≡ Menu

SETI and the Use of Tools

It makes perfect sense to me that we usually think of extraterrestrial intelligence in terms of technology. After all, when we listen to the stars for the whisper of a distant signal, we’re saying that SETI is all about finding something that was produced with tools, like a beacon. Or if we extend the thought to science fiction, we might dream of studying alien civilizations through their ruins on long-dead worlds, learning about them by studying what they once built.

After all, this is how we do archaeology, digging up spear-points or the bricks of ziggurats, the things that a culture leaves behind that it built with its tools. But will we always confine the idea of intelligence to the presence of an artifact? Science writer and Astronomy Now editor Keith Cooper examines the question in Dolphins, Aliens, and the Search for Intelligent Life, an incisive new essay for Astrobiology Today, one that offers us a new technology that may prove that intelligence doesn’t necessarily need tools.

CHAT — Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry — is a device built to help humans communicate with dolphins. So far we’ve been able to determine that dolphins do some extremely interesting things from the standpoint of possible language. They can emit whistles and barks, use echo location, and seem to understand a basic syntax, which might flag, for example, the difference between a statement and a question, or differentiate between a past or future tense.

The Nature of a Signal

Some researchers call this a language (whales have many of the same traits), while others call it ‘referential signaling,’ as Cooper explains. Such signaling would involve tagging things with names, but whether or not it indicates a deeply interactive language is another issue entirely. Maybe CHAT can help make the call. It’s a device worn around a diver’s neck, connected to a pair of hydrophones and a simple keyboard that can be used with one hand. The idea is to sidestep the issue of whether dolphin ‘language’ can be translated by setting up the option of a common artificial language that both humans and dolphins could use.

The device is to be tested this year and put into field use in 2012, so we may start to get some results fairly soon. While we await early findings, Cooper talks about Robin Dunbar’s ideas on the social nature of intelligence. Dunbar (University of Oxford) looked at intelligence evolving out of social practice, seeing it as a way for animals not only to survive but prosper in complex social groupings. Let me quote Cooper on this:

These include notions of reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), politics (forming sub-groups and coalitions within the larger group) and understanding the emotions of others (empathy, which in turn relies on theory of mind, the ability to be aware of one’s self and others). Looking at it that way, modern social networking on media such as Facebook may just be a symptom of what helped drive us to become intelligent in the first place, many tens of thousands of years ago.

And this takes us back to questions about things like SETI, because we are, after all, talking about how individuals make sense to each other:

Here’s the trick — to be social, you must be communicative. Staying quiet is anti-social. Personal interactions require communication, of some form, and the more complex the interaction, the more complex the communication. So if intelligence and social behavior is linked — and many people agree that it is — then the best place to start looking for intelligence is in animals that like to chat with one another.

Language and Silence

Which circles us back to dolphins, of course, but leave me wondering just what to make of this in a cosmic sense. I grew up being enthusiastic about SETI ever since, as a teenager, I read about Frank Drake’s work at Green Bank, which began in 1960. The idea of researchers scanning the skies for signals seemed so intuitively right that in my naïveté, I assumed we’d track down a confirmed beacon within just a few years.

No such luck, and in the many years since we’ve looked not only at how mind-bogglingly difficult the SETI hunt is at radio frequencies, but how restricting it is to think that an advanced civilization would use radio in its communications in the first place. Now we have to confront the possibility that extraterrestrial intelligence may not be rare at all, but that it may not necessarily lead to tool-building and hence beacons.

Cooper’s essay is just terrific, especially insofar as it gets into Claude Shannon’s 1940s work on the nature of signals, which is so crucial to how we understand data and language (or maybe I should say ‘language as data’). I’ll leave the pleasure of reading Keith’s presentation of Shannon to you because you’ll want to read the whole essay. But it’s worth noting in the SETI context that putting dolphin whistles through Shannon’s information theory demonstrates an internal structure in dolphin communications, while Shannon’s ideas on entropy and language — which focus on language as order and probability — show promising possibilities for dolphin intelligence, although everyone notes the need for more data.

Let’s say, then, that if intelligence is as much about communication as technology, then social behavior may well be the driver on many worlds, where intelligent beings may contemplate the universe without ever developing slide rules or computers or radio transmitters. Perhaps SETI is best considered as SETT — the Search for Extraterrestrial Technology — while intelligent cultures flourish undetected.

Learning more about how species on our own planet use their intelligence, and discovering what sort of linguistic capabilities they actually have, will eventually help us sort out the possibilities. Not everyone agrees that dolphins possess the kind of intellect that could summon up a true language. What a conundrum — we’re not sure whether or not we’re the only ‘intelligent’ species on our own planet. How little we know about intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos!


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 6, 2011, 7:29

    Neurology shows that dolphins and other cetaceans have much lower neuron density than terrestrial mammals, and that their neuron count and thus brainpower is no greater than that of a wolf or hyena. Dolphins are relatively clever animals, but comparing them to humans is a gross, gross exaggeration. Dunbar overlooked the fact that the more complex the personality of the individual is, the more difficult the individual is to learn to know, which topples the whole Dunbarian notion of the number of relationships as a measure stick. This means that social relationships cannot make stupid animals evolve intelligence, and that it is intelligence that causes relationships to become complex and not the reverse. Elephants, who have free trunks, have a humanlike neuron count. They do not seem to have much use for problem-solving in their normal day to day life, but they certainly used it during environmental change. After all, our ancestors evolved intelligence during climate change as well. One key difference between humans and elephants is that humans crossed the critical neuron count (that has been identified by research on how long the symptoms of dementia can be delayed by brain exercise) in Africa only (Homo habilis) and then spread, while the small-brained ancestors of elephants spread across the world before the climate change and then smarted up independently. That gave early humans a opportunity to avoid competition with each other and develop the trust required for storytelling, while elephants could not avoid competition and thus retained scepticism of an autism-like magnitude (and were surrounded only by equally non-indoctrinable individuals they could not manipulate) and remained protolingual. You just have to look in a history book to realize that normal human interaction is based on naive dupeness (demagogics, kamikaze and people denouncing their relatives to gestapo, anyone?). That brings us to the definition of “theory of mind”. Understanding the intentions of a indoctrinable individual is quite a different cognitive feat from understanding the intentions of a non-indoctrinable individual, and even the immune system is in some sense self-aware (except in the case of autoimmune diseases like reumatism or multiple sclerosis) as it recognizes the own body. Many autists understand animals well (Temple Grandon, anyone?), probably because they are both on the non-indoctrinable “cognitive wavelength”, and solitary species of octopi are known to have acquired theory of mind in captivity for bluffing and eyeserving for the personel. Overall the statistical networking nature of brains means that abstractions form by comparing similarities and differences between experiences and that the module tenet of evolutionary psychology is wrong (after all, statistical brains are necessary for circumventing unplanned obstacles, and nature is full of unplanned obstacles, so evolution insured that all actively mobile animals have statistical brains, therefore there is a evolutionary reason why evolutionary psychology is wrong. Ergo, the connection between technology and intelligence is legitimate.

  • Alex Tolley September 6, 2011, 9:54

    The communication-intelligence relationship is a red herring. In effect, it is arguing for the equivalent of disembodied brains.

    Why do I say this? Because human intelligence is not some feature of just our brains. It is also embodied in our artifacts and technology. Want to do maths without something to store intermediate steps, like paper, or even drawings in the sand, good luck with that. How about education purely by memory with no possibility of storing information externally to your brain. Finally, how do you explore nature without tools – simple, you use logic like the Greeks, and get it wrong.

    Sure we can expect a whole host of organisms to display some sort of raw intelligence. But that intelligence cannot help them progress very far, despite the misleading visions of toga’d god-like beings living in some sort of technologyless utopia.

    Talking with dolphins will no doubt be very interesting from a host of perspectives, but I don’t think that the conversation will reveal any hidden secrets of the universe, any more that learning to speak with stone age humans. If we find such technology free (or low tech) species in in the universe by direct local contact, we should apply the Prime Directive and leave them alone. Has anyone considered what damage we might do to dolphin culture if we talk to them?

  • Martin J Sallberg September 6, 2011, 13:29

    Apart from the fact that dolphins are not really intelligent life (explained in my previous comment) the Prime Directive thing is bullshit. It is like “do not free them by knowledge, leave them to be tyrranized by their own Holy Inquisition”. The only aspect of any culture that can be destroyed by the non-forcible introduction of knowledge is prejudice based on ignorance, and prejudice based on ignorance is abhorable and just deserves to be cured by the introduction of new knowledge (do you think discoverers should have shut up about their newly learned ideas when returning home and leave us all left in the Dark Age?). The same culture can be hi-tech in one regard and low-tech in another, so the idea of “superior” and “inferior” cultures is bullshit. And because of the abundance of resources and real estate in space, there is no impetus for conquest, so military technology has no validity as a absolute measure stick either.

  • Astronist September 6, 2011, 17:43

    Paul, I think this whole discussion needs to be resolved by simply speaking more clearly. We should distinguish two types of intelligence, which I shall call “bio-intelligence”, and “techno-intelligence”. Then we can happily agree, I hope, that various degrees of bio-intelligence are widespread throughout the animal kingdom on Earth, but alien bio-intelligence is undetectable at interstellar distances unless spacecraft with landers are despatched. Our own species is evidently part-way through a transition to the evolutionarily more advanced techno-intelligence, and this latter in alien species is the goal of remote-sensing SETI. Then we can get away from fruitless debates about whether dolphins are “really” intelligent or not.

    An analogous situation arises in the search for any kind of extraterrestrial life: we need to stop talking about life and specify whether we are talking about microbial life, surface-dwelling multicellular life (which I call gaiabiotic life for short), or technobiotic life. Clearly, the conditions for habitability for each of these domains of life are quite different.

    Oxford, UK

  • Rob Henry September 7, 2011, 0:11

    One thing that we can know for certain is that no previous land-based tool-using intelligence has ever evolved on Earth prior to our arrival, so we can still allow ourselves to believe that the development of civilization is rare.

    We would know, even if this happened so long ago that all trace of their cities was lost and they cremated their dead. We could easily tell even if they never quite became technological. Firstly there would be a notable mass extinction if this happened because they would requisition a high fraction of the production of our biosphere to their own needs. Secondly there would be a massive swing in the C12:C13 ratio as they continued to burn coal throughout their entire existence. Such a swing may well exceed any other likely driver of such a change, even one that would be expected to be caused by the complete collapse of the biosphere. Thirdly we would be expected to see a monoculture of their domestic animals during this entire period.

    Incredibly, this isn’t really a prediction, but a description of what we already know of the end Permian mass extinction, but it sure makes me wonder how certain we can really be.

  • Eniac September 7, 2011, 0:20

    I have become convinced that intelligence was indeed originally much more useful in social interactions than through technology. For ages, we have used our brains mostly to outsmart each other, to conquer and rule each other, to cheat and betray each other. Or, more positively, to keep from being cheated and betrayed by others, and occasionally from being eaten by tigers. Only very recently have we become so busy with researching, designing, and building things that this has taken over a considerable part of our brain-power. Not that the other good old-fashioned intellectual activities have fallen out of use, mind you.

    Technology was more of a serendipitous side effect. Not much of a driving force in the beginning, but eventually the biggest benefit. The most important technology is that of writing, as it opens the door to the unlimited accumulation of knowledge. The explosive combination of intelligence and knowledge is the “killer-app” that has enabled us to break free from the bonds of nature in a mere instance of geological time. With it, we have multiplied our Darwinian fitness by orders of magnitude, completely leaving behind the slow process of mutation and selection that was required to get us there.

    It will be exciting to see where it all leads. These are indeed interesting times.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 7, 2011, 10:43

    No, Eniac, apes and some other animals are much better than mentally normal humans at avoiding to be outsmarted (at least if education in the art of scepticism is not involved, and in hierarchical societies rulers never want their subjects to learn consistent scepticism), normal human naivity (in other words the lack of “genetic memories” of deception) can only have evolved in the absence of motifs for deception. Mad quasi-idealistic wars are just the result of a species that until very recently (in evolutionary terms) lived without having to compete against each other, and suddenly were cursed with overpopulation and thus rivalry and motifs for deception. Your claim that technology “was not a driving force of intelligence in the beginning because it was simple” is based on a nonsensical linearistic view of technology. Before fashion commercials existed, technology was about solving problems. Intelligence was for judging the problems and creating the solutions, not to routinely administer any one specific “level” of technology. And for Astronists hyper-distinctionism, the environmental requirements of complex life are not that different from those of microbial life, as anaerobic lorificerans, deepsea animals much closer to hydrothermal vents than the “max 50 degrees Celsius” theory predict they could, and mammals thriving in Chernobyl show. “Biolofe” do not evolve into “technolife” because if machines become life in their own right, they become a new species like any alien species and not a continuation of their creators. There may well be intelligent species of artificial origin, but the idea of replacement is nonsense. The extremophile diversity of biolife insures that some such life can survive anything technolife can. And the discussion about whether or not dolphins really are intelligent life is not fruitless. They have too few neurons to investigate for explanations.

  • Bounty September 7, 2011, 12:19

    Dolphins use tools. Intelligence should evolve into tool use. It’s an advantage. When I look at a human I can easily say it’s intelligent. With a dolphin I have to pause and think about it, maybe kind of sort of, if you tilt your head just so. If you’re looking for a line in the sand on “intelligent” then I would say the capability to exponentially learn is that line, and it will almost certainly involve tools.

    This level of intelligence requires expanded memory storage. It can almost be done with social network storage or story telling. SETI will not detect this almost intelligence since it’s not enough storage to make the big tools. Some animals could possibly meet this level. This could be the bootstrap to full intelligence though. At some point tools allow emergence or transcendence. It’s hard to imagine biology evolving enough memory w/o tools first to allow for “intelligence.”

  • ljk September 7, 2011, 15:40

    One of my favorite quotes is from Douglas Adams SF novel The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he talks about how dolphins and humans view each other’s intelligence level.

    The humans think dolphins are not as smart as they because they never built cars or refrigerators or New York or had wars. All they do is spend every day swimming about in the oceans eating fish and having fun. The dolphins think they are smarter than humans for the very reasons the humans cited.

  • Astronist September 7, 2011, 16:00

    @ Martin J. Sallberg
    “the environmental requirements of complex life are not that different from those of microbial life” — The environmental requirements of surface-dwelling multicellular life similar to that on Earth include a planet with liquid surface water, thus in a near-circular orbit around a long-lived star. The environmental requirements of microbial life or possibly of subsurface multicellular life not based on photosynthesis are, so far as can be ascertained at present, satisfied by any terrestrial planet with geothermal energy and subsurface water, which may be in any orbit whatsoever or even have been ejected from a planetary system altogether.

    “if machines become life in their own right, they become a new species like any alien species and not a continuation of their creators” — That was a point at issue at the worldships symposium. Clearly we do not know the answer at present. My own view, for what it is worth, is that we are looking at the symbiotic coevolution of biological and digital intelligence, with an increasingly fuzzy dividing line between the two.

    Oxford, UK

  • andy September 7, 2011, 17:07

    Corvus moneduloides is far more interesting in terms of tool use than dolphins…

    Surely neuron density is less relevant than the connectivity? In terms of absolute numbers of cells, cubozoa are apparently able to process images from their eyes without needing to bother with those pesky brain things anyway…

  • Ron S September 7, 2011, 20:10

    Wikipedia says: “Crows snip into the leaf edges and then tear out neat strips of vegetation with which they can probe insect-harboring crevices.”

    This isn’t New Caledonia so the crows here are perhaps less smart. Last week I was standing in a parking lot chatting with business colleagues when we saw a crow jump out of the lower front faring of a BMW. This seemed to me to be an odd place for a crow to have been. After looking us over it jumped back into the faring and I watched as it pecked away at the radiator grill, eating the dead insects it found there. I suppose the BMW is a sort of tool, though not one the crow made. Not yet anyway.

  • Eniac September 7, 2011, 20:43

    No, Eniac, apes and some other animals are much better than mentally normal humans at avoiding to be outsmarted

    Next time you see an ape, consider which side of the fence each of you is on and then say again that apes are better at “outsmarting” than people.

    Mad quasi-idealistic wars are just the result of a species that until very recently (in evolutionary terms) lived without having to compete against each other, and suddenly were cursed with overpopulation and thus rivalry and motifs for deception.

    Say what, before we filled the planet we were all peaceful and nice to each other, singing Kumbayah around the campfire? Unlike the chimpanzees, who frequently fight and even eat each other on occasion? Please….

    Even today, intelligence is not primarily used for technology. Consider the relative pay levels of lawyers and bankers vs. scientists and engineers as an indication.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 8, 2011, 14:26

    I did not claim that apes were better at outsmarting than humans. I claimed that apes were better at not being outsmarted than mentally normal humans. When I wrote “being outsmarted” I did not simply mean faliure to outsmart, being outsmarted can also be about buying absurd statements just because some particular person said it. Normal humans can be indoctrinated with to absurd things, apes are too instinctively sceptic to have even a simpler equivalent of indoctrination that were simple enough for them to understand. And yes, in human history violence and xenophobia first began with the population boom the millennia after agriculture was invented. Older human bones show no evidence of violence and older art are distributed geographically over so vast areas it is incompatible with “we or them” thinking. I think our ancestors transcended chimplike competitiveness following the first migration of hominins from Africa. The oldest evidence of care for the sick and disabled is from Dmanisi, Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Those left in Africa probably took the same step when sufficient numbers of proto-humans had left Africa to end competition over land and resources in Africa as well, just a few tens of thousands of years later which is not much of a difference on this timescale. After all, apes can be generous in situations when they have nothing to lose on it, so it is reasonable to think human cooperativeness is the result of our ancestors having nothing to lose on it for almost 2 million years. And to clarify, the “invention” of agriculture was a desperate measure to survive climate change, a practice that caused more, not fewer, work hours per day. Overpopulation was the result of the need to breed more workforce under such circumstances (even today the continuing increase of population is driven by poor farmer families without access to mechanization, not by wealthy industrialized people. And in this regard, hunter-gatherers are quite similar to industrialized people, it is the poor farmers who are the odd ones out. But that Earth already is overpopulated can only be cured by space colonization.

  • ljk September 8, 2011, 16:42

    Martin J said:

    “But that Earth already is overpopulated can only be cured by space colonization.”

    This will be true if we can get enough people into space in a short enough time span to offset the current terrestrial birth rate. Otherwise I do not think enough humans will be “siphoned” off this planet to reduce the population enough to make a difference, at least not perhaps until it is too late and the damage is already done.

    And right now I don’t see a serious space colonization effort for decades and any major numbers leaving Earth for at least a century or more. The human numbers are supposed to reach 9 billion by 2050. We will be lucky to have a young colony or two on the Moon and Mars by then, with maybe a few free floating ones in interplanetary space. At best there may be just hundreds of people out there and they will likely be very cautious about adding to their numbers via their own births.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 9, 2011, 3:09

    @ljk: Your pessimism is obviously assuming that launches must remain expensive. I have ideas about how to make launches cheap. One is based on the potential of Casimir effect to modify the vacuum. Unlike traditional Casimir effect demonstration, I am thinking about a stable Casimir effect device that does not slam together. The parallel plates may be kept apart by repulsive magnetism or be mechanically held apart on one or two sides (but not holding anything in most of the space between them, of course), or discard the parallel plate concept altogether and use microchannels or other microscopic holes instead.

    @Andy: Your own example of corvids being more interesting in terms of tools actually highlights the flaw in your “connectivity over neuron count” theory. The mammalian layered brain structure is actually a waste of space that otherwise could have been filled with neurons, ethologists are only just realizing that and abandoning their mammalocentrism. Of course the neurons must be sufficiently interconnected to be part of the same network, but connecting the same neuron to lots and lots of other neurons is not better. It takes nodes of statistics (that is neurons) to make the precision and discrimination between differentsituations and concepts, while it hardly is a problem that the information must pass neurons on the way from one part of the brain to another, especially not if the brain is compact, taking less time to traverse. And even if it took more time, slow thoughts cannot be compared to animalistically imprecise thoughts. The reason why small animals can be smarter than big animals with the same brain size is not that controlling the body “takes place from higher cognition”, but that small animals tend to have higher neuron density than big animals. The idea of simple functions “taking place” from higher functions is absurd because just like no single neuron in itself understands anything, so can no single part of the brain do anything complex, and therefore all complex functions uses most of the brain, even areas that double as simple functions. This is confirmed by stroke patients regaining language faster if they learn to juggle at the same time.

  • ljk September 9, 2011, 3:46

    It’s Complicated: The Lives of Dolphins & Scientists

    In the escalating war over dolphin rights, two pioneers in the study of cetacean consciousness have sacrificed their decades-old friendship for their beliefs. (I do not like or trust the use of the word “belief” when it comes to science. Discover magazine should know better. – LJK)

    by Erik Vance

    From the September 2011 issue; published online September 7, 2011

    Full article here:


  • Ronald September 9, 2011, 5:03

    Martin JS: “But that Earth already is overpopulated can only be cured by space colonization”.

    No, strongly disagree: I am a strong proponent of and believer in space colonization, but not for this reason. Besides the fact that, as ljk is also mentioning, we won’t get enough humans off-planet before the global population levels off anyway, it is not a good solution either, rathe a very expensive one. Reducing population growth and/or providing better lives here on earth would always be much cheaper.
    Earthly problems will largely have to be solved here on earth.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 9, 2011, 7:43

    @Ronald: Even totally stopping population growth cannot eliminate overpopulation earth-boundly, because Earth is already overpopulated. Eliminating overpopulation on earth by space colonization would, on the other hand, make end poverty, and the end of poverty would mean there was no poor farmer families with the need to breed lots of workforce anymore, and so natural population growth among those left on Earth would stop for that reason. I do not think it is possible to say any exact number of humans who can stay on Earth without overpopulation because simply knowing that it is possible to leave Earth for unlimited resources and real estate in space can act as a conflict-solver for those left on Earth by eliminating motivation for possessiveness and other demonstrativeness. Much of Earths current population would have to leave however. And I have already explained how to make launches cheap using Casimir effect. I now officially allow anyone to build it without demanding any money for it at all.

  • ljk September 9, 2011, 10:00

    Martin, do you have the details on the Casimir effect as a potential launcher? Of course in the end I am not the one you will have to convince it can actually work and make space travel inexpensive.

  • Ron S September 9, 2011, 10:31

    “And I have already explained how to make launches cheap using Casimir effect.”

    You have done no such thing.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 9, 2011, 11:51

    @Astronist: Advanced multicellular, even intelligent, life do not have to be like Earth surface multicellular life, as the vent community example shows. Furthermore, environmental stress can speed up evolution because changes in the environment makes a much larger percentage of the mutations advantageous (because life optimated for one environment is not optimated for another environment) so long-term stability is not needed. The distinction between changes that creates new opportunities at the same time as it destroys other opportunities and changes that minimizes opportunities for a while is important. In the former case, adaptable beings can survive regardless of size, but in the latter case, all large beings go extinct (unless they have extreme hibernation ability). During the late heavy bombardment sunblocking dust from impacts was compensated by always high but during impacts increasing even more (due to shockwaves) hydrothermal activity. That caused aevolutionary spurt. When the late heavy bombardment ended, so did the evolutionary spurt, and a long boring period ensued with little coincidence between winning and losing opportunities. Some such coincidence happened during parts of the snowball event and shortly afterwards, giving rise to complex multicellular life. The next time it happened was during the pleistocene beginning 2,5 million years ago, when fossil studies show the risk of extinction correlate strongly with specialization but hardly at all with body size. That period gave rise to intelligent life. The reason why microbial life appeared early but complex life late is a accidental break in the simultanic environmental change on Earth, NOT because of very special environmental requirements or evolutionary randomness.

  • Eniac September 9, 2011, 21:51


    During the late heavy bombardment sunblocking dust from impacts was compensated by always high but during impacts increasing even more (due to shockwaves) hydrothermal activity. That caused aevolutionary spurt. When the late heavy bombardment ended, so did the evolutionary spurt

    I believe it is generally thought that life originated well after the Late Heavy Bombardment. Would you care to substantiate your claim of an “evolutionary spurt” during this time with a reference of some kind?

    I admire your rich store of unconventional explanations of geology and anthropology, but I would like to see more references, in light of the low degree of overlap with conventional wisdom among your assertions.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 12, 2011, 9:37

    Some diamonds 4,25 billion years old actually show a composition of carbon isotopes that proves that it was formed by some form of self-replicating entity. The claim that “abiogenesis is not evolution” is only true if your definition of life is liberal enough to include entities like viruses, for anything that can self-replicate and pass on mutations can evolve. It seems proven that aselfreplicogenesis happened already during the early part of the Late Heavy Bombardment. The claim that “nothing could survive it” is spurious. It is often claimed that a big impact could boil the ocean, but some isolated or semi-isolated seas would survive the impact, and cloud-dwelling life has been discovered by meteorologists, so even if every drop evaporated life would migrate to the clouds instead of going extinct, and then rain down when oceans re-formed. Conventional wisdom is usually shaped by the fact that competition over funds creates a prestige-based researcher culture that corrupts the purity of the scientific method, which creates hostility to new ideas instead of giving them the empirical tests they deserve. My theories are still unfinished, but they already contain both fewer self-inconsistencies and fewer inconsistencies with empirical data than conventional wisdom does. My strategy is to read lots of research, including the empirical data behind them, collect the empirical data in my head, and let my own theoretical interpretations gradually grow based on their degree of consistency with the data. My memory is almost eidetic, which I think is because my innate scepticism protected my mind from the indoctrination that split most peoples minds in one conscious and one subconscious part, thus allowing me to keep my whole memory. If my posts seem inconsistent, it is just because I have changed a opinion between them. I practice the willingness to admit error that characterizes pure scientific method, unlike the meritocratic prestige “scientists”.

  • Rob Henry September 15, 2011, 6:25

    Martin, it is true that most any body of self-replicating repositories of information can change their composition over time in response to environmental change if the rate of the process is dependant on the actual information held therewithin. We should really only call this change evolution (when comparing it to biological systems) if these sort of changes can lead to this system permanently accruing advantage against other similar systems. That will only happen if very stringent conditions are met, and these have never been seen (ever given that they are occasionally mooted) outside any biological system.

  • Martin J Sallberg September 15, 2011, 13:31

    Viruses evolve advantageous traits despite not being “life” by formal definition. Maybe I should have written aevolutiogenesis instead of aselfreplicogenesis. But the virus example shows that evolution may as well have existed before life as formalist definition-quibblers know it. It is even supported by evidence that RNA and proteins evolved independently and later formed a symbiosis (probably in combination with cell membranes of a third origin). The discovery of unusually large viruses with metabolism proves that the formal definition of life is arbitrary. Maybe the term “life” should be abandoned in favor of the term “Darwinistically evolving entities”. My theory that it began during, not after, the Late Heavy Bombardment is my extrapolation of the principles discovered by Rick Potts, adapted to knowledge of environmental conditions and change during the Late Heavy Bombardment.

  • ljk January 26, 2012, 15:08

    Dolphins and whales: interspecific play?

    Via Treehugger and the Science Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History comes an unusual report of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) sliding down the noses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), an observation originally reported two years ago in a paper by Deakos et al. The behavior was seen twice (nice to get a paper out of about ten seconds of observation!).

    Here’s a video version of the report:


  • ljk January 26, 2012, 15:13

    My favorite quote from Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

    “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst 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 reasons.”