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Alien Scientist: Divided Earth

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: May 2003, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

When you look down on Earth from space, you see a surface of many hues. The landmasses are coloured in various shades of beige, ochre, green, grey and white, that gently mix and merge with each other. Even more fluid are the shades of blue, from deep ultramarine oceans to turquoise lagoons. There are no stark pinks, purples or yellows of the international atlas. From space, no jagged political boundaries can be seen to frame nations: these are only the constructs of human imaginations.

An alien cartographer aloft would take some time to work out all the territorial rules we humans take for granted. The blue bits are divided up in different ways, depending on whether they surround or are surrounded by different bits of land. Some pools of blue belong to one land; others are divided between lands. Some seas are free of possession from any land, but no sea possesses a land.

The white bits are also carved up in different ways, depending on whether they lie over land or sea. Many of the white chunks don't really belong to anyone - except the polar bears and penguins.

In general, the boundaries set by one species to divide up the Earth are not respected by any other species. Animals have no human rights, so no-one expects them to respect human laws. Birds and bees and pollen grains fly free across frontiers, as humans queue for visas. Cats and mice creep from garden to garden, oblivious to laws of human possession. The other animals sense the world in different ways from us, and must have different conceptions of the same geographies. They perhaps have ultra-violet images of their own habitats, radar maps or night-vision town plans of their hinterlands, their home patches advertised by smelly sign-posts. These territories all overlap and intersect in a multi-dimensional jigsaw that perhaps no single authority could properly reconcile.

Human boundaries are at least recognised by human earthlings and carry legal force. When they are not recognised, or when legal agreement breaks down, we have disputes and wars. Of course, humanity's disputes are directed principally at other humans. Other species may suffer, but it is only the humans' invisible bounds that are being fought over. Humans struggle for supremacy over a piece of land or water only to gain the human rights to control that territory - though that prize may be assumed to include all the beasts in the field and fish in the sea as well. The collateral creatures who creep around are oblivious to the regime change. They have their own struggles for life and death to worry about. In H. G. Wells' classic War of the Worlds, the Earth is attacked by an army of Martians. The humans, of course, take it personally. The invaders cause chaos and carnage, going around zapping people with heat-rays, and nearly succeed in taking over the planet. Curiously, it is not human technology that thwarts them: it is disease that finally overcomes the invaders. Humanity has an unexpected ally in earthly bacteria - a temporary planetary solidarity united against the extraterrestrial enemy.

In science fiction stories, of course, aliens making contact generally seem to focus entirely on humans: it is usually human society they seek to befriend or destroy. Not many science fiction epics feature intergalactic lobsters making contact with terrestrial crustaceans. (At least, not those written in English.)

Any alien delegation landing on Earth would have to take care with whose toes and tentacles they were treading on: which creatures might be most prickly, sickly or deadly to do business with. The alien ambassadors might have to decide carefully which Earthlings to establish diplomatic relations with.

Humans may consider themselves the dominant species, but this hardly represents any planetary authority. No matter how we may empathise with them, we do not speak for the other species. No matter how we may think we are fighting their cause, we have no mandate. And no matter how we may appear to subjugate other species, we have no guarantee of control.

To outsiders, we may be just as much a bunch of animals as the rest of them.

To any non-biological intelligence - or an alien species unknown to natural selection - the planet must sometimes seem like one big civil war between Earthlings.

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