Could aliens evolving along similar lines as spiders or squids have developed intelligence on other worlds, perhaps becoming beings that progressed into full-fledged alien civilizations? This is the kind of question scientists of various specialties tackled at the Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (METI) International workshop in Puerto Rico last week.
Universe Today reported on May 24 that the newly formed organization METI International was founded to “build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.” At the Puerto Rican gathering, scientists discussed “The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” touching on evolutionary biology and psychology in imagining what sort of alien life forms might develop on the habitable planets that many astrophysicists now believe pepper the universe. Using the proliferation of various forms of life on Earth as a guide and presupposing that the universe is teeming with life as well, the convention sought to understand what type of sensory systems aliens might employ and how that knowledge could aid in communicating with an alien civilization.
As if to give the fledgling organization a jump-start, just last week, scientists working off of a modification on the Drake Equation announced that it is quite possible that ten billion alien civilizations have risen in the universe during the 14 billion years of its existence. Given the vast amount of time and distances concerned, though, there is no certainty as to the continuing prevalence and/or proximity of any of those potential alien civilizations.
METI International researchers took the standard route of looking at life that might emerge on planets that are Earth-like, have water as a resource, and orbit within a star’s habitable zone (that orbital region around a parental star where life as we understand it can be sustained). They then focused on two biological principles: 1) cognitive ecology and its study of behavior as well as nervous and sensory systems and 2) evolution, whereby taking a look at the development of sensory and cognitive systems on Earth could lead to insights as to their development in extraterrestrials.
But what qualifies as “intelligence”? According to Dr. Anna Dornhaus, an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, intelligence is the cognitive ability to problem solve via a nervous system and, sometimes, through social cooperation. As an expert on social insects, Dornhaus has observed subjects problem-solve collectively. She has found that the more generalized an animal’s problem-solving capabilities are, the more “intelligent” they are. This way of categorizing intelligence allows for animals as diverse as arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs), cephalopods (octopuses, squids, cuttlefish), and vertebrates (mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds) to qualify.
Thus far, it has been difficult to establish how large an animal’s or a being’s brain would have to be to develop intelligence – note the difference between the size of an insect’s brain as compared with that of a primate. And as Dornhaus notes, brains and their sensory input characteristics are extremely varied among the many species, so the evolution of the animal and what sensory aspects have predominated are dependent on the process and development of the animal in its particular environment.
Dornhaus, as part of her presentation, offered that human beings are the product of an evolutionary path that allowed for various cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and more specialized than in other animals. In short, she finds humans exceptional. But instead of taking the popular idea of “the more habitable planets, the greater the likelihood of alien life and/or intelligent aliens/alien civilizations,” she subscribes to the line of thinking that intelligent life may be very scarce in the universe. Why? Because she believes human intelligence developed through a series of necessary, fortuitous, and sometimes improbable mutations, making the highly developed cognitive abilities of humans “special” among animals.
In fact, as Space.com recounts, Dornhaus says that intelligence in humans may have come as a by-product of the importance sexual selection may have taken along the evolutionary path — as opposed to “normal” natural selection.
Said Dornhaus in a statement:
“If this is true, then we should expect cognitive ability — i.e., learning, memory, abstraction and many other elements of intelligence — to be commonplace in the galaxy as they are among organisms on Earth. But ‘exaggerated’ intelligence, as in humans, may be a rare accident of chance, as rare as a peacock’s tail.”
If Dr. Dornhaus and her like-minded colleagues are correct, this could mean that, even if life in the universe is rather abundant and diverse, it may not have produced very much in the area of intelligent life forms – and even less in actual alien civilizations. In the end, given the vastness of the universe and the possibility that civilization-attaining aliens may be either at a minimum or nonexistent, the professor may have, at METI International’s first conference, offered up the foundation for the argument that attempting to formulate methods of contacting alien civilizations might be an exercise in futility.