Saturday, May 17, 2014

About Sapient Beings

Little Fuzzy (Fuzzy Sapiens, #1)Little Fuzzy 
by H. Beam Piper

"Well, the sapient mind can generalize.  To the nonsapient animal, every experience is either totally novel or identical with some remembered experience.  . . The sapient being will say, 'These red objects are apples:  as a class, they are edible and flavorsome.'  He sets up a class under the general label of apples.  This, in turn, leads to the formation of abstract ideas . . ."  

What is sapience? The word comes from the Latin sapientia, meaning "wisdom". It is related to the Latin verb sapere, meaning "to taste, to be wise, to know"; the present participle of sapere forms part of Homo sapiens, the Latin binomial nomenclature created by Carolus Linnaeus to describe the human species. Linnaeus had originally given humans the species name of diurnus, meaning man of the day. But he later decided that the dominating feature of humans was wisdom, hence application of the name sapiens. His chosen biological name was intended to emphasize man's uniqueness and separation from the rest of the animal kingdom.

In fantasy fiction and science fiction, sapience often describes an essential human property that bestows "personhood" onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien, mythical creature or other object will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any human character. The words "sentience", "self-awareness" and "consciousness" are used in similar ways in science fiction.

Little Fuzzy is the name of a 1962 science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper that addresses this issue. The story revolves around the determination whether a small furry species discovered on the planet Zarathustra is sapient. The planet was recently settled and is run by the Chartered Zarathustra Company as a Class III planet, one without native intelligent life. Jack Holloway, an independent sunstone prospector, discovers what he at first takes to be an animal and calls it a “Little Fuzzy,” and then realizes it is a member of an intelligent species—or is it? The very interesting question of the sapience of the Fuzzies, who don’t qualify under the “talk and build a fire” rule of thumb, takes up the rest of the book. The talk rule requires verbalization which the Fuzzies do not have, but they do use symbols and with them communicate pretty effectively. By the second part of the novel questions such as is it possible "to be sapient and not know it" and other issues are considered including a sort of philosophical issue: Is sapience an either/or issue, thus once it achieved the only question is how intelligent is the sapient being? The conflict inherent in the novel's plot is between the management of the Zarathustra Company, who realize the company will lose its investment if the Fuzzies are sapient creatures, and Jack, the local prospector, who is convinced that they are definitely sapient. The problem for the Fuzzies is that even if they are not sapient, they are close enough to that state, which means that the company management decides to eradicate them to protect their interests.

The suspense is a bit thin, but the novelist creates a thought experiment that is interesting because it doesn’t have simple answers. It was nominated for the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel. I found that it presented in an entertaining way the recognition of sapience in an alien species and the efforts of the two species to learn how to live together.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I have heard such good things about this book from many quarters and I really want to read it.

the question of 'what is consciousness' is something that I think about a lot. In my opinion it may be the greatest mystery that we humans face. The fact that it seems not to have a simple answer makes it all the more mysterious for me.