by Josh Pollock
[Editors note: Josh is a friend and fellow grad student with me at Goddard College. This conversation was inspired by a podcast session that Josh, Miri and I (Jer) had over at Josh's terrific podcast: EcoHyphen. You can find the link to our conversation here for an extra helping of E.T. related media!]
In countless works of science-fiction it is revealed that life on Earth and/or human intelligence is the product of an alien intervention. This trope is most famously embodied in the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the black monolith first appears it grants one group of primates with the intelligence that allows them to evolve into us. Millions of years later, a strange anomaly appears floating mysteriously in space somewhere near Jupiter. When astronaut David Bowman, the only survivor of the mission to investigate this anomaly arrives he finds an identical black monolith. The monolith becomes a stargate, and when he passes through it, he begins his journey to becoming a transcendent, disembodied being.
The technology of a culture that could deliver astronaut David Bowman into deep space had to be pretty advanced. This relied on advancements in both rocketry to build Space Ship One to carry him there, and an intelligent computer, Hal 9000, which was supposed to make sure everything ran smoothly. Sentient computers and manned missions to the neighborhood of Jupiter are not something that our civilization could achieve by 2001, or even today.
These quantum-like leaps in the advancement of our species–like the first use of stone tools and achieving a transcendent state–seem to be only conceivable with some help from our mysterious friends from the beyond. Developing the type of intelligence that sets humans apart from other primates, and crossing over to a new plane of existence are identified in countless works of SF as requiring the assistance of an alien entity.
The real problem with the monolith that it denies the power of evolution. It says that intelligence couldn’t have arisen out of a complex emergent system. It says proteins couldn’t have self-assembled and then joined together to form life.
The problem with the monolith is that they stand in for the gods.
The religion I was raised with told me that I was perfect, because I was created in God’s image. I have never once felt perfect, nor has the world around me ever felt perfect. It isn’t and neither am I. I like to think that we’ve gotten better at being humans since a bunch of men got together and wrote the bible. I like to think we can get do better in the future. When I look at the ecological crisis we face, or at Mitt Romney I really hope so.
Maybe we were created as part of an alien science project. It’s plausible, though the evidence is scarce, if it exists at all. I’m not waiting around for a little green man to show up and grant us transcendence. Transcendence is possible. At every quantum leap in evolution has relied on the formation of permanent mutualistic symbiosis.
From the formation of the cell from once independent organelles, to the assembly of complex mulch-cellular organisms from single-celled entities, evolution has been a process of creating “multiunit symbiotic new individuals. These become ‘new individuals’ at larger, more inclusive levels of integration. Symbiosis is not a marginal or rare phenomenon. It is natural and common. We abide in a symbiotic world” (Please reference Lynn Margulis’ Symbiotic Planet in a footnote here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B003PJ6UIY/ref=r_soa_w_p)
So yes, we have had help from outside of our skin-encapsulated bodies. Modern humans emerged from groups of proto-humans who gathered around a controlled fire and learned to work together for each other’s mutual benefit. Are we moving towards a global consciousness facilitated by participatory media? I don’t know, what do you think? Just keep in mind that forming symbiosis is the way that every major hurdle in the evolutionary path that life took to this day has been surmounted.