The collective intelligence of microbes: beyond SETI

Authors: Alessandra Marino*,
Topics: Environmental Science, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: intelligence; outer space; SETI
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 14
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The ethics of space exploration and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) have become an established strand of the discipline of astrobiology. During the last twenty years, astrobiology has hosted interdisciplinary discussions on philosophical, legal and scientific concerns related to moving beyond Earth. However, despite the discipline’s primary concern with multiple life forms, discussions on intelligence within astrobiology have remained anchored in anthropocentric models founded in European thought. These models are saturated with colonial assumptions that perpetuate the myth of extra-terrestrial encounters as an either/or possibility: conquer or be conquered. In this fantasy, and in line with neo-Darwinian ideas of survival as competition, intelligence (or higher intelligence) is taken as the attribute of the winner.
In opposition with this tradition based on dichotomies, the study of the relation between environments and microbes in astrobiology could provide us with interesting ways to re-think about intelligence both on and off Earth. In particular, ‘biofilms’ are microbial communities whose survivability is enhanced by cooperation between different species. Their interactivity can be considered as a form of collective intelligence that defies the logic of competition as crucial to species’ survival. This paper looks at how the study of microbes in extreme environments allows us to understand intelligence as linked to relationality and proximity in space. It looks at microbial ‘talk’, ‘cities’ and exchanges of genetic material as manifestations of collective intelligence. It then asks what this nuanced understanding of intelligence means for the plans of human space exploration and colonization.

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