The internet was adamant: “we” had landed a robot on a comet. Twitter was awash with self-congratulation.
We had pushed the envelope. And we hadn’t just pushed it. We had licked and pasted on the stamps of bleeding-edge physics, shoved the envelope into the letter box of science fiction, had it collected by the postman of the almost-impossible, and seen it delivered to the sorting hub of blown minds.
It was very nice to be included in all the posts that proclaimed that “we” had done this, but I have to admit that I had very little to do with landing on the comet: I am the Jon Snow of rocketry in that I know literally nothing. And, with all due respect to your probing skills, I don’t think I’m alone in my ineptitude. For example, if you watched parliament last week you’ll know that most of our MPs are unable to land a punch let alone a robot.
Still, I understand the urge to claim the landing for all of humanity. It’s been a rough year, full of fear and anger, and it buoys our collective soul to imagine ourselves as 7 billion Yodas, using The Force to levitate a waterblommetjie-encrusted X-Wing onto the surface of a new world. And it’s only natural, when confronted by the emptiness of the cosmos, to feel like a small troop of naked howler monkeys and to huddle slightly closer together on our ledge. The amoral, impassive brutality of deep space makes us look inward and think about life, this curious spark that glows inside all living things on our planet.
I was tempted to take these musings to their logical conclusion; to speculate on how, despite our capacity for self-destruction, we are an extraordinary species; how we have taken an evolutionary gap and shaped it into a niche before wrenching that niche wide open into planetary dominance. I thought: it might all end tomorrow in a mushroom cloud or a miasma of airborne disease, but right now human life is on top of the pile. And if we are alone in our solar system, it means that being a relatively comfortable and contented human is to experience a quality of life unparalleled for a radius of almost 8 billion kilometres.
And that’s when I saw the dog being fed bacon off a saucer, and realised that I had been wrong. Some humans enjoy the best possible human life, but if biological life on Earth is a struggle for food, shelter and comfort, then the acme of life in the known universe must surely be the adored household pet.
I’ve sometimes wondered about this strange urge to include other species in our emotional lives. Our psyches are complex but even by human standards it is odd to stand in front of a tiny parrot and to ask it, “Who’s the prettiest bird in all the world?”, knowing full well that if the parrot could talk it would say, “I care nothing for prettiness. Instead I want to know: when will you die, human, so that I might feast upon your rotting corpse and sleep under your duvet?”
Perhaps our projections come from an urge to nurture something alive but uncomplicated and unchanging, something that won’t grow up and leave or visit only at Christmas and have passive-aggressive conversations about the roast potatoes. Perhaps it is just an expression of ego, the thrill of having compliant wolves or dainty tigers draped over our feet. Whatever the reason, we have thrust our pets into a truly bizarre position of privilege. Even the richest, most spoiled humans have to work for their positions, if not by clocking in then at least by pressing the flesh and keeping their networks happy. Not so their pets. Whine and they are fed. Vomit on a Vermeer and they are forgiven. The most idle humans still serve their animals.
You could argue that we are merely patronising our beasties, and that Chinese emperors allowed their Pekingeses to romp on the Royal Lap only because the dogs were intrinsically comical. You might insist that Vladimir Putin’s labrador, Koni, is allowed to make incursions into the eastern territories of his bed only because she doesn’t have an opinion on the Ukraine.
But our animals don’t know that they are comical or helpless and so our attitude, whether patronising or merely indulgent, is irrelevant to them. So next time we are about to land a robot on a comet in the hope of learning more about our universe, we might save a few billion dollars simply by asking a parrot: what is the universe and where is its centre? And the parrot will reply: “It is me, and I am its centre. Now hurry up and die.”
First published in The Times and TimesLive