fluorescent tentacles and red fluorescence in its body,
owing to the chlorophyll in gobbled-up algae.
Could we detect any evidence of intelligent signaling
in such a creature if it were an alien species?
Credit: Mikhail Matz, Islands in the Stream
But how can we truly
gauge the workings of an alien mind?
The project compares various non-human intelligences - including animals, microbes and machines - to each other (rather than humans) and across several categories of behavior and mental capability.
The research could be critical to astrobiology, which relies heavily on understanding Earthlings to gauge what's possible on other planets.
Across the dizzying array of Earth's
biota, "intelligence" is an awfully tricky thing to pin down.
Historically, we've often defined intelligence in other beings based
on how much it resembles our own. We collect sound patterns from
whales that could qualify as language, seize upon rudimentary tool
use by crows, and admire the social complexity of elephant
She is the research director and founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, an organization that has studied a dolphin pod for nearly three decades to learn about the animals' behaviors, social structure and more.
Many scientists consider dolphins
(technically, porpoises; "dolphin" is a common name given to the
animal) among the most intelligent creatures on Earth, perhaps on
par with non-human primates.
We have focused on physical traits, such as brain size relative to body mass. We have also put species through their paces doing the sorts of things we consider hallmarks of our own superior brainpower, like puzzle-solving and understanding gestural or acoustic language.
A third measure of intelligence, that of complex signaling and communication, has recently gained ground.
Thanks to breakthroughs with pattern recognition by computers along with other software, we now have the tools to gather and parse the data necessary for assessing this dimension.
An example is comparing long segments of dolphin
vocalization to listen for repeated elements and apparent
syntactical arrangements amidst the clicks, whistles and squeaks.
Denise Herzing of the Wild Dolphin Project at work,
studying communication within the same dolphin pod,
a project she has maintained for almost 30 years.
Credit: Wild Dolphin
But the engineering marvels of a termite mound - internal temperature control, ventilation, cultivated fungal gardens - should not be sneezed at, either. As individuals, termites are not very smart or capable.
But as a collective "hive mind," the creatures accomplish incredible feats.
She recruited a small number of
scientists, from astrobiologists to a computer scientist, to weigh
in on five dimensions of intelligence across several distinctly
Each of these categories was broken down
into further, more defined attributes. To cite one example from
each, respectively: neural specializations, natural repertoire, role
flexibility, alliances/cooperation, and cross-species altruism.
Experts assessed five sources of conceivable intelligence for the study, drawn from categories created by the University of Emory's Lori Marino and York University's Kathyrn Denning for the SETI Institute's "Intelligence in Astrobiology" project.
The specific assessed examples were dolphins, octopuses, bees, microbes and machines.
Each of these entities, in different ways, successfully copes and exploits its environment for survival (or as might be said for the machine, to function as programmed).
Instances of attributes include the complex communications in dolphins, the associative learning in octopuses, the "waggle dancing" bees use to tell their fellows the location of food, the group-beneficial behavior within microbial colonies, and machines' computational power.
Each demonstrated areas of high and low potential, with some interesting similarities and dissimilarities coming to light. Both bees and machines scored highly in the communication signal and social complexity categories.
Dolphins, octopuses and machine all
racked up big encephalization (neural complexity) points. Microbes -
easily mistaken by us humans for lacking social abilities - scored
relatively high in the interspecies interaction category.
Future versions of COMPLEX could also seek to address oversimplifications of painting a type of creature with too broad a brush.
For example, "microbes" is an umbrella
term for plankton (plants and animals), fungi, bacteria, Archae and
more, covering a continuum of behavior and activity. Thus, all
microbes would not rate the same. Herzing said it is one of the
goals of COMPLEX to tease out such divisions.
How can we not judge something by human standards, looking through human eyes and calculating with a human brain?
The "waggle dance" of honeybees informs hivemates of the location of food.
(Notably, a number of astrobiologists
think that technologically advanced spacefaring aliens might well be
"post-biological," which is to say robotic.)
Assessing well-studied, non-human intelligences here on Earth could open up new conceptual windows.
But it might not automatically lend itself to cracking the code of potential alien intelligences, especially ones just "glimpsed" by our robotic probes or eventual interplanetary and interstellar astronauts.
Every little bit of insight could prove helpful in getting us ready - and willing - to consider the scope of alien intelligences similar to or radically dissimilar from our own.
After all, we struggle to grasp just what intelligence is, even when it's right under our noses.
Denise L Herzing, "Profiling
nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for
describing other "types" of intelligence on earth," Acta
Astronautica, Volume 94, Issue 2, February 2014, Pages 676-680, ISSN