November 27, 2010

The hairless monkeys of Earth

I stole the title from articles I've read on science blogs. I googled it this morning to try to find out who first used the phrase but couldn't pin it down. Sounds Carl Sagan-ish to me. In any case, that is who we are: the hairless monkeys of Earth. It's how intelligent aliens might catalog us after reviewing all the lifeforms that roam this planet.

The point I'd like to make today concerns patterns. This is how intelligence works: it sees patterns. For instance, you see the pattern of good social behavior in the people around you. This allows you to comply with social norms and fit well within your family and community. This happens in every area of life. I saw the pattern of good English in my reading and that is how I learned to write -- by emulating those patterns.

Being human is all about seeing patterns. But pattern recognition is also the methodology of science: it recognizes new patterns and attempts to correlate them with known patterns. This is how science happens.

"When there are clouds, rain may occur; rain will not occur when there are no clouds" is an example of a pattern that even our most primitive ancestors could grasp. (Undoubtedly, animals use patterns too: anything within five feet of me is a possible danger; anything 100 feet from me can be safely ignored. We're not the only pattern recognizers.)

Today, we see an enormous number of patterns in our world -- such as the way the moon's orbit affects our tides, and the way planets orbit stars. It's what they do; it's their pattern. We recently noticed the pattern of everything in our nighttime sky moving away from us at high speed, and we learned from this pattern that space is expanding. We see patterns of behavior on the quantum level, and patterns of disease in populations exposed to carcinogens. Patterns are everywhere. We've come a long, long way in terms of pattern recognition.

But we are still the hairless monkeys of Earth. That fact cannot be changed and it means we are limited by the brains we inherited from our ancestors. These brains can only see what they are capable of seeing. There are undoubtedly endless patterns all around us but we are unaware of the vast majority. Still, we do the best we can as, little by little, we discover new patterns. Because of our diligence in seeking out these patterns and attempting to understand their meaning, science leaps ahead.

I'm convinced that the answers to everything are hovering right in front of us but our inadequate, hairless-monkey brains just can't suss out the patterns. If we were smarter or were equipped with finer senses, they might be startlingly obvious to us -- but they're not.

Undoubtedly there are beings elsewhere in the universe (or the multiverse) who can see such patterns. To them, the patterns are like any others -- easily grasped. Their minds, descended from different evolutionary processes that occurred on their home planet, are of a higher order. This isn't a shocking prediction. What would be shocking is that we are the pinnacle of intelligence, that no other creatures in the universe or multiverse are smarter than humans. It is inconceivable to me that we are the highest example of evolutionary "progress".

(Note that I put progress in quotes because evolution has no aims, no goals; it simply happens as living creatures interact with each other and their environments, and mutations randomly occur. It is the "blind watchmaker," to use Dawkins' terminology.)

If only people recognized our natural limitations, they might not be so . . . arrogant. They might not think that they, the hairless monkeys of Earth, had all the answers. They might be open to new things.

Right now, science is resolving crucial issues and coming up with solutions for our most pressing problems. We will find less destructive forms of energy to power our world. We will come to understand the keys to life and we will become masters at manipulating the code of creation. In the distant future, we will know the answers to our most pressing questions. We will become aware of new patterns and we will harness their secrets. It's only a matter of time.

But none of this will come to pass if fools are allowed to ruin our present world and cut us off from our rightful future. That this is a real possibility is the saddest thing I know. Read books, people! Learn about science and follow the science news. You have no idea the exciting things that are going on right now. (Large Hadron Collider, anyone?)

The universe is opening up to us right this second, and the patterns all around us are begging to be seen. We must create a functional present for ourselves if we want to ensure a positive future for our descendants. I know it's hard to do this, what with us being hairless monkeys, and all. But we must if our race is to survive.

The future counts. We need time (and safety and peace and prosperity) to see the patterns.

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