It's reasonable to imagine that life has evolved in other places. Astronomers have recently identified some 370 exoplanets, a fancy word that describes planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. That may seem a very small number, and generally these known exoplanets are inhospitably hot or cold or otherwise unsuitable for the appearance of life. But since that sample of 370 exoplanets--found within 400 light-years of our own solar system--represents the tinest fraction of possibilities in a universe with trillions of suns that might include planets, it's actually a number with great promise. There could be billions of undiscovered planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, which contains 200 billion stars, more or less. It is reasonable to expect that somewhere out there--perhaps in many, many places--life has already appeared as it did on our planet. And perhaps, somewhere on there, that life has evolved in such a way and for a long enough time to produce intelligent beings.
Not long ago, I would have been taking a risk writing about these ideas. The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive in 1600 for declaring that intelligent life could exist in another world. Galileo was tried for heresy in 1633 and forced to announce a changed mind about the earth turning around the sun. These days, however, Galileo's erstwhile persecutors are entirely open to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. In the fall of 2009, the Vatican's astronomer, the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, hosted a five-day conference of astronomers, physicists, biologists, and religious ethicists to consider "whether sentient life forms exist on other worlds." I wish I had been invited to the conference, since I would have liked to ask the following question: If all of this science fantasy should turn into science fact, would we really welcome contact with beings with minds from outer space?
If we reached them before they reached us, we would do so probably because we're technologically more advanced than they. If so, what indicates that we'll treat them any differently from the way we've treated every other creature with sentience already here on this planet? We know elephants are intelligent and highly emotional. They recognize themselves as individuals in a mirror, which means they are self-aware or self-conscious. They understand one another as individuals. They have excellent memories and a strong sense of empathy. And yet we continue to harvest them, both legally and illegally, because some people find their front teeth aesthetically-pleasing when carved.
And if the extra-terrestrials should reach us first because they're technologically more advanced than we, what in our experience suggests that their high intelligence and great technology will be accompanied by wisdom and kindness, or would automatically promote high sympathy for another species? We really should be worried that these intelligent and technologically-advanced visitors from outer space will take one look at us and decide our teeth would make good trinkets . . . or that our brains, when processed, will provide just the right kind of lubricant for some arcane purpose only they understand.
Perhaps the best hope we have is to demonstrate with our own example that, given time, we can achieve a greater wisdom about ourselves and our relationship with the rest of the natural world on this planet. To show that we can find common purpose, in our relationship with other biological beings, and discover a more fulfilling sense of ourselves and others and, finally, a peace with animals and nature. Such a peace, I think, can come as the steady accumulation of particularized moments: the moment you looked and wondered but did not take, the moment you feared but did not destroy. Peace of the sort that comes from the wisdom of seeing something you do not fully understand, something that could be dangerous or maybe not, but that you decide in any case to leave alone. Particularized moments of peace.
But what, more specifically, do I mean?
Before she studied elephants, bioacoustician Katy Payne applied her scientific training and observation skills to whales, listening for fifteen years to the extended, complex, and perpetually-changing songs of humpback whales.
One time, while scouting out locations on the northeastern coast of Argentina's Peninsula Valdez to begin new research on the behavior of southern right whales, Payne heard of a place where the ocean currents drew whales very near to shore. Indeed, as soon as she and a friend, Ollie Brazier, launched their eight-foot boat at that same spot, they watched a whale drift right past them. They manoeuvered into a position where they, too, were drifting in the current, and then they cut the engine.
The giant creature ahead of them turned around and swam their way, disappearing beneath the surface, soon to emerge as a glistening wall rising up alongside the boat, drifting there for about two minutes. The wall was the underside of the chin of a vertical whale. A pair of eyes, located on either side of the chin, were just below the surface and apparently examining the boat.
The wall slipped back to the horizontal, and the whale once again turned downstream in the current, ahead of the boat, but now he began swimming backwards, back in the direction of the boat. Payne and Brazier could recognize the creature's underwater presence by a ruffled flurry on the surface, and then they saw, right beneath the surface, a massive tail waving slowly back and forth. The tail-waving may have been a threat, and certainly that immense and gracefully flexible appendage could have raised itself out of the water, covered the boat twice over, and crashed down on it and the people inside. Instead, however, the enormous tail simply flattened out and reached, as if it were the open palm of a hand, right beneath the boat.
With his tail thus flattened, the whale lifted the boat entirely clear of the water, and held the boat and the two people in it above the surface for a minute. "He held us steady for a full minute," as Payne writes in her book Silent Thunder, "two people on a tray six inches above the water's surface."
The whale then lowered them and their craft gently back down. Payne looked into the dark water and saw the giant mammal drift downstream again, once more drawing ahead of the moving boat. Then she saw him once more swim in reverse. She saw the tail wave back and forth, beneath the surface, and then she saw it again reach out flatly, beneath their small boat, and again the vessel and its two astonished occupants were lifted entirely out of the water. After a time, the tail lowered them gently back onto the water. The whale swam or drifted forward in the current, then again swam in reverse. And a third time, the vast creature made the same gesturing wave, the same deft reach, the same gentle lifting of vessel and occupants, the same gentle lowering.
It's hard to know what the whale was thinking or experiencing that day, as he surveyed two alien beings in an alien vessel, gently measured their heft and probed their significance before leaving them intact; but it's easy to believe that he had thoughts and a subjective mental experience. And it may be easy enough to conclude that he examined, considered, and, with some degree of deliberation, chose not to destroy what he did not entirely understand. That's what I mean by a particularized moment of peace.
Adapted from my latest book, The Moral Lives of Animals.