Thursday, February 21, 2013

Other Senses, Other Worlds

This is the title of a 1976 book by Doris and David Jones. (Amazon still has used copies for sale.) It’s a great resource for creating aliens that make sense biologically and ecologically. The authors explore the perceptions of Earth animals with different sensory abilities from ours. On the basis of this information, the book imagines how extraterrestrials with those senses as their primary means of perception might look and behave and how their cultures might evolve. For instance, the book first discusses smell, with dogs as only the beginning, since many insects have olfactory senses far sharper and more refined than those of canines. The following chapter imagines a world of Olfaxes, intelligent beings who rely on smell instead of sight as the principal way to to navigate their environment. Olfaxes live on a planet with a murky atmosphere that makes vision of limited use, and they decorate their houses with artfully arranged patterns of scent instead of shape and color.

Later chapters reveal creatures that inhabit sensory “worlds” much stranger from our viewpoint: Animals that perceive polarized light, see into the infrared or ultraviolet range of the spectrum, sense electricity or magnetism, map their surroundings by sonar, or feel minute changes in vibration of air or water. What kind of planet might host life forms that rely on one of these sensory systems as primary, the way we rely on sight? To illustrate these speculations concretely, the authors invent several alien societies in addition to the Olfaxes. The book goes on to speculate about nonhuman methods of communication and types of intelligence alien to us, such as group intelligence. The final chapter, “Beyond Human Intelligence,” imagines where the future evolution of our species might lead. The sections on nonhuman senses, though, are what I find most interesting.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Another thought: What if aliens who rely on one of those other senses visited Earth and discovered we couldn't perceive or understand information conveyed by that sensory system? Would they assume, because of that deficiency in us, that we're not intelligent? Seeing us as inferior, would they think it's all right to treat us as livestock (or exterminate us)?

  2. Presumably, if they can get here, they've met others who are not like them. But if we are their "first contact" then it's possible some of them might overlook other indications of kindred intelligence in us.

    Cast a science-fiction slant on this and see if HUMANS can look at visiting ALIENS and assume they aren't "intelligent." If they got here, they must have something -- or maybe they just hitch-hiked on some other species craft?

    Definitely a story in this.