If asked whether you would rather be a human being or part of a layer of vegetative slime, even cool extraterrestrial slime, chances are good that you’d rather be the life form with the brain. And there’s a reason for that: humans think, feel emotions, communicate, and form social connections, and we’ve become rather attached to doing so. Even the willingness to decide between being human and being unicellular indicates that you’re not quite ready for a prokaryotic state.
But as much as we might value our ability to think, there’s not much of a good biological reason for it. In fact, until we manage consistent space travel and stable colonies throughout the galaxy, our intelligence is more of a liability than anything else.
Why might intelligence be a liability?
Because it makes us fragile, on a species level. Humans and mammals in general – all complex life, really, but humans and other mammals especially – require a tremendous amount of energy in order to survive. Our size, complex organ systems, and brain all contribute to a fairly high metabolism. Starting millions of years ago, this high energy usage meant we ate a lot and so had to search further, or with greater difficulty, for food sources, which in turn necessitated more energy input. If there is no way for energy input to reliably keep happening…some fairly awful shenanigans began to happen -- we fight off competition in order to dominate all possible resources, and things go wrong from there. Plants choke out weaker plants, wolves chase other predators away from their territory when they can, and humans wage war.
If we had stayed photo- or chemo-receptive sludge, we wouldn’t have had these kinds of problems.
There’s also an enormous amount of fragility to keep in mind when you’re towards the top of the food web because there’s so much reliance on others to produce and act as our food. There’s the old truism that if you take a simpler life-form out of the food chain, the majority of what is above it will die out, but if you remove humans all other life will flourish. While this is primarily an environmentalist thing, the panic over the disappearing bees in the past several years has given the sentiment quite a bit of validity: without honeybees, we directly lose large percentages of fruit. Less directly, we start to lose everything that lost the fruit.
Why ask if intelligence is necessary?
This whole thing started with an article about the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe. The article said 'probably not' – that intelligence is potentially just an evolutionary fluke. And this, also potentially, makes a great deal of sense.
Advanced intelligent life spends a lot of time and effort on things that don’t really propagate life or the species as a whole – like thinking about alien invasion novels, for one – and must consume a large amount of resources to stay alive, resources we’re lucky enough to have.
That sludge that none of us wanted to be, however, stands a really good chance of never facing even the possibility of extinction until the Sun consumes the planet. And a several billion years stretch isn’t too shabby. Prokaryotes are fairly stationary, require low amounts of energy, can essentially create their own food, and reproduce far more prodigiously than anything that has separate cells solely devoted to reproduction can – especially in comparison to complex and intelligent animals like mammals, who have pregnancy measured in terms of weeks and months. The only risk they face is the fairly immutable threat of aging stars, another dinosaur killer (and even that might not be enough), or similar events on an astronomical scale.
Stephen Hawking, who I’ve mentioned in a few posts because he repeatedly says contacting intelligent extra-terrestrials is a fucking bad idea (which it almost certainly is), also has something to say about the likelihood of intelligent extra-terrestrial life altogether. Maybe intelligence is just an accident, and organisms on other planets kept it basic. Or, he says, even if you choose to think that some form of intelligence is a universal thing in evolution, intelligent life could still be really rare. The universe is nearly 14 billion years old, and it took us 2.5 billion years for Earth’s life to get where it is now.
And ‘now’ for us, despite quite a bit of intelligence and diversity of life, means sporadic forays into the most local bit of space, as well as sending signals out into the galaxy when we know that they easily break down, fade, or don’t have much of a change of reaching life, let alone life that can catch and understand it.
So maybe the ‘now’ for other worlds is the evolving of complex but not yet intelligent life, unchanging prokaryotic status, or absolutely nothing at all. Or they acting out the constantly creepifying Zoo Hypothesis.
This easily digresses into multiple potential responses to the Fermi Paradox, but the central question is still: is intelligence necessary?
The answer, for he next several billion years, might be ‘not really.’ So far, intelligence has promoted individual (and societal, for a lucky few) longevity, especially in the last several hundred years. But conflicts due to limited resources and a bunch of issues only things that think, communicate, and have social formations can create have put the potential whole of our advanced human species at risk again and again. If overpopulation goes all Malthusian on us, it might have been wiser to stay unicellular.
Until the Sun effectively eats the planet, that is.
The point of all this isn’t to say that intelligence isn’t awesome. It just might be a random evolutionary trend that doesn’t contribute much to the propagation of any given species.
Of course, I’m firmly on the ‘let’s not be sludge’ side of things; I like to think that intelligence is necessary, vital, self-propagating, and all sorts of positive adjectives. We just need to set up a wide array of space colonies to prove it.
If you have an opinion, argument, and or anything you'd like to say about intelligent alien life or evolution, feel free to use your evolutionary prerogative: leave a comment below!
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.