Monday, September 12, 2011

Humans or the Birds and Bees?

It’s easy for us to view our planet as the home of humans, but what about small mouth bass, golden retrievers, honey bees, red-tailed hawks and iguanas? Humans are just one of about two million known species on Earth, according to the National Science Foundation “Assembling the Tree of Life” project. That’s just known species. The actual figure could be five to 100 million different species on Earth. So, what makes us think that extraterrestrials would only be interested in humans?

This thought comes thanks to a classic book, Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. Sagan points out that we assume extraterrestrials would only be interested in intelligent life on Earth. Even that assumption leaves out dolphins and a whole lot of intelligent primates. One would imagine that visiting extraterrestrials would want to communicate with humans, but they could also be interested in a much wider range of life on Earth.
I find myself re-reading Sagan, every now and then, to reconnect with the wonder of extraterrestrial considerations. While parts of the science he explores in the book have moved on in the last 20 years, the over-arching themes are timeless. We bring a lot of assumptions to extraterrestrial First Contact speculation. Anthropocentricism is perhaps the biggest and it occurs in much of our logic. If extraterrestrials did view all beings on Earth as important they might hold us in contempt for the way we treat the natural world. Humans have spread across the globe in a relatively short time span, upending entire ecosystems and forcing some species into extinction along the way. We demand much of the planet. Could that fact become an issue in future extraterrestrial relations? My vegetarian wife would certainly snicker if the extraterrestrials looked down on our meat eating ways. Of course it’s hard to say realistically how extraterrestrials could form relationships with whales or spiders. Still, they might respect life forms in a way we don’t fully understand. And as in all speculation there is the flip-side: they could also not give a damn about anything with an IQ lower than a chimp.

It’s all certainly worth pondering and there’s no one better to ponder with than Carl Sagan.

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