During a recent camping trip I had occasion to watch a solo ant crawl zig-zag across the top of our small folding table. He touched a banana peel that I had placed on the table but did not seem overly interested in it. As I finished my banana, I resisted the urge to squash him. He presented no threat to me and I was certainly more a guest in his world than he was in mine. I continued to watch as he descended to the ground and then disposed of the peel.
Within 5 minutes the ant returned… at least I presumed it was him since one ant looks pretty much the same as another to me. This time he was closely followed by scores of his nestmates. A solo insect explorer was one thing, an armada of invaders was another. With a spritz of Raid and the wipe of a damp cloth I rendered the tabletop a less hospitable environment for further ant incursions.
I had just witnessed one insect on a mission of exploration communicate his discovery to others of his kind and then rally their support in furtherance of a greatly expanded enterprise. On a very small scale I had just watched a parody of humanity’s habits of exploration. Curiosity has driven us to extended our reach across every continent, into the depths of the oceans, and now out into the solar system… perhaps one day into the vastness of “Space, the final frontier… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before”. Forgive me, but I am a lifelong “Star Trekkie”
Will we know life when we see it? NASA continues to struggle to develop a definition of life, fearing that we won’t know it when we see it:
“There is no broadly accepted definition of ‘life.’ Suggested definitions face problems, often in the form of robust counter-examples… defining ‘life’ currently poses a dilemma analogous to that faced by those hoping to define ‘water’ before the existence of molecular theory. In the absence of an analogous theory of the nature of living systems, interminable controversy over the definition of life is inescapable.” (Cleland, Carol E.; Chyba, Christopher F., Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, v. 32, Issue 4, p. 387-393 (2002)).
As a child attending Catholic parochial school I was taught that humans were the sole form of intelligent life in the Universe. It has taken millennia for us to abandon the notion that earth was the center of that Universe. In my own lifetime science has moved from ignorance of the existence of other solar systems to an understanding that planetary systems are as numerous as the grains of sand upon all of the beaches of the world. Why should only one very tiny blue grain of that sand be selected by a Creator to host life?
The problem is that any attempt to define life necessarily derives from our limited frame of reference. We won’t necessarily know “life” when we see it if it isn’t “life as we know it”. I suspect that theologies which have historically taught that life only exists on Earth will struggle to adapt if/when there is an extra-terrestrial discovery of “something” (microscopic or otherwise) that is arguably “life”. If such a discovery forces us to accept that life exists beyond the confines of Earth then a likely response to protect our assumed uniqueness will be to say that our intelligence sets us apart as favored “in God’s eyes”.
Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job at acknowledging intellect when we encounter it in our own world. Examples abound that run contrary to our species-centric prejudices: Birds that make tools; Apes that learn language; Elephants that self-identify in a mirror, create art, and decades later remember distinct encounters with individual humans; Sea Mammals that have complex languages, show empathy for humans in distress, and pursue sex for pleasure; Orcas that elevate post-menopausal females into leadership roles because of their stability, maturity, and experience, thus enhancing the general welfare of the group (BTW, only 5 species are known to experience menopause, Humans and 4 species of whales); and of course a lone ant that happened to walk across my camp table.
We have often chosen to ignore or dismiss the existence of intellect in our own species based solely upon skin color, theology, or national origin. We remain poor stewards of our own environment, and we decimate our numbers in conflicts that prove that we do not learn from history. If an extraterrestrial species ever visits Earth it is entirely understandable that it may conclude Earth to be devoid of intelligent life.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: I have been generally absent from social media and my “Thoughts” since August. That does not mean that we have been idle or that I have not been thinking. We are making progress on the pursuit of our plans for a Colorado vacation home, I have returned to more serious bicycling, and we have been planning for more “next things”. We depart in November on a 30 day trip that will include a 3 week cruise around the southern tip of South America. A week in Cozumel off the Yucatan Peninsula has also been scheduled for February. Stay tuned for the travel commentaries to come.