Human and animal sensation
Science Fiction Musings
This hub is intended to inspire what might be called "hard" science fiction. This science fiction feels the need to actually explain things, rather than just assuming the future is full of lasers and energy shields. Throughout this column there will be a great deal of comparison between humans and other animals (and sometimes plants, fungi, etc.). The idea that human beings are "alone" is ridiculous. We are just the only animal capable of complex social networking, or civilization. Beyond that we are animals, and the best model for creating an alien species is to look at our differences with other animals.
First there is the issue of sensory capabilities. Given that any intelligent species evolved in an environment completely isolated from humans indicates they would have vastly different senses. Just consider the phenomenon called echolocation. In environments where light is not a useful guide to the world, animals learn to navigate from sound alone. Many bat species can use echolocation to catch insects in the air at night. These same bats can locate their perch in a dark cave with astonishing accuracy. Now compare this to humans. You ever have your cell phone ringing but you can't figure out where it is, exactly? Humans do have some echolocation, but what might a bat think about a human that can't find a ringing phone ten feet away?
The bat would must likely look on humans as clumsy and limited. And how humans go on about the superiority of language, that doesn't let them operate in the dark! For a species with echolocation, the world is sound. When it comes to language, if one says something to five different people, one is likely to get five different responses from those people, especially if their culture is radically different. Echolocation does not share this ambiguity; it is precise. Given the same signals, five bats will always make it to the same location. (note, language will likely receive a great deal more attention in later posts) How on earth, the bat must question, does the human race even survive, much less become such a dominant species?
The point here to make about sensory systems, and of animal (or alien) sensory capabilities is that we often judge (or will judge) an any animal we meet based on our own standards and capacities. Hopefully the sci fi writer will try to get past these limitations of perspective. If you take our cognition away, human beings are basically like other animals and also share a number similarities between plants and other nonanimal life forms.
Even our cognition shows limitations. Despite the buildup of centuries worth of technology human beings seem no closer to ending war than they have ever been. So how much good is our cognition, really? It is wondrous, but not the center of the universe.The creation of a truly alien society, a hard science society must always take into account both the limitations of our own species and the vast potential of others. .
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