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


14.2.1  Genetic Sentience

Imagine an alien species which for some reason is trapped at the level of genetic information storage. Unable to progress to more efficient forms with higher data ceilings, the intellect of each individual entity is limited to what can be done with genes alone.

The insects of Earth are a case in point. It will be recalled that the majority of the animal world consists of invertebrates without notochords. instead, a network of smaller sub-brains called ganglia is used. The main brain in the head is merely a larger-than-normal aggregation of ganglia, so the basic system appears to be self-limiting as regards maximum size and complexity.

Finding the road to bigger brains -- the next step up in intelligence -- blocked, a few clever insects decided to make do with what little they had. Unable to become better at coping with the environment by individual intellectual effort, the social insect species (ants, bees, termites, etc.) reworked their genetic structures in order to increase their adaptability. Instead of storing information in their limited brains alone, they stored it in their genes. Their DNA, rather than their individual minds, learned.

Can we really say that the social insects are sentient, though? There is nothing wrong with this at all. If one considers the anthill or the beehive as a single superorganism -- as do several xenobiologists565 -- each clearly displays many of the attributes of higher intelligence. Data from the immediate environment are absorbed and acted upon. Judgments are made almost exclusively at the community level as regards foraging for food, reproductive activity, temperature and humidity control in hive or hill, military defense of the colony, and so forth. And if sentience requires an ability to recognize the self, the social insect superorganism clearly meets this test. Colonies of ants or bees are acutely aware of their own identity, since individuals have no difficulty recognizing members of foreign colonies (even of the same species) as strangers. In this sense, each nest is aware of itself as an entity or living system distinct from all others.

Many variations on this theme may readily be imagined from the vantage point of the xenological perspective. ETs with genetic sentience (often called “group intelligence”) may achieve communication between individual units in a wide variety of different ways. Ants respond strongly to pheromone (smell) signals, and bees to visual cues (e.g., the waggle dance). Aliens might choose auditory, tactile, magnetic or electrical* modes to achieve community-wide information processing and control.

Radioastronomer Ronald Bracewell has proposed a slime-mold colony with genetic sentience, which he disparagingly refers to as an "intelligent scum."80 But there is no reason why individual members of societies with genetic sentience need be small and insignificant creatures, There may be valid evolutionary pathways that lead to genetic overspecialization before an advanced, self-aware brain can gain a foothold.

The result of such evolution might be a society of genetically distinct breeds within the main species, each specialized to perform specific societal functions -- farming, construction, administration, recordation, soldiering -- and each possessing a fairly complex technologically-capable mind without individual sentience. At least one modern psychological theorist has claimed that it is possible to think, calculate, and build complex technical civilizations without the capacity for individual self-awareness.2599

Science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle created such an alien race in The Mote in God’s Eye.668 The extraterrestrial creatures in this novel had a diversity of different castes, determined genetically, for specialized forms of labor. The society was highly technological, despite the superficial resemblance to a termite colony, and was capable of radio, nuclear fusion, and interplanetary travel. Individual self-awareness, while apparently possessed by a few castes on a limited basis, was not the norm.

Genetic sentience and high technology, then, are not necessarily mutually incompatible.


* In Olaf Stapledon’s excellent science fiction novel Last and First Men,2567 the author describes the evolution of sentience among a collection of biological components which he calls “virus types." What appears to he a mere cloud of particles on the surface of Mars is actually a diffuse mass of physically separated units, whose intelligence arises through the integration of the whole by means of an electrical information transmission capability in the larger aggregates. The radio signals used by the human astronauts scramble the aliens’ "mind," precipitating an outbreak of hostilities. Dr. Thomas Gold also has suggested the possibility of a society of “electric ants” with “group intelligence” and immortal consciousness.22


Last updated on 6 December 2008