How the Hen House Turns: Universal Emotion – Relating to Animals and Aliens

How the Hen House Turns:
Universal Emotion – Relating to Animals and Aliens
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

In spite of the title of this column, the issue here is directly related to the Hen House theme ─ our responsibility to animals that we adopt.

I’d like to believe that we humans have matured to the point where we could appreciate the alienness of other beings. We’re doing much better with animals now, since Temple Grandin shared her experiences with us in her book “Animals in Translation” (Scribner, 2005).

I agree that my birds do see things in WYSIWYG mode. It takes them some time to learn, then to remember, that the gate is really open and that they need to go around the pen to see that it is. Scientists now are not hooted down when they seek to explore the emotional lives of animals.

In downsizing my library, I have run across some marvelous books written in the 50s and 60s that fight the notion called “The Law of Parsimony,” that animals do nothing that isn’t instinctual, hence mechanical.

Sally Callighar is my ideal, writing beautiful English in her natural history stories, like “Wild Heritage,” where she traces this odd history, reflecting human prejudices. Frans deWaal finally broke the mold in the 80s.

The grin on my dog DeeDee’s face expresses unmistakable delight when she jumps up and down and greets me at the gate, ready to join us in the living room for the evening. And the ducks come up close and wak wak wak at me to dig up some worms or let Lucy out of the Hen House.

So why not aliens? Surely they can feel emotions, even if their DNA probably works with a different code. Maybe it’s RNA or something else. Chemistry tells us that life is most-likely carbon-and-water based. Does alien evolution have to be so different we can’t relate to it? Don’t we all have similar survival instincts, including the ability to recognize mutual benefit?

Worms know very well when they are attacked by a duck-lover digging for the birds’ favorite food. If we connect, can’t we commit to mutual support, such as not digging up all the worms so there will be some next spring.

My experience studying biology suggests that our understanding of chemistry, complex systems and self-organizing selection make it reasonable to expect that evolution on

Earth is a sorting process that could occur anywhere if conditions are right. Some elements, like carbon, get together more easily than others, are more stable, more capable of devising interesting strategies for survival. Water also has very special advantages.

This is not to say that we humans are not unique. The question is exactly how different are we and why? Even as individuals we are unique, though the details of our existence, the complex chemical and physical systems that define our lives, are universal—and downright awe inspiring in their complexity and precision. It makes one very thankful to be alive.

Bonnie Gordon, who reviewed my novels for the Los Alamos Daily Post, asked the best question so far. Could an extended family, including aliens and humans, really work? The mixed family of my novel series, “The Archives of Varok,” surely do have their problems, and though they’ve met them head-on in both A Place Beyond Man and The Webs of Varok, there are more to come in the next volume, Conn: The Alien Effect, to be released early this summer. Proofreading is on the calendar for next week.