Are We Alone?

This was the title of Stephen Hawking’s latest Genius episode I watched on Wednesday evening. Very entertaining, and his imagination and humor comes through as he leads three volunteers through a journey of discovery using quite elaborate “visual aids.”

In the hour-long show he leads his subjects to understand that there are hundreds of billions of stars in just our galaxy and that many of these have planets and some of those would contain water and would be the right distance from their start to allow life to evolve.

Then, in his speculations near the end, he makes fundamental error of thought – one shared by many others including Carl Sagan. That error is that our experience can be generalized to all experience. In this case he assumes that “intelligent” life would evolve on these planets in the same way it has here.

Actually there are several errors of thought here. The first is a common example of human egocentricity: intelligent life means us and equates with language and technology. In this way he discounts the other animals here as not qualifying as intelligent life, a most questionable assumption.

The second is that life evolving on other planets would evolve as it has here into technologically advanced “civilizations.” This is the crucial error; there is absolutely no reason to assume life on any planet would evolve the same way it evolved on any other planet. Even on Earth where all life that we have discovered is genetically closely related, life is amazingly persistent and adaptive, growing under conditions we could not survive. There is no reason to assume that life elsewhere would be restricted to the same genetic structure that we see here. We really have no idea what the possibilities are. Life elsewhere might be nothing remotely similar to what it is here.

The nail in the coffin assumption he makes, though, is that we would be able to communicate with these alleged civilizations elsewhere if we could overcome the speed limit of light. So hundreds of years after Galileo proclaimed we are not the center of the cosmos, even brilliant people like Hawking still unconsciously cling to the “humans are the crown of creation” myth. This myth leads to assuming other civilizations, while possibly more technologically advanced than we are, could or would even bother to communicate with us. I think rather that they would be so different from us that they might think of us as interesting specimens to study and run experiments on. If we were really unlucky, they might be like us, in which case if they could come here they would collect us as specimens for experimentation, hunt us for sport or just wipe us out and colonize Earth. I doubt we would sit down to tea and have a pleasant conversation about our respective planets.

In short, it seems all of us, including bright scientists, can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as basically the best nature can come up with and that our experince can be extrapolated to other worlds.

Human and Animal Communication

This is based on a post I made in a Linguistics class I’m taking online:

I find the course material fascinating. However, I was put off by the first topic, which was the comparison between human and animal communication. I found that topic to be gratuitous, unnecessary and a display of ignorance. It is gratuitous and unnecessary because we are studying human language and it is unnecessary to attempt to cover animal communication (a very complex topic in itself) in order to study human language. I have read many books about us humans, and many start that way, seemingly finding it necessary to assure us that humans are superior to other animals, an attitude I find unwarranted. This attitude is well exemplified by a quote from the Britannica in our required reading: “[…] all existing human speech is one in the essential characteristics which we have thus far noted or shall hereafter have to consider, even as humanity is one in its distinction from the lower animals; the differences are in nonessentials.” 

Note the use of “lower animals.” Humans are nothing if not self-aggrandizing. Remember that not too long ago Galileo was persecuted for suggesting that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Much more recently it was even assumed that animals had no feelings, emotions, or social structure. All that is changing as researchers and observers are discovering a much richer picture of animal life than expected because previously we had just assumed we were infinitely superior to “lower” animals.

Getting back to communication, our instructor is inconsistent in his use of “communication” and “language” in this discussion, sometimes using communication in the broad sense and sometimes using it as a synonym for language. Clearly communication consists of a lot more than language. It is fully accepted that non-verbal communication is terribly important to communication. If not, we could just text each other all the time and never miss the element of face-to-face communication, touch, etc. As mentioned, animal communication is worthy of a life-time of study, but our instructor blows it off by essentially saying his cat has very limited communication abilities because he/she can just say “meow.” Anyone who has carefully observed his/her pet or, as another poster has pointed out, social animals such as wolves, should see that they have a rich repertoire of ways to communicate. With his ears alone, my dog can communicate over a dozen distinct messages.

Why is all this important? Because our species with its unquestioned assumption that humans are the only species that matters (I still find this attitude prevalent in most writing) is leading us to create the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs went extinct and possibly destroying the Earth’s ecosystem through pollution, genetic fiddling around, climate change, etc. Hardly the work of a species that claims to be the “latest and greatest.” I believe that a dramatic change of attitude is absolutely crucial to our and the planet’s survival.

This brings us back to language. Our attitude of superiority and the OK-ness treating non-human animals in any way we please is expressed in language. One weakness of human language is that it can be used to describe things that don’t exist and give them semantic meaning. The notion of human superiority arises from several semantically rich ideas that probably have no existence in the real world. For instance, it rests on the assumption that species can be ranked linearly from highest to lowest. That this is an assumption and not a reality is rarely noted. Likewise, many religious thinkers assume humans have souls and animals do not. This is a notion that is difficult to maintain, given our emerging knowledge about evolution, but another unfortunate ability we have is to believe two inconsistent thoughts at the same time, so we can rationalize away any idea that threatens our sense of greatness and entitlement.

The above is one reason the study of linguistics and semantics is so important. If you got this far, thanks for listening.