Monday, July 7, 2008

Who they are and who we are

The horses lean neck first in a run, eyes captured in bold, wild athleticism. The detail in the flare of the nostrils is so fine you can almost hear the snort and the heavy breath. The horses appear animated, alive, and in motion, even though the medium is merely charcoal on stone. This is the work of artists who have carefully studied the animals in their world and have attempted to bring them back to life deep underground. The Chauvet cave paintings are between 11 thousand and 37 thousand years old. The artists were nomads wandering the lands in the south of what many millennia later would become France. Neanderthals walked the Earth at the same time as these Homo sapiens artists and some fifteen hundred generations separate us. Judith Thurman brings this drama to life in a June article in the New Yorker magazine. I read it on the same day I was re-reading "Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection". I found the overlap to be interesting.

Carl Sagan is the gentle and intelligent voice in the extraterrestrial debate. Many of us grew up with him in a wondrous exploration of the stars. His love of science and of his deep imagination took him many places in speculation. However, he always rooted his examinations in the practicalities of science. Sagan doesn’t bother with trying to predict what extraterrestrial life may look, act and perform like. He is interested in all of the possibilities and what that means for us.

One line struck me as funny though, the moment I read it. In his classic essay “Cables, Drums and Seashells” Sagan takes up the issue of how advanced a visiting or communicating extraterrestrial civilization might be compared to us. He talks about the number of civilizations that might be more technologically advanced than us and how a hundred or several thousand years could make a huge gulf in technological difference. Then comes the line:

“It is possible that we are so backward and so uninteresting to such civilizations as not to be worthy of contact, or at least much contact,” Sagan says. “There may be a few specialists in primitive planetary societies who receive master’s or doctor’s degrees in studying Earth or listening to our raspy radio and television traffic.”

I couldn’t help but think of the horses. Picasso was enraptured when he saw them, reportedly saying to his guide “They’ve invented everything.” Thurman goes on to describe all of the pigment techniques, brushing, even airbrushing by mouth that the artists used in their endeavors. And still what stands out is the beauty. They captured the essence of horse and even today, thousands and thousands of years later, we are entranced.

So, is it that hard to believe that an extraterrestrial civilization might find something worthwhile and interesting in our society, some reason worth making First Contact? 32 thousand years have lead to unimaginable changes in technology. The artists of the Chauvet caves would never be able to comprehend the Internet or satellites. And yet they could probably sit with any of the top artists of our time and communicate without a word.

Perhaps it is our music. Maybe singing is something that does not occur in many other civilizations? Who knows, our extraterrestrial visitors could be big Maria Callas fans? I would argue that there would be plenty of reasons to contact a society as primitive as ours. Over the last several hundred years we have developed more advanced ways of approaching our primitive societies. Science has built a protective wall around such cultures in many places. Sure, we can still be brutes in how we deal with each other. But if we have come this far, who knows where we will be in ten thousand years? It is quite possible that advanced civilizations will view us with paternal care by building protections into any First Contact situation.

We can’t expect that level of care and we must certainly be prepared for much worse. But if we can find a few simple ways to share the fellowship of being, there can be a bond that would be worth developing. At the very least we can show them the Chauvet cave paintings. We could sit in the depths and stare in wonder, silence and awe. When we finally spoke, we could simply say “This is us. This is what we are capable of. This is what we offer the rest of the universe.”

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