Decisions Using Intuition & Creativity
No Left-out People
The Crystal Structure
The Myth of Success
Doers & Creators
[This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, May 31, 1986.]
Last week's column on the subject of science has sparked a fair amount of lively discussion among folks that I meet. One remark I heard set me off on one of my favourite tirades, and I would like to share it with you.
Someone took issue with my comment that seemed to suggest that, since science yields information about how the universe behaves, and since this knowledge gives us the ability to alter the environment to suit ourselves, this is good. The commentator thought the works of humans tend to be destructive, and the natural world might be better without us.
This line of thinking leads me to ponder the meaning and purpose of life. Those of us who write planetarium shows often have to wonder about what will happen to human life, what will people achieve, and whether they will perish as a result of the discovery of powers that are too great for them to control.
All these become important factors in considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life. There are formulae that people use to try to calculate the odds of other life, and the most popular one says the number of technically advanced civilizations in our galaxy is about the same as the number of years that they can survive.
Thinking in terms of extraterrestrial life does help provide some interesting perspectives into the nature of life, and its purpose.
Radio astronomers have used their big radio telescopes to send messages of our existence to the stars, and others are trying to eavesdrop on interstellar conversations. It all makes one wonder what we would say to an alien if we could achieve contact. I guess it depends on how alien the other life happens to be.
This leads me to the more general question, what can we say that might be of any interest to other life forms? You probably have heard there are people who think that dolphins are intelligent, and if we can learn how they communicate we might be able to talk with them. Now, in this context, I do not really care if the dolphins have these abilities; this is a 'what-if' exercise.
So, what would we and the dolphins talk about? Remember, these are not really aliens, they are earth-life that are based on the DNA molecule, like us. As mammals they are practically our cousins.
On this planet they live in the oceans; we get the land portion, most of which is uninhabitable. To live in most parts of the globe, we have to build housing, grow food and wear protective clothing. By comparison, the dolphin is in paradise. For them, food is everywhere, and the idea of a house or a suit of clothes would seem silly.
On this planet, the dolphins seem to have a far better deal than ourselves. They live in a marine paradise, and we have to work very hard just to survive. And yet, who would trade places?
And what would the two species say to each other?
Human: We have split the atom, built great cities, and someday we are going to the stars; look at what we have accomplished, consider our ambitions and dreams for the future.
Dolphin: What are accomplishments? Let us talk of the friendship of our fellows, of making love, of water rushing over our skin, of the tastes of a thousand different yummy fish, and of the painfully beautiful song of the whale.
After the thrill of being able to communicate is over, we probably would find we have limited interest in each other's world. The dolphin may have the best of the planet Earth, but that is all it is destined to have. It alters nothing, creates nothing. Its ancestors forsook the land and returned to the sea.
The dolphin has flippers to propel it through the water, but has no hands to make tools.
Our life on the land is a constant struggle, but we are equipped to alter the environment so that we can survive. We have more than hands to manipulate tools, we have creative minds which can envisage things that do not yet exist: a new building, a social program, a new way of growing food, a poem, or a starship. And we are equipped to organized resources to transform our visions into reality.
When the dolphins returned to the comfortable brine, they turned their backs on the stars forever. We are just beginning to discover the powers that we might command, and to sense the extent of our potential role in the Universe. It may not be a bit part.
To survive we must alter our environment. It is the way we live. We are built to be doers and creators. I do not think that we should apologize for our works; we are following our destiny.
The questions about the meaning and purpose of life that follow from this line of reasoning have to do with the ethics of how we change things, and what we permit to be altered.
We seem to be equipped with two things to guide us in this: a sense of responsibility and a sense of pride. I think that everyone begins by wanting their creative works to be viewed as beautiful, justified, and beneficial.
I have yet to find any human who would trade our struggle for the dark, evolutionary cul-de-sac of the dolphin. Maybe it is because we share a sense of purpose, destiny, and adventure.
I worked in three major Canadian Planetariums over a period of twenty years. I find that many people who interpret astronomy come to care about the Earth as a finite resource, and a precious home to all of the life we know. This line of thinking has lead me to become more environmentally active. Since I wrote that article, I have spent eight years on the Board of the Canadian Nature Federation, and two years on the Board of BC Spaces for Nature. Much of modern environmentalism involves trying to lessen the impact of human behaviour. I think that since we have the power to cause changes to the Earth, we also have the responsibility to be stewards of the planet. In this regard, I believe that the actions and decisions of each human make a real difference - including the decision to ignore this responsibility.
I would be interested to receive any comments you may wish to contribute. Please send me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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