Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We're here (Sunday Reflections for July 19, 2009)

"And God made great whales" Genesis 1:21

For well over a century humans have speculated about the presence of other intelligent life in the universe. Our fantasies have included little green men from Mars and H G Wells’ fearsome creatures in War of the Worlds; Hollywood’s cute and stranded E.T. and the benign and lonely beings reaching out to make Contact; and many others.

We have also speculated about who would contact who first. Perhaps not unreasonably, many assume there ought to be civilizations somewhere that are more advanced than ours. As a result we are on the lookout for UFOs and, with somewhat more sophistication, for radio signals with the SETI program. Others have speculated, however, that extra-terrestrial probes would likely be small, remote controlled, and possibly “cloaked” to observe us without interfering in our own cultural development. Thus, we might never know we are being watched.

The assumption is always that intelligence means, in some way, “like us.” Such creatures may or may not look like us but they would think like us. What if, however, there were other intelligent creatures whose thinking was very different from ours? And what if such creatures existed not in outer space but right here on our own planet Earth?

Almost by definition it’s difficult for us imagine a different kind of intelligence. What does it even mean? Would such thinking really be “intelligence”? Animal researchers having been dealing with these questions for quite awhile and to the latter question they would answer unequivocally “Yes.” Animals are intelligent though in ways different than us. The question that is increasingly intriguing them is whether the intelligence of large-brained animals in some way approximates or even equals ours.

cover story of the July 12 Sunday New York Times Magazine tells of a community of intelligent creatures living on our planet yet in a different world, if you will: whales. Unlike humans, there are multiple whale species. This article tells of researchers’ fascination with the gray whales which frequent the warm lagoons of the Baja peninsula’s western shore.

Hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and nearly so in the western Pacific, these eastern Pacific gray whales also nearly disappeared but have staged a dramatic comeback in recent years. Now numbering an estimated 18,000, they are the first marine mammal to be removed from the US endangered species list. Nonetheless it was not that long ago that these same Mexican waters, where the gray whales come to give birth, literally ran red with their blood from an unbridled slaughter.

Recent studies have revealed whales to be perhaps the most remarkable animals with which we share the planet.

“Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.”

At this point, however, deep and troubling questions begin to arise. The article’s writer, Charles Siebert, says, “Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans' depths, succumbing to our assaults,” assaults that are still ongoing.

“Whaling” (the innocent sounding term for killing whales for their oil and other body parts) is much reduced from the past but still continuing. Whales are probably more seriously impacted by human pollution of the oceans, including and especially noise pollution.

It has now been demonstrated that the use of sonar and other underwater sound-making devices can seriously harm and even kill whales. Beached whales have been found to have bleeding in their ears and brains. In addition, dead whales have recently been found to have all the symptoms of “the bends,” the condition experienced by deep sea divers who surface too quickly. The picture is now clear and gruesome: tortured by the literally ear-piercing sonar blasts, whales frantically rush to the surface to escape them and then die from their too-rapid ascent.

Humanity’s history of relations with the other creatures of this planet has certainly been mixed. In modern times it has often been horrendous. One of the lowest points was surely the near extinction of the Great Plains buffalo. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands, shot for sport by men from horseback and even train car windows. Most carcasses were then left to rot in the sun, a waste that left the observing “savage” Indians incredulous and horrified.

There has been growing sensitivity to the treatment and killing of “dumb animals.” Now we are facing the realization that some of the animals we are abusing aren’t so dumb after all. Whale intelligence may well approach our own, its differences due primarily to the very different environment in which they live. Are they self-conscious? It would be hard to dismiss such a notion out-of-hand. Do they then have rights and do we then have responsibilities toward them? Again, it is becoming increasingly difficult to brush such notions aside.

In reference to extra-terrestrial intelligence, a variety of scientists, philosophers and even theologians have speculated what it would mean to discover that we are not alone. Why speculate? In reality, we have never been alone. We have always shared this planet with an incredible diversity of life. We are gradually abandoning the conceit of our presumed species independence and recognizing that we survive only as part of a complex ecosystem. We have become aware of how our unconstrained development and waste is endangering our own livelihood and even survival, stressing and even eliminating countless plant and animal species.

And now, added to this, is the awareness that someone else may also be aware of us. The most moving and unsettling experience reported by those interacting with whales is that of being watched. It has been said that eyes are windows to the soul. Being watched by a whale’s large eyes leave many feeling that they have seen, and been seen by, another soul.

Why are whales seeking out human interaction? What are they trying tell us? Perhaps at this point it’s nothing more complex than, “We’re here.” That alone, however, could take quite some getting used to. Fully appreciating it could also be one of the best things to happen to us.

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