Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Lonelier Thought

I remember the moment at a grad school party at Yale -- we had lovely parties! -- when I announced I wasn't finishing my dissertation: I wasn't going to teach: I didn't know what I was going to do. We were going home. 

I wasn't even sure, really. I was trying it on. I remember the gestalt of the counter with its varieties of cheap alcohol, and the cheap paneled cupboards above it, typical of the cheap apartments we all camped in, though I don't remember whose apartment it was or what the pretext for the party might have been. I remember David Mikics -- who surely became a distinguished academic somewhere -- tipping his head to one side and staring at me intently. Ben Slote -- who wrote wonderful short stories -- startled, his eyes going wide: "Really?" 

At the time, it seemed like lunacy. I had invested so much in this career: the prime years of life. I had worked -- not as hard as other people, and not as hard as I thought I should -- but I had worked like a son of a bitch. I had written some really pretty brilliant papers. I was well regarded. Fellow students who were going to be academic superstars someday sidled up to me to ask how to pronounce this line of Chaucer or how to understand that line of Beowulf. I was good. Throw all that away? Self-indulgence. Ludicrously abandoning a distinguished career that I had paid dearly for, in time and effort and money. 

Now it feels like I dodged a bullet. The people I still know in American academia are mostly miserable. I became a computer programmer instead, and then picked up a third career as a massage therapist, and it all worked out fine. Was I prescient? Or just irresolute and lazy? We'll never know. I'm jogging along, seven years till retirement from my half-time work, uncertain about how much of a massage load I'll pick up again when the pandemic finally dwindles. It's all fine. I don't have to read a bunch of crappy articles about poems that I love. I don't have to manufacture trendy ideas about them. I can just read them. And that's all to the good. Did I dimly glimpse what was going to become of the humanities in American universities? Who knows. Maybe it's that I just didn't show up for myself. I still wonder.


I got my eighth pull up, this week.


Our main problem in approaching the Fermi paradox, we often say, is that we are working with a sample of one. We are the only intelligent species we know: so our guesses about what other intelligences will be like -- how recognizable they will be, how likely they are to recognize us -- are necessarily wild.

Now, I don't think this is quite true. We are the only technological species we know, but there are quite a few species out there who give us a run for our money in various ways. Elephants, dolphins, corvids, chimps, octopuses, orangutans. We haven't spent enough time thinking about what makes us peculiar in that company. We focus on language and tool-using as being what sets us apart. But I am more struck by our attitude toward strangers.

Human beings are fascinated by strangers, and willingly spend much of our time among them. This is profoundly weird, among animals. We not only seek out human strangers: we try to make pets of all sorts of other species, including really dangerous and improbable ones. We itch to know and make ourselves known to other creatures. And an assumption underlying the Fermi Paradox is that this weirdness is a property of intelligence: alien intelligences will have this quirk as well, and the first thing they'll do, upon achieving the technology for it, is to turn their radio telescopes on the sky and search for strangers, just as we do. But what if seeking out strangers is an odd human kink?

Intelligent animals do tend to be social animals. But that's not the same as being animals that seek out strangers. Most animals, including the intelligent ones, either avoid strangers or try to drive them off. If they didn't grow up with you, they don't want to know you. Some leave their homes at some stage of life to mate outside their family groups, and sometimes establish new ones, but that's as far as the stranger-seeking goes. They don't gather into villages, let alone cities. For the most part, if they don't recognize you, they want nothing to do with you.

So there's my first solution to the Fermi paradox. Why haven't aliens found us? Well, possibly because they're not looking for us. And if they are looking for us, it may be only out of curiosity about our technology. If they can find us, they can probably find species that do much more interesting things. We find ourselves utterly fascinating: that doesn't mean everyone else will.

Second: when we ask "where is everybody?" we assume that everyone will be interested in space travel. But here again, we are the odd man out among the intelligent species we know. We are colonists. Other intelligent animals, except possibly corvids, show no interest in moving into other ecological niches. They want to stay where they are. We have the odd notion of going outside our biome: to other creatures I'm guessing that this will be a very weird idea. Possible? Maybe. It might also be possible to take our brains and nervous systems, flay off everything else, put them into tanks, and take them to places our bodies couldn't go... but why would you want to do such a thing? To more sophisticated creatures, I suspect that's how leaving their ancestral biomes may strike them. We have no idea if we can create an off-world human biome, over the long term. Maybe we will be able to eventually. But maybe the idea is just plain nuts: biological nonsense. Maybe no one is visiting because no one wants to scrape the brains out of their bodies and fling them somewhere else. Maybe everyone else has a clear picture of how miserable a creature would be, outside its biome, and we haven't quite figured it out yet.

Third: maybe it's no use. Maybe even when you discover another intelligent species, it's impossible to learn to speak with them. This seems to me more likely than not. There is a moment in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet -- charming in its idiocy -- when the linguist Ransom astutely notes that the Martian he has just encountered forms his plurals with a particular suffix. It's a step above aliens who magically speak English, but not a very high one. It's not going to be that easy, if it's doable at all. Maybe no one is trying to communicate, because everyone has given up. Beneath all the silly assumptions of commonality is a profound one, and one which I suspect is profoundly wrong: that the higher intelligence goes, the more it converges. The more intelligent species are, the more likely they are to be interested in the same things in the same ways. My guess is, that's backwards. The more intelligent, the more divergent. People who are anxious to talk with aliens imagine them eager to supply us with a proof of the Collatz conjecture, or with the trick to generating power by nuclear fusion. But suppose they're more interested in swapping recipes for compositions in sense-experiences that we can't imagine? Supposing we can figure out how they talk, how would we even discover what they're talking about? When what they're hoping we can supply them with is the solution to an awkward problem in the stanzaic forms of infrared umami versification?

"Maybe we are alone," people say, and they are distressed at the thought. They mean, "maybe there is no other intelligent life in the universe." But maybe we are alone in a more profound way: maybe there is intelligent life, maybe there's lots of it, but we just can't understand it or get it interested in us. That is a lonelier thought.


am said...

Hmmmm ...

What if the intelligent species are trees?

"But suppose they're more interested in swapping recipes for compositions in sense-experiences that we can't imagine?"

Thanks so much for all of this post. I'm going to take a walk in the woods and see what my mind and heart churn up.

A song by The Lonely Forest came to mind just now while contemplating the concept of a lonely intelligent species:

Jeff said...

I got out too, deciding not to enter a PhD program...and then I miraculously landed a part-time teaching gig that lasted for a decade. I got to do the fun part without writing a dissertation, publishing academic articles, or attending dreadful conferences. And all that prep went into writing books and even a few travel articles. I now work as a copywriter and editor, I help run a cemetery and a food pantry, and I got to co-author a book about African American history. I'm glad every day that I opted out.

In the mid-1990s, we were still relying on word of mouth for career information, and much of what we were being told was iffy at best. These days, it takes only five minutes online to learn about the dead-end world of adjuncting, the immense burdens of student loans, and the massive oversupply of PhDs for a minuscule number of jobs. No one who pursues an academic career in the 21st century can't say they weren't warned—so it makes me wonder what kinds of people still do?

Sabine said...

Still one of my very best memories, the day I walked away from academia and the almost achieved degree, just weeks to go, the boring career years looming ahead.
Never mind that I returned through the back door eventually. At least I did that on my own terms and after I had crossed the equator several times for work and adventures.

I think we are currently learning that viruses are intelligent species.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Indeed there is that stranger-seeking trait in humans, but alongside it is the stranger-fear, stranger-envy, stranger-hate, and need-to-control-stranger which has pretty much dominated human history and continues to do so. In the non-human animal kingdom it all seems to work out pretty well but in the human kingdom the effects are devastating and long-lasting. Could it be that a need to love each other is what makes us human but this need is always battling with its opposite?