A new paper published by Florida Tech astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam investigates a fundamental question: Is technology-driven intelligence more likely to evolve on land or in water?
“A Bayesian Analysis of Technology Intelligence in Land and Oceans,” a paper by Lingam and researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Rome, was published in the March edition of Astrophysical Journal.
Humans are a classic example of the type of technological intelligence that can deeply sculpt the biosphere through purposeful activities and produce detectable fingerprints of their technology. In the paper, the authors perform a Bayesian analysis of the likelihood of techno-intelligent species existing in terrestrial habitats and habitats found in the ocean. It was found that ocean-based habitats should be more likely to host technogenic species, all other factors being equal, because ocean worlds are likely to be more common.
“However, we find ourselves growing up on land rather than oceans, so there is a paradox, on a grand scale, there,” Lingham said.
The paper also explored the possibilities of how the emergence of life based on intelligent technology could be undesirable in the ocean, thus resolving this paradox.
“We say, well, it probably took a really long time for life to emerge in the ocean because of different biophysical reasons like sensory capabilities in land versus water,” Lingam said.
“The other possibility is that, due to a combination of factors (such as energy sources), the oceans may not be as habitable for intelligent life as we think they should be. Currently, the conventional thinking is that liquid water is essential to life. Well, maybe it’s actually necessary for life,” But maybe too much of it (i.e. just the oceans) will impede technological intelligence in some ways. So this was another solution to the paradox we came up with.”
The team was able to reach the conclusions presented in the paper by putting together two different methods. First, they relied extensively on data from Earth to ascertain what intelligent life was like on the planet, ranging from primates to cephalopods (such as octopuses) and cetaceans (such as dolphins). Looking at the cognitive toolkit of humans, Lingam said they sought to understand the subtle ways in which human capabilities differ from the cognitive ability of marine life such as whales and dolphins. The second part of the research involved mathematics and physics, specifically Bayesian probability theory, which enables one to calculate relevant probabilities based on some initial predictions.
While the conclusions in the paper were drawn on a probabilistic basis, Lingam said there is still a lot of interdisciplinary work that can be done by improving and extending the models.
“I think one of the good things about this model is that some assumptions can be tested,” Lingam said. “It could be measured by future observational data from telescopes, or some of it could be tested by doing field experiments and studies on Earth, like research in ethology (animal behaviour), going deeper into how cognition works in terrestrial versus aquatic animals. I think there is Lots of different animals that could be evaluated further to improve the study. All of these questions can, hopefully, attract people from a very wide range of fields.”
For Lingam, future work related to this study will involve dealing with the metabolic role of oxygen in shaping the evolution of complex life and the element’s ubiquity on different planets. It will also aim to understand the role oxygen concentration levels could have played in the evolution of intelligent life.
Manasvi Lingam et al, A Bayesian analysis of technological intelligence in land and oceans, Astrophysical Journal (2023). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/acb6fa
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