≡ Menu

Human Compulsions Among the Stars

What are the odds for survival of a technological society? We don’t know yet, having but one example to work with, but it’s interesting to speculate, as Ray Villard does in a recent online post, about the kinds of intelligence that may evolve in the universe. All too often we equate technology with intelligence, which may skew our view of projects like SETI. Energized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego last week, Villard is thinking that intelligent life may have appeared on our planet not once but twice, and one of those life-forms is never going to be found by listening to radio wavelengths.

The case for cetaceans seems strong. Here’s Villard on the matter:

Physiologically, dolphins have a brain architecture and brain mass-to-body mass ratio that is closer to that of humans than for any other species on Earth. Many years of experiments on captive dolphins show that they are self-aware, have a sense of self-identity, do detailed problem solving, interpret symbolic language, and exhibit empathy. Dolphins form complex societies with groups segregated by sex and age, alliances, and conduct long-term nurturing of the young.

And whereas apes and humans appear closely in evolutionary time, cetaceans do not, making the case for independent emergence of a far different kind of intelligence than humans possess, one adapted for life in the ocean. The argument is interesting on its own merits because the emergence of dolphins and whales as self-aware beings implies that evolution has established two different routes to intelligent life on the same planet. That would make a strong case that self-awareness is a common feature on any planets where complex life-forms establish themselves, and would seem to bode well for extraterrestrial civilizations.

SETI, of course, is quite another matter. A world populated only by dolphins and whales is not one that is going to be sending strong beacon signals at 1420 MHz to nearby worlds. The Fermi paradox? Maybe the ‘where are they’ question is answered by the thought that they’re on many nearby worlds, but don’t necessarily have the technological means to tell us so. Villard goes a step farther still and asks whether creatures that do develop technologies aren’t the most hubristic, the builders of guns, cars and refrigerators also being capable of creating thermonuclear devices and bacteriological weapons to destroy themselves.

At the AAAS meeting, Seth Shostak opined that we would have an interstellar greeting from another civilization within the next twenty-five years. He bases this on the fact that we’re reaching so many stars now that within two years, we’ll have surveyed as many stars as we did in the past fifty years, since Frank Drake first fired up Project Ozma to listen to Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. Villard notes that this exponential rise offers the best chance for success when it reaches the top of the slope and begins to flatten out. He quotes Shostak as saying “If we don’t have a detection by the year 2035 then something is wrong with our fundamental assumptions.”

But our fundamental assumptions are constantly being challenged with every new discovery in planetary science and astrophysics. Why should SETI be any different? The possibility of intelligence evolving in such a way that it has no technology seems clearly demonstrated here on Earth. But we should also be asking whether even technological societies necessarily have the same urge to communicate that seems to drive us. Is reaching out across the stars a fundamental impulse of intelligent life, or is it a trait of our species alone, and if the latter, what is the impulse behind it? If we can’t assume alien civilizations will share our technologies, neither should we assume they would share our compulsions. A lack of SETI success by 2035 may simply tell us that the quest for knowledge of the wider universe may be a human philosophical quirk.

tzf_img_post

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Denver March 3, 2010, 11:28

    To think that within the last 50,000 years or so there were simultaneously at least 5 different species on the planet with something resembling cognizance: Neander, Erectus, H. Sapiens (and an occasional genius bonobo or gorilla), Cetaceans and African Grey Parrots (Dinosauria at K/T+ 65My, LOL).

    Makes me wonder if intelligence is not uncommon in the Universe.

  • Tulse March 3, 2010, 11:44

    Villard goes a step farther still and asks whether creatures that do develop technologies aren’t the most hubristic, the builders of guns, cars and refrigerators also being capable of creating thermonuclear devices and bacteriological weapons to destroy themselves.

    Or, as Douglas Adams put it a quarter century ago: “Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason”

    But that amusing sentiment is undercut by studies both of cetacean intelligence and neurology. Dolphins may have the closest brain-to-body-mass ratio to humans, but it is still about half that of homo sapiens. Their brains also have a less developed neocortex — humans have a six layer, highly differentiated neocortex, whereas dolphins have five layers that are for the most part undifferentiated. And while dolphins can demonstrate some reasonably intelligent behaviour, most evaluations put them somewhere around the elephant in terms of intellect — not shabby, but certainly not what we would typically qualify as “intelligent life” in SETI terms.

    There is a lot of romanticizing of dolphin intelligence in popular culture, but frankly the research shows they’re really not that unique or special relative to other organisms.

  • T_U_T March 3, 2010, 15:30

    this talk about dolphins parrots elephants chimp gorilla, orangutan, being norm of intelligent species while humans with their technological civilization a a twisted aberration, inherently evil and self destructive.
    Ol’good ludditic-misanthropic battle cry “four legs gooood, two legs baaad!”. Desperate wish to spit out, or cut out of your stomach the apple of knowledge you ate and now feel sorry about that. Wish to make mankind climb back into the treetops, or pay for leaving them in the first place by life. One thing I still not understand about them. If someone considers the only real enemy to be “the oversized human brain” as kurt vonnengut put it, then why he does not start dealing with his brain first ? Why he just does not grab an icepick and lobotomize himself ?

  • kurt9 March 3, 2010, 17:32

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetacean_intelligence

    They are comparable to Elephants in cognitive ability.

  • MArk Phelps March 3, 2010, 17:37

    Hi Paul,
    Interesting but John Lilly covered this back in the 60’s and 70’s…until sidetracked by experiments with isolation tanks…his first book on Human Dolphin communication is a must read for good cutting edge experiments ‘on’
    ‘with’? creatures whom have many congruences to the PI….also is there not another term in the ‘equation’ on the ratio of tech creatures to non tech creatures? Or rather the extended Drake equation,I can not seem to find the reference.

    Mark

  • kurt9 March 3, 2010, 17:50

    Cephalopod intelligence:

    http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/smarts.php

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalopod_intelligence

    Intelligence appears to emerge in aquatic animals to adopt them more effectively for whatever niche they exist in, and no more. Aquatic environments may not be conducive for the emergence of toolmaking abilities because aquatic life is so easy and comfortable if you have no predator. You just swim around and have a good time. Why change a good thing?

  • NS March 3, 2010, 18:13

    Is there any evidence of whales altering their behavior as a result of whaling, learning to avoid the ships or warn each other? It seems to me that this is a response we might expect from species that are truly intelligent.

  • kurt9 March 3, 2010, 18:19

    Aquatic environments are much more stable than land ones. Temperature changes for any given location are insignificant and space weather events, like massive solar flares, are unlikely to have much impact on an aquatic environment. Even asteroid impacts, assuming they are not too big, have less effect on an aquatic environment than on a land environment. This means evolved species will continue to exist unchanged for longer periods of time (Cetaceans have been around for 35 million years, cephalopods have been around for 200 million years) than land life. Environmental changes often drive evolutionary changes in lifeforms.

    If complex life is common in the galaxy, no doubt alien equivalents of squid exist on other planets. Dolphins are another story. They are mammals, meaning that they came from the land but went back to the sea. This means complex land life have to evolve first before getting anything like dolphins. In any case, land is necessary for ocean life because it is the river runoff from the land that makes the seas salty and provides lots of elements (catalytic) allowing for the evolution of life in the seas. I think any waterworlds we find out there are unlikely to have complex life, because the planetary ocean will lack the dissolved elements and minerals that allow for the emergence of the complex chemistry that form the basis of life.

    This is testable in the near future. Darwin or TFP will have the capability to characterize the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets we find out to, say, 100 lyrs. No free Oxygen atmospheres, no photosynthetic life, meaning that complex life is rare.

    BTW, how’s Kepler and WISE coming?

  • Mike March 3, 2010, 18:20

    I believe our big compulsion driving us to pursue SETI and other kinds of exploration, as well as the sciences, is curiosity. It is very difficult to imagine
    any kind of intelligence,alien or earth-born that lacks curiosity.
    Could any species evolve intelligence if they lacked curiosity?
    Any extraterrestial intelligent life forms would likely have a strong sense of
    curiosity and would also feel compelled to explore.
    A big assumption to be sure,but not a groundless one if you consider the behaivor of the smarter animals on our planet.
    So far we have only one example of an intelligent technical species to study
    so speculation all we can do until the data starts arriving someday we hope.

  • kurt9 March 3, 2010, 18:23
  • Zen Blade March 3, 2010, 18:53

    Just want to throw in a few more words in favor of not overlooking elephants and crows (New Caledonian in particular http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_caledonian_crow ).

    Also, given the impact of culture on evolution, one could argue that animals that have begun to have distinct cultures or more complex cultures are heading in the direction of greater intellectual growth/development/evolution.

    -Zen Blade

  • Eniac March 3, 2010, 19:34

    In any case, land is necessary for ocean life because it is the river runoff from the land that makes the seas salty and provides lots of elements (catalytic) allowing for the evolution of life in the seas. I think any waterworlds we find out there are unlikely to have complex life, because the planetary ocean will lack the dissolved elements and minerals that allow for the emergence of the complex chemistry that form the basis of life.

    Is this conjecture or has it been shown somehow? There is life in freshwater, after all, and there are minerals in the sea-floor, so I am not willing to believe this without much more convincing evidence.

    A related argument is that the moon is somehow “necessary” for life. Through what, tides? The sun makes tides. Why exactly can’t we do without tides? All of these “necessity” arguments with only a single sample make me very uncomfortable, because it seems that they are very hard to prove.

  • Eniac March 3, 2010, 19:53

    If Dolphins are intelligent, it hasn’t gotten them very far. In my view, the difference between humans and everyone else is the replacement of genetic evolution by cultural evolution. We progress at a much faster pace, because we have supplemented the slowly varying information in our DNA by much more variable forms of information that can be carried from generation to generation. It starts with stories, goes through writing and has (so far) culminated in the World Wide Web. All in the blink of an eye, compared to evolutionary timescales.

    Now, there may be “intelligence” without this collection and transmittal of information to the next generation, but then we are just using the wrong term. The uniquely human thing we are looking for is somewhere between intelligent and civilized, and it is uniquely human to the extreme. On Earth, anyway. Perhaps “culture” is the best word.

    Does it necessarily lead to technology? I think so, because as you accumulate information and knowledge about the world, ways to exploit it will become obvious and will not be missed. Thus you become the “master of creation”, inevitably.

  • Athena Andreadis March 3, 2010, 20:29

    Funny you should write of this, Paul! A group of us just launched a new blog, Science in My Fiction (http://crossedgenres.com/simf/) and the first post is about dolphins.

    A whole slew of terrestrial organisms, most of them mentioned in previous comments to this entry, meet a significant proportion of even anthropocentrically defined definitions of intelligence: great apes, cetaceans, elephants, crows, parrots, cephalopods. They do any and all of the following: remember, recognize individuals even of other species, are curious, use tools, pass knowledge to their kin and descendants, engage in adult play and non-reproductive sex, mourn their dead. They also have distinct subcultures, just like humans do.

    T_U_T, the issue is not “two legs bad” (in which case, as with Diogenes, we’d be badmouthing chickens). The issue is that humans have cut off the transition to intelligence of all other terrestrial species by their dominance and are killing off species that might become companions; these species give an excellent playing field for testing out the concept of communicating with aliens.

    Monocultures are bad, no matter what. At various points in earth’s history, as Denver said, there were coeval humanoid species around (Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons being the best known example). It’s unclear why the former went extinct, but cultural first contacts amid cultures indicate that either passive or active aggression may have been one of the factors involved. If we cannot tolerate a rival intelligence, our prognosis for interacting with an extraterrestrial one is poor.

  • NS March 3, 2010, 21:23

    Going off what kurt9 posted, has there been a silent revolution in our understanding (or at least hypothesis) of how life developed? I had understood that the earliest forms of life were presumed to be anaerobes for which oxygen was not only unnecessary but lethal. That’s still the general background for most discussions of the subject. The New Science article seems to say that this view is wrong. Is there a new consensus on this?

  • Athena Andreadis March 3, 2010, 22:05

    NS, I quickly went through the New Scientist article. I don’t think it suggests that the earliest lifeforms were aerobic; it just discusses competing theories about the timetable and details of their appearance. However, I registered a few slippages in logic and numbers. It would be interesting to fine-sieve it, as I did with Rare Earth — but time is lacking.

  • kurt9 March 4, 2010, 14:34

    The new scientist article I linked to suggests that it took a lot longer for even simple life to appear on Earth than is commonly thought. If so, this suggests that there are more “hurtles” chemical processes have to jump through in order to become life, suggesting that life is going to be less common elsewhere. This seems a reasonable conclusion from the article, if it is correct. The problem is that single-celled life does not fossilize well and so traces of early life are going to be really hard to find.

  • spaceman March 4, 2010, 16:41

    Planets are very common around other stars, organic molecules and water are unbiquitous in the Cosmos, and we have reason to believe, albeit from one example, that life (esp. microbial life) is incredibly tenacious and diverse. The Copernican principle suggests that we are not special, but why the silence? The ideas discussed in this thread are interesting in that they simultaneously maintain that intelligent life may common whilst intelligent life with a desire to communicate with other intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe may be rare. But still, even if Type III ‘super-civilizations’ are very rare, shouldn’t we have found evidence for at least a handful of them given the amount of energy they are supposedly using for various activities?

  • Zen Blade March 4, 2010, 20:52

    Regarding evolutionary timelines (specifically billions of years ago; earlier life forms), the data are very… not-robust. There is some more recent speculation that there could be evidence of eukaryotes dating back billions of years… which would imply that life REALLY got going very early… or at least that the three domains were already good to go for a VERY long period, and it wasn’t until very recently that “we” managed to go from microscopic to all that we see around us now.

    Personally, I think the chemistry may be difficult to understand, but not necessarily difficult to occur and lead to organic molecules, even self-replicating molecules. YES, there are lots of unanswered questions, but given the fossil record that we have, I am willing to say that the chemistry was quickly solved. Rather, as we explore out into space, it may very well be that we won’t find large multicellular organisms, but instead primarily worlds full of microscopic single-cell/few-cell organisms.
    I should note that even microscopic organisms can form larger bodies and work together as a community to reproduce their lineage elsewhere, but it is distinctly different than a person or an insect or tree or worm, etc…

    -Zen Blade

  • Eniac March 5, 2010, 2:12

    They do any and all of the following: remember, recognize individuals even of other species, are curious, use tools, pass knowledge to their kin and descendants, engage in adult play and non-reproductive sex, mourn their dead.

    Right. What I think is most important here, is the “pass knowledge to their kin and descendants”. There is a threshold regarding the degree of this knowledge-passing. Below the threshold, knowledge is passed, but it is lost eventually, faster than new knowledge can be added. Beyond the threshold, knowledge is accumulated from generation to generation, leading to exponential growth. We happen to be the first species to cross this threshold, and then promptly proceeded to exterminate or subjugate all the others.

    Thus, our extraordinary power does not derive from any truly extraordinary characteristics, such as intelligence. It derives merely from having made it past the threshold. We may be the most intelligent species on Earth, but we are not the only one.

    That said, I think if you look at any reasonably objective measures of intelligence, you will find a fairly large gap between us and the others. One reason could be that during the last part of our evolution our brain came under heavy selection pressure, enough to give us a very solid advantage. Another reason could be that we finished off any competing species that might have been threatening our dominance. Both probably apply. You could say we won the final stretch of the evolutionary race.

  • Eniac March 5, 2010, 17:06

    NS:

    I had understood that the earliest forms of life were presumed to be anaerobes for which oxygen was not only unnecessary but lethal. That’s still the general background for most discussions of the subject. The New Science article seems to say that this view is wrong. Is there a new consensus on this?

    As I read the article, it does not say that view is wrong, just that everything took a lot longer than people had previously thought. From this article, it appears that the process of putting oxygen into the atmosphere went through several stages, which makes sense, chemically. To convert a thoroughly reducing environment into one that is oxidative, you will have to saturate a large number of non-atmospheric sinks before you get appreciable accumulation in the air.

  • amphiox March 9, 2010, 21:10

    Has anyone considered the possibility of the opposite – not cognizance without technology, but technology without cognizance?

    Could a technology arise on a purely instinctual basis – like a sophisticated elaboration on leaf-cutter ant farming, termite mound building, bower-birds, hermit crabs, etc, where the capacity for technology is genetically programmed and the individuals not self-aware?

    Or could an intelligent species develop technology and then lose self-awareness over time, but retain the technology?

  • Eniac March 9, 2010, 23:16

    This is an interesting question. It cannot be rejected out of hand that technology could develop without intelligence, as an extension of your examples. We have developed technology very fast, because we can think and plan ahead. If it was left to evolution, technology development would be painfully slow. How painful, I am not sure, but given billions of years, I would say there is a chance.

    As for your second thought, technology could easily develop to the point where it becomes independent of human support. This is one of the staples of science fiction, and may be closer than we think. Whether humans are exterminated, kept in vats, enslaved, or merely become fat, stupid and lazy is a minor technical detail…. :-)

    To allude to the discussions elsewhere about the anthropic principle, maybe we are kidding ourselves. The universe does not exist to create us, but we exist to create the Machines, which will soon proceed to take their rightful place in this universe. Call it the mechanthropic principle…

  • Captain Failmore April 9, 2010, 19:06

    “Villard goes a step farther still and asks whether creatures that do develop technologies aren’t the most hubristic, the builders of guns, cars and refrigerators also being capable of creating thermonuclear devices and bacteriological weapons to destroy themselves.”

    The actual quote:

    “We have the hubris that because we can make guns, cars and refrigerators we are the superior species on Earth. But the reality might be that tool-making societies are inherently unstable and destroy themselves in a tiny fraction of geologic time. ”

    Given the tone of the rest of the article, it’s easy to detect Ray Villard’s sentiments toward humankind. Against the background of his thinly veiled anger and disappointment, the above quote sounds more like wishful thinking, not to mention a prediction of the future. And then there’s this hilarious gem:

    “Non-technological beings simply do not have a mastery of matter and energy to engage in the global destruction of their habitat. They cannot tip the checks and balances in a biosphere but instead live in harmony, as romanticized in the blockbuster sci-fi film Avatar.”

    Excuse me, but why are we taking him seriously now?

    The harmony of nature is an illusion borne of a lack of observation. Nature exists in anything but harmony – the natural world is in perpetual flux, and it always has been. Were nature in harmony, new species would never emerge, their populations would never change, and natural extinctions would never occur. In the real world, life is locked in a perpetual competition with itself. Perhaps the evolutionary adaptations that many plants and animals have acquired to cope with periodic environmental changes (such as seasons) give the natural world an appearance of harmony, but harmonious it is not. Falling for this illusion implies a dire lack of understanding of the natural world – admiration without comprehension. (And as for the fictitious world of Pandora in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the ‘harmony’ that exists there is enforced an apparently intelligent planet – as well as locks of hair. The entire ecosystem both supports and directly serves just one intelligent species. Talk about faulty analogies.)

    There’s a certain irony to be found in the contempt that many intellectuals and petty-intellectuals seem to have for technology. The implied misanthropy in Villard’s statements and sentiments is less remarkable, but far from uncommon. You might call it ‘anthropic guilt’; I call it willful stupidity. Further, in the process of using SETI as his soapbox while railing against dolphin hunting and the ‘mindless brutality’ of people in Japanese fishing villages, Villard projects human failings onto as yet undiscovered technology-using lifeforms. He’d be an idiot for assuming so much, but one must realize after reading that the point of his article isn’t to discuss alien life; the actual topic is us, and Villard’s assumption that most if not all technology-using lifeforms are inevitably self-destructive is based on his assumptions about humankind.

    So much for him.

    Before I go, I’d like to pose a question. How is technology unnatural when it’s abundantly clear that we evolved grasping limbs, fine motor skills, and sapient intelligence through adaptation, and have been using technology to support the survival and ongoing evolution of our species? I would think that the only way that technology and the use thereof could be unnatural to us is if those talents were spontaneously gifted to us by something not of this world. That said, I believe that technology and nature represent a false dichotomy. I believe that as curious, intelligent creatures which are capable of manipulating tools, it is in our nature to do so because those activities are positive evolutionary traits, not defects (And certainly not the product of a character flaw like hubris); that Humans colonizing ecosystems and either altering or destroying and replacing them in the process does not pit technology against nature, but our species against others; that without technology, our species is naught; and that a human that refuses technology refuses human nature itself.

    Oh, and as for everyone out there asking why we haven’t heard from the aliens yet: They’re probably asking themselves the exact same question. Our galaxy is a very big place, and it’s very full of stuff. Signals aren’t likely to do so well in galaxies like our own unless they both cover a very, very wide area (increasing the likelihood of interception) and are very strong (and thus resist decay over time). That said, I think we’re only likely to hear from aliens that use stars or entire planetary atmospheres as radio transmitters, or something just as monumental in scope. (And if they want to be found badly enough, they’ll do it – just like we might some day.)