Since the dawn of science fiction, we have speculated about the possibility of nonhuman sapient life on other planets. This is not hyperbole: some of the earliest guesses that other worlds might exist like the Earth also postulated that other races of "men" might exist on these other worlds. The supposition makes sense: why could not whatever operated to create sapience on our world operate to create sapience on others?
Much of the fascination inherent in this concept is based on the hope of making contact with truly alien minds and societies. How much of what humans do and build is based on logic and necessity, and how much on the quirks of our own nature as a particular species? What is essential, and what accidental?
Can we really understand anthropology, sociology, or history if we only have the nature, society, and deeds of one sapient species to study? It is, perhaps, like trying to grasp linguistics with only one known language. One could imagine such an effort, but it would be handicapped by ignorance and fraught by error.
Of course, we as a species have barely managed to touch a single other world -- our own moon Luna, a dead and barren orb with no native life at all that we can discern. There may be life elsewhere in our own star system, on Mars and Europa, but there seems to be no sapience. And we have not heard even a peep of non-random signal from any other star systems within the range of our current radiotelescopes.
So, it seems, we are doomed to contemplate ourselves, alone.
Or are we?
I. Earthly Nonhuman Sapient Animals
Recent research -- most of it carried out within the last 40 years, and much of it within the last 20 -- has demonstrated the distinct possibility that Man is not alone even on Earth. We are the most vocally brilliant of terrestrial nonflying mammals, and we can form and understand very complex audible speech. For a long time, our obsession with vocalization caused us to assume that all other life was (literally) dumb, compared to ourselves.
But, when Allen and Beatrice Gardner decided to instead focus on sign language, everything changed. The great apes naturally use sign langauges (something the Gardners did not fully know in 1967 when they began their experiment), and are extremely competent at gestures. Their experiment with Washoe, a common chimpanzee, was successful. And as the experiments continued, and were repeated with other great apes, it was discovered that all great apes can learn complex gestural languages, to a degree implying sapience (thinking about thinking) rather than merely sentience (having complex emotional states).
Since then there has been research into the cognitive abilities of many other animals. We have discovered that five species besides ourselves are definitely sapient: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangatans (*), and -- most surprisingly -- the African Gray parrot.
Why "most surprisingly?" Well, we know that we're sapient. It's not really that shocking, when one thinks about it, that the other great apes are sapient, since they are our closest relatives, and our great intelligence had to evolve from some basic ability.
But African Gray parrots are birds. Their last common ancestor with ourselves lived no later than the Carboniferous, some 300 million years ago. It is exceedingly improbable that the primtive reptiles of that era were sapient. This means that sapience has evolved at least TWICE on our planet -- once in an ancestor of the great apes, and once in an ancestor of the African Gray parrot.
This is significant because it suggests that the Gouldian interpretation of intelligence as being a "spandrel" -- a random outgrowth of other evolutionary factors -- is probably wrong. The ability to model the environment, one's conspecifics, and oneself in a fully conceptual fashion is clearly an advantage, and hence will be selected for if possible and not too expensive (**)
The bottlenose dolphin is very likely sapient -- researchers have shown a grasp of grammar in captivity, and tool use, personal names, and a very complex set of communicative sounds in the wild. Bottlenose dolphins are not as alien to us as are birds, but our last common ancestor with them was around 100 million years ago, and was almost certainly not sapient. Which means that sapience evolved at least three times on our planet, at least twice in Class Mammalia.
Another probably-sapient creature is the killer whale. We have never succeeded in proving that they have as much conceptual capability as do bottlenose dolphins, but they do have a complex signal system, personal names, and a social order even more involved than that of dolphins (***). Since orcas and bottlenoses are actually both part of the same family, this only requires one evolution of sapience, however.
And beyond that, there is a long list of possibly sapient animals. The lesser apes are quite intelligent, as are some species of paleotropical monkeys and neotropical monkeys (among the last, the whole genus of capuchin monkeys). The neotropical monkeys' LCA with us was about 40 million years ago, and was probably not sapient, so if they were sapient this would mean at least two seperate evolutions of sapience in the Primate order. Back to the cetecaeans: aside from the delphinids (which if sapience only appeared once among them are probably all sapient), high intelligence though not necessarily of a sapient grade has been demonstrated among belugas.
Proceeding to other Orders, we observe that the elephants have a complex social order, a wide repertoire of vocalizations, demonstrably powerful memories, and technologies of road-building, well-digging, and mining. They are probably sapient.
Beavers have been shown to produce a wide variety of dams, lodges and canals; this may or may not be sapient behavior, but is certainly sentient intelligence of a rather high grade. Ursids routinely solve complex problems to reach food. Some canids and felids have complex societies. There is a lot of research that needs to be done merely among mammals.
Geting back to birds, several other species of pscittacines (parrots and parrot-like birds) display possible sapience. So do several species of corvids (crows and crow-like birds). Since pscittacines and corvids are not that closely related, it is likely then that sapience evolved two or more times in Class Aves.
In short, we dwell on a planet with at least five and probably dozens of other sapient life forms.
II. Why Should We Care?
The initial reaction to these discoveries has been irrational denial (Noam Chomsky, Herbert S. Terrace, Martin Gardner), followed by (as the evidence has mounted too high to ignore) a "why should we care?" attitude. There has been very little motion toward awarding even limited individual rights to even the smartest animals. Much of the effort toward doing so has been hampered by (on the right) the notion that rights are God-given and that we are God's Chosen Species; and (on the left) the refusal to link the award of rights with any demand for responsibilities, leading to demands to award the same rights to non-sapient or even non-sentient animals.
From a ruthlessly evolutionary point of view, one might indeed argue that we shouldn't recognize any rights inherent in nonhuman animals. After all, we evolved to protect and promote our own kind, and not even chimpanzees and bonobos are really "our own kind" in a biological sense. Would not our continued treatment of sapient animals as natural resources or chattel property simply be in accordance with evolutionary logic?
There are several reasons why this argument is false:
First of all, we are no longer purely genetic creatures, we are also memetic creatures. In the last 10,000 years, our memetic evolution has outstripped, and to a large extent taken over from, our merely genetic evolution. This means that what should be most important to us is being intellectually like ourselves. And, in intellectual terms, we have more in common with an African Gray parrot than either of us does with a shrew or a sparrow.
Secondly, there is a moral issue. Our (Western) society has been built, largely, on the concept that we can extend the "like us" category as widely as the Other will permit (in other words, we extend rights to Others who are willing to likewise respect ourselves). If Koko the gorilla is enough "like us" to understand language, to intelligently sign, to love, to make art, then she is logically more "person" than "thing," and should be treated as such.
Thirdly, there is a cultural issue. Our ability to communicate with the sapient animals will, in another century at most, reach the point when we will be able to train them and use them in numbers, as workers. There is a term for a worker who is chattel property, a status that we abolished from our society over 140 years ago. That term is "slave."
Slavery harms a society. It harms not only the slaves, in the obvious sense that they are property at the mercy of the whims of their masters, but also their masters, in the less obvious sense that it corrupts them into the expectation that they can have their way and treat beings like themselves as inferiors at law. Furthermore, it inevitably degrades the social status of the work done by the slaves, and eventually the social status of work itself.
Does this cause real harm? Many economic historians believe that it was primarily the low status of work in Classical Antiquity, owing to slavery, which aborted the Hellenistic intellectual revolution from progressing to a true Scientific and Industrial Revolution. Experiments, you see, were too much like work -- the business not of aristocratic philosophers, but of money-grubbing artisans and slaves. What future progress will we halt if we re-adopt slavery now, after having so painfully managed to abolish the institution?
Fourthly, there is a scientific issue. Other sapient species represent alien points of view. Even when the species is very similar, there are differences -- Kanzi the bonobo does not view the world exactly as would a member of Homo sapiens -- and who knows what insights may come from elephants, dolphins, parrots, or crows? As long as we see sapient animals as mere "objects," we deprive ourselves of much of our ability to understand what they are thinking and feeling.
There are other considerations, too ...
III. Nontechnological Alien Sapience
On the Earth, we find one sapient species with advanced technology (Man) and numerous sapient species with very limited to no technology (all the others). The conclusion that we can draw from this is that the evolution of an advanced technology is very much rarer than the evolution of mere sapience.
This implies that, if we find extraterrestrial sapient life, unless we find it because it is emitting long-distance signals, it will probably be non-technological sapience.
Suppose we came to Earth as aliens, with no humans living on Earth, and our current set of assumptions about the acknowledgement of rights. Would we recognize the great apes, the delphinids, the parrots, the macaws, the cockatoos, the corvids, the elephants, or any of the rest as sapient?
Probably not. Though, admittedly, across interstellar distances we might feel less threatened, be more inclined to give the aliens the benefit of the doubt.
Suppose that we didn't recognize them as sapient. Would we not then descend, take their planet, and shove them into nature preserves and zoos? Would we not callously shoot them for specimens or food, destroy their ancient cultures, and spill their hard-won knowledge onto the soil of entropy?
Why not? That's exactly what we did here. That's exactly what we're doing now. Koko may sign and Kanzi may point to symbols, but their wild kin are being killed for FOOD right now, as I write this. People take great ape babies from the wild, treat them as pets, and when they grow too big to easily manage toss them in tiny cages and leave them there for years on end. Scientists torture them to death in medical experiments. Our awareness of their sapience has made no difference.
Suppose that, then, we did recognize nontechnological extraterrestrials as sapient. How would we make contact with them?
I can't be certain, but I could tell you how we could learn the skill of "Contact" right now, right here on Earth, no starships needed.
We could start by trying to make contact with Earthly nonhuman sapient animals.
Of course, we won't get this option if we kill them all.
And there's a possibly still more important issue ...
IV. Technological Alien Sapience
Man has been a technological species for about a million years. We have only been a civilized species for ten thousand years. We have only been scientific for five hundred years, and only within the last century have we been able to generate radio.
We still can't build starships.
Now, I will grant us the philosophical maturity to realize, if we encountered even Paleolithic extraterrestrial sapients, that these were "people" regardless of their physical forms, and to treat them accordingly. Certainly, we would do so if they were building cities, and even more so if factories and railroads.
In that case, of course, we would have the advantage. We would, presumably, have the technology to build starships, and this implies control of energy on a scale such that we could slaughter or spare them at our whim. They might pose a moral hazard to us, because they would be helpless compared to us, but they would pose no direct physical danger.
Ah, but what if they were Information Age beings like ourselves? Or beyond?
We've only had radio for a century. Unless one makes some very pessimistic assumptions about the future of sapient tool-users, this implies that the "typical" radio-using species would be more advanced than us.
How much more advanced than us? We don't know. At least as far beyond us as starfaring humans would be beyond pre-Information Age civilized nonhumans, or present-day humans are beyond the other great apes, at my guess.
This means that we would be helpless.
What happens to the helpless? Our own history is not reassuring on this matter. Think of the Spanish conquering the Mexicans and Peruvians, who were "only" 2500 or so years behind them technologically. Think of the Belgians in the Congo. Even when we haven't meant that much harm, as in the case of whalers in the South Pacific, we've done severe damage to native cultures simply due to demoralization -- what happens when your greatest thinkers are, to the aliens, no smarter than Koko making her conceptual humor and bilingual puns?
The essence of it is that the more advanced side does "whatever it wants." If more advanced aliens want to kill us, we're dead. We may struggle, we may make noble speeches, but we wind up spilled out into entropy just like the Carolina parakeets, or the Neanderthals. Whether we go "gentle" or not, we go. Jeff Goldblum and his PC-compatible omnivirus are really fantasy, not hard science fiction.
If they want to enslave us, we're slaves. If they want to quarantine us, we're quarantined. As long as we live, we may be able to work our way out of it, augment our minds and gain more advanced technologies, but our cultures are shattered and, by the time that we win our freedom, we're no more Modern Westerners than the Modern Mexicans are really Aztecs. And if the alien culture has aspects we don't like -- if they demand that we eat every alternate one of our children, or practice compulsory random promiscuity, well, that's tough -- we wind up doing it, that's all.
Our only real hope of surviving with any cultural integrity is based on the hope that the aliens are moral. Not merely "moral" like we are, now --if corpses could talk, there are piles of them all around the world, human and nonhuman alike, to testify to our "morality" -- but "moral" in a sense and way that our culture has not yet achieved. Moral enough to value us for our diversity, to appreciate that the less the damage they do to our culture in the process of contacting and uplifting us, the better it is for themselves in the long run.
Of course, that implies that they will judge us by their own enlightened standards. And depending on what they see in us, they may be more or less helpful -- or destructive.
I've often though of The Day The Earth Stood Still as morally claptrap -- "be good and nonviolent like us or we'll exterminate you" is a message with a clear logical flaw. On the other hand, Klaatu's people did have a point.
Say you're an alien from a civilization more advanced than our own. You come to Earth and you find the human race struggling up from Paleolithic savagery to the point where they have just barely achieved spaceflight, and begun to dream of starflight. They are no threat to you now, but after extended contact (and the acquisition of your own superior technology through trade) they might be. Someday.
You know there are other sapient races there, because evolution works in similar fashion on all worlds, and usually if there's one sapient race with advanced technology, several evolved in the first place. And, being aware of the cultural productivity of diversity and information exchange, you want to talk to these other sapients, too.
But you don't see any mention of other sapients in the transmissions you've received. So, when you start talking to the humans, you ask to meet the other sapient races of their planet.
"You know," you say. "Creatures capable of understanding language, but which didn't develop cities and science on their own. Surely you have some of them?"
Oh! The humans then show you the other great apes ...
... and you learn that humans have driven them nearly into extinction. That humans launch slave raids against them, killing the adults and making the children captive. That some humans test them to destruction to find out if their (primitive, witch-doctor) drugs are effective. That some humans eat them. That even in the most humane and advanced societies, they are kept as lifetime prisoners in zoos, refused most benefits from the superior culture surrounding them.
That there are a few humans who are seriously trying to help them, to communicate with them, and treat them as people -- and that the vast majority of the human race treats these humans as crackpots. That at least one scientist who has achieved great results in communicating with her own captive apes is derided by the rest of the scientific community, and her findings ignored, because she has committed the egregious intellectual sin of loving them, and treating them as her own foster children!
These are the great apes, mind you. Our closest living kin.
We do worse to the more distantly-related sapients. Because they are less like ourselves.
So we turn to the aliens, and ask them: "Will you give us, or sell us, your advanced technology? We too would like to colonize other worlds and fare widely among the Universe!"
And the aliens, whose Last Common Ancestor with us (if any) was several billion years ago, who indeed may have come from an entirely separate origin of life, say ...
Well, would you really want these homicidal sociopaths with starships and antimatter bombs? Free to ravage Queem knows how many other races with less advanced technology than even their own? To slaughter promising young species across a thousand stars?
If we're lucky, they'll just quarantine us until we matured a bit.
I don't know if technologically-advanced aliens are real. But I do know that we are real, and so are the other wonderful sapient species with which we share our planet. And all the long-term considerations should, logically, cause us to realize that we need to start treating them with some respect, for our own sake, because we are destroying something precious, something irretrievable.
This would make me happy, save for one thing.
We've never been all that logical.
(*) Poor talkers, but mechanically adept to a level that shows definite time-binding and conscious planning of actions.
(**) For birds, the metabolic and weight costs of a big brain are considerable -- African Grays only weigh at most a few pounds!
(***) There is some reason to believe that they have progressed to a tribal stage of society, something no other nonhuman animal aside from the eusocial insects has been known to achieve.