A Case of One

I’m planning to watch “Alien Planet” on the Discovery Channel tomorrow: it looks like fun.

But I was struck by a quoted opinion from the show that appeared in today’s New York Times review of the show, that should we ever encounter an alien intelligence, it will almost certainly have evolved from a predatory species.

I’m not even entirely sure that’s an accurate gloss on omnivorous humanity’s evolutionary roots, but it seems to me that this is a case of unwise generalization from a single case. Not that we have much choice, and not that this sort of speculation is anything more than idle, but still. Scientists who study octopi are still trying to figure out why a creature with as short a lifespan as an octopus is as intelligent as it is: certain paradigmmatic predictions of intelligence or learning ability suggested before such study that an octopus is exactly the kind of organism that shouldn’t be as intelligent as it is.

Extrasolar planets have pretty well upended old theories about planetary formation: we’re finding planets in places that we didn’t think they should be at sizes we didn’t think they’d have. It’s looking more and more as if our solar system may be in various ways odd rather than typical. I would expect extraterrestrial life to be the same, if I were going to make a prediction. Even if you assume that way life works elsewhere will broadly be the same (life getting energy from passive environmental sources, or life getting energy from consuming other life), it seems like a failure of the speculative imagination to assume that only life forms that consume mobile, evasive life forms would “need” intelligence. It almost seems that’s part of the problem: a particular way of thinking about evolution that uses words like “needed” or “necessary”, when it’s possible that intelligence in general and consciousness in specific are epiphenomenal accidents of other traits being actively selected for.

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3 Responses to A Case of One

  1. back40 says:

    The Hithchiker’s Guide to Intelligence?

  2. A. Cephalous says:

    [Quick question: Do you allow tags in the comments, and if so, which ones work for, say, italics?]

    You said:
    It seems like a failure of the speculative imagination to assume that only life forms that consume mobile, evasive life forms would “need” intelligence.

    I say:
    While it is a failure of imagination to consider the activities required of meat-eaters necessary to the evolution of intelligence–after all, our intelligence is as much a product of being chased as chasing–but there are models that demonstrate why that’s a good assumptioin. Brains like ours take a heavy toll on our daily caloric intake, so we need food sources that can provide more calories than nuts and berries. While gathering might seem like a less calorie-intensive life-style, some recent work’s demonstrated that successful gatherers expend as much caloric energy gathering a couple of hours a day as hunters do. It’s a different sort of activity–bending, moving brush, walking, carrying, etc.–but equally taxing. Plus, in societies that depend on, say, almonds for 90% of their calories, almost everyone involved has to work; no time for building social bonds, discovering new uses for pointy sticks, etc. All of which is only to say that there’s reason to assume that because intelligence requires a certain amount of upkeep, the odds of it arising in circumstances too materially different from the ones in which ours are slim. A planet covered in avocado plants would meet that criteria, sure…

    …and in trying to convince you why the predatory assumption is tenable, I’ve unconvinced myself. I’m imagining seas of amniotic fluid/pink-stuff-from-The-Abyss that could easily meet these requirements.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    They actually addressed some of my qualms pretty well in the actual show. It was kind of cool.

    They even HAD an amniotic sea!

    Should allow tags in comments. Yes. Yes it does unless of course this is something I have accidentally reserved for myself. Let them eat tags!

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