Are Humans Freaks of Nature?

The small but significant gap between humans and other animals on Earth may shed light on why we see no alien visitors.

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Who’s a smart boy?

At a symposium on Expanding Views on the Emergence of the Biosphere, held in Tokyo this week, British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris gave a talk on the connection between animals’ mental abilities and possible intelligent extraterrestrial life. Based on the abstract of his talk, I wish I’d been there, because he raises some provocative points.

Conway Morris is famous for, among other things, his 2003 book, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, which argued that evolution on other planets would come up with similar solutions to those we see on Earth, and that humanoids, or creatures functionally similar to them, are inevitable. He called this concept “convergent evolution.” His recent talk, however, makes a very different point, and seems to run counter to at least some of the suggestions in his earlier book.

The main point in the new talk is that animals are, to put it bluntly, rather dumb, and would never understand human reasoning or reach human mental abilities. Sure, certain animals, like crows and chimpanzees, can use tools to some degree, but there are limits to what they can do. Conway Morris maintains that they will never match human mental ability in terms of introspection and abstraction, nor will they understand jokes, irony, or complex numbers—all of which makes them unlikely to become intelligent space-faring aliens.

The argument that animals on Earth currently have very little understanding of human behavior makes sense (although my dog proves that wrong, at least sometimes). And it is clear that there is a significant intelligence gap between humans and all other animals on our planet. So animals indeed may not be the greatest analog for technologically advanced extraterrestrial life forms. (This may only hold true in terms of smartness, however—the diversity of living things on our planet suggests many possibilities for other aspects of alien life, including anatomy, communication, and social behavior.)

There is a deeper underlying question here. Since we doubtlessly did originate from animal ancestors, the gap between us and them must have been bridged at some point in time. Perhaps it was not a jump, but a continuous evolution. Were the mental abilities of the cavewoman or caveman really as advanced as today’s humans? How much ability for abstraction and appreciation of complex numbers did they have?

Since modern humans are the evidence that bridging the gap is possible, we might ask why it wasn’t bridged earlier, perhaps by an intelligent octopus, a smart dinosaur, a dolphin, or another ape? They’ve had millions more years to evolve than we have, but in their case the gap was not overcome. Are we really so special? If so, what it is it, exactly, that makes us special? Being a natural-born cyborg, as Andy Clark argues?

This lies at the core of the Fermi Paradox (or better called the Great Silence)—the puzzle of why we haven’t seen any spacefaring aliens. How often is the intelligence gap bridged on other planets? I agree with Conway Morris that we likely live in a Cosmic Zoo. And if  he still believes in his earlier principle of convergent evolution, would that not also extend to the rise of intelligent and technologically advanced aliens?

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