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.