Saturday, July 12, 2008

Interspecies Communication

I was thinking today in a stairwell (where I do most of my best thinking) about human intelligence, and although I sometimes wonder if we overestimate ourselves, today we seemed a pretty incredible phenomenon. Then visions of eternity snuck into the picture, and I wondered whether the intelligence native to those of us alive in 2008 would be intelligible to whatever descendents follow us in, say, the year 100,000 A.D.

I thought there might be three possibilities: 1) They look back on us and understand our "major" keys but sort of don't understand our daily existences... maybe they have a grip on what religion was, for example, but not on exactly how we expected it to work (or whatever). 2) They look back on us as pre-"human" or something, precisely the way we think of cro-magnon. 3) They've been so burdened by their knowledge of history that they haven't been able to "evolve" in any significant ways. They're basically bookkeepers too frightened to make the break to Ubermensch territory.

Now I don't mean to make myself out to be Stephen Daedalus or anything, but all of this took about three seconds. Interesting enough, but then I wondered about the possibility of human lineage being somehow terminated (probably global warming, no doubt!).

I decided I could handle that, but that I was very uncomfortable with the idea of "intelligence" being extinct. Could it be preserved, I wondered? Could we somehow put the basics of our collective experience in an airtight steel orb and hope that curiosity would someday prompt another intelligent species to crack it open (imagine their surpise!)?

Key to this endeavor would be a way of thinking that, I believe, does not come naturally to us. In order to preserve some of our experience for a future intelligent species that is not derived from humanity, we would have to think about how other species think. I do not believe this comes naturally to us: whenever I have heard this topic approached it has been framed in terms of human intelligence: e.g., dolphins are, relative to humans, not as smart. We have taught chimps to identify some of our words and images. But what if we ask how chimps think without assuming they think less efficiently--what if we cease comparing? What do they know? How might we encapsulate our collective experience in a way that it might be intelligible to them if they ever stumbled upon it in the future? Is intelligence anything?

If I remember correctly, something like this was represented in the Jodie Foster movie, Contact. Or some movie like it. The scientists sent a kind of time capsule out into space with contents including basic arithmetic and geometry, assuming any intelligent species would have some notion of basic mathematics. I wonder if that's a safe assumption?

One of the marks of psychological maturity is being able to think like another person. I wonder if it's possible to think like another species?

Apologies for the length, again. I'm working on it.

1 comment:

EnthyAlias said...

National Geographic Channel aired a show last week on the idea of human extinction - the absence of human intelligence - called "Aftermath: Population Zero" . Nice, humbling thought experiment in how the world would live on without us micro-managing everything according to our intelligence. Check it out sometime if you want to contemplate the necessity of human life. We may be a remarkable phenomenon, but we and all of our stuff could be erased quite efficiently by basic chemistry (e.g. rusted steel leading to the natural decapitation of Lady Liberty) and unchecked vegetation.