What Makes an Alien Intelligent?

An interesting article in The New Yorker on the necessity of keeping an open mind about what form an alien intelligence might take.

Yet, even as the Kepler mission gets closer to finding a mirror image of our own planet, many scientists have ceased believing that we should be looking for ourselves in space. There are other ways for a planet to support life, they argue—and there are other ways for life to be intelligent.

That’s the point of a recent paper in Acta Astronautica by the dolphin-behavior researcher Denise Herzing. She warns against the seductive tendency to turn the question of a creature’s intelligence into one about how similar that creature is to humans. Instead, she writes, we need “a non-human biased definition and measure of intelligence.” This would allow us to identify signs of intelligent life that a human-centric explorer might overlook—for instance, in creatures without limbs to manipulate their surroundings, mouths to make sounds, or even brains to process information. (After all, microbes and plants learn about and react to their environments.)

via What Makes an Alien Intelligent? : The New Yorker.

Three things always stand out to me in these kinds of discussions.  The first is that the laws of physics would be the same for extraterrestrials as they are for us.  That means, to some extent, there is likely to be similarities to how life here on Earth works.  Environments can vary tremendously, but gravity, electromagnetism, and the other forces of nature all still apply.  Convergent evolution might imply that there are only so many different body plans out there.

But the second is that nature has always surprised us with the different forms life can take, even just here on Earth.  That means that while aliens will follow the same physics as us, we’d almost certainly be shocked at the other ways life can work aside from what we see here.  And an alien intelligence could conceivably be so strange that we couldn’t find a way to communicate with it.  Although if we can tell that they’re intelligent, it seems like some form of communication would be possible, even if its just in the form of observing the results of each other’s intelligent acts.

The third though, and I’ve written about this before, is that intelligent life almost certainly exists elsewhere in the universe, but there’s a good chance it is very far away, as in outside of this galaxy.  If intelligent life is prevalent and close enough to have reached us by now, we should have been colonized long ago, or at least found some signs of past visits.  (No, we don’t have those signs, despite what the Ancient Aliens people say.)  Of course, we might find such a sign tomorrow in the asteroid belt, or somewhere else in the solar system.

16 thoughts on “What Makes an Alien Intelligent?

  1. There was a great story on Daily Science Fiction about an alien intelligence, something vastly different from us humans, passing through our Solar System. It paused for a moment, taking a brief look at Earth, then quickly determined intelligent life could not possibly have evolved on a planet so small and so warm. Then it moved on without giving Earth a second glance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, life here on Earth is so incredibly diverse, one wonders what alien life may be life. It seems very unlikely to be anything remotely like human. Maybe we will eventually discover many planets with lifeforms almost unrecognisable to us, and instead of the classic “We come in peace, take us to your leader” introduction, we will simply scratch our heads and wonder what to do.

    With so many intelligent or semi-intelligent species here on Earth, it would help if we started practising better inter-species relations before we go anywhere else.

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  3. I think the idea that alien intelligences may be very different is true but not that useful. We have in ourselves at least one example of what intelligent life does, so it makes sense to look for similar signifiers elsewhere. We have much more hope of detecting a civilisation that emits radio waves than one that stays underwater and builds nothing but develops a wonderful edifice of philosophical discourse.

    Yeah, we should be attentive and keep our minds open, but if we are actively searching for signs of intelligence we need to have a concrete idea about what we’re looking for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The question is, which are we more likely to detect first? The closest civilization with characteristics similar to ours may be millions or billions of light years away. But I wonder if signs of artificial mechanisms, perhaps radically different than anything we might ever contemplate building, might be much closer.


  4. It’s a great article, but I enjoyed your commentary more! I’m actually writing a children’s book about a kid who is obsessed with aliens, and I’m keeping this post (and your other posts on extra-terrestrial possibilities) on file!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have you watched the Russian movie “Solaris” or read the book by Stanislaw Lem?

    It seems to me, intelligence is the same kind of elusive concept as free will. We think it exists, but only by the virtue of us thinking so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did watch the remake, but I’ve never had the patience to watch the original movie all the way through. I’ve heard very good things about the book, but have never gotten around to reading it.

      I agree that intelligence, along with consciousness, is a slippery property. It’s probably much more in the eye of the beholder than we’d care to admit.


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