Alien Minds Part III: The Octopus’s Garden and the Country of the Blind

METI logo

In our galaxy, there may be, at least, tens of billions of habitable planets, with conditions suitable for liquid water on their surfaces. There may be habitable moons as well. On an unknown number of those worlds, life may have arisen. On an unknown fraction of life-bearing worlds, life may have evolved into complex multicellular, sexually reproducing forms.

During its habitable period, a world with complex life might produce hundreds of millions of evolutionary lineages. One or a few of them might fortuitously encounter special circumstances that triggered runaway growth of their intelligence. These favored few, if they exist, might have built technological civilizations capable of signaling their presence across interstellar distances, or detecting and deciphering a message we send their way. What might such alien minds be like? What senses might they use? How might we communicate with them?

The purposes of the newly created METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International include fostering multidisciplinary research in the design and transmission of interstellar messages, and building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts concerned with the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

On May 18 the organization sponsored a workshop which included presentations by biologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists. This is the third and final installment of a series of articles about the workshop.

In previous installments, we’ve discussed some ideas about the evolution of intelligence that were featured at the workshop. Here we’ll see whether our Earthly experience can provide us with any clues about how we might communicate with aliens.

Many of the animals that we are most familiar with from daily life, like humans, cats, dogs, birds, fishes, and frogs are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. They are all descended from a common ancestor and share a nervous system organized according to the same basic plan.

Molluscs are another major group of animals that have been evolving separately from vertebrates for more than 600 million years. Although most molluscs, like slugs, snails, and shellfish, have fairly simple nervous systems, one group; the cephalopods, have evolved a much more sophisticated one.

Cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. They show cognitive and perceptual abilities rivaling those of our close vertebrate kin. Since this nervous system has a different evolutionary history than of the vertebrates, it is organized in a way completely different from our own. It can give us a glimpse of the similarities and differences we might expect between aliens and ourselves.

David Gire, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and researcher Dominic Sivitilli gave a presentation on cephalopods at the Puerto Rico workshop. Although these animals have a sophisticated brain, their nervous systems are much more decentralized than that of familiar animals. In the octopus, sensing and moving are controlled locally in the arms, which together contain as many nerve cells, or neurons, as the brain.

The animal’s eight arms are extraordinarily sensitive. Each containing hundreds of suckers, with thousands of sensory receptors on each one. By comparison, the human finger has only 241 sensory receptors per square centimeter. Many of these receptors sense chemicals, corresponding roughly to our senses of taste and smell. Much of this sensory information is processed locally in the arms. When an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, it continues to show simple behaviors on its own, and can even avoid threats. The octopus’s brain simply acts to coordinate the behaviors of its arms.

Cephalopods have acute vision. Although their eyes evolved separately from those of vertebrates, they nonetheless bear an eerie resemblance. They have a unique ability to change the pattern and color of their skin using pigment cells that are under direct control of their nervous systems. This provides them with the most sophisticated camouflage system of any animal on Earth, and is also used for social signaling.

Despite the sophisticated cognitive abilities it exhibits in the lab, the octopus is largely solitary.
Cephalopod groups exchange useful information by observing one another, but otherwise exhibit only limited social cooperation. Many current theories of the evolution of sophisticated intelligence, like Miller’s sapiosexual hypothesis, which was featured in the second installment, assume that social cooperation and competition play a central role in the evolution of complicated brains. Since cephalopods have evolved much more impressive cognitive abilities than other molluscs, their limited social behavior is surprising.

Maybe the limited social behavior of cephalopods really does set limits on their intelligence. However, Gire and Sivitilli speculate that perhaps “an intelligence capable of technological development could exist with minimum social acuity”, and the cephalopod ability to socially share information is enough. The individuals of such an alien collective, they suppose, might possess no sense of self or other.

Besides Gire and Sivitilli, Anna Dornhaus, whose ideas were featured in the first installment, also thinks that alien creatures might function together as a collective mind. Social insects, in some respects, actually do. She doubts, though, that such an entities could evolve human-like technological intelligence without something like Miller’s sapiosexuality to trigger a runaway explosion of intelligence.

But if non-sapiosexual alien technological civilizations do exist, we might find them impossible to comprehend. Given this possible gulf of incomprehension about social structure, Gire and Stivitilli suppose that the most we might aspire to accomplish in terms of interstellar communication is an exchange of mutually useful and comprehensible astronomical information.

Workshop presenter Alfred Kracher, a retired staff scientist at the Ames Laboratory of the University of Iowa, supposes that “the mental giants of the Milky Way are probably artificially intelligent machines… It would be interesting to find evidence of them, if they exist”, he writes, “but then what?” Kracher supposes that if they have emancipated themselves and evolved away from their makers, “they will have nothing in common with organic life forms, human or extraterrestrial. There is no chance of mutual understanding”. We will be able to understand aliens, he maintains, only if “it turns out that the evolution of extraterrestrial life forms is highly convergent with our own”.

Peter Todd, a professor of psychology from Indiana University, holds out hope that such convergence may actually occur. Earthly animals must solve a variety of basic problems that are presented by the physical and biological world that they inhabit.

They must effectively navigate through a world of surfaces, barriers and objects, finding food and shelter, and avoiding predators, parasites, toxins. Extraterrestrial organisms, if they evolve in an Earth-like environment, would face a generally similar set of problems. They may well arrive at similar solutions, just as the octopus evolved eyes similar to ours.

In evolution here on Earth, Todd notes, brain systems originally evolved to solve these basic physical and biological problems appear to have been re-purposed to solve new and more difficult problems, as some animals evolved to solve the problems of living and finding mates as members of societies, and then as one particular age species went on to evolve conceptual reasoning and language. For example, disgust at bad food, useful for avoiding disease, may have been become the foundation for sexual disgust to avoid bad mates, moral disgust to avoid bad clan mates, and intellectual disgust to avoid dubious ideas.

If alien brains evolved solutions similar to the ones our brains did for negotiating the physical and biological world, they they might also have been re-purposed in similar ways. Alien minds might not be wholly different from ours, and thus hope exists for a degree of mutual understanding.

In the early 1970’s the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on the first exploratory missions to the planet Jupiter and beyond. When their missions were completed, these two probes became the first objects made by humans to escape the sun’s gravitational pull and hurtle into interstellar space.

Because of the remote possibility that the spacecraft might someday be found by extraterrestrials, a team of scientists and scholars lead by Carl Sagan emplaced a message on the vehicle, etched on a metal plaque. The message consisted, in part, of a line drawing of a man and a woman. Later, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carried a message that consisted, in part, of a series of 116 digital images encoded on a phonographic record.

The assumption that aliens would see and understand images seems reasonable, since the octopus evolved an eye so similar to our own. And that’s not all. The evolutionary biologists Luitfried Von Salvini-Plawen and Ernst Mayr showed that eyes, of various sorts, have evolved forty separate times on Earth, and vision is typically a dominant sense for large, land dwelling animals. Still, there are animals that function without it, and our earliest mammalian ancestors were nocturnal. Could it be that there are aliens that lack vision, and could not understand a message based on images?

In his short story, The Country of the Blind, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined an isolated mountain village whose inhabitants had been blind for fifteen generations after a disease destroyed their vision.

A lost mountain climber, finding the village, imagines that with his power of vision, he can easily become their king. But the villagers have adapted thoroughly to a life based on touch, hearing, and smell. Instead of being impressed by their visitor’s claim that he can ‘see’, they find it incomprehensible. They begin to believe he is insane. And when they seek to ‘cure’ him by removing two strange globular growths from the front of his head, he flees.

Could their really be an alien country of the blind whose inhabitants function without vision? Workshop presenter Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University, doesn’t need to imagine the country of the blind, because, in a sense, she lives there. She is blind, and believes that creatures without vision could achieve a level of technology sufficient to send interstellar messages. “Sighted people”, she writes, “tend to overestimate the amount and quality of information gathered by vision alone”.

Bats and dolphins image their dimly lit environments with a kind of naturally occurring sonar called echolocation. Blind human beings can also learn to echolocate, using tongue clicks or claps as emitted signals and analyzing the returning echoes by hearing. Some can do so well enough to ride a bicycle at a moderate pace through an unfamiliar neighborhood. A human can develop the touch sensitivity needed to read braille in four months. A blind marine biologist can proficiently distinguish the species of mollusc shells by touch.

Wells-Jensen posits a hypothetical civilization which she calls the Krikkits, who lack vision but possess sensory abilities otherwise similar to those of human beings. Could such beings build a technological society? Drawing on her knowledge of the blind community and a series of experiments, she thinks they could.

Finding food would present few special difficulties, since blind naturalists can identify many plant species by touch. Agriculture could be conducted as modern blind gardeners do it, by marking crops using stakes and piles of rock, and harvesting by feel. The combination of a stick used as a cane to probe the path ahead and echolocation make traveling by foot effective and safe. A loadstone compass would further aid navigational abilities. The Krikkits might use snares rather than spears or arrows to trap animals, making tools by touch.

Mathematics is vital to building a technological society. For most human beings, with our limited memory, a paper and pencil or a blackboard are essential for doing math. Krikkits would need to find other such aids, such as tactual symbols on clay tablets, abacus-like devices, or patterns sewn on hides or fabric.

Successful blind mathematicians often have prodigious memories, and can perform complex calculations in their heads. One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Leonard Euler, was blind for the last 17 years of his life, but remained mathematically productive through the use of his memory.

The obstacles to a blind society developing technology may not be insurmountable. Blind people are capable of handling fire and even working with molten glass. Krikkits might therefore use fire for cooking, warmth, to bake clay vessels, and smelt metal ores. Initially there only astronomical knowledge would be of the sun as a source of heat. Experiments with loadstones and metals would lead to a knowledge of electricity.

Eventually, the Krikkits might imitate their sonar with radio waves, inventing radar. If their planet possessed a moon or moons, radar reflections from them might provide their first knowledge of astronomical objects other than their sun. Radar would also enable them to learn for the first time that their planet is round.

The Krikkits might learn to detect other forms of radiation like X-rays and ‘light’. The ability to detect this second mysterious form of radiation might allow them to discover the existence of the stars and develop an interest in interstellar communication.

What sorts of messages might they send or understand? Well-Jensen believes that line drawings, like the drawing of the man and the woman on the Pioneer plaque, and other such pictorial representations might be an impenetrable mystery to them. On the other hand, she speculates that Krikkits might represent large data sets through sound, and that their counterpart to charts and graphs might be equally incomprehensible to us.

Images might pose a challenge for the Krikkits, but perhaps, Wells-Jensen concedes, not an impossible one. There is evidence that bats image their world using echolocation. Kikkits might be likely to evolve similar abilities, though Wells-Jensen believes they would not be essential for making tools or handling objects.

Perhaps humans and Krikkits could find common ground by transmitting instructions for three dimensional printed objects that could be explored tactually. Wells-Jensen thinks they might also understand mathematical or logical languages proposed for interstellar communication.

The diversity of cognition and perception that we find here on Earth teaches us that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it is likely to be much more alien than much of science fiction has prepared us to expect. In our attempt to communicate with aliens, the gulf of mutual incomprehension may yawn as wide as the gulf of interstellar space. Yet this is a gulf we must somehow cross, if we wish ever to become citizens of the galaxy.

For further reading:

Cain, F. (2008) Is Our Universe Ruled by Artificial Intelligence, Universe Today.

Kaufmann G. (2005) Spineless smarts, NOVA

Land, M. F., and Nilsson, D-E. (2002) Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.

Mather, J. A. (2008) Cephalopod consciousness: Behavioral evidence, Cognition and Consciousness 17(1): 37-48.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Wells, H. G. (1904) The Country of the Blind, The literature network.

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Alien Minds Part II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too?

peahen and peacock

“Nothing in biology makes sense”, wrote the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “except in the light of evolution”. If we want to assess whether it is likely that technological civilizations have evolved on alien planets or moons, and what they might be like, the theory of evolution is our best guide. On May 18, 2016 the newly founded METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International hosted a workshop entitled ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’. The workshop was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the first day of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference. It included nine talks by scientists and scholars in evolutionary biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics.

In the first instalment of this series, we saw that intelligence, of various sorts, is widespread across the animal kingdom. Workshop presenter Anna Dornhaus, who studies collective decision-making in insects as an associate professor at the University of Arizona, showed that even insects, with their diminutive brains, exhibit a surprising cognitive sophistication. Intelligence, of various sorts, is a likely and probable evolutionary product.

Animals evolve the cognitive abilities that they need to meet the demands of their own particular environments and lifestyles. Sophisticated brains and cognition have evolved many times on Earth, in many separate evolutionary lineages. But, of the millions of evolutionary lineages that have arisen on Earth in the 600 million years since complex life appeared, only one, that which led to human beings, produced the peculiar combination of cognitive traits that led to a technological civilization. What this tells us is that technological civilization is not the inevitable product of a long term evolutionary trend, it is rather the quirky and contingent product of particular circumstances. But what might those circumstances have been, and just how special and improbable were they?

Workshop presenter Geoffrey Miller is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. Miller thinks he has an answer to the question of what the special circumstances that produced human evolution were. Our protohuman ancestors inhabited the African savanna. But so do many other mammals that don’t need enormous brains to survive there. The evolutionary forces driving the production of our large brains, Miller surmises, can’t be due to the challenges of survival. He thinks instead that human evolution was guided by an intelligence. But Miller is no creationist, nor does he have the alien monolith from the 1960’s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind. Miller’s guiding intelligence is the intelligence that our ancestors themselves used when they selected their mates.

Miller’s theory harkens back to the ideas of the founder of modern evolutionary theory, the nineteenth century British naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin proposed that evolution works through a process of natural selection. Animal offspring vary one from another, and are produced in too great of numbers for all of them to survive. Some starve, some are eaten by predators, others fall prey to the numerous other hazards of the natural world. A few survive to produce offspring, thereby passing on the traits that allowed them to survive. Down the generations, traits that aided survival become more elaborate and useful and traits that did not, vanished.

But Darwin was troubled by a serious problem with his theory. He knew that many animals have prominent traits that don’t seem to contribute to their survival, and are even counterproductive to it. The bright colors of many insects, the colors, elaborate plumage, and songs of birds, the huge antlers of elk, were all prominent and costly traits that couldn’t be explained by his theory of natural selection. Peacocks, with their elaborate tail feathers were everywhere in English gardens, and came to torment him.

At last, Darwin found the solution. To produce offspring, an animal must do more than just survive, it must find a partner to mate with. All the traits which worried Darwin could be explained if they served to make their bearers sexier and more beautiful to prospective mates than other competing members of their own gender. If peahens like elaborate plumage, then in each generation, they will choose to mate with the males with the most elaborate tail feathers, and reject the rest. Through the competition for mates, peacock tails will become more and more elaborate down the generations. Darwin called his new theory sexual selection.

Many subsequent evolutionary biologists regarded sexual selection as of limited importance, and lumped it in with natural selection, which was said to favor traits conducive to survival and reproductive success. However, in recent decades evolutionary biologists have come to view sexual selection in a much more favorable light. Geoffrey Miller proposed that the human brain evolved through sexual selection. Human beings, he supposes, are sapiosexual; that is, they are sexually attracted by intelligence and its products. The preference for selecting intelligent mates produced greater intelligence, which in turn allowed our ancestors to become more discerning in selecting more intelligent mates, producing a kind of amplifying feedback loop, and an explosion of intelligence.

On this account, language, music, dancing, humor, art, literature, and perhaps even morality and ethics exist because those who were good at them were deemed sexier, or more trustworthy and reliable, and were thus more successful in securing mates than those who weren’t. The elaborate human brain is like the elaborate peacock’s tail. It exists for wooing mates and not for survival. There are some important ways in which protohumans were different from peafowl. Both males and females are choosy and both have large brains. Protohumans, unlike peafowl, probably formed monogamous pair bonds. Miller’s theory has complexities that space won’t permit us to explore here. To show that his theory can work, Miller needed to develop a computer model.

If Miller is right, then just how probable is the evolution of a technological civilization, and how likely is it that we will find them elsewhere in the galaxy? Miller thinks that if complex life exists on other planets or moons, it is likely to evolve reproduction through sex, just as has happened here on Earth. For complex organisms that depend on a large and complicated body of genetic information, most mutations will be neutral or harmful. In sexual reproduction half the genes of one’s offspring come from each parent. Without this mixing of genes from other individuals, asexual lineages are likely to falter and go extinct due to an accumulation of harmful mutations. Unless sexually reproducing creatures choose their mates purely at random, sexual selection is an inevitability. So, the basic conditions for runaway sexual selection to produce a brain suited to language and technology probably exists on other worlds with complex life.

One problem, though, that Anna Dornhaus pointed out, is that in sexual selection, the trait that gets exaggerated is essentially arbitrary. There are many bird species with elaborate plumage, but none exactly like the peacock. There are many species where brains and cognitive traits matter for mating success, like the singing ability of nightingales and many other birds, or gibbons, or whales. Male bower birds build complicated structures, called bowers, out of found items, like sticks and leaves and stones and shells, to attract a female. Chimpanzees engage in complex power struggles that involve negotiation, grooming, and fighting their way to the top.

But despite the selective success of cognition and braininess in many species, our specific human sort of intelligence, with language and technology, has happened only once on Earth, and therefore might be rare in the universe. If our ancestors had found big noses rather than big brains sexy, then we might now have enormous noses rather than enormous radio telescopes capable of signaling to other worlds.

Miller is more optimistic. “It’s a rare accident” he writes, in the sense that mate preferences only rarely turn ‘sapiosexual’, focused so heavily on conspicuous displays of general intelligence… On the other hand, I think it’s likely that in any biosphere, sexual selection would eventually stumble into sapiosexual mate preferences, and then you’d get human-level intelligence and language of some sort. It might only arise in 1 out of every 100 million species though,…I suspect that in any biosphere with sexually reproducing complex organisms and a wide variety of species, you’d quite likely get at least one lineage stumbling into the sapiosexual niche within a billion years”.

A planet or moon is currently deemed potentially habitable if it orbits its parent star within the right distance range for liquid water to exist on its surface. This distance range is called the habitable zone. Since stars evolve with time, the duration of habitability is limited. Such matters can be explored through climate modeling, informed by what we know of the climates of Earth and other worlds within our solar system, and about the evolution of stars.

Current thinking is that Earth’s total duration of habitability is 6.3 to 7.8 billion years, and that our world may remain habitable for another 1.75 billion years. Since complex life has already existed on Earth for 600 million years, this seems a generous amount of time for complex life on a similar planet to stumble upon Miller’s sapiosexual niche. Stars of smaller mass than the sun are stable on longer timescales, some perhaps capable of sustaining worlds with liquid water for a hundred billion years. If Miller’s estimates are reasonable, then there may be worlds enough and time for an abundance of sapiosexual alien civilizations in our galaxy.

A central message of the METI Institute workshop is that, animals evolve whatever sort of intelligence is necessary for them to survive and reproduce under the circumstances in which they find themselves. Human-style intelligence, with language and technology, is a peculiar quirk of particular and improbable evolutionary circumstances. But we don’t know just how improbable. Given the vastness of time and number of worlds potentially available for the roll of the evolutionary dice, alien civilizations might be reasonably abundant, or they might be once-in-a-billion galaxies rare. We just don’t know. Better knowledge of the evolution of life and intelligence here on Earth might allow us to improve our estimates.

If alien civilizations do exist, what can life on Earth tell us about what their minds and senses are likely to be like? Are they, like us, visually oriented creatures, or might they rely on other senses? Can we expect that their minds might be similar enough to ours to make meaningful communication possible? These intriguing questions will be the subject of the third and final installment of this series.

For further reading:

Hooper, P. L. (2008) Mutual mate choice can drive costly signalling even under perfect monogamy. Adaptive Behavior, 16: p. 53-70.

Marris, E. (2013) Earth’s days are numbered. Nature News.

Miller, G. F. (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Random House, New York.

Miller, G. F. (2007) Sexual selection for moral virtues, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(2): p. 97-125.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Rushby, A. J., Claire, M. W., Osborn, H., Watson, A. J. (2013) Habitable zone lifetimes of exoplanets around main sequence stars. Astrobiology, 13(9), p. 833-849.

Yirka, B. (2016) Yeast study offers evidence of the superiority of sexual reproduction versus cloning in speed of adaptation. Phys.org.

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Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve?

The face of a jumping spider

Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.

At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.

Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.

We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.

In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.

The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.

For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.

But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.

Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.

Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.

The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.

Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.

Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.

There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.

Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.

For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.

Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.

In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.

For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.

Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.

Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.

Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging. Universe Today.

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Is There a Kraken in Kraken Mare? What Kind of Life Would We Find on Titan?

Could there be life on Saturn’s large moon Titan? Asking the question forces astrobiologists and chemists to think carefully and creatively about the chemistry of life, and how it might be different on other worlds than it is on Earth. In February, a team of researchers from Cornell University, including chemical engineering graduate student James […]

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” II: Questioning the Hart-Tipler Conjecture

It’s become a legend of the space age. The brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi, during a lunchtime conversation at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, is supposed to have posed a conundrum for proponents of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. If space traveling aliens exist, so the argument goes, they would spread through the galaxy, colonizing […]

Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” I: A Lunchtime Conversation- Enrico Fermi and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

It’s become a kind of legend, like Newton and the apple or George Washington and the cherry tree. One day in 1950, the great physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with colleagues at the Fuller Lodge at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and came up with a powerful argument about the existence […]

Helicopter Drones on Mars

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently announced that it is developing a small drone helicopter to scout the way for future Mars rovers. Why would Mars rovers need such a robotic guide? The answer is that driving on Mars is really hard. (…)Read the rest of Helicopter Drones on Mars (865 words) © Paul Patton for […]

Who Speaks for Earth? The Controversy over Interstellar Messaging

Should we beam messages into deep space, announcing our presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there? Or, should we just listen? Since the beginnings of the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), radio astronomers have, for the most part, followed the listening strategy. In 1999, that consensus was shattered. Without consulting with […]

Defining Life II: Metabolism and Evolution as clues to Extraterrestrial Life

In the movie ‘Avatar’, we could tell at a glance that the alien moon Pandora was teeming with alien life. Here on Earth though, the most abundant life is not the plants and animals that we are familiar with. The most abundant life is simple and microscopic. There are 50 million bacterial organisms in a […]

Defining Life I: What are Astrobiologists Looking For?

How can astrobiologists find extraterrestrial life? In everyday life, we usually don’t have any problem telling that a dog or a rosebush is a living thing and a rock isn’t. In the climatic scene of the movie ‘Europa Report’ we can tell at a glance that the multi-tentacled creature discovered swimming in the ocean of […]