In the future worlds of science fiction series of Star Trek and Star Wars we come across worlds in which there are more than one species of native inhabitants who have developed conscience and are ‘intelligent’ social beings. Today, with around 8.7 million species of different animals(both aquatic and terrestrial), the question naturally arises out of curiosity- Is it possible that someday there might be another , more evolved, conscious, intelligent species on our planet besides us? From an evolutionary point of view it is probable. But what would it be like? Which of the 8.7 million species will first become the next intelligent inhabitants of the planet? Here by intelligent species I am referring to species that are aware of their surroundings, they have a conscience, they think and wonder about their surroundings, much like us now, they want to find out answers, in short they too are having sort of existential crisis. Let me clear this point out.
The first humans or Homo sapiens appeared around 200 thousand years ago, sharing a common ancestor with the chimpanzee. Slowly we evolved, became more intelligent, more aware of our surroundings and more curious. We invented the wheel, discovered fire and thus began the age of knowledge. We were hungry. Hungry for answers. What were those lights in the sky? Why did water start falling from the sky suddenly, often along with loud noises and bright flashes? How did plants appear where we last discarded some seeds? Or sometimes deeper questions like, Why are we here? How did we come here? And so on. At first we knew hardly more than a rabbit. We theorised that perhaps there is someone up there in the sky who makes it rain. And sometimes he gets angry, and so he brings a storm. As animals, it is encoded in us to prefer familiar things. So we gave a familiar outlook to these men up there, we imagined them to be human like us, but more powerful. To please them and avoid storms that destroyed our homes and food sources, we offered them something to make them happy. Naturally, we thought what made us happy made them too, so we offered them food-fruits and animals. Some of us offered lives of our own people once in a while. And hence the first of religions came into being. We were depended on domestic animals like cattle, and dogs, and so we imagined a god or deity responsible for them too. Slowly almost every natural occurrence was explained like this. But slowly and steadily, as we learned more of the world around us, we started understanding better how nature worked. We invented science and the art of experimenting, and fast forwarding to the present, we now know how most of the things and processes around us actually happen. Concept of religion still stays on, but more refined. We know that Gods don’t actually cause thunderstorms or rain, or we could argue at least not directly. We developed the theory of evolution and a better understanding of universe which possibly explains how we came to being. All of these questions of deep curiosity and understanding is what I meant by consciousness and intelligent animals.
We can all agree to have the level of awareness as mentioned above, as developed by us, there are some key traits and behaviour that a specie must have. Firstly, a greater brain to body ratio. Bigger brain size corresponds to better learning capacity, wider spectrum of emotions, better use and development of tools and efficient thinking power. This can be measured through EQ or Emotional Quotient. The human EQ is 7. Less EQ means less brain to body size ratio. Second, the specie needs to have an effective mode of communication. Not necessarily distinct languages like English, Spanish, or Hindi but some well-defined and distinct signs or sounds to exchange information. Thirdly, a conscience. They should be able to differentiate between right and wrong. Capable of reasoning. And lastly, thirst for knowledge. Curiosity to know how and why everything around them is happening.
Only a handful of the 8.7 million species fulfil the first three conditions. Now, the first of them to fulfil the fourth we will be the second species of Earth, after humans, to embark on this journey of knowledge and self-awareness. The safest bet would be one of the few species as mentioned by Edward Wilson, a famous biologist, to be the most intelligent species of animals in the world. My favourites are Orangutans, Dolphins, Chimpanzees and Elephants. Though I guess dogs would too sooner or later stop playing dumb because they actually display a huge level of awareness and understanding until they start chasing their tails. The EQ of dolphins is 4.7, second only to humans. Those of other apes and elephant falls around 2.3. Dolphins hence surely have better odds, though lack of capable-of-using-tools hand like structures is a serious drawback. Here sweeps in the ape cousins, orangutans and chimpanzees. (Remember the movie series-The planet of the apes?!?!) Many studies have shown that both apes and dolphins show high level of face recognition abilities and both of their respective communities have shown well-defined, distinct, and efficient form of communication, transfer of knowledge, like a proper language, in form of whistles (dolphins) and, shouts and signalling (apes). Apes like chimpanzees and orangutans have shown amazing efficiency in using tools, and adapting to challenges in their environment fast, sometimes using items around them as tools. Their social behaviour is remarkably like ours. Social bonding, well defined time duration to communicate and ‘talk’, and range of emotions. A recent study showed that even parrots have a really good communication strategy and that they actually ‘name’ their kids, which they hold on for the rest of their lives. Elephants too are very social animals, and have excellent memory, which is very important considering the amount of information out there for them to discover.
So since we now know what animals have the best chances of being the next intelligent life form of planet Earth, the question is, where will they begin? Will the gradually learn about the world faster than us, because we have made most of it available for them. One important trait of such a specie would be better communication with not only their own species but with other species too. They would understand the behaviour and emotions of other species too. Keeping that in mind will they be able to learn faster from our already discovered knowledge how everything around them actually works? Or will they too take centuries to reach here, starting from the bottom? Develop religions of their own to explain stuff. Most probably and naturally imagining their gods to represent in form their own kind. Perhaps, intimidated by us, they might consider us to be some version of god. They might associate the other animals they are dependent on with some form of higher power too. Will they have their own revolutions? Social evils and customs? Will the male elephants cry out for chance to lead the herd? How will their societies evolve? Will they too have a system of regularised exchange? Most probably. Because these are traits of organised intelligent communities. Will they join hands with humans, to learn faster, and also to advance together, marking the beginning of some sort of mixed civilization of them and us living together. Its not only the above mentioned animals, but pigs, horses, baboons etc also have shown remarkable intelligence in different aspects. Which animal will you place your bet on?
There have been many instances of animals displaying unbelievable level of intelligence. Like Hans, the horse, who would answer to the questions of his master by tapping his foot, or parrots that can talk and commonly work at astrology shops. Though it was later shown Hans carefully observed his masters facial expressiosn to guess his response, and that of course parrots are trained, but this too requires immense understanding capabilities, which is a sign of intelligence. Ants, despite their small size, are some of the most intelligent animals. WIth a very well managed social system, and efficient communication using scent of chemicals, and problem solving skills, can shock anyone with their display of brains! Though just intelligence isn’t enough to qualify as a probable next self-aware, intelligent life form, it clearly plays an important role. As already mentioned, they must also be efficient with tools, and most important have conscience. It might be possible, that some animal might have developed some level of self-awareness, but is too limited by its intelligence to further pursue its thoughts.
If we don’t destroy ourselves because of our own foolishness, it would be amazing to see who joins us on the quest to knowledge. Because we are all always evolving, and somewhere in the future, a second species will become self-aware and hungry to know it all. And if both of our communities could keep personal egos aside, I am sure it would be the beginning of a beautiful journey. But if they understand that drunk with our capabilities, we have been misusing our talents to destroy a home we share, it might not be as beautiful as I am trying or pretending to picture. Thousand years from now, when we will all be long dead and our future generations might face this, it will surely be something to be jealous of.
Or perhaps, no. Happy Reading!
-The Cosmogasmic Person.