by the Evil Dr. Schmitt-Rottluff, staff writer.
What would an alien mind be like?
Would it share any commonality with the human mind, our human way of thinking? Of necessity, an alien mind would be social. It would be hierarchical in that it would be built up in layers of more simple building blocks, but also because social environments are hierarchical.
Society is a contract between individuals, none of whom are obviously superior to one or another in a quantifiable fashion across a number of different criteria of physical or mental attributes.
It is difficult to conceive of a solitary creature, roaming a home environment in small numbers, at the top of its food chain, achieving even rudimentary reasoning skills, especially math and physics, well enough to contemplate a flush toilet, let alone something as complex and requiring as much long-term investment of surplus blood and treasure as interstellar flight.
While aliens at an early stone age or ‘early-hominid’ stage of development can’t be ruled out, even aliens only recently uplifted from the animal stage would have recognizable features of thought and behaviour in common with ourselves. While they might be merely analogous, they would easily be ‘anthropomorphosized’ into recognizable pattterns of behaviour. We might see something that resembled politics, and economics, if we looked close enough. A large group of them would have to be organized and they would have to develop systems to feed large numbers.
Looking at life on Earth, fairly intelligent creatures such as whales, dolphins and orcas are probably at the limit of what can be achieved in terms of brain and mental development in a natural environment, because they are perfectly evolved for the environment they live in, unlike humans. We are less perfectly evolved to live in a pristinely wild environment considering our weak teeth and puny muscles. Compared to a cat one-tenth our size, it is not just white men that can’t jump.
A current theory is that when climate change caused our maternal-primordial forest to shrink and die back, man left the trees and went out onto the plain, where we were forced to cooperate in hunting and gathering, forced to communicate and walk upright by the challenges of a new environment and more complex tasks. Whales and dolphins might become extinct, because there is no possibility of a new environment for them. I think a successful alien species with anything like our own level of innate intelligence would be an unspecialized creature. One that is not perfectly evolved for its present or past environments. They must have been forced into adaptation at exactly the right point in the development of certain skills, certain cognitive characteristics.
They would have to be social, and physically they must be capable of communicating and cooperative endeavours. They must have had the right balance of aggression and submission. They may have already been inclined to some sort of species-altruism, where un-mated sisters for example help in raising a brood not their own. This is not uncommon, even ducks and geese do this. But this is in fact where behaviour, and surely behaviour stems from the mind as well as the instincts, resembles our own. We can identify in some anthropomorphic fashion with the mothering instincts of, for want of a better term, ‘lower life-forms.’ How the aliens conceive and rear their young will have a great deal of impact in terms of the ‘recognizability’ of their behaviours and therefore their minds.
If they lay eggs in vast numbers in water and then abandon them, the sort of bonding humans are capable of may be quite alien to them. No matter how social and hierarchical the rest of their lives are, even if they hatch out, crawl up on land and then get put by some benevolent authority into ‘alien-lizard kindergarten,’ the relationship between mother and child is simply non-existent. Our behaviour would no doubt appear irrational in their eyes.
Conceivably such creatures might have a lot less empathy than we would expect to be normal in a properly socialized human individual. “A sentient being may be defined as one which is capable of irrational behaviour.” That’s a pretty loaded statement and not without its pithy humour. But a perfectly adapted animal, has only as much intelligence as it needs and no more—it may be a creature of almost pure emotion, such as a cat or a dog. Maybe a horse can count to ten, crows almost certainly. But it needs no higher reasoning skills and so it doesn’t develop them. In nature, such things are a luxury quickly dispensed with.
Thinking takes calories—energy, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Such is Nature’s attitude. A lion or tiger cannot become ‘insane’ unless it is stressed due to some physical injury or changes in the environment. The mass beaching of whales and dolphins can be attributed in most cases to physical causes. I don’t believe that it is mass insanity, no do I believe that a whole group would follow a leader into hazard. Physical causes probably include sonar and other detection and communication gear from submarines, frigates and undersea arrays as well as pollution or even simple silting of the water. The animals may be confused—and confusion of perception may be akin to insanity—but a perfectly evolved creature is extremely unlikely to develop neuroses in its natural environment. Take it out of that natural environment, and it’s another story.
Captive zoo animals exhibit all sorts of ‘irrational’ behaviours, neuroses, which are caused by the constriction and artificiality of the environment. The same is true of humans. We are not perfectly adapted to our surroundings, natural or artificial, and yet neither have we successfully adapted our environment to our needs, not completely.
Not everyone gets what they need from this environment. We have ‘status-deficits,’ with too many qualified to be chiefs; there is just no way everyone can have all the power and status that they feel they deserve. This leads to conflict.
In an alien species, one would assume they can communicate, they have individuality, and they would recognize each other as individuals. They would have to, because of the need for specialization and division of labour in otherwise not-perfectly-adapted creatures, in a complex relationship of a cooperative nature. This specialization and division of labour is a requirement in the building of some higher culture that uses symbols and has arbitrary power structures to serve not the needs so much of the individual, but the culture as a whole; what we call ‘society.’
“Thinking is sometimes described as a ‘higher’ cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools, to understand cause and effect, to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.” –Wikipedia
Any sentient creature must at least pay homage in some way to this definition.
The Mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind
The Brain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain
Photo: Gaetan Lee, Wiki Commons. The chimpanzee's brain is extremely similar to our own, which supports the hypothesis that we had all the prerequisites to adapt to a different environment millions of years ago.