Are We Alone? (Part Two)

This continues a rather long-winded essay on my part. In Part One, I talked about the idea of extra-terrestrial life from the standpoint of cosmology, the planetary conditions that might be needed to produce it. In that post, I went out on a speculative limb, always a dangerous thing from the uneducated. Here, I’m going to compound the error as I talk about the definition of “intelligence.” Please turn your irony meter off before proceeding.

As I mentioned in Part One, the Fermi Paradox states that, if life is likely to evolve to intelligence under certain circumstances, then the Galaxy or universe is big enough to produce this many times over – but we see no evidence of this, so something’s not right. I think there’s a lot more to be considered outside of the exceedingly simple conditions of the Paradox, however. Defining intelligence is one of the harder things to do, and may remain forever ephemeral. The short answer is, “We are intelligent, but nothing else,” which sounds rather vain (and is) but expresses the matter for the vast majority of uses. Biologists and behaviorists that study animal thought processes usually consider it a scale, which is probably more accurate, but still places us at the top. For the purpose of seeking extra-terrestrial life, however, we probably need something specific. The broader idea is “at least as advanced as humans, and understanding physics as we know it.” This covers the idea of electromagnetic communications, the hazards of space travel, and so on.

Now, it starts to get sticky. We have a tendency to think of intelligence as being inevitable, a certain “accomplishment” of evolution if you continue it far enough, and Drake’s Equation almost has that as a given. But this is hard to argue – we have millions of species on this planet, and only one fits our definition. That’s not exactly a promising sign, and certainly not odds I’d want to bet on. And life went on a very long time before getting around to us. There’s also the argument, as I mentioned before, that the dinosaurs were clearly a dominant/successful class on this planet up until the extinction of most species allowed mammals to fill that slot. They had been around for a long time and didn’t develop a decent intelligence – if the theory of birds evolving from some species is accurate, they’re no closer still. At best, this seems to indicate that it isn’t time that’s necessary, and that development of any particular species may depend a lot on luck and conditions.

We’re not really sure how our brains developed the way they did, and are still determining how much they differ from other species. We used to think about some simple factors like opposable thumbs allowing us to use tools, and that this functionality opened the door for creativity, but that’s not very convincing – lots of species have very distinctive ways of gripping, octopods not the least among them, but it hasn’t brought them down this path yet, despite their longer development time. Many species are quite bright, true enough, but to the point of building a radio transmitter? Another potential path to intelligence is the ability to form abstract thought, to envision something and then physically produce it. This sounds perfectly reasonable, but we can see this behavior in other species too. At present, I’m favoring the puzzle factor, the idea that we have a drive to figure things out, beyond what we need for food, safety, or reproduction. Obviously, it can contribute to all of those things, but it appears it has its own reward hardwired into the brain, rather than relying on the external rewards of food, sex, or a dry bed free of scorpions. When you think about how much we love mysteries & puzzles, even without the goad of competition, you start to wonder if there’s something helping that along. Are we getting an endorphin rush when we finish the crossword? That’s such an inane thing to be proud of, isn’t it? Maybe not – maybe that’s how we developed the intelligence we have, or at least serves as a key factor in it.

While figuring things out seems like a useful trait, it begs the question of why this would develop. Sharp claws, yes, protective coloration, yes, but a drive-and-reward system for curiosity? But when it comes down to it, most of what any species evolves comes from minor mutations in the genes producing a new trait, and these stick around when they confer an advantage to enough individuals within a species. Clever little primates that figure out the lever (which leads to the hammer, the club, the spear, and so on) would certainly gain a great advantage – all they need is perseverance, and that comes from drive-and-reward. The first few individuals that enjoyed playing with things might have started the ball rolling, so to speak.

We also inhabit a somewhat curious niche, insofar as resource competition goes. We’re not like other species, competing for the same food sources or, as often as not, trying not to be those food sources. Very few people in the world have to work hard to prevent themselves from being eaten, unlike, for instance, our mammal cousins the rodents. Our primary competition is ourselves, our own species. This might also be a factor in the development of intelligence. Think about this: if being smarter causes you to move ahead of the competition, does it become a runaway train when the competition benefits from the same evolutionary trait because it’s the same species? Is the lack of external competitive factors another key to developing intelligence? It certainly allows us enough leisure time to play with DVD encoding, rather than hunting for food and building a new shelter every night.

Now, here’s where I get to the startling change of mental direction I had recently. Humans are explorers – we’re curious to see what’s out there, and in fact, if we’re not doing enough new things, we get bored and stagnate. We get bored pretty easily, really – think about living like other species: forage, sleep, hide. This would drive us nuts. Instead our busy minds caused us to spread out across the planet, and now we’re reaching into space. We expect to, someday, find like-minded individuals as we do this.

But evolution is about environment. Species in a stable environment go through the fewest changes, and those that are in rapidly changing environments either adapt to cope or die off. Exploring is only useful, from a survival standpoint, if your present environment is becoming hostile, be it from competition, scarce resources, or conditions beyond your ability to cope. Space exploration fits none of these – space is far more hostile than any conditions on Earth, and moreover, promises little or no benefits to advance us as a species. If we begin reaching the point that our environment is too hostile to us, overuse of resources and overpopulation being prime examples, it makes a lot more sense to either adapt to our current environment, or manage it to suit us, rather than traveling vast, dangerous conditions to try and find another appropriate one.

This was a rather unwelcome thought – I have always been strongly in favor of space exploration. I’ve started to face the idea that this might be goaded by a primitive part of my brain rather than the rational, logical portion. I still feel we have plenty of reasons to perform explorations in space, from an advancing knowledge standpoint. But it seems to make a whole lot more sense to me now that we manage our current home planet, because exploration has reached a distinct limit of benefit, and we shouldn’t think expansion will solve many problems related to survival.

Which brings us back to the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence. We expect, more or less, to find species that think largely the same way we do. But this might be wildly fatuous – the way we developed intelligence might be very specific to the conditions we found ourselves within, which are even more unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere. If the ET species lacks curiosity, the drive to explore, or even the simple concept of community, what then? Individualism is more likely to make you isolated, unwilling to extend contact to others. A stable (managed!) environment may mean you have no need to explore. And competition beyond what we’ve ever experienced may mean that exploration is taking place with resource obtainment in mind, and the aliens don’t give a rat’s ass about close encounters and phoning home. Just because it’s the staple of countless cheesy science fiction movies doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

And finally, there’s the idea of perspective. Defining intelligence as a peak we inhabit might be a bit vain – can we say that dolphins, gorillas, and cats don’t have the exact same feelings about themselves? Are we comfortable with going through vast amounts of natural resources to recharge iPhones, and calling that “intelligent”? And, the ugly question (and another staple of science fiction,) are we prepared to defend that to another species? We took no time at all, when exploring new continents, to consider the very human residents therein as lower life forms just so we could take advantage of them. Are we ready to deal with that exact same kind of attitude from others, especially ones that manage the interstellar travel aspect? And of course, I need to ask the question of whether they’ve already noticed this trait from us and are keeping their heads down.

There are lots more factors to consider. What about a species with a exponentially longer life span than ours – would our rapid communications go past as unintelligible blips? How about ones that are actually damaged by certain electromagnetic frequencies – will our attempts to contact them be interpreted correctly? If we found a species bombarding our planet with high energy gamma rays, we’d be a bit put-out (read: “dead”) and might never find out that it was an invitation to a kegger.

When it comes down to it, “intelligence” as we vaguely define it is still a very specific condition that may exist in extremely narrow circumstances. One of the prime reasons we’re looking for it is because a species that uses long-range communications is the only thing we’re likely to encounter for centuries to come – while bacteria are much more likely life forms to develop, you have to be in very close proximity to a planet (usually, “on”) to do anything more than say, “I think there’s some form of bacteria there,” based on, for instance, changes in the atmosphere. Until we know a lot more about how life, and intelligence, arose on our own planet, all speculation about it arising elsewhere is merely wild-ass guesswork. And there are distinct potential dangers in contact with another species, enough to make us very hesitant to initiate contact until we know what we’re dealing with. We listen to radio static from outside our solar system, but we’ve done practically no sending of signals ourselves.

The kicker is, do other species take the same approach? We feel pretty comfortable thinking that life evolving to the point of intelligence probably involves competition – life itself may well require it. And with that should come a certain degree of caution, shouldn’t it? So this makes me think Fermi was all wet when he thought abundant life should be abundantly obvious – caution and discretion dictate otherwise. It’s possible we may not know what kind of life is out there until we force our hand, should we be so stupid ourselves.

Continue to Part Three

[Illustrating image is either lichen or bark patterns, I’m not sure which, in closeup, with a light color tweak to make it more mysterious.]

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