Exopsychology - E.T. Call
home?
© ss jothiratnam
Last time, I explored the possibility of what
extraterrestrials might look like, and at the end of
that discussion, suggested that not only were we
now in a position to speculate realistically about the
outlines of alien anatomy, but that we might also be
able to hazard meaningful guesses about their
psychology and their social arrangements.
Again, I think that the key to this exercise lies in
having a thorough understanding of the basic
mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, as well as a
critical knowledge of the accumulated findings
within the social sciences, particularly in
psychology, sociology, and history.
In The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan.
argued that peaceful advanced
civilisations – ones which were not, at
least at their deepest levels, based
upon a foundation of violent struggle
and aggression – might exist
somewhere out there in the Universe.
This however, I think is a biological or
rather evolutionary impossibility.
Given what we know about how
Darwinian principles have operated
throughout the evolution of life on this
planet, it seems patently obvious that
competitive struggles for survival
have always been the driving
mechanism of selective adaptation to
existing and changing conditions on
the planet.
The road to evolutionary viability (if you
will permit me to mangle a well known
homily), is paved with the corpses of
unsuccessful adaptations.
No matter how well camouflaged, how well it’s
buried beneath layers of dissimulation,
competition generally requires some degree
of aggression. To adapt Hobbes, life, and the
process of living, in other words, is an
unrelenting struggle, and one in which the
fittest – the best adapted, and the most
aggressive – tend to be the ones who
propagate their genes the best.
Thus, what I am arguing is that aggressive
competitiveness is built into the very
foundations of the evolutionary process,
and that it should come as no surprise if
this aggression not only finds expression
in the overt behaviour of living organisms,
but extends beyond the purely biological
sphere, and in the case of advanced social
life-forms, into the culture and structure of
their society as well.
This, of course, is not to say that less
aggressive societies could not by definition
emerge, but rather that if they were, for
whatever reason, to emerge, they could only
have done so in a state of total isolation
from the more aggressive ones in their ecosystem, and furthermore, that they would be
able to survive only so long as they managed
to maintain their isolation.
Cultural Darwinism
As an aside, this is exactly what we see in
the third world today: Cultures – and
this includes many indigenous cultures
– which for whatever reason have not
fully actualised their competitive,
aggressive evolutionary heritage (as
have all the successful/dominant
cultures on the planet), if not already
gone, are well on their way to extinction.
There are countless examples of this. The
natives of Tasmania, for instance were a
people whose extermination was assured by
an official, state-sponsored bounty, offered
per dead indigene, and paid out by the
colonising British government, to aid the
blood-thirsty and land-hungry settlers in their
farm-acquisition exercises.
More recently of course there is the Brazilian
example: Infecting aboriginal peoples with
smallpox and other exciting, highly
contagious diseases by giving them blankets
taken from hospitals, in order to kill them off,
and thus circumvent the terms of the UN
charter on indigenous peoples’ land rights,
and getting a tax break for it along the way.
What all this means for the UFO buffs out there,
I suspect, is that if we ever do succeed in
establishing contact with aliens, or if they
ever do come to visit our planet (a most
unlikely event given what we know about the
laws of physics), they might be wearing
peace signs, but are none-the-less going
to be having their ray-guns handy as well.
They may be peaceable, culturally and
legislatively, but will not have had a
peace-fraught history. Put
whimsically, it is more likely to have
been the pursuit of weapons, than
the pursuit of beauty which gave
primary form both to their physiques,
and to their social institutions.
As an aside, I notice that there is one point I
have not addressed: If they are advanced lifeforms, there is no question but that they
are going to be social creatures: There are
two reasons for this:
• 1) Linguistic;
• 2) Organisational.
1. Language and the associated abstract
symbolic activity which is a sin qua non of
intelligence does not occur in a vacuum.
Without the need to communicate, the ability
to communicate would not have evolved. On
earth, this has often been linked to a
carnivorous life-style, and to coordinated
predation (lions, wolves & dolphins vs.
sharks, crocodiles & snakes), though there
are some herbivores (e.g. elephants) which
for particular and specific reasons seem to
have developed communication skills too.
Thus, they too would have developed some
means of exchanging, and storing
symbolic information (that is to say, they
would have a language or rather languages
of some sort - though whether it would be
sound based is debatable, though sound
does have the advantage of being omnidirectional), and would have their own
cultures. Furthermore, these languages and
cultures are likely, just as they are here on
earth, to be geographically, and “racially”
determined. Aliens are going to have, or at
least to have had in their past, different
races.
2. Advanced civilisation requires advanced
social life and social organisation. No
social advancement, and no development of
high technology etc. is possible without a
complex social organisation. This has in part
to do with the generation of economic
surplus, in part with necessity (being the
mother of invention), and in part with the
need to store and manipulate increasingly
complex data as the society you are living in
grows more intricate. The complexity of
your social organisation in other words is
limited by the sophistication of your brain.
Much like us their culture is going to be based on
a genetic heritage of violent, aggressive, selfcentred behaviour, which they would
necessarily have had to learn to keep under
control by a variety of social institutions (if they
hadn’t learnt to control it, they are likely to have
wiped themselves out, or at least done so much
damage to their social organisations and to their
ecosystems that they would be unable to make
enormous material progress): Cf. the material and
technological progress made since the stability
following the second world war).
Why would it have to be like this? Recall that
aggressive behaviour is woven into the
very fabric of the evolutionary dynamic, as
I pointed out above, and note that if they
had not learnt to keep these urges under
control, they are likely to have selfdestructed soon after their development of
weapons of mass destruction.
Let me reiterate. I am not implying that
biology/genetics is absolute destiny,
nor am I defending aggression. I am
merely saying that this is the way it
is, and that,
evolutionary/biological/genetic factors
may not be ignored.
Anarchists’ objections
One seemingly plausible set of objections to the
theme of unrelenting aggression outlined
here is that raised by certain of the anarchists
(e.g. Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldmann, &c.):
The roles of altruism and cooperation in
social organisation, which have been well
documented, and were the cornerstones of
many anarchists’ theoretical oppositions to
the bleak view of the unregulated state of
nature taken by Hobbes.
Their arguments were that amongst certain
species, a kind of altruistic behaviour seems,
at times, to be displayed, and that sometimes
an individual member of a group seems to act
for the good of the group as a whole, rather
than for itself, and also that in many species,
individuals cooperate without any apparent
personal advantage for the survival of the
species as a whole.
The response: The selfish gene
In fact though, this behaviour is still consistent
with my theme of self-centred aggressive
behaviour, since the functional goal of any
behaviour is the propagation of the gene,
rather than the individual organism Cf. The
selfish gene & functionalism. In many
organisms, this is achieved through outright
competition, but under certain circumstances,
cooperation, or even altruism is better (e.g.
lions’ pride-, mating- and cub-rearing
behaviours).
Alien life spans
Most thinkers are agreed, there are 3 levels of
information storage: 1. genetic; 2. extra-genetic
(i.e. learnt); 3. extra-somatic (i.e. socio-cultural
(cultural artefacts, writing, & cultural learning
itself)) Thus, highly intelligent aliens are likely to
have a long infancy, and to experience considerable
cerebral growth/development after birth (like us)
because genetic encoding of information, despite an
impressive showing on earth, is still limited as a
strategy for transmitting complex behavioural
information.
This is of coursed premised on the idea
that aliens will be born in some way as
infants, and will have to grow and
mature, and that there are physiological
limits to the size of alien babies at birth
(limits of birth canal diameter etc.)
Of course, there is another possible interpretation
of Sagan’s premise, namely that the only way
an advanced life-form could survive without
blowing itself up is for it to develop sociopolitical institutions to manage, curb, and
channel the inevitable aggression that is
woven into the dynamics of selective
evolution itself. That this development is
imperative for the survival of any intelligent,
highly organised, sophisticated-tool making,
species which has evolved the ability to function
at an abstract, symbolic level. This interpretation
needs to be taken to heart by our species and
that post haste, if we are to continue, as a
species, to survive for much longer.
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