Only one sentient species at a time

Roger Pielke Jr. has an interesting article in the Guardian where he addresses the search for extra-terrestrial life. His primary point is that we do not give sufficient consideration to the consequences of success. We see the search as satisfying curiosity but have no real hopes for success. And we have not really given much thought to the consequences of actually finding extra-terrestrial life.

Politicians tend to stay away from talking about aliens (unless they are “illegal aliens”) for obvious reasons. The United Nations briefly took up the issue of extraterrestrial life in 1977, but has let the issue lapse since then.

Following the 2010 Royal Society meeting, the UN’s Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs, Mazlan Othman, categorically denied that she was the “the “take-me-to-your-leader person” if the Earth were to be contacted by alien life forms.” It does sound a bit silly. But when pressed Othman “stressed that she did not know what role she would play.”

In fact, it seems unlikely that any policy makers in national or international settings have a clearly thought–through plan for responding to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, whether that be microbes on another body in our solar system or beady-eyed aliens looking to invade. The conversation is only silly if we assume that efforts to detect alien life will never succeed.

But that got me to wondering what would happen not only if we found life but if we found sentient life out there. And I am led to the inescapable conclusion that in the same habitat or space, it is not possible for more than one sentient species to hold sway.

If any of the primate species on Earth displayed sentience, we would wipe them out. Not because humans are so evil as a species but because any sentient species dominating a habitat could not tolerate another less sentient species from challenging that dominance. Unless different sentient species, in the same habitat, displayed exactly the same level of intelligence and mastery over the physical world, then the dominant species would have little option but to ensure that its dominance was not, and could not, be threatened. In most scenarios that would mean wiping out the subordinate sentient species. Live and let live would only be feasible if the two species inhabited completely different habitats. To survive, a sentient species needs to be far below the level of sentience of another more dominant species so as to be “allowed to survive”. As a pet species. Or else it must be the dominant species where all other species sufficiently far below in level of sentience may be allowed to survive.

If any earth species, gorillas or chimps for example, showed signs of becoming sentient and becoming a self-aware, socially coherent group, they would be a more serious existential threat to the human species than any asteroid impact or super-volcanic eruption. Perhaps we might cede the ocean habitat to sentient dolphins, but even that is unlikely. Sentient birds with dexterous appendages with land and the air as their habitat would not long suffer the human race to survive. The Planet of the Apes type of scenario where genetic modifications by humans inadvertently creates a rival, sentient species is, I suppose, not totally implausible. But as soon as two species in a common habitat are close in intelligence and physical capability, the die is cast and there is space only for one to survive. If our pet dogs started challenging our authority and – say – demanding to set the menu for their meals, they are doomed. If we created neo-chimps which started demanding their “rights”, they could not survive. If cows or horses demanded the right to choose their own partners, they would be doomed to extinction or genetic modification to make them more docile.

This also applies to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Suppose we found another sentient species on another planet. It is highly unlikely that it would display a similar level of sentience. Suppose anyway that the species can discern each other and perhaps even communicate. That itself is pretty far-fetched, but not impossible. It is more likely that the “finding” species is higher up in the sentience scale than the “found” species. So if we found a sentient species of inferior ability we might be magnanimous enough to allow it to continue in its own habitat, especially if the habitat was hostile to us. But we would see to it that its habitat was contained and could not expand to ever be a threat to humans. The obvious analogy is with the wiping out or subjugation of the local populations in the Americas or Australia. And that was with populations of the same species.

If we find a species that is superior to us (though it is more likely that they would find us), then it would be best if they were so far superior that the human race was perceived to be a “pet species”. Otherwise we are in for Star Wars and may the best species win. And the worst case scenario is that they find us. That we are found on Earth by a superior – but not too superior – species who find our habitat to be of interest. And the worst of worst cases would be if they found that we did not have the temperament to function as their pets and, moreover, if they found that human flesh, lightly spiced, was a particular delicacy.


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