16 February 2010

Aliens, dogs, Koko the gorilla, etc.

The Big Questions | Steve Landsburg | Stuff I Don’t Get

3. There are something like three million non-human species on earth and so far we can’t communicate with any of them. So why would anyone think it likely that we’d be able to communicate with extraterrestrial species, even if they’re capable of sending signals through space?
(Sorry to whichever comic book letterer I pinched the Materlinck quote from.  It's not even entirely relevant to the Landsburg point above, but I felt like posting both of these things and they seem related to me right now.)

As far as Lansdburg's actual question, I'd agree that xeno-communication is bound to be much more difficult than commonly depicted.  However, we're not just presuming we're going to try to communicate with an alien species, but that we're trying to communicate with an intelligent alien species.

There are three million species on Earth, but only a score or so can recognize themselves in a mirror.  Scant few can use tools.  Maybe a half dozen are capable of the abstract thought necessary to lie.  Of these we can communicate a tiny bit and in at least one direction with dogs, some primates, and some marine mammals.  Maybe horses too.  (I don't know, I'm ball-parking all of these estimates wildly, but I think I'm in the right order-of-magnitude.)

I think it's a safe presumption that whatever alien builds a telescope or space probe or whatnot will be at least as intelligent as these animals, and so we might actually have more in common with ET than with a dumber animal from our own neck of the woods.

Of course it's possible ET won't be like an animal at all: maybe they'll be a weird hive mind that doesn't need to communicate as such, or be something like a slime mold that doesn't even have individual bodies, or maybe they'll have extremely brief or extremely long lives making communication on a human time scale impossible.  I have no idea, but I'm not sure the comparison to Earth-bound inter-species communication is especially relevant.

No comments:

Post a Comment