Andrew and I once wrote a short piece of experimental fiction using simple principles to build an alien ecosystem. This evening I idly wondered whether I could create an example of non-terrestrial intelligent life.
The trouble with doing this sort of thing (as authors and film/TV writers have discovered) is that you just end up with something based on life on Earth. The aliens always act just like humans, with the same selfish drives and attitudes. I didn't want to do that, so I started wondering about going back to first principles.
OK. So what things are there that intelligent life on Earth (for "intelligent" read anything from cats up to humans) tends to do that define it's intelligence and make it successful? I started jotting down some ideas:
Anticipate what's round the corner (both metaphysical and physical)
Bond/Fight with others. Basically make alliances and relationships
Differentiate between things
Estimate & Generalise
I quickly realised that most of these are actually caused by the same drive.
Anticipating is a part of Internal Modelling, in which the organism imagines itself in alternate situations and observes the results.
Hunting Food mainly involves skills learned from Anticipation. So see above.
Ditto for Estimating & Generalising.
Assigning Territory and working out relationships? Hmmm...they're part of Anticipation as well.
What about Differentiation? No, that's not the same. That's merely figuring out how one thing is different from another. It doesn't involve any subjectivism.
Aha! Subjectivism! Most of the traits we ascribe to intelligent life are selfish ones, that the organism uses to further its own existence. A kind of Selfish Individual strategy. Hold that thought. I decided to look at Modelling.
Modelling has been postulated to be the basis for Self-Awareness, and hence the basis for Mind. I know that humans are self-aware, as are the greater primates, and even cats and dogs appear to demonstrate this, mainly by dreaming and displaying forms of simple and selfish emotional states.
So to imagine non-terrestrial intelligent life, I might have to imagine life without Modelling. But since Modelling is primarily used for selfish ends, would this mean Non-Selfish life? What would non-selfish life be like? Well, I guess it would be life without an instinct for self-preservation. But would that work?
At first glance Self-Preservation appears to be a strategy that prioritises the organism over the species. but since practically every higher organism on this planet exhibits self-preservation - and most extant species are obviously successful - therefore a selfish strategy is a successful strategy.
A Selfish-Individual strategy. Successful because it works. Regardless of the fact that every individual is out to protect it's own skin, the species as a whole thrives.
So what did I have then? Intelligent (or sentient) life on Earth can be defined by a strategy of selfishness and individuality, the tool for this strategy is Internal Modelling, and the by-product is Mind.
So a good starting point for imagining Intelligent Alien Life might be to turn Selfishness and Individuality on its head and postulate a non-selfish individual that prioritises the survival of the species above it's own survival. Remove Internal Modelling and you effectively have an individual without a Mind. Could such a thing work?
Then I realised it already does, and we've got it here. Social Insects. Creatures that will attack something that attacks them, but solely for the defence of the species. Ants swarm over powerful attackers, losing individuals every second, but relying on sheer weight of numbers to win the battle. Bees die after using their stings.
So this proves that a Selfless Non-Individual strategy does work and works very well. But could it evolve intelligence? Yes it could, and does, although not within an individual. Instead the sum total of the Intelligence is made up from the behaviour of each individual. The larger the colony, the more potential for higher collective intelligence, and thus the familiar Sci-Fi concept of the Alien Hive Mind.
So I guess my attempt to postulate Alien Intelligence is already at an end. All I had to do was go outside and disturb an ant's nest.