Thursday, December 20, 2007

Proof of Intelligence

This week, rereading the chapter in Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL about domesticable animals reminded me of a short story I read a long time ago. The crew of a Terran spaceship gets marooned on a planet with a mild climate and no sapient inhabitants. One day they happen to be frolicking naked in a warm rain shower when an alien ship drops by and captures them as zoological specimens, mistaking them for native animals of the planet. The crew members are confined in a zoo on the aliens' world. They strive to find a way to demonstrate their intelligence to their captors. The aliens don't recognize their verbal sounds as language. The captives' attempts to write mathematical formulas, solar system diagrams, etc. in the dirt are ignored. When they build miniature structures out of sticks and stones, the aliens think they're nesting—and respond by moving the women into the men's cage so the "specimens" can breed! Meanwhile, the bored Earth people start taming a small, rodent-like animal that infests the enclosure. Eventually they construct a makeshift cage for their pet. As soon as the aliens notice this artifact, they release the captives and start serious attempts to communicate. Explanation: "Only intelligent beings put other beings in cages."

Unfortunately, this sardonic moral isn't entirely accurate. Some species of ants, for instance, keep aphids as "livestock" (although I don't suppose they build cages for them). So there's no guarantee this trick would work for the next group of Terrans locked in an extraterrestrial zoo. Recent research has shown, in fact, that some animals perform many of the acts previously thought unique to the human species (including, regrettably, rape and warfare). If you found yourself in a plight similar to that of the characters in this story, how would you prove to technologically superior aliens that you're a sapient being?

A related disturbing thought: Suppose dolphins have a level of intellect and social complexity equal to our own, and the only reason we haven't recognized this fact is that they don't produce the material technology we tend to consider an essential component of "human" intelligence?


  1. Oh, this happens to humans every day. A couple have a baby and because the baby can't speak English (or whatever the parents' language is) or move around much, they assume it can't think, reason, feel, remember, or make choices. They lug the baby around like a sack of wheat and, thanks to the parental instinct, keep it clean and fed. Not until the baby starts walking and talking and *mimicking* them do they begin to accept that it is an intelligent creature. Of course, some parents never accept that fact.

    My advice to any humans abducted by aliens who assume them to be non-sentient aliens is to mimic them. Learn their language and assimulate their culture. Dress like them, eat like them, and one day you can tell them with all due respect how very wrong they were about you.

    This also happens to people when they move from one country to another. Until that person assimulates the new culture, most people think they're stupid, or deaf.

  2. Very good points! Elaine Morgan, author of THE DESCENT OF WOMEN and several other books explicating the "Aquatic Ape" theory of human evolution, has a book about infancy that emphasizes how much proactive behavior a newborn baby exerts to reach out to the huge persons controlling his or her environment. Because a human newborn is physically so helpless, essentially a quadriplegic, the infant has to depend on facial expressions and verbal sounds to get across his or her feelings and needs.

    Good advice to the hypothetical humans abducted by aliens, but the characters in that story I mentioned couldn't mimic the alien culture because of being stuck in a cage with no cultural artifacts within their reach.

    Come to think of it, human beings suffering from some disabilities that make communication difficult are often treated by other people as if they don't have normal intelligence.

  3. Anonymous5:21 PM EDT

    Hi, I came across your blog because I'm looking for the title of the story you mention. Do you happen to remember it or its author?

  4. Unfortunately, I still don't remember either the title or the author. All I remember is that the story was in an anthology, the title of which I can't remember either. Sorry!


  5. Anonymous7:45 AM EDT

    Thanks for replying. I'll keep looking... I've read it many years ago and I remembered it recently when talking to a friend. I've been looking for the title for a while now and it's amazing how many people know it but can't remember who wrote it or how it was called. Great story, anyway. I guess the most important thing is having read it and remembering its striking conclusion.