It was a good week for relations between us and our animal kin. A New York Times Magazine article by Charles Siebert titled “Watching Whales Watching Us”, and follow-up interviews on Fresh Air and the Diane Rehm Show give voice to what seems to be an increasingly acceptable message: we are not alone. Other animals are also conscious, intentional, creative, capable of compassion, and highly communicative. And of course, for centuries we have been using and abusing these highly sensitive creatures for our own narrow purposes.
The “Are we alone?” question has always been attached to our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I have been suggesting for a few decades that the intelligent “others” we have been searching for are right here on Earth, we just don’t recognize them as such. How, then, can we hope to recognize intelligence when or if we find it on other planets, in forms completely alien to us and Earthly life?
The interview with Diane Rehm was particularly touching because of the quality of the questions and comments from listeners who called in. We may really be learning. We may finally be able to recognize in other animals the qualities we most admire in ourselves. In that interview, Charles Siebert raised the question of whether the isolating event that separated our sense-of-self from the other animals was the development of spoken language, something we do not seem to share with any other animal. I don’t think he is right, because there are human cultures that have not lost the ability to understand Earth’s many means of communication. Our sense of separation seems to have more to do with civilization than language.
But among the many things that whales are teaching us, one is that the communication link between species has not actually been broken, even for those of us raised in civilization’s dubious arms. Whales communicate with us regularly, in potent non-verbal ways. This is nothing short of astonishing. Our evolutionary paths diverged more than 100 million years ago, so we are not exactly first cousins in evolutionary terms.
It is easy to poke holes in the idea that whales communicate with humans, unless you have experienced it yourself. It is such an overwhelming, life-altering experience that to deny it is to deny all that is good and beautiful and mysteriously wonderful in this world.
I am thrilled at the possibility that we are entering into a period of genuine collaboration with the other intelligences of the planet. To me, whales and chimps are only the beginning. The other animals, the plants, the fungi, the soil, whole ecosystems, the planet as a whole, these are also intelligent and purposeful, if we can but learn to listen to them on their own terms, not on ours. As far as I can see, the solution to our many, many problems, planetary, social and personal, will not come from the human being alone, least of all from the human mind alone, but from all forms of life functioning in collaboration with each other.
Our greatest task right now is to listen deeply and listen well to the other intelligences who share this planet with us, and learn from those who have lived here a lot longer than we have.