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    What Aliens Can Tell Us About Evolution
    By Michael Shermer | January 17th 2009 10:04 AM | 58 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Michael Shermer is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and the author of View Michael's Profile

    Imagining aliens helps us think about evolution

    If we ever do make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, what will it look like?  Hollywood has had no shortage of examples for films and television shows that feature aliens, but they are almost  always bipedal primates who speak English with a funny accent.  This  depiction is more the result of wardrobe budget constraints and the  flexibility of actors than it is the imagination of writers.  

    Occasionally a film or show will depict an alien as a gelatinous blob  or an orb of light, which is a good start in the move away from  aliens-as-bipedal primates, but the alien-ignorance problem was handled best in the book and film version of Carl Sagan's Contact,in which the  extraterrestrial being whom his main character encounters (Ellie,  played by Jodie Foster) takes the form of her father (out of her memories)  because their presence is so wholly Other she would not have been  able to comprehend them otherwise.

    Recently I had a little fun with this notion, producing a video of my 'Close Encounter Of The Third Kind' with an alien, who made  contact with me in — of all places — the offices of the The Skeptics Society.

    Yeah, okay, a cheap Halloween mask is no substitute for the real  thing, but given the quality of the evidence presented by UFOlogists  and alien abductees — blurry photographs, grainy videos, and anecdotes  about things that go bump in the night — proof of close encounters of  the third kind remain masked in our collective psyches.   So, until contact is actually made, we are left with speculation on what aliens  would actually look like.

    Check it out:

    My explanation — that the chances of an ET turning out to be a bipedal primate are close to zero — is not one shared by all scientists. None  other than the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote to Josh Timonen, the videographer who filmed and produced this piece:
    I would agree with him in betting against aliens being bipedal primates and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against. Simon Conway Morris, whose authority is not to be dismissed, thinks it positively likely that aliens would be, in effect, bipedal primates. Ed Wilson gave at least some time to the speculation that, if it had not been for the end-Cretaceous catastrophe, dinosaurs might have produced something like the attached.
    Dawkins then presented this page from Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mindby Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson, based on the paleontologist Dale Russell's evolutionary projection of how a bipedal dinosaur might have evolved  into something like us had the dinosaurs not gone extinct.

    Lumsden Wilson Promethean Fire from Richard Dawkins

    I then wrote back to Richard:

    "It seems to me that if something like a bipedal primate (or the  equivalent thereof) has a certain inevitability to it because of how  evolution unfolds, then it would have happened more than once here.  In his book Nonzero, Robert Wright argues that our existence precludes other terrestrial intelligences of our level from arising, but Neanderthals were as close as one can get to a counterfactual experiment, and they had half a million years to themselves in Europe without our interference, and showed no signs of cultural progress whatsoever in that time (tool kits stayed the same, no symbolic art, etc.). So that seems to me a bit of data against that argument."

    Richard then responded thusly:
    But you are leaping from one extreme to the other. In the film  vignette, you implied a quite staggering rarity, so rare that you don't expect two android life forms in the entire universe. Now you are talking about 'a certain inevitability', and pointing out, correctly, that a certain inevitability would predict that androids  should have evolved more than once on Earth!

    So yes, we can say that androids are fairly improbable, but not necessarily all that improbable! Anything approaching 'a certain inevitability' would mean millions or even billions of android life forms in the universe, simply because the number of available planets is so huge.   Now, my guess is intermediate between your two extremes.

    I agree with you that androids are rare, that is indeed suggested by the fact that they have only evolved once on Earth. I agree with you that science fiction, and the alien abduction subculture, have an unseemly  eagerness to imagine androids, which you are right to denigrate. But  I suspect that androids are not so very rare as to justify the  statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette.  

    I have discussed such matters in the last chapter of The Ancestor's  Tale. I think Conway Morris goes too far in one direction, and you go  too far in the other.

    A point well made, as Richard Dawkins’ points always are, and it’s a curious question as to how evolution might have played out on another planet, or in a re-run of the evolution of life on earth here.

    This is the famous thought experiment proposed by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. If we replayed the tape of life on earth, and tweaked a few minor contingencies here and there back in the Cambrian explosion of life (as revealed in the Burgess Shale treasure trove of fossils), would we get anything like the life forms we have today, especially a bipedal primate like us? Gould famously answered no: “Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.”

    Many scientists beg to differ. Simon Conway Morris, for example, in his book Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe,argues that humans were an inevitable product of the necessitating laws of nature. (Paradoxically, he simultaneously claims that another intelligent species anywhere in the cosmos is so highly improbable that we are alone.) His central argument is based on the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence in which necessitating physical laws and biological constraints dictate a limited number of solutions to life’s problems: eggs, eyes, wings, brains, echolocation, sociality, and the like. 

    Convergence is a well-known phenomenon in evolutionary theory, but in the last couple of decades biologists have focused more on biological uniqueness, noting that convergence is the exception, not the rule. The classification system of cladistics, in fact, is based on evolutionary novelties and uniqueness as the criteria of distinguishing species from one another. 

    The paleontologist Donald Prothero, for example, notes that Conway Morris has missed Gould’s central point about contingency: “Once groups of organisms are established and develop a body plan and set of niches, biological constraints are such that convergence and parallelism can be expected. But the issue of who gets this head start in the first place may be more a matter of luck and contingency that has nothing to do with adaptation.” 

    Consider the Burgess Shale chordate Pikaia, which led to the evolution of vertebrates and is thus our earliest ancestor. What if Pikaia had gone extinct like most of the rest of the Burgess fauna? Prothero notes that “there would have been no vertebrates, and half the examples of convergence that Conway Morris details could not have occurred, because they are peculiar to the basic vertebrate body plan, and not shared in any other phylum.” 

    Would some other body plan have evolved intelligence? Not likely, Prothero counters. “The jointed-legged phylum Arthropoda is the most successful, diverse, and numerous organisms on the land, sea, and air today. This phylum includes the huge numbers and varieties of insects, spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, millipedes, centipedes, and crustaceans. As numerous and diverse as they are, their habit of molting their exoskeletons when they grow means they can never exceed a certain body size—they would fall apart like a blob of jelly during their soft stage after molting without any skeletal support.” Molluscs are also supremely successful as clams, snails, and squids, “but their body plan yields few convergences with vertebrates, let alone humans.” 

    Likewise, such phyla as the Echinodermata (sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and sea lilies) are flourishing, says Prothero, “yet they are even less likely to produce a humanoid with their peculiar specializations, such as a radial symmetry with no head or tail, spiny calcite plates, and lack of eyes. In addition, they lack any sort of circulatory, respiratory, or excretory system, so they are forever bound to marine waters of normal salinity.” 

    The chances of ET looking like a sea star, a millipede, or a spineless clam are far greater than ET looking like us. The fact that we’re our favorite species and thus depict aliens looking like us tells us more about our egos than evolution.


    One variable you neglect to look at in your analysis is the nature of likely contact. If someone is looking for us, they are intelligent (not star fish) and tool users. Tool use will mandate certain morphologies which include our own.

    What Michael is doing is typical play from the skeptic playbook - the apologist maneuver. Not wanting to believe in aliens (i.e. extraterrestrials that are capable of space/dimensional travel) he then apologizes by having the position that intelligent life could be out there BUT the probability of them being bipedal is near zero.
    Never mind the fact that if this meeting will involve our planet versus theirs, they will have to have the capability to manufacture, design, build, hard physical craft and pilot them to get here. Sea stars, millipedes, or spineless clams aren't going to have the physical ability to do anything like that, and so Michael's bias against the possibility of intelligent life ever coming here is apologized for out of the simple position that evolution would rule it out. 

    Frankly, I don't care one way of the other, as I haven't had to personally factor in the probability of an alien encounter in my daily schedule, the way I do avoiding drivers making right hand turns on red, while texting, however Michael needs to just man up and admit that he just doesn't like idea because he just doesn't, and not try to use science as an excuse for his position. 

    The problem is that he's just not being honest about his bias. Big surprise...
    I don't think so ... The dinosaurs had more than 350 million yrs to evolve and yet they hardly developed any intelligence

    Not quite true...birds are remnants of dinosaurs, and crows have been labeled " feathered primates". Here's another relevant link from Nova.
    I like that Gould gets something approaching respect twice here in one week.    It shows we are pretty terrific in our willingness to address people on scientific terms (and keep it in context) and not just throw derision at people simply because they did studies with a different level of knowledge and happened to be wrong.

    Too many biologists do to Gould do what creationists do to Darwin - namely, forget that he was trying to figure some things out and didn't have all the answers so declaring work invalid because of incomplete results is missing the point of both science and history.
    I think I come down somewhere between Morris and Dawkins. It’s not inevitable or even near-inevitable, but on the other hand, there are reasons why we look (and operate) like we do.

    Perhaps this is an obvious given, but since I didn’t see it mentioned, I’ll bring it up: Environment. The environment will play an enormous role in determining the morphology of an advanced species. A planet covered entirely with water does not exclude (for me) the possibility of intelligence development simply because upright bipedalism is not possible. Look at Octopi and Cuttlefish. They have significant intelligence, excellent eyesight, and are certainly physically capable of manipulating tools even if they haven’t done it yet.

    So, I think we have to get down to the features that (as I understand) are necessary for a species to become “advanced.”

    In no particular order --
    1) Physical capability of tool making. (dexterity)
    2) Appendages not used for locomotion (ability to carry things)
    3) Stereo vision (for spatial relationships)
    4) Expressivity (by which I mean an ability to use both linguistic and non-linguistic communication.)
    5) Mobility (duh)

    Certainly there are MANY ways those traits could be organized, but look at the amazing multiplicity of life on this planet, and then realize that out of all that, the human “format” emerged as the peak lifeform. That’s no accident, and it speaks to the fitness/adaptability of our form.

    So I don’t believe that it’s more likely that “ET” will look like a sea star or a clam than us. It’s certainly possible in the enormity of the universe, but based on the evidence we have so far, that seems a ridiculous assertion.

    You list some good criteria of what physical abilities a species would need to have in order for human-level intelligence (or beyond) to have a reasonable chance of being produced by evolution.  I would add the requirement that a species be social - communication, consciousness, and abstract thought are much more important in a social context.

    But with these traits in mind, I agree with Shermer that we should question not just the idea that intelligent aliens would be bipedal, but also the idea that they would be tetrapods or vertebrates.  All of the five criteria you list could potentially apply to an octopus (if you image that an octopus evolved linguistic communication with rapid changes in skin color, or by some sort of sign language, instead of vocal communication).

    Are there any evolutionary constraints imposed by the octopus body plan that would prevent the evolution of a much more intelligent octopus?  I can't imagine any. And some species are already remarkably intelligent. Octopuses aren't particularly social, but some similar creature very well might be social on another planet. There are probably many different non-vertebrate, non-tetrapod body plans that would be compatible with high intelligence.
    @Michael White
    Re: Sociality
    I agree completely about the necessity of the social aspect in higher intelligence. However, since the article and my response were at least primarily about the physical appearance of ETs, I was sticking to the purely physical requirements. That was what my "expressivity" category was about -- the physical structures necessary for language and non-verbal communication (facial expression, etc.), which then enables higher social functions.

    Re: Octopuses (not Octopi -- I've been corrected by Wikipedia)
    So, did a little Octopus research and came up with a couple issues.
    1) Life span -- octopuses depending on species have life span of between six months and five years. This is primarily due to a mechanism that triggers death after reproduction.
    2) Sensation issues -- From Wikipedia Octopus article -- "As a result, the octopus does not possess stereognosis; that is, it does not form a mental image of the overall shape of the object it is handling. It can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate the information into a larger picture. The neurological autonomy of the arms means that the octopus has great difficulty learning about the detailed effects of its motions. The brain may issue a high-level command to the arms, but the nerve cords in the arms execute the details. There is no neurological path for the brain to receive feedback about just how its command was executed by the arms; the only way it knows just what motions were made is by observing the arms visually."

    These seem to me to be serious structural problems, though certainly, given the right circumstances and enough time, these could be overcome through evolution. BUT, to get back to the main topic, the fact that this hasn't happened over the millions of years of Cephalopod evolution may be telling us something.

    I had to look up the plural of octopus in the dictionary - octopuses is such an awkward word.
    BUT, to get back to the main topic, the fact that this hasn't happened over the millions of years of Cephalopod evolution may be telling us something.
    Your comment raises an interesting point. For many characteristics, I would agree. There are so many examples of similar traits appearing over and over again in completely different lineages, such as the similar adaptations of fish, aquatic dinosaurs, and aquatic mammals. Evolution repeats itself so often in many cases, so that if some particular type of feature hasn't evolved yet, you wonder if there is some sort of physical constraint involved.

    But intelligence is odd. Up until the last 500,000 years or so, a sentient alien might have argued that since sentience hadn't evolved on Earth by then, it probably never would. Sure, whales, primates, and some birds (and possibly some dinosaurs) evolved to be much smarter than just about everything else on the planet, but it was nothing close to the intelligence of humans.

    But  then came humans, who are smart enough to build civilizations -  all very recent developments in evolutionary history, and nothing like it has appeared before on Earth. Unlike many traits, civilization-building intelligence has not evolved repeatedly on Earth. That's probably because it has such a low probability of ever happening. However, I'm not sure whether we should draw conclusions about the lack of evolutionary potential for intelligence in any current taxonomic group that could conceivably meet the criteria you laid out.
    A couple other small items . . .

    Re: S.J. Gould,
    I admit that I have not read the book myself, and therefore I am going strictly off what is presented here, but . . .
    Simply saying “I don’t think it would happen that way again” is not much of a thought experiment. I certainly hope he supported it more or called it something else.

    Re: Prothero’s comments on Pikaia,
    Asserting that ‘If it had gone extinct, that’s the end of vertebrates’ is ridiculous and misses the whole point of the evolutionary concept. Even if it had gone extinct, if the vertebrate form is sound, then it would have been “attempted” again. But what’s more important is that of all the billions of evolutionary experiments undertaken by nature, the vertebrate form DIDN’T go extinct precisely because it IS an advantageous, adaptable form.

    As I said in my other post above, there are no inevitabilities, but those structures that survive do so because they give their bearers an advantage.

    Re the vertebrate body plan being so successful: this is surely a retrospective view. Gould was making the point that it's next to impossible to predict at the time which particular body plan is likely to make it through an extinction event. Look at the Burgess Shale fauna: the arthropod Marella was extremely common, appearing well-adapted to its enviroment. Little soft-bodied Pikaia, on the other hand was extremely rare. Gould commented that you might expect at least some Marella to make it through, but that's not what happened. Hence his comments about continency. (Gosh, I enjoyed Wonderful Life!) And if chordates had disappeared with Pikaia, it's not necessarily the case that that body plan would have been 'attempted' again. Not if it was a complete evolutionary & genetic novelty, & those novelties disappeared with the organism. Or if the niche Pikaia had filled was taken over by some other Cambrian species.

    The other thing is that vertebrates aren't nearly as successful, in terms of sheer numbers of individuals and in numbers of species, as other taxa: arthropods would take the prize there. Their 'form' is just as successful as that of the vertebrates. (Although they are constrained, as Michael says, by the need to moult their exoskeletons on a regular basis.)

    Quote "The fact that we’re our favorite species and thus depict aliens looking like us tells us more about our egos than evolution."
    In my humble opinion This is the main point to be taken. Add the statement "The fact that Earth is our favorite planet it is no surprise we assume evolution will progress as it did here" to that equation. Add super jumbo Earths, desert Earths water Earths (no landmass whatsoever) Earths bathed in different light and radiation from different stars and who knows what other kind of life giving planet there may be in our universe, and there are no limits to the solutions life may find. Parallel evolution may be only a comon theme in our imagination, not in reality.

    Parallel evolution may be only a comon theme in our imagination, not in reality.
    I would put it this way: on any given planet with life, convergent evolution will be common, but convergent evolution between planets is unlikely except for some very general features.
    Ed Pardo
    I have to disagree that insects could not evolve into intelligent beings. In fact they do appear to show signs of intelligence. The shedding of exoskeleton works well in fluid environments but size is really not relevant.
    After all what is an invertebrate other than an inside out and backwards vertebrate*.

    * Filler, "The Upright Ape", 2007
    While I understand the topic of the article is intelligence, I consider it worthwhile considering that any aquatic based life form would surely have its technological advancement severely limited ???
    An aquatic environment means no fire, no fire means no cooking, no exploration of colder environments, no metal smelting. Chemistry and electricity would also be incredibly difficult to learn about underwater.
    Even an intelligent aquatic species would be permanently locked in a pre-stone age society. (Perhaps akin to chimps)

    That's a really excellent point that I had never considered. Thanks.

    (just for fun) Maybe an aquatic intelligence, given enough time, would become extremely advanced culturally, with arts and philosophy developing. Perhaps congruent with ancient Greek society (minus the metalworking, as you point out). The aquatic limit on technology might keep them from developing weapons beyond sharpened rocks, as well. That would keep warfare pretty limited. Though, I suppose, as an intelligent species, they would FIND a way. The tendency toward self destruction (both personal and species-wise) is one of the hallmarks of higher intelligence.

    Is not the overriding argument form here the idea of "alien contact"? Namely, would we, could we, what would they be like? (Alien Bipedal Primates being the subject.)
    Aquatic creatures would, it seems to me, have difficulty with lifting off (their) planet, regardles of their intelligence, and thus (probably) would never contact us.
    Imagine highly intelligent creatures on a planet with such dense cloud cover that they have no knowledge of "space" and thus would never explore it, regardless of their intelligence.
    A further potential restraint is body mass. Creatures of gigantic intelligence who were also gigantic physically would be faced with lift-off issues barring some sort of gravity-nullifying physics.
    Creatures who hibernate or who are oviparous present other intriguing thought-experiments regarding space flight.
    Creatures who have been space traveling for long enough periods of time to have undergone "genetic" mutation because of space travel present a more curious sort of thought-experiment. They might be anything! Even "orbs of light."
    And finally, because I have a personal bias, it may be informative for readers of this article to search out the testimonies (plural, many, varied) of US astronauts — "men (and women) of science" we may call them, (and sober and serious and solid and of integrity) — who state that unequivocally there ARE aliens and that we ARE in contact.

    The discussion as to whether bipedal primate-like animals would have inevitably evolved, makes me think of the phrase that describes one particular feature of complex systems, "sensitive dependence to initial conditions". This characteristic of complex and chaotic systems would lead me to agree with Stephan J. Gould - even a very slight change in the initial conditions would lead to a completely different outcome.

    I agree with Bill. Whatever they are, wherever they are, and however they are, they're going to have to be capable of wielding a screw driver to get anywhere in the tool-making game, which imposes certain morphological and physiological constraints. There's not much emphasis or mention of dexterity in the article, such an important element in our evolutionary "success".

    In the movie Contact Jody Foster hit her head and was rendered unconscious only thinking she interstellar traveled from planet to planet from the great anticipation.of the experiment. This was proven by the questions given by the committee she was testifying before and only the preacher kept eyeballing her thinking about getting in her pants twice.

    I've always thought Russel's evolved dinosauroid rather amusing. The broad muscled shoulders with ball and socket joints and foreshortened body plan clearly come from a tree swinging ancestor, something the dinosaurs did not share with primates. Ditto the plantigrade feet which are nothing like the digitigrade feet of dinos. No animal with digitigrade feet ever evolved back to plantigrade. An evolved intelligent dino would not look remotely like a human. The idea that octopi can't become intelligent because their intelligence is 'distributed' in their tentacles is ridiculous. Ever heard of a networked computer system? The shape of intelligence need not be like ours any more than the shape of the body. We can't imagine a civilization that used different methods to manipulate matter and energy to achieve desired goals because we have trouble imagining any other way but ours. The reality may be not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.

    Remember it took hundreds of millions of years for mammals to evolve a fully bipedal species, let alone an intelligent one. Physically, mentally, and socially you can be sure that aliens would be,...well,...ALIEN.

    "The idea that octopi can't become intelligent because their intelligence is 'distributed' in their tentacles is ridiculous."

    I agree. That's why I never said that.

    I excerpted the info from Wikipedia to correct my earlier assertion that I saw no physical limitations that would keep octopuses from developing intelligence. The distributed nature of their sensation/response mechanisms is, in my view, a limitation. As is a limited life span, which I also mentioned. Certainly, given enough time, any limitation can be overcome. But more limitations = less likelyhood.

    As to networked systems, yes, perhaps that is possible.

    An aquatic existence may not be as great a limitation to the evolution of technological intelligence as imagined. We just have to imagine a technological pathway that may be considerably different from ours. After all, 2001 aside, it is very hard to look at a crudely shaped rock and see the beginnings of a computer controlled radar guided rocket ship. We know one technological path because we took it. But it is hard for us to imagine another way. Let be provide you with a rather simplistic alternative example. Imagine a race of colonial tube worms such as the type found in the mid oceanic ridges. They live off of the hydrogen sulfide consuming bacteria that infest their tissues. Sulfide is provided by underwater geysers called black smokers. The black smokers gradually foul up causing the local biosphere around them to die, including the tube worms. So imagine an evolved tube worm colony that is networked neurally and which can curl up in a ball when needed and roll to a new active black smoker (nomadic stage). In time the tube worms may discover a nearby deposit of methane clathrate and find out that dropping a few chunks into a dying black smoker will cause detonation, shattering the fouling and re-vitalizing the flow of hydrogen sulfide rich water (agriculture stage). Over time it might be discovered that the methane clathrate 'bombs' could be made more efficient by encapsulating them in a calcium carbonate shell (nacre) perhaps by specially bred mollusks (animal husbandry stage). In time the hot reducing mineral rich flow of the black smokers may be seen as a source of reduced metals and an industrial energy source for water turbines, thermo electric generators, and perhaps even MHD generators (industrial/scientific stage). I realize this is highly speculative and a lot would have to go on between the different stages, just as in human evolution and history.

    If you think it unlikely, remember that the mammal body plan was primarily evolved for quadrupedal existence. A lot of not very satisfying and unlikely compromises had to be made to get to a bipedal, large brained, tool user, as neck aches, back problems, hernias, fallen arches, bad knees, bronchitis, and the whole dangerous mess of live birth can attest to.

    Sir, I take pen in hand to protest at the continuing grossly misleading portrayal of non-terrestrial lifeforms. On my homeworld life evolved from a simple cell having internal bilateral symmetry and containing a twin mechanism which you Earthlings might best understand as a chloroplast combined with a mitochondrial mechanism. Outwardly we do not resemble you humans in the least. Further, we claim to be your superiors in intellect for two valid reasons. Firstly, you search for intelligent life in the hydrogen bands. Why would any intelligent being think that it is a good idea to send out a fragile radio signal across one of the noisiest bands in the cosmos? Secondly, having landed on your moon you proceed no further, but enter into arguments about whether or not you really landed humans there. Oh! Come on! You humans really need to get out more! Get off that planet and do a reality check! yours faithfully, courtesy of Yahoo Babelfish, Djel E. Bean
    Dear Djel E. Bean,

    I must question your assertion of greater intelligence.

    It is very confusing that your race has technology sufficient to observe our own (and perhaps visit? It wasn't clear) and yet not possess the ability to understand that my species suffers from many limitations that have curtailed our excursion into space.

    I would think a truly superior intelligence would understand that my species is still at a very early stage of cultural development. We still spend a great deal of our time and energy in competition with one another. This stems at least in part from our as-yet-undeveloped concept of ourselves as a single species.

    Further, I find it difficult to believe that you haven't perceived that my planet possesses neither the considerable energy resource surpluses necessary for extensive space exploration nor the technology to achieve faster-than-light travel, which would be necessary for my short-lived species to reach even the closest of nearby star systems.

    So, either your species is not nearly as intelligent as you posit (which is difficult to believe, considering that you managed to establish communication with us) or you, personally, are of a more limited mentality than others of your species. I understand. Among my own species as well, there are those whom are born with substantially less cogitational ability.

    Do not feel bad. I am sure you are doing the best you can.

    I hope you will be able to intercept and translate this reply. I have no way to send it to you directly.

    Monk E. Mann

    Monk E. Mann,
    Esteemed Sir,

    I found your message whilst analysing anthropogenic electromagnetic pollution clusters. As to faster-than-light travel. Time is understood by all intelligences solely in the terms in which the notion was abstracted. My ancestors measured speed in terms of distance unit per liquid volume, which is why we began to explore space shortly before we invented writing.

    you, personally, are of a more limited mentality than others of your species

    It is my understanding of human psychology that, if I were human, I would be required to respond to your observation by the total destruction of your domicile to the accompaniment of a ritual incantation. Since I am not human I merely take your remark as an indication of the growth of human intelligence. How did you determine that I am a politician?

    This communication was brought to you courtesy of the C.E.D.L.I. project -
    (Communication with Extra-Djellestrial Lower Intelligence)
    yours faithfully,
    Djel E. Bean
    Steve Davis
    Garbageman and Patrick, I stand in awe!
    It is impossible for Humans to begin to imagine what an Alien would look like. All the arguments put forth are from a Human perspective. We know what we have observed to date. We do not know what else may be out in the Universe, we cannot even imagine it. There are probably chemicals and elements that we have never seen let alone quantify in any way.
    Also, I cannot see why an evolved Dinosaur would end up looking Human. Dinosaurs had fore limbs and digits. Over time and with enhanced intelligence, surely it is more likely that they would have become adept at using the digits they already had. Why would they need legs like ours? Theirs would be much stronger and faster.

    "Not impossible, improbable."
    "Not impossible, improbable."
    Not even implausible.

    An intelligence, to be recognisable by us, must be a language user.

    It might be said that the cuttlefish is a language user, but I don't see one landing itself on the Moon any time soon.
    "An intelligence, to be recognisable by us, must be a language user."

    You are thinking like a human and proving my point.
    IMPOSSIBLE. It wasn't a typo and I think the last comment proves the point.

    Because no language = no intelligence.

    In many ways language IS intelligence. Could you form complex thoughts if you didn't have that "voice in your head?"
    And that voice has a language, which has structure, which is a big part of how we structure our thoughts. Plus, one of the reasons humans became so successful was that with language, we can exchange knowledge and pass it from generation to generation, so every generation doesn't have to start from scratch. It's our ability to exchange knowledge/information that allows us to establish a civilization. And that exchange is built solidly on language. Show and tell only goes so far.

    I think you've read a bit TOO much science fiction, where aliens can be sentient gas clouds or "orbs of light" as someone said in an earlier post. It's all K-rap. Repeat after me, "There Is No Intelligence Without Physical Form." Period. ( I know, that wasn't your point, but stick with me.) (and when I say physical form, I absolutely mean solid, coherent, organized form, with mass and everything.)

    And if it has form, and intelligence, why wouldn't we be able to recognize it? Communication would be damnably difficult under the best of circumstances, but recognition not so much.

    I mean, you show up on a planet, and there are buildings and transportation modes, and writing and art and little globs of goo going in and out of those buildings and using those transportation modes, and doing the writing and creating the art, wouldn't it be pretty obvious that the goo globs, however physically different they might be from us, ARE the (or an) intelligence?

    Now, I know you're going to say I assume too much and put too much of human experience into these globs. But I don't. Intelligence creates. It can't help it. Please imagine for me a species of intelligent beings who don't communicate, who don't make shelters, who don't have art. I can't imagine it. Those creature are NOT intelligent.

    And it has nothing to do with DNA or an oxygen atmosphere or initial conditions or dead dinosaurs or ANY of that. It is the INHERENT nature of intelligence to create, regardless of situation.

    So, here are the Two Commandments

    I don't think either of those is arguable, and with those two things present, how could we fail to recognize an intelligent species?

    You are mixing up cause and effect. First you need to define what intelligence and language actually is supposed to mean. We are already using a language here that needs interpretation. There is no inherent meaning. Your proposition that 'intelligence creates' is an assumption, possibly your own definition but has nothing to do with what an intelligent being actually might be, once we defined what intelligence and language are.

    I propose that intelligence developed because it is a more energy
    efficient way of learning than killing off siblings with not fitting
    random behavior. Our ability to learn and use experience from ancestors
    before it gets ingrained into genetic behavior makes us more adaptable.
    But many animals have that ability.

    There are many forms of intelligent communication and it does not require language. Alternatively you can also accept facial expressions and body language. We can assume that language is only used by intelligent beings or that all intelligent beings have language, but these too are assumptions without proof.

    First, why is there intelligence and what is it? A most common description is the ability of abstract problem solving. You may be surprised that this does not require language and many animals can do it. Creativity, intelligence and language are utterly unconnected. Why is there creativity? The most common assumption is that it was developed to support individualization which is needed as a social exercise to mark territory. Some birds can be very creative in inventing new and unheard of melodies. That is the source of creative art. Creative problem solving is related to applying past experiences to current problem patterns in variation.

    Intelligence is no more than a neural network pattern matching function and it has nothing to do with language. We find it utterly impossible to describe human logic with abstract langauge. That is the reason that Artificial Intelligence is such a failure. Human intelligence is directly related to emotional decisionmaking and our natural drives. We only rationalize decisions after we made them.

    Abstract thought is overrated. We are intelligent as a biochemical entity ONLY and what makes us human is not intelligence but our emotional ability that is exactly the same (in terms of biology and biochemistry) as in all mammals. Most people fail to recognize intelligence in animals, so I would not be surprised if our arrogance would stop us from seeing it in aliens. There are on the other hand many humans that one can hardly call intelligent.
    There are many humans who haven't the slightest idea what makes the light go on when they flip the switch, or why things get hot in a microwave. Ultimately most humans would die in a week if placed in a raw resource rich environment without tools purchased from a hardware or sporting goods store. Technological Intelligence is to some degree a collective exercise with individuals expressing little more brain power than trained apes. Their screeches and howls might be more complex than other primates, but if left to themselves to survive in a wilderness I'd put my money on the chimpanzees.

    Garbageman: You are completely proving my point.....thanks. You are thinking like a human trying to place human restraints on something it is impossible for us to grasp. This is not science fiction it is lack of knowledge. I am not saying there are intelligent blobs or gasious clouds, I am saying we have NO idea and absolutely NO idea where to start a hypothesis.

    with respect is absolute crap!

    Where did this come from?

    with respect is absolute crap!

    Where did this come from?

    It came from me.

    Patrick and all others who are following this thread . . . .
    I realize now that it is useless to discuss this with Mick. He is, as Patrick pointed out, dealing in metaphysics, not reality. He has either read too much Sci-Fi or too many religious works.

    Mick, simply repeating "It's beyond us" is not a scientific argument. If you want to argue that it's beyond science, then it's religion, and belongs in a different thread.

    Your example of the "Close Encounters" aliens makes my point. Yes, they had no idea how to communicate with them, but did anyone, for even the slightest moment DOUBT that they were seeing an intelligent species? And THAT is what this discussion is about, isn't it?

    It's interesting that you use that example, since Spielberg et al are/were guilty of EXACTLY what the whole Shermer article was about, since their aliens were upright bipeds with bilateral symmetry. You should have gone with "Men in Black" instead. :)

    I am saying we have NO idea and absolutely NO idea where to start a hypothesis.
    Mick: I love a challenge.  I have already blogged on intelligence made simple.  I believe that the follow-up, a universal definition of intelligence, refutes your claim.

    Patrick: "We know how elements combine to form molecules. We know that the electrostatic fields around molecules cause them to take on particular shapes in three dimensions. We also know that there are particular zones on some molecules that fit like jigsaw pieces to the mirror zones on other molecules. There are yet other molecules which, by linking temporarily to the two joined molecules can separate them. From this, you can build an intelligent device."

    Enjoyable read and completely applicable to the Universe we can see and understand.
    However, this is still a model based upon human knowledge and experience. I stand by my statement. Just because this is true from our human perspective does not mean that it is the absolute as there are bound to be (even by chance alone) substances that we are completely unaware of.

    Just because this is true from our human perspective does not mean that it is the absolute as there are bound to be (even by chance alone) substances that we are completely unaware of.
    But Mick, I did say:
    Putting aside all unanswerable questions about metaphysical entities
    My use of the term 'universal' implies the exclusion of all metaphysical and unknowable intelligences.

    I'm glad you thought it was an enjoyable read.  Thank you.

    Patrick, Surely that is exactly what I am saying. We can take a stab at it but it's impossible for us to imagine because we don't know enough. IMO there are bound to be lifeforms with intelligence that we cannot quantify and if we saw then or interacted with them it could take a completely new understanding on our part.
    Close Encounters is an example although poor for what I am trying to get across.

    Mick:  we could land on another planet and be treading knee-deep in intelligent life-forms without knowing it.

    In the absence of a common communication channel, i.e. a language, we would never know.  That is why I say that we could never interact as intelligence to intelligence without something that, however loosely, might be described as a language.  Noise, flag-waving, flashing lights or wiping the three visual organs with the thirteenth tentacle - all is language.

    But such speculations are metaphysical - beyond what physics can tell us.  I am a pragmatist.  I look for knowledge that can procure testable or workable results.  That's why I don't 'do' metaphysics.  :)
    This blog is an utter waste of time ...


    Shermer is one of the more recognizable writers in the world.   In 2009 alone I have read three science books that had quotes from him as endorsements.  He also writes for Scientific American and has any number of books to his credit.  If he is a waste of time, just who do you think is worthwhile?
    Was dem einen recht ist, ist dem anderen billig.  :)

    (One man's meat is another man's poison.)
    Sorry Patrick I cannnot agree. Maybe they would communicate telepathically. We would just know.

    Maybe something completely different. You are still working from a human understanding level. I think we have to try and think outside the box.
    I understand your point, but it is coming from what we understand in our human perspective.
    I understand your point, but it is coming from what we understand in our human perspective.
    But of course it is, I have no other pragmatic option.  I am confident that we can avoid being ethnocentric, but I don't see how we can avoid being anthropocentric, since it is built into the core concepts of language.  We can step away from the communal campfire, but we can never step outside of our own brains.  All of science and philosophy is the manipulation and grasp of concepts.  Those words are not even truly mental abstractions - or is there a hand in the head somewhere?

    Given that it is so incredibly hard to think about one's own intelligence, how much harder it must be to think about the possibility of 'other kinds' of intelligence - unspecified because unspecifiable.  Let us, then, stick to the realms of the plausible, and leave the implausible and the unknowable to science-fantasy movie makers and sophists.
    Thats exactly my point. In the realms of the plausible, we have no idea what an Alien might look like. In Sci-Fi we can invent anything we like based upon nothing but imagination.

    Garbageman, you don't like to be contradicted do you?
    "Patrick and all others who are following this thread . . . .
    I realize now that it is useless to discuss this with Mick. He is, as Patrick pointed out, dealing in metaphysics, not reality. He has either read too much Sci-Fi or too many religious works. "

    I am an atheist so why would my comment be based upon religion? it isn't.
    I already stated that Close Encounters was a poor choice, but you seem to have got my point from it nether the less. I am not dealing with metaphysics at all.

    It is my opinion that you cannot conduct Science and draw a conclusion when you do not have all the facts. You can arrive at a supposition and say that's your best GUESS based upon known principles and may apply to  our Solar System, but that is all.
    I would say that if you feel you can tell me what an Alien will look like based upon what we know or rather what we don't know, you are entering religious realms. If you don't require proof or anything like, you are becoming dogmatic. Remind you of something?
    Let's try to bring this back on topic - within the realms of our knowledge of physics and chemistry.

    In the absence of water, any alien attempting to build a science of chemistry would be under a great handicap.  You see, water is just about the most peculiar substance known.  It's properties are almost perverse.  It is, to all intents and purposes, a universal solvent.  Pure water is a virtual insulator.  Add the smallest amount of acid or alkali and water is a conductor.  Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.  Water reaches its greatest density, not in the solid phase, but at 4 degC.

    This is but a small sample of the properties of water.  Much of the experimentation and philosophy that lead to our understanding of the cosmos is traceable directly to experiments with solutions of substances in water and the physics of water.  Even electromagnetic theory owes at least some of its development from experiments in the transmission of electric power and signals through water.

    In short, I cannot conceive of an alien species developing laws of physics of universal application unless they have access to water, even if they are themselves composed entirely of minerals and have mercury for blood.  This stacks the cards heavily in favour of our finding a recognisable  intelligence only on a planet with free water.

    By recognisable intelligence, I mean only that we might recognise that the alien observes its environment by whatever means, gains knowledge thereby and uses that knowledge to manipulate its environment.  If I saw a marine creature moving rocks to build a wall, I might call that instinctive behaviour.  But if I observed that the rock wall was diverting pillow lava so as not to damage the creature's habitat, I would be forced to concede that the creature was in some way intelligent.  If I then saw that the lava was being diverted towards a rival's habitat I would concede that the marine creature was at least as intelligent as many humans.

    Patrick: "Let's try to bring this back on topic - within the realms of our knowledge of physics and chemistry."
    I am sorry, I hadn't realized there were restrictions and rules to follow.

    I concede...............

    So to make sure I follow the rules for any future blogs I respond on or create......

    So long as I include known scientific fact, I can state anything as outlandish as I like and even make up laws for that. OK then...

    Of course if I were a Creationist, I could REALLY run with that couldn't I. I wonder if that's why they keep challenging evolution in the courts...hmmm.


    More thought on the last few threads......

    If the purpose of these blogs is to only allow what is considered scientific fact, how will we learn anything new? How will we challenge our intellect?
    If we have to stick to "within the realms of our knowledge of physics and chemistry", how are we discussing the issue? Why are we discussing the issue?
    You obviously missed my point, despite my post Patrick came back with:

    "In the absence of water, any alien attempting to build a science of chemistry would be under a great handicap.  You see, water is just about the most peculiar substance known.  It's properties are almost perverse.  It is, to all intents and purposes, a universal solvent.  Pure water is a virtual insulator.  Add the smallest amount of acid or alkali and water is a conductor.  Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.  Water reaches its greatest density, not in the solid phase, but at 4 degC."

    Now if that isn't seeing things from a purely Human perspective, what is?

    Garbageman: "Patrick and all others who are following this thread . . . .
    I realize now that it is useless to discuss this with Mick. He is, as Patrick pointed out, dealing in metaphysics, not reality. He has either read too much Sci-Fi or too many religious works. "

    You don't know me, what on Earth makes you so special that you feel you can make this statement?
    Who are you to make "Commandments"? Why get so upset when they are challenged?

    I had assumed that as this is a public blog, I was allowed to make my point and defend it.

    I reiterate for anyone wishing to actually discuss.....
    I think it is impossible for us to conclude what an Alien may look like. We can take a stab at what they could function like in "OUR" Solar System, on Mars for example, but as it is more likely that Aliens would arrive from another Solar System, it is more likely that we would have trouble A) Recognizing them and B) Understanding them.
    It is more likely that they would learn about us and enable a process of communication.

    Any takers?

    it is more likely that we would have trouble A) Recognizing them and B) Understanding them.
    It is more likely that they would learn about us and enable a process of communication.
    Mick: I agree with this.  I am not challenging your core argument.  If there is an intelligent species 'out there' that is so at odds with what we can imagine then yes, we can only know if they choose to reveal themselves.

    My own point, bottom line, is that if we want to search for ETI, then we are forced to restrict ourselves to what we can imagine from within our limited, anthropocentric knowledge of the cosmos.  Just because an ETI may be so strange than we can't imagine what form it might take, I prefer to restrict my speculations to the area where I can imagine, the area of the little that we puny humans have managed to grasp of the laws of the cosmos during our short existence on this one planet.
    Patrick: Thanks for the honest reply.

    It worries me a little that SETI and other projects looking for Planets and any signs of life are doing so from a very blinkered point of view. Surely if the parameters aren't broadened, there is a possiblity that they won't find anything despite looking straight at it.
    Michael Shermer, do you actually think about evolutionary theory when you are making your dubious pronouncements? The process of evolutionary selection will determine with whom we may contact. The creation of a technological society will require some scheme of manipulation and mobility. On earth, bipedalism has numerous evolutionary advantages. I hope you are not offering great thought classes based on your response to popular culture representations of aliens. Frankly, I'm skeptical of your thought process on this subject.

    Extraterrestrials do exist, an there amongst you everyday. The person you look up to in terms of behaviors an speeches they make allows you to become drawn in to there trap they attempt to sometimes go in peoples minds an predict there actions and for that you respect them. They are aliens that has the same features as you only with an intellect that exceeds far beyond ours. There features are more developed as well but not enough to be noticeable to us... An the trends continue whereas we develop to there level an they exceed us more that's why we all are suffering. The truth will be told just have faith in yourself an look out for us......


    I don't think this was mentioned above, but this seems like the right place to ask the question...

    Is the evolution of society and technology inevitable once a certain level of intelligence is reached? It seems like something happened in our own evolution which caused the development of civilization in a just a few 'geological seconds'. My point is that we've clearly reached the point where human evolution isn't favouring intelligence any more, indeed I've not seen any evidence that intelligence evolved over the last, say, 5,000 years. Which suggests that if intelligence does evolve on another planet and it is manifested in a similar manner to our own, then it's unlikely to be more advanced because the evolution of society will prevent the continue evolution of intelligence.

    I can think of many reasons why this might not hold, but my guess is that it probably does.

    For example, the species might not become social until it is more intelligent than us. This seems unlikely, because one of the greatest selectional benefits of intelligence is the ability to work as a team i.e. to form a society. Thus for intelligence to evolve without society there would need to be some other benefit which improves incrementally with greater intelligence.
    Perhaps mate-selection and reproductive-rate in an intelligent and social species could mimic natural selection and thus allow further evolution of intelligence. In other words, the more intelligent members of each generation would have more offspring than their less intelligent piers. This phenomenon could be caused in a number of ways, but I don't expect any are particularly likely (it would probably require the aliens to have very different morals to us, which is unlikely because it is our morals that allow us to operate in society).
    Perhaps the technology and morality of our civilisation, as well as any alien civilisations, will evolve itself to the point where we can tweak the intelligence of our offspring and thus allow intelligence of our species to continue developing.

    What do you reckon?

    Just a late night thought here - I wonder how many ways there are for intelligent entities to arise? We know of one mechanism and one only - natural selection, which can be viewed as a handy naturally-occurring mechanism for transferring information about viability into a genome that encodes for it. The mapping of, say DNA to phenotype is understandable in principle through embryology. The inverse-mapping of phenotype back to DNA is implemented, of course by a non-Lamarkian mechanism. It relies on noise, exposure of candidate data to its own "test harness" in prototype individuals, amplification and adoption of succesful data through replication of better adapted individuals and, just as important, removal of less fit ones. This is actually rather a lot of mechanisms going on at once, not least being a fairly narrow band of available resources such that competition is an issue but extinction is not too frequent... And that's just to get life to evolve.

    It turns out that such a system thrives on information, and yet, despite the hippy-mumble about the trees of a forest talking amongst themselves by means of mycorrhiza, many many types, orders even, of organism manage quite well without serious information-processing at all. And those that do develop it rarely mange to create abstract methods of reasoning neccessary to think effectively and to create the data banks that allow processed information to be passed from gernation to generation.

    It all seems incredibly cumbersome and jury-rigged. So my question is, are there any other mechanisms which can cause insentient matter to organise itself in such a way? Put some boundaries down: paths from known physics to abstract reasoning. I choose abstract reasoning because I am prejudiced in favour of systems that represent their own environment as symbols, with rules that mirror the regularities they experience, but rise above it and learn to study reasoning methods as well as plain facts. This, I believe, is the biggest breakthrough since replication was invented because it means that we have a chance that our puny little thought processes may, with a bit of work, actually be able to think about everything that can be thought about by anybody or any thing anywhere. That's not idolizing human reason, it a comment about reason itself. And it seems to have arisen just the once so it's hard to say how likely it is - especially as natural selection is what spawned it.
    So any other contenders for such a fecund substrate? I suppose I'd better stick to physical things, but the thought did just occur to me - what about mathematical structures that think? Clearly if human intelligence can be modelled there must be at least one, but how common are they in, say, en ensemble of mathematical systems?
    Go easy on me now. These are late night ramblings of an over-tired information processing contraption. But if we are to speculate on the appearence of aliens, surely we need to say how close their environment is to the evolution-friendly one of this planet? In other regimes evolution may be impossible but something we haven't thought of might step in instead. The universe is very big.

    Gerhard Adam
    I wonder how many ways there are for intelligent entities to arise?
    I think the first thing you have to consider is how to quantify the type of "intelligence" you're looking for.  In particular, a strong argument can be made that humans haven't likely evolved much regarding innate intelligence over the last 100,000 years (at least) and yet, why has it only been recently that all the technological progress has been made that enables us to travel into space?

    My point is that it isn't human intelligence that is the factor, but a unique form of social organization that creates an unprecedented division of labor.  It is this which gives rise to what I term "social intelligence" which is what is actually responsible for what we consider to be human achievements.  So, if we want to consider alien life forms, then would "intelligence" be a sufficient condition?  ... and is that what we really mean?

    In addition to intelligence, I think that life is considerably more "networked" than we realize with all manner of different microbial life forms exchanging information and interacting well beyond the segregationist perspective we usually assume is the mode of life.

    Mundus vult decipi

    I think the first thing you have to consider is how to quantify the type of "intelligence" you're looking for.

    I did. We are not specuilating about gormless blobs of insentient goo when we talk of aliens but of beings that can develop a technological culture and visit us here. or interact with us if we visist them.

    My point is that it isn't human intelligence that is the factor, but a unique form of social organization that creates an unprecedented division of labor.

    No argument with that. Just add it to the list of hurdles to be jumped over.

    In addition to intelligence, I think that life is considerably more "networked" than we realize with all manner of different microbial life forms exchanging information and interacting well beyond the segregationist perspective we usually assume is the mode of life.

    Oh yes. Microbes are incredibly promiscuous. I sometimes wonder whether we have evolved to protect against too much of a good thing :) But it's not manipulation of symbols, let alone general purpose abstractions.