Why do Humans have such a hard time with the idea of alien intelligent life being smarter than we are?
A recent question arrived in the Answer-Mail which I felt compelled to address in light of The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery controversies around the future of space opera on television. There are polarizing views around the future of science fiction storytelling and the challenges of thinking about alien life in the Universe.
The subject of non-Human intelligence and how to depict it always makes me think of the Maldive octopus (above). Capable of using color for camouflage and communication, the octopus has proven to be far more intelligent than Humans have ever expected. I wonder what an advanced species of octopi would look like and how would they see the Universe?
Humans believe they are this planet’s apex predator, the ultimate expression of tool-using intelligence on Earth. Yes, most of us have a high opinion of ourselves but realistically, given what we should recognize about our precarious position on the planet, we are just barely holding on… One good mega-volcano could change our relationship to the Earth in a matter of days.
We have compensated for our feeble physiology; our lack of protective fur, or useful claws, or razor sharp teeth or beaks, and noting our inability to fly or run at sixty miles an hour, we have managed to turn our weaknesses into strengths. We have developed different survival strategies such as our impressive long-distance running stamina, our mutual cooperation and our ever-improving tool development has catapulted us past many more successful species which have existed for hundreds of millions of years longer than we have. Screw you, cockroaches with your three hundred million year pedigree…
But as soon as we turned our gaze skyward and started thinking about life on other worlds, we get defensive. Many Humans don’t believe in the idea of alien life. Period. They are so humanocentric, they don’t believe in a Universe which would create another form of life smarter than we are. Some don’t believe in the possibility of other life, outside of the planet Earth.
I am not so arrogant. I am firmly convinced there will be other life in the Universe and the same way we are smarter than most of the animals of our own planet, such that we are its apex predator, there should be other animals in the Universe, who should have greater than Human-level intellect. Currently, we can barely define intelligence, we aren’t completely sure where the seat of intelligence lies within the human being and we are still trying to decide how our intelligence does what it does.
Is our intelligence found solely in our brains, or is it a composite structure, with our brain being the seat of our primary intelligence and other underlying functions found in our gut (a region of secondary neural activity which is called the enteric nervous system.) This subneural network which has as many neural connections as found in our brains may have evolved first and as we developed our capacity to find higher quality food, improved our secondary brain to grow larger and more capable. There are even conversations being sparked on the possibility of our intestinal microflora having an influence on our mood and psychology. Considering what comprises intelligence is a full time job.
Before anyone gets upset because I haven’t mentioned about other intelligent species on Earth such as chimpanzees, Ceteacea (whales, porpoises, dolphins and the like), cephalopods such as octopi, and corvids such as crows and ravens who all boast clearly high degrees of intelligence, as far as we know, their intellect has not lead to significant tool use which is why Humans get to lay claim to the top of the evolutionary pyramid at the moment. We’re not saying those other groups aren’t intelligent. We’re saying they haven’t built toasters or transistors or computers, as far as we can tell.
This could change with one thermonuclear exchange. Then it’s anyone’s Earth again.
There are some scientists who will admit to the possibility of alien life, but assume it will be less intelligent and less capable than we are. They point out the age of the Universe at thirteen billion years and it took four and a half billion before Humanity got it in gear so they assume, there couldn’t be too much life ahead of us on the evolutionary ladder due to overall time constraints.
They say: “There’s likely life in the Universe but it isn’t likely to be intelligent and certainly not having intelligence beyond our comprehension.” Ah, there’s the rub. Humans have a hard time with the idea of something being more intelligent than we are. Which is a strangely hubris-filled perspective, given our own superior status among the lifeforms on Earth. Why do we have such a hard time with the idea of an intelligence as far beyond us as we are beyond an ant?
It doesn’t take much to make that a reality.
For example: All it would take is to have a creature similar to us with the capacity of accessing with reliability more than one brain. It’s not like Earth didn’t have animals with more than one brain. Large dinosaurs were theorized to have multiple brains to move their massive bodies. We now believe this was not the case but what if a creature could have two brains of equal capacity or one higher and one lower brain, a processor and co-processor kind of arrangement. This might give them the best of analytical capacity and the best of creativity in one organism. This is similar to what Humans are becoming using computers, regional networks and smart-phones acting as auxiliary brains.
What about a creature whose cells are multi-functional, perhaps a product of cellular engineering? In a recent horror film, Life (2017), an alien lifeform had the capacity to transform all of its cells, reorganizing themselves into organ structures of supreme capacity or to reshape its cells into an organic machine, mixing and matching capabilities as needed. When it needed to be smarter, it turns more of itself into brain cells, literally increasing its intellectual capacity. Perhaps information is store in mitochondria-like cells to be decompressed during states of enhanced intellect.
What about a creature whose brain is simply BIGGER than ours. Or made out of material which allows it to process information at a higher density, faster rate or shorter transmission distance between brain cells? Or simply able to do all of the above? Our brains are organically derived and our dendrite density has a relatively fixed ratio, what if a brain simply had more connections between cells, promoting a richer, denser brain capacity. Or consider a brain with four discrete lobes rather than the two our brains posses.
None of these are too different from our own intellectual engines, save either materials or processes. What if their intellect is something vastly different than our own, using exotic materials like superconductors or exotic states like plasma, allowing them to achieve stranger sizes or even more densely pack neural materials or more exotic relationships making for even more diverse thought processes.
Imagine the intellect of a star, or the capacity of a neural-rich slime covering the surface a planet just below the crust. What vast neural networks these might represent. Or what about a coral reef or a super-forest whose roots encompass an entire continent and draw their information through their tree structures and symbiotic mobile partners.
We have NO idea of what intelligence will look like. We have no idea of just how vastly the permutations for life may offer, perhaps in ways we can scarcely imagine life taking shape. In some cases, we might even hesitate to call it life or intelligence because of the inability to ever have a cohesive frame of reference enough to communicate.
Example: The fungal blooms of Denari III, might have just enough ability to let us know they are more than just fungus, perhaps they grow in bursts which replicate prime numbers and can do so whenever we try to communicate with them, we but never have enough capacity for us to be able to discern a means by which the two of us could ever communicate our perspectives on the Universe. So the best we could hope for until we can find such a framework is to manage to watch where we step.
Anyone who says the idea that intelligent life cannot exist on planets other than Earth is such an individual they should be shunned in polite company. The Milky Way Galaxy has an estimated 100-400 million stars.
Our nearest large galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, has over one trillion stars. Both of these are mere drops in the bucket once you start counting the number of galaxies there are in the local Virgo Galactic Cluster. And there are billions of such clusters scattered across the Universe. Number so vast, your brain stopped trying to make sense of this two paragraphs ago.
We are not alone in the Universe. There is simply too much possibility for life, in too many places for anyone who is a reasonable, thinking, being to consider there NOT to be. We may never reach it, each isolated galactic island only growing more distant as the Universe expands.
But: Will we ever have the opportunity to survive long enough to consider the next questions? Our species appears more self-deluded and self-destructive than directed toward our own survival.
If we manage to not destroy ourselves in pointless wars, environmentally-spawned catastrophes, ecological collapse of our society, social collapse due to our innate inability to get along or some as yet unseen disaster which the Universe could unleash upon us at any time… Can we develop the physics, the technology and the cultural will to make it possible to begin heading into space?
Will our physics ever let us meet these aliens in the span of a Human lifetime, however augmented by technology? Travel between the stars appears to have a physical limit we currently cannot conceive of getting around: the speed of light. This means if we could reach the speed of light tomorrow and leave the day afterward, it would still take us 100,000 years to cross the galaxy from edge to edge.
Can we recognize them? What if they don’t look anything we think life should resemble? Think of the Founders from Star Trek’s DS9. Land on that planet and you would see nothing at all but a vast organic soup. Doesn’t look like life to me…
Can we communicate with them? As Arrival aptly showed, the ability to communicate with alien life depends on us being smart enough to interpret how THEY see the Universe. If we can’t bridge that gap, we can never hope to understand them, let alone compare our degree and capacity of intellect. But if they manage to come to Earth before we get to the stars, it is safe to assume: They are more intelligent than we are in any measure that matters.
Now we have to depend upon them being more moral than we have been up to now. First contact has rarely gone well for the species whose technology has proven to be inferior to their invader…
Ultimately, as we continue to learn about our own intelligence, perhaps even expand upon it with technology, we may be better able to decide what to expect when confronted by different forms of intelligence on our own planet. Dung beetles navigate by the light of the Milky Way. It may not be sophisticated but it’s certainly worth noting. Cetaceans have an extensive vocabulary, of which we are just starting to learn.
Perhaps as we learn to respect diverse intelligence on Earth, it will make it easier to recognize minds which are completely different from our own and appreciate their perspective enough that when actual extraterrestrials arrive on Earth, we will be ready to receive them without fear or prejudice because how they see the Universe is completely different than our own.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.