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Author Mary Doria Russell at AAAS: "ET vs. God Smackdown!"
Evidence is lacking at the moment, but the odds suggest that someday, perhaps in a far-distant generation, humanity could discover unequivocal proof of life on another planet. Theologians have already begun to contemplate the possibility. So has paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell, and she suspects that the discovery would have dramatic consequences for people and religions here on Earth.
In an acclaimed pair of novels, "The Sparrow" (1996) and "Children of God" (1998), Russell hijacked the well-worn "first contact" genre of science fiction to explore deep spiritual, theological and human questions. On Thursday 2 December at AAAS, she'll lecture on how the discovery of life beyond Earth could profoundly change the views we have of ourselves, and of God.
"For some people, it's just going to be very, very cool," Russell said in a recent interview. "For some sects of Christianity, it's going to be majorly difficult to fit into their religious worldview. Not for all, but for some.
"Even if we don't have to find intelligent life, if we find a single bacterium anywhere, we're into the thick of it. That's proof of concept. And if you believe in the inerrancy of your interpretation of Genesis, well, then that's going to be a problem."
[Read the full text of the interview here.]
The 2 December event also will feature Lawrence M. Krauss, the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and Professor of Astronomy and chairman of the Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University, speaking on science, non-science and nonsense in science fiction.
During the interview, Russell covered a wide range of science and theology, from the Neanderthal brow to the world's major religions to the inner workings of her fictional characters. She laughed easily and was often irreverent, though she is openly committed to the belief that science and spiritual life are not mutually exclusive. She was raised a Roman Catholic in the suburbs of Chicago; after a period of atheism, she returned to religion and converted to Judaism.
Russell was interested in anthropology from an early age, but in the interview, she said it was one particular moment of revelation that sealed her love for the field. It came in 1966, while she was a high school student in an exclusive summer course for gifted youth at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. An archeologist brought in a Neanderthal stone scraper, and Russell got an opportunity to inspect it.
"It fit my hand," she recalls now. "There was a physical connectionand the knowledge that 50,000 years earlier, some other woman held itthat just never left me. I still get chills."
A Ph.D. led to a faculty position at Case Western in Cleveland; later, she worked for several years as a technical writer. But she had an idea for a piece of short fiction, one that emerged during the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival on the North American continent. That short-story eventually blossomed into "The Sparrow" and "Children of God."
The dramatic developments of "The Sparrow" are set in motion when a junior astronomer, Jimmy Quinn, while routinely recording data picked up in a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] project in August 2019, hears extraordinary, exquisite music. And the music is not Earthly in its origin, but is traced to a planet just a few light years from Earth. The discovery brings together a quirky, talented group, including Father Emilio Sandoz, a scrappy Puerto Rican kid who has become a talented Jesuit linguist; Anne Edwards, an M.D. and doctor of anthropology; her husband, George, a veteran engineer; Sofia Mendes, who as a young woman lost both of her parents and was forced into prostitution, and then into intellectual indentured servitude, and a handful of others.
Soon this multi-ethnic, religiously diverse and highly talented group is en route to Rakhat, led not by NASA or by the space agencies of Europe or China, but by the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus. Jesuits throughout their history have been the most intellectual of the Catholic orders, and Jesuit priests frequently worked with indigenous people in newly discovered lands on Earth.
Soon after a hazardous landing, the explorers discover a land of seemingly Edenic beauty and richness, and the creatures they found their, the Runa, welcomed them without fear and soon made them feel part of a vast, content family network. A second group, the Jaan'ata, also inhabits the planet.
Russell's books do not dwell on what impact this discovery has on Earth, but more on the impact it has on the cultures of Rakhat. To bring their world to life, she has invented a world of extraordinary complexity, and the books richly detail their landscapes, their flora and fauna, their languages, their arts and their sociology.
But of course the books also detail the impact on the explorersand as they penetrate deeper and deeper into the life of Rakhat, the crew members encounter dangers inevitable to any exploration and others that are unique to Rakhat. All are challenged, and some do not survive. Father Emilio Sandoz suffers such profound agonies that his faith seems all but destroyed. Only in "Children of God" does he confront the terrors imposed on him and learn to reconcile them with the beliefs that brought him to the priesthood.
At the AAAS event, Russell will use the insights developed in writing the book along with her reading of theologians to explore what impact the discovery of extra-terrestrial lifeeven the simplest sortmight have among human cultures.
"Mormons posit that God has created many worlds with many sentient species," she said in the interview. "I had no idea this was true until I did a book tour event in a women's bookstore in Salt Lake City…To my amazement, Mormons were fine with "The Sparrow" because they believed God had created many worlds, and here was science fiction that took that idea and ran with it.
"BuddhistsI doubt that they would be terrible distressed by the discovery of life elsewhere. I do not know about MuslimsI just don't know. I don't think it will be a problem for Jews either…. The notion of a universal God is now embedded in Jewish theology.
"The real crunch, I think, comes for Christians. Christianity is the most species-specific of world religions, because of the core belief in divine incarnation [the belief that Jesus is the human embodiment of God]…. Many people reduce theology to something that will fit on a bumper sticker. 'God said it, I believe it, and that's the end of the discussion.' I don't know how they'd handle it. Denial, I suppose…
"I could name you three or four other Jesuits who are friends of mine, who are anthropologists, who would greet the concept of aliens as my fictional Jesuits do. They'd say, 'These must be God's children as we are, so let's be humble enough shut up and listen and see what God had to say to them.'"
Where some might expect a dubious reception to the books among her science colleagues, Russell says the reaction among scientists and religious people alike has been largely positive. The deep division that many see between the two worlds is exaggerated, she suggests.
"I am a fully functioning scientist at the same time that I am a reasonably observant Jew," Russell says. "I don't find that to be in conflict and neither have a lot of other scientists. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that you're not allowed to assume your conclusions. Everything's an argument!... That kind of worldview is not necessarily in conflict with natural science."
Edward W. Lempinen
30 November 2004