Over the course of my life, I have seen paleontological research into dinosaurs go through a revolution. When I was a kid reading books on the dinosaurs, they were full of pictures of primitive cold-blooded reptiles plodding around awaiting extinction. Now they’re not seen that way. Today they are now seen as dynamic, complex animals. And that makes me wonder. What would have happened if they hadn’t been smacked with an asteroid? Might they have gone on to achieve civilization and greatness millions of years before man was even a blip on evolution’s radar?
It’s difficult to say definitively what might have happened. There is always a chance that conditions might have aligned just so that the dinosaurs, or for that matter any of the multitudes of extinct species in earth’s history, might have eventually developed advanced intelligence and ventured out into space. One can never know for certain what might have been. But we can make informed guesses.
While the dinosaurs are turning out to have been more complex than we previously thought, much of that seems to have been turned towards adapting to their environment in a way very different from our own evolutionary path. For us, the conditions of the world of the early primates specifically favored increasing levels of intelligence needed for survival. For the dinosaurs, not so much. In fact, in those days complexity may have been a liability. After all, the less complex cold-blooded crocodile co-existed with the dinosaurs and is still around relatively unchanged from those days. In their case, evolution favored simplicity. In other words, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
That isn’t to say that the dinosaurs weren’t moving towards intelligence. Predatory dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex most certainly were. But it was a specific kind of intelligence more akin to what you would need to exist as a pack of wolves, which are far smarter and more complex than the dinosaurs were. It wasn’t what you would need to eventually build a skyscraper. In short, the dinosaurs were on the slow path to intelligence whereas the mammals were on the fast track.
One of the major factors governing what might have been is a general rule we see in biology. It’s not really how big your brain is, whale brains are quite a bit larger than human brains but they’re not as smart as us, but the ratio of how big your brain is to your body. And that’s where the dinosaurs fall short. They were huge animals but with tiny brains in comparison to their bulk. This makes sense in one way, but presents a mystery in another.
Our planet’s oxygen levels appear to have wildly varied in the past, and apparently still are – the levels are currently dropping and have been for about the last million years and we’re not sure why. Oxygen levels during the time of the last of the dinosaurs appear to have been much lower than they are today. So much so that if you had a time machine and went back to those days, your huge human oxygen hungry brain would cause you to quickly pass out and possibly even die.
That meant that small, simple brains that used less oxygen were the rule of the day. That also means that intelligence was not on the table for the dinosaurs, but it also begs a question. Large bodies also use oxygen, what advantage was there for the dinosaurs to have been so huge? We don’t know the answer to that. But we do know that after the dinosaurs were gone, the small sized, but comparatively large brains of the early mammals favored them in the post apocalyptic environment that was earth just after the asteroid hit. But we do know that the environmental conditions that later arose after the dinosaurs independent of the asteroid probably wouldn’t have favored the dinosaurs’ physiology and while they might not have gone extinct in later ages, they probably wouldn’t have become intelligent either.
So, no space colonies for the dinosaurs, at least not for a much longer period than we required to get to that level of intelligence. If they hadn’t gone extinct, we’d have never arisen and earth would still be a world ruled by complex, but unintelligent reptiles. But that also begs a question, if reptiles are destined to be simple and slow to develop intelligence, why did mammals develop intelligence so fast? And how did humans outdo all other mammals? Well, the fact is, human evolution seems have been a fluke that happened under just the right conditions. The first thing that had to happen was the rise of the mammals in the first place, which unfortunately required the demise of the dinosaurs. Then you needed more oxygen in the atmosphere to swell brain sizes, which by chance happened. But you also need something else. Something in your environment must drive evolution for it to occur. Oddly enough, for us, this seems to have been climate change.
About 20 million years ago, geologic conditions were such that a period of climate upheaval ensued. This is thought to have caused chronic food shortages for the early primates meaning that being able to dynamically adapt and analyze became a desirable trait for finding food. In short, the smarter mammals lived and those that could not cope died off as natural selection occurred. The end result is us, but what I find fascinating is that we weren’t the only intelligent species that would result from that period of evolutionary history.
I often opine about the possibility of alien life on my posts and ask the great “Are we alone?” question. But there was a time when we were most certainly not alone. We once shared our world with other intelligences that while they were cousins, they were not the same species. In fact, at one point, there were three separate species that had mastered fire co-existing on planet earth; us, the Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. The implications of that are profound if you think about it. Three kinds of intelligent, tool and fire using species all living together on one world. And all three appear to have been aggressive. Those must have been crazy days for sure and while we have tantalizing clues about what our cousins were like and how they interacted with us there is one glaring thing missing in both Neanderthal and Homo Erectus societies: ART. And that may be why our cousins are no longer with us. Creativity seems to have been key for survival. While our cousins were far and away more complex than 99 percent plus of all life that’s ever existed on earth they just weren’t creative enough to compete with us.
We have found no cave paintings or statues that can be attributed to either the Neanderthals or Homo Erectus. Our level of creativity seems to have given us the advantage, but that came about wholly by chance. Our environment dictated who we would become. And, given that Earth’s environment has changed so much that might suggest that in the vast majority of cases alien life may have no driver to push evolution towards intelligence. There may be highly intelligent species out there like Homo Erectus, but they may lack creativity and remain forever primitive because of it. A lot like the stagnation of the crocodiles. In fact, it could be the case that the more stable an earth-like world is, the less likely it is to evolve intelligence in any form. But at the same time, once intelligence does develop on a world, it may tend to happen with several related species at the same time as it did here. As those species compete, the others would likely die off, aggressive is better in such a state of affairs. But if a world has multiple, protected continents then multiple species civilizations could occur. An interesting concept for a science fiction author to mull over indeed.
But that didn’t happen here, our cousins are now in the past and we stand triumphantly at the apex of evolution, all other contenders long gone. But will we remain alone? Perhaps the same environmental conditions that favored our development favored other non-primate species and may continue to do so until they reach our level of intelligence. It’s well known that octopuses, chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and certain species of birds aren’t dummies by any stretch. Neither are cats and dogs. In fact, at no other period in earth’s history has so much diversity of intelligence existed.
That presents the opposite argument. If general intelligence is rising on earth, then does that mean it does so on other planets as a rule? We don’t know. But we do know that physiology also plays a role. While animal intelligence can be quite high and may be evolving, most of them have physiological disadvantages. Dolphins and whales may be smart, but try harnessing fire in the depths of the ocean. Similar challenges face all intelligent animals and that affects the aliens too. You can be as smart as you want, but if you can’t physically build a computer, you’ll never go anywhere. It seems that we really did get lucky with both our brain and our physiology. Very lucky to the tune that maybe the reason we haven’t detected any alien civilizations is because high levels of intelligence is a fluke rather than an end point of evolution. It also seems that useful physiology that can do things like smelt metal is also a fluke. We’re a fluke inside a fluke.
And, there’s yet another fluke, this time cultural. Even when you have a creative species like ourselves, it still took us tens of thousands of years to hit the bronze age. And we might still be in the bronze age if successive dark ages had occurred repeatedly resetting the clock for civilization, we do live on a planet where there are to this day uncontacted primitive stone-aged peoples. And we ourselves wouldn’t be at this level if someone had simply missed something and failed to pursue a key technology.
Case in point, the Roman Empire and the steam engine. They knew about it, but never used it. As socially advanced as they were, no one noticed that Heron of Alexandria’s steam engine could save labor and do work. Had someone noticed that at the time and ran with it, we might have been on the moon in the 6th century instead of descending into the dark ages. The ancient world, as great as it was in many ways, fell for lack of ancient equivalents of James Watt and Thomas Newcomen. Cultural conditions have to be just so for a technological civilization to develop at all.
Once you have advanced technology, everything changes and the further you go, the harder it is to go back. We have already become the lords of evolution. We are the single biggest factor in the future of evolution on earth dwarfing even the great asteroid that killed the dinosaurs and soon we will be able to tailor the organisms of our world to be smarter as well as augmenting ourselves. A new age is coming upon us where we must define our ethics and who we are. The awesome power that lies within the mastery of genetics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology awaits us and we must manage it carefully, or some day we may indeed no longer be alone, regardless of whether we find alien civilizations. It may be the case that they emerge here on earth. We must be ready for them if they do.