On sentience, sapience and speciesism

The more science fiction I read (and I don’t read anything else consciously, generally, when it comes to books), the more I ponder deeply about speciesism.

You should Google or Wiki Speciesism if you don’t know what it means.

speciesismIn a nutshell, it is a prejudice similar to racism or sexism, but concerns humans as a species and their supposed supremacy over every other species in the planet called Earth.

You could argue that this is a stupid point to ponder given that the human species already has more than enough isms to worry about even within the species (like racism and sexism, for instance), that bringing the species angle is quite pointless. Almost as if it is taken for granted that humans are—indeed—the dominant species on earth, and deservedly so.

But, consider this. And I do understand that this may seem outlandish to you at this point.

What if a sentient species from another planet is more aligned to a canine or feline sensibility, than human sensibilities? Or, as Men In Black showed us, aligned to cockroaches’ sensibilities?

I did warn you that this may seem outlandish, huh?

Point is, we humans haven’t even found the grip to treat our own species well (White vs. Black, Men vs. Women, Muslims vs. Hindus etc.) that we need to go a very long way before we can move on to the next level of looking beyond our own species, to other species.

Take for instance the lowly cockroach.

We don’t even think for a second before squashing a cockroach to its semi-solid death. We do not even consider the possibility that even a cockroach is a form of life that is making a living alongside us humans, on the same planet.

Now, I’m fairly sure that you’d have stopped reading this post. But if you are one of those who is still reading, thank you.

I’m the kind of person who has been in awe, and in love with animals ever since I remember. And not just the cute, cuddly pets variety, but animals of any kind, shape and color. It just fascinates me endlessly that we live alongside some of the most vibrant, talented and interesting set of creatures in this planet.

And, if I were to honestly compare what we humans, as a species, have achieved, or done to this planet, with what the animals have done, I’d be incredibly ashamed. I’m sure we started well, but in the path to so-called progress, we have moved further and further away from the planet’s ethos and nature that we’re on the verge of yet another major threshold – that of not being content with our intelligence that led to this, but also create artificial, or, non-human, intelligence.

farmerNo, I’m not spouting Avatar’s Pandora-style living all over again, but I’m fairly sure this is worth thinking about. Our species’ needs are so dense and many. To achieve those needs, we prioritise our own species over every other species. The result is that we are looking at more barren lands, less forests and spaces for the actual species that lived there and so on. This is not new.

But how long can this go on? Just because we humans live under the notion that we discovered and harnessed fire, we rule this planet. And in the evolutionary scheme of things, there has not been another species of this level of intelligence to have done the same, so we remain unquestioned champs of this planet. What if—just, what if—our luck and supremacy runs out one day?

What if, say large mammals like elephants, rhinos, buffalos etc can communicate with each other and decide that they all had enough of humans’ reign? After all, why should they be treated as second-class citizens? Just because we have the sixth sense? Just consider for a moment the possibility of sixth sense evolving in animals because they have lived long enough with us humans.

This may seem stupidly anecdotal, but the other day when I came across a cat outside a grocery store, I was amazed to see it being least scared of humans. It was walking past every human it can see as if it was amongst friends. We humans already don’t care or be scared of cows on the road – we walk very close to them completely confident that they wouldn’t harm us. These are deep-rooted behaviors that we have built for ourselves and inculcated in other species that have been close to our own for a long time.

If I include the flora to this equation too, then, besides certifying me as a loony, you could also see the point of how small and insignificant our species actually is, in Earth.

So, here’s the premise.

What if the fauna find a way to communicate with each other? To decide what is best for them that is not necessarily best for us humans?

Take it to the next level – what if the flora join the party and help the fauna?

Where do we, with our nascent artificial intelligence and inter-planetary ambitions, go then?

Before we go about creating artificial intelligence, what efforts have we made to communicate with our own flora and fauna, to see or understand things from their perspective? Animals, after all, are sentient, while we humans pride ourselves in being sapient (ability to think and reason). Imagine the collaborative possibilities if we communicate and start co-existing, mutually benefitting from the experience?

It would obviously mean a lot of changes in the way we run amok in this planet, but at least we’d be respecting the other species of this planet instead of being the arrogant so-called supreme being here.

Given the kind of mess we find ourselves in, across the world, I’ve long held the belief that the next wave of something big (not Extinction Level Event, I mean) that can bring together humans as a species (we had wars, plague, famines etc. that did the trick earlier) is a visit from another sentient/sapient being, or at least confirmed knowledge (and communication thereof) about one.

That changes everything. It is the rug-pulling moment in our short history, the rug being pulled from the floor we humans stand on. When faced with the possibility of coming across or living with another species as intelligent (if not more intelligent) than us, our true nature would come to the fore – we’d either aim to overpower them (like we’ve done with every other species in this planet), or they’d do that to us.

But, this is a science fiction at present and unless Elon Musk does whatever he does fast enough, we’re fairly insulated from this possibility. Or so we assume.

So, I have an alternate rug-pulling moment that looks more inward – the ability and power to start communicating meaningfully with the flora and fauna of earth. More than a practical viewpoint (imagine how much more we could learn from them!), it’d mean we start seeing other perspectives… perspectives that are truly non-human. All our perspectives have been human led because we don’t know anything else. Imagine the power and awareness to perceive beauty, malice, anger, ambition, fear, valor, leadership, survival instincts and myriad other facets of the flora and fauna of our planet! I’m acutely aware that I’m ascribing human-behavior on non-human species and that itself is a form of speciesism – but again, that’s because we do not know anything better.

That too changes everything. It changes the way we live this self-indulgent—what we call—life.

If all this sounded like extreme mumbo-jumbo to you, I’m not going to apologize, but I had get this out of my system – have been meaning to write this for almost 2-3 years! But did not muster the courage to out this together.

You could start reading more, incidentally, if this interests you. More than any scientific journal, I’d recommend you start with a rather curious science-fiction novel called The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell. Please ignore (or at least set aside) the religion angle of the book (it is completely incidental, in my view) and focus on the interplay between humans, as a species and the other species involved in the plot.

To a lesser extent, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a good starting point too, again focusing on the interplay between humans and another sentient, sapient species, but with a more frenetic and manic pace that doesn’t particularly lead to anything.

If you related to this post at any level, I’d love to hear from you.

If you know of any books that make any remote sense to what I have written above, I’d love to know that, and read those books to expand my own views on this topic – so, please do drop me a note.

At some point, I do intend to write my own science fiction novel on this topic.

Earlier, related read: Humans, aliens and dogs! 

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  • Godard

    Interesting view, Karthik. Reminded me of an article I read long time ago, Talking to God (fiction), where species are categorized in different levels [Sapient Level 2 – beyond our solar system]. I like the part where ‘God’ says – if we, as humans, don’t figure out a way to adapt our intelligence to undersand and manipulate life forms on Earth, we are most likely going to discover a self-destruct mechanism that can wipe out our species completely. Here’s the link to it – long, but engaging 🙂 http://www.fullmoon.nu/articles/art.php?id=tal