By Lana Ruck- In December, bombshell reports were released detailing the Pentagon’s use of tax-payer funds to investigate claimed UFO sightings. If you think such efforts are misplaced, consider this: Continual discoveries of habitable planets across the galaxy have rapidly increased the estimates of chances that extraterrestrial life is out there. Its existence, probabilistically speaking, is “beyond reasonable doubt,” as the former head of the Pentagon’s UFO program, Luis Elizondo, recently stated.
Scientists across the STEM fields have been considering the physical and biological aspects of extraterrestrial life for decades. IU earth and atmospheric sciences professor Lisa Pratt was recently appointed NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, a role which primarily involves preventing cross-contamination of life forms between planets.
Those who think about extraterrestrial life are no longer considered crackpots. They’re not even on the fringe. In fact, they’re right here in psychological and brain sciences. And they’re not just thinking about alien life, but about alien psychology.
In a recent paper appearing in Biological Theory, PBS professor Peter Todd and his long-time colleague at the University of New Mexico, Geoffrey Miller, suggest that scientifically informed hypotheses about alien intelligence can guide us in the search for intelligent life beyond our planet. Psychological theorizing can even inform us about how best to communicate with other life forms once we find them . . . or they find us.
Todd and Miller work in a highly interdisciplinary branch of psychology called evolutionary psychology, which combines perspectives from evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, cognitive science, anthropology, informatics and other fields, to help us understand how complex cognition could have evolved from simpler behaviors in earlier organisms. Cognitive complexity cuts across many forms of animal life on Earth, from primates (including humans) to birds and aquatic mammals, among others.
But why stop there? Todd and Miller argue that behavior and cognition, which have evolved in these earthly species, would similarly evolve in extraterrestrial life forms, assuming they have a biological foundation at least roughly akin to our own.
Two such potentially shared behaviors, “search” and “signaling,” provide us with a window into the minds of our interplanetary neighbors and the intricacies of a possible encounter.
One of the key behaviors of organisms on our own planet, search, encompasses the quest to find the resources needed for survival and reproduction, including food, shelter and mates. In previous research, Todd and his colleagues have shown just how pervasive search really is, as well as the many ways in which humans apply it to abstract and cognitively complex tasks: searching the internet for information, searching the social environment for partners, even searching the contents of our memory for whatever we might want to remember.
Because resources are often located in distinct patches scattered across an environment (think berry bushes separated by intervening meadows), animals must engage in a strategic trade-off between exploration of a wide area and exploitation of the individual patches they find by exploring. People also navigate this trade-off in the more abstract cognitive spaces they search through, for example, deciding when to keep looking for information on the same website and when to leave it to explore for another potentially more informative one. Todd and Miller propose that other intelligent life forms would similarly evolve to search their planetary landscapes for resources and information.
Applied on the grand scale of the galaxy, this and other mechanisms can inform the search for alien life itself, and help us hypothesize about how such creatures might do the same. For example, if habitable planets rich in resources are patchily distributed, then explore/exploit strategies may provide appropriate ways to find them.
This line of reasoning leads to a darker question as well: how can we lessen the chance of acquisitive extraterrestrial creatures exploiting our patch of resources, the Earth? Todd and Miller argue that we should find ways to protect our resources from this possibility, unless we have reason to expect a cooperative or beneficial relationship with our new acquaintances.