Aliens, Bacon and Cetaceans

Aliens, Bacon and Cetaceans

There is a question that has dogged humanity for quite some time. It is equal parts philosophy, biology, and law. It is by no means an answered question - indeed, many questions about the human brain remain unanswered. But the question of sentience - the ability to subjectively process information and recognize one's own place in the environment - is one that sets humanity against all other forms of life. In simple terms, this question can be expressed as "what makes a person a person?" The answer is incomplete and best and hypocritical at worst, and I believe it is one that we will have to eventually apply to extraterrestrial life.

Individuality, consciousness, sentience, personhood, soul - whatever you call it, it is something that lifts an animal above being a base beast. It is this status that gives an individual the right to live in our society according to our rules; it is a protection afforded to an individual that labels them (hypothetically) safe from being treated as a tool for personal gain or meat for consumption. In our society, humans are the only beings that are given the blanket status of "person", and even this is incomplete - there are some individuals that see certain populations humans as a lesser type of person, or even not a person altogether. This can be based on mental faculty, ethnicity, criminal background, economic status or philosophy. On the reverse, there are non-human beings that are treated better than most humans - dogs in affluent families are often better fed than most humans.

To be sure, there is a certain level of self-service when we adorn an individual with personhood. There is the expectation that a person will abide by the social norms, and as such all people live a safer and more secure life when not abiding by the rule of the jungle. And an animal that cannot understand these social norms - don't intrude on property, don't eat somebody else's food, don't eat a person - cannot live in our society as a person. But we have talked so far about terrestrial animals. What about the extraterrestrial ones?

We have yet to find alien life, but according to Drake's Equation, finding alien life is more of a matter of "when" than a matter of "if". This equation, the backbone of the search for extraterrestrial life, posits that life is not a unique occurrence on Earth. When you take into account the scope of the universe, the rich abundance of stars, and the consistent torrent of newly discovered planets, the argument for alien life is very convincing. Regardless how accurate the equation is, if there is life, it could be anywhere on the spectrum from bacteria-like organisms to rat-like pests to cattle-like creatures to intelligent beings that would populate a sci-fi movie. That alien life could be anywhere on that spectrum necessitates an approach to what constitutes personhood, and what we consider to be a person. Could you imagine starting a galactic war of extermination because you thought some space pig looked delicious? Stupider things have happened. Trust me, I read history.

So let's say we do figure out how to determine personhood for extraterrestrials. A new problem emerges - what would happen if you applied that system to terrestrial animals that we do not consider people? There are, after all, different methods of determining sentience than abiding by social norms. If you recognize yourself in the mirror, are you an individual? Several animals can do that. If you go to a graveyard to grieve for a family member, are you intelligent? Elephants do that. If a species has several languages spread out among its population, is that culture? Dolphins do that. Whatever scale you make for extraterrestrials, the logical next step is to apply it to terrestrials. And if that is the case, what animals would apply to it? Dolphins, whales, elephants, pigs, dogs and great apes certainly hold many qualifications for sentience. What rights could they receive from that?

More pertinently, who would follow it? In the West, we generally put dogs on a pedestal while thinking nothing of consuming pigs, while in the East there is a sizeable population that has no compunction of eating any beast (and some who consume human meat under the guise of "long pig", because of similar taste). I don't know what authority would determine what constitutes sentient life for aliens, but I doubt its creed would be followed worldwide. After all, why would someone care about what an ivory tower intellectual thinks about sentience when their kids are hungry?

There are very basic fundamentals to life which will always override moral and intellectual concerns, the most pertinent of which is eating. The hungrier you get, the less you care about such high-minded ideals like rights. And this goes to an extreme level. The siege of Leningrad during World War II lasted almost 900 days, and during this time the civilian population of Leningrad abandoned civility to survive. An example of these desperate times can be seen in how the NKVD punished cannibalism - so many were accused of cannibalism that they had to divide them into two categories : corpse-eating (trupoyedstvo) and person-eating (lyudoyedstvo). The latter were executed while the former were treated much more leniently.

The lesson to be had from all this?

Enjoy bacon while you can.

Shaping God

Shaping God

The Arms of the Left

The Arms of the Left