Welcome to a governing dynamics node of the Pandeism index!!


Carbon chauvinism describes the belief that life, wherever we find it, will be carbon-based -- leading us to seek carbon signatures in searching for alien life in the first place, and potentially to overlook other signs that would tell of us of radically different bases of life. It is in this way kindred to anthropocentrism. But is carbon chauvinism maybe scientifically justified? Well, let's look to the facts.

Carbon, Carbon, everywhere....

First, looking to our local sphere, we can see that every living thing on Earth is based on carbon. Let's be crystal clear on this. When we speak of "living things" we mean those things possessed of three specific attributes; the first being an ability to carry a blueprint of their makeup; the second being the ability to read on that blueprint; the third being the internal ability to manipulate external raw materials to create a copy based on that blueprint. Any thing possessed of those characteristics should be considered alive, so a machine built to be able to do that would indeed be a "life form" though an artificial one. But we have yet to make such a machine, and so it can be testified that even now and today, every living thing on Earth -- indeed, every single cell in every living thing on Earth -- is based on Carbon.

Now, why is this, and what does it bespeak for other worlds? Carbon is actually quite unique among the denizens of the periodic table. It has six protons, which make it able to sustain two electron shells, the first of which is, naturally, full (with its two electrons), and the second of which has four electrons out of the possible eight in that shell -- meaning that it is a very light element (lighter that Nitrogen or Oxygen), and yet can support covalent bonds (formed by the sharing of one electron) with up to four other atoms, or have double-covalent bonds with two other atoms. It is this molecule-forming capacity that allows carbon to form both the super-hard polyhedral form of diamond, and to form the super-smooth superstructures of buckyballs and nanotubes -- not to mention, the graphite that cores our pencils.

While there are elements higher up the table that can hold the same number of covalent bonds, like silicon, none are as light, stable, and abundant as carbon. Carbon happens to be the fourth most abundant element measured in our Universe. Now, remember what I said about making a blueprint. Because of its bonding capacity, Carbon is perfectly suited to curling up in a long coil while hanging on to other atoms to form a set of instructions that can be read by a molecular machine crawling up that coil. And carbon is the ideal glue to hold together the molecular machine that does exactly that reading.

And, to take this further, the other elements which tend to be arrayed into those life-forming molecules which are familiar to us -- the aforementioned oxygen and nitrogen, along with hydrogen and phosphorus (some speculation has recently suggested that organisms could alternately use arsenic instead of phosphorus), but there's an underlying reason why Earth life uses these elements -- they are the most abundant, evenly throughout our Universe, and bond usefully with carbon. That is likely to be the case wherever life arises.

What else could it be?

It is in point of fact highly likely that whatever material life develops organically on any planet will indeed be carbon-based, and carbon chauvinism is just good, practical odds-playing. As are many other aspects of biology on Earth-- two-legged and four-legged animals, two forward facing eyes, a circulatory system distributing a fuel like oxygen by pulling it from the air in a gaseous form and transporting it in a liquid medium via a centralised pumping organ. But there is a catch. Man has spent just a few decades now rolling out a new kind of machinery, one capable of doing quite complex calculations, and potentially capable of entering into a self-replicating capacity all its own. These machines may be made of whatever materials we desire, and may verily be altogether carbon-free in their makeup (though, in practice, they tend to contain at least some carbon-bearing materials).

And so is it conceivable that a sufficiently advanced race may have originated in carbon and yet uncovered the means by which to transfer its evolution to a new line of materials. This may be questionable in light of the raw abundance of carbon, but it may well be that some other materials afford different capabilities not even discovered yet by man.

And there is another, even more esoteric possibility: entirely energy-based entities, existing without physical form at all, founded on atomic forces and holding together in this mode by some force of will exerted over those forces. These are, for now, entirely the stuff of science fiction, though some scientists have proposed means by which high energy systems can spontaneously form conscious quantum computers.

But for now....

But once we move away from carbon-based life, either by technology or by application of atomic forces yet beyond our understanding, these other means by which life might prosper are both sublime and diverse in possibility, such that there is no way to predict how they might turn out and how man might detect or communicate with them. And so it seems that, if we imagine all relatable intelligent species to at least begin in a carbon skin, we rightly focus our searching science on signs that a world has, or in some past existence had, carbon-based life.

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