23 November 2010
I don't normally pick arguments with people named Neil. Especially a Neil who can destroy a planet[?]. But I've got a bone to pick with Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson.
At the end of his excellent Cosmic Quandaries lecture (at the 1:22:10 mark) he talks about comparative intelligence. There is only a 1% difference in the DNA between a chimpanzee and a human, yet there is a vast gap in cognitive power. Imagine if an alien had an additional 1% difference to humans. The result could be a creature who would be as incapable of having a conversation with us as we are we are of having a conversation with chimps. To them, quantum mechanics would be intuitive while they were in kindergarden.
My counter-argument relates to evolution's interaction with intelligence. It is logical to assume that all intelligent species become intelligent through incremental improvements driven by evolution. At a certain point the species becomes smart enough to plant crops, tame fire and develop germ theory. That's the point at which evolution stops driving up intelligence. In our society there is no reproductive advantage in being smarter than average. (Indeed, some have postulated the opposite.) On this basis I would posit that all intelligent alien species would be of roughly the same level of intelligence as us.
On the other hand, humans may currently be living in the eye of the hurricane. We have recently (over the past few thousand years) released ourselves from the forces of evolution but we may be about to subject ourselves to new forces of our own making. Whether it is the implantation of technology or the tweaking of genomes, there are powerful forces waiting to be unleashed which promise to enhance future generations far more rapidly than evolution. Should we so choose, future generations could be intelligently designed, who themselves could design the generation beyond. On this basis I would posit that intelligent alien species would be incomprehensibly more advanced than we are now.
Therefore I suggest that Dr Tyson's aliens would either be roughly equal to human intelligence (if they eschew self-modification), or else completely beyond comprehension. The one option I don't think likely is Dr Tyson's suggestion that they could be a chimp-human distance ahead of humans.
If you ever see an MRI trailer outside a hospital and have a simple compass or an Android phone with the Tricorder app, do a sweep of the trailer's sides. The MRI's multi-Tesla primary magnet is shielded (or else your belt buckle would be glued to the trailer wall), but there is enough leakage that it will peg your sensor off-scale high. If the MRI is in use (listen for irregular buzzing sounds) one can pick up the dynamic signature of the RF or gradient coils. Fun stuff.