Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


Chapter 13.  Sensations


"It was the face that made Otis stare. The mouth was toothless and probably constructed more for sucking than chewing. But the eyes! They projected like ends of a dumbbell from each side of the skull where the ears should have been, and focused with obvious mobility. Peering closer, Otis saw tiny ears below the eyes, almost hidden in the curling fur of the neck...
          -- attr. to H.B. Fyfe (1951)70

"Those races that had the electric sense gave us some difficulty; for, in order to understand their thought, we had to learn a whole new gamut of sense qualities and a vast system of unfamiliar symbolism. The electric organs detected only very slight differences of electric charge in relation to the subject’s own body. Originally this sense had been used for revealing enemies equipped with electric organs of offense. But in man its significance was chiefly social. It gave information about the emotional state of one’s neighbors. Beyond this its function was meteorological...."
          -- Olaf Stapledon, in Star Maker (1937)1946

"A being who hears me tapping
The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such greater glories
That I am worse than blind."
          -- unidentified American poet81



Of all the abilities possessed by creatures of other worlds, perhaps none is so important as information processing. According to negentropic definitions of life, the gathering and utilization of environmental data is somehow the point of living. On our own planet, neurons, nervous systems and brains have been instrumental at the highest level of organismic functioning: Intelligence.

If intelligence is data processing, senses must provide the data. It’s a good bet that any entity complex enough to have intellect will also have evolved a fairly complicated sensory network to keep its mental equipment well-supplied with information.

The sensoriurn of any extraterrestrial creature must, at the very least, be sufficient to ensure survival. There will be few if any monosensory (having only one sensory modality) races in the Galaxy. Even the lowest microscopic lifeforms on Earth are not so restricted. Aliens will have a multitude of complementary senses which "support, confirm, modify and duplicate the major one."1000

On the other hand, there’s no point in evolving more senses than the brain can handle. Those which are essential to survival will be developed, but there will be high efficiency and little surplusage. New senses will arise only if they clearly increase the organism's chances for survival, or if the basic environmental constraints -- the rules of the game of living -- change. So extraterrestrials should have just those senses which are optimal or optimized for survival, and none which are superfluous or which might overload the brain.

The sensorium will be based on natural phenomena commonly occurring in or around the immediate habitat. Of course, any form of energy that can be emitted, transmitted, modulated or received theoretically may serve as a basis for sensation. But there do seem to be a few normal limits on the diversity of biological sensors.

For small organisms tactile senses (touch) are usually sufficient to get by, since the immediate vicinity and the imminent future are all these creatures care about. Taste, touch, vibration, temperature, and all other qualities of the external world that can be communicated by direct physical contact alone are valid possibilities for tactile beings.

Among larger creatures, contact senses tend to be less important because the organism now must be apprised of distant events and more extensive time spans. Remote sensing is of greater significance -- perhaps chemical diffusion (smell), acoustic radiation (sound), electromagnetic radiation (seeing), particulate radiation (alphas, betas), and so forth.

Seldom do we pause to consider just how many separate worlds exist side by side on Earth. Every lifeform has its own way of knowing and its own unique brand of intelligence, because each operates with a different set of input data. The dog lives in a world of scent; the porpoise in a world of ultrasonic sound; the frog in a world of motion; the human in a world of color. Each of these organisms has a singular window on reality, a novel way of looking at the material universe. Indeed, each sentient creature occupies a different subjective universe altogether.

If we attempt to "see" through the senses of other beings, how different would be our view? Without sight, or sound, what would human culture and science and society be like? What would it mean to be able to sense the myriad electrical fields around us, or the variations in barometric pressure which herald the arrival of a thunderstorm? With other kinds of knowledge directly accessible to our brains, how much differently might we think and act?

The windows on reality of intelligent extraterrestrials may be wider than ours in some places, narrower in others, and occasionally absent altogether. Vistas of natural beauty and panoramic splendor may be available to them about which we can only dimly speculate. If they draw different conclusions about the cosmos, we shall not be surprised. Indeed, we should be delighted, for it is one of the highest aspirations of xenology to elevate humanity to a new awareness of itself and its limitations.


Last updated on 6 December 2008