The idea is simple, our intellegence is so far above a chimp or bonobo as to make us something different. There are things we can do intuitively that no Bonobo or chimp will be able to, and because of this most of our technology is beyond them. They can be taught to use a specific piece in a specific way, but given a new item of technology they simply can not figure it out the way even a young child could.

I was wondering about the idea translated to Aliens. Could an Alien's intellect be so far beyond ours as ours is to a chimp? Such that even having access to their technology we couldn't figure out how to turn it on or use it (not reverse engineer it, just use basic functions that even their children could do). Could it by that when we finally meet aliens they will not only have superior technology we can't yet master, but that we simply are incapable of ever comprehending?

At first I thought the answer was an easy yes, any creature can evolve to be stronger or faster, so why not smarter. But then I realized that once you have a certain level of technological power with tools your technology starts to grow at such a rapid rate that it eclipses evolution. Our technology has grown exponentially in a thousand years, which is a blink in the eye from evolutionary standards; not enough time for any significant difference in intellect to evolve. It seems that technology would, at that point, eclipse evolution as a driving form, effectively we either create technology that is able to handle new technology for us (AI and genetic programing etc) so we don't have to be smart enough, reach some degree of trans-humanism, or kill ourselves out before evolution will have a chance to have a substantial affect on our IQ.

Thus I'm wondering, is it possible that any alien species will be on the same rough intellectual level (not technological) of humans? A few IQ points one way or another, but not an insurmountable gap that prevent one from comprehending the others technology?

  • $\begingroup$ Could you, please, clarify, are you interested in estimates of a sufficiently superior intellect or in incomprehensible technology? Technology is simple, imagine a smart TV based on trinary logic with encrypted (as manufacturers usually do) firmware made for telepathic aliens. Not only the shows are ultra-weird as you're missing the telepathic track, but you can't even find a remote, because it's all in the head. $\endgroup$
    – Noname
    Oct 1, 2015 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ Level of intelligence is one thing; type of intelligence is another. Both would be valid aspects to consider. Dolphins and crows are considered intelligent by some measures, but their type of intelligence is almost certainly very different from ours. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Oct 1, 2015 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ The reason you cannot comprehend aliens with a substantially higher IQ (and incomprehensible technology) is because you do not possess the IQ to do so. This is the same argument for the bonobos and us. $\endgroup$
    – adelphus
    Oct 1, 2015 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ One word math, in order to understand the working of the universe the species must first describe it. Fortunately our brain have to capacity to derive equations that allow us to put ourselves into space and back, so what drive us to space you ask? Curiousity since the dawn of time our ancestors look to the sky and trying to figure out what it is, over the course of history we build on the knowledge of others in the past until we have the means to go explore the final frontier. Any space faring aliens would follow the same path we did only different they did it peacefully. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Oct 2, 2015 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ Related to the final sentence: Could a human engineer comprehend alien electronics? $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 4, 2017 at 14:06

4 Answers 4


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

Intelligence may be a tricky parameter to take into consideration in this case. Quoting Wikipedia, 'Intelligence has been defined in many different ways such as in terms of one's capacity for logic, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, learning, emotional knowledge, memory, planning, creativity and problem solving.'

Let's put that definition aside for a second. Also, let's take a look at Grog. Fictitious as he was, Grog was also an anomaly - the smartest hominid ever born on Sol III. He was Leonardo da Vinci to the power of 10; an amazing capability to correlate facts and think on abstract terms.

Unfortunately, nor Grog nor Leo were able to crate a fully functional helicopter. Lesser men after them did the trick - of course, as another genius said, by standing on the shoulder of their gigantic ancestors.

Here's the thing: technological advancement is incremental. There could be a race of galactic Ents that take a full Earth day to say their names, but if they had enough time (say, a billion years of scientific advancement), then any aspect of their lives would look like magic to us, fast-paced and quick-witted but sadly primitive organisms.

Now imagine the amount of information a given alien species possessing functional interstellar spaceships have at their disposal. You need a LOT of technology in order to achieve that point. When you get to that point, when technology grows in such a exponential rate, the odds of any two species to be at roughly the same stage is very, very small - initial biological stats aside.

Wouldn't it be fair then to consider the accrued technological advances and raw information amount to be a characteristic of said civilization? Would the individual intellect be really that important, if Ents equipped with mental connectivity to their Mega-Wikipedia and processing power offloading capabilities meet us, humans typing on their tiny screens to check on how to say 'I, for one, welcome our new vegetal overlords' in Galactic Entish?

I then dare say that the intellectual level will matter very little.


It's difficult to compare average human intelligence against an unknown species at an unknown point in the future but any space-faring alien species we find will range from least as smart as we are to completely overshadowing us.

According to the Flynn Effect, average human intelligence has been increasing since the 1930s. There are several proposed explanations for this but nothing proven. Let's assume that this pattern of increasing intelligence increases to some biological maximum, where if we want more intelligence, we will need bigger heads. (Which raises the interesting prospect that we are getting more intelligent in general because the software our brains run is improving, not that our physical brains are getting better.)

Let's also assume that a similar pattern happened in this alien species we encounter and deep space exploration requires a certain minimum threshold of racial intelligence. (Which is reasonable. A single brilliant individual can only do so much against the staggering complexities of deep space exploration.) The longer a species explores space and the Flynn Effect continues to happen for them, their intelligence can increase to incredibly high levels.

  • $\begingroup$ I was going to write an answer on the same lines, but then saw that you have already presented most of the points. $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2015 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ The Flynn effect is the steady increase in average IQ test scores. Even if we assume that it really is something about IQ and not about IQ tests, we don't know why it happens, which is a bit of an issue when assuming that it will continue indefinitely. For example, if it's due to better nutrition. $\endgroup$
    – Eli Rose
    Apr 8, 2016 at 17:38

Despite the human tendency to anthropomorphize things and our many mental shortcomings we have a lot of things that animals considered intelligent don't have. There are various kinds of animal intelligence that differ from us and animals have complex communications methods like us humans too. However, one thing humans excel over animals, I think, is the concept of self awareness, subjectivity, qualia and the sense of selfhood.

I think this gives us a significant edge that for the chimp comparison to work, the aliens would have to be significantly beyond us. I think almost no longer tied to same restrictions of the physical three dimensional world.

The spectrum of intelligence is huge so this is entirely possible, I would even say highly likely. So I would say that aliens would have to be about the level of intelligence as us or above to be able solve the difficulties of spacefaring that are the same everywhere where the universal constants are the same. But they could have entirely different kinds of thought patterns in many other areas, such as social intelligence etc.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ We also managed to do something else which is very, very smart: we write things down. This way we remove ne necessity for at least halfways sensible elders to serve as a library, and we can exchange knowledge asynchronously. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Oct 2, 2015 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ Chimps have self awareness and a sense of self. If they had qualia and a concept of subjectivity how would we know? $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Oct 2, 2015 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ I can't remember who said it, but "Aliens are by definition insane". A human is insane if his thought processes have diverged from human norms to the extent that most other humans can't comprehend him. How much more "insane" will an alien species seem to us? $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Oct 2, 2015 at 14:08

A disturbing possibility is that as technology improves average intelligence decreases. This might be partly because technology means that intelligence ceases to make any difference to an individual's chance of propagating their genes - all children survive, anyone who wants to can reproduce - and partly because the better the technology the less intelligent an operator needs to be to use it. For example, to use a computer in the 1980s or 1990s required a higher level of intellectual engagement than it does now, and the way tech is going soon we'll be able to simply "talk to the air" to get the omnipresent AI network to perform any function.

So, no, spacefaring aliens would not have to be roughly as intelligent as present day humans. They could get away with being much less intelligent; their wonderful automated spaceships or other technology would do everything for them including develop new technology. Intelligence would not merely cease to be an evolutionary advantage but might well be a disadvantage. The same would, of course, apply to humans. It might turn out that for most species average intelligence peaks at the time when they develop technology that can improve itself - i.e. about the stage we are at now, so you would indeed get most species peaking at roughly the same level as present-day humans - but from then on it's downhill all the way.

Not a happy thought. Any convincing counter-argument as to why my argument here is wrong gratefully received!

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    $\begingroup$ Counter-argument. Birth control. Humans in advanced societies now choose when to have children and who to have them with. Just as long as the decisions we make about fitness are sound, it'll work just as well as Darwinian selection. Darwin also pointed out the dangers. A peacock's tail isn't good for the survival of a male peacock, it's only good for his breeding chances, because of some arbitrary choices made by female peacocks. Someday those choices could drive peacocks to extinction. Same for people, except that (maybe) we'll stop making the silly choices before it's too late. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Oct 2, 2015 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ Who will fix this magical technology? $\endgroup$ Jul 29, 2017 at 4:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Mathmagician, Answer #1: AIs would fix it. Answer #2: or, if the AIs can't or won't fix it, then no one fixes it, and the poor stupid aliens all die. As nigel222's answer said, there are many examples of a trait being evolutionarily successful for a long time and then the circumstances change and that same trait leads to extinction. $\endgroup$ Jul 29, 2017 at 8:16

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