My Paradox – Tue 17th Apr 07

I remember when it really hit me how useful Wikipedia was: it was when I ready about paradoxes. As anyone who’s used Wiki before can confirm, there are always related links at the bottom of each article. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, but one that doesn’t lead anywhere in particular, it is so easy to follow these links one after another until you end up on a subject that is unrelated to where you started out. I didn’t realise that by starting on this reading “quest” of mine, I would stumble across the greatest paradox of all.

I fleeted away two hours one evening just by reading about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. It was not a waste of time. I’ve already talked about the likelihood of aliens visiting earth, or even being aware of us.

I believe it is incredibly likely that aliens, if they exist, will never visit earth. Personally, I strongly disbelieve that aliens have already visited earth.

But, I strongly believe (and it isn’t on faith of course, because the evidence would seem to be in my favour) that there are aliens out there.

I could spend hours and hours reading, or talking about this, and speculating what their homeworld might look like. Would it bigger than earth or smaller? I wonder if aliens themselves would evolve to resemble anything human. Surely their planet must be comparable to earth in terms of atmosphere and life-sustaining properties. There are very good biological reasons which favour the human form in terms of intelligence over other animals – large skulls, bipedalism, opposable thumbs. It is not unrealistic to suggest that sapient aliens might evolve along similar lines. But the manifestations of another planet, (with different climates and environments, challenges and perils, predators and prey) might spin the alien gene pool in a totally different direction.

If aliens could communicate with humans without prior knowledge of the species, what might be the first thing they ask us? Richard Dawkins suggests a question. Is he biased? Perhaps. But after giving it thought, I agree with him. Without a doubt, one of the most important stages of any sapient species’ evolution is the realisation of their own origins. What is Dawkins’ suggestion? “Have they discovered evolution yet?”

Think about this briefly. The human race has existed for about 130,000 years. For a much shorter time than that we have recorded history. The question of “where did I come from?” and “how did I get here?” is one that every human child asks its (occasionally awkward) parents. As a species, the human race has been asking this question for probably about as long as it could conceive thought or speech. For millennia, humans offered answers to this question. Genuinely seeking truth, but seriously lacking knowledge, mankind invented tall tales and stories to explain its own existence. Perhaps we should think of early humans as children. Barely able to speak. Naïve. Innocent. Gullible. Full of wonder and questions. Prone to thinking magically and teleologically, in fact tending to do so more often that not.

Most explanatory myths took the form of creation stories: a powerful being directly created human life. For an ignorant and superstition people, can we blame them? No. Certainly not. No more than we can blame the contemporaries of Louis Pasteur who believed that germs and bacteria could spontaneously blossom out of nothing, until Pasteur proved germ theory.

When you think about how long the Renaissance endured; modern science was starting to come into its own, and all the incredible and clever scientific discoveries that were made in the 16th – 18th centuries, it is perhaps surprising that only 148 years ago, Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection. A proper empirical evidence-based powerful predictive scientific framework for explaining how all life on this planet came to be. It finally answered one of the most deep and important mysteries of life! Can you think of many discoveries more important?!

It took biology onto a whole new level; nothing we understand or practice in biology today makes sense without evolution.

Perhaps aliens might consider a species’ discovery of its own origin as an important threshold. They might consider humans more “worthy” of contact than we were 148 years ago. I am just speculating. But if human scientists had the ability to study another planet of sapient creatures, what might we look for? Would we see if they had discovered fire, the wheel, and language? What about government or money? Or for a more advanced race, have they discovered evolution yet, or do they have a “pre-discovery-of-evolution” (PDE) society, perhaps with their own creation myths?

If aliens had their own myths, I wonder how similar they would be to ours. It would be nice to think that a species advanced enough for interstellar travel would have long since eradicated silly superstitions from their culture. Not necessarily by intent or force, but through education and enlightenment. Perhaps there could be a kind of natural selection for advanced civilisations: it must be the case that surviving so long with such powerful technology would either result in self-destruction or survival (there are no other possibilities). And presumably survival would be achieved through better communication, education, and understanding, as oppose to fear, hatred, superstition and violence. This might be something that nature resolves at the genetic level (where, after all, evolution really takes place anyway). Or it might just be a matter-of-fact state-of-affairs without reference to evolution (although what I’m about to say is strictly a kind of natural selection), that is: any race that has existed for any length of time with the capacity to destroy itself but yet hasn’t must necessarily be a more intelligent, less-aggressive, and enlightened species. Because, if it wasn’t they would have killed themselves and wouldn’t be around to talk about it anyway.

Would they look on the human race with pity now? Well give that a lot of enlightened humans look on their own species this way, I would be very surprised if aliens didn’t look at us and shake their ‘heads’. Maybe we’d remind them of how they used to be. Or perhaps the problems on this world are unique to humans (although I tend to think not).

“Can you believe we used to go to war over land on our planet?” they might ask each other.

Baffled, they may question: “Did we really kill each other over imaginary creatures in fairy tales?”

They may scrutinise humans and think: “On such a tiny world, how strange that they cut themselves off with arbitrary lines on a map, rename themselves, build up walls and weapons to keep others out, and distrust those on the outside, and pretend that because they just so happened to be born on this side of the line, they are somehow better than the others. And yet, within the same region, they break themselves into subgroups and give their group a new name, hating people from other subgroups and fighting over nothing more than that sheer fact of being from different groups, or having different interests, or supporting different sports teams, or having different skin colours. And even within those subgroups, they split into gangs, and fight over drugs, weapons, and material possessions that aren’t even their own.”

Or perhaps they would be so confused by humans they couldn’t draw any conclusion!

The fanatical hatred and evil in the world contrasts to things like love, joy, music, beauty. How can the same species that blows up school buses and flies civilians into buildings for the sole purpose of killing thousands of innocent people show such courage and bravery? How can we reconcile Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin with Mozart and Beethoven? Are fanatics and bigots like Pat Robertson really the same species as Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawkins?

The profound affection between two people who love each other. The beauty of another human being. The art forms of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The works of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. The engineering feats of the tallest skyscrapers; the fastest supercomputers; the deepest submarines; and the spaceship-cum-aeroplane Orbiter. And yet some people still believe that rocks in space influence their fortunes. Some humans will believe whatever they want without any shred of evidence, and think this is virtuous! Some people think they are better because they are of a different race, country, and upbringing. Some humans even enjoy hurting other humans.

The great literary works of human fiction over the decades and centuries cast a huge embarrassing shadow on the primitive superstitious ramblings found in all holy books. Intended fiction (as oppose to religious myth) is conceived better, has more believable characters, and has more depth, metaphor, and storyline. If any holy book is truly the word of god, then god is a significantly poorer writer than Shakespeare.

Would aliens think our good points outweigh our bad ones? Would they see great potential in us? Or perhaps they’d write us off as “on course for self-annihilation”.

Would they even be entertained by our humour? Moved by our music? Pissed off with chain letters and enthralled by sport?

It may be that non-human life could evolve in the metaphorical sense too; all the things we think of as qualities of humanity might be foreign – alien – to another species. Compassion, empathy, kindness, and courage might be irrelevant to an alien. Alien evolution might favour cold ruthless dispassionate thought.

But, I think there is good reason why this wouldn’t be the case. There is good reason to think that the principles of altruism, empathy, kindness, and eventually love, could be ubiquitous in the universe. Evolution might endow all enlightened sapient species with these characteristics. It seems a certainty that peace and communication are more favourable than mistrust and superstition in terms of survival.

Evolution gave us some ruthless qualities along the way, no doubt the basis for xenophobia, territorialism, violence, the fight for survival. That does not make them necessarily good or bad. We are here now, so clearly, natural selection has done something right. But we also have something else that aliens would possess too: intelligence. For all the animal traits that humans still have, there are qualities probably born from our self-awareness – because we can appreciate ourselves as a unique being with needs and feelings, we can recognise the same in others. Perhaps courage and love are truly the products of a reasoning mind; something an animal cannot replicate.

Maybe we would have that in common with aliens. It might be the only thing we have in common with them. Who knows?

Will we survive long enough to meet them? Will the human race come out of infancy and outgrow the delusion and violence that it is drunk with today? Will we take our place amongst the stars? Will we colonise other worlds? Will the human race be spread throughout the Milky Way even unto the last day of Earth in about 5 billion years time, when our tiny world is engulfed by the sun and everything she ever is, everything she ever was, everything that ever occurred on her, is gone?

The earth is going to be uninhabitable for humans long before that though, perhaps as near as 900 million years. I don’t think I will be around to see that. Probably not, anyway.

The human race won’t be around then either if it wipes itself out in the next ten thousand years, thousand years, hundred years, or even this decade. The old cliché says: “the longest journey begins with a single step”, so let’s get there one step at a time. Hardly anyone on earth now will see the 22nd century, but I think we’d all like to see tomorrow. And the only way to ensure our survival, as a civilisation, hell, as a species, is through the qualities we talked about above: education, communication, empathy, understanding, enlightenment. And thus the decline of superstition and irrationality, dogma and doctrine, war and violence, hate and mistrust. The latter are the things that threaten our world every day, and the former are the things that can save it.

To paraphrase J. Michael Straczynski, we are standing in the middle of history. When you look at the sad state of some parts of the world, it’s easy to get your head down. But we need to lift our heads up, and our eyes back to the horizon. We see our ancestors before us, urging us on saying “make my life have meaning”. And we turn around in the other direction and see our inheritors saying “create the world we will live in.”

I have absolutely no idea what kind of world that will be. I’m afraid of what it could be. But I also know there are plenty of people who won’t let that happen. Are you one of them?

Perhaps we will create a world in which our children can say to us “thank you”.

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