-effacing one for a man whose life is science, and this is a very good thing. The reason is that all too often scientists appear to the unwashed masses as priests of their own new cult. Instead of actively seeking to engage young minds with the wonder of nature, and the demonstrable rectitude of their ideas, they often try to shame and bully people who know no better into accepting what they say, thus becoming the enemy they chose not so well. Grinspoon, however, shows that he wears no such robes, and that Lonely Planets is a book that will have relevance even after all its science is long outdated.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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