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Alien Scientist: Alien Intelligence

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: October 2004, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

The intelligence of one's own species is usually regarded as the yardstick against which to consider the intelligence of all other species. For example, human scientific thought tends to rate the intelligence of animals relative to the degrees and kinds of intelligence possessed by humans. Therefore, the dog who 'rationally' accepts duties in return for rewards is considered more intelligent than the cockroach that prefers to follow its own mysterious inclinations oblivious to any human needs or favours.

A less clear-cut case is where a creature appears to perform cognitive tasks that we can't do, or can't figure out ourselves. The ability for bees to find pollen, or pigeons to find their way home, are grudgingly acknowledged as 'clever tricks', but they don't necessarily rank as intelligence. And we tend to be spooked by creatures such as ants, which appear to achieve some kind of collective intelligence, even if we may struggle to believe that any individual ant has much in the way of brain cells to rub together.

In effect, the more 'alien' the intelligence, the less likely we are to recognise it as intelligence in the first place. As such, recognising intelligence in extra-terrestrial life-forms could present something of a challenge. This would mean first recognising the extra-terrestrial analogue of life amidst the cosmic soup, and then recognising the analogue of the intelligence that we might recognise in ourselves.

As it happens, the aliens of our imagination are often portrayed as being more intelligent than humans. This may serve to comfort us, if it means that there are some elevated beings somewhere out there who have already solved the major questions of the universe, and can give humanity a helping hand out of their ignorance and folly. On the other hand, the possibility of super-intelligent aliens also serves to remind us that we could be taken over, enslaved or exterminated, just as easily as we assume dominion over all the other species of planet Earth. (Having said that, we can also be scared by the dim-witted bug-brained variety of alien, although in this kind of story we always seem beat them in the end - usually, ironically, by brute force.)

Although we might expect aliens to have remarkable qualities and abilities, how are we to know if these are related to their intelligence - or our intelligence? Perhaps their intelligence can only be interpreted relative to our own context, as a measure of how they - or an underused portion of their alien brains - could perform Earth-like tasks such as figuring out how to cross a road, or use a drinks-vending machine.

Intelligence is therefore partly a matter of use in a particular context, but it is also perhaps a matter of whether it involves some kind of rational effort. In other words, it's not just a matter of what it does, but how and why. For example, we might not care to grant intelligence to an alien centipede that can effortlessly count in base 100, or an alien whose electromagnetic senses could directly 'see' TV transmissions, since the creatures concerned effectively have the anatomical hardware to do the task 'unthinkingly'.

And so it is with creatures on Earth. It appears that some migratory birds may be able to 'see' the magnetic field of the planet, and hence use this capability to navigate between continents, as unremarkably as anyone else might navigate by recognising patterns of light.

On the one hand, the idea that birds are hard-wired to do naturally what humans have taken many years to do via conscious exploration and invention gives humans the satisfaction that their intelligence can help them replicate the abilities of any other species. On the other hand, perhaps our own apparently high intelligence is not some superior gift that is somehow an alternative to brute physical capability, but is also just an accident of anatomy. Instead of being blessed with the ability to sense magnetic fields, we seem to be hard-wired to do things like think abstractly, do sums, imagine infinity, and name the colours of the rainbow.

But while this kind of intelligence may be enough to make us masters of our home planet, it would not necessarily cut any ice with alien society, where all kinds of ethereal, metallic and tentacled intelligence might vie for recognition. And in a modern, multi-creatured and relativistic universe, perhaps it makes little difference to an intelligent observer as to which creature throws the stick and which brings it back.

<< Science News: October 2004 | Master Index | Giving Birth in Tsukuba >>

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