A plea for a new exploration, one that is within our reach
Extraterrestrial intelligence would be the single most important discovery of human existence. In many ways it is the continuation of a search for answers in the sky that began with our distant ancestors. Unfortunately the UFO mythos is lacking any evidence and scientists are having a difficult time even locating bacteria.
Recent news that Saturn's moon Enceladus is unlikely to support life is reducing the possibility even further that any living organisms will be found in our solar system. We may have to face the possibility that beyond our thin dusting of atmospheric gases lay a domain of shadows.
This demonstrates how rare and precious life can be and should generate increased concern for our fragile biosphere. UFO visitations will not save this generation any more than gods or angels did for generations past. We have to overcome our myopic vision of culture and political ideology to become a true caretaker for the myriad organisms on our planet, or at least find a way to leave them the hell alone.
Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (two powerhouses in evolutionary anthropology) predicted the ultimate legacy our current path would bring us in their 1996 book The Sixth Extinction:
Even if we take a figure in the lower range of [extinction] estimates, say thirty-thousand species per year, the implication is still startling. David Raup has calculated from the fossil record that during periods of normal, or background, extinction, species loss occurs at an average of one every four years. Extinction at the rate of thirty-thousand a year, therefore, is elevated 120,000 times above background. This is easily comparable with the Big Five biological crises of geological history, except that this one is not being caused by global temperature change, regression of sea level, or asteroid impact. It is being caused by one of Earth's inhabitants. Homo sapiens is poised to become the greatest catastrophic agent since a giant asteroid collided with the Earth sixty-five million years ago, wiping out half the world's species in a geological instant.
According to the latest WWF Living Planet Report, since 1970 as many as 1/3 of all terrestrial, freshwater and marine species have gone extinct and our current ecological footprint (the amount of natural resources used solely by humans) exceeds the Earth's ability to regenerate by 25%. This has a dramatic effect on our ability to make contact with other intelligent life. Since it's unlikely that bacteria are abundant in our solar system, the chances of finding alien intelligence is reduced considerably. However, there are quadrupedal (and sometimes even bipedal) beings with sizable frontal lobes already among us. Unfortunately they, too, may soon be unknown to science.
Last year Conservation International, the World Conservation Union and the International Primatological Society issued a report entitled "Primates in Peril." Of the 625 unique varieties of primates, 26% are at crucial risk of extinction.
They are among the most beautiful and intelligent of tropical wonders, and they are among the most persecuted — relentlessly hunted for their meat and fur, bodies broken for dubious medicines, shot for stealing crops in fields which were once their home. All the forests of the world cannot satisfy the sum of human hunger: they are cut and burned, day and night, and the remnants of their grandeur will not long survive without our intervention.
Primates are also our closest link with the natural world, they help us to understand who we are and how we came to be. As Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan so beautifully wrote in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors:
We humans are like a newborn baby left on a doorstep, with no note explaining who it is, where it came from, what hereditary cargo of attributes and disabilities it might be carrying, or who its antecedents might be.Primates possess that missing note which should have accompanied our bassinet at the foundling home. By understanding how primates negotiate their environments, their cognitive landscape, their social and sexual lives, we can better understand ourselves. It is their mysterious intelligence that should fuel our passions. Just imagine, even if for a moment, how the world would be transformed if the patriarchs of antiquity hadn't set up conflicts between the "revealed texts" of the Bible, Qu'ran, and Hindu Vedas but looked instead at the reality in front of them. What if our common framework was simply the natural world without the flailing argument and violent retaliation in support of some unseen and unknowable skyward intelligence?
So consider this a plea for a new exploration -- a search for intelligent life in the universe and a campaign to ensure that such life remains abundant. What's more, we don't have to travel to distant stars and our plea for answers won't be returned with silence. It's simply this. Visit your local library and check out a book on our primate origins (I've offered a list of my favorites below). Then visit the web pages of the Jane Goodall Institute, the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), the World Conservation Union or the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (many more options are available here). Learn the current statistics and conservation strategies so you can tell your friends, co-workers or give a special presentation in your child's classroom. Find out how you can change your consumption to reduce our ecological footprint. Donate your time or money to organizations working to make the difference we all want to see.
It's a small and rather ridiculous request, for certainly that solution has always been in front of us. But so have primates. While we've searched in vain for distant intelligence to bring us "the Answer" we've always had the potential right in our backyard (cosmically speaking). But we won't for very much longer. Just as we're running out of celestial bodies that harbor extraterrestrial life, so are we losing the very life forms that could offer solutions to some of our species' most profound questions.