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What if aliens are like whales… April 3, 2014

Posted by oktyabr in personal.

Yet ANOTHER rainy morning cup of coffee post…


This one is from a thread regarding a recent article that crows and the like may be good to examine to help give us perspective on how something “intelligent” that does not think like humans do (even has a different brain design) “thinks”.  It may be useful for the day that we might encounter a truly alien intelligence.  Specifically I was responding to this post:

“Some people have made the argument that whales are more intelligent than humans. Let us suppose whales are more intelligent (how that could be ascertained is uncertain). What would it mean for the whales? They lack the ability to develop technology. They can only at best have a marginal culture, expressed via behavioral ritual. Whales lack manual dexterity (hands to grasp) and are trapped in an environment that is also prohibitive of technological development (underwater). So again, what would it mean for a whale to be intellectually superior to humans? Whales cannot write books, or build radio telescopes or explore the galaxy. Humans, living in an environment that is conducive to technological development and possessing hands to grasp can build spaceships. The cosmos may be home to many extraterrestrial species that have elaborate songs and dances but are disadvantaged like the whales. We will never hear from them. One more brick in the wall that is the Fermi Paradox.”


And my reply:


Hmmm… Even if whales (or dolphins or whatever) are as “intelligent” as humans it must certainly be a different *kind* of intelligence. Without radio telescopes, computers, microscopes… without technology in general they most certainly do not have the same *knowledge* as the human race does, but knowledge is not intelligence and most humans don’t actually have the knowledge either… they have a much simpler version of knowledge that takes the form of *knowledge that a much more complicated version of the knowledge exists*.

No, what humans as a species have is communication and a shared value of knowledge that is beyond their actual experience. Many humans “know” what a disease is, for example, but have no specific knowledge about how it is contracted, how it actually “works” inside the body, it’s symptoms or it’s treatment. Many humans “know” that the engine under the hood of their car “burns” gasoline and makes the car move but have no specific knowledge of how any of it works, how to create one from scratch or repair one, etc.

Whales on the other hand, they communicate too. They do so without the use of technology and in the case of blue whales at least, they can communicate in the frequency range of 10-40 Hz, “subwoofer” territory even below the range of human hearing and far over 100db (the volume of a rock concert)… as loud or louder than even a jet engine. They can communicate, when the conditions are right, thousands of miles, and may have literally evolved their own “global communications network”, naturally.

They know more about the ocean than we do and while every whale has not “seen” all of every ocean their shared knowledge of it must be extensive… every sunken ship and city, every mountain and deep sea crevasse, volcanoes, currents, ice shelves, storms, etc. Some species of whale are thought to live over 200 years. Most, even the much smaller dolphins, have larger brains than humans, some having brains that are five times the size of what we have. Most can communicate, and remember, messages that are many minutes long, and may represent an extensive “word of mouth” library of knowledge passed from one whale to the next and possibly from generation to generation.

Others can dive to the deepest regions of the sea, far surpassing the meager depth that a human can dive, into a region of total darkness, in water only slightly above freezing… it’s lungs crushed completely flat and the rest of it’s body squeezed under pressure that can be more than 100 times that at the surface. For up to an hour at a time.  Arguably a more hostile environment than outer space.

Almost all whales have a form of echolocation that gives them a sort of second sight, far more detailed than our best sonar.


Will they ever go into space? Unlikely. Does this fill them with remorse? Also, very unlikely.


But the fact that “intelligence” has evolved several times, even in parallel, in different environments and even with very different brain “types”, here on Earth, might suggest that any planet capable of supporting the evolution of intelligence probably does so many, many times as well. Some may develop tool use and technology sooner or later… remember that we too came from the sea, many millions of years ago.


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