Earlier this year I was invited to speak at Atheists United in Los Angeles about my latest novel, Traveling in Space, a science fiction satire. After reading chapter one, I spoke about the themes in my novel, which is a first-contact story told from the point of view of the aliens. The aliens are at times amused, bemused, and appalled by us, whom they call "Otherlife." But they are also impressed about at least one fact about us. I speak about this and humankind's place and purpose in the universe in what I called "Confessions of a Homo sapiens Chauvinist." Here is the text of that address and the video of it, made by the good people at Atheists United, and used here with their permission.
Traveling in Space is a comic novel, indeed a comic, satiric novel. And, as you know, comedy and satire depends on pointing a finger at human frailties, everything from the minor to the most mendacious, malicious, malevolent, and muttonheaded. And I do, in this book, point some fingers at such frailties. But as I tried to do something different in an alien-first-contact story, I am a little bit different, I hope, as a comic and satiric writer in this book, because, even though I point my finger at human frailties, I also point out a few human glories, achieving (I think) a very positive view of the potential and future of Homo sapiens.
Not that I am not a bit of a curmudgeon. As my family will tell you, after an encounter with another member of our species whose discourtesy, meanness, stupidity, or ignorance has ticked me off, I will often mutter under my breath, "I hate people." And one of my favorite songs of all time is in Leslie Bricusse's Scrooge, his musical film version of A Christmas Carol wherein Scrooge marches through the streets of Victorian London singing, "I hate people. I loathe people. I despise and abominate people." And, my goodness, sometimes that mantra can really help get you through the day.
But that is personal. That is one on one. That is mundane, minute, and petty. I hope, in reality, I truly have a broader vision than that, and I believe my novel provides a broader vision than that, for it strives for a long view, and if you take a long view, I believe, you can only be thrilled to be a member of the Homo sapiens species.
Yes, I admit it, I confess to you now: I am a Homo sapiens chauvinist! And I am a Homo sapiens chauvinist as a direct result of being an atheist.
I should probably take a minute to explain what I mean by "Homo sapiens chauvinist." As you are all well aware, we are Homo sapiens. That is our species. Actually, to be accurate, being modern humans, we are Homo sapiens sapiens, but outside of reeking of redundancy, there are just too many Ss when you add "chauvinist." A chauvinist, of course, is someone who is aggressively and often blindly patriotic and loyal -- not a particularly positive word, but useful, I believe, because I choose to declare that a Homo sapiens chauvinist is one who is aggressively loyal to his species, as opposed to one blindly loyal to a god.
The aliens in my novel learn a lot (not everything, but a lot) about Homo sapiens, or, as they call us, "Otherlife." They find some of it strange, some of it weird, some of it odd. They find they really like chocolate, red meat, and big cities. They are amused by our politics and bemused by our many religions. But they are absolutely flabbergasted when they learn how young a species we are.
Our universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Life emerged fairly quickly, maybe 4 billion years ago, but the Homo genus is only 2 to 2.5 million years old. Our species, Homo sapiens, is 150 to 200 thousand years old. We dropped the nomadic life and created agriculture only 10 to 15 thousand years ago. We gathered into cities and started writing only 5 to 6 thousand years ago. Our thoughts, ideas, and orthodoxy about the universe around us were essentially knee-jerk, first-impression "revelations" until about 500 hundred years ago. And yet, as the aliens in Traveling in Space discover, this Otherlife, who, such a short time ago, were nothing but nomadic wanders across the savannas of their cradle continent, have already walked across the mare of their moon.
To my aliens, who call themselves "Life," a species who intensely loves knowledge, and who has taken millennia to achieve it, the Otherlife's exponential explosion of knowledge is exciting but also not a little frightening. It may kill the Otherlife, this quick knowledge, but it may also be their greatest glory. The aliens, as they leave us to our planet, are not sure which it will be. But the Life Seeder comes down on the side of the latter, and so do I.
I am a Homo sapiens chauvinist. I think this is an important position to take, especially for an atheist. To elucidate on that point, let me refer to another musical,1776, wherein the Founding Fathers of America dance and sing to the tunes of democracy and freedom and liberty -- for white male landowners. But let's not be critical in hindsight; all great enterprises have to start somewhere. There is a wonderful moment in the play when John Adams has become frustrated to extreme distraction by the moaning and groaning of the other delegates of the Second Continental Congress, who keep worrying about their Declaration of Independence insulting the people and parliament of England when it's the king they oppose. Finally, not being able to take the whining and equivocations any longer, John Adams shouts out: "This is a revolution, damn it, we're going to have to offend somebody!"
Ever since the notoriety achieved by the Four Horsemen of current atheist thought -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late and very lamented Christopher Hitchens -- they have found themselves being labeled not just "New Atheists" (which was coined as a subtle epithet) but angry, strident, and divisive atheists, unpleasant and annoying men, probably with bad breath, who are just out to offend and to tear down.
I see them as simply men taking a look at, and asking questions about, things considered by many in the world to be "sacred" and therefore not to be looked at or questioned. The position of the Four Horsemen, and many others who have joined the conversation, though, is that there is no reason at all in not looking at and questioning things considered "sacred" by some, indeed that is probably the best reason for looking at and questioning them. That, of course, is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down, and having what is sacred to you challenged and questioned is, unavoidably, offensive. But that is not the challenger's problem and should never be a deterrence to challenge, or even given serious consideration.
One of the accusations thrown at atheists that I do believe we should take some time to consider, though, is the one that says that atheists are just against things -- they don't have anything to offer, they don't give people solace -- and that their view of the universe is cold, unfeeling, and amoral and gives no purpose to humankind. I happen to agree that the universe is cold, unfeeling, and amoral, but that does not mean we have to be. The universe is also a vast, stunning, wondrous, awe-inspiring coat (if I may put it this way) of many colors, endlessly fascinating and worthy of the curiosity it engenders in us, worthy of the study and contemplation we are bringing to it.
As to purpose, what is the purpose most of the adherents of the three Abrahamic religions seem to feel their faith gives them? To serve their god, to fear him, and yet to love him without question, and, through such subservience, to hope to join him in some eternal paradise -- a not-easy task these days, it seems, as they have to spend an inordinate amount of time fending off heathens, pagans, atheists, and Christmas killers, most of whom are probably oversexed and, worse, oversexed toward their own sex. And not only that, they are contending with the legions of "secular humanists" (a simple definition many theists have turned into another subtle epithet) who are trying to ghettoize, marginalize, and oppress the Children of Abraham and, of course, to destroy their faith. Doesn't it seem to you sometimes that what it really takes to be a good and loyal adherent of one of the three Abrahamic religions is a slave's mentality and a persecution complex?
Unthinking faith as a purpose? Bemoaning this life and championing the next, where there will be nothing to bemoan and (I would suspect) actually do? Not for me, for I am a Homo sapiens chauvinist! I don't want to be handed a purpose, commanded to a purpose, enticed by reward or fear to a purpose. I want to find a purpose. If, indeed, the universe gives us no purpose, then doesn't that mean we may just have every potential? For a purpose can give direction, but it can also be a straightjacket, especially if tightened by other hands.
What I propose in Traveling in Space, albeit, I hope, in an entertaining manner, is that we do, innately, have a purpose. We Homo sapiens, we have a purpose, like all other living entities on this planet, to survive -- not individually, of course (individually, we will all eventually die), but as a species. Beyond surviving, though, we should choose to thrive, and we should thrive by giving full range to our curiosity and set ourselves the great task to know.
We are a cognizant, intelligent, contemplating species, possibly the only such species in the universe. Of course, we may not be, but even if we aren't, we should act as if we are. We should act as if we are that precious, because we are, as the great Carl Sagen put it, made of star stuff. Not one element in us is foreign to the universe. Our purpose, then, besides simple survival, should be to thrive and to be the universe's means of self-contemplation, to be the mind of the universe. Are we the only mind of the universe? Again, possibly not. But the universe being so large and vast and full of wonder, I think there is plenty of it to go around.
Are we up to it? I believe so. That is why I am a Homo sapiens chauvinist. That is why, despite the day-to-day irritations my fellow humans cause me (and, to be fair, I probably cause my fellow humans), I believe in us and our future.
The exponential explosion of our intelligence may indeed be the death of us. Many who grew up in the '50s and '60s, or possibly who just look at today's headlines, or who desperately seem to want an apocalypse, because we polluting, warmongering bastards deserve no better, might not be blamed for thinking that. Certainly they seem very comfortable taking on the mantle (or should I say the shroud?) of species self-loathing, considering humankind sinners as worse than, or the worst of, animals, at best.
Look beyond all that, though, look deep into the growth of our species, as Steven Pinker has just done in his wonderful new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and you will see that it has not just been growth in knowledge but maturity in character that has marked our history. We are not angels who have fallen; we are animals on the rise. Man has not been a beast, but he has just been a brat, a phase we are growing out of in a continuing maturity that I believe will save us.
It is not so much that my aliens in Traveling in Space are superior to humans as it is that they are more mature, even with their own frailties and quirks. One mark of that maturity is, of course, their extreme love of life, because they consider it such a precious resource in the universe. Another is their intense love of knowledge, never taking anything on faith or celebrating ignorance. But the truly defining mark of their maturity is that even though they may, for a time, balk, they are always willing to change when the conditions change; they always see the wisdom in adapting to survive as a species, so that they may continue to contemplate the universe.
My aliens are, of course, but a metaphor for our future selves, a hope I have for our species, a species with a natural and, I think, rather neat purpose: to survive, to thrive, to know. I think we can do a lot worse than being Homo sapiens chauvinists.
* * * * *
Traveling in Space is available as a trade paperback and an ebook on Amazon.
The Huffington Post’s Weird News email delivers unbelievably strange, yet absolutely true news once a week straight to your inbox. Learn more