active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Significant days: is human exceptionalism a myth?

I hate to get all solipsistic here, but the universe revolves around me. At least from my perspective it does. Just as it revolves around you from your perspective. We’re not just human-centric. We’re me-centric. We’re one person flat earth societies.

Of course, every human in history has thought the same thing. We know in our heart we’re special because we sit behind this sensory apparatus, because our pleasure and pain come from within, and because god gives us his unique personal attention.

Most of us keep it to ourselves. A few of us feel the need to pronounce it on hilltops or in football stadiums. The more rational and the less egomaniacal understand it’s just the delusion that all thinking animals give themselves. When a whole bunch of exceptionalists get together to share their delusion, you end up with what I call “conflated parochialism” – the belief that we’re right because we have the numbers to prove it.

Empires have risen on this belief, and fallen still clutching it to their exceptional breasts. Empires sure they’re not like any of the others, though they are. Empires sure they have god on their side, though they don’t.

We like to think we live in significant days, despite the obvious truth that all days are just as significant as all the others. True, less is wagered, less won and less lost, in times of peace. In historical terms, peace is just the pause before something interesting happens. Something interesting always happens if you wait a while.

Right now, we may believe our days are significant because we’re witness to the rise of the computer. We may find significance in a medical breakthrough, or in the latest churn in the political froth that covers our planet. We saw the Berlin wall fall, or we saw 9/11, or we saw the Arab Spring.

But everybody else saw things of that scale, and many saw things far more momentous.

Our belief that we live in significant days is also a form of solipsism. How else to excuse the bothersome fact that we happen to exist in this one tiny span in the immensity? We each have a little window we look through, so that little window must be as special as we are. Our children will see a little less, and then a little more. For them, that window will be significant, and so it goes.

If we widen the scope of our conflated parochialism, we see the greatest exceptionalism of all. The human race believes in its privileged position in the universe, its unique frame of reference.

Right now, with every day that passes and no telltale blip on the SETI screens, that privileged position becomes more firmly entrenched. For all we know, we may well be truly alone.

For many of us, religion provides the answer. All this real estate was bestowed upon us by god. Ironically, though, it’s science that has entrenched our exceptionalism: the science that told us we’re just a sentient mote among billions, one species in an endless archipelago of intelligence, and has so far conspicuously failed to prove it.

Even should aliens appear, many of us will still believe in our exceptionalism because of our unique faith, our superior society, or our more perfect anatomy. (How can anything with three eyes be truly exceptional?)

But science entrenches our exceptionalism in another way. Evolutionary theory gives us a sense of superiority, as if we were the crowning achievement in four billion years of Earth history.

Everything, apparently, has been working toward the supreme achievement of natural selection, the spark of consciousness. Blindly, perhaps, with no blueprint, but inevitably, because a sentient creature terminates the process. A sentient creature isn’t bound by natural selection anymore. It shapes its own future, and those of everything else around it.

I think there’s a fundamental problem with this form of exceptionalism. Many scientists believe that whales are intelligent. Dolphins are supposed to have the intelligence of five year old humans. However, cetacean sentience is all muddled, and purposefully so, with an emotive reaction against whaling.

Greenpeace wants us to stop slaughtering whales and dolphins because they’re intelligent. Which is somewhat inconsistent, since octopuses are also supposed to be highly intelligent, and nobody’s making an emotional attachment to them.

I’m no fan of whale hunting — I think it’s barbaric, though less barbaric than most of our other farming practices. I don’t eat whale meat, despite living in Japan, but that’s because I don’t eat mammals of any kind.

I love octopus. It’s delicious.

I’ve seen humpbacks in the ocean off Okinawa, but I’ve never heard them singing. Have you? No doubt many people have, and I don’t just mean the signaling grunts that whales use. I mean actual song, actual melodies.

But as far as the majority of us are concerned, it may seem suspicious that Roger Payne popularized his famous whalesong “cantos” just at the time when recording technology and synthesizers made it possible to fake them, and just when the anti-whaling lobby most needed the emotional boost they provided.

Don’t get your hackles up. That’s just me being mischievous. Here’s the point. Though we don’t understand it on even the most rudimentary level – which says little for our ability to communicate with aliens, if and when it happens – Payne’s whalesong is evocative of sophisticated thought. All right, you may argue that so is birdsong, and nobody’s suggesting birds are as brainy as human kids, not even parrots. But let’s give whales the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s say it proves they really are as smart as our children. (Or smarter: my five year old son can’t yet carry an original tune.)

The problem is this. Whales have been around much longer than we have. The fork in the mammalian tree of life where whales separated from primates is way back in evolutionary history. Their ancestors took to the water about 50 million years ago, and were probably in a form we’d recognize as a whale about 40 million years ago.

At that point, primates had hardly gotten started. A species that might look remotely like man, and have a glimmering of his intelligence, didn’t evolve until less than three million years ago.

In all likelihood, then, whales were singing in the oceans while we were still hooting in the trees.

So what are the chances that two creatures developed sentience completely independently at the same point in evolutionary time?

The answer is: very, very small – unless intelligence is a common occurrence.

Whalesong suggests that intelligence is nothing special, and that the exceptional thing about humans is not our thinking brain but our manipulative appendages. Then again, manipulative appendages are one of the things that makes us think octopuses are smart.

When we look back through evolution to identify other animals with manipulative appendages, such as some of the predator dinosaurs, we may be seeing the remains of creatures that were creating society every bit as profound as our own. Not much of it would survive in 70 million years or more, particularly if they didn’t find a method of smelting metal.

It’s fascinating to think of dinosaurs gazing up at the stars and wondering the same things that we wonder today. They’d be just as parochial, just as solipsistic, just as exceptional – and just as deluded.

Slow Wilhlem Exit-S

Robert Maas’s latest thriller Slow Wilhelm Exit is available to buy at Amazon.


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