Aliens Among Us
When I was a kid, my family used to have movie nights, most often at my Uncle’s house. He had turned his garage into a movie theatre, complete with gold eggshells lining the walls and a curtain in front of the screen. He had replicated the entire movie-going experience and I always looked forward to going there.
Uncle Bill was a classic movie buff so we saw all the old movies like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘How the West was Won’, and all the Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin standards. Before the main movie he always screened ‘shorts’, half-an-hour to forty-five minute serial shows that he always showed before the main movie, and the one I remember best was ‘Star Trek’.
Star Trek was always a little more intelligent fare because the problems faced by the crew were invariably more than could be solved by sheer brute force or superior technology. Additionally, there were the ethical dilemmas demanding that choices were made, not purely to support the Federation, but to bring about elegant solutions that benefited everyone.
The Federation Moral Code, embodied in the Prime Directive, is as follows:
“The Directive states that members of Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species, especially the natural development of pre-warp civilizations, either by direct intervention, or technological revelation.”
Originally, the Directive was a shield for primitive worlds. If such a world was in danger, Starfleet had been known to order ships to save that world, but given that this often had disastrous long-term outcomes, the case had to be very special to justify such an action.
In many of the episodes, the plot dealt with the debate concerning the morality and ethics of non-intervention in depth, and often mirrored real-world issues like colonialism and interference in and exploitation of other cultures and people by those who had the means to do so, whether those means were technological or systemic.
The Prime Directive always made sense to me; after all, what gives the inhabitants of one planet the right to invade or disturb the peace of another? And if this is true of planetary populations, it must also be true of other populations, and so on. To regard species as such is not a stretch with the Prime Directive in mind. We all insist on the right to carry out our affairs without interference; it is contrary to ethical logic to demand a condition for ourselves that we refuse to grant to others. We call this attitude “hypocrisy” for good reason; it is morally inconsistent.
The phrase, “not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species” has become more and more relevant, to my mind, within the context of our interaction with other species on our own planet. I say ‘our own planet’ and imply a well-worn assumption, the notion that we ‘own’ the planet we live on, as if it is our right to do with it and its other denizens as we wish. It’s an assumption I have for some time called into question, especially with the Prime Directive in mind. After all, it does make sense, does it not, to regard other societies or cultures with respect (although this has not historically been our approach) and adopt an attitude of ‘live and let live’, the only exception being when one group in that society exploits or attempts to destroy the other? It very much depends on what we constitute as a ‘society’.
1. an organized group of persons associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes;
2. a body of individuals living as members of a community;
3. the body of human beings generally, associated or viewed as members of a community.
In turn, a society may embody a ‘Culture’:
a: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations;
b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time;
c: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization;
d: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.
Notice that when we refer to both of the above ideas, we use them only with reference to humans. It means we perceive only humans to have these attributes. Yet non-human animals live in communities, form societies, have patterns of beliefs, knowledge and behaviours and while they may not have religion and politics, one questions whether these are beneficial or divisive, given the degree to which they result in human conflict, not to mention delusion. Cognitive biases (feelings of optimism or pessimism), which are derived from beliefs, have been shown in a wide range of species including rats, dogs, cats, rhesus macaques, sheep, chicks, starlings, pigs and honeybees.
We colloquially refer to non-human animals as ‘animals’ as if this separates them from us in some definitive manner, when in fact it is only a loose categorisation. In fact, given that we share the same building blocks of DNA with them, and have significant other commonalities in respect of skeletal and organic structure, it borders on absurd to argue that we are not animals. Our behaviour is also remarkably similar. Further evidence of our animal-ness is written in the daily news headlines – murder and its cousin war, the constant struggles for economic dominance, and our disregard for the environment in which we live, suggests that we are driven more by immediate-need animal instinct than by rational thinking.
There is nothing so different in us that we can place ourselves in a category so separate from non-human animals biologically that we can infer that we are something other than animals. Clever ones, to be sure, animals nevertheless. We are merely another species, not a creature separate from the animal kingdom; we came from it, developed in it and are inextricably interdependent with it.
Many of these non-human animals are indeed strange, or at least any human coming across one for the first time would have considered them so, given that they appear to be so different to us as to be considered ‘alien’.
1.Belonging to a foreign country: an alien culture
1.1 (Of a plant or animal species) introduced from another country and later naturalized: many food chains are based upon alien plants.
2. Unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful: principles that are alien to them: they found the world of further education a little alien.
3. Supposedly from another world: extraterrestrial.
When we consider something ‘alien’ we are usually unsettled – strange ideas, things or creatures make us uncomfortable. Whether they are a foreigner, an animal or a ‘weird’ concept, our typical response is to be wary, since ‘unknown’ brings uncertainty and unpredictability and that makes us feel insecure.
So when something is ‘different’ we become apprehensive, as if ‘different’ is automatically a threat. And when we perceive someone or some ‘thing’ to be a threat, whether a creature or an idea, we want to control it, to render it less threatening, often with disastrous results, not only for the ‘threatening thing’, but to our own ethical constructs. I am reminded of the song by Bright Blue, ‘Weeping’, about the ‘threat’ of black empowerment:
“It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.”
The animal kingdom has been reduced to a serfdom at the beck and call of the human species and everywhere there is abuse and cruelty. Non-human animals are not roaring, they are weeping, as wild animal numbers dwindle, captive animals are subjected to the atrocities of vivisection, abused and exploited in the entertainment and leisure industries, and reduced to sad and crushed commodities for human food.
Some would argue that they are ‘only animals’ and that they don’t ‘weep’, because they don’t have emotions like us, and they don’t think, at least not the same way we do and at the same level. I would agree in both these instances, with the qualification that whether different or inferior, neither justifies interference or exploitation. Apply this in any human context and it should be obvious that it would be immoral to do so.
What changes this when the context changes? Should it?
As Carl Safina says in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel: “Why do human egos seem so threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”
We claim supremacy by virtue of our superior intellect, which intellect has given rise to the concept of ethics, and yet we do not apply ethical consideration to those outside of our species, as if ethics are only for humans. One would think that those who were less capable than ourselves and therefore potentially victims, with all the consequences of victimhood, would be more worthy of ethical consideration. Morals have always been about defending the weak, not finding arguments for exploiting them. We have one moral standard for humans, and another for non-humans.
These ‘aliens’ in our midst seem to enjoy none of the ethical considerations we might show to species from or on another planet. If we did come across an alien extraterrestrial species, would our first instinct be to regard them as equals with the right to live their lives without interference, or would we develop ways to enslave them or create recipes in which their bodies would be consumed as food, or hunt them as sport? Why should our attitude be different with respect to extraterrestrial species than that of the ‘aliens’ among us? Are they sufficiently ‘different’ from us to justify this exclusion?
While animal brains differ in size, they are remarkably similar, suggesting that brains evolved before the species differentiated.
“From an evolutionary-biological perspective, the function of the brain is to provide coherent control over the actions of an animal. A centralized brain allows groups of muscles to be co-activated in complex patterns; it also allows stimuli impinging on one part of the body to evoke responses in other parts, and it can prevent different parts of the body from acting at cross-purposes to each other.
To generate purposeful and unified action, the brain first brings information from sense organs together at a central location. It then processes this raw data to extract information about the structure of the environment. Next it combines the processed sensory information with information about the current needs of an animal and with memory of past circumstances. Finally, on the basis of the results, it generates motor response patterns that are suited to maximize the welfare of the animal. These signal-processing tasks require intricate interplay between a variety of functional subsystems.
All vertebrate brains share a common underlying form, which appears most clearly during early stages of embryonic development. In its earliest form, the brain appears as three swellings at the front end of the neural tube; these swellings eventually become the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain (the prosencephalon, mesencephalon, and rhombencephalon, respectively). At the earliest stages of brain development, the three areas are roughly equal in size. In many classes of vertebrates, such as fish and amphibians, the three parts remain similar in size in the adult, but in mammals the forebrain becomes much larger than the other parts, and the midbrain becomes very small.” (Wiki)
"…human cognition is a variety of animal cognition." – Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Many people assume the existence of a cognitive continuum, from lower to higher forms, with our own intelligence at the top. But what if it is more like a living network, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours? Birds that navigate by sensing magnetic fields and electroreceptive animals like sharks and others use this sense to locate objects around them. Many non-human animals possess abilities we can only dream of, since we simply do not have the apparatus necessary to deploy the forms of intelligence derived from them. In comparison to these abilities, we could easily be regarded as ‘stupid’.
The appropriate word to use may not be ‘superior’ but ‘different’, given that we do not have an absolute reference point for ‘intelligence’.
We cite language as one of the defining factors of our supremacy, as if language is somehow restricted to the human species. Again, while it may be true that our use of language is more complex and has certain characteristics not present in animal communication, we cannot assume that because we do not understand their language that they do not have one.
Natural animal communication can include:
• Chemical signals (used by some very simple creatures, including protozoa);
• Smell (related to chemical signals, eg. pheromones attract, skunk secretions repel);
• Posture (eg. dogs, geese);
• Facial gestures (eg. dogs snarling);
• Visual signals (eg. feathers);
• Sound (eg. very many vertebrate and invertebrate calls).
Such signals have evolved to:
• Attract (especially mates);
• Repel (especially competitors or enemies);
• Signal aggression or submission;
• Warn of predators;
• Communicate about the environment or the availability of food.
Such signals may be:
• Instinctive, that is genetically programmed;
• Learned from others.
We’re further along the evolutionary path than other primates – does that give us the right to take advantage of them for our own purposes? Could we use this argument as a justification for exploiting other humans? If not, then why do we think it’s okay for non-humans?
Chimpanzees perform better than humans on memory tests where numbers have to be remembered in their spatial positions. Scientists attribute this impressive display of working memory to "eidetic imagery," or what is commonly known as photographic memory. You've probably heard that term in reference to people who remember every little thing that's ever happened to them, but in this case it just means the chimps seem to have a really good visual memory -- they can remember details of an image even if they just glimpsed it for a couple of seconds.
A sea lion was given a test similar to one from ten years before, only this time it used numbers and letters instead of symbols. She was able to identify the numbers and letters that were the same, despite the fact that she had not performed the trick again at any point in the last decade.
Elephants can keep track of the whereabouts of up to 30 family members, regardless of their distance or direction. They accomplish this incredible task by creating a mental map that locates the position of each family member, even if some are separated from the rest of the pachydermal pack. How do they do this? Through their astounding ability to track and catalogue elephant pee.
And Clark's nutcracker spends the fall gathering pine nuts and just hiding them. Later, in the winter, when everything is blanketed by a thick layer of snow, the bird digs them up again to keep itself alive over the long months. The bird is able to accomplish this winter gorging through the use of a sophisticated spatial memory, which allows it to recall landmarks, such as trees, to pinpoint the locations of several thousand caches in a 15-mile area.
Humans don’t have anything like these abilities to recall information.
In humans, a distinction is sometimes made between "basic" and "complex" emotions. Six emotions have been classified as basic: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Complex emotions would include contempt, jealousy and sympathy. However, this distinction is difficult to maintain, and non-human animals are often said to express even the complex emotions.
"… most scientists now feel they can say with confidence that some animals process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experience. They agree that animals, from rats and mice to parrots and humpback whales, have complex mental capacities; that a few species have attributes once thought to be unique to people, such as the ability to give objects names and use tools; and that a handful of animals—primates, corvids (the crow family) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins)—have something close to what in humans is seen as culture, in that they develop distinctive ways of doing things which are passed down by imitation and example. No animals have all the attributes of human minds; but almost all the attributes of human minds are found in some animal or other.
Brain mapping reveals that the neurological processes underlying what look like emotions in rats are similar to those behind what clearly are emotions in humans. As a group of neuroscientists seeking to sum the field up put it in 2012, ‘Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures...also possess these neurological substrates.’
Some animals seem to display pity, or at least concern, for diseased and injured members of their group. Stronger chimps help weaker ones to cross roads in the wild. Elephants mourn their dead. In a famous experiment, Hal Markowitz, later director of the San Francisco zoo, trained Diana monkeys to get food by putting a token in a slot. When the oldest female could not get the hang of it, a younger unrelated male put her tokens in the slot for her and stood back to let her eat." - Essay in The Economist
When we look at all of our arguments for supremacy and how they form a basis for our justifications of animal exploitation, what people often forget to examine is whether supremacy can ever justify any sort of behaviour at all? Does the fact that men are stronger than women justify sexual abuse or violence? Are bullies justified in picking on those who are smaller or less adept, whether it be physically or mentally? Is it okay for the rich to manipulate the poor, the ruling class to exploit the working class, the intelligentsia to marginalise the lay people? It should be self-evident that all of these are merely different forms of the ‘might is right’ argument. It’s not a sound basis for ethical consideration or action.
“In our estrangement from nature we have severed our sense of the community of life and lost touch with the experience of other animals. ...understanding the human animal becomes easier in context, seeing our human thread woven into the living web among the strands of so many others.” ~ Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
The Prime Directive had introduced me to a sense of Custodianship regarding one’s place in the Universe. It implied an interaction with the world that demanded consideration for the consequences of my actions, particularly for others, however those others may be defined, no matter how alien they or their ideas may be. The more I have understood about life and its diversity, the more I have widened the scope of that consideration.
We need a more enlightened, more responsible moral imperative, one guided by scientific understanding and not cultural and social preconceptions and prejudices. And if we embrace that imperative, then non-human animals should be part of our ethical framework, not excluded from it.