We Are Not Alone

Space. They say it’s the final frontier.

And they’ve probably been saying it for a long, long time. According to a recent study, active human exploration of space dates back at least 6,000 years. That’s when our star-struck ancestors constructed the first known “telescope” to assist them in their eager search of the observable universe.

We’ve certainly come — and gone — a long way since those early attempts to understand the night sky. We’ve been to the moon and landed on a surprisingly water-worn Mars. We’ve literally traveled time through the awe-inspiring “Deep Field” images collected by the Hubble telescope. And now the Kepler space observatory is bringing us tantalizingly closer to answering one of our oldest and most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe?”

So far, the orbiting telescope has found hundreds of potentially life-giving exoplanets peppered around the galaxy. It also found a surprising data anomaly that made big news as the beguilingly named “Alien Megastructure” star. The oddity of its intermittent, possibly structured dips in brightness sparked a truly earth-shattering hypothesis: What if an advanced civilization built a “megastructure” around the distant sun in a bid to harvest its energy? Or, even better, what if they placed a Jupiter-sized thingamajig in front of the star to signal their presence to other beings who, like them, longingly scan the universe in search of companionship?

Imagine how instantly gratified we’d be to find out we weren’t the only intelligent beings probing the deep, dark vacuum of space! It would be the ultimate validation. But this faint new hope of finding new kinship on a new planet is based on a fundamental fallacy. The fallacy is the notion that we are alone in the first place.

The real news is that we’re up to our necks in a “deep field” of 8.7 million sentient life forms right here on planet Earth. And we don’t need an orbiting telescope to see:

There are even sharks who worry, goats who pleadingly stare at people and snakes who, of course, deceptively act like “snakes in the grass.”

That’s right, folks. While the Search For Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) spent the last three decades fruitlessly scanning the heavens in search of alien signals … we’ve actually been surrounded by a miraculous variety of intelligence on the only planet we know for a fact sustains life.

It’s not that space exploration isn’t a good thing. Or that searching isn’t fundamental to being human. It might even be fundamental to being a primate. No, the problem is that we’ve been living in self-imposed exile on a world made artificially barren by science’s three-centuries-long ban against anthropomorphism. Ironically, this ban has helped validate the anthropocentric idea that humans are so unique that we are, in effect, an alien intelligence stranded here on Earth.

Anthropocentrically Speaking

Merriam-Webster defines anthropomorphism as “an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics.” For scientists, it’s long been a “four-letter word,” meaning bad science based on a faulty application of human paradigms onto non-human subjects of research.

There are real scientific reasons to avoid unfounded inferences and personal biases stemming from an uncritical anthropomorphism. And making humans the measure of all things rarely, if ever, produces good results — particularly for nonhumans. But this methodological aversion to anthropomorphism meant science not only rejected the implication that animals think, feel and suffer “like humans,” but it also cut off inquiry into whether or not animals think, feel and suffer at all.

The issue seems bigger than just the supposed scientific impossibility of measuring the “inner life” of animals. Instead, it may be that acknowledging the existence of complex animal intelligence undermines our unique place atop the natural order. A more “critical anthropomorphism” that modulates human inference with testable data is producing strong arguments for knowing animal consciousness, understanding their emotional lives and for accepting the reality of animal suffering.

As comparative psychologist Jennifer Vonk told Discover magazine, “People want to be special” and each time “a researcher finds that tool use or theory of mind or language-like communication is not unique to humans, somebody comes up with new categories that raise the bar.”

It’s a phenomenon leading primatologist Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial.” It’s the reflexive “rejection of humanlike traits in animals and of animal-like traits in humans” and it still persists despite mounting evidence to the contrary. De Waal collected much of that evidence himself during years studying primates like bonobos. They are 98 percent genetically similar to humans, they exhibit many of the hallmarks of humanness and they are famous for the ribald complexity of their culture.

And yes, it is a culture.

But many of de Waal’s colleagues simply won’t go there. Instead, they claim de Waal erroneously anthropomorphizes our cousins. And they explain away a chimpanzee’s laughter as nothing more than “vocalized panting.” Years of firsthand experience tickling apes has convinced de Waal otherwise.

Frankly, for anyone who’s seen the viral video of an orangutan laughing at a “missing ball” magic trick, this stubbornness in the face of an observable truth is perplexing. It’s particularly odd given orangutans’ amazing range of skills, including an ability to make sounds that seem strikingly similar to those we make ourselves.

Yet, some remain unconvinced by Koko the gorilla’s proficiency with sign language and her unbridled love of kittens. Many initially criticized Jane Goodall for imputing “individuality and emotion to nonhuman animals,” in spite of the fact that chimps share an amazing genetic similarity and a warlike disposition with humans. Even Charles Darwin was ridiculed for claiming the lowly earthworm showed intelligence. Darwin pointed out that humans are animals over a century ago, but today he’d still face the same anthropodenialism.

This outdated notion is based on a fundamental fallacy that assumes our unique form of intelligence makes us this planet’s only true beings. It’s right there in the name we’ve given ourselves and ourselves alone — human beings.

Being Versus Doing

So, why don’t we say “dolphin beings” or “raven beings” and “octopus beings“? Perhaps because “being” implies consciousness. If animals are not conscious “beings,” then they are merely “doing” by mechanical instinct. But if animals are beings, that creates other complications: As beings, they might have an existential right to “to be” beyond their usefulness to us as a natural resource, a source of amusement or a subject of dissection.

We’ve conveniently squared that circle by believing only humans can truly make conscious decisions. That’s thanks in no small part to a 17th century philosopher named Rene Descartes. He’s often credited with building the foundation of the modern scientific method. Even if you don’t think you know Descartes … you do. He famously said “I think, therefore I am.” He also claimed that animals don’t think and therefore they really aren’t. How did he know it for certain? Because animals cannot talk, you silly goose.

In fact, Descartes refused to believe that even the smartest Myna bird could ever exhibit anything close to the “real” intelligence of a human being. Sure, a Myna bird may be able to make word-like sounds. But unlike even the “dumbest” human being, the brightest Myna bird has no real grasp of the eternal concept that informs the word. Instead, the Myna bird is just a soulless, instinct-driven automaton merely “parroting” something uttered by a human. It’s just a conditioned response to stimuli.

But imagine Descartes’ surprise if he could’ve met Alex the Parrot, an amazing African Grey who didn’t seem to be parroting at all. Alex could add Arabic numerals, identify shapes and colors and say “I love you” with the kind of heart-warming sincerity we all crave. And, in an epic moment of self-consciousness, Alex even looked in the mirror and asked, “What color am I?”

Science Is Anthropomorphing

Alex was obviously thinking. And he talked about what was on his mind. Therefore he was, right? Not if you’re an anachronistic anthropodenialist. Then you’d believe Alex was just giving a conditioned response and that Dr. Irene Pepperberg made the cardinal error of foolishly anthropomorphizing Alex’s bird-brained behaviors.

But you’d also be increasingly behind the curve, because there is a new wave of scientists at the leading edge of a polyphonic revolution that’s finally listening to the life all around us. So far, they’ve found:

  • Sperm whales who talk in regional dialects with distinct cultures and use specialized sounds to delineate their own clans … much like a human surname.
  • Black Sea bottlenose dolphins engaged in a “human-like conversation” recorded on a specially calibrated microphone that captured their back and forth click-laden chit-chat.
  • Gorillas who “hum and sing” and Macaques who are learning to communicate with computer touch screens.
  • Zebra finches who sing instructions to their young before they hatch like a nesting hipster couple playing Bach to their gestating baby through a “babybump” sound system.
  • Highly social meerkats who recognize each other as individuals by their distinctive calls that basically function like names.
  • Dogs that know when you really mean “That’s a good boy!” versus when you’re just peddling the kind of half-hearted praise that comes after a hurried late night trip around the block at the end of a long, long day.

At long last, science is finally proving something millions of humans who live with “pets” have known for years — that animals are “people,” too.

A recent Fortune Magazine survey found that 76 percent of Americans viewed their dogs, cats, parakeets, hamsters and other pets as “beloved members of the family.” Just 19 percent of respondents said their pets were “well cared for, but still considered animals” and less than 5 percent said “pets are work animals that have a specific job to do.”

And a Gallup poll conducted in 2015 found that 32 percent of Americans “believe animals should be given the same rights as people.” That’s up from 25 percent in 2008. Still, a robust 62 percent say animals “deserve some protection but can still be used for the benefit of humans.” But only 3 percent believe they deserve no legal rights at all. The legal revolution is moving slowly, but it is moving.

Four decades after Christopher Stone wrote his groundbreaking legal argument “Should Trees Have Standing?” the push to expand rights has secured human protections for orangutans in Argentina, classified dolphins as non-human persons in India, acknowledged dogs and cats as non-human neighbors in a small Spanish town, won personhood to an entire river in New Zealand and, most notably, the Nonhuman Rights Project went into a New York courtroom and almost secured two chimpanzees the same personhood rights enjoyed by corporations.

Yes, this is progress. Yes, the scale of nonhuman animal suffering (at the hands of humans) is still beyond comprehension. Yes, people still buy and discard pets like so much patio furniture while so many millions languish and die in pet shelters. And yes, the progress feels too slow or, even worse, too late. But consider the fact that we are overturning centuries of anthropodenialism.

This is a revolution in how we see animals.

More importantly, this is a much-needed evolution of the human condition. And it’s not just being driven by progressive scientists. It’s also being driven by clickbait. Every day, amazing animals fill our feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. And it’s far more than the millions of cat videos that may be the only thing actually holding the interwebs together.

People eagerly share videos of humans and cows snuggling, crows seeking emergency first aid and whales thanking humans for freeing them from callously abandoned fishing nets. We’ve obsessively watched and re-watched that compelling conversation between two chatty cats over 61 million times. And the laughing orangutan that anthropodenialists would prefer to dismiss as “vocalized panting?” It was a big hit on dozens of mainstream news sites and, as of today, it’s heading toward 19 million views in just under a year. And therein lies the rub.

The more we actively observe altruism and justice and pain and love and fear and play and politics and romance and commitment all around us, the harder it is to maintain a destructive distinction between us and them. And the more we click, the more clearly we see the fundamental problems of the Anthropocene Era and its rising seas, poisoned waters and mounting extinction.

The Other Final Frontier

Our growing recognition of the “inner life” of animals is a direct challenge to the idea that they — and the ecosystems they depend upon — are merely a natural resource quite literally at the disposal of human beings. Of course, if Descartes was right, then the troubling aspects of suffering, habitat destruction and human-caused extinction are completely absolved. It also means the problem of squandering or exhausting so-called “resources” is solely a problem of human injustice to other humans.

But the animal-related cavalcade of consciousness we see every day — like the viral video of incredibly cute sea turtle babies scurrying to the sea — forces us to consider the possibility that sea turtles are not simply “resources” to be preserved so our grandkids can have a sea turtle “experience” on some Costa Rican beach 20 years from now. Instead we might accept that sea turtles shouldn’t go extinct because sea turtles have an inherent right to exist apart from whether or not future generations of human beings will be able to “enjoy” the existence of sea turtles.

And if we finally start to listen to the other “twitter feed” here on Earth, we might actually learn something about cohabitation from the amazing interspecies conversations happening around us. Scientists are finding that various species learn to heed the calls, track the cries and listen to the songs of the other species who share their habitat. They actually learn from each other because they listen. They are not alone.

This is the final frontier we should all be exploring with ever greater urgency.

We’d better start soon because the messages filling our collective inbox tell us loudly and clearly that we’re all heading for a mass catastrophe. And migrating animals are telling us with increasingly apparent non-verbal communication that we’re warming the planet faster than they can adapt to it and faster than our collective home can reasonably absorb.

And like the Zebra finches singing preparatory lessons about climate change to their still incubating chicks, our cohabitants are telling us loudly and clearly that we’re imperiling the only truly habitable planet the universe has yet to offer to us. So, while SETI falsely excites us with our own messages reverberating off our own satellites, we should be paying ever closer attention to the good news that we are not alone after all … at least, not yet.

– JP Sottile

(This story originally published October 1, 2016 for Truthout)

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