Saturday, January 1, 2011

Space Chimps and Skepticism

Forewarning:  This post may seem silly, but don’t worry, I have a point. 

I was recently watching a History Channel documentary on the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union and a particular story caught my imagination.  Apparently, early on in planning the mission to the moon, the US was unsure that a ship could land on the moon and return safely to Earth.  The landing part wasn’t difficult; they figured that out relatively quickly.  It was getting back that presented the problems. 

Without getting into the technicalities of it, suffice it to say that the problem of returning to Earth presented enough of a problem for an alternative to be presented.  At one point, it was proposed to send a trained chimp to the moon (complete with a little chimp space suit), land him there, and then just leave him.  Fortunately, this inhumane plan never had to be put into action because the problem of returning to Earth after landing was eventually solved. 

However, this did get me thinking.  What if we had done it?  Well, there would surely have been an outcry from animal rights activists, but aside from that the consequences could have been quite interesting.  Of course, the poor little chimp’s oxygen would have run out rather quickly and the unfortunate ape would have been the first living thing to die on the moon.  Once dead, his body would not decompose because there would be no bacteria there to do the job.  Also, without any wind or lunalogical activity (not geological, because geo- pertains to ‘Earth’) to speak of, the space-suited body would not be buried over time in sedimentary deposits, the way it might on Earth.  In fact, barring any impacts from asteroids, the deceased chimp would remain a perfectly preserved relic on the surface of the moon indefinitely! 

One could imagine, human society proceeding onward in our terrestrial lives, completely ignoring the little chimp body, lying frozen on the lunar surface.  As we proceed to develop weapons capable of reducing the entire planet to dust, we eventually descend into war and chaos.  Maybe a war breaks out between America and China.  Maybe this happens long after the balance of power has shifted away from these two countries, and the new superpowers of Mongolia and New Zealand are the ones duking it out.  Either way, the war spills across the borders of the combatants and the entire world is eventually dragged into the conflict.  Nuclear missiles are exchanged and every major city in the world is reduced to ash.  All of human civilization, all our repositories of knowledge and wealth and technology are erased from existence.  Humanity is sent back to the Stone Age. 

A few raggedy survivors emerge from the wreckage and struggle to survive.  For generations, a few thousand remaining people just try to get by, day-to-day.  Science is forgotten.  So is literature, art, music, and religion (every cloud has a silver lining.)  So is the little frozen chimp on the moon.  Humans spend their days hunting deer in the forests and building fires to keep away wolves at night.  Eventually, villages start to form.  We re-domesticate some animals and vegetables.  Society rebuilds, just as slowly and surely and steadily as it did the first time around.  It takes millennia, but eventually humans are back on top again.  We have recolonized the world.  We have developed new languages, new forms of entertainment, new systems of trade, new ways of expressing our creative impulses, new structures of family, new moral systems and (as is our nature) new religions.  We have rediscovered evolution, relativity, electricity, radio waves and, maybe, nonstick frying pans. 

All the while, though, we have noticed that we live amongst strange ruins.  Mostly destroyed, all abandoned, but still there.  These buildings have strange signs with markings on them that look something like writing.  They have complex and queer machines that have unknowable functions.  We don’t know what these things are, but they look like they were made by something like humans, although humans very different from the ones who rule the planet today.  Many theories are presented for what these prehistoric advanced civilizations were.  Aliens?  Gods?  No one knows. 

Eventually, this new civilization looks to the sky and imagines traveling to the moon.  It is a natural impulse, engrained into human beings by evolution, to always be looking forward, looking for the next frontier to conquer, and these future humans are no different.  They build their rockets and their spacesuits and launch their mission.  But when they land, they are met with a startling sight:  A dead chimpanzee in a spacesuit! 

Imagine what they would think!  All this time, they have been pondering who could have created these immense ruins amongst which they live—something like humans, but not quite.  And they find, lying on the moon, a chimpanzee, thousands of years old!  They could not be blamed for inferring that the mysterious, prehistoric civilization they had wondered about for their entire history, was not a human civilization at all—it was a chimpanzee one! 

Well, that would do it.  If chimpanzees were capable of building cities and machines and traveling to the moon, then they could not be just dumb animals.  They are obviously intelligent, just as intelligent as human beings—perhaps more so!  It is not that they are ‘lower’ animals than us—we just cannot communicate with them.  They are our equals! 

All chimps would immediately be released from zoos and ‘rescued’ from the barbarism they had mysteriously descended into in the jungles.  Great efforts would be undertaken to learn their language that, up until then, had just been written off as the babble of mindless animals. 

Now, I’m sure you are asking yourself, what on Earth does this little story have to do with anything?  Let me explain.  The human mind is all too ready to jump to radical conclusions on the basis of circumstantial evidence, even if those conclusions massively and fundamentally change the way we view the world.  There may not be chimps on the moon, but there are ominous prophecies that are fulfilled, strange experiences that are had, and inexplicable events that are witnessed all the time.  UFO sightings.  Answered prayers.  Unlikely recoveries from near-death.  Accurate horoscopes.  Prophecies made by Mayans, mystics, and holy books that appear to come true.  We are far too willing to take these events as evidence that the world is vastly different than it appears, rather than just accepting them as strange coincidences or looking for plausible, natural explanations. 

Then, once we have accepted irrational worldviews in order to explain apparently irrational phenomenon, our behaviors are drastically altered.  Beliefs have consequences.  For the people in our story, those consequences include trying to talk to chimps.  For us, they have been much direr.  Irrational belief in the supernatural has led some people to reject legitimate, science-based medicine for miracle healers and homeopathy.  It has led to devotion to the barbaric and violent Iron Age doctrines of ancient religions.  It has led to hysteria over the world ending within the next two years.   

So, if any of you ever find yourself in a situation where you are confronted with something you cannot explain that would lead you to adopt a supernatural worldview, I hope you will have the presence of mind to ask yourself this:  Could this be a space chimp? 


  1. "It has led to hysteria over the world ending within the next two years."

    What? The world is ending in two years? OMD! No! I am not ready to die yet! How do you know this? I am not panicking! OMD!

  2. I get your point, although I do think that some semblance of rationality would exist in the future creatures in your hypothetical scenario and these creatures would suggest many possible reasons for finding the rogue chimp on the moon. By definition, these future creatures would have had to redevelop technologies to bring them back to the moon. This would require relatively advanced science and technology, two disciplines that depend on a certain level of rationality.

    Having said that, I am not so sure that the chimp would remain intact on the moon. Firstly, while there may be no bacteria on the moon, there would certainly be lots in the chimp itself. Unless the chimp would have been dozed with sublethal levels of antibiotics, the chimps internal flora would be full of bacteria. The chimp would also carry plenty of nematodes and who know what else. These might survive for some time anaerobically. The dead chimp would also experience extremes in temperature.... baking on the sunny side of the moon and freezing on the dark side. If anyone has put a turkey in the oven, or roasted a pig... one will see that these creatures do not remain intact under high temperatures (even in conditions where bacteria would not survive). On top of that, there is the solar wind, which bombards the moon at full force, given that it has no atmosphere or magnetisms to ward it away. In the end, unlike your hypothetical story, I am afraid the poor chimp would not remain intact for long. The creatures in the future may find the remnants of his space suit, but not much but extremely charred remains of the chimp, itself.

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  4. Sorry, typos.

    I like this space chimp story. :) But I have to agree with eosimias that our space chimp wouldn't remain intact on the moon, although I'm no scientist.

    Have you heard the "theory" that there have been more than one - ours - mankind on earth? The pyramids and the Easter Island statues are the remains from previous cycles of mankind that got wiped out by natural disasters or warfare.

  5. Who knows, maybe the same thing happened with dinosaurs. A race of giants sent a bunch of large lizards into orbit and they somehow landed on Earth.