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Alien Scientist: Nature's Design and Alien Artifice

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: January 2008, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

Architects and engineers, inspired by nature's functional structures, may go to the science library to study books on the forms and mechanisms of living things. While in the zoology section, they may look out for books on the inanimate constructions of animals, such as bees' hives or beavers' dams. These books on 'animal architecture', though dealing with physical forms, may tend to be shelved under ethology, or animal behaviour. A construction, after all, is the product of construction behaviour.

A potentially significant difference between human and animal constructions is the extent to which the latter could be considered as products of design. Do spiders really 'design' their webs? The answer depends on what we mean by design, and things such as intention and forethought, or any kind of thought or consciousness.

In the past, people tended to assume that since beehives and termite nests are complex, functional structures, they must have been 'designed'. But theories of self-organisation now suggest that we need not assume any kind of design thought or intention in the tiny heads of insects; no ingenious insect architect or engineer, nor even an insect 'foreman' co-ordinating the works. Rather, the complex forms of beehives or termite nests emerge from the interaction of insect-labourers carrying and depositing material according to simple 'rules' of behaviour, 'rules' that may not even be consciously known or followed. And so, while termite nests and beehives may look designed - at least to sentient observers with a culture of design - this does not mean they really were designed.

Now, we could imagine sentient alien visitors arriving on Earth and wondering the same thing about human constructions. After all, to the alien zoologists, humans could be considered as 'just another species'. There would be no way of knowing if the elegant span of the Golder Gate Bridge was any more 'designed' than the elegant span of a spider's web'; no way of knowing if the carefully stacked skyscrapers of Manhattan or efficiently packed capsule hotels of Tokyo were any more the product of design than the skyscraping 'cities' or honeycomb 'dormitories' of the insect world.

In the other direction, how would we be able to tell if any alien constructions were the products of conscious design? If we observed a flying saucer descend from the sky, carefully settling gently on the ground, and saw a hatch and ramp open with an alien astronaut stepping down the steps, then we might reasonably guess that the saucer, hatch, ramp and steps had all been deliberately designed, to bring the alien safely to Earth. But what if we were visited by something more like an extraterrestrial sycamore seed, that fell helically, softly to earth, anchored itself into the ground and then sprouted some green above-ground evapo-tranpiration apparatus? We would not be so sure that this alien 'plant' represented an intentional terrestrial mission.

Similarly, if we visited some planet and found alien life-forms living in some sort of dwellings, how would we know if these were designed and planned like humans' homes, or were rather like the instinctively constructed 'homes' of alien birds or termites, constructions whose equivalents on Earth we regard as 'wonders of nature'? After all, we see our buildings as artificial constructions set apart from nature, whereas we see birds' and termites' nests as part of nature.

Of course, the whole concept of 'nature' is something that is challenged - or at least complicated - by the existence of alien life. On Earth, things are simple: anything not human or human-made is considered as part of nature. But alien life might seem too otherworldy - too 'unnatural' - to be considered part of nature. Then again, it depends on the kind of alien life. If on some planet we found alien 'forests', 'swamps' or 'coral reefs', we might consider these all as part of alien 'nature'. However, if we were visited by a flying saucer, we might be tempted to consider the alien astronaut as something - or someone - set apart from extraterrestrial 'nature'.

In the end, it is a matter of perspective. Perhaps we must ask the alien if they have 'nature' too. Or we could look in the learned libraries of the Alien Academies of Science, and find out if they have subjects such as 'design theory' or 'natural sciences'. And while there, we could check out architecture and engineering, and see if they, like the 'humanities', anthropology and ethology, are all considered sub-branches of Earthly zoology.

<< Mind the Gap: December 2007 | Master Index | Rude Awakenings >>

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