On Paul Watson’s essay and Knowledge Utopia’s first anniversary

For Knowledge Utopia’s first anniversary, I am publishing the first guest post of the blog, written by Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

This first year has been really great. Knowledge Utopia has a strong and steadily increasing readership, and it has been a pleasure publishing an essay each month.
However with this first post not written by me, I imagine Knowledge Utopia morphing into something different. With 3 more writers, I could publish one essay per week. Knowledge Utopia could become a bigger publication dedicated to the promotion of the advancement of science and of the human species. It would publish both opinions and news articles (like today) related to these themes.

So let’s announce it there: I’m planning on hiring volunteer (for now) writers, to transform Knowledge Utopia into a professional publication. You can find my email in the “About” section of the blog, so feel free to email me!
Knowledge Utopia is seeking essays about the organization of science, Open Access, scholarly publishing, neurosciences, philosophy, epistemology, objectivism, space travel, libraries, utopias, etc…

I don’t agree with everything Watson wrote, and here I’ll write a little critique of his essay.
Watson exposes a fascinating insight into cetacean intelligence, which is highly relevant to Knowledge Utopia’s editorial line: if cetaceans are as intelligent as Watson thinks they are, then we could perhaps communicate and learn a lot of things from them, like new philosophies, and this would hopefully encourage us to protect our cetacean friends.

What is needed though is a definition of “intelligence”. To Watson, being intelligent is living in “harmony” with nature, by not altering the environment. In this respect, most of the species on Earth are smarter than we are.
I would define intelligence as the level of knowledge a species has, and the species’ chance of survival. Thanks to written language, we have a record of what we know about the world. ThereforeĀ our amount of knowledge is likely much greater than any other species’ on Earth (that’s what Watson describes as “cultural” intelligence). Through technology and space travel, our chances of surviving global cataclysms are also much greater than the cetaceans’. For now of course, an enormous asteroid would destroy both of us, but twenty years from now we can hope to have self-sustaining spatial colonies.
So in my definition of intelligence, cetaceans aren’t smarter than us. Individually however, they may have, as Watson argues, more “cognitive power”, and perhaps are more capable of “deeper” thinking than we are. So perhaps your average human being is dumber than a dolphin – and this is truly fascinating.

I disagree strongly with Watson’s criticism of our space exploration endeavors. They represent our best chance at preserving our species and expanding our knowledge, which, in my definition, would make us more intelligent as a species. Of course Watson’s point is to raise awareness about Earth’s fragile beauty, but it is important in my opinion that we both preserve our Earth, marvel at its beauty, and pursue the exploration of space.
Same thing when Watson says: “Instead of communicating across the vast expanse of space, we may be able to bridge the chasm between species [here on Earth]” : why couldn’t we do both? It would be amazing to be able to communicate with cetaceans, and Watson’s essay offers an amazing vision in this regard, but why shouldn’t we pursue SETI too?

So with this little clarification, send me your essays, and let’s get to a weekly publication rate for Knowledge Utopia!

Thank you for this amazing first year!


4 thoughts on “On Paul Watson’s essay and Knowledge Utopia’s first anniversary

  1. You use the words “Species” and “Survival,” as indicators of Humanities superior intelligence. I would argue 50+ million years of ‘species survival’ for cetaceans v.s. humanities 1.5 million (at best), bends your pronouncement in their favor. While “space exploration…” provides our “best chance at preserving our species and expanding our knowledge,” during any future cataclysm — nuclear armaments, war and similar human created / used technologies / behaviors conversely balance this equation. These, not an asteroid, are far more likely to extract a near term toll. Our gross over population and exploitation of Earth’s resources must be considered as well. So, based even on human estimation of ‘intelligence’ (and this is a very selfish, self-serving, short term notion), I must lean towards Watson’s position.

    1. Well I certainly agree with your analysis, though humanity’s chances at survival are greater than those of cetaceans (unfortunately) in my opinion. I’m not very optimistic about the cetacean’s fate, considering plastic pollution, massive maritime traffic, etc…

      1. To me this brings up another aspect of intelligence. I would like to posit that one aspect of intelligence is the ability to predict outcomes, negative as well as positive. Most of those threats to the survival of wales are examples of poor human ability to predict or avoid negative consequences of our decisions and actions. We are pretty good at creating things and events but at great cost in the form of “externalities”, many of which are threats to us as well as the wales. To a hypothetical outside observer this could easily be attributed to erratic, non-rational or random behavior rather than any intelligence or considered strategy, since we have no idea most of the time what will happen next, and are only now starting to explore the science of complexity and cascade effects etc (we may end up with much the same strategy in the long term – deciding that most actions are too costly to be worth wile). We have so far been able to adapt (is this learning from our mistakes or is our luck eventually going to run out?) and we call it intelligence and pride ourselves on being able to stay ahead of the arms race that we have created. I am being a little hyperbolic perhaps but I would argue that stating that the threat against the survival of whales is to be considered as an argument against the intelligence of whales, is a little bit like stating that the threat to a pacifist community by its militaristic neighbors is a discredit to the pacifism of the community.

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