More on the Search for Intelligent Life


by Justin E. H. Smith

It is hard to read about SETI and more recent related projects looking for intelligent life in the stars without discerning in them certain silent presuppositions about what counts or should count as intelligent life on earth. In particular, the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life is almost always taken to be the same thing as the search for technologically advanced extraterrestrial life. The search for other life that is intelligent in this respect is, in turn, almost always conceived as a search for any other intelligent life whatever, since it takes for granted that the search on earth has been exhaustive, and it has turned up no other species that are intelligent in any truly noteworthy way. The best candidates for intelligence among terrestrial species are taken to be the ones that have mastered some sort of modest technology: chimpanzees putting sticks down ant holes for example. On this scale, all other terrestrial species are bound to come in a distant second to homo sapiens. They use sticks, we use iPhones, etc., and thus no real comparison is possible.

Two considerations however compel us to question this approach to establishing a hierarchy.

First, it is not at all clear that tool-use, or a fortiori complex-tool-use, pertains to my own species essence in a significantly different way than it pertains to a chimpanzee’s species essence. If a chimpanzee and I were stranded on a desert island with only our wits to help us survive, I would not myself be able to build any tools, from available raw materials, that would be significantly more sophisticated than what the chimpanzee would come up with. I would however continue to use other truly species-specific advantages, such as bipedalism, to the best of my ability, towards my own survival.

In this connection, we also know that for a considerable portion, indeed the majority, of the history of anatomically modern humans (recently dated back to 300,000 ybp) there was virtually no material culture to distinguish homo sapiens from other primates. This began only roughly 50,000 ybp, around the period of what Colin Renfrew calls ‘the human revolution’. This strongly suggests that our own technological advances over the past several tens of thousands of years might have more to do with coming to occupy a particular ecological niche, which cannot be occupied by more than one species, than it does with any particular species-specific capacities common to all humans qua humans, and foreign to all non-human animals.

In other words it is at least possible that technological advancement in other animal species might require not so much radical developments in their evolution as individual creatures, as simply cumulative effects in their shared species history, to come up with what might impress human beings as ‘technology’. But they are blocked from doing that, for now, for something like the reasons the urban poor are blocked from building great shiny skyscrapers or Mars shuttles: not because they are different in essence from, say, Frank Gehry or Elon Musk, but because they are crowded out of the real estate and high-tech scenes. The only other mammalian species that are remotely comparable to homo sapiens in terms of population and biomass are domestic food animals, particularly cattle. But they live out their lives under total domination and enforced impoverishment of the life-world, circumstances in which it is inconceivable that there might ever be any thriving that might lead to innovations over the course of the species history. They, too, are crowded out.

Most other mammals, in turn, such as elephants and indeed chimpanzees, living in the wild, have been reduced to mere pockets, or dots, within their former habitats, too sparse and precaritised to thrive and innovate.

And then there are the animals that have been implicated in human history since the beginning of our quickened material innovations with the first urban settlements towards the end of the last Ice Age: the mice and rats, and then the dogs and cats, and other members of what James C. Scott has called ‘Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps’. Why haven’t they innovated? Arguably, they have, in the sense that human technological innovation has been a multispecies collaboration all along: some beings were constructing yokes and carts, other beings were grinding grains, other beings were pulling carts beneath their yokes, others were raising children, others were cleaning up food scraps that would otherwise turn into vectors of disease. Some of these beings were human, some were bovine, some canine, some feline, but they were all implicated in the common project that yielded up what we now think of as an exclusively human technological civilisation.

The second consideration has to do with the arbitrary limitation of the notion of the technological, or the technical, to the domain of tools. In its original scope ‘tekhne’ included any activity that involves the application of a skill, not just in the building and operation of tools, but also, for example, in wrestling, dancing, hunting, or storytelling. And we are only just now beginning to learn how to detect the ubiquity of tekhne of this sort throughout living nature. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been based on the generally unargued-for presupposition that intelligence, plus time, will always lead to complex, tool-using civilisations: it is this presumption that is at the basis of Drake’s equation, and of all attempts to statistically model the likelihood of finding intelligent –i.e., technological trace-leaving– civilisations, based on the number of known galaxies and stars, and the inferred estimate for the number of exoplanets, and, from there, the number of exoplanets capable of supporting life. But this reasoning excludes the possibility of the development of tekhnes within a given species’ history that leave no material trace, or that leave a material trace that we are not in a position to interpret as the intended outcome of intelligent activity.

Of course, material traces are crucial if we are scanning the heavens hoping to find Dyson spheres and like massive structures. But as Aristotle said, the celestial beings are divine, yet further away and difficult of access, while terrestrial living beings are perhaps less divine, yet all around us and ready to be studied. There is growing interest in recent years in animal communication, as one species after another —bats, prairie dogs—, previously thought lowly and dumb, turn out to have complex systems of social exchange of meaning. Whether this involves recursion or any of the other standard shibboleths that are set up to distinguish true language from mere language-like communication, is not of interest here. What is of interest, and what so far does not seem to have been considered by even the most enthusiastic defenders of animal language, is the possibility that these practices in various animal species, of which we presumably know only the tiniest part, involve innovation, refinement over time, and thus have what appears as a history to their practitioners. Thus, perhaps, there are master practitioners, who refine a call or a click in an original way, such that they are perceived by their conspecifics as something comparable to geniuses or visionaries. Thus, perhaps, too, there are young ones who strive to get the calls or clicks just right, and in their repetitions they discern a new way of doing it slightly differently, which excites them, and fills them with a sense of hope and promise about the future of their group and about their own place in it. There could be poets, bards, bodies of literature, transmitted orally or by electrical signal or some other means we haven’t considered.

There is no reason why, if such practices exist, they should be easily detectable by us, or even in principle detectable. We know that sperm whales transmit clicking routines from one pod to the other, and that these can quickly spread around the entire global ocean. It is not unreasonable to suppose that these new routines are perceived as technical innovations by the sperm whales themselves, and that some innovations might be received as particular works of genius or inspiration. There is no reason to suppose that if this is true of sperm whales, it should not be true of a vast number of other species whose distinctive practices fall outside of our notice. Some of these practices might be significantly older than human technology, and than human language, with significantly more time for the cumulative effects of refinement to turn the practice into something experienced from within as an ‘art’ in the fullest sense: dating back millions of years rather than hundreds of thousands as we can suppose is the case for the development of ‘proto-language’ in our hominid ancestors. But since it leaves no material trace, it is excluded from consideration in the search for signs of non-human intelligence.

This is, as far as I can tell, an arbitrary exclusion, based on the conflation of what are in fact two distinct questions: on the one hand, transformation of the material environment for prosthetic assistance in the pursuit of species-specific ends, which no species is doing nearly as intensively as human beings at present; and, on the other hand, refinement and innovation within a practice that is experienced by members of a species as a marker of that species’ own excellence.

First published at