Second order species

Over brunch today I was discussing with my friends Kaelan and Judith the old science fiction concept of waking up to find that you might be the last person on earth – and the question of what to do should you find yourself in this awkward predicament. Do you go off in search of other potential survivors? Free all the animals trapped in the zoo? All of these seem like reasonable points of action.

But my thoughts immediately went to the problem of avoiding going mad. Somehow this seemed to be the largest problem. Over the course of the day, my mind kept going back to this point, and I tried to tease out why that had been my first reaction. And that got me thinking about what really goes on between people – not within us as individuals, but between us as social beings.

We humans are so deeply social in our emotional make-up that we often don’t even notice how powerful is our instinct to connect. If you put two or more people in a room together, we immediately start talking to each other. What do we talk about? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter – the important point is the talking. Yes, we tell ourselves that whatever we are discussing is quite important – the annoying new boss, why our candidate is going to win, who is sleeping with whom – but this is merely the tail wagging the dog. The truth is that we are talking to that other person primarily because we are driven by a powerful instinctive drive to start talking and to keep talking. Since this drive doesn’t make any rational sense (being an instinct), we come up with all sorts of excuses for why we are doing it.

And so it occurs to me that, just perhaps, the moment we start this conversation we begin to create another being in the room – another intelligent entity. This intelligent entity has drives and desires, likes and dislikes, personality quirks and a hunger to exist, to grow. It has no physical manifestation, but is rather a product of the strange alchemy that happens between two human brains that have begun to communicate. Yet it is real, and when it dies (if, say, we have a permanent falling-out with a friend) we keenly feel its loss.

And so be be alone – utterly alone, as in the scenario I discussed with Kaelan and Judith – would be to suffer a grievous wound, traumatic damage to something that is organically part of us. And I think that was the source of my first worry about going mad: It is not clear to me that, over the long run, a human personality could truly survive such a severe trauma, life without our little flock of relationships.

A more positive way to look at it is that these relationships, these sentient beings of mutual thought and connection which flit and dance between two people, are deserving of study as entities on their own. What are they like, this second order species? Do relationships seek out other relationships? Do they, in some sense, mate? We have all had the odd experience of liking two people individually but feeling uncomfortable toward their relationship – or the reverse. Is there any way to test this sense of a third entity in the room?

4 thoughts on “Second order species”

  1. Aha, so that’s why IMs or Blogs are so popular, people must talk, even if they just talking about talking !
    I was alone for several days with my cat, and I started to talk to him – how weird. I wonder how efficient in cheating our instincts might be robots, AI bots, social games or just pets that don’t understand us, but at least have emotions toward us and are good listeners !
    Someone could arrange an experiment – leaving a person alone just with a computer with artificial psychiatrist (like Dr Sbaitso or the one in Emacs) for several days.. I wonder how fast he will start talking with him..

  2. Isn’t that the issue the Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, is addressing? He even creates a “friend” by drawing a face on a coconut, and is greatly saddened when he loses his friend in a storm as “they” are escaping the desert island on which they were marooned.

    (And on a slightly different note, I believe that there are some dogs who do understand speech and not just emotion. I’ve had dogs who reacted to the words rather than the the related emotion of my communication. Or perhaps I/we just give off cues that are so subtle that we do not realize they are there, but that dogs pick up. However, that doesn’t explain the dog in Germany that can pick out toys from a pile after the owner calls out the toy’s name: And since I have had 3 border collies, that report didn’t surprise me in the least…!)

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