03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

An Octopus Garden on 61 Virginis

Humanity's greatest problem is hubris derived from religious arrogance in believing that mankind was made in god's image. For millennia, people of nearly all cultures have been taught that humans are special in the eyes of their god or gods, and that the world is made for their benefit and use. This is all made clear enough in Genesis 1:1. If the opening salvo in the bible were not enough to define mankind's supposedly special relationship with god, then all ambiguity is removed with the following passage:

Of all visible creatures only man is able to know and love his creator. He is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. (CCC #356)

But our arrogance does not end there. The bible teaches us that the earth is the very center of the universe. God tells us that the sun, and the planets and stars, orbit an immobile earth. While Copernicus and Galileo proved that conception to be incorrect, the idea that we somehow anchor all existence remains deeply embedded in our psyche. We are so damn special: sitting at the focal point of all that is, and looking just like the god we worship.

Such extraordinary self-importance is not only embarrassing in light of the realities of biology and astronomy; our species-centric hubris cultivates a dangerous attitude about humankind's proper role and place on earth. Paradoxically, this egoistic religious focus on our species will ultimately undermine all that is taught by religious doctrine. If the foundation is flawed so too is all that follows.

Cracks in the foundation were made more evident by the announcement from astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that an earth-like planet has been found outside our solar system. The discovery of GJ1214b is significant as the first of a new class of "super earths" to be documented, an ocean-bearing planet orbiting a red dwarf 42 lights years from our own orb. As astronomers perfect tools of the trade, new planets akin to GJ1214b are popping up like paparazzi around Angelina Jolie. More are added to the rolls almost every day, with 11 just recently reported including one with the sci-fi name of 61 Virginis. With each discovery of another potentially habitable world the odds increase exponentially that millions or billions of other planets support life that would look familiar to us; and increase the odds that creatures more intelligent than us are looking for their next cup of morning Joe.

As Galileo forced the Church to backpedal from 1500 years of violently enforced geocentric dogma, so too will the discovery of intelligent life on other planets call into question the most fundamental biocentric claims of religion. I am not naïve: the Church will come up with some twisted post-hoc justification for the new discovery, pretending that biblical teachings are and have always been fully consistent with the existence of smart little green men. In fact, the Church is already setting the stage for such dissembling:

"Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God's creative freedom." Ah, the ultimate cop out: we cannot understand god. That little gem comes from the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory.

But really the anticipated response is an act of desperation. The bible's insistent focus on how special and unique we are is fully undermined by the discovery of life elsewhere. What will we say when the green men claim that they were made in god's image? We only get away with our own bizarre claim now because we do not yet speak another animal's language, so don't know that octopi believe that they are made in god's image. What if the green men are stronger, smarter, wiser and without sin? Would they not have the superior claim to a proximity to god?

We need not, however, look to the heavens to undermine our arrogant claims of superiority. Animals here on earth are teaching us a lesson in humility. That fact was highlighted by the fortuitous juxtaposition of an article about octopus intelligence adjacent to the story about extraterrestrial life in the December 17 issue of USA Today. God works in mysterious ways. Or at least newspaper editors do. The octopus in question showed foresight, planning and tool use by searching out, gathering, and constructing a protective shelter from submerged coconut shells. All very human-like. But really this impressive feat does not deserve any press, because intelligence, self-awareness, culture, empathy, tool use, language and music are all commonly found in the animal kingdom. We do not need little green men to prove ridiculous the claim that humans are special; earth-bound life tells the same story. But intelligent life elsewhere that can clearly outsmart us would certainly be the final nail in the coffin of religious species-centric hubris. Yes, again, I understand the Church would weasel its way out of the dilemma with an appeal to god's mystery, but still... The Church will be like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar; no matter what story is told to explain away the obvious, nothing can overcome the fact of the hand buried in plain sight in the container. The weight of reality sometimes crushes any attempt at creative spinning.

Pending ET's discovery, however, many religious apologists still desperately want to find a single trait or capability that can be a defining characteristic, anything that can prove we are special. That search though is as futile as looking for a liberal Democrat at a Tea Party protest. No single trait, behavior or capability can ever define humanity. Even when we give ourselves a big handicap by creating self-serving definitions that we know beforehand will prove advantageous, the categories of "uniquely human" talents are shrinking rapidly as we learn more about other animals and their adaptive behaviors. Characteristics previously considered special to our species have eventually been found, at least to some degree elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Tool manufacturing and use are perfect examples because these talents were considered uniquely human until only very recently.

In fact non-human primates and birds commonly use tools, mainly to gather food. Chimpanzees, for example, regularly use stems as tools and can even pound stones with purpose, although they have never mastered flint-making. Chimps also use leaves as toilet paper. Egyptian vultures will search up to 50 yards for a rock to use to smash an ostrich egg. Green herons drop a small object onto the surface of the water to attract fish, which are fooled into thinking prey is nearby. The heron then turns the table and makes a meal of the unsuspecting fish. If an elephant is unable to reach some itching part of his body with his trunk, the nearest tree often serves to relieve the problem. Just as often, however, an itchy elephant will pick up a long stick and give himself a good scratch with that instead. If one stick is insufficiently long he will look for one better suited to the task.

With what appears to be clear intention, elephants have been observed to throw or drop large rocks and logs on the live wires of electric fences, either breaking the wire or loosening it such that it makes contact with the earth, thus shorting out the fence. Elephants are undoubtedly clueless about electron flow, but have mastered the use of a tool to avoid its unpleasant consequences.

Even more impressive is the learned use of a tool set. Chimpanzees in East and West Africa sequentially use four tools to obtain honey, all gathered together for that specific purpose. They start with a battering stick, then a use a chisel-like stick, followed by a hard-pointed stick, finally ending with a long slender flexible dip stick to pull out the honey. Each tool is used in a specific sequence, and sometimes made to order by clipping, peeling, stripping or splitting the wood to the desired specifications. New Caledonian crows are famous for their ingenious tool fabrication, both in the wild and in captivity. Betty, a female crow, was filmed taking a piece of wire and trying to use it to grab some food at the bottom of a narrow tube. After several unsuccessful attempts, she removed the wire, fashioned a hook on the end, and subsequently used her new weapon to grab the food with ease. In the wild, these crows make an impressive variety of tools using a wide range of materials for diverse purposes. These birds actually shape different hooks for different tasks. This is tool use by any definition. Still not convinced? Check out the video here.

We can show similar capabilities in the animal kingdom in every realm once considered uniquely human. Yet we still resist a humble understanding. Maybe we'll finally get the picture when we encounter beings clearly more intelligent than us, and we can finally stop the silly debate about humanity's unique relationship with god.

When we reject the hubris and conceit of religion, we will redefine our relationship with each other without calling upon god to smite our enemies. When we understand that true morality is independent of religious doctrine, we will create a path toward a just society. When we accept our humble role in the biosphere and universe, we will be free to live a full life in which we no longer accept the arbitrary and destructive constraints of divine interference. With less hubris maybe we will understand that dumping 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year might actually have an impact; or that destroying rain forests will affect biodiversity; or that killing off coral reefs will reduce available food supplies just as a growing human population needs the nutrition most. Perhaps with less collective hubris the world could come together at meetings like Copenhagen and actually take actions to save the planet instead of deadlocking in pathetic paralysis.

Those little green men will mock us for our belief in the supernatural and for our blatant disregard for the resources that sustain us. To them our belief in god will be nothing but an entertaining relic of past biology, much as we are amused by a dog vigorously shaking a rag doll as prey. To them watching us destroy our environment will be like us witnessing a bacterial colony depleting all available nutrients and then perishing in the face of unconstrained consumption. We could be primate research subjects, and our claim to be made in god's image as impotent and laughable as if a marmoset made the same claim today.

When we finally discover our green friends, or they us, the Church will spin the story like a whirling dervish, but the inevitable conclusions from that encounter cannot be suppressed.