Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Dolphins don’t buy books

From Wikipedia

We can be fairly sure dolphins don’t read books simply because we never find sodden pages of dolphin literature on the beach. Anyhow they have no money to buy them.

The dolphin’s lot is abject penury with nothing to read and a diet of cold fish. If they were as bright as some folk make out, they’d do something about that.

Yet suppose human intelligence is merely a complex feature of the natural world. In that case it may be interesting to take dolphin illiteracy and indigence a little further. For example, what if some of our important inventions are not peculiar to humans, but arise naturally from a high level of intelligence and co-operative social organisation?

The two inventions I’m obviously suggesting here are money and books. Paper books are under competitive pressure from electronic devices such as the Kindle and the internet generally, but functionally there is an important equivalence. So I’ll use the word book for traditional or electronic media.

Books are a route by which many adults further their education as they see fit Money is mostly how people manage their material lives as they see fit. Books and money help maintain two of our key freedoms, the freedom to share labour and the freedom to understand what others have understood before us - or at least their opinions.

To my mind it is tempting to imagine inventions which might be common to intelligent species across the universe. In other words, certain socially important inventions could arise naturally on any suitable planet supporting a species of sufficient social intelligence. Perhaps there is a universal logic of exchange and all intelligent social beings would understand both money and books.

Of course we are constrained by our humanity and it is too easy to picture alien species which conveniently share some of our characteristics. Klingons and Dr Who for example. Yet the conjecture is potentially testable because it could be verified if SETI ever makes contact with another intelligent species.

Life being what it is we expect things to be rather more complex though – we expect to be surprised. Also, if dolphins turn out to be as intelligent as we are, then the idea is wrong to begin with because dolphins don’t seem to have much use for money or books. Although as far as I can see, dolphins don’t seem to be particularly intelligent.

So in an odd and inverted sense it may be anthropocentric to assume that money and books must be purely human inventions. On the other hand, it may be that this line of thinking really is anthropocentric and we will never contact an alien intelligence because we cannot recognise intelligence other than our own. And how common is that!

Yet natural law looks very much like the universal language of nature and we would not search in the first place if we did not believe our intelligence to be at least a little more than narrowly human. Surely any contact with non-human intelligence would have to be based on some mutually understood natural regularities – or natural laws.

As things stand this is all lighthearted speculation, but maybe one day it won’t be. Certain aspects of social life could turn out to be aspects of all intelligent life, taking us beyond the range of any telescope - philosophically at least. 


Sam Vega said...

"For example, what if some of our important inventions are not peculiar to humans, but arise naturally from a high level of intelligence and co-operative social organisation?"
It might be that our high levels of cooperative social organisation are necessary because we have such low levels of intelligence. Our intelligence is essentially social, as evidenced by your examples of books and money. Plonk us down somewhere on our own, and we act pretty stupidly. We could only cope with the simplest hunting and gathering tasks because we remember what we have been taught (intentionally or otherwise) by other humans. Dolphins, however, seem to have a less "cultural" intelligence. They can cope on their own. This difference might be due to the fact that we have little instinctive ability; or maybe that we have ranged into so many different environments that instinct does not help.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I suspect intelligence is essentially social but can be too social. To a degree it's more efficient than individual intelligence can be, but we need individuality to adapt rapidly.