The idea of parallel evolution always irks me. I think it irks scientists, too, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure. The supposition that an intelligent alien species would follow the same path as us–physiologically, socially, and scientifically–strikes me as hopelessly arrogant. It makes the obviously incorrect assumption that there is only one way to do things, and that way is to become humanoid, speak a language based on sound, and make your way up the ‘tech-tree’ (to borrow a RTS game term) from fire to the wheel and so on.
Let’s entertain a different idea, however. I’ve been turning this over in my head for the past few weeks, actually, and here’s what I got so far. Again, I stress that I am not a scientist, but know just enough basic science to get myself in trouble. I would be delighted, actually, if I had my science critiqued by folks who know better–it usually makes things more interesting as opposed to less so.
Take a planet sort of like ours–watery, geologically active, a healthy magnetic field, orbiting in the habitable zone of a main sequence star of some kind. This time, however, let’s knock it just a few pegs off the mark, specifically so there is no significant evolutionary advantage to being able to crawl around on land. Say the gravity is a bit too strong, making it very difficult for any large creature to survive and walk around up there. Or suppose, instead, that the planet is subject to baths of radiation from the star that make long-term survival impractical. Hell, perhaps it’s just too hot up there, or too cold–the planet’s oceans are forever coated in a sheet of ice, creating a significant physical barrier to anything crawling out of the deep and becoming an amphibian.
What happens if you wind up with a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species on such a planet? What is it like? How do they look at the world? Admittedly, the exercise is legitimately impossible–we have a hard enough time sticking ourselves in the shoes of other humans, let alone an alien species on an alien planet trillions of kilometers away. Let’s give it a whirl, anyway, and see what happens.
Going off a combination of what we’ve needed to get where we are and what creatures in our own oceans have the same potential, I’ve decided the following:
1) The aliens need some kind of prehensile appendages with which to manipulate their environment and make tools. Dolphins can be as intelligent as you like, but they’ll never manage to make a toaster without thumbs.
2) The aliens must have evolved in a particular niche where intelligence would have been useful. This is more-or-less restricted to carnivorous or omnivorous species–herbivores really don’t need to be smart, since they don’t need to hunt or plan or anything beyond just eating that kelp over there. Carnivores, furthermore, only need to be intelligent enough to chase down or ambush prey, and the rest of their job is done by substantial physical strength. Omnivorous, scavenging types, however, are neither as strong as predators nor as dumb as herbivores. They are adaptable by necessity, and live by being clever. Watch crows operate sometimes–very clever little birds–not to mention various kinds of monkeys and baboons and such.
3) The species needs to be curious. Curiosity is the only way you become a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species in the ‘sapient’ sense. If we lacked this, we’d still be hunter-gatherers, no matter how smart we were. It took some real curiostity to harness fire, folks.
Okay, so, given all that stuff, I’ve decided that cephalopods seem the most likely candidates, specifically those akin to octopi and squids. They have large brains, tentacles with which to manipulate things, show curiosity, and, while not omnivorous per se, are scavengers and it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see a cephalopodic species developing the capacity to ingest vegetable matter in a pinch.
This leaves us with squid-aliens, living in the depths of a planet, developing society and technology and art and commerce, but in a way wholly alien to ourselves.
Our squiddies are social creatures (real-life squids and octopi can actually get lonely, and will hang around with fish if isolated from others of their kind), and so it is reasonable to expect them to develop a kind of society. Indeed, and I probably should have placed this above, the social aspect of a species is probably essential to developing the kind of ‘intelligence’ I’m suggesting here (and, of course, there are many ways to measure intelligence–I’m picking one similar to ours simply because it makes it much, much easier to talk about. It needn’t be the case, though).
What kind of a society would they have? Heirarchical, I suppose–the bigger guy is higher on the food chain than the smaller guy and so on. This is the law of the oceans, and it only makes sense that it would be mirrored by the society spawned out of it (not altogether unlike ours). The family unit, as we understand it, might not be the same. Depending on the species in question, cephalopods lay eggs which are then fertilized by a male and left to their own devices. Alternatively, the males impregnates the eggs, which are then carried around by the female until they hatch. In the second place, we could see extended (and very large) family groups developing. I prefer the first case, though, just to be different. Eggs would be carefully hidden and probably protected, but they wouldn’t be carried around. Indeed, it might even be that the female dies immediately after laying these eggs. Yeah, let’s go with that one: females lay their eggs once in their lives, then die. Males fertilize them and leave them be, then wait for the eggs that make it to arise.
What effect does this have on their society? Well, I would expect a couple things to come of this:
1) Females, and the prospect of mating with one, would be an extremely sacred aspect of society. Most males wouldn’t get the opportunity, I would imagine, and they would be forced to treat females with deference and reverence. Females would have the pick of the litter, so to speak, on whom to mate with. Mating itself would be a very sacred ritual, almost like a mix of wedding and funeral, wherein the male, after perhaps decades of courting, is deigned worthy of producing children by the female. We can reasonably suppose the female’s attitudes towards life and death would be unusual, to say the least. The idea of ‘motherhood’ wouldn’t exist, really. Young would be raised collectively by the group, probably by the males, actually, who would have an idea of fatherhood and attachment to their own young that the females lacked.
2) The best places to plant such eggs would be, likewise, very important and sacred locations. Therefore, while the squids themselves might be nomadic, they would orient their travel around certain sites, and, indeed, eventually develop and interest in defending these places against other groups of their own kinds. These places would, naturally, become places of commerce and probably turn into repositories for wealth and large populations which would, of course, be attractive places to control. Bingo–they have wars.
3) Population growth, while not increasing at the same steady rate as ours (since they have their children all at once, rather than over the course of their lives), would probably be similar, depending on how many eggs they lay and how many fertilize and how many actually succeed in developing. As their technology increased to improve the odds, they would develop ever increasing population problems (imagine if a human woman got 75% of *all* her eggs to become children? She’d have how many thousands/tens of thousands of kids? Wow.). Even though they would live in a three-dimensional world, the sheer number of squids would eventually push them beyond the boundaries of their most comfortable environment, whatever that would be.
This last point, particularly the bit about living in a three-dimensional world, would be also important to understand and consider. Most sea creatures are restricted not only to certain latitudes on the earth, but also certain depths. Fish that live in the shallows can’t survive in the abyss and vice versa. For a very long time (milennia), we could expect the squids to happily (or unhappily) live in their particular strata of the oceans and, besides for the purposes of exploration, stick to those areas. As resources became scarce, they would adapt themselves to different depths and different latitutdes, or perhaps a combination of both. These offshoots of the original squids would create their own little gene pools in their own little corners of the ocean, and now we have ethnic groups, variations in culture/cuisine/art, and the stage for centuries of international warfare, just like us. The main difference would be that there would be exponentially more such cultures, since there are many, many more environments for them to call home. The physiological differences between the groups could be more severe, as well, possibly making their version of racism even more extreme (what–they only got seven tentacles? Gross–what primitives!).
Furthermore, given the fact that physical barriers to travel would be much reduced (rivers, mountains, canyons–all either non-existent or easily traversed underwater), once ways of suriving in deeper or shallower water were developed, it is very possible that the idea of commerce and trade would be even more pervasive. It would be difficult for cultures to be completely isolated from one another, and while they might retain their separation (due to racism, climate, etc.), they would probably remain in some kind of contact with the others. Of course, now that I’m thinking of it, this might serve to homogenize the gene pools somewhat, as well, cutting down on the number of subspecies. In any event, I think we can assume that no culture would develop completely isolated from the rest of the world in the way that we have–there would be no primitive aboriginal tribes hiding from the world, no China with its closed borders, etc. Everybody would have to deal with one another at some point.
This might have interesting effects on art and language, as well. A universal language might be expected; as cephalopods are very visual creatures with the capacity to change the color and pattern of their skin, their language would probably be visual and supported by whatever sounds their beaks/mouths might make, much like we support our verbal language with whatever gestures our hands provide. Those cultures living in the deeper regions of the ocean might have slightly different dialects, given the dim lighting, but one might presume that, before any culture so visually oriented would decide to live in the darkness, they would have developed a reliable method of lighting or chosen areas rife with bioluminescent organisms.
Anyway, this brings us to a discussion of technology.
Evolving underwater would have an enormous effect on the whys and hows of technological development. Technology is, of course, driven by necessity, and what you need when you live in the sea is quite different from what you need while on land. To begin at the beginning, we could easily see that the technologies we commonly associate with being among the simplest–the wheel, the incline plane, fire, the lever–might not be so simple for underwater creatures. Why would they develop the wheel, for instance? Certainly they’d figure it out sooner or later, but certainly not first, since you hardly need it in the ocean. Likewise, fire and combustion in general would be a very difficult concept for them to grasp, since it would be so difficult to achieve in the deep.
What they would almost certainly master first would be the idea of bouancy and jet propulsion. These are things inherent to their own physiology (its how they move around the water, after all) just how levers and incline planes are how we do things on land. The use of baloons and bladders to raise or lower things would probably be mastered quickly and developed beyond our own capacity to imagine. Likewise, the idea of a system by which one could propel oneself through the use of bellows or similar things would also be quick to develop. Pumps, tubes, and hydrodynamics would be second nature and essential for travel. Agriculture and the domestication of their fellow sea creatures would be a given, since no society with a burgeoning population would manage without it.
Presuming they developed electricity (very likely), their power plants would probably be run by wave-action, currents, and geothermal energy (they are right near the cracks in the crust of their planet, after all). Weapons would mostly be poison and camouflage based, again in keeping with their natural inclinations, though the development of torpedoes and explosives would be probable. No swords, obviously–spears, spear guns, and things that could deliver a deadly blow through the thick medium of ocean water would be expected. Armor would be designed to deflect piercing attacks over slashing or blunt-force trauma. The use of fire as a weapon wouldn’t probably occur to them, at least not for a long while.
Eventually, we might expect one of these fine squids, the Sir Edmund Hillary of his people, to crawl out of the water and sit on dry land, some kind of shallow-water guide at his side, and gaze up at the unimagined spectacle of the night sky. When he saw the stars, resting there on a black velvet field, twinkling like gems in the deep, what would he think?
What would he dream?