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Implications of Brain Evolution in Cetaceans and Primates for Highly Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life


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There are stars and Earth-like planets believed to be over 10 billion years in age. "Water worlds" and moons that contain salty oceans may be commonplace in this galaxy. The evolution of cetaceans and primates may provide some clues as to how intelligent life may have evolved on other planets. The most intelligent species of primate, Homo sapiens, has an average brain mass (~1350 g) that is considerably larger than any of the other primates but much smaller than the averages for many cetaceans, which are also believed to be very intelligent. The factors that led a subset of primates rather than the comparatively huge-brained cetaceans to dominate (from a human perspective) our planet are reviewed, including language and tool making capability. If intelligent cetacean-like beings evolved convergently in other worlds in response to aquatic habitats similar to Earth's, they would not be expected to have complex tools and technologies, whereas primate-like beings that may have evolved convergently on other planets that are much older than Earth might have long ago developed technologies that surpass our own.
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Journal of Astrobiology, 12, 45-64, 2022 Copyright © 2022
Implications of Brain Evolution in Cetaceans and Primates for Highly
Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life
Dean Falk
Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306
Journal of Astrobiology, Vol 12, 45-64, Published 2/10/2022
(Special Edition: Evolution of Life & Consciousness in Other Solar Systems)
There are stars and Earth-like planets believed to be over 10 billion years in age. “Water worlds” and
moons that contain salty oceans may be commonplace in this galaxy. The evolution of cetaceans and
primates may provide some clues as to how intelligent life may have evolved on other planets. The most
intelligent species of primate, Homo sapiens, has an average brain mass (~1350 g) that is considerably
larger than any of the other primates but much smaller than the averages for many cetaceans, which are
also believed to be very intelligent. The factors that led a subset of primates rather than the comparatively
huge-brained cetaceans to dominate (from a human perspective) our planet are reviewed, including
language and tool making capability. If intelligent cetacean-like beings evolved convergently in other
worlds in response to aquatic habitats similar to Earth's, they would not be expected to have complex
tools and technologies, whereas primate-like beings that may have evolved convergently on other planets
that are much older than Earth might have long ago developed technologies that surpass our own.
Key Words: Brain size, primates, cetaceans, intelligence, extraterrestrial intelligence, water worlds in
the galaxy, evolution, technology, Dyson Spheres.
1. Brain Evolution & Extraterrestrial Intelligence
What are some of the environmental and behavioral constraints that may have influenced the
evolution of extremely intelligent extraterrestrial beings, assuming that such lifeforms exist?
Comparative measures of relative brain size (RBS) in primates and cetaceans (whales, dolphins &
porpoises), including encephalization quotients (EQ), are frequently used to support the claim that
cetaceans are extremely intelligent. Some scholars go so far as to assert that cetaceans “rank near the top
of any list measuring neuroanatomical sophistication, next to great apes, humans, and elephants” (Fox,
2020:1). Below, I analyze mean adult brain and body masses for 58 cetacean and 76 primate species
(Table 1) (Boddy et al., 2012; Fox, Muthukrishna, & Shultz, 2017; Manger, 2006) and suggest (1) that the
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large RBS of dolphins compared to humans may be due at least partly to an artifact of allometric scaling
and (2) that absolute brain size, rather than RBS, might be a better indicator of cognitive abilities in
cetaceans and primates.
The most intelligent species of primate, Homo sapiens, has a considerably larger average brain
mass (~1350 g) than any of the other primates. Human brain size is paltry, however, compared to many
cetaceans, with the average brain of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) weighing in at over 7,700
g (Ridgway et al., 2016). Why isn’t a whale writing this article instead of a primate or, put another way,
what factors led a subset of primates rather than the comparatively huge-brained cetaceans to dominate
our planet? This question is not only thought-provoking, but the answer to it could also help identify what
may or could have led to evolution of extremely intelligent (i.e., at least at the human level)
extraterrestrial beings.
2. Brain Growth and Body Mass
RBS is defined here as the ratio between brain mass and body mass (brain mass/body mass).
Figure 1A shows the typical ontogenetic brain growth curves for humans and chimpanzees. During the
first year of life, brain size increases rapidly, and the rate of brain growth continues to decrease in
subsequent years until adult brain size is reached. The human postnatal brain “spurt” is steeper than that
of chimpanzees, which is why adult humans end up with brains that are over three times the size of adult
chimpanzee brains. As can be seen, the curves plotting RBS against body size for different primate taxa
in Fig. 1B are shaped inversely compared to ontogenetic curves. Despite their different positions relative
to the vertical axis, the curves for the different taxa are similarly shaped, with humans on top (Falk,
Figure 1. Brain growth and relative brain size in primates. A: Typical ontogenetic brain growth curves
for humans and chimpanzees (brain size versus age in years, B = birth). Brain size is in cubic
centimeters, a traditional proxy for grams. B: RBS (brain mass/body mass) versus body mass for humans,
great apes, and Old World monkeys. See Falk (2007b) for details.
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Table 1
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Legend for Table 1: Relative brain size in 58 cetaceans (from Boddy et al. 2012; Manger 2006; Fox et
al. 2017) and 76 primate species (from Boddy et al. 2012). The 15 species with the largest RBS (1 =
highest rank) occur among the smallest-bodied half of each order.
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These observations are not limited to primates. What is remarkable is that the shape of brain
growth curves for individuals is the same as the shapes of the brain growth curves for species. As Harry
Jerison notes: “The aspect that intrigues me is that the growth pattern during development of an
individual animal generates an equation that is equally useful for describing relationships among adults of
different species” (Jerison, 2001: 312). Thus, just as individual apes and humans have larger RBS than
more mature (bigger-bodied) individuals in the same species, adults representing smaller-bodied species
of primates usually have larger RBS compared to adults of larger-bodied species (Table 1).
But does RBS in cetaceans scale like that of primates? If one includes the largest species of
cetaceans, the overall distribution scales in ways that depart from other mammals: “The relationship
between brain size and body size in cetaceans is strongly nonlinear even after log-transforming each
variable” (Fox et al., 2017: 1704). As noted long ago, one researcher considered two of the largest
cetaceans known at that time, Megaptera and Balaenoptera, “as unusual, because of an excess amount of
fat, so he calculates his rectilinear regression without them. Just at what point one should stop and say,
‘From such a body weight on, the animals all have too much inanimate weight to be considered,’ I cannot
say” (Count, 1947: 1056). Nonetheless, RBS in the first 47 cetacean species in Table 1 scales in a
mammalian-typical inverse curve (see Figure 2). RBS is compared below (Figure 3) in species from the
two orders that are of similar body sizes, i.e., those located to the left of Phocoena phocoena (P.p.) in
Figure 2.
Comparisons of RBS in primates and cetaceans are provided here because this variable is more
intuitively accessible than are residuals from log-transformed brain size/body size data and less subject to
statistical artifacts. Figure 3 plots mean adult RBS for 76 species of primates and the 29 smallest-bodied
cetacean species (up to and including Phocoena phocoena) listed in Table 1. If one excludes Homo
sapiens (H.s.), it is clear that the distribution of RBS for primates is shaped like the inverse brain growth
curves for more restricted taxa of primates (Fig. 1B), as expected. Although the one obvious departure
from the primate distribution is H.s., 30 of the 76 primate species have a mean RBS that is larger than
the .019 RBS of H.s. (Table 1). At .040, for example, mean RBS in the common squirrel monkey (Saimiri
sciureus) exceeds that of H.s. Nevertheless, H.s. is clearly “encephalized” (i.e., has a RBS that is
relatively large for its body size) compared not only to squirrel monkeys but to all other primates (see
Figure 3).
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Figure 2. Relative Brain Size (brain mass in grams/body mass in grams) for 47 species of Cetaceans. The
largest is Orcinus orca (O.o.). Cetaceans that are smaller than Phocoena phocoena (P.p.) have body
masses that overlap with those of great apes and humans (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Relative Brain Size (brain mass in grams/body mass in grams) for 76 primate species and 29
cetacean species. The entries represent average adults for each species (Table 1). The largest-bodied
cetacean represents Phocoena phocoena. Most of the cetaceans shown here are in the dolphin
(Delphinidae) family. Abbreviations of four great apes and human: G.g., Gorilla gorilla; H.s., Homo
sapiens; P.p., Pan paniscus; P.t., Pan troglodytes; Po.p., Pongo pygmaeus.
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Because bigger primates tend to have absolutely larger brains but smaller RBS than smaller
animals, and despite the fact that they are regarded as more intelligent than monkeys, the four great apes
have among the smallest RBS for primates (Figure 3, Table 1). In other words, RBS is smaller in great
apes than monkeys because they occupy the bigger-bodied (right) side of the distribution for all primates
(Figure 3). Like primates, the cetacean species with the highest RBS are the smaller-bodied ones; the 15
species with the largest RBS (1 = highest) occur among the smallest-bodied half of each order (Table 1).
The highest RBS among primates is .042 (Galagoides demidoff); the highest among cetaceans is .01713
(Cephalorhynchus commersonii). Thirty-eight of the 76 primate species have a RBS that is larger than the
largest RBS in any cetacean.
Despite the fact that Figure 3 shows that mean RBS in the smallest cetacean species is more
variable and usually greater than the RBS averages for great apes of similar body sizes, one must be
careful about interpreting these data with respect to “neuroanatomical sophistication.” Unlike Homo
sapiens’ position relative to the primate distribution for RBS, no cetacean species is located far above the
general cetacean distribution for RBS. Elsewhere, I have hypothesized that the high RBS in H.s. is,
indeed, related to neuroanatomical sophistication because of evolutionary and developmental factors
associated with the brain spurt that characterizes our species during the first 1-2 years of life (Fig. 1A),
when infants are acquiring and developing the distributed neural networks for language (Falk, 2016a,
2016b; Falk & Schofield, 2018). Later in life (and also during hominin evolution), these linguistic
networks pave(d) the way for the emergence of other advanced cognitive abilities associated with (among
other things) music, mathematics, and reading. The extent of these abilities sets humans apart from all
other mammals. It is not just the relative size of the brain (i.e., compared to other primates of
approximately similar body sizes) that is associated with neurological sophistication in H.s. The brain’s
wiring is at least as important, and neurological connectivity associated with cognitive processing is
beginning to be understood from advanced functional imaging studies of living people. Because imaging
of brain physiology in living dolphins (Ridgway et al., 2006) and postmortem computed tomography and
postmortem magnetic resonance studies of gross neuroanatomical features of cetacean brains are in their
infancy (Kot et al., 2020) functional connectivity related to cognition in cetacean brains remains
uncharted territory.
3. Dolphins, Water Worlds & Extraterrestrial Intelligence
One approach for exploring the functional implications of high RBS in dolphins might be to
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investigate ontogenetic brain growth in the smaller and larger cetaceans and plot the curves separately, as
was done for humans and chimpanzees in Fig. 1A. Do the dolphins that are closest to H.s. in Figure 3
have a relatively steep rate of postnatal brain growth (brain spurt) compared to other species in their
order, as humans do compared to chimpanzees (Fig. 1)? If so, what cognitive and social skills do infant
dolphins acquire during the brain spurt, and might any of them (possibly related to audition) require
extraordinary neurological processing? Do dolphins have any skills that are as far reaching as the ability
of humans to perceive and generate frequencies of little bits of air and use them to understand and
generate an infinite number of ideas from/to conspecifics?
No matter how social or self-aware (able to recognize themselves in mirrors, etc.) dolphins may
be, and despite comparative cytoarchitectonic and gross neuroanatomical studies of the (very differently
organized) brains of primates (including humans) and cetaceans, attempts to compare levels of
neurological sophistication in dolphins, apes, and humans are, at best, premature (Marino et al., 2008).
According to Jerison, the similar RBS of dolphins and humans indicates that their overall information-
processing capacity is “about the same. Does this mean that dolphins are as smart as we are? I suppose
that depends on what one means by “smart.” But it is a nonsense question. It should be obvious that all
species use their processing capacity in species-typical ways” (Jerison, 2001: 320). Jerison reasonably
suggests that dolphins may be processing unusual amounts of auditory information.
!How might these differences relate to extraterrestrial intelligence? In our solar system, in addition
to Earth, the moons Enceladus (satellite of Saturn) and Europa (satellite of Jupiter) are believed to have
salty oceans, and it is also thought that vast amounts of water may be sequestered beneath the surface of
Ganymede (satellite of Jupiter) and that water-ice is beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon,
Callisto (Goertzel & Combs 2010; Tyler, 2010). Whether these moons harbor(ed) life is unknown.
However, it is estimated that there may be millions of “water worlds” in this galaxy (Goertzel & Combs
2010; Tyler, 2010). If so, and if life evolved in some of them, and depending on other environmental
parameters, including temperature, oxygenation, available nutrients, and proximity to the “habitable
zone” of their respective suns, one cannot rule out the possibility that some lifeforms may have evolved
convergent adaptations in parallel with those of Earth’s cetaceans, including high intelligence. This
hypothesis awaits future testing, of course.
Body size and absolute brain size are both better predictors of mental capacity and cognitive
abilities than RBS in primates (Deaner et al., 2007; Gibson, 2001). As noted, great apes have bigger
bodies and bigger brains than monkeys and are generally perceived as more intelligent than the latter,
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although RBS is smaller in apes. Could this also be true for cetaceans, in which case cognition in the
largest ones, which have the largest brains, might be at least as interesting as that of the smaller-brained
dolphins? In any event, the lack of one or more striking outlier for RBS in the cetacean distribution and
the large range of variation for cetacean RBS compared to the narrow range for similarly sized great apes
suggest that ecological and physiological factors may have been important determinants of the RBS of
4. Ecological Factors Related to Cetacean Body and Brain Size
Jerison notes “that cetaceans, evolving in a gravitationally odd environment, had different
constraints on the size of their bodies than land mammals” (Jerison, 2001:307). Indeed, gravity was
relevant for primate and cetacean evolution generally: The smallest-bodied primates live in strictly
arboreal habitats; larger-bodied primates shifted to less gravitationally-challenging (i.e., in terms of
potentially fatal falls) semi-terrestrial habitats; and the largest hominins eventually shifted to the fulltime
ground living that characterizes Homo sapiens (Falk, 2000). After the ancestors of cetaceans entered the
ocean around 50 million years ago, some of them evolved large increases in body mass (Montgomery et
al., 2013), likely in response to relaxed gravitational constraints combined with the availability of
sufficient nutrition. Brain mass increased as well. Since most variation in mammalian brain size is
‘explained’ by body size (Jerison, 1991:54), it is reasonable to speculate that increased body mass was
initially targeted by natural selection in some cetaceans and that brain mass went along for the ride. (This
would not have excluded cognition and its neurological substrates from also being potential targets to
some degree.) Positing body mass as a prime target for natural selection as early cetaceans underwent
adaptive radiation is consistent with Bergmann’s rule, since increased body mass maximizes body
volume relative to surface area, thus facilitating heat retention in cold aquatic habitats. Similarly,
cetaceans’ globular body shape and lack of long appendages likely promote heat retention (Allen’s rule).
Significantly, Bergmann’s rule is known to apply to the global distribution of cetaceans, since
interspecific body size strongly correlates with water temperature, with large-bodied species being
favored in colder environments (Torres-Romero, Morales-Castilla, & Olalla-Tárraga, 2016).
A recent analysis (Fox, 2020) dismisses the “thermogenesis hypothesis” that cetacean brains
evolved to be large, at least partly, under pressure from water temperature (Manger et al., 2020), and in
the process mischaracterizes my radiator theory of hominin brain evolution as a proposition that “the
brain served as a radiator to disperse heat,” citing another source that incorrectly claims “according to the
modern radiator theory the human brain developed starting as a refrigerator of itself” (Falk, 1990; Longo,
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1996). Because the high rate of metabolism in large human brains generates excessive heat, the radiator
theory (Falk, 2007a) is based on the assumption that, as brains increased in size during hominin
evolution, so did their thermolytic cooling needs. The hominin cranial radiator was conjectured to consist
of an extensive network of tiny valveless veins that evolved in response to altered hydrostatic pressures
that were exerted on blood vessels during selection for bipedalism—a network (not to be confused with
the rete mirabile of carnivores and ungulates) that was exapted to cool the brain selectively under
stressful thermal conditions. Although the concept of selective brain cooling in humans was controversial
when I proposed the hominin radiator, its anatomical basis has since been demonstrated and imaged
(Zenker & Kubik, 1996; see also Falk 2007a: Fig 4). As detailed elsewhere, the radiator theory does not
describe the human brain itself as either a cranial radiator or “refrigerator,” as asserted by some. Rather,
the radiator is a vascular network that is “viewed as an underlying and dynamic mechanism that helped
regulate brain temperature and, as such, released thermal constraints that would otherwise have kept brain
size in check…The radiator is therefore best viewed as a ‘prime releaser’… not a prime mover of human
brain evolution (Falk, 2007a).” For natural selection to increase brain size, homeostatic mechanisms that
can support the brain’s presumably increased metabolic and thermal requirements need to be or become
Ridgway speculates that dolphin brains may also have a high rate of metabolism that necessitates
a mechanism for cooling: “Cetaceans may have adapted special means for cooling. The entire blood
supply of their brains passes through a large rete mirabile in the dorsum of the thorax and then into
another rete system…before reaching the cranial vault…Such a configuration is well positioned to
provide a counter-current heat exchange mechanism capable of regulating temperature in blood reaching
the brain” (Ridgway et al., 2016:254). Cetacean brains have also evolved special features in cortical
neurons and glia that increase their ability to generate heat (Manger et al., 2020). Together, these cooling
and heating adaptations hypothetically would have kept enlarging cetacean brains within safe temperature
ranges via dynamic homeostatic processes that released thermal constraints that might, otherwise, have
kept brain size in check. As noted, such physiological adaptations need not be viewed as prime movers of
brain size evolution; rather, they may have developed on the coattails of behaviors (whatever they were)
that were targeted by natural selection, ultimately, resulting in enlarged bodies and brains in many
Significantly, body size sometimes decreased during cetacean (and primate) evolution, and it is
not always clear whether enlarged RBS in extant species is the result of increased brain size or decreased
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body size (phyletic dwarfism) (Smaers et al., 2021). Because body size decreased during the evolution of
some cetaceans including dolphins (Montgomery et al., 2013), one hesitates to equate cognitively the
right-side bigger-bodied (smaller RBS) part of the primate distribution with the left-side (larger RBS) part
of the cetacean distribution (Figure 3). In other words, it is not clear to what extent one may, or may not,
rule out evolutionary reduction in dolphin body mass as a (non-cognitive) factor in their high RBS
compared to the great apes, which experienced an evolutionary increase in body mass.
Like some birds and nonhuman primates, dolphins are, indeed, capable of social learning,
imitation, and cultural innovation and transmission of certain behaviors (Rendell & Whitehead, 2001).
Nonetheless, the conclusion that it “is certain now” that cetaceans “display cognitive skills surpassing any
other animal” warrants close scrutiny (Fox, 2020:3). As others have noted, cetaceans do not have hands
and fingers. They rarely use, let alone make, tools, with the fascinating exception of sponge carrying by
some individuals. Cetaceans lack rudiments of a material culture, unlike wild great apes that construct
tree nests and use and sometimes make tools for extractive foraging.
What are the implications for cetacean-like beings that may have evolved within the depths of the
many water worlds in this galaxy? Even if such beings evolved on planets billions of years older than
Earth, unless they evolved appendages that were largely dedicated to manipulating material (e.g., similar
to human hands), it is reasonable to assume they would have been incapable of making complex tools and
would not have developed the technological capability of space flight. This does not preclude the
evolution of cognitive capabilities far beyond or quite unlike those of Earth's cetaceans, however.
Regarding the social brain hypothesis to explain the high RBS in dolphins, many animals are
social and most anthropoid primates including humans are remarkably so. (Highly intelligent orangutans,
on the other hand, are relatively solitary.) Interestingly, humans with high-functioning autism (e.g.,
Asperger syndrome) who famously lack social skills, are known for their analytical, abstract, systematic
thinking, which was/is crucial for the cognitive skills that, so far, appear to be unique to people (Falk &
Schofield, 2018). There is ample reason to believe that humanity’s repertoire of advanced cognitive skills
depends largely on neurological substrates that initially evolved in conjunction with the emergence of
symbolic grammatical language. Rather than sociality per se, an explanation for RBS in some dolphins
might best be sought by exploring their whistles and clicks, as Ridgway suggests when comparing
Stenella and Steno (Ridgway et al., 2016:255). And what about the largest-bodied cetaceans that have the
absolutely biggest brains on earth? I wonder what’s on their minds.
Whatever they think about, whales and the other cetaceans are not building spaceships or texting
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on cellphones. Neither, for that matter, are the hundreds of species of nonhuman primates, even though
some of them have developed a semblance of material culture. What constrained nonhuman animals from
evolving greater intelligence? One way to approach this is to identify the sequence of factors that appear
to have been causally, but serendipitously, responsible for the unique 5-7-million-year evolutionary
trajectory of hominin cognition: weather changes reduction of arboreal habitats shift to terrestrial
living selection for a dominant form of locomotion that happened to free forelimbs delayed
physical maturation of infants babies’ greater dependence on mothers selection for novel reciprocal
mother/infant communications evolution of these communications, seeding the eventual emergence of
language subsequent independent emergences of mathematics, music, reading, etc., piggybacking on
linguistic neurological networks acceleration in material and technological culture spacecraft (Falk,
2023 in preparation). Looking at the sequence in reverse, what stands out as the most important are
language and, before that, evolving a pair of extremities that had become, more-or-less, dedicated to
carrying and making things rather than locomotion.
The medium in which animals live helps explain why cetaceans and nonhuman primates failed to
evolve free extremities that became exapted primarily for manipulating material. Cetaceans use their
extremities mostly to locomote through water, whereas arboreal and semiterrestrial primates use all four
of theirs (five, if they happen to have prehensile tails) mainly to negotiate harder substrates. (Birds, on the
other wing, use their forelimbs to navigate through air.) Only the human primate, through several quirks
of fate, eventually evolved habitual bipedalism on gravity-friendly terra firma, which led to the evolution
of manipulative forelimbs that were “free” to enhance limb-environment-brain interactions. This is why
only people have an extensive archaeological record of material culture.
As important as free, manipulative forelimbs were, language was, and is, the biggie. No matter
how clever Flipper is or how much an elephant remembers, as far as can be told, on planet Earth only the
human primate has evolved full-blown symbolic, grammatical language that may be used to generate and
receive an endless stream of ideas. Put that ability with two (or more) manipulative extremities in an
environment that has “stuff” and the sky’s, literally, the limit.
5. Out of This World: Is There Simple and Complex life Elsewhere in the Milky Way?
Attempting to speculate about environmental and behavioral constraints that may have influenced
the evolution of extremely intelligent extraterrestrial organisms is, of course, fraught with problems
because animals that are known to be highly intelligent (e.g., cetaceans and primates) are all from just
one planet. Nonetheless, humans have access to information that is relevant for evaluating the likelihood
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that simple life emerged and evolved into more complex forms elsewhere in our galaxy (the Milky Way)
as well as the prospect that intelligent life could have emerged and continued to evolve over a long
enough time for some extraterrestrial beings to invent broadly successful space travel, which has yet to
happen on Earth.
Because the Milky Way is just one grain of sand among many billions of galaxies, confining
relevant analyses to data from our own galaxy seems prudent, as is focusing exclusively on data from
planets that are more-or-less Earth-like and orbit around suns like ours. Estimates of the number of
approximately Earth-sized planets with water and a rocky surface in the habitable zones of G-type stars
(like our sun) suggest there could be up to 0.18 potentially habitable planets per G-type star (Kunimoto &
Matthews, 2020). Put another way, up to one potentially habitable planet may occur for every ~5.5 G-
type stars. One estimate concludes, “Our galaxy has as many as 400 billion stars, with seven percent of
them being G-type…[which] means less than six billion stars may have Earth-like planets in our Galaxy”
(Matthews quoted by Gough, 2020). Using an estimate of 28 billion G-type stars [7% of 400 billion] and
a denominator of 5.5, yields a somewhat more conservative upper limit of approximately five billion
potentially habitable planets in just the Milky Way.
Although it is a conservative estimate, five billion potentially habitable planets is a large enough
number that it would be hubris to assume that our planet, which is somewhat provincially situated distally
in the Orion arm of the Milky Way, is the only one on which life arose or on which intelligent beings
eventually evolved. This is especially true if the emergence of simple life on Earth around 3.8 billion
years ago occurred via relatively simple and broadly applicable processes. It has recently been
hypothesized that life may have originated via the emergence of simple biologically functional peptides
that were used for electron transfer, which were likely a factor that contributed to the eventual emergence
of “more complicated protein fold assembly facilitated by bound metals…[that] led to the structural
diversity we observe today” (Bromberg et al., 2022:9). This explanation entails fewer constraints on the
spontaneous emergence of life than suggested by previous research, including the classic spark-discharge
experiments that began in the 1950s (Miller, 1953). It, thus, seems reasonable to consider today’s more
streamlined hypothesis about the spontaneous emergence of simple life as a possible model for other
potentially habitable planets.
With respect to the existence of relatively simple extraterrestrial life on one particular planet,
Mars, some scientists believe that microbial life that resembled Earthly cyanobacteria, green algae,
lichens, fungi, and mat-forming organisms likely proliferated there between 3.0 and 4.2 billion million
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years ago, before Mars lost its magnetic field and atmosphere; that fragments or traces of these simple
forms became fossilized (Elewa, 2021; Joseph et al. 2020a,c, 2021b) including structures resembling tube
worms (Joseph et al. 2021a). Subsequent statistical analyses of photographs of ‘tube-like’ structures have
determined they are similar to fossilized cases from terrestrial tube worms (Armstrong, 2021a). In
addition, images of spheroid structures have been interpreted as possible fossilized lichens and fungal
puffballs (Armstrong, 2021b) but which others have argued may be hematite (Suamanarathna et al.,
2021). Similarly, analyses of photographs of lozenge microstructures “support the evidence that [they] are
possible fossils of Martian microalgae” (Bianciardi et al., 2021:70). Some believe that algae and lichens
may still be extant and contribute to oxygen production on Mars (Joseph et al. 2020b; Latif et al., 2021).
Sequential images of specimens on Mars have also been interpreted as evidence of fungus that is growing
(Joseph et al. 2021b). Recently, carbon signatures measured from powdered rock samples that were
collected from the surface of Mars by NASAs rover, Curiosity, have been interpreted as a possible
vestige of recent and ancient life because such signatures are associated with biological processes on
Earth, but this is just one of several unconventional explanations (House et al., 2022; Shekhtmas, 2022).
It is important to keep in mind that, as convincing as they may seem, all of the above hypotheses have yet
to be proven and will continue to be tested.
6. Dyson Spheres Orbiting Alien Suns?
Things get even more speculative when we turn to possible signs of highly intelligent
extraterrestrial life. Although controversial, pervasive unexplained aerial sightings have had enough
credibility to cause the Pentagon to recently create a group to study them (Barnes, 2021). The 2015
observation of unusual light curves from a sun-sized star (Boyajian’s star) located in the Cygnus
constellation (Boyajian et al., 2016) and subsequent discovery of 21 other stars that may be similar
(Schmidt, 2019) has led some to support the controversial hypothesis that beings far more advanced than
humans may have invented energy-capturing megastructures (sometimes called Dyson spheres) that orbit
distant stars (Horvat, 2015,; Joseph & Duvall, 2021; Wright & Sigurdsson, 2016). Despite the fact that
many, perhaps most, astronomers think that natural causes are likely to explain the irregular dimming in
the light from these stars, NASA recently funded a project that includes exploring the megastructure
hypothesis by analyzing data collected by its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Oberhaus & Donlin,
7. Postcards from Earth
Earth is around 4.6 billion years old, which is relatively young compared to the approximately
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13.6 billion years during which Earth-sized planets have been forming in the Milky Way (Campante et
al., 2015:1). This indicates that, having had more time, the development of intelligent life could be much
further along on older inhabited planets than it is on Earth. Some think, however, that our species will
become extinct (possibly due to weapons of mass destruction) before it has had enough time to achieve
widely successful space travel and/or colonize space (Gee, 2021). If this happens (but see below), then
we would be down to n=0 examples of known life that could potentially have reached the level of
technological achievement necessary to bring long-distance space travel to fruition.
The fossil record of mass extinctions is illuminating because it shows that animals have
repeatedly become extinct on Earth for any number of reasons including climate change, geological
disruptions from meteorite impacts, and disease, which may have implications for the future of humanity.
Remarkably, it is not necessary for an entire species to be eliminated immediately by such events for it to
become extinct. Numerous clades of apparently biologically successful species had “lingering demises”
after initially appearing to survive mass extinctions (dubbed “dead clade walking,” Jablonski,
2001:5395), which may have been due to, among other things, restricted “taxonomic breath” (Jablonski
2001:5396). Consistent with this, Gee argues that partly because humans have become one relatively
genetically homogeneous global population, Homo sapiens is unlikely to “survive more than another few
thousand to tens of thousands of years” (Gee, 2021:188). Gee further suggests that “extinction will still
be the fate of humanity, even if one day the species makes it to the stars. The colonies of humans will be
very small and separated by vast distances, raising the possibility that many will fail for lack of people
and genetic diversity, and those that succeed will, eventually, diverge into different species” (p. 206-207).
(As an aside, speciating would not be such a bad thing. After all, Homo sapiens branched off [speciated]
from Homo erectus and changes in the future descendants of Homo sapiens, including speciation events,
would presumably be adaptive.)
So, what, if anything, does an analysis of intelligent life on Earth suggest about the environmental
substrates and physical forms of extraterrestrial life that would, hypothetically, be intelligent enough to
engage in space travel? My guess is that (at least a subset of) such beings would have evolved in
environmental mediums that had gravitational properties that permitted the emergence of two or more
manipulative extremities, and that said environments also had a good supply of potentially useful
material. I think ET would be descended from social predecessors that facilitated its evolution of some
sort of sophisticated language. As to body shape, number of limbs, digits, etc., these details may well
vary with the home planet. Who’s to say that it is necessary to have four extremities or five digits at the
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end of each one as we humans do? (After all, the pulsating limb of the dying Martian at the end of the
1953 movie War of the Worlds only had three.)
As far as we know, Homo sapiens speciated (i.e., became a clade) from other hominins around
300,000 years ago (Richter et al., 2017). Even if our species is a “dead clade walking,” the few thousand
to tens of thousands of years that Gee predicts we have left comprise an enormous amount of time in
terms of potential technological evolution because Homo sapiens is on an accelerating technological roll
(Falk & Schofield, 2018). As discussed above, spoken language probably began to emerge millions of
years ago in early ancestors of humans in conjunction with the evolution of distributed neurological
networks, which eventually provided substrates for the (much more) recent emergence of other cognitive
abilities such as music, math, reading, etc. Reading was a biocultural invention that arose extremely
recently—i.e., about 5,500 years ago (originally using a Sumerian script). It not only revolutionized how
our species collects, transmits, and remembers information, it also became heritable (i.e., associated with
specific genetic substrates) while simultaneously rewiring parts of the human brain. Fast forward to 1993
when computers and the Internet became publicly available (Loh & Kanai, 2015), which began another
remarkable and even faster revolution in human technology than that started over 5,000 years ago by the
invention of reading. Today, less than thirty years after the Internet became widely available, technology
has, again, made another leap by combining information and communication technology, robotics,
nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence (AI) with results such as brain-computer interfaces (i.e.,
merging computers with brains) (Zdravkove, 2019) and the invention of “soft” robots designed from
clusters of cells that can replicate and perform work (Kriegman et al., 2021)—so-called living Xenobots.
Interestingly, the latter “suggests that future technologies may, with little outside guidance, become more
useful as they spread; and that life harbors surprising behaviors just below the surface, waiting to be
uncovered” (Kriegman et al., 2021:1).
Homo sapiens is not only inventing new technology that is radically changing global human
society at a phenomenal pace (Zdravkove, 2019), the gene pool(s) and brains of our species are changing
(and will continue to change) in the process, partly in association with rapid epigenetic changes that
affect the nervous system and partly as a result of selection for individuals who, although less socially
adept than their peers, are technologically savvy, driven, and creative (Falk & Schofield, 2018). The
bottom line is we have little clue about the scope of the innovations our species will create in the next
half century, but we can be sure some of them will be beyond our wildest current dreams. And if we can’t
imagine the breath of technology in the near future of the most intelligent species on the one habitable
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planet that we know well, how can we comprehend “the mind, purpose, motives or technological and
scientific capabilities of intelligent extraterrestrials that may have evolved beyond our current level of
ability billions of years ago” (Joseph & Duvall, 2021:141)? Our species may well last long enough to
invent long-distance space travel and, if so, who knows what that will bring? Although intelligent life has
currently been proven to exist only on Earth, I wouldn’t bet against the existence of even more intelligent
extraterrestrial beings whose ancestors evolved on substrates and under circumstances that were
conducive to the emergence of open-ended complex symbolic communication and the manufacturing of
complex material culture.
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... It should also be noted that despite frequent claims for intelligence in cetaceans and especially bottlenose porpoises (Falk 2022), not only is the evidence for mirror self-recognition weak and the methodology often questionable, but in spite of unusually large brains, their other accomplishments in the intellectual domain are not nearly as profound as some would like to believe (Marino et al. 2007;Marino et al. 2008). For a compelling and rigorous review of the faulty thinking, poor methodology and weak evidence for intelligence in cetaceans see Manger (2013). ...
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We evaluate claims for extraterrestrial intelligence based on the logic behind assertions such as the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. To assess intelligence elsewhere in the universe we outline two of the principle scientific claims for intelligence on Earth. One involves the idea that intelligence involves working out the reasons for our own existence. The other involves self-awareness and the capacity to make inferences about what others know, want, or intend to do. The famous quote from Rene Descartes "I think; therefore, I am" needs to be revised to read "I am; therefore, I think." Some of the conclusions we derive about intelligence include the idea that most species on planet Earth have clever brains but blank minds (no self-consciousness); humans are the only species where what you know could get you killed; if humans become extinct it is highly unlikely that human-like intelligence will re-emerge on this planet and the odds of human-like intelligence evolving on other worlds is infinitely small. However, if intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe it may not have revealed itself because humans are dangerous and are perceived as posing too great a risk.
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There are planets in this galaxy over 10 billion years in age. Given the necessity of a stabilizing moon to prevent chaotic obliquity, the number of habitable planets upon which human-like intelligent life could have evolved may range from a minimum of 155 worlds to over 8 billion planets in this galaxy. Intelligent life that evolved on these older worlds may have reached what Nikolai Kardashev has described as Type I, II, III extraterrestrial civilizations billions of years ago. Type I civilizations may be capable of visiting and exploiting other planets in their solar system. Humans of Earth may not reach Type I status for another 200 years. Type II extraterrestrial civilizations would have developed the capacity to exploit the energy resources of their own stars and could have engineered energy capturing megastructures (Dyson spheres). Type III may be capable of harnessing the energy of entire galaxies. It is proposed that Type IV would be capable of conquering the universe and creating a universe and other dimensions. Robotic Artificially Intelligent civilizations may have also evolved in the transition from Type I to Type II. Type II and Type III extraterrestrial civilizations may account for what is now described as "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena." If Earth is under extraterrestrial surveillance they may be relying on the non-habituation anthropological observational model so they do not affect "natural" human behavior and (A) intend us no harm; or (B) they are monitoring our technological development and if humans become a threat they may destroy our technology and civilization; or (C) as warned by Stephen Hawking, they intend to conquer our planet.
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Statistical comparisons were made between various ‘tube-like’ structures photographed on Mars by Curiosity and Opportunity rovers in Gale and Endurance craters respectively and the worm ‘cases’ of terrestrial tube worms. Various statistical analyses, including principal components analysis (PCA) based on various metrics, suggested considerable similarities between the Martian tube-like structures and their terrestrial counterparts. Although, statistical comparisons cannot ‘prove’ that these tube-like structures on Mars represent tube worms, they provide a more objective basis for morphological comparison, thus supporting the conclusions of Joseph et al. (2021a). Given the significance and implications of such data, further observations are urgently needed to increase sample sizes available for statistical study.
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Biological redox reactions drive planetary biogeochemical cycles. Using a novel, structure-guided sequence analysis of proteins, we explored the patterns of evolution of enzymes responsible for these reactions. Our analysis reveals that the folds that bind transition metal–containing ligands have similar structural geometry and amino acid sequences across the full diversity of proteins. Similarity across folds reflects the availability of key transition metals over geological time and strongly suggests that transition metal–ligand binding had a small number of common peptide origins. We observe that structures central to our similarity network come primarily from oxidoreductases, suggesting that ancestral peptides may have also facilitated electron transfer reactions. Last, our results reveal that the earliest biologically functional peptides were likely available before the assembly of fully functional protein domains over 3.8 billion years ago.Thus, life is a special, very complex form of motion of matter, but this form did not always exist, and it is not separated from inorganic nature by an impassable abyss; rather, it arose from inorganic nature as a new property in the process of evolution of the world. We must study the history of this evolution if we want to solve the problem of the origin of life. [A. I. Oparin (1)]
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The observation of tubular structures within Endurance Crater, Mars, has been reported by Joseph et al (2021a,b) who hypothesized these may be mineralized and fossilized remnants of tube worms that in the ancient and recent past flourished within lakes of water heated by thermal vents. The discovery of what may be spherical hematite in this same vicinity supports the hydrothermal vent scenario, whereas the claims by Joseph (2021; Joseph et al. 2021c) that these spherules are fungal puffballs does not. This evidence from Endurance Crater and associated mineralogy and chemistry is reviewed. We conclude that the ancient lakes of Endurance Crater may have been heated by thermal vents and inhabited by tubular organisms that became mineralized, as hypothesized by Joseph et al; and that these same hydrothermal vents formed hematite spherules as hypothesized by the rover Opportunity team.
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Statistical comparisons were made between the populations of Martian spheroids photographed by Opportunity and terrestrial Moqui balls and between the stalked Martian spheroids and reproductive podetia of the lichen Dibaeis baeomyces. Principal components analysis (PCA)based on various metrics suggested significant differences in statistical properties of the Martian spheroids compared with the Moqui balls but considerable similarities between the stalked spheroids and the lichen podetia. These preliminary results suggest that Moqui balls are not a good terrestrial analogue of the Martian spheroids and support the hypothesis that the stalked spheroids may represent the reproductive podetia of a lichen; albeit considerably strengthened via mineral deposition to survive the Martian environment.
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Reviewed in this report: It took a minimum of 7 billion years of genetic duplicative events for the first gene to become a life sustaining genome; i.e. at least 2.4 billion years before Earth was formed. Potentially habitable planets have been identified at least 5 billion years older than Earth. Microfossils have been found in meteors older than this solar system including evidence of evolutionary progression leading to corals and sponges. There is evidence of life, fossils and evolution on Mars paralleling Earth leading up to the Cambrian Explosion. The implications are: life on Earth-like planets evolves in patterns similar to life on Earth. Megastructures have been observed orbiting our own and distant suns. For thousands of years there have been reports of flying craft (“Unusual Aerial Phenomena”). According to a report by the U.S.A Office of the Director of National Intelligence these “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” engage in maneuvers at hypersonic speeds that are completely beyond our technological capabilities or understanding. The implications are that Earth and its inhabitants are under surveillance. It is concluded that intelligent life and technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations have evolved in this galaxy on numerous Earth-like worlds, including those billions of years older than our own.
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The discovery and statistical analysis of fossils on Mars is reviewed. Fossilized formations similar to tube worms, and Ediacarans and Metazoans have been reported. The possibility these organisms evolved from algae that constructed stromatolites early in the history of Mars is discussed in the context of extinction using Earth as an analog.
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Postmortem computed tomography (PMCT) and postmortem magnetic resonance (PMMR) imaging (PMMRI) have been applied to provide vital or additional information for conventional necropsy, along the pioneering virtopsy-driven cetacean stranding response program in Hong Kong waters. It is common for stranded carcasses to become badly degraded and susceptible to rapid cerebral autolysis and putrefaction. Necropsy on decomposed brains with limited sample analysis often defy a specific diagnosis. Studies on PMMR neuroimaging have focused on neuroanatomy and brain morphology in freshly deceased or preserved specimens. Moreover, the literature is devoid of any reference on the potential value of PMMRI examination of decomposed cetacean brains. To that end, this project evaluated the benefits of PMMR neuroimaging in situ in decomposed carcasses in comparison to PMCT. A total of 18 cetacean carcasses were studied by PMCT and PMMRI examinations. Anatomical brain structures and visible brain pathologies were evaluated and scored using Likert-scale rating. Intracranial gas accumulation was clearly depicted in all cases by all radiological techniques. Other features were more clearly depictable in PMMRI than in PMCT images. Results of this study indicated that superiority of PMMRI compared to PMCT increased with advanced putrefaction of the brain. The preservation of structural integrity was presented by PMMRI due to its superior capability to evaluate soft tissue. Brain PMMRI should be incorporated in postmortem investigation of decomposed stranded cetaceans.
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The discovery and subsequent investigations of atmospheric oxygen on Mars are reviewed. Free oxygen is a biomarker produced by photosynthesizing organisms. Oxygen is reactive and on Mars may be destroyed in 10 years and is continually replenished. Diurnal and spring/summer increases in oxygen have been documented, and these variations parallel biologically induced fluctuations on Earth. Data from the Viking biological experiments also support active biology, though these results have been disputed. Although there is no conclusive proof of current or past life on Mars, organic matter has been detected and specimens resembling green algae / cyanobacteria, lichens, stromatolites, and open apertures and fenestrae for the venting of oxygen produced via photosynthesis have been observed. These life-like specimens include thousands of lichen-mushroom-shaped structures with thin stems, attached to rocks, topped by bulbous caps, and oriented skyward similar to photosynthesizing organisms. If some of these specimens are fossilized is unknown. However the evidence of so many different types of life-like specimens make it almost indisputable that there is life on Mars. The overall body of evidence indicates are likely producing and replenishing atmospheric oxygen. Abiogenic processes might also contribute to oxygenation via sublimation and seasonal melting of subglacial water-ice deposits coupled with UV splitting of water molecules; a process of abiogenic photosynthesis that could have significantly depleted oceans of water and subsurface ice over the last 4.5 billion years; and, which would have provided moisture to these Martian organisms and their ancestors.
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The timing and location of the emergence of our species and of associated behavioural changes are crucial for our understanding of human evolution. The earliest fossil attributed to a modern form of Homo sapiens comes from eastern Africa and is approximately 195 thousand years old, therefore the emergence of modern human biology is commonly placed at around 200 thousand years ago. The earliest Middle Stone Age assemblages come from eastern and southern Africa but date much earlier. Here we report the ages, determined by thermoluminescence dating, of fire-heated flint artefacts obtained from new excavations at the Middle Stone Age site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, which are directly associated with newly discovered remains of H. sapiens. A weighted average age places these Middle Stone Age artefacts and fossils at 315 ± 34 thousand years ago. Support is obtained through the recalculated uranium series with electron spin resonance date of 286 ± 32 thousand years ago for a tooth from the Irhoud 3 hominin mandible. These ages are also consistent with the faunal and microfaunal assemblages and almost double the previous age estimates for the lower part of the deposits. The north African site of Jebel Irhoud contains one of the earliest directly dated Middle Stone Age assemblages, and its associated human remains are the oldest reported for H. sapiens. The emergence of our species and of the Middle Stone Age appear to be close in time, and these data suggest a larger scale, potentially pan-African, origin for both.