I’ve been spending (or is that wasting?) time over the past few weeks watching videos at hulu.com, which includes a fair number of complete movies that you can watch for free as long as you are willing to put up with “limited commercial interruptions”. These appear to be directly proportional in frequency and duration to how popular people guess the movie is, and my biggest problem with them is that you wind up having to watch (endure is more like it) the same 15 or 30 second spot half a dozen or more times in the space of an hour or two. Why any advertiser thinks making me watch the same ad nine times (rather than maybe two or three) over the course of a movie is going to make me more likely to buy their product (rather than just piss me off with boring repetitiveness) I don’t know.
So far the movies I’ve chosen to watch have been pretty good. I watched “Halls of Montezuma”, an old World War II movie about the Marines storming an island in the Pacific. Without any of the bizarre cinematography or gratuitous blood and gore of many more recent movies, it managed to tell the story quite effectively. There was a hint of propaganda to it on one level, but with the huge costs paid by American troops it’s hard to say the take-home message was anything but “war is hell”.
I watched two old time seafaring movies: an older movie “Moby Dick” and the much newer “Master and Commander”, both of which were great. I also watched “Behind Enemy Lines”, which was occasionally nonsensical but at least was exciting (but talk about weird cinematography).
I’ve watched a few others – some good, some less so, only one terrible (“Dragonheart” – my God, what horrible writing, nonsensical plotting, unlikeable characters, and bad special effects). Yesterday I watched “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – it was the first time I had ever seen that movie in its entirety. It was pretty good, all things considered. I especially liked the unaged World War II pilots coming off the alien ship, looking as though they weren’t especially keen to come back to humankind. Of course they are unaged because they’re supposed to have spent most of their time away traveling near the speed of light – hasn’t even seemed that long to them, probably. Well, at least we won the war! Maybe they’ve been to the aliens’ world and then came back. The aliens themselves, which we only get a few vague glimpses of, are straight out of Communion, though there does seem to be some variability in their heights and limb proportions that may indicate differences in age, “race”, whatever.
I’d had it in my head, never having seen the movie before, that there actually was no glimpse of the aliens, and so I was actually a bit disappointed that there was, thinking people’s imaginations and the mystery associated with not knowing would beat some special effects (though maybe this isn’t the way to make a huge cinematic commercial success). Whoever those aliens in Close Encounters are, they are able to breathe earth’s atmosphere and tolerate its pressure and temperature without any problems (even plenty of creatures on earth can’t do that: what if the only intelligent species on earth lived at the bottom of the oceans?). And evidently humans can walk onto their ship with no problems. Quarantine, viruses, diseases? No one seems to worry about them. The aliens are wonderful, enlightened, obviously very powerful but everything in the movie screams that their intentions are benevolent. (It also seems like if they wanted to take over they could do it pretty easily so their acting kind means they probably are.)
The aliens stand upright, have two legs and two arms, torsos, heads, faces, eyes, noses, mouths, hands, fingers that even appear to have nails on them (though I didn’t quite catch if they had opposable thumbs). Some have big eyes, look like human babies in their proportions (to hold their big brains?). Why, they even smile recognizably, though the musculature around their mouths seems less developed (what does that indicate about their sociality?) and the smile seems to indicate the same thing as a human smile. They do not wear any clothing or have any individually recognizable features – at least not at first glance. No sexual dimorphism or sexual features at all that I could tell. If you think I’m reading too much into this, or maybe just being facetious, I’d just like to point out that aliens who look like this have clearly experienced remarkable evolutionary parallelism with humans…all the more remarkable given that we have no idea how they reproduce or inherit morphological traits (do they have DNA, for instance?). We also have no idea about the geological or other biological characteristics of their planet…think about earth: without plate tectonics creating a rift in the right place at the right time, and trees and open savannahs and lions and a host of other particularities, the likelihood of humans evolving just as they did decreases greatly (even if you’re got your base apes hanging around as a starting point, meaning everything so far as proceeded as it did in our history). My point is that, if there were intelligent life on other planets, every minute detail of their appearance would provide us a wealth of information about their history and context.
Just to expand a bit on this: humans are intelligent, sentient beings, but only in a very particular and idiosyncratic way that is intimately tied in with the circumstances of our evolution. The competition aspect of evolution is key to predicting what kinds of outcomes there would be on other worlds that bear any resemblance whatsoever to ours (even just in terms of mechanisms, never mind specifics). Think about this: orangutans are as intelligent as other great apes, but they are also solitary. Solitary creatures, even if they evolved an human level of self-awareness and intelligence, would never build civilizations or develop more than rudimentary technology, because these things require sociality. And a solitary intelligent species co-existing with a social intelligent species would get wiped out or enslaved…at least on this planet, under our current rules…unless it stayed in an extremely marginal niche (and even then).
To take it even farther, our ideas of progress are technologically determined. Even as I type this into a computer and use my iPod and Blackberry, there are people making clay pots and hunting with stone tools and living in thatch huts in other parts of the world. (And I don’t understand how a Blackberry works, even though I can use one. And forget about specific technologies; what about just the theoretical underpinnings? Think about this: most people don’t understand Darwinism and it’s 150 years old. Part of this is a philosophical block. But very few people understand relativity either and it’s 100 years old – they don’t even really teach it in the physics classes most people take.)
I’m not talking about socioeconomic inequality – I’m saying that even given a single uniform type of intelligence like humans have (no matter how idiosyncratic it is), as long as it’s social, many different types of cultural foundations can spring up that value different things. (And even within a culture there can be great disparity in levels of understanding.) Since people are the same everywhere, differences in culture probably spring primarily from geographic differences (in the terrain, the climate, the plants and animals) and historical legacy: traditions and values passed down. But again, the most numerous, warlike, and technologically advanced will tend to dominate (and those traits are correlated). Of course, once aware of it, we can control and even seek to consciously modify our cultures…and some cultures put more emphasis on the individual and others on the collective, some demand faith and others discourage it. But there still is an underlying human nature that sets limits on the boundaries of things.
Some people tend to look at those “little white men” as the humans of the future. Sad news but while humans do continue to mix their genes (and thus “evolve”), that most certainly doesn’t imply some directional selection. If those little white men had human-looking forebears, then at some point in their history the most intelligent reproduced while the less intelligent did not...and I don’t just mean on their equivalent of the African savannahs at the dawn of their history – I mean even in a context like we’ve got today. Sexual selection can drive the evolution of some ludicrous (a value-laden term I realize) traits, and in human societies it’s true the warlord usually has more offspring than the peasant (though if the peasants ever revolt they may destroy that whole line), but a lot of that perceived fitness is focused on cultural accoutrements rather than on something as fundamental as brain function and morphology (yes, maybe there’s a correlation under some circumstances, but look around: do you see one now?). Look at human societies today: sure, there is a minimal level of intelligence and physical capacity necessary for fitness, but beyond that are there pressures driving us to be more intelligent? (That I can use my Blackberry without understanding it certainly suggests not.) Our getting larger and stronger through the years (over the past tens of thousands) says much more about external conditions than our genetics – that capacity to be bigger and stronger was always there but was frequently limited by our environment. So if our little white men evolved from human forebears in any cultural context, it almost implies some genocidal “master race” scenario in the history of the aliens, and that’s something that humans obviously find almost universally abhorrent. (Imagine if our WW II pilots had come out of the alien ship at Devil’s Tower only to be welcomed “home” with a seig heil.)
So why are they visiting us and not us them? Maybe they had more time, but then again, see above. The idiosyncracy of their hard-wiring might mean that in their initial leap into intelligence they were better equipped to understand complex mathematics (and maybe less equipped to make art or value kinship much, or maybe they lack spirituality). (A side note is that under evolutionary rules like ours it is difficult but not impossible to imagine two intelligent species on the same planet. Humans and another intelligent ape? No way. But humans and dolphins, or maybe something at the bottom of the ocean, or in Antarctica? Why not?) At a minimum, building a ship to fly to another world requires some understanding of energy, some exploitation of the natural resources on their planet. One also wonders what is motivating the trip: curiosity, bloodlust, something else we can’t understand, some combination? The mere appearance of such a ship tells the physicists about the feasibility of producing technologies that right now seem limited to the realm of imagination.
What is interesting to me is that human civilization seems to have emergent properties that most of us as individuals do not understand. As Dan Gilbert writes, we behave in certain culturally proscribed ways even when the motivations for that behavior (I’ll make more money and that will make me happier) make no sense and have no empirical basis (well, worse than that, there is empirical evidence to suggest that it is not true). Why do we do it? It seems as though there is something external driving us. And yet, what if we didn’t? What if we could break with the legacy of the past and decide right now that we wanted to focus all of our efforts on something else (besides self-interest, beating the other, finding happiness, whatever)? What drove ancient people to build so many of the monuments we just see? It might have been simple self-aggrandizement by their leaders, but maybe it was something else. Of course if all humans were going to do this, we’d have to start modest, like feeding everyone and giving them proper sanitation and maybe getting our population and consumption patterns under control. An open question is that if we wanted to do this would we be able to (even if we could answer all the millions of ethical and logistical questions embodied in such a decision, including who actually would get to decide) or would human nature – our idiosyncratic historical legacy – doom any such effort to failure? Any time governments ignore human nature (look at communism) they are disasters from the perspective of quality of life.
As for the question of whether there is intelligent life out there, I don’t see why not. But even if it could reach us (an open and separate question) would it be “intelligence” we could understand? Who knows? Looking at humankind, I subscribe to the pessimistic view that the best evidence for intelligent life in the universe is that no one’s tried to contact us yet.