Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

A Single Planet of the Apes?

Dr. Charley Lineweaver, from Australian National University, has a pessimistic view on SETI. On a lecture (check the slides, PDF), he remembers that there’s no clear evidence that there’s anything like an “evolutionary trend” towards intelligence like ours. Assuming that intelligent life will eventually arise in any ecosystem is what Lineweaver calls the “Planet of the Apes Hypothesis”, and he doesn’t find it very reasonable:

“Independent experiments in evolution have been conducted on Earth over the past 200 million years. The names of the individual experiments are South America, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, India, North America”.

In none of these isolated ecosystems a different species of intelligent animal anywhere similar to us arose, Lineweaver points. If our species suddenly disappeared from Earth, nothing guarantees that another species would fill our civilized niche, not even apes dedicated to hide the Statue of Liberty. No Planet of the Apes besides ours.

Likewise, even if life was common in the Universe, even if complex life was not so rare, there could be endless exotic ecosystems without intelligent beings building civilizations. If evolution and adaptability are not product of pure chance (a common misunderstanding of natural selection), intelligence like ours could well be.

Lineweaver goes on and mentions more interesting analogies, like assuming there is a trend towards bigger noses, which would eventually become the “handy” elephant trunk. That’s clearly not the case, but we hesitate to assume our high intelligence could have been produced the same way.

“I sued to think the brain was the most important organ until I realized what was telling me that”, he quotes in the end.

The main argument advanced by Charley Lineweaver is not new, and is certainly not definitive. Even if you grant the assertion that there no comparable intelligence arose in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and India, it did arise on Africa, and one in seven is not so bad.

The main problem, of course, is that our sample is too small, and it’s good to remember that high intelligence may well be very rare, but there are “billions and billions” of planets out there. Lineweaver himself supports SETI, just in case he is wrong. That’s intelligent.

Check also the other slides from the Are We Alone? lectures. [via io9]

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Posted in Aliens,Skepticism,UFOs | 3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. [...] the dinosaurs because they would have become intelligent before the right time. Or he may have never have seen an intelligent species arise on Earth. And if he had to control everything, including our own “evolution” to happen as it [...]

  2. serotonin777 April 30th, 2008 12:24 am

    The reason that there is not a “gradual” evolutionary shift towards intelligence is because it (speciation in addition to the evolution of intelligence itself)is a fractal-based phenomenon – tell him to look (deeply) at chaos theory and apply some simple fractal-based algorithms to the evolutionary analysis data – then he may have data that shows true patterns – not just random noise – :)

  3. Cathy C July 19th, 2010 1:21 pm

    Africa not only produced one intelligent humanoid species, but TWO! Poor Neanderthal gets left out due to it’s extinction. Well, the 1-4% Neanderthal dna in me is speaking out and saying, “We have been ignored too long, and we’re not gonna take it!!” Seriously, us and Heidelbergensis will sue for recognition one of these days, just as soon as Trog finishes taking and passing the bar exam, which might be awhile.

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