Monday, January 28, 2013

Are we alone?

This was "the" question in the 1970s, remember? UFO mania was rife when I was a kid. It felt like the aliens would be, must be, arriving at any moment. That it simply couldn't be long. Well, y'know... maybe. Someday.

For a long time now I've been wondering about that kind of thing coming up from behind us, rather than out in space. I've seen some documentaries on YouTube lately about the cognitive abilities of some border collies that were utterly sobering... they were doing things I simply would not have credited dogs with being able to do. Being able to fetch an object they'd never seen before from another room simply by working out they'd never heard the name of the object before, and mapping that to the one object they'd never seen before. That was astounding. But when they showed a collie who could understand that a two-dimensional photograph represented an unknown object in the real world, located in another room, and then then retrieve it, I felt like someone was walking on my grave. At least some of the dogs quietly sharing our lives must be capable of much, much more than we're used to giving them credit for.

Even more to the point was Raccoon Nation, a documentary I watched recently that focused on raccoons living in urban environments. Canadians can watch it on CBC, and Americans on PBS. It's largely focused on Toronto, which has an enormous urban raccoon population, twenty times the size it was just a couple of (human) generations ago. They're doing extremely well in Toronto, but they're making a home in most major North American cities, and now some in Germany and Japan where foolish people introduced them in the 20th century. There's some suggestion that we're inadvertently breeding a better raccoon... that the harder we make it for them to get food, the more we're simply rewarding the smarter ones, who as result will be the most likely to reproduce. We represent a strong environmental pressure for raccoons to get sharper, and very, very rapidly.

This leaves me wondering how far it can go. It's easy to laugh up your sleeve at the notion, but I'm honestly wondering now. Keeping in mind that we've now seen that at least some dogs understand representative abstraction... something I would NOT have believed only a few months ago... and that there's a demonstrated correlation between intelligence and the ability to manipulate objects, which dogs don't really have but raccoons certainly do... maybe this needs to be taken seriously. What are the limits of what raccoons will be able to learn and apply over time, given the opportunities of our cities, their penchant to learn by observation, and their relative physical and mental similarities to us? There was a time, after all, when our own ancestors couldn't do the things that we can do today. At some point, thresholds were crossed, and we crossed them WITHOUT (so far as we know) another species lighting the way by example.

And I'll ask it... at what point would such beings cease to be simply "animals" and become outliers of our society? I'm not saying this is necessarily going to happen... but what if it did? What would be the watershed moment or event when they'd, in effect, become what the title of the documentary suggests mainly in jest... a "nation"? I think that's a fascinating subject to mull over.

Are we alone? If so... will we be for long?


Trevor McLeod said...

I can vouch for that racoon Doc on CBC, very interesting to watch especially if you live in Toronto and learning about how they have territories and they actually keep to a very small area (They attached GPS to racoons and mapped the results.

Bridgewater said...

We've never been alone--we've just believed we were, thanks largely to the Bible. We are part of a One, a net of life interdependent, and not separately created to be masters of all we survey--and most definitely not as smart as we think we are, given the wanton destruction of that net for our momentary convenience. So sorry, TPers--evolution, as the adaptive change for survival, and extinction, as the failure to adapt, are proceeding before our very eyes throughout the net. For some critters, including us, increasing intelligence is the key to survival. Domestic dogs evolved within our timeframe, the wild ones whose ingratiating behavior pleased us surviving best to pass on their DNA, and that border collie being the best example, since we have sped up the process by selective breeding for intelligence. The raccoons will be all right as long as they charm us or become useful to us and unless/until they inconvenience us--and then it's buh-bye, 'coons. Gorillas, elephants, whales--intelligent creatures all, butchered to near extinction for our pleasure. These and other intelligent animals have the capacity to understand our speech and to communicate needs without speech, but their ability to transmit concepts to their fellows and the next generation is apparently limited at present. The border collie understands the idea of a picture of a ball as a representation of a ball to be fetched from the next room, but can he explain it to his pups? Not yet, as far as we know--although our knowledge of our fellow earthlings is growing by the day; it was not so long ago that we believed ourselves the only beings that used tools or that had a sense of self or any understanding of death. We are on a continuum, albeit with a gap between us and the next most intelligent beings. How convenient for us--no real competition except each other... And the way that must have come about is what makes me cynical about the fate of the raccoons. We are indeed set apart by the reality that we are the only beings that have a big picture of our habitat; sea creatures know only the world of water, other land animals know only terra firma, and no other creatures here have a concept of what lies beyond our planet. And as far as our knowledge of aliens from Out There is concerned, we are little better off than the monkeys. There are scientists who believe it was a terrible mistake to announce our existence to the galaxy at large. In this regard an episode of Twilight Zone comes to mind, in which beings from another world brought peace to us, and prosperity and abundance for all. We were happy until a book spirited from the alien ship, entitled "How to Serve Man," was translated and revealed to be a cookbook. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy...