Today’s SMBC highlights something about humanity that is often overlooked, something that any extraterrestrial intelligence that builds a civilization would have to have.
Click through for hover-text and red button caption.
Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – The Mammal Conspiracy
We often talk about the intelligence of dolphins, whales, cephalopods, elephants, and other species. But something all of these species lack is an ability to alter and control their environment, at least in any detailed fashion, a capability that is at the heart of building a civilization. When you think about the evolutionary steps that were necessary for humans to have the dexterity that we do, it starts to look like we were the benefactors of a very lucky sequence of events.
First, there needed to be a three dimensional environment like the interlocking tree branches that made the primate body plan adaptive. Second, the primate line needed to evolve an intelligent line (the great apes). Third, there needed to be a change in environment that led to some of those apes coming down from the trees to tall grasslands where walking upright was adaptive, freeing their hands for work other than locomotion or hanging.
Only then do we have the stage set for human intelligence to evolve. Of course, it’s completely conceivable for alternate factors to lead to the evolution of those capabilities. But the fact that, despite a number of relatively intelligent species in the animal kingdom, it’s only happened once on Earth should give us pause before concluding that it’s at all common for a civilization building species to evolve.
Intelligence and dexterity aren’t the only factors by the way. Mastery of fire as a tool also seems crucial, something that seems to rule out water dwelling species like cephalopods, who if they lived longer, might have a decent chance at manipulating their environment.
Fermi’s paradox is the question which asks, if extraterrestrial civilizations are common, why weren’t we colonized long ago? The rarity of the combination of intelligence and dexterity might give a pretty grounded answer to that question, and that’s before we even consider the likelihood of other evolutionary milestones, such as sexual reproduction or multi-cellular life.
So, when thinking about the evolution of human intelligence, be grateful for the existence of jungles and grasslands. Without them, we might not be here, at least not with enough intelligence to discuss our evolution.