Are We The Galaxy's Dumbest Civilization? : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread

Thursday January 31 09:17 AM EST

Are We The Galaxy's Dumbest Civilization?

By Seth Shostak SETI Institute,

What does it mean to be intelligent? I get this question a lot, given the fact that "intelligence" is the last word of the SETI acronym. "Is there intelligence on Earth?" wags will ask (and by so doing, make their query relevant). What defines a species as intelligent, and how do SETI researchers decide?

SETI folk are mostly interested in alien intelligence, not the brainpower of the local school kids. But investigating terrestrial IQs may help us estimate how often sentient beings evolve elsewhere. To test human intelligence is straightforward, if controversial. But how can we assess the brainpower of other critters? One approach taken by biologists is to compute an "encephalization quotient," which is really no more than a measure of how weighty the brain is for an animal of a given body size. Of course, bigger bodies usually mean bigger brains (compare – at least in your mind, if not the kitchen – the brain of a rhino to that of a mouse). But sheer size isn’t the whole story. Animals of any given mass have a variety of brain weights. Those with the heftier cerebrums are observed to have more sophisticated behavior, and are ranked as smarter. Humans, it will not surprise you to learn, have the largest brains for their body mass, roughly twice that of their nearest intellectual competitors, the chimps. That factor-of-two difference determines who runs the planet.

This is all interesting for studying the evolution of sentience, but in practice SETI has a far simpler definition of what it means to be intelligent: you’re "intelligent" if you can build a powerful laser or a thumping radio transmitter. After all, that’s what we demand if our SETI experiments are going to find something. In other words, the "intelligence" in SETI really means technical sophistication. By that very practical, operational definition, humans have been intelligent for less than a century.

In other words, when it comes to the type of intelligence that counts – at least for interstellar signaling – we’re new kids on the galactic block.

What about the other kids? How technically advanced will the aliens be? Keep in mind that the Galaxy has been around for many billions of years longer than the Earth. If extraterrestrials are plentiful, then we can expect them to be in all stages of development. But of course we won’t pick up signals from any that are less advanced than we are. Aliens that SETI can find will be at least as scientifically competent as folks here on Earth.

But would they be at about our level? After all, in the movies, they often are. The answer depends on only one thing: how long technological civilizations last. No one knows the lifetime of sophisticated societies, a fact that we’ve discussed in these columns before. Pessimists assume that within a few centuries, technological societies inevitably blow themselves – and their transmitters – to smithereens. Optimists suspect that the possibilities for a scientifically literate society will open the door to long-term survival: perhaps millions of years or more.

Frank Drake has estimated the average lifetime of technologically adept civilizations at 10 thousand years. This is not overly optimistic. After all, Homo sapiens has been around for 300,000 years, so another 10 thousand isn’t much. Indeed, it’s a bit of a downer to think that once technology gains a foothold we are near the end of our ride.

But suppose Drake is right. Then humans are in the bottom 1 percent of technological advancement, no matter how many civilizations are out there. We are among the new kids on the block, and if the number of alien societies is small or the average lifetime is larger, then we could easily be the newest kid.

Technological progress on Earth, at least recently, has been very fast. Indeed, the growth in computer power – one measure of our prowess – has been exponential. If this is a general phenomenon for intelligent societies, then we are incredibly primitive in comparison to more than 99% of the civilizations we could detect.

Is there intelligent life on Earth? By our standards, maybe. But by theirs, we are probably as dumb as doorknobs. I, for one, hope to develop a little humility.

-- (without@doubt.), January 31, 2002


Relax. Time and distance will keep our dirty little secret safe.

-- Carlos (, January 31, 2002.

It is fairly certain that Darwin's observations would generally hold true for any set of life forms in the universe. In which case, all evolutionary pressure is directed toward reproductive success. Weighed n those scales, the technological ability to generate intra-galactic signals of the sort that SETI searches for is not so much intelligence as it is useless noise - a quirk, a blip, an accident.

What we vallue most about our intelligence is probably what is the least valuable in terms of survival. That is why human-like intelligence is likely to be a much greater rarity in the universe than life itself. Our uniqueness is not that we are such perfect and godlike creatures. It is that we are such grotesque freaks of nature.

-- Little Nipper (, February 01, 2002.

I remember one of the shows that Carl Sagan did, looking back on his '70s show, he pretended to be on a space ship looking for other space going races and found none. He found remnants of a few that had blown themselves to bits and many others with no tool use at all, but no others that had developed the ability to leave their planets. He explained the pessimistic outlook as being the logical outcome of years of looking with SETI technology for other technology and finding none.

I'm not taking bets either way, myself.

-- Tricia the Canuck (jayles@telusplanet.ent), February 01, 2002.

On Remulac, our highest life-form has a much higher ratio of brain mass to body mass than that of humans.

-- (Coneheads@Remulac. and France), February 01, 2002.

Here in FatOlsonLand, we are much smarter than you sheeple, er humans. We can detect poison coming from aircraft that is undetectable to you sheeple, er humans. We "know" that crop circles are messages from our friends in other galaxies and tinfoil hats really do stop aliens from invading ones thoughts. Live long and prosper...

-- Bob Bildeberger (, February 01, 2002.



Dum-Dum is my name

Why I'm not dum

I'm just confused

Well I got brains I never used

But I lose them just the same

Dum-Dum is my name

-- (dum@dummer.), February 01, 2002.

Until we encounter another galactic civilization, it's a moot point. I say we are the galaxy's smartest civilization.

-- (, February 02, 2002.

"Until we encounter another galactic civilization, it's a moot point. I say we are the galaxy's smartest civilization.

-- ("

Oh, What star system are you from Lars?

-- Not From here (, February 08, 2002.

After all, Homo sapiens has been around for 300,000 years

Clearly, the author is not a geneticist.

As to intelligence: it was officially 61 F in town. My weather station recorded 51 F as the Max.

As I type this, my window is covered with moths; seeking the light. It should start snowing tomorrow. Nope, we aren't the stupidist species on the planet. We just try to be. ;o)))

Best Wishes,,,,


-- Z1X4Y7 (, February 08, 2002.

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