What defines an “Intelligent” species?

I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.

I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.

It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.

A screen capture of the YouTube video “I’m a stupid Cat”

Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”

And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.

Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?

It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.

A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?

I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.

The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.

Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:

“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) – in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)

Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.

So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?

…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?

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A to Z Challenge – a retrospective

I have had my blog for over three years and have posted iregularly whenever I was inspired by something I’ve read, seen, heard, or thought but taking on the A to Z April Challenge meant writing 26 posts in one month.

The concensous is that writers write everyday and don’t wait for inspiration

When I decide to try something I do it wholeheartedly and for me and the A to Z April Challenge that meant that I approached each post as stream of consciousness, with little or no preparation apart from a list of A-to-Z with potential topics. I know that some people have prepared their posts in the weeks before April and although I admit that I may have finished on time if I had taken this approach I am unsure if I agree with it.

I tried to write each post in one session, dropping my thoughts almost unedited from my heart/mind and on to the page/screen.

This doesn’t mean that I was flippant in my writing but it did teach me to edit once and then let it go. I did fix typos in the minutes and hours after each post.

The Stats for April:

  • Followers: increased from 11 to 219
  • Views for April: 11,589
  • Comments: 260
  • Most popular post: What is the Beginners’s Mind?
    • 4,379 views
    • 241 likes
    • 116 comments

WordPress – Freshly Pressed

Although I’m tempted to claim the highlight of the month was having my “B” post promoted on the WordPress Freshly Pressed page but it has actually been the amazing blogs that I’ve discovered and the wonderful and inspring comments I’ve received, especially when posts have been re-blogged.

Thanks to everyone at A to Z Challenge, to all my followers, and the the blogs I now follow and am regularly inspried by.

The Posts:

Thanks again…


Who is the real Zo Boone? A new Koan is born

This is my final post in the A to Z Challenge for 2012…a few days late, but better late than never.

Zo Boone is one of the POV character’s in the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. She is the granddaughter of John Boone; the first man on Mars, and (spoiler alert) was killed in a human flying accident. But in the Twenty-second  Century humans can “back themselves up” and she features again later in the series. But…is it truly her?

There are quite a few passages in Hugo and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson’s books that have “the stench of Zen”. The one below was a particularly enlightening one for me, it “stank” of the following “popularised” Zen Koan:

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping
  • If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does it make a sound

A  little bit of exposition:

  • The scene is set on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, where Zo is on a Twenty-second  Century Eco-Holiday. An early theory about the formation of Miranda suggested it was formed by the collision of two planetesimal bodies melding to form a single moon.

After that they hiked down the spine of the buttress in silence. Over the course of the day they descended to Bottoms Landing. Now they were a kilometre below the rims of the chasm, and the sky was a starry band overhead; Uranus fat in the middle of it, the sun a blazing jewel just to one side. Under this gorgeous array the depth of the rift was sublime, astonishing; again Zo felt herself to be flying.

“You’ve located intrinsic worth in the wrong place,” she said to all of them… “It’s like a rainbow. Without an observer at a twenty three degree angle to the light being reflected off a cloud of spherical droplets, there is no rainbow. The whole universe is like that. Our spirits stand at a twenty three degree angle to the universe. There is some new thing created at the contact of photon and retina, some space created between rock and mind. Without mind there is no intrinsic worth.” – Blue Mars (Pages 435-436).

This rainbow analogy pays forward in so many ways and is reminiscent of many Aikido teachings of Koichi Tohei‘s:

The Mind leads the body

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohe...

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohei (1976) (Photo credit: daninofal)

Do not think that the power you have is only the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our  mind and body and become one with the universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours. – Koichi Tohei

and merging it with the rainbow analogy:

A greater thing is formed at the intersection of mind and body.

Post Singularity, who am I?

Returning to the character Zo, the capability to back up and retrieve ourselves that Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts will be possible this century raises the question of identity to another level.

What if you are thought to be dead, and a recent backup copy is used to retrieve you, and then months or years later you are found alive and there are now two of you?

Who is you? Is the retrieved you, who has lived and grown as a separate entity, now terminated? I think the technological advances approaching us will shatter our society if we do not begin to address them in the near future.

So is this Zo Boone that went on an Eco-Holiday to Miranda the real Zo? Does she have the same rights?

This is doing my head in, and a new modern-day Koan is born:

Who is the real Zo Boone?

“Z” is for Zo Boone

Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… – Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

The Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson

Although Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning Mars Series , written in 1992, has been criticised for some failings for forsight, such as the exclusion of China from the multinational venture, and the larger than expected role of the Russian team following the real world collapse of the USSR. However, twenty years on the story does not feel dated as many other science fiction titles do.

The three original three volumes, Red, Blue, and Green Mars received acclaim (Nebula, Hugo, and BSFA awards) from both within and without the science fiction genre, and like the Apollo missions of NASA in the 1960’s this story of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars has inspired a new generation of scientists and philosophers to look towards our neighboring red planet with longing eyes and big dreams.

The Mars Series tells the story of the first one hundred humans to permanently settle on Mars.

It is the red planet itself though that drives the story forward, as both a character and the sense of “place” it provides.

Kim Stanley Robinson: science fiction's realist - The Guardian UK

Red Mars, the first book in the series, begins with a speach given by John Boone, the default leader of the multinational venture and “the first man on Mars”, at the opening of the first “tented” city of Nicosia. But then moves back to the selection of the first one hundred team on earth and then the departure of the Ares of the from earth orbit where it had been constructed.

The series contains all the admirable tropes of the science fiction genre but it is no “Space Opera” and it has received some negative criticism from with the genre because of this. It was with this series that new sub-genre of science fiction was coined; Future History. It reads like a novelisation of well known historic events rather than pure invention and this only enhances it realism.

In addition to the red planet itself as the driving force of the story, it is the extraordinarily detailed characters that stay with you. The structure of the books, particularly the narrative mode of third person subjective, lends itself to this end with the POV set with the one character for each chapter. Robinson’s writing is of such high quality that the reader cannot help but sympathies with these POV characters even when they could be considered antagonists.

I always feel a sense of loss when one chapter ends and I am summarily evicted from inside the head of the POV character who led the chapter. But this loss is more than balanced by the welcoming feeling when returning to a POV character that I’ve come to know intimately.

In 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the release of Red Mars, the series reads as fresh and thought provoking as it did when first published.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest work 2312 is due for release in late May 2012. Orbit publisher Tim Holman described the setting of this novel thusly:

2312 will be set in our solar system three hundred years from now; a solar system in which mankind has left Earth and found new habitats. This will be a novel for anyone curious to see what our future looks like – a grand science-fictional adventure in every sense.

It is number one on my list of recommended reads for both readers of SCI FI and fiction in general.

“M” is for the Mars Series

Humanity, how do we ensure the survival of our species?

It’s to dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out… Sax Russell, from Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is top of my “Recommended Reads” list and I am featuring it and an authorial review on day M of the A to Z April Challenge (14 April).

In the first volume, Red Mars, Sax Russell, a scientist and one of the first 100 people on Mars has a long and thought-provoking monologue that I found life changing. I’ve included just an excerpt of it in this post; it was in response to Anne Clayborne’s case for leaving Mars as it is – too beautiful to risk loosing.

The beauty of Mars exists in the Human mind , … Without the human presence it is just a concentration of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe.

It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning…

But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here [on Mars] and th lack of any findings in 50 years of SETI indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer.

And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread tha around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out…

We can transform Mars and build a cathedral,  as a monument to humanity and the universe both!

This is more “one hand clapping” stuff I know but read in its entirety, and using the terraforming of Mars as a literary example, it makes a compelling argument, and one wonders why this argument is brushed aside by our nations’ leaders.

“H” is for Humanity