The Magical Hairless Ape

In a parallel universe, before any new species can evolve, it must be pre-ordered via an Evolution Procurement Office.

It was a quiet morning at the Evolution Procurement Office. Charles the EPO Officer was manning the office by himself, thinking about stealing a quick tea break, when a briefcase-wielding man in a charcoal suit walked through the door.

Said the client: “Good morning, I have a new species of animal to order.”

Charles the EPO Officer: “OK, let me get the forms.”

Putting on his spectacles, he rummaged through a foot-high pile of documents on his desk.

“Right. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I have some questions to ask you, after which we can discuss costs and delivery times. First of all – this new species, where will it live? For example: in nests, in caves, up in trees, etc?”

“Well, I would say, anything.”

“Anything? What do you mean, anything?”

“I envision that usually they will build houses for themselves.”

“Houses made of what?”

“Anything. Wood, bricks, concrete, grass, whatever works.”

“Okay. And when not in houses?”

“They might live in caves, on ships, igloos, whatever works.”

“Whatever works?”

“Yes, whatever works. They will have the creativity and rational powers to freely adapt to any situation they encounter and deal with it.”

“Riiiiight” – more shuffling of papers – “And whereabouts will they live? Deserts, rainforests, grasslands?”

“Anywhere.”

“Anywhere?”

“Yes, anywhere. They should be able to adapt to most environments on Planet Earth.”

“I dare say that sounds ambitious. Now, what will they eat?”

“Anything.”

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Are they going to eat rocks?”

“Well – maybe not rocks. But meat of all kinds, vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, dairy, you name it.”

At this point, the client imagined he saw a smirk emerge on the EPO’s face.

“Any other points to make about the their diet?”, Charles continued.

“Oh, yes. They should have almost unlimited creativity, so rather than just eat food as they find it, they can experiment with different combinations of foods and different cooking methods.”

“So not only any food, but any combination of foods, eaten with any kind of preparation methods?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Quite the free-wheeling mavericks, this new species.”

“I suppose so.”

“Okay, what’s next here, ah – How will they communicate with each other?”

“Spoken language.”

“And what will they talk about?”

“Anything.”

“I’m sensing a theme here. Anything. So, they will talk about anything at all.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Ok, so they should have a language.”

“Oh no, you can’t just hard-code a language.”

“What?”

“They should be able to create any new words they want. Also, any new language they want. With any kind of grammatical structure they want.”

“Oh good, we are finally getting into specifics.”

“What?”

“Never mind. What kind of brainpower will this species have? They will be smart, I take it?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Please continue.”

The client sensed that something was awry, but pressed on.

“As I envision it, this species will be able to think about anything.”

“Again, anything! Fantastic! Can you give me some examples, or more detail? We like details here.”

“Sure. So for example, they will be able to think about any topic, for example, mathematics, religion, philosophy, science, as well as everyday life. They will be able to conduct investigations, talk about them using language, and pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

“You mentioned earlier they will be very creative.”

“Oh yes. When it comes to creative arts, they will be able to create anything – write poetry, novels, plays, music, paint paintings, create sculptures and so on. Plus they will have traditions and rituals of all kinds to mark what they think is important.”

“Remarkable! Now, we really must talk about what these super-smart, super-creative uber-animals will look like. Although I must warn you, if you start telling me they will have any number of legs, any number of wings or have any height whatsoever, depending on what they feel like, I shall have to hurt you. So what’s our starting point here? What are these animals evolving from?”

“Primates.”

“Primates? As in, apes, chimpanzees, monkeys and so on?”

“Yes, except hairless. No fur.”

“Hairless apes. You want super-intelligent hairless apes.”

“That’s right.”

“Super. Intelligent. Hairless. Apes.”

At which point the EPO officer pushed aside the forms, gave a loud groan and buried his face inside his hands.

An awkward silence ensued.

After about 30 seconds, the client nervously asked “Is everything alright?”

The EPO officer took a deep breath, placed his hands on the desk, and gave the client a fixed stare.

“Let me ask you a question. Imagine you are an architect. Someone asks you to build a house. You ask “How many bedrooms?” They say “Any number – something between 1 and 100, the design should be flexible.” You ask what type of floor. They want all types – carpet and wood and slate and concrete, to switch between when needed. It goes on. Any number of kitchens. Any number of bathrooms of any size and any number of showers. A basement, except it could be on the roof if needed, and views and no views simultaneously from every room. You would say to them – what exactly?”

The client shuffled his feet but said nothing.

“I mean, you must have noticed at some point, when thinking through this proposal, that of all the 10 million living species and 5 billion extinct ones, not one of them is anything like this?”

“Sure, but you are always saying how flexible this evolution thing is.”

“Flexible yes, but not infinitely so. We have a good system here, but it is still a system and this implies limits. It is not an Anything System. There could never be an Anything System. Even the idea of an Anything System is nonsense.”

“Right, but surely -“

“Take for example the language thing. You want your hairless apes to talk about anything. Using a completely general-purpose language. But there isn’t anything like that. Bees do a dance but it has a single purpose – to communicate where the food is. Meerkats have different calls to warn of different predators, but again this is only a single purpose. Meerkats can’t start talking about philosophy or the meaning of life. You see what I mean? Single purpose yes, general-purpose no.”

Charles continued: “As regards creativity, it is a similar picture. A bower bird will create a display to attract a mate, but it is always the same type of display, and only for a single purpose. The bower bird does not have general-purpose creativity. No animal does. So you won’t get an Anything Language let alone Anything Grammar, Anything Thought or Anything Creativity.”

“Just because there aren’t any animals like this and there have never been, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” the client replied.

“You think the failure of evolution to produce anything like this thus far – after 10 billion species – is, what, a massive coincidence?”

Charles let the point hang in the air for a few seconds before continuing.

“But there’s more – how do we know that the physical is causally determined?”

“Uhh – because we see regularities? The same causes are followed by the same effects?”

“Exactly. So when you drop a rock and it falls to the ground, then drop another rock and the same thing happens, you know there is some sort of causal regularity taking place. That’s the mark of physical causation – predictable, monotonous regularity.”

“Now, think about what you are asking me to do” said Charles. “A hairless ape with Anything Language, Anything Thought, Anything Creativity. Unlimited thought and unlimited creativity are precisely the opposite of predictable, monotonous regularity. Do you think I have magical powers? I don’t.”

“So, you’re not going to do it?”

“And – a hairless ape. For God’s sake. Can you imagine it? Hideous! Then you give it the ability to think – it will know that it’s hideous. I can imagine it now – “Why are we so ugly?” they will say to each other. What cruelty. Even if I could make such a thing, I wouldn’t.”

The client sighed and threw up his hands.

“Fine. Can you at least make me a hairless ape?”

“I suppose so. But as for the rest of it, you’ll have to take it up with someone else.”

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