The World We Live In – August 7, 2011

It’s a truism these days to say that parents and children—in fact, members of any generation—live in different worlds. They have different concerns (getting your driver’s license vs. paying the insurance bill), different tastes in music (the melodies we remember from our youth vs. that “awful noise” the kids listen to),1 and different tolerances for stress and stimulation (riding the rollercoaster vs. sitting quietly and sipping a glass of wine).

Time in this case—plus an aging metabolism and endocrine system—brings a change in your relationship to the outside world. But there are other divides among the human population. The largest is probably differences in the depth and amount of a person’s background knowledge, whether acquired through formal education or personal study and reading.

Most people, for example, live in a Euclidean world not much different from that of the ancients. The space around them has three dimensions (up and down, side to side, forward and back). Lines are straight. Rooms are square. Dance floors are flat. Wall and floor meet at right angles. The horizon is as far as you can see. For everyday activities, this is an adequate view of the world.

A person with a little more education might live—at least some of the time, when thinking about the science—in an Einsteinian world. He or she has learned that the space around us is supposed to be shaped by gravity. Such a person knows that not only is the surface of the Earth curved, but all space and objects near the Earth are curved. The pencil between your fingers—even though it looks straight—curves very slightly downward along its length. Despite what your Level Devil tells you, the dance floor falls away in all directions from the spot where you’re standing. If it didn’t, you would be walking uphill with every step you took from that spot. The horizon is eight miles away if you’re standing in a wheat field on the Great Plains or sailing the ocean; it’s considerably farther if you climb a tower or a mast.2

For most people, humans and animals are different orders of being. They interact differently, understand differently—there is a great divide between the two. And they feel instinctively that the animals they encounter are of different specific types, as they were for Plato. All horses, for the ancient Greek, were imperfect copies of an ideal being, Horse, which was the model for an entire class of animals. And horses were very different in nature, strength, disposition, and other characteristics from cows, or goats, or lions. Each animal had its specific nature. Each represented something unique.

A person with a little more education understands about evolution and shared inheritance. The line between species becomes blurred. Horses are appreciably different from cows but not so different from donkeys and zebras. The dividing line seems to be the ability to breed: horse and donkey mate and the offspring is a mule. Most species crosses are indeed mules in the sense that the offspring are viable but not fertile.3 From this understanding, the world view of an educated person sees more sameness than difference. Rather than a static picture of different animal types existing forever, such a person sees a temporal flow of characteristics, one animal into another, as genetic mutations thrive or fail in the changing environments into which they are born.

For an educated person, it’s not really surprising that humans and horses, or humans and dogs, communicate so well. The difference in intelligence between human and dog is greater than between one human and another, but much less than between humans and fish, say, or lizards. The differences in intellect and awareness between land-based mammals are those of scale, not ultimate nature.

Of course, there are mammals of perhaps human-scale intelligence with which we don’t communicate so well. Humans have always had a special feeling for dolphins: They just seem more active and responsive, more intelligent, than tuna or swordfish or sharks. We have related less well with whales, perhaps because they are so huge and apparently self-involved. For years we hunted whales for oil—some humans still hunt them—where we never actively sought dolphins for their meat.

We know, or believe we know, that dolphins and whales have a complex form of communication based on sound, just as humans communicate largely through sound.4 But try as we might, we can’t crack their code of whistles and clicks. While the larynxes of gorillas and chimps can’t make the sounds we consider spoken language either, we can teach them sign language and share symbolic thoughts with them. The sound-making capability of dolphins and whales is far more complex—perhaps more complex even than the squeaks and hoots that make up human language—but we still can’t crack their code.

I submit that this may be due to the different worlds we live in. A dolphin, swimming free in the ocean, having no hands with which to manipulate objects, whose range of vision is limited by the murk of floating plankton and the feeble depth to which sunlight penetrates, inhabits a very different world from any land-based animal. A dolphin has a different orientation in space, relies on different senses, faces different concerns and dangers, has a closer horizon—or perhaps, with sonar, a farther one—than humans.

Dolphins don’t just hear and respond to a different music. They have a completely different shape to their world.

Given the different worlds that humans themselves may live in, and the world views that separate humans from our animal neighbors, then how much more different will be the first aliens we encounter? They are certainly not going to be Vulcans—humanoids with pointy ears but still having two arms and hands with five fingers. They may not even be as close to us as dolphins or spiders. And the environment that shapes their minds is sure to be very different from Earth’s.

Our first-contact aliens will likely be so different from us—not only physically but mentally—that we might not even recognize them as being alive. It’s going to be a very strange universe out there, and we’ll all have to be careful where we step.

1. But some things last. When I was a child, the music of my parents’ generation, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey, seemed quaint and corny. I liked Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles, which they hated. But we both loved classical music. And many youngsters today still like the Beatles. Quality endures.

2. I’ve always thought that sailors could readily grasp the fact that the Earth is a sphere because they could experience the curvature directly. As a ship sails away from the shore, the city skyline remains perfectly visible but the wharf disappears below the horizon. And as another ship approaches at sea, its topmasts and sails are readily seen but the hull is still hidden until it comes much closer. An agile mind will put these facts together and realize that the Earth’s surface cannot really be flat.

3. In fact, interbreeding—and the viability and fertility of the resulting embryo—have become the modern criteria that define speciation.

4. Dogs, on the other hand, seem to communicate most readily by scent. They may have an array of barks that may communicate basic emotions like alarm, anxiety, joy, and so on to one another. But when they want to recognize an individual and navigate the world around them, they follow their noses.