The search for intelligent life on Earth before humans is now a thing. I read about it in Salon. Don’t ask me to cite a source. If that’s your thing, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Just use Google.
Initially I laughed at such a study. Then I thought: “wait, what if there was?”. So if there was an advanced civilization on Earth before modern humans, say dinosaurs were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, would I want to know about it? Fuck yeah!
So should we be searching for other intelligent beings, past, present, terrestrial, or otherwise? Of course. That isn’t necessarily what this post is about.
We intuitively know that there’s something out there. It’s a mathematical certainty. I’m just saying that we should taper our hopes.There is life out there. At least material that we could consider life.
But intelligence? Let’s tap on the breaks.
I’d argue that we should hesitate calling ourselves “intelligent”.
“But Wes, we can send people to space, build skyscrapers, and invent Internet pornography. Are you saying that’s not intelligent?“, you might be asking.
We’re awesome at building shit. But we also have people that kill each other because they believe in the wrong imaginary being. Do other species have this problem? Again, I bring up my cat. He’s a radical empiricist. He might not fully comprehend my powers…to him, my ways are mysterious. Almost God-like. But there’s no speculation as to my existence. He knows I exist and is able to use his behavior to provoke a desired reaction from me. If he meows profusely, I’ll feed him. He rolls over on his back, I’ll rub his belly. He’s responding to his surroundings to the best of his abilities, and his methods mostly work. His freedom is somewhat restricted, he can’t go outside as much as he wants, but all of his needs are taken care of. He lives a life of luxury. I have to work to keep him fed. So who’s the dumb one? While some areas of our intelligence is extraordinary, we’re also pretty dumb in others.
Of course I’m being facetious here. But my larger point is that we show little skepticism towards intelligence. We can’t even get a straight answer for what it is. There’s things we can say about it in general. It’s the capacity for knowledge, the ability of problem-solving, etc. But I can poke holes in that. Specifically with our supposed “superior” intellect compared to animals. Animals are quite proficient at using their abilities to survive the environment. They can survive many situations that nature throws at them. Humans are also exceptional at problem solving. But usually we have to solve problems that WE created. I have to live under a mountain of student loan debt. But I put myself in that situation! Nature didn’t put me there. And I probably couldn’t survive ANY situation that nature throws at me. Thanks to civilization, I lost all those skills. My cat never spent a day in nature either, but I have no doubt he could survive. So who’s making the judgement that humans are “intelligent”? Other humans?!
We did conquer the planet, so perhaps I’m being a bit ridiculous. But because something is deemed “intelligent” because we defined it as “intelligent” doesn’t make it intelligent. Am I making sense? Humanity might dominate earth. But we do make idiotic decisions when we should know better. Hurdling towards extinction due to war, inequality, and pollution doesn’t seem too intelligent. It’s either that, or purposely bringing humanity towards extinction is the smartest decision ever made. The jury’s still out.
But all of that is neither here nor there! There are larger philosophical points to be made.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligent life that we can easily understand (a la Arrival) takes massive assumptions. Again, there’s no question that there’s life out there…perhaps comparatively intelligent life. But we forget that our entire understanding of EVERYTHING is earth-centered. And more specifically…HUMAN MIND centered. Our brains are easily compared to those of other earth-based species because we share common ancestors, DNA, and exposure to earth-specific stimuli (which helped shape our evolution). Because of this, our phenomenological experience might be similar enough. Therefore there are certain experiences that we can recognize in other species. It’s why humans, dogs, and cats can all get along. It’s why we observe altruistic behavior in other animals. But when we assess how extraterrestrial life might develop…who knows what we’ll find.
It may be, nay….WILL BE completely different that anything we’ve encountered on Earth.
The problem is we’ve conflated intelligence with humanness. We believe that if we can find an off world species with similar or superior intelligence…that it’ll only be a matter of time before we understand each other. And we’ll discover that they’re just like us…they love, hate, share stories, raise children, and strive for peace across the universe.
That’s a massive, MASSIVE assumption.
The state of humanness can only be found in one place…a human mind. Are there other “humans” in the universe? Again, it’s a mathematical certainty. Will we find them? The chances of that happening are laughably slim. So we better get used to being alone.