Introduction: astrobiology and intelligence
The question of how intelligence evolves on different planets is a subject of fervent interest in many scientific and public domains. Yet, it has received little, if any, serious scientific attention in astrobiology. Astrobiology relies on an elegant paradigm: Earth as a natural laboratory. It seeks to investigate how life arose and evolved on this planet and to apply that knowledge to detecting and understanding extraterrestrial life. Thus, the study of the evolution of intelligence fits squarely within the field of astrobiology. But, despite a wealth of accessible data from “mainstream” fields, astrobiology has limited itself to studying the origin and evolution of early life and has not made the connection between these basic processes and intelligence. Why, in its 50-year history, has there been essentially no empirical work within astrobiology on intelligence?
What is intelligence?
Intelligence is, by nature, a fuzzy concept. That is, there are no strict boundaries on it and there is no scientific consensus on its definition (Sternberg 2000). The study of intelligence, therefore, necessitates a strong reliance on “bottom-up” empirical descriptions of a range of phenomena rather than a “top-down” hunt for a precise exemplar. Intelligence is not a binary trait. Rather, it is a multidimensional phenomenon which expresses itself in varying phenotypes and levels of complexity and is interconnected with the entire psychological make-up of any animal. Nevertheless, if we wish to use a working definition of intelligence, then we can refer to intelligence as a level of cognitive complexity, i.e. how an individual acquires, processes, stores, analyzes, and acts upon information and circumstances.
Despite its complexities and fluid boundaries, the phenomenon of intelligence is amenable to empirical scientific investigation just as any other biological property. The absence of the study of intelligence from astrobiology is due to a complex set of historical and psychological roadblocks. One of these may be the mistaken assumption that intelligence is not scientifically tractable. But foremost of these is our species’ adherence to the wrong model of life on Earth, one that promotes misconceptions that impede the way forward in the scientific study of intelligence in astrobiology.