DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Dogma of Otherness

By David Brin, Ph.D.

It all began when my publisher sent me out on what used to be called a Chautauqua circuit — public seminars and panels and rubber-chicken dinners — to promote my books. That's when I began noticing something very strange about the way people have started thinking these days.

Publicity tours can be pretty tedious at times. Even science-fiction conventions start to blur after too long an exposure. Maybe that's when I started seeing things I otherwise would have ignored.

It started innocuously enough: my second novel was about genetically engineered dolphins, and it's no secret that — next to unicorns — those friendly sea mammals are just about everybody's favorite creatures. People at these gatherings seemed mostly to like the way I handled them.

Inevitably, though, someone in the crowd would ask what I think of porpoise intelligence here and now, in the real world.

It's predictable. There is something compelling about a species that so obviously (for lord knows what reason) likes us. People want to know more about them. They ask how much progress had been made in teaching dolphins to speak our language. Or have researchers yet learned to talk to them in theirs?

Such questions are based on so many implicit assumptions ... I really hate disappointing folks, but there is a duty to tell the truth.

"I'm not a real expert," I tell them. "But the data are pretty easy to interpret. I'm afraid real dolphins simply aren't all that smart. Those folktales about high cetacean intelligence, at or above our level, are just stories. It's a shame, but they just aren't true."

This, apparently, is not how a lecturer remains popular. Not once has the reaction varied.

"But you can't know that!"

A universal mutter of agreement. Angry, nodding heads.

"If we can't communicate with them, it must be because we're not smart enough!"

I reply as best I can. "Well, Professor Luis Herman of the University of Hawaii has worked for a long time with the deepwater species Steno bredanensis — widely recognized as one of the brightest breeds. Dr. Herman has, indeed, proved that the higher dolphins are pretty smart animals. They can parse four- and even five-element command 'sentence' signals at least as well as those famous 'sign-language' chimpanzees. In fact, the evidence for dolphins is more rigorous than it is for chimps."

This has them smiling. But I make the mistake of going on.

"Nevertheless, the basic problem-solving skills of even the brightest porpoise cannot match those of a human toddler. I'm afraid if we want 'other minds' to talk to, we're going to have to look elsewhere ... or construct them ourselves."

Again, instant protests.

"But ... but there may be other ways of dealing with the world intelligently than those we imagine!"

"Right!" another person agrees. "Those problems the dolphins had to solve were designed by human beings, and may miss the whole point of cetacean thought! In their environment they're probably as smart as we are in ours!"

How does one answer statements like those?

I've listened to recorded dolphin "speech," transposed in frequency. The sounds are repetitive, imprecise ... clearly filled with emotional, not discursive, information.

Subjective opinion, to be sure. So I'd patiently describe the brilliantly simple experiments of Herman and others, which had forced me to abandon my own early optimism that it was only a matter of time until we learned to understand dolphin speech.

But this only seemed to deepen the questioners' sullen insistence that there must be other varieties of intelligence.

Finally I gave up arguing.

"You know," I said, "every group of nonscientists I've talked to reacts this way. It's really had me wondering. But now I think I've figured it out."

They looked puzzled. I explained.

"Anthropologists tell us that every culture has its core of central, commonly shared assumptions — some call them zeitgeists, others call them dogmas. These are beliefs that each individual in the tribe or community will maintain vigorously, almost like a reflex.

"It's a universal of every society. For instance, in the equatorial regions of the globe there's a dogma that could be called machismo, in which revenge is a paramount virtue that runs deeper even than religion. From Asian family centrism to Russian pessimism, there are worldviews that affect nations' behavior more basically than superficial things like communism, or capitalism, or Islam. It all has to do with the way children are raised.

"We, too, have our zeitgeist. But I am coming to see that contemporary America is very, very strange in one respect. It just may be the first society in which it is a major reflexive dogma that there must be no dogmas!"

The puzzled looks have spread. This is quite a departure. I hurry on.

"Look how you all leaped up to refute me. Even though I'm the supposed 'dolphin expert' here, that hardly matters, since you all assume that any expert can still be wrong! No matter how prestigious his credentials, no expert can know all the answers."

This is a bit of a revelation to me, even as I say it.

"Think about it. 'There's always another way of looking at things' is a basic assumption of a great many Americans."

"Yeah?" One of the fellows up front says, perhaps with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. "Well, isn't that true? There is always another way!"

"Of course there is . . . or at least I tend to think so. I like to see other viewpoints." I shrug. "But you see, I was brought up in the same culture as you were, so it's no surprise I share your dogma of otherness."

I roll the phrase over on my tongue, then repeat it, perhaps a little pontifically. "The Dogma of Otherness insists that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer.

"Your reactions reflect this fundamental assumption. Having been raised in the same culture, I believe in it as fully as you do. Recall how reluctant I was to decide, at last, that dolphins aren't superintelligent. Most of us here believe in diversity of ideas.

"But think, for a moment, how unique this is . . . how unusual this cultural mind-set has to be! Throughout history nearly every human society has worked hard to ingrain its children with the assumption that theirs was the only way to do things. Oh, we still get a lot of that here. It probably comes automatically with flags and nations and all that tribal stuff. But where and when else has the societal dogma also included such a powerful counter-indoctrination to defend otherness?"

A man in the front row speaks up.

"That's a culturally chauvinistic statement!" There are agreeing nods all around the room. "I mean, what's so special about our culture? We're no better than, say, Asian civili—"

"You're doing it again!" I cry; I can hardly sit still. (Perhaps from being too impressed with my own cleverness?) Several members of the audience blink for a moment, then smile faintly.

"I don't see —" he tries to continue, but I'm too excited and hurry on.

"Look, it may be true that there's something to be learned from all points of view. But it might also be true that that's just the bias our heterogeneous, melting-pot culture has imposed on us!

"Answer truthfully. You all believe that widely diverse points of view have merit, right?"

"Right," the young man answers firmly, his jaw set.

"And your insitence could be called a declaration of faith in a 'Doctrine of Otherness,' right?"

"I suppose so. But —"

"And you'll agree that as a truly pervasive set of assumptions, it's pretty much a liberal Western, even American, tradition, won't you? Think how strange this Doctrine of Otherness would seem to an ancient Roman, or to the dynastic Chinese who thought the world revolved around Beijing, or to Tudor England, or to most of the peoples of the world today."

"Well . . ." He doesn't want to admit it, but after a moment's thought the fellow finally nods. "All right, so that's just our way of looking at things. But you can't say it's actually better than any other way. We have this so-called Doctrine of Otherness. Other people have their own cultural assumptions, of equal value."

"Aha!" I smile. "But by saying that, by stating that those other points of view have merit, you are insisting that your cultural dogma — this Doctrine of Otherness — is the best! You're a cultural chauvinist!"

He frowns and scratches his head. A woman on the left raises her hand; then slowly lowers it again.

From the back a voice calls. "That's a tautology ... or a paradox ... I forget which. It's like when I say — 'This sentence is a lie.' You've got him trapped either way he goes!"

I shrug. "So? Since when are deep-seated cultural assumptions ever fair? They're adaptions a society makes in order to survive . . . in our case, dictated by being a nation of immigrants who had to learn to get along together. Dogmas don't have to be entirely logical, as long as they work.

"Still, perhaps we ought to be proud of America as the prime promoter of a dogma of different and choice —"

Ooh. They react quickly to that!

"Why proud?" an elderly lady remarks vehemently. "That doesn't make us better than anybody else! It's no great shakes to measure our own culture by our culture's standards and come out with the answer that we're okay! We worship diversity, so by that token we see our worship of diversity as virtuous —"

"That is a tautology," I point out. Fortunately, she ignores the rude interruption.

"— But that doesn't mean that our culture doesn't come up lacking by some other set of standards," she insists. "Other cultural dogmas could be just as valid."

I sigh. "You're doing it again."

This time a few in the audience laugh. The woman glares for a moment. "Okay, So I'm a product of my culture. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm right. I mean it doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong. I mean . . "

When the laughter spreads, she breaks down and smiles. "I-I think I see what you're getting at now."

"I only wish I did," I reply. But we're starting to get into the spirit of this now. More hands rise, and we're off.

Perhaps it began with Copernicus, who exiled Earth permanently from the center of the universe.

If this was so, then no one could claim Europe (or China or Arabia) was the navel of creation, either. The hidden implications were profound. People who accepted the new astronomy also had to adjust to the idea that what their senses told them everyday was untrue — that the world did not revolve around them alone.

As the centuries passed, this Copernican "Principle of Mediocrity" was extended. We discovered that the sun is really a rather mundane star, in a not unusual galaxy, among billions of galaxies. Now we find that the Milky Way's spiral arms teem with the very chemicals of life, implying that our Earth, special as it is, is not likely to be unique.

Humankind's brief existence in the four-billion-year history of the planet is a sure lesson in humility.

Meanwhile, relativity tells us that there is no absolute frame of reference. Gödel's Proof and quantum mechanics have refuted forever Hegel's mad dream of "derived certainty." Truth — it has been proved mathematically — is a thing with fuzzy outlines, when you look up close.

So perhaps it was modernity, as well as the sociological needs of a melting-pot nation, that caused us to develop the Dogma of Otherness. If there's nothing so unique about our own place and time, maybe there's nothing particularly central about our own selves, and the points of view we happen to hold.

Nor is it even necessarily paramount being human.

(Until a hundred years ago children's stories very seldom featured sympathetic animal characters. In 1907 the teddy bear was criticized as "likely to warp the mothering instincts of young girls." Now sympathy with other creatures is inculcated at an early age, by wise owls, cuddly pandas, and friendly little aliens.)

The Principle of Mediocrity has not only vitalized science, it's given us the ability to reexamine centuries of prejudice, and to shake off old tribal taboos with hardly a wince. In spite of the new horrors that madmen can perpetrate when their clutches fall upon modern technology, we have made progress. Looking past the attention-grabbing headlines, and countless modern tragedies, it really is a more reasoning, more rational world we live in today.

Still, even philosophies that do good can outlive their vigor. What Copernicus began need not continue forever.

There is a new principle making the rounds these days, called the Anthropic Imperative. Its most vigorous proponents, including Professor Frank Tipler of Tulane University, seem to be saying that we have gone too far in claiming that there is nothing special at all about the time or place in which we live.

Simply stated, the Anthropic Principle says that it's quite possible for an observer's time and place to be unique, if the unique factor is necessary in order for there to be an observer in the first place.

Bucking the popular enthusiasm for the search for extraterrestrials, Tipler and a few others dare to propose that it is quite possible that humankind may be the sole intelligent species in the galaxy, perhaps anywhere, anytime.

I won't go into their arguments here. But I mention the Anthropic Principle as just one edge of what seems to be a new philosophical movement — one that does not seem to threaten the existence of the Dogma of Otherness so much as threaten it with change.

Old Philosophies

Three major views of Man in Nature contended with each other in Western thought a century and a half ago: Traditional Christian, Mechanistic, and Romantic.

The Traditional Christian point of view was that nature was placed here for the use of man, and that the world was meant for a short duration anyway. The wilderness was a cruel parody of the Garden of Eden, a travesty to be fought and tamed. Other creatures were separate from man in the fundamental sense of lacking souls.

As Matthew Cartmill put it, man "saw nature as sick, and man as inherently above nature — that is, supernatural."

The Mechanistic view, a reaction to the one above, grew out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The universe, as the emerging sciences and particularly mathematics unfolded its mysteries, was seen as a majestic clockwork, with humankind merely a complicated little subset of parts, spinning in unseen harmony with the rest, under the apparent chaos of daily life.

This was a tremendous step toward sympathy with otherness, a direct outgrowth of the Principle of Mediocrity. But it, too, had its day and then saw the creation of a counter-reaction.

The Romantic movement answered the Age of Reason with emotion, logic with Sturm und Drang. With Rousseau's extolling of the natural, and condemnation of civilization as the essence of corruption, the suite was complete. Humankind can dream of a return to harmony with the natural world. We can best do this by abandoning an arrogant insistence on our own difference.

Each worldview contributed to our culture. The traditionalists oriented us toward the future, and toward taking command of our world. The mechanists taught us to appreciate that world's delicate, beautiful balance. And about the Romantic view, Cartmill said that "a prevalent vision of man as a sick animal estranged from the harmony of nature conditioned new scientific theories and lent them the mythic force and consequence that they needed to be widely accepted.

But the twenty-first century looms. Taken by themselves, each of the philosophies discussed above appears ludicrous to a modern woman or man. Might it, perhaps, be time to craft a new view of nature and our place in it?

The Doctrine of Otherness has had powerful propaganda over the last several decades. In particular, the animals have been getting awfully good press.

"Man is the only animal that (take your choice)

  • murders its own kind
  • kills its children
  • kills for sport
  • commits sexual assault
  • wages war
  • hurts the environment ..."

A generation has grown up being told these things over and over. And in having humility and shame pounded into us, we have begun, indeed, to look upon ourselves differently. It isn't just because of teddy bears that we have started fitfully to treat the other creatures around us with more respect. It is also because we have had it driven home again and again that we had better shape up if we ever expect to live up to a standard of decency.

But whose standard?

Why, our own, of course. And here's where that paradox comes in again. Species have always gone extinct. That is how evolution works. The pity comes in when we see nature's creations as beautiful, and when we feel shame over wiping out something as unique and irreplaceable as a blue whale, or a manatee, or even a dodo.

No question where I stand in all this. I think environmentalism is good. That's with a capital G. Not only am I a thoroughly acculturated member of my generation — fully inoculated with guilt over mankind's crimes — but I'm beginning to see, along with millions of others, that keeping up a complex ecosystem is the best way of ensuring our own long-range survival.

This view of Man the Destroyer — a beast within ourselves that must be constantly watched — may be the very fairy tale needed to frighten us into our senses. Cartmill put it aptly:

There is no way to tell for sure whether this mythmaking has contributed to our survival so far. I suspect it has. I doubt that the world would have ended if Muir or Twain or Freud or Jeffers had never lived. Other visionaries would have come up ... but I think it might perhaps have ended by now if we hadn't learned to be afraid of ourselves long before that fear was entirely reasonable.

The propaganda we grew up with was a Good Thing, no question about it. It appears to have saved the otter, the dolphin, the gorilla, and perhaps, the whales. Maybe even ourselves.

But is it true?

Bad-mouthing humankind has been important drama. But once we are in the habit of protecting nature for its own sake, do we have to keep it up?

It's all a big fat lot of hype. Nice hype, but hype nonetheless. All over the natural world there is an almost infinite variety of animals that (take your choice)

  • murder their own kind
  • kill their children
  • kill for sport
  • commit rape
  • wage war
  • harm the environment

Et cetera, et cetera. Day by day, we are finding that the line dividing us from the animal world blurs, becoming one of magnitude, not quality.

Apes use tools in the wild and can be taught sign language. They are also prone to simpler versions of every type of human mental illness (including infanticide and deadly "organized" warfare).

Male lions will kill the cubs of their predecessors, after winning cunning "wars" of eviction.

Stallions will deliberately kill each other.

Historically, a large part of the deforestation of the Middle East seems to have been performed not just by man, but by goats as well. Elephants are a primary cause of deforestation of East Africa.

Mallard ducks have been observed to commit gang rape on mated females. In more and more supposedly "monogamous" species of birds, we are discovering that males commit philandery. Even dolphins, almost alone with humankind in being capable of altruism outside of their own species — of helping others no matter how different — have been observed murdering their own kind.

All three of the old worldviews lie in shambles around us. Only a traditional fool would say that man is the "paragon of animals," and nature our playground. Only a Pollyanna would contend that the clockwork spins majestically on, in harmony with whatever we do. And it is also romantic nonsense to say that we are a pimple on Creation ... that the world would be somehow better off without us.

Where does that leave us then?

It leaves us, I hope, uncomfortable and thoughtful.

We should not stop pumping out the nature films. "Humility propaganda" serves a useful purpose, for there is still a world out there stuck in phases one and two. But for those of us who have passed through the Doctrine of Otherness, it might be time to move on.

Perhaps to the attitude of Elder Brothers and Sisters only a little more knowledgeable than our fellow creatures, but with the power and duty to be their guardian. In time, if we do well with the garden, we might even have reason to pause and give ourselves a little bit of credit ... to look, as a species, into the mirror and see neither Lord of Creation nor Worldbane, but merely the first of many in the world to rise to the role of caretaker.