i usually dislike those “uwu humans are special, look how weird we’d be to aliens” posts because you know what? buddy idk how to tell you this but if anything were out there that could build a vehicle capable of taking them all the way out here, they’ve probably got plenty of courage and curiosity of their own and i doubt they’d be surprised by a microwave or ice cream
you know what would be kind of interesting? what i’d be curious if, compared to some other sentient thing would turn out to be uniquely human among sentient races?
how damn social we are
now, sure, if you’re an evolutionary psychologist or biologist you might be thinking, hold up yo! there’s overwhelming evidence that our highly social natures drove our evolution. and i’d say, yeah. that’s exactly right. a fascinating combination of competition and cooperation resulting from our social structure led us to becoming as intelligent as we are. and we are, after all, the smartest things on the planet–in light of recent political events, it might seem questionable, but I assure you it’s true.
but my question is: what if that isn’t a pre-req for intelligence? what if there are other paths to sentience? if you think i’m purely speculating, let me tell you something: there are things that live in the depths of the ocean, and they are deadly hunters, largely asocial, and terrifyingly intelligent, yet very alien to us.
yeah, i’m talking about the octopus. octopus are mollusks. they have few hard parts in their bodies (to the point they can squeeze themselves through nearly anything they can fit their beak through), they have, in effect, tiny “brains” that control each tentacle–their arms truly are semi-autonomous in a way that our arms are not, because we do not have such complicated reflexes; our limbs are limited to largely “avoid-pain” while their limbs aid in hunting and feeding. Many species can control the texture and color of their skin and are speculated to use this as a form of communication. they live in the depths of the ocean, in darkness and water. in short, it’s hard to imagine a creature more alien to us.
and yet they are incredibly intelligent. anecdotally, while i work in human cognition, i have colleagues who study animal cognition. one worked in an octopus lab. i was asking about what it was like, and she told me that honestly, it was a huge pain–anyone who has worked in an animal lab knows that this is not unique, but her reasons were. “they could be kind of unnerving,” she told me. “sometimes during feeding it just felt like they were watching me. i mean they were, but it felt very intentional,” and then she laughed. “but they were very smart, even outside of the research. we had difficulty keeping them contained or getting them to do things they don’t want to. they were scary good at escaping, and they seemed to have memorized our schedules to time their escapes that way.”
while at a conference in chicago two years ago, my colleagues and i decided to visit the aquarium. i was able to speak briefly to a trainer about the octopus there: when i saw the exhibit, i was surprised at first to see this enormous grayish thing in the water, tentacles flowing like smoke, carefully manipulating colorful shapes in its tank. it had several of them, along with what appeared to be foam blocks, and something that might have been a puzzle. they looked like baby toys, or the kind of enrichment i’d expect with apes, but i’d been surprised to see that they gave them to an octopus.
it seems that the best theory as to why octopuses evolved such intelligence has to do with the difficulty of their native environments. they are hunters, but they must be effective at catching a variety of different prey types in order to survive, and so they must be able to come up with a variety of different strategies–and have nearly as many strategies to evade any predators of their own. these are very different reasons from our ancestors’ social pressures. yet they are intelligent, and effective (check out the mimic octopus sometime, a particularly clever animal with some particularly clever strategies) hunters, and anecdotally, i hear they seem to be curious about the world around them sometimes.
imagine then if alien life resembled them more than us. what would they be like? intelligent enough to get here, and able to at least tolerate each other’s presence and cooperate for a common goal. but they’d probably see us, and our intensely social nature, and maybe find that a little strange. because sure, talking to other people can be interesting, but then we go home…and like to live around other people? to keep in contact with our families as often as humans do, and not just that, but work for the good of the family unit? to not just tolerate, but enjoy each others’ presence? and the degree to which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for others–now that would just be beyond their understanding, that would be a weird alien mindset (there’s evidence, by the way, that even on earth, in reality, our degree of altruism may be unique to us. while altruism commonly varies as a degree of relatedness in social animals–in essence, the more related, the more of your own genes are in that other being, and so you’re more likely to help them, which is ultimately helping your genes survive–even our closest simian relatives don’t seem to take altruism as far as we do).
so if you were looking for something uniquely human, regardless of hypothetical aliens, something really beautiful about us, the fact is that humans love each other a whole lot. we have such strong affiliative bonds that we seek each others’ company all the damn time and unlike crows and dogs and bonobos and every other social animal on the planet, we alone really know what we’re doing. we make sacrifices that we understand for one another because that is the depth of our love for humans. we find meaning in each others’ existence.
and just think: people use the term “humanity” as a synonym for compassion for other people. is that interesting or what?