Vienna, September 17, 2004
To Pete, who wrote: „If an extra-terrestrial life form discovered earth, and this life form had a rational capacity and intelligence that far exceeded our own (to the level that a human's exceeds a dolphin's for example), would that species have the moral right to enslave and/or exterminate us?„
There is a peculiar and utmost distressing way of determining if a given species is rational or not. Since I love Science Fiction I am a little bit versed in relation to what the masters of the genre wrote. Bertram Chandler (1912-1984), an English author, wrote a fascinating short story on what an extra-terrestrial intelligence would do with another species: exterminate it, enslave it or find out whether or not the species is or isn’t rational.
I will summarize the story in which Chandler (no connection with private eye Marlowe) takes up the question and, at the end, tell you the name of the story (to put a little suspense into this writing):
A terrestrial space ship explores a region of the hitherto unexplored part of outer space. They travel through “hyperspace”, stop here an there, are millions of light years away from home and have, out of a sudden, a very big problem with their hyper atomic engine. So they have to interrupt their travel and descend on a planet that looks as being capable of supporting life (water, eatable food, etc.). They start to explore the planet, trying to find means to repair the ship. The ship’s captain leads the crew – among which there is a woman, a very important part of the story as we shall see – and, for a time, all goes well until there are some quarrels among the men about who gets the lady. At the same time they have the strange feeling that they are not alone. Something spies what they do.
The question of what will happen with the lady erupts finally into a large quarrel and, in the midst of it, evidently using the fact that nobody cared of what happened beyond the immediate issue, a spaceheli hovers over them, a net falls engulfing all and immediately they are carried through the air to a strange city. Here the captured humans are placed into two cages made of an unbreakable type of glass: males in one cage and the lady (Mary Hart), which was the cause of the turmoil that took place prior to being captured, in the other.
The inhabitants of the planet examine what the humans do in their respective cages and finally, having recognized that the captured species is separated in two sexes, decide to reunite the girl with the rest of the crew. They are being fed and handled with care and the captors see that the males behave decently toward the female… but none of them is released.
Noticing that the captors are intelligent (after all, they built the city, they have flying vehicles, etc.) the prisoners decide, as the only thing they can do, to show that they themselves are also intelligent. So they start a series of undertakings to demonstrate what they can do.
Taking branches from a tree-like fern that grows in their cage, they form geometric forms on the floor: triangles, squares, etc. but this doesn’t impress their captors. Some of the prisoners remember that on Earth there exist some types of birds who also form simple geometrical figures while building a nest to tempt the females of the species.
So they weave baskets with the tree’s twigs but, again, their captors seem to know that animals can weave rudimentary nests to hatch their youngs.
Then they place the twigs on the floor starting from 1 and increasing the numbers, showing rudimentary mathematical counts with the sticks but very, very primitive beings, which live at the level of their instincts, can do this too. Evidently nothing works.
But then something very particular happens. Something like a rat or a hamster finds its way into the cage. Mary, the female, is horrified. She screams at the sight of the little animal and urges the other inmates, with tears in her eyes, to capture and kill it. So the men take two of the weaved caskets and, using them as a trap, capture it. However, since they find the small animal adorable, they don’t kill it but instead build a small cell with the branches of the tree, large enough for it to run around. Then they feed it.
The captors, who are carefully looking what is going on in the cage, leave the place and come a day later to take the captain of the crew with them. Everybody is sure that he must have done something unacceptable for the captors and that he will now be killed. Nothing of the sort happens. Not many hours later the captain returns, surrounded by the locals and tells the crew that all is O.K. now, that they can come out of the cage and that the extraterrestrials will help them to repair the ship.
But the doctor of the crew has a question. He asks the captain what convinced the inhabitants of the planet that their prisoners are as intelligent as they themselves. At this question the face of the captain gets a bleak expression. Reluctantly he says: “Well, it’s very simple: Only rational beings put other beings in cages.”
The title of the story is, of course, “The Cage”. Should we ever build an Objectivist society we will necessarily even have to get rid of some of our habits and show that we are better than normal, intelligent humans.
Hopefully we will neither be destroyed nor enslaved by any extraterrestrial civilization. However, in one of his books, Arthur C. Clarke states that it is very good that the universe is so tremendously big and that all civilizations live beyond the possibility of getting in direct contact… since human history has proved hundreds of times that wherever an advanced civilization meets an underdeveloped society this last one is definitively wiped out. Not a good record, to say the least.
I remain, by the Sign of the Dollar!
Manfred F. Schieder