Sunday, January 29, 2017

Is there intelligent life on Earth?

Comedians, tongue only partially in cheek, may say, “There is little evidence of any,” but how hard would it be to recognize an “intelligent” species if you met one? Biologists are often inclined to ask a modified version of that question: “In what ways is this creature intelligent?” This reflects the fact that all organisms alive today on our planet represent terminal lineages of 3.5 billion years of survivors. Their lines were all intelligent enough to beat their competition and endure.

In my novel-in-progress, tentatively called Pet Stories: A genius groupie in the kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand, aliens come to Earth and find a species of primate that remind them of pets they left behind on Jadderbad. They discover evidence of million-year-old ruins, but don’t connect those artifacts with the primates they discover. Instead they make pets of them. Here is an excerpt where Morticue, a Natural Philosopher interested in the alien artifacts, ‘explains’—in the presence of his pet groupie (human) named Fum—the requirements for intelligent life:

“Well, Fum, point one: it’s obvious that any intelligent creature should be one that delays sex until after metamorphosis. The passions of sex—from what I’ve heard of the published reports of adults who have made the transition—and taken the time to record their experiences—those passions cloud the mind to the point where rational thought disintegrates. I’m sure you would agree. I’ve seen you rutting around the neighbor’s female groupies, deaf to commands.” Morticue paused and scratched his hide with several available hands. “But animals undergoing metamorphosis on this planet are few and small-brained creatures. Could they have a collective hive mind greater than the sum of its parts?”
Morticue shrugged most of his shoulders. “Point two: Intelligent life most likely needs a dispersed nervous system like Jadderbadians—various sub brains to handle routine bodily functions. That frees the primary Great Ganglion for rational thought.” Morticue looked at Fum who had picked up some sort of polished stone from the box and was holding it with one hand while stroking it with the digit of the other. “And yes, point three: Intelligent life needs many manipulative organs to handle the environment. Two obviously stunts mental growth.”
Fum smiled as he stroked the stone.
Morticue raised his third leg from tripod stance and ambled over to Fum with the remaining two legs. “What do you have there, boy?” Morticue extended his right lateral second row arm and Fum placed the stone into his hand. “Ah, a worked and polished fossil. Probably a trinket of some ancient craftsman.” Morticue sniffed the object carefully, viewing it in detail with all three eyes. “Marble. The fossil of some sort of shelled sea creature. I see some unusual markings in the ultraviolet. Of course, that leads to point four: Any intelligent life needs a broad spectrum of sensory input. That’s the problem with you groupies, after all. Very limited olfactory lobes; vision ends in the purple wavelengths somewhere.”

As humans, we prize our own skills and talents: The use of symbolic language, acute vision, the ability to imagine alternate realities, recognition of our social peers (and their motives) and some talent at logical deduction—but had birds, for example, taken a slightly different evolutionary turn and African primates become extinct, would they admire the same kinds of attributes? It can be fun to think about.

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