Neil Tyson has always been such a fascinating figure to me. If my inclinations has not been toward technology but to science, he is doing exactly what I would have wanted to do with my career. The above video has always intrigued me as it poses one of those great ‘what if’ scenarios that my mind spend hours pondering.
The video came back to my mind earlier today when I was listening to the latest (albeit a repeat) podcast from Radiolab about Emergence. One of the segments, about ant colonies, made quite an impact on my sleepy mind during my morning commute. I highly recommend the podcast, both the episode and the series in general, and suggest you go listen to it before reading the rest of this post.
Ants, as individuals, are incredibly dumb, but get enough of them involved and they get crazy smart. No, they’re not chimps, but they when you get enough of them together, they do things that only our species seems to take for granted.
That got me thinking about 1%… ants are far less sophisticated than just 1% less than humans, but chimps are only that 1% less. Yet, Neil Tyson pointed to what beings from another planet, who were just 1% more advanced than we, would see us as we see the chimps. What exactly would be the differences between ourselves and these semi-mythical other-worldly beings? Lets take a look at where the differences might exist.
PhysiologicalProbably the most obvious difference in 1% of DNA would be physiological. They would frankly look different from us. Much of sci-fi literature portrays aliens as beings that are bi-pedal, carbon-based, oxygen-breathing humans. Some series go so far as to just slap another forehead on a human and BAM! you’ve got an alien.
Other sci-fi gets a little more interesting, thinking about silicon based, methane breathing, radiation eating or even hard vacuum living aliens. All of these things are interesting, but not what we’re here to think about. That 1% we’re talking about has everything to do with the mind and not the body.
But physiology can’t be ignored. As that Radiolab episode asks, what exactly is a mind? Is it nothing more than just a firing pattern of neurons? Where is the 'self’ we think of when we ponder our own existence? If the 1% difference is concentrated outside the mind, is it really all that different? Would a species with a brain and thought patterns the equivalent to ours be all that interesting, other than the 8 tentacles and beak? For a short time, sure; but in the long term, they would get boring really quickly, not just to us, but we would likely bore them just as badly.
It is generally accepted that we humans have 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and vision. If that 1% difference is concentrated in the senses, that has interesting implications to our alien not-yet-friends. Imagine if they have vision that can see like a hawk, or smell that is beyond even a dog. What if their ears can hear a spectrum that is 3x above and below what we can perceive? How might that impact a species?
Imagine smell so crisp that even the slightest odor evokes powerful memories that overwhelm all other senses, pushing the being back into deep memories for moments or minutes. Imagine touch so powerful that no one comes in contact with another of their species for fear of the powerful emotions unleashed. Our senses are powerful, but we’re only discussing a sharpening of the senses we have. What if they have senses that we do not?
Now picture a species that can see not just in the visible spectrum, but into all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. What if they could sense gravity? Or space-time? Or Higgs-Boson? Imagine how complex their understanding of the universe when compared to ours.
This one is a bit more difficult to quantity. Emotions are deeply personal, profoundly individual and quite indescribable. Would an extra 1% mean that aliens would be even more emotionally volatile than we? Or would they compensate and become additionally analytical? Emotions are so difficult to quantify that I have a difficult time imagining how emotionally advanced beings might even act.
When I started to write this post, I initially had a single 'logic’ section, but the more I think about it (using my 1% over the chimps), the more I have come to believe that you can’t lump two things together. First up I want to discuss raw computational power. Similar to horsepower in vehicles or gigahertz in computers, this is the raw computational power of the brain.
One percent seems like very little, but what do we know? As of yet, we haven’t determined that chimps incapable of performing higher-level math, only that they don’t understand the concepts as we present them. I don’t think anyone (although I have done zero research into this, so I’m likely wrong) has given them enough bananas to be completely sure. (I kid.)
All joking aside, it really is difficult to really understand what a pure computational change of 1% really looks like. IQ is an imperfect measure (I wish I could find a link to studies that support this, but my Google-fo is failing me this evening), so comparing a score of 100 to a score of 140 doesn’t really mean a 40% difference. That 40 point difference could be 0.00005% but its really difficult to determine that as we have only ourselves to use as a measurement.
No, I don’t mean those people who say they knew by intuition something was just going to happen. I mean those people who have such a deep reservoir of knowledge that can also tap that knowledge to make associations between disparate pieces, forming new wisdom.
This is the one difference that really hits home for me. We can compensate for our physiological and sensational differences through the use of technology. Same for a lot of our computational deficiencies. Emotional differences can push us, or more accurately compel us, along the path to discovery. People are passionate, creative individuals; something I find it difficult to believe that the 1% can really overshadow, but the ability to combine disparate information into a useful combination is unique.
Consider those ants again. When you hear about how they are all apparently randomly seeking out food, going on in what is a seemingly random and mindless pattern, but suddenly they find something, only to have a second, then a third, then a fifth, then a tenth and so on, until the entire colony is converging on that food source to consume it all. Imagine you are ant #2 and you just figured out what is going on. Yes, ant #1 left a pheromone trail for you to follow, but you still had to follow it. You made the leap but no other ant has yet done it. Ant #1 just randomly stumbled across the need, but you are the one who figured out what that trail means and you are the one who followed it. You made that intuitive leap before anyone else. Yes, there was luck in that you were the first across the path of the original finder, but you made the connection when no one else had done so. You are that 1%.
I wish I had some great way to conclude this rambling, but I don’t. Its still a new thought in my head that just had to get out. Maybe one day, someone reading this will use it as a way to determine the 1% difference. If that is the case, credit me with the intuition.