Huge means are used to find out if intelligent aliens are present in the universe, but the very definition of intelligence is still unclear. This may be because we fail to acknowledge the cognition abilities of some species, as intelligence and cognition abilities evolve within the range of each species . This is due to our natural tendency to look for human significance in the behaviour of animals. But we must remember that Earth is already filled with animals displaying impressive cognition abilities waiting to be studied and understood.
During the warm summer nights in France, one of my favourite activity is to go in a field, lay down in the grass and stare at the stars. When the night sky is free of light pollution, the sight of these thousands of stars is always majestuous. Seeing all these bright points, some being millions of light-year away, make one’s realize how vast the universe is. And how lonely this place can be, as Earth is the only known planet to harbour life.
In fact, the universe is so big that it is curious we haven’t found any trace or evidence of alien life so far. We know there is a large number of potential planets that could sustain life, and that basic chemicals needed for life are abundant. Because of this, it is expected that even intelligent life forms should be common. Yet after decades of searching and regular claims that alien life is going to be found soon, Earth is still the only known place in the cosmos where life exists. Even if simple life forms may be discovered some day, the distances separating planets and stars are so enormous that stumbling into an intelligent alien will probably never happen.
But let’s imagine we do find an alien life form. Or the alien finds us, it works also. If the nature of this life form is complex enough, we would want to know how intelligent this alien is. But how is intelligence defined? As surprising as it might sound, there’s no clear definition for it. But we still have a lot of studies investigating animal intelligence and cognition that gives us some hint. While coming up with a precise definition of intelligence is not easy, seeing animal behaviour through the lens of evolution shows us an important fact: human intelligence cannot and should not be the reference of intelligence and cognition.
It’s a fact that matters a lot to understand animal cognition. We naturally attribute human emotions and significance to other animal’s behaviours: it is a phenomenon called anthropomorphism. Interaction between humans and domesticated animals, such as dogs, gives everyday examples of anthropomorphism. One case investigated recently is about the feeling of guilt in dogs. When dogs are doing a “bad” action (such as destroying the living room), many owners are claiming that they dog expresses guiltiness once found out. Indeed, the dog seemingly expresses submission and some sort of a sad face. But it is all in our head: dogs don’t feel guilt. As humans, we do feel guilt when we’re confronted to an action with negative consequences we made. And by association process, we might be tricked to think that some other animals do – while they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, dogs are still intelligent animals. There are countless tasks and actions they can achieve that require a high degree of cognition abilities. Nevertheless, the example of anthropomorphism tells us an important lesson: our relations with other animals are biased. And because we look for human traits in non-human species, we might fail to recognize the intelligence of other species. We have to remember that as we are different species, we evolved in different environments and have different needs. Because of these different needs, we need to perform different tasks, in different ways, and this leads to the evolution of different forms of intelligence. Each species have intelligence and cognition abilities that evolved with their own needs, and are perfectly suited for whatever interactions they must have with their own environment. Each animal species have their own intelligence, and all of them are different, and certainly not human like.
We do have examples of animal species that are really distant from us, yet with a high degree of cognition abilities. My favourite is with octopuses. Octopuses are closer to jellyfishes than to fishes, and we are ourselves closer to fishes than to jellyfishes. They evolved in an environment totally different than ours (them in water, us on land), which is so hostile to us that we would die in about 3 minutes as we cannot naturally breathe underwater. Put simply, octopuses are aliens to us. But we know for sure that they exhibit a degree of cognition and a range of behaviours that is properly stunning, so stunning that there are books about it and even laws protecting octopuses. Yet, if you go to a Japanese restaurant and tell the customers they are eating creatures that may be as intelligent as their dog, they will most probably think you are crazy.
Now, how about recognizing intelligent aliens that would have evolved on an other planet, when we failed to recognize the cognition abilities of some species on Earth until recently? Of course looking for life forms outside of Earth should be continued, as it would provide fantastic insights into how life evolve in different conditions. It should be kept in mind however, that Earth is filled with countless examples of intelligent creatures. It is all up to us and at our reach to understand and study them. And when you consider that we know so few of the million of species we described out of the 10-15 millions present on our planet, there is for sure a lot of surprising things waiting to be discovered.
The next time you’ll go out at night, wonder at the stars and ask yourself if we are alone in the universe, remember that you don’t have to look out in space to meet intelligent aliens: we have all the creatures we need here. Even if we don’t understand them.