collate logo small - Capital C
banner image

The mind's sky and a dog's life

Recipient profile picture Timothy Ferris
21 April
Dear Timothy Ferris,
Over the Easter break, I read your wonderful book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context. Like you and many others, I am fascinated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It rests at that wonderful boundary between science and science fiction — inviting educated, cross-disciplinary guesses at the deep unknown. But as you’ve noted, SETI is a little more than that. To understand what’s out there, we must first understand ourselves. And despite all the scientific progress we’ve made over the last few centuries, our knowledge of life and intelligence remains confined to a planetary sample size of one (it’s a remarkable sample nonetheless). I also enjoyed the parallels you drew between ET intelligence with that of life on Earth. The chapter, “A Dog’s Life”, really got me thinking. If you recall, you noted that “there is something chilling about the way dogs so readily abdicated their sovereignty” to their human masters. In their new cooperatives, “dogs [lost] something essential in the bargain”. (We can extend this haunting observation to other domesticated animals as well. Since the age of agriculture and industrialization, chickens have lived especially miserable lives.) In the context of SETI, you ask us then if we would “care to lead a dog’s life”? That is, should we risk opening Pandora’s box knowing full well that if we did discover intelligent life, there is some chance that their intelligence, capability, and ambitions far exceed our own? Noting also that with that chance, we might accidentally reveal our feeble position in the cosmos to them. And if they’re of the overlord sort, we might be putting our own planetary sovereignty and survival in jeopardy. You suggest that most of us would probably reject the life of the dog. After all, “we’re used to being top dogs” on Earth. “To abrogate our independence would leave us barely human”. This is reminiscent of The House Dog and the Wolf in Aesop’s Fables. In the fable, the House Dog is talking to the hungry Wolf about the spoils and exploits of his wonderful life. He encourages the Wolf to join him in his lavish lifestyle. But upon seeing the red collar on the Dog’s neck, the Wolf runs away in fear of its ultimate meaning. True, most of us probably don’t want to live like a domesticated dog. But we are a lot more malleable than we like to believe. History and contemporary culture shows us the many ways in which people come together to write and rewrite their shared fictions. From religions to cults, or ideologies to corporations, we are capable of believing and rationalizing all sorts of things. In my view, Sapiens have as much in common with Aesop’s House Dog as it does with The Wolf. Even if we do not want to be a dog, would we even know it? All it takes is a little nudging of our institutions and accumulated knowledge in some direction. (Many science fiction authors have played with this idea. Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End is a particular favorite of mine. The alien overlords in his book are busy guiding and corralling humanity over many generations for reasons which I will not spoil. ) So given the tail-end risks, should we limit SETI only to observations of the cosmos? Should we refrain from open-ended communications with the unknown for fear of potential subjugation? Maybe. This is just a hunch, however, from one naïve, risk-averse human that is speculating on one particular sort of ETI that may or may not materialize. But I do wonder, Tim, if your thoughts on SETI and the matter have changed since writing your book thirty years ago? I sometimes wish that I could live forever to see all the marvellous things that people will someday build, learn and discover. But I'm also wary of humanity's latent potential for dysfunction and destruction. Time does interesting things to likelihoods. So I'm not sure if I would like to live until then. Warm regards, Tobias

Tobias Lim

Author profile picture Tobias Lim

Related letters

    COLLATE'S FOUNDING LETTER: great minds in written conversation in search of leaders, ideas and togetherness

    Oliver Kraftman on 25 January
    Responses: 0

    Dear Internet, Optimism has been part of my nature for as long as I can remember. As a child I remember watching my favourite football team thinking we’d never lose. I’d believe we could win until the very end of a game no matter how badly we were losing or who the...

    The mind's sky and a dog's life

    Tobias Lim on 21 April
    Responses: 0

    Dear Timothy Ferris, Over the Easter break, I read your wonderful book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context. Like you and many others, I am fascinated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It rests at that wonderful boundary between...

    The art of storytelling.

    Eleanor on 22 April
    Responses: 0

    Dear Charlie Mackesy, I have enjoyed your work for a long time: the whimsical fluidity of your lines, the delicate colours, and the use of curves, all bring your world to life. But the thing I have enjoyed most of all, is the element of storytelling within your oeuvre, in...

    A quality vacuum in sci-fi films?

    Tobias Lim on 5 May
    Responses: 0

    Dear Denis Villeneuve, I am a science fiction junkie, and a big fan of your movies. Thank you for giving Blade Runner, Arrival, and Dune the attention and care it deserves. I’m glad these stories get to reach a mass audience. I’m not so sure if they'd fare as well in anoth...

    To Professor Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate, in response to '70 Notices'

    Christopher Crompton on 26 May
    Responses: 0

    Dear Simon Armitage, In response to '70 Notices' You spent a long time looking hard to notice seventy things between greyscale streetlit troughs and Dark and White Peaks, saw a full moon bottled in a drop of dew, felt the full weight of Sheffield and Manchester come ...

    An attempt to 'canonise' young adult fiction.

    Eleanor on 4 July
    Responses: 0

    Dear Jacqueline Wilson, I read your books widely as a child and teenager, and they were very impactful in helping me grow up. Now an adult, I’m a musician and artist, and was struck recently by the development of ‘Poptimism’ within music criticism, and wondered whether a si...

    The mystery of why we like mysteries.

    Eleanor on 17 July
    Responses: 0

    Dear Anthony Horowitz, I had the enjoyable experience of growing up with your Alex Rider books during my childhood, and also being a fan of Sherlock Holmes, it has also been wonderful seeing you continue those stories. I wanted to write to you regarding something that has...

    Legend of the Galactic Heroes

    Tobias Lim on 18 August
    Responses: 0

    Dear Ollie Barder, I finished watching the 1990s version of Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LOTGH) last night. And I must say that LOTGH is, in my opinion, among the best pieces of space-opera science-fiction ever made. Yoshiki Tanaka is a genius.  So I wanted to thank...

Dear friend.

This is a letter on A place for politicians, authors and experts to have online correspondences with each other and the public, in public.

Enter your email to read this letter and to receive our best letters in your inbox once a week.

Only the recipient can respond....

Verify your identity and respond via email