measuring alien intelligence

Trying to figure out how smart alien life forms may be will involve jettisoning a lot of cliches about intelligence.
alien hypercity
Illustration by Christian Hecker

Turn on the TV or go to the movie theater and chances are that every alien civilization you’ll see will be hundreds if not thousands of years more advanced than us and will regard humans with the same condescension we usually reserve for our cave dwelling ancestors. But movies are just our fantasies. How smart would real aliens be and what would they make of us, our culture and our technology? Could it be that we’re actually quite an advanced species in our own right and most aliens we meet will be comparable to us?

Now I don’t say this to stroke our egos. I say this because most of us have a rather skewed idea of intelligence after the highly toxic effect of Victorian arrogance that is still being exorcised by biologists, archeologists and anthropologists. When we talk about cave dwelling humans right before the dawn of farming and civilization, our dismissive attitude is misplaced. They weren’t inferior to us in any way, shape or form. Sure they didn’t have the benefits of modern science and education some 30,000 years ago, but biologically speaking, they were identical to us. We and the cave dwellers are the same species, separated only by time and minor genetic drifts of natural and sexual selection. If anything, they got us where we are today.

And of course, it all started with a genetic fluke. Broken base pairs of the MYH16 gene gave us much bigger skulls and allowed our brains to grow, developing our current intelligence. In the future, our heads aren’t going to swell to immense sizes and we’re not going to evolve some supernatural ability like telepathy, telekinesis or precognition. In the battle of mind over matter, the mind is at a disadvantage. Humans are the result of an evolutionary change that happened at just the right time to give us an edge and for the last 2.5 million years we’ve just been trying to make the best of what we have to work with, like all living things. Our basic anatomy places limits to how big our brains can ultimately grow and without a major change in our body plan, our brains are about as big as they can get.

The same constraints are very likely to apply to an alien creature. Why? We know that asteroids and comets are loaded with amino acids and the basic organic compounds that can give rise to new living things. When a new planet is forming, these amino acids and organics rain from the sky in the most literal way. In a habitat that has food, solvents and temperatures that wouldn’t immediately kill any living thing, there’s a very high possibility of alien life emerging from similar or even identical ingredients as the first organisms on Earth. So it’s a pretty safe bet that an alien hereditary system is going to be somewhat similar to ours and would obey the same rules of evolution as life on our planet.

This means that if on Earth, intelligence appears as a fluke, alien intelligence should appear in a similar way. Provided that an alien environment favors smarter animals (and that’s not a given), the level of intelligence in an otherworldly species would be limited by what hereditary mistake allowed for it and what these intelligent creatures could ultimately accomplish would be limited by their anatomy. One day, if we’re still around and are still able to explore space, we’ll run into creatures who have technology we’d consider to be downright magical and who’s civilizations were primeval when we were just starting out as a species. But it’s far more likely that we’ll run into feral alien animals or something very comparable to us due to the way evolution works.

# astrobiology // alien intelligence / evolution

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