Tuesday, May 11, 2010

About Us & Other Minds

Recently, the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been much discussed in the media. The eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking weighed in on his Discovery Channel Show entitled "Stephen Hawking's Universe" with a dramatization (see also msnbc post entitled "Hawking: Aliens may pose risks to Earth" dated Apr. 25, 2010). Perhaps, the interest is related to the discovery of ever more exoplanets. According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the number of exoplanets currently stands at 452. It is only a question of time that a planet is discovered that may be similar to Earth, increasing the chances for alien intelligence to exist.

No doubt, alien minds are difficult to fathom. I once had the privilege to visit the Yerkes National Research Primate Center in Atlanta. I remember this visit vividly, because I had my first close encounter with chimpanzees. The settings are like in a zoo. We were urged to don protective gear. Though we kept a distance to the monkeys of perhaps ten yards, the usefulness of the garb quickly became obvious. Some chimpanzees lived in groups and behaved a bit like a neighborhood gang when a new kid turns up on the block. They eyeballed us with curiosity. They tried to garner our attention with posturing and acting out, producing an incredible racket. They immediately probed who was in charge. If you took your eyes off them for a second, they would spit at you, running away overjoyed when they landed a hit. We discovered quickly that chimpanzees command four hands. One young male was beating on a drum with his upper extremities. While we got distracted by his banging, he aimed pieces of feces at us using his foot with great accuracy. The band howled in pure joy. We were soiled and quite intimidated. We felt that without a fence they would outsmart us and, if they wanted to harm us, we would not stand a chance unarmed.

In another encounter, we approached a compound with two occupants. The monkeys were sitting high up on logs, biding their time, contemplating. We stood silently and watched. They watched us. I habitually scratch my head when I wonder. One monkey gazed at me with eyes like gleaming coal for what seemed an eternity. Her composure had a deep inquisitive, almost wise quality, as if she was questioning me, " who are you? What do you want from me?" She scratched her head.

I walked away from this encounter moved. The chimpanzees seemed so much like us. Yet, they were so different. I was wondering whether we shall ever be able to figure out the mind of a chimpanzee, let alone other species that appear to radiate a similar intelligence, but are even more removed from us. Will we be ever be able to understand the mind of a whale? I remain unsure.

However, I believe that though we may not be able to understand these creatures, we can learn a lot from them and should treat alien minds with respect.


  • Dimitar Sasselov estimates that one hundred million exoplanets in the Milky Way may support life similar to Earth. Watch his talk at TED2010 entitled "How we found hundreds of Earth-like planets" below (07/21/10):
  • Claudia Dreifus conducted an informative interview with Diana Reiss who studies dolphin behavior. Professor Reiss elaborates on experiments she and colleagues conducted, demonstrating that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors. The interview with the title "Studying the Big-Brained Dolphin" was published online in The New York Times today (09/20/10).
  • The CNN video below shows an instructive demonstration of the dolphins' ability of imitating behavior, no simple feat. Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia (2008) suggest in their book entitled "Mirrors in the Brain" that imitating the others is the first step to empathy (01/14/11):

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1 comment:

  1. How about the idea that our Sun is a living being??

    Could we understand each other!