Sunday, July 03, 2005

SETI and elephant trunks

When I first heard about the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence program (SETI) and some years later watched the movie Contact from Carl Sagan I was really excited about the idea of a universe full of intelligent life forms such as those depicted in tv series like Star Trek and Stargate.
I wondered when and how the first contacts would happen, would it be something like the War of the Worlds or would it be something like E.T.?
The truth is that I don't care about this anymore.
The main argument of scientists that support the idea of extra terrestrial intelligence is that there are too many planets and stars out there in the galaxy and the odds of only one of them having intelligent life would be too low.
I agree with them in terms: I believe there is "life" in many other places in universe but not "intelligent" as we define.
To illustrate this I will use a metaphor I read in Steven's Pinkler book "How the mind works":

In a congress of the Elephant Search for Extra Terrestrial trunk program, a very wise senior scientist was finishing his argument about why the government should continue supporting the program:
-And as I proved mathematically, if we consider the age of the universe on around 4 billion years and if we consider that there are millions of galaxies in the universe and that in each of these galaxies there are millions of solar systems with tens of planets the odds are that there are at least some thousands of plantes harboring life at this exact moment. As everyone knows, the trunks we elephants have are extremely useful organs that can be used to drink water, take a shower, breath under water, grab apples from the trees and seveal other uses. This means that in these planets the life forms have had time enough to evolve and to create trunks -that is the paramount and goal of evolution- and thus our project will soon-at any moment- receive signs of civilizations with trunks somewhere in the universe.

The mistake of the elephant's argument is that a trunk is an organ that appeared by natural selection in one group of species and not in others and should the group of mutations that led to the trunk not happen, the concept of the organ trunk would never have existed. There are many other adaptations that can lead to a selective advantage and depending on the conditions of the planet, maybe pluricellular organisms would'nt even exist, maybe the plant would be flooded by bacteria.

The same point is to be used against intelligence, it's an adaptation that does not confer such an advantage as we may think, in fact the free will is an extremely dangerous bet since our "instincts" trained by our genes for generations are overwhelmed by our "rational" thoughts based on something we call common sense and logic. If it were not for the exctintion of the big predators on earth we human beings would surely not have reached a number big enough to survive and do some real use of our intelligence.