The Sea Below and the Sky Above – The Quest to Find Other Sentient Beings

We’ve talked before about how mankind looks for fellow sentient, intelligent creatures among the stars. Some think it’s plausible, some think it’s ridiculous. Whatever you think about SETI and real-world theories about alien lifeforms, it’s nearly impossible to deny that alien encounters can make for really interesting pieces of fiction. Science fiction doesn’t stop its search for intelligence at the earth’s atmosphere, though. What if we aren’t the only sentient lifeforms even on this planet? It would certainly bring up a lot of complications, due to the way humanity has treated other species. Who would it be, though? What would our intercultural relations be like? And how would we find out?

Dolphins and whales are one of the most common non-human earth species portrayed in science fiction as sentient. Biologists have speculated for a long time that they actually are quite intelligent and sensitive animals. In a way, they’re a bit like aliens, because they live in a world that’s challenging for us to reach – oceans and rivers. Could it be that our companions in the galaxy have been living beneath our waters all this time?

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, while primarily a comedy about being displaced in time, is also an exercise in human humility. Spock chastises his crew mates in the beginning of the film when they assume that the message of a mysterious probe must be for them. What makes them think they’re the only ones worth talking to on the planet?

Douglas Adams features sentient and uber-intelligent dolphins in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. While the dolphins are far smarter than humans, their attempts at sophisticated communications are taken as no more than simple amusement park tricks, like whistling and jumping through hoops. Even more intelligent than the dolphins are the mice, originators of the entire planet, who are trying to figure out the answer to the most important question in the universe.

What does it all matter, though? It isn’t any different than us trying to find life out there in the universe, is it? I think the startling thing is how frequently we wonder if we are alone in the universe, or even on the planet. It’s like we know there has to be something more. Why does that question linger so long in our collective unconscious? What do we know that we can’t quite put our finger on? Who else is out there?