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December 15, 2014

The Search For Intelligent Life? Let's Think About This...

Recently, I was watching a series of lectures about the search for life in the universe. It kept my attention while talking about the 800+ new-found solar systems around other stars beyond our own. It seems likely that solar systems are very common in the universe, thus the question arises does life exist in those systems or is our solar system unique?

Actual photograph of planets around a star beyond our sun

Where the series lost me was when the presenter got to the subject of searching for intelligent life in the universe. He made it seem as though us humans were the only intelligence on Earth and perhaps the only intelligence in the universe. Of course, we humans assume we are the most intelligent because we exercise a lot of power on Earth, but this isn't much different than the monarchy thinking they must be smarter than all the peasants because of the power they have over the peasants (it's funny because when I think of all of the great thinkers, artists and scientist over the ages, hardly one was a king or queen). Power doesn't necessarily equate with intelligence and there's a certain arrogance about humanity that has left a trail of disproven claims that should be remembered when ever we make great claims about our superiority. Claims such as the universe was specially created for humans, we must be at the center of the universe, must be the center of the solar system, humans must have the biggest genome with the most genes, we must have the biggest brains, the biggest brain to body ratio, the most neurons, the most brain folds, must be the only tool users, the only language users, the only species with culture, the only species that can learn, the only species that has a sense of self, the only species with emotions, the only rational/non-instinctual species, the only species with a soul. All of these claims have been disproven, but we still hang on to the idea that humans must be superior to all other living things in some way. And so we stare out into the universe looking for "intelligent" life as though, besides humans, the world was just plain full of dummies! I would contend that "intelligent" life is not as rare or elusive as we might think and our search for it in the universe need not lead us far.

What the search for "intelligent" life needs is a reformation over what "intelligent" means. Einstein might have been a brilliant physicist, but he wasn't a gifted farmer. And in order for there to be people who can spend their whole lives thinking about what happens to objects when they're travelling near the speed of light, there must be people who perfect agriculture to the point that they can grow enough produce for teachers to teach children math and science, professors to teach adults higher level math and science, researchers who do the experiments, mechanics and engineers who build the equipment to perform the experiments, and theorists to guide the direction of experimentation, etc., etc., etc. In other words, in order for scientists to perform at their most intelligent level, you need farmers to perform at their most intelligent level. By this configuration, Einstein's genius is worthless without there being genius farmers to support his thinking lifestyle. If Einstein had to grow his own food, it's unlikely he would've come up with Relativity. Thus, intelligence, too, is relative and multiple intelligences are necessary for everyone to maximize their potential.

Extrapolating this argument to the search for "intelligent" life besides humans, we must remember that most of the processes that make Earth a habitable place are not performed by humans. The production of oxygen for us to breathe, for one example, is done by plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria: photosynthetic bacteria.

If humans went extinct, those plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria would live on just fine without us, but if they went extinct we'd go extinct right alongside them. So what's necessary isn't for all organisms to aspire for human-like intelligence, but for each organism to become more intelligent in its own way. If the whole body was a brain it would die. The brain requires the work of the heart, lungs, immune system, digestive system, legs, arms, etc., etc., etc., in order to be specialized in receiving information, interpreting signals, and sending out commands. Thus, it isn't possible that the brain is the superior organ, for it is only as effective as the rest of the body.

Einstein's physics intelligence isn't superior to farmer's intelligence. Farmers would much more readily survive without physicists than physicists would survive without farmers. So what's really necessary is for all members of society to become more intelligent in their own way and better at what they do, so less people are forced to labor where they have the least to offer. Is the world better when everyone is forced to be a subsistence farmer or is it better when farm intelligence makes it possible for only a few to farm, and the rest are freed up to pursue other work?  Societies are not built with the intelligence of one occupation or one individual, but the collective interrelating of many kinds of intelligence.

In terms of the environment, humans can only be as effective as the rest of the beings on Earth make the environment conducive for what humans do. If bees, other insects, bats, and birds, ceased to pollinate our crops and we had to pollinate every flower ourselves to eat.....we'd starve.  If earthworms, fungi and other decomposers weren't constantly at work breaking down corpses and carcasses, the world would become a heap of bodies with no soil for plants to grow in and no free nutrients for bacteria to reintroduce in usable forms into the biosphere.

So rather than considering ourselves superior to the world, using it like a stepping stone to some fairy tale encounter with extraterrestrial "intelligent" life, condescendingly looking for "intelligent" life at great distances while ignoring all the intelligent life that surrounds us on Earth, maybe we had better realize that if humanity is to survive, it will require the collective intelligence of all beings working towards a sustainable planet. Maybe humanity is the frontal cortex of the world, but without a smart and effective rest of the body, the whole person dies.

Maybe we should be grateful that there are bacteria who are intelligent in a bacteria-kind-of-way, and plants who are intelligent with a plant-specific-intelligence, etc., because it is a diverse, collective intelligence that makes Earth a habitable planet. Humans by themselves, would be like a brain in a jar. It takes a body, with trillions of cells who know what they need to do, and trillions of cells who perform all of the essential functions of the body, in order for the brain to maximize its potential in the form of a person who works on and wonders at the world.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it takes many species, great and small, all with their own roles, and all of them striving to fulfill those roles in order for the world to be the place of learning and living that it is.  So perhaps rather than searching for "intelligent" life elsewhere, maybe we should work on recognizing and respecting the diverse kinds of intelligence that already surround us everywhere on this spaceship planet spinning through the cosmos.

-Seth Commichaux

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