On Public Statuary

There are at least thirty active, intelligent, “alien civilizations” in our galaxy. This, according to the astrophysics professoriate of Nottingham University in England, brought to my attention by an email link pinger.

What would we do without these pings? There was a time when we had to find amusements all by ourselves.

That the number had been generated by a computer model, I knew before I read the Guardian article. There would be no links to these aliens themselves. From an elementary comprehension of physics, I knew not to expect this. But what about, “someday”?

From a remark by physicist Enrico Fermi, made over lunch seventy years ago, I also knew there would be no contact with these aliens, ever. He asked, “Where is everybody?”

(Some dispute this. They say he was speaking “on the way to lunch.”)

Let me explain what Fermi meant. If there were anything like the number of alien civilizations predicted by optimists even before computers, we could expect perhaps half of them to have been around for longer than we have.

And given the time scales on which our evolutionary fantasies must be strung, many would not be centuries ahead of us in technology. Rather, millions and millions of years.

So they ought to be here already. And the evidence they’re here can be plausibly denied. They’d surely have better than clunky flying saucers.

But perhaps the Earth is a kind of goldfish bowl for them, decorating a corner in a rumpus room, where their kids play dodge ball. There are any number of ways to get around the great Dr. Fermi’s unanswerable question.

And most of those now use computer models.

They were what we used to exactly predict the course of our present Batflu epidemic. They are how we can tell exactly what the weather will be, in June 2085.

Gentle reader may have detected sarcasm in the paragraph above. But it is as nothing compared to my views on Artificial Intelligence.

Although scientists like to flatter themselves, this is not an “age of science.” The use of reason to make sense of things has been in decline for a long time, and we compare rather poorly to the men of the Dark Ages, who could be quite handy with if/then propositions.

We believe what we want to believe. And depending upon what premisses we adopt, any belief can be reasonable. That is why it is so important to choose premisses wisely. They help one survive to adulthood.

In fact, this is something we share with the bonobos, which early explorers may have mistaken for headless men, according to another ping I have received. (Their heads can rest lower than their shoulders, giving the impression of faces in their hairy chests.)

The ability to reason, from sound premisses, may even be something we share with fish and houseflies. We differ from them, however, in being more self-conscious, and sometimes by taking time when coming to a decision. We are also, for all our desultory pace, more likely to come to an error, which only our narcissism could forgive.

Hence our belief in computer models.



Now, I promised a discussion of public statuary, and haven’t forgotten this yet.

Let the segue be: that while our current terrestrial civilization manifests some failings, it is interchangeable with all others known in at least one respect.

As those who follow our media may know, we are passing through a year in which our archaeological remains are being diminished. Statues and monuments are all coming down, except perhaps those that commemorate “commies.”

But even some of those are being toppled from their plinths, as the modern university student tends to be not only vicious but – extremely – ignorant. A third ping advises me that, in at least America and Britain, more statues of abolitionists than of slavers have been desecrated or removed, in what has already been predicted as a “summer of love.”

Although a fan of public statuary, I am not too concerned. The sculpture in question is usually meretricious, and the subjects depicted were notorious bores. Perhaps the art connoisseurs among Black Lives Matter are clearing the spaces for more impressive works.

Verily, in my view, since even before the Enlightenment, our public art has been atrocious. It is not just the statues: the architecture also leaves much to be desired.

The reason for this is no mystery. We, of the Western Civ, have, in the course of overwriting our Christian heritage, changed our premisses. Where once our built environments reflected an endorsement of Christ and His Saints, we now celebrate, almost exclusively, unrelated secular human achievements.

And as any medieval man could tell you, these human achievements are very small. Under a cloudless night sky, we can begin to appreciate how small their efforts. The same can be said after they’ve been dead for only a few years.

By contrast, the medieval statuary, still clinging to cathedrals in protected locations, is strangely exhilarating. This is not just because it is older, although the patina helps. It is because the “uplift” rises above the squalid.

That squalid politicians like to raise monuments to themselves, and sometimes also to their mentors, I quite understand. To expect humility from any of them is also to build upon weak premisses.

They are trying to preserve images of themselves against worms and the ages, which is why they usually choose cast bronze. Other materials succumb to the elements faster; even marble, which can chip, and is too expensive. But wood will hardly serve the self-worshipper.

Perhaps, in extraterrestrial venues, the aliens have seen through this human mistake, of saluting the small over the large. They’ve had extra millions of years, after all. Perhaps all their sculpture is essentially religious, as ours was once.

But I will not speculate on the strength of computer models. For all I know, there may be no aliens. What then?


*Image: Statue of Guy the Gorilla by David Wynne, 1961 [Crystal Palace Park, London, England]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.