Everywhere, Fear

Everywhere, Fear

Fear, it seems, is everywhere.

A few weeks ago, I decided to start walking in the morning in an attempt to get some exercise, and along the way, on the sidewalk, I spotted a snail. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen a real snail, so I was completely fascinated by this little creature. I bent down to touch its shell, and sensing something, the snail quickly retracted itself.

I was amazed. Not that I was expecting something different; I may not have ever seen a snail before, but I know the basics of biology and the imperative of self-preservation. But even writing that, I can’t express how at that moment, the everyday business of survival hit me as a small revelation about existence: fear is universal.

We live on an incredibly biologically diverse world where fear is the common factor for all living things. Fear, not love, like or appreciation, but fear. Approach any animal or insect and fear is there. Put a person in a strange situation, or even a foreign land and see how the fear level rises measurably. Watch a wildlife program on Animal Planet and see how young hyenas near a fresh kill will scatter when a lion approaches. Where did the hyena learn this behavior? Its parents didn’t take it to school or run through a slideshow of other animals of which to be mindful. Over time, a hyena may “recognize” a lion or lioness, but in the beginning, a strange creature brings out fear.

So it was with the snail. I know it’s not sentient (or at least that is what we are told), but it knew something was there that might pose a risk to its life and reacted accordingly. Poke around in a petri dish and you might get a similar reaction. Even cells in our bodies are constantly patrolling for foreign germs and attack without asking questions.

For me, this begs a larger question: is there fear throughout the universe? If there are planets or moons where microbial life exists and a strange element appears, would those microbes react in what we call fear? If some exotic animal has evolved on a planet near a red dwarf and a human approaches it, will it have that classic fight or flight response?

What does it mean if we live in a universe where the common thread of all life forms is fear? Obviously, from an evolutionary point of view, this is what keeps a species from extinction: if you don’t believe something will ever eat you, chances are you might not be around very long. Learn to recognize a predator you could live to see another day. But is this true in every world throughout this immeasurably large universe that harbors life?

To modify a famous philosophical question: is a universe of fear the best of all universes that an omnipotent creator could make? One might suppose that in a universe where not only fear but the drive to procreate and the need for sustenance could be the only way to sustain life, the answer would be yes. All things need food, all things reproduce, and all things need to recognize a threat. (From the sublime to the absurd: I am reminded of a “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson, where God is admiring the many animals he’s just created and then says, “Well now, I guess I’d better make some things to eat you guys.” Perhaps not so absurd after all.)

Yet what happens when we move outside the biological necessity of fear? If on Earth we’ve learned to inculcate fear for our own purposes, is that true of other sentient beings in the universe? Naturally, the question presupposes there are such thinking creatures in the cosmos, but as a rhetorical device, if fear truly is universal, could it have been used to terrify a population into submission to a ruler, or used by priests to keep the public at bay with the threat of eternal damnation? In short, are the broad outlines of human history (power and control through fear) applicable if not repeatable elsewhere? In the natural world, we see hierarchy and order, some it brought it about by the dominance (fear) of a male, though not exclusively. In the history of another world, will we read of power, dominance and control brought about by fear? Will we read of wars and invasions started because something feared something else.

The question of fear also brings up the larger question of violence. We live in a very violent universe; its very beginning was the collapse of symmetry resulting in an unimaginable “explosion” of time, matter and space. All species on Earth need to utilize violence to survive; even in our civilized age, there is no shortage of violence. Is this another universal truth? Would the equivalent of ants on another world decide to attack a similar species for territory or resources? Worse, would a sentient species go to war with itself for the very same reason? Would fear of bigger and better resources on the "other side" accelerate the fear of destruction and create an extraterrestrial arms race?

There is a danger, of course, of anthropomorphizing the entire universe, or drawing conclusions about alien foreign policy. Yet at the very least, we see that fear is everywhere here on planet Earth, a biological imperative that has kept different species alive for hundreds of millions of years. On that basic level—the struggle to survive—is it not possible to derive some essential truth about the nature of life throughout the cosmos? If we humans are successful enough to put a lander on the surface of Europa and attempt to drill down, would any (possible) life forms scatter out of fear? Fortunately for us, our interest in alien life is not limited to little green men, but first and foremost to little green bacteria. If we were ever to bring back a sample to Earth, we might able to test the fear factor in the lab and see if this basic reaction is indeed something we have in common.