Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve?

The face of a jumping spider

Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.

METI International
METI International


At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.

Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.

Doug Vakoch, President METI Institute
Dr. Douglas Vakoch is a Professor of clinical psychology and the founder and president of METI International. Photo by Mara Lavitt, used with permission.

We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.

In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.
Dr. Anna Dornhaus
Dr. Anna Dornhaus is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, and a presenter at the Puerto Rico conference

For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.

But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.

The cathedral termite mound
Termite mounds demonstrate that architecture and agriculture are not unique to humans. Housing one to two million inhabitants, they can reach 5 meters (17 feet) or more in height, and also extend beneath the surface of the ground. They are organized to ensure that appropriate levels of oxygen, moisture, and temperature are maintained. Although the inhabitants of a termite mound collectively weigh only 15 kilograms (33 lb), a typical mound will, in an average year, move a quarter of a metric ton (550 lb) of soil, and several tons of water. Using carefully prepared plant materials, termites “farm” a species of fungus that occupies eight times more space in the mound than they do. Photo taken by Brain Voon Yee Yap of cathedral termite mounds in the Northern Territories of Australia for open use.

Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.

Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.

The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.

Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.

Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.

There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.

Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.

For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.

Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.

In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.

For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.

Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.

Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.

Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging. Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Tonn, S. (2015) Termites are teaching architects to design super-efficient skyscrapers. Wired Magazine.

Where Are The Aliens? How The ‘Great Filter’ Could Affect Tech Advances In Space

“One of the main things we’re focused on is the notion of existential risk, getting a sense of what the probability of human extinction is,” said Andrew Snyder-Beattie, who recently wrote a piece on the “Great Filter” for Ars Technica.

As Snyder-Beattie explained in the article, the “Great Filter” is a response to the question of why we can’t see any alien civilizations. The “Great Filter” deals with similar issues as the Drake Equation, which talks about the probability of communicating civilizations outside of Earth, and the Fermi Paradox, which asks where the civilizations are.

Simply speaking, the idea is that if a civilization continues to expand (especially at the technological pace we humans have experienced), it wouldn’t take all that long in the lifespan of the universe for artificial processes to be visible with our own telescopes. Yes, this is even taking into account a presumed speed limit of no more than the speed of light. So something could be preventing these civilizations from showing up. That’s an important part of the Great Filter, but more details about it are below.

Here are a few possibilities for why the filter exists, both from Snyder-Beattie and from the person who first named the Great Filter, Robin Hanson, in 1996.

‘Rare Earth’ hypothesis

Maybe Earth is alone in the universe. While some might assume life must be relatively common since it arose here, Snyder-Beattie points to observation selection effects as complicating this analysis.  With a sample size of one (only ourselves as the observers), it is hard to determine the probability of life arising – we could very well be alone.  By one token, that’s a “comforting” thought, he added, because it could mean there is no single catastrophic event that befalls all civilizations.

Artists impression of an asteroid flying by Earth. Credit: NASA
Artists impression of an asteroid flying by Earth. Credit: NASA

Advanced civilizations are hard to get

Hanson doesn’t believe that one. One step would be going from modestly intelligent mammals to human-like abilities, and another would be the step from human-like abilities to advanced civilizations.  It only took a few million years to go from modestly intelligent animals to humans. “If you killed all humans on Earth, but you left life on Earth — and the animals have big brains — it wouldn’t necessarily be that long before it came back again.” Some of the filter steps leading up to that would have taken longer, though, including the emergence of multicellular animals and the emergence of brains, roughly on the timespan of a billion years each per stage.

‘The Berserker Scenario’

In this scenario, powerful aliens sit hiding in wait to destroy any visible intelligence that appears.  Hanson doesn’t believe that would work because if there were multiple berserker species, there would be opposing parties. “As an equilibrium, you’d have these competing teams of these berserkers all trying to smash each other.”

Maybe natural activities are masking the extraterrestrials

Maybe the big natural activities of those beyond Earth just happens to look exactly as if they are not there. Hanson said it seems rather unlikely, as it would be a “remarkable coincidence” if advanced artificial processes were actually responsible for all the astronomical phenomena we do explain from natural occurrences,- from pulsars to dark matter

Artist's conception of a gamma-ray pulsar. Gamma rays are shown in purple, and radio radiation in green. Credit: NASA/Fermi/Cruz de Wilde
Artist’s conception of a gamma-ray pulsar. Gamma rays are shown in purple, and radio radiation in green. Credit: NASA/Fermi/Cruz de Wilde

A natural disaster

There certainly is an inherent risk to just being an Earthling. One asteroid strike, a stream of radiation from a nearby supernova, or a large enough volcano could end civilization as we know it — and possibly much of life itself. “But the consensus is we have a track record of surviving these things. But it’s unlikely that all life would be destroyed forever. “If those humans who were left, it took them 10,000 years to come back to civilization, that’s hardly a blink of an eye, that doesn’t do it,” Hanson said. The next is that statistically speaking, although these events happen, they don’t happen often. “It is unlikely one of these very rare events would happen in the next century or 300 years,” Snyder-Beattie said.

A ‘fundamental technology’ that ends civilization

This is open to complete speculation. For example, climate change could be the catalyst, although it would seem extraordinary for all civilizations to encounter such similar political failures, Snyder-Beattie said. More generalized possibilities could be the rise of machine intelligence or distributed biotechnology, a force that is self-replicated. Hanson, however, points out that even that has its limitations — presumably then it would be the robots that head out through the cosmos and leave traces of civilization themselves.

The solution

For the fate of our own civilization, the key is to focus on what we can control, Hanson says. This means drawing up a list of the things that could kill us — however theoretical — and then work on ways of addressing those.

The question of why other civilizations are not visible still persists, however. What are your thoughts about the Great Filter? Let us know in the comments.

How Would Earth Send Messages To A Starship — Or A Distant Civilization?

I have a new exercise routine where I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation most mornings of the week while doing my thing. Besides serving as awesome distraction, the episodes do get me thinking about how humans would talk to extraterrestrials. It likely wouldn’t be as easy as the show portrays to zoom across space to conduct diplomatic negotiations at the planet “Parliament”, for example, so interstellar communication would be a problem.

Luckily for non-engineers such as me, there are folks out there (on Earth, at least) that are examining the problem of talking between stars. David Messerschmitt, of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those people. A new paper by him on Arxiv examines the issue. Note this is a preprint site and not a peer-reviewed journal, but all the same it provides an intriguing addition to how to communicate outside of Earth.

Messerschmitt explains that humans already communicate with probes that are a fair distance from Earth (say, Voyager 1 in interstellar space) at radio frequencies, and there is some usage now of laser/optical communications (namely between the Earth and the moon).

Across greater distances, however, you lose information, the interstellar medium gets in the way, and stars shift due to relative motion. Besides all that, at first you wouldn’t know how the other civilization designs its systems and you could therefore send a message that wouldn’t be picked up.

This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia
This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia

He further explains that starships and civilizations would have different communications requirements. Starship communication would be two-way and based on a similar design, so success comes by having high “uplink and downlink transmit times”. The more information, the better it would be for scientific observations and keeping down errors.

Civilization-to-civilization chats, however, would present headaches. As with all diplomatic negotiations, crafting suitable messages would take time. Then we’d have to send the message out repeatedly to make sure it is heard (which actually means that reliability is not as big of a problem.) Then the ISM would have to be contended with (something that pulsar astronomers and astrophysicists are already working on, he said).

In either case — talking to starships or other civilizations — one can assume there’d be a lot of energy involved, he added. “Starships are likely to be much closer than the nearest civilizations, but the cost of either a large transmit antenna or transmit energy is likely to be considerably greater for the starship than for a terrestrial-based transmitter,” he said, suggesting that a solution would be to minimize the energy delivered to the receiver. Other civilizations may have found more efficient ways to overcome this problem, he added.

You can read more details of the research on Arxiv, where Messerschmitt talks about Gaussian noise, channel coding and other parameters to keep in mind during communication.