The Day the Earth Made No Damn Sense

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

In psychology, "pronoia" is the irrational belief that people or agencies or governments love you, agree with you, and are conspiring to help you. It's the mirror image of paranoia, and it shares some symptoms in common with both "hysterical personality" and narcissism. There isn't really a word for its Hollywood equivalent, but the symptoms include a belief (usually based on little or no evidence) that you know better than your audience, your technical advisors, your continuity editors and, in the case of book and comic adaptations and movie remakes, the authors of the original source material. This is a huge leap of faith under the best of circumstances, and when it involves tampering with key elements of a beloved classic simply because you have a different point you'd like to make, well, it really should be ranked among the most serious personality disorders. I suggest we call the condition "autonomorphilia," or love of unconsulted change. There's an even more appropriate word for it, but SCI FI won't let me use it in print!

Alternatively, we could call it "Derrickson's Disease," after the relative newcomer who directed the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, from a screenplay written by David Scarpa, whose only other credit is the 2001 flop The Last Castle. The original movie had an alien emissary travel to Earth to warn us that if we spread our civilization into outer space, as we seemed about to do, our warlike ways would not be tolerated and our planet would be destroyed to preserve the galactic peace. In addition to a technological overhaul and a world-class special effects budget, the new version has a different message as well: The Earth is one of the galaxy's mere handful of habitable worlds, and if we persist in messing it up we will be removed permanently from its ecosystem by cosmic gardeners appointed to look after it.

"It is our planet," the U.S. secretary of defense observes, to which the newly human-shaped Klaatu replies, "No, it is not." This isn't exactly scintillating dialogue, and even the original film's most famous line, "Klaatu barada nikto," has been elided from the remake.

This is all a bit preachy, yes, but then again so was the original. Jennifer Connelly's character actually has the nerve to claim that our elected officials are "not our real leaders," whereas a single reclusive scientist in upstate New York is somehow authorized to speak for the entire human race. True, he did win a Nobel prize (for either peace or medicine—it's not clear which), but those are administered by self-appointed committees and handed out by a hereditary monarch, all in a country (Sweden) holding barely 0.14% of the Earth's population. Talk about intellectual elitism! Still, in the context of trying to save our species from total annihilation, we can forgive both her deception and her impertinence. Yes, it's believable she would try to make this claim, and maybe even that the naïve Klaatu would buy into it.

And although human astronomy has not yet caught up with his assertions, Klaatu is probably right about habitable planets being rare. The so-called Drake equation defines the number of habitable worlds as R* x fp x ne x fs, where R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy, fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets, ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life, and fs is the fraction of those planets that actually go on to develop life at some point. Of these numbers, only the first is known with any accuracy at all, although over the past two decades, new planet-hunting techniques have yielded early estimates of the next two based on stellar wobble and transit measurements (i.e., the dimming of starlight reaching the Earth when a planet passes in front of its parent star).

Scientists are currently working on a new generation of telescopes that can directly measure the atmospheric composition of nearby Earthlike planets, so by 2020 or so we should have at least a rough idea whether life is rare or common in our corner of the galaxy. In their book Rare Earth, scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee use the Drake equation, among other things, to argue that single-celled life is probably fairly common in the universe, while the precise conditions for complex, multicellular life may occur on only a tiny fraction of these worlds. So, yeah, the Earth probably is a rare gem. The problem I have with Derrickson's green-leaning remake is that human beings are absolutely not on a path to destroying the planet (as Klaatu boldly claimed), or even its biosphere. Not even close.

Don't get me wrong; We're definitely causing a lot of damage. Of the 5 to 30 million species resident on Earth at the end of the last ice age, somewhere between one-quarter and one-half are expected to be gone by the end of this century. The sudden flowering of human civilization over the past 12,000 years has ranked, paleontologically speaking, as one of the six greatest mass extinction events in our planet's history, where "mass extinction" is defined as the sudden disappearance of more than 50 percent of the species living at a given time. It's hard to say when things might finally level off, but I suspect by the time our population stabilizes (or crashes, if we mismanage our resources badly enough), something like 70 percent of the world's biodeversity will have been lost. The coastlines may look very different as well, along with the composition of the atmosphere and oceans, and I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that the ecosystem we end up with will not be capable of supporting us (at least not without heavy technological assistance).

This is Not Good, and to the extent we're able to avert it I would say it's well worth our while to do so. But still.

The mass extinction thing has already happened on Earth at least five times, right? Some estimates say it's happened as many as 20 times, or maybe even more than that, with causes ranging from asteroid impacts to supervolcano eruptions to irradiation from nearby supernova explosions. Fact is, Earth was a dangerous place long before we showed up. Nevertheless, life is remarkably resilient, and multicellular life seems quite adept at evolving to fill vacant niches. Over millions of years, plains of grazing buffalo replace plains of grazing triceratops. Giraffes replace sauropod dinosaurs as treetop browsers. Dolphins and whales return to the sea to fill predator niches left vacant by a cooler Earth and the death of the mososaurs.

Seriously, if you set out to destroy Earth's ecosystem and render the planet uninhabitable, you would need some sort of fancy nanotech weapon like the one Klaatu unleashes, directed not against human civilization but against the plants and animals and microbes of our biosphere. And if even a single plant survived, along with a single animal to feed on it, they could reconquer broad patches of the world within a few centuries, and evolve to cover most of the globe within a few millennia. It might be a world of rats and dandelions, kudzu and fire ants, but it would definitely still be a world. Just as importantly, within a million years or so these species would have radiated out in so many different evolutionary directions that they would establish a new ecosystem, just as wondrous and competitive as the one we'd destroyed, and within 5 to 10 million years the biodiversity would be back up around its old levels. Our planet has seen it before, and (sadly) will probably see it again. It's not only bigger than we are, but a whole lot tougher.

The same principle applies for microbes. We don't know how long it takes single-celled organisms to turn into complex multicellular life—it's only happened once, and we're not really sure when or where or how—but with five billion years before the sun turns into a red giant and swallows up the Earth, it's quite possible our ecosystem could die off and regrow itself several times from a single bacterial spore. In fact, if the theory of panspermia holds any truth at all (see "Wish Upon a Spore," January 2003), such spores may be a natural component of cosmic dust and may guarantee the revitalization even of completely sterilized worlds.

Klaatu's people—starfarers with advanced nanotech, psionic powers and the ability to manipulate gravity and inertia—are clearly smart enough to understand all this, so either (a) they know something we don't about the evolution of planets, (b) they're lying to us for sinister reasons of their own, or (c) this movie is a piece of populist nonsense written and produced by the same Hollywood airheads that brought us Hellraiser V: Inferno and Urban Legends: The Final Cut. Scientifically speaking, which do you think is more likely?

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia ( "Pronoia", "Sun"
The Internet Movie Database: "The Day the Earth Stood Still"
Britannica 2008 Ultimate Reference Suite: "Sweden", "Nobel Prize", "Personality Disorder"
Schubert, Charlotte: "Life on the Edge: Will a mass extinction usher in a world of weeds and pests?", Science News: 15 September 2001
Cowen, Ron: "The Hunt for Habitable Planets", Science News, 20 December 2008
"Quarter of species on Earth may face extinction", AFP wire service, 06 October 2008
Sagan, Carl: Cosmos, Ballantine Books, 1980.
Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee: Rare Earth, Springer Books, 2003

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and, most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.