Friday, September 14, 2007

Rockets and Monkeys

Yesterday I got a link from a friend about Google teaming up with the X Prize Foundation to sponsor a new Lunar X prize. The new prize sets a high goal for a privately funded organization to land a robotic rover on the moon, and have it perform a number of tasks on the surface. Perhaps more significant is the lineup of companies and organizations stepping up to form partnerships and participate.

It’s interesting to note how that spirit of cooperation contrasts with the days of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s actually a lot more like the international cooperation among rocket societies in Europe and Asia before World War II. English, German, and Russian aerospace researchers where all freely sharing information before their respective governments drafted them into their weapons and military aircraft programs. Many of the German rocket scientists, and production engineers were “adopted” by the Americans and Russians to develop missile technology and space programs after the war. So it’s taken space exploration the better part of a century to come full circle and back into the non-governmental organizations where it started.

That same day, I also saw an article about recent updates to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Apes are among those species with dangerously declining numbers, and quickly vanishing habitat. Gorillas and Chimpanzees are in danger not only for loss of habitat, but also because they are hunted for meat. In spite of the faint whiff of cannibalism, the Chimps probably wouldn’t find this idea too strange if they were given to abstract reasoning. They are known to hunt smaller monkeys for their meat as well.

But like so many humans, the chimps don’t waste a lot of time thinking about the ethereal implications of eating other simians. They’re hungry, and they like the taste of meat. They probably like the chase too. They’re animals. Just like us. OK, 98% like us. But understanding them, and our relationship with them, past and present, is important. It puts things in perspective. While many protest that they aren’t “a monkey’s uncle,” our continued habit of treating each other with suspicion and cruelty without ever considering our commonality demonstrates our animal nature.

But many of the comparisons between ourselves and the great apes are more positive. Apes, hairless and otherwise, can be tender and caring. We can work cooperatively to great advantage. We have an uncanny ability to make and use tools from the simplest things. And our ingenuity can astound. After all, we’re descended from monkeys and look what we can do; we landed a monkey’s nephew on the moon.

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