Monday, November 06, 2006

E.T. smacks down Pharyngula

(Recently, Backseat Driving had the opportunity to interview E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial about Pharyngula's claim that alien intelligence is unlikely. Below is the transcript.)

Backseat Driving: E.T., thanks for taking time to answer my questions.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: EEEE TEEE PHONE HOME!

BD: Uh, that cliche got old a long time ago.

ET: Sorry baby - here in Hollywood, once you find a good schtick, you keep it.

BD: Okay. Your agent said you don't have much time, so let's get to it. What do you think of PZ Myer's statement in his Pharyngula blog: "Maybe, if we actually had accurate values for the [equation predicting whether other intelligent species exist], the expected number of spacefaring civilizations in our galaxy is something less than 1."

ET: He's wrong.

BD: Why?

ET: Well, first of all there's the classic documentary about my arrival here on your planet, now available on DVD with many wonderful extras.

BD: I have a feeling you make residuals off the movie.

ET: Maybe.

BD: Any other reasons why he's wrong? I mean, for people who think you're fictional.

ET: Well look, he's guilty of the same anthropocentrism he accuses Sagan of having when he says technological capability has only evolved once on earth. So what? It always evolves only once per planet, from the perspective of the first species to get it on that planet. That doesn't make it unique.

BD: I'm not sure I understand.

ET: Well, a good comparison is when my crabby old uncle got here. Uncle Deekchaynee landed here millions of years ago-

BD: Deekchaney?

ET: Yeah.

BD: What's he look like?

ET: You don't want to know.

BD: Ugh. I think I do know. Well, what about him?

ET: His first visit here was well over 300 million years ago, right after the very first insect species started to fly. They were the only animal with powered flight then - no birds, no pterosaurs, no bats, just one species of insect. If he had reasoned like PZ, he would've said, "only one species out of millions has ever evolved flight on a planet over 4 billion years old. Sounds like a fluke that won't repeat here, and is unlikely to exist anywhere else in the galaxy. The Search for Extraterrestrial Flight will find nothing."

BD: So the idea is that our current snapshot of earth's biology shouldn't be considered The End of History?

ET: Yeah. You've got another half-billion years or more before the oceans boil away, and you evolved in 65 million years after the dinosaurs died and opened up evolutionary niches. A lot could happen in the time earth has left.

BD: Okay, any other arguments against PZ's critique?

ET: The "technological intelligence" definition is arbitrary. Five million years ago, hominids had not much more technology than dolphins and chimps do now - mind if I smoke?

BD: I guess not.

ET: So back then, Earth would've completely failed PZ's test, when it was just a blink of a geologist's eye from going techno. (Pulls out cigar, lights it with a finger.)

BD: Wait a minute, I thought you meant cigarettes. That stuff is vile.

ET: Arnold gave it to me from his private stock.

BD: It's vile.

ET: (Sighs dramatically, puts out vile cigar.) What you have to consider is whether a trend towards greater intelligence is one of the countless ecological niches that life will explore multiple times, just like powered flight has evolved independently multiple times.

BD: So is getting smarter an evolutionary trend?

ET: Yes, it's ONE trend of many that animals explore. Many of the modern mammals are a lot smarter than their rodent-like ancestors. Pigs, dogs, elephants, and cetaceans are pretty smart - who knows where they could end up in a half-billion years? And lots of other primates besides you guys have travelled well down the big-brain path. Even octopi are pretty smart.

BD: But octopi have been around for what, hundreds of millions of years? They're not building spaceships.

ET: They have more time remaining than what they've used so far. You don't know what some of them will end up doing. Actually, I'd say getting smart isn't like powered flight so much as it's like gliding. Lots of species have explored gliding - squirrels, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish - so you have an indication from your one sample planet that on other planets, multicellular life with a high metabolism rate is going to explore getting smart, just as it will explore gliding and powered flight.

BD: Any last thoughts?

ET: Pharyngula is right that microbial life is dominant here and will be dominant elsewhere, but the question you're interested in is whether intelligence will happen on other planets enough times to make it likely that there's someone to talk to. You can't draw too many conclusions from your sample size of one biogenesis on one planet, but what evidence you have is promising.

BD: Okay, thanks E.T.

ET: Just call me E, baby, call me E. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention - PZ does a great job with Pharyngula, it's just in this case that he's wrong. Gotta go! We'll do lunch, sometime soon.


(Welcome, Tangled Bank readers! Would love to hear your comments, and please feel free to check out Backseat Driving's main page.)

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