Swimming elephants and the demise of gods
Fortunately, Singapore does not have a creationist movement; they would drive me mad. However, off and on, we come across literature from America, where they seem to have a continuing stronghold (like the gun culture) despite all reason and sanity. I remember that one of the arguments made to disprove evolution centres on elephants and their trunks. No intermediate form has ever been found archeologically, and in any case, what evolutionary benefit would any animal have, with one-third or one-half the trunk present-day elephants have? It only stands to reason, therefore, that elephants could only have been made exactly as they are by the Creator.
Of course, this reasoning is absurd. Admittedly, missing links are, well, missing, and until we find them, it will be difficult to know the habits and advantages of half-trunked animals. But the fact that we haven't found the missing links doesn't mean the missing links didn't exist, it merely means that our knowledge is incomplete. But be careful here: to say that our knowledge is incomplete is not the same as saying that the creationist theory is true. That is a leap of faith not just unwarranted by the facts, but flies against some other facts that we do know, about human evolution, for example.
Anyway, staying with elephants, to my satisfaction, one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place in May 1999. I quote the BBC report:
Early elephants used 'swimming trunks'
That the creationist theory even retains a hold on some people, tells us a lot about the human mind. We are extremely species-egoistic. Many of our religions, as presently formulated, are highly anthropocentric, putting humans (once upon a time it was just the males of humans, to boot) at the centre of the intellectual and moral universe, with a direct line to one or more supernatural powers.
Creationism is just the bizarre fringe of this tendency. It is so highly defensive of the special position of humans in the scheme of things, that it is even unwilling to recognise that different species share an evolutionary history.
But the creationism-evolution argument is a minor sideshow compared to what I think is coming up next. It is whether humans have a central place at all. I am sure there will come a time when it will be clear that we do not. What that will mean for many religions must be cataclysmic.
Here is another BBC report, from 15 April 1999:
Out of this world discovery
With zillions of stars, there must be zillions of planets and moons. It is just that our ability to observe astronomical bodies is just too crude at this stage for us to see them yet. Of these zillions of planets or their moons, the probability of life, or intelligence, must be, not just very high, but assured. In fact, the question I have for myself is not whether there is life or intelligence out there, but how many.
You may have noticed that I am treating life and intelligence as different things. Firstly it is obvious that one may be able to discover life-forms, without those life-forms exhibiting intelligence as we know it. But then the reverse may also apply. We may discover intelligence without any life-forms which we may recognise as life. The only kind of life-forms we know is carbon-based. Is that the only possibility? We don't know. And if we don't know, then how do we know what to look for?
In fact, humans are now looking more for intelligence than life. Our radio telescopes are on various missions to look for radio patterns in space that may indicate the presence of other intelligent "beings" -- which is a word I use reluctantly, for want of a better one. I fear too many readers have a mental picture of a "being" drawn from our experience with cinema. I have the sneaky feeling we will be shocked when we do find intelligence, by the physical form of that "being". It may be just a layer of ultraviolet slime on a bone-dry moonscape, but that slime may be a phenomenal neural network that can think and ooze a chemistry able to re-organise the geology on which it rests, to create its "technology". We may not recognise it even if we stumble onto it. Or it may be like a fungus with deep roots connecting with other fungi-like beings, perhaps all underground. Or it may be like a swarm of insects, but the "being" is not an individual insect, but the organised sum total of the entire swarm, sharing a singular mind.
Encountering intelligence from space will be "earth-shattering", especially if they turn out to be more intelligent than we are. We will have to completely redefine the human's place in our conception of the intellectual and moral universe. We will suddenly be exposed to ideas and possibilities never before imagined, perhaps pertaining to social organisation, moral systems and logical pathways. We may even be exposed to possibilities of time travel or the disembodiment of "souls". None of our religions take into account time travel (and all the topsy-turvy cause-and-effect problems it may create), or the concept of simultaneous existence of a single "soul" in multiple bodies. Even the existence of a single "soul" in serial bodies -- i.e. reincarnation -- is extremely threatening to many religious teachings. What if "souls" can migrate from humans to slime to swarms of gnats, where does that leave the God-favoured position of Man? What if "souls" can't migrate, but slime is cleverer than humans, where too does that leave us?
It is difficult to imagine scenarios of events that we have never experienced. Yet, human history has some possible parallels, in contact between civilisations.
The most optimistic parallel is the contact between the European civilisation and the Chinese. This contact was a creeping one, spread over a thousand years, between two civilisations not too unequal in size and technology. The Roman and Han Empires had news of each other, and a trickle of trade and exchanges got through. A thousand years later, it was still merely trickling. Marco Polo's tales of Kublai Khan's China were often greeted as fantastic by a readership that knew very little beyond the Adriatic Sea. But because they were intellectually and technologically not too far apart, the two civilisations generally drew strength from each other as they came to know each other better, while maintaining many of their own traditions. This is a process that is still continuing today.
At the other extreme is the contact between the European civilisation and the Aztec. It was too sudden and the technology gap was too great. Huge portions of the culture and religion of the Aztecs were wiped out by the impact. Their gods could not survive the arrival of other gods.
As I said earlier, with zillions of planets and moons out there, encountering intelligent aliens is not a matter of whether, but when. The interesting question is what happens after that. Which, if any, of our gods will be left?
© Yawning Bread