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?