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Alien Scientist: Anthropocentric Games

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: January 2006, Topic: Alien Scientist

Faced with the prospect that we are 'just' animals, we humans seem to console ourselves with the belief that we are yet superior to other species, usually because of our intelligence. This apparent anthropo-chauvinism means that we still set ourselves above all our terrestrial relatives, and can only imagine alien life-forms as our potential equals in the universe, with whom we might discuss the finer points of particle physics or inter-galactic politics.

Certainly, intelligence is important - to us - and we are especially good at 'human-like' intelligence. But to use intelligence to claim our superiority over all other species would, to an impartial observer, surely seem self-serving - and self-deluding.

It would be as if the Swiss - who are, say, the world's finest watch-makers - were to claim that watch-making was the ultimate indicator of a nation's superiority. Or, as if the Scots claimed that the ultimate indicator was making the finest Scotch whisky (when Scotch is by definition only made in Scotland). Humanity's claims for the supremacy of intelligence - and, in particular, human-like intelligence - would seem just as suspicious, to an impartial observer - such as an alien member of an Inter-Galactic Species Supremacy Claims Committee. It is true that intelligence has certain qualities that seem to indicate the superiority of a species - but only because that superiority is defined from an anthropocentric perspective.

For a start, we tend to think that our intelligence makes us somehow nobler than 'brute animals'. But if an artificial intelligence ever surpassed our own, one can imagine we would simply redefine intelligence as 'human-like' intelligence, somehow nobler than the intelligence of 'brute machines.'

We also value our intelligence because it comes with a sense of self-awareness that makes us feel superior to our pea-brained and no-brained comrades. However, it would be difficult to prove that we have a richer self-awareness than a butterfly (tasting everything it touches with its feet) or a bat (who might dream in sonar). Similarly, we may think that our ability to play space invaders or trace our family tree gives us a superior quality of life to other creatures. But who is to argue with the happiness of the proverbial pig in pigshit, or the satisfaction of a spider catching a fly?

Perhaps a spider gets no satisfaction, as such, from catching a fly, because it simply acts instinctively: it does not have that special feeling of fore-thought, effort and reward that a satisfied human fly-catcher would have. But to judge a spider's quality of life according to what makes us tick is precisely the issue. We cannot say we are superior to spiders because we build world-wide webs, rather than just fly-catching ones. After all, it is only humans' complicated social life, lurid imagination and restless inventiveness that makes building a global web of human communication either desirable or possible. But our crazy brainy preoccupations might be regarded by other animals - or aliens - as self-indulgent party tricks, no more impressive than a peacocks' tail feather display, or a mooning baboon.

Since we can’t easily compare the superiority of being a mooning baboon or human, it might be that we have to judge the success of species by our reproductive success. Like GDP as a measure of a nation's success, this may be crude, and miss some of the subtleties important to particular individuals, but it is one criterion that can be compared across a diversity of cases. So, while other species may care nothing of humanity's successes in the sciences and (so-called) humanities, they may have grudging respect for humans' swarming population, and our colonisation of every corner of the Earth, that would make a rat or cockroach proud. But they don't necessarily respect the means by which we have done it (via big brains, boats, book-keeping, etc.), any more than we respect the reproductive ingenuity of rabbits or carrots. So, if we limit ourselves to reproduction - a game that all living things play - we are reduced to fighting for evidence of success alongside any other species, in a game we won’t necessarily win.

All that said, it may be unnecessarily human-like to even care about other species' points of view. In the end, we are the only species properly capable of grudging respect or chauvinism; or properly conscious of the struggle for life, and our place in it. It is only we who make this a 'game': the other species may be hardly more aware of their participation than the pixels in a space invaders game. So we shouldn't worry that we are somehow cheating the other species by claiming superiority through intelligence; we are only deluding ourselves that we are meaningfully 'winning' a game - that of being successful humans - that no one else is attempting to play. In the end, imagining that others are playing our game is no more than a harmless fantasy for lonely sentients in an otherwise dark, unconscious cosmos.

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