Incomprehensible cognition

Recently I was watching BBC Science Club, a night time informational discussion show hosted by comedian and all round smart guy Dara O’Briain and set in an entertaining format. The episode I happened upon was all about space travel and speculative extra-terrestrial life. And although the former is already wildly interesting, the latter is what really piqued my curiosity.

Dara O'Briain

Every episode the show features a guest expert on a field related to the theme to provide extra information on discussed topics and with whom Dara can converse. This episode was no different and featured Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge (among other titles).

They discussed the challenges of space travel, the deadly effects of cosmic radiation, the ingenuity of the NASA space suit, and the likeliness of alien life and possible dangers of seeking contact with that as of yet to be found life. And this is where it became extremely interesting to me; they discussed the possible and probable physiology and cognitive existence of extra-terrestrial life.

I sure do hope it'll be more like the one on the left...

I sure do hope it’ll be more like the one on the left…

Convergent evolution was drawn upon to support speculative claims for plausible, even probable, alien development. The octopus, a creature resident of our planet, yet evocative of monsters and aliens, shares with us Homo Sapiens a singularly amazing feature: camera-like eyes. Octopi have eyes that, despite their wildly different evolutionary environment and development, are very similar to ours. This feature is not unique, indeed many species have developed camera-like eyes, but even the octopus has developed them in its evolutionary history. Thus it seems that it is the camera-like eye that has shown itself across species to be the most effective way of utilizing light to register the physical characteristics of the world around us in order to help us with survival.

Can't you see our evolutionary similarities?

Can’t you see our evolutionary similarities?

The camera-like eye was used as an analogy for the ever more complex aspect of life that differentiates us so much from other species: cognition. Cognition is defined as ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired, including perception, intuition and reasoning’. Simply put, it means thinking. But the idea of cognition (the idea of having ideas) was one that sprouted from a human mind and subsequently means something closer to thinking like us.

Human Thought by Cara Jordan @ Fine art America

Only in recent decades discoveries have been made, and given enough credence to be taken seriously, that allude to cognition similar to our own in other animals. Even when research progressed beyond the stage of monkey see, monkey do, whereby complex behaviour was attributed to high level mimicry, it was still widely believed that a large primate brain was needed to produce cognitive skills comparable to our own. We found for example that chimpanzees could solve simple puzzles and in 1986 the first non-human (Washoe the chimpanzee) learned to communicate using American Sign Language. Since then many apes have been taught to use human language through signing or other means, like Koko the gorilla, who can understand approximately 1000 signed and 2000 spoken English words, and Kanzi the bonobo, who communicates mainly through lexigram panels (pictograph symbols that each had a corresponding word spoken by a computer), produces similar vocalizations and can understand complex sentences.

Kanzi the bonobo speaking with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, his teacher, mentor and friend.

Kanzi the bonobo speaking with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, his teacher, mentor and friend.

The research gates were opened and possibilities for research into non-primate intelligence took off. Amazing examples of thought beyond survival have been found in dolphins solving complex puzzles, learning new vocalizations for objects and playing with mirrors, elephants displaying mourning rituals and painting portraits, and Alex the African Grey Parrot uttering the words “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” to his keeper and trainer before his death in 2007.


As we find out more and more about animal intelligence and how closely it resembles our own, the idea of convergent evolution for cognition becomes plausible at the least. And if convergent evolution has led to the development of cognition in many species that heretofore seemed in sole possession of Homo Sapiens, then it’s fair to reason that human-like cognition is the most effective way of utilizing knowledge and reason to solve novel problems in the world around us in order to help us with survival.

Assuming the above, Professor Martin Rees reasoned, in consideration of convergent evolution, that it would be highly probable that complex alien life will have camera-like eyes and human-like cognition. So many million years of evolution has provided us with these faculties that must be the best ways to improve our chances for survival, according to the laws of evolution. Thus, equally evolved (over time) beings must logically have similar characteristics and capabilities. Right?

Calvin on alien intelligence

Well, this raises questions in me. Must this logically be so? Every animal on this planet, no matter how different from the others, has at least one (rather massive) aspect of life in common: we’ve all evolved on this planet. That might seem a redundant thing to say, but I feel like Professor Rees and Dara O’Briain glazed over this hard fact without lending it the consideration it deserves. Of course we’ve all evolved on Earth, and yet still some of us have fur, feathers or a multitude of appendages and a complete lack of bones. The Earth is a big place for diversity to thrive. But the Earth is a tiny little dot in the incomprehensibly large universe, where every living thing is the same in various ways. For example, every life-form is carbon based and subject to Earth’s gravity. And the main thing we know about most other planets is that they wouldn’t support our kind of life.

But what if life has developed anyways? What if this life developed its own kind of light utilizing organ that’s nothing like our camera eyes? Ambient chemical processing organ that’s nothing like our nose? Sentience and cognition that’s nothing like our own?

This last question gripped me. It was neither addressed nor answered during the BBC Science Club and put me in mind of a number of videos I had seen years earlier about Flatland and spatial dimensions beyond the third. Watch the video down below for a better explanation, but here’s my excerpt: Flatland is a hypothetical place in the second spatial dimension. Flatland has length and width, but no height. Flatlanders have no concept of or for what we call height. They could theorize a concept for height, but it would remain incomprehensible to their sense of experience, because they lack the faculties to observe or sense beyond their two dimensions. If a third dimensional thing would move through Flatland, all the Flatlanders would see is what their ‘eyes’ and ‘brains’ are capable of seeing, which is a flat cross section with only length and width.

Now think of us. We live in the third dimension and nearly all of our experience is related to that fact. Try to imagine a fourth spatial dimension; we would have length, width, height and something else. What would that be like? A well known three dimensional object is a cube. Its two dimensional equivalent is a square. And according to mathematicians its four dimensional equivalent is a tesseract. And as a Flatlander can only conceive of a cube by stacking his squares on top of each other in height, we can only conceive of a tesseract by stacking our cubes ‘on top’ of each other in that fourth spatial dimension. Hard, right?

So to bring it all full-circle with a question: what if life has developed on another planet, or even somewhere that’s not a planet, with a sentience and cognition so far removed from our experience, that we are not able to comprehend what it’s like? An intelligence that is to our intelligence what a tesseract is to a cube? Not more advanced, or more highly developed, but so far removed from our experience that wee can’t comprehend what it might be like? It kind of hurts my brain, but I like the idea of stepping so far outside our frame of reference, that our ideas no longer make sense.

A tesseract performing a 'simple' rotation

A tesseract performing a ‘simple’ rotation