THE FEATHER AND THE CANNONBALL

Why are humans so much smarter than they need to be? It is something that I often think about, because I can, because for some reason I am able to consider the human condition. What is that about? Does it make me happier? I doubt it. You won’t find a dog having an existential crisis. What possible advantage does super intelligence give us? And we are super intelligent despite giving two thirds of what we earn to government and banks, squabbling over a question that should never have been asked and willingly surrendering our most intimate details to online corporations. We are smart, just not always sensible. Social media proves it, thrives on us not thinking, who wants to watch someone having a good idea when we can watch someone being stupid? This is partly because we are so easily distracted but mostly it is because we are so physically extraordinary. What other animal can play an oboe while snowboarding, or juggle flaming chainsaws or do a triple salchow dressed as a tangerine. Our bodies are as miraculous as our brains, way more adaptable than life on Earth requires. I mean, why do we build muscle so readily when higher gravitational influence is simulated? What is the point of too much muscle on a planet where gravity is constant? Or did evolution anticipate bodybuilding? Or could it be that we are designed to tolerate planets with higher gravity?

Our evolutionary path is always considered exclusively in terms of our place on earth, as an ape slowly standing up before doing pointe, but I can’t help thinking that there is more to it, that humans are built to keep climbing, that our true place is among the stars. Humans are perfectly engineered to be just right whatever the circumstances. We worry that a change of a single degree centigrade might make the oceans uninhabitable for certain animals yet we humans can cope with a temperature variance of over 100 degrees. We can withstand not only changes in gravity but in air pressure, humidity, radiation, we can live in total darkness, eat almost anything and when circumstances are too extreme we are so ingenious that we can make stuff that allows us to prevail. This doesn’t lessen our adaptability, mechanical augmentation is in itself a form of evolution. Humans underwater? Diving suit. Humans in the air? Jump suit. Humans in orbit? Space suit. Humans at a wedding? Morning suit.

Humans are both physically and mentally resourceful, a truly beautiful piece of work, a masterpiece of complex simplicity. It is why the design of aliens when imagined from a human perspective have always fascinated me. Since the advent of CGI they have become ever more outlandish and revolting, often bug-like with mandibles and gooey clicks. Before CGI alien appearance was limited by what the costume department could reasonably shoehorn a person into so aliens tended to look humanoid. Which explains the Klingons, and the Romulans and the Vulcans and just about every other Star Trek alien with the possible exception of Tribbles. Ironically I can’t help feeling that the old ways were more accurate, that if there are any significant Others out there they will look an awful lot like humans, that a local God didn’t make us in his image the entire universe did.

Even on Earth we have remarkable similarities with creatures who have evolved completely separately, species with whom we have no shared ancestry and yet have solved the problems of environment in much the same way we have. Why none of them have risen to our heights of intellect and physical dexterity is a mystery so perhaps humans or their like are the ultimate universal template of economic, evolutionary development. After all an octopus in space would be tricky, despite having almost the same eyes as us that’s where useful similarity ends and a spacesuit with eight arms, filled with seawater and prawns would hardly be practical. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary it would seem humans are the perfect candidates for space exploration yet our governments only wants to send robots and drones and the private sector only wants to send tourists and miners. This vested complicity has its own meagre agenda, its own reasons for keeping humanity Earthbound. Money.

When I was very young my father told me that a feather and a cannonball actually weighed the same and if you were to drop them simultaneously they would both hit the ground at exactly the same time. I believed him because he was my father even though he neglected to mention mass and the bit about being on the moon. Cannonballs and feathers may weigh the same in space but they don’t on Earth. I imagine the human spirit as the feather and the state-corporate confluence as the cannonball, both falling together in a vacuum but one landing lightly, the other not. The confluence is the true gravity, the malignant mass, the weight that bears down on all of us, an invisible force that either crushes our spirit or builds muscle.

If humans are to be feathers carried on an interstellar breeze then we will have to gather our intelligence, harness our strength, focus our adaptability. Escape velocity is not easily achieved, it requires great speed or great power to break away from the forces that contain us, that bind us to the surface. So long as humanity forgets to ask what it is here for, forgets to ask why, we will continue to be controlled by computers and media and thankless tasks. There is more to life than doing as we are told, more to life than accumulating debt for no other reason than repaying it, more to life than voting for the thing we hate least. As a species we need the big idea and it doesn’t come any bigger than space. We need to look up from our phones, to anticipate destiny, not wait until we have killed our planet and have to leave. We are clever, we are human, the greatest explorers in the known universe and space really is the final frontier. Science fiction shouldn’t be about aliens visiting us it should be about us visiting them, humans standing on some unknown planet, shaking hands with Others while we all stare at each other and think, this alien looks just like me.

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