SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – In an effort to provide new guidance to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), biologists and linguists gathered in Puerto Rico to explore the nature of intelligence in the universe. “SETI has traditionally focused on the instrumentation needed to contact other civilizations. In reality, SETI has been the Search for Extraterrestrial Technology. In this new approach, we’re putting the intelligence back into SETI,” said Douglas Vakoch, President of METI International. “By studying the variety of intelligence found on Earth, we can gain new insights into sending messages to life on other planets.”

Illustration credit: Danielle Futselaar

The daylong workshop, “The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” was organized by METI International and took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 18, 2016 – the first day of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) 2016. “Astronomers have often been optimistic about the prospects of intelligence evolving on other planets, while biologists are aware of the many chance events that led to human intelligence,” said workshop Chair David Dunér.

Is natural selection really the key to explaining the evolution of intelligence? “In the case of humans … natural selection to increase individual reproduction seems insufficient as explanation,” argued University of Arizona biologist Anna Dornhaus, who proposed that sexual selection may be more important. “Sexual selection, the evolution of an exaggerated trait unnecessary for survival but impressive to potential mates, much like a peacock’s tail or a nightingale’s song, may be the most plausible explanation for the evolution of the human brain. If this is true, then we should expect cognitive ability, i.e., learning, memory, abstraction, and many other elements of intelligence to be commonplace in the galaxy as they are among organisms on Earth; but ‘exaggerated’ intelligence as in humans may be a rare accident of chance, as rare as a peacock’s tail.”

Could we communicate with such intelligence at interstellar distances, if it exists? Many of the past messages that have been sent to extraterrestrials, such as one transmitted from the Arecibo, Puerto Rico radio telescope in 1974, have assumed the recipients will have vision. But on some worlds, intelligent life may evolve that doesn’t use vision, argued blind linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen and her colleagues from Bowling Green State University. “On planets tidally locked around their primaries, the safe zone for life would be in the area between the killing heat and radiation of the sunward side and the equally deadly cold of the dark side.  In this dimly-lit space, sight would be less useful than other modes of perception.” Considering the nature of intelligence on such a planet, Wells-Jensen and her colleagues concluded that “They would not send even rudimentary images. The Arecibo message would be extremely difficult for them to interpret.” 

“Philosophical questions aside, from a pragmatic perspective, if we are to send a message, we must design it in a way that it can be understood and used by the broadest range of forms that intelligent life could take. We can make substantial progress towards this goal by understanding the diversity of forms that intelligent life has taken on this planet,” argued University of Washington biologists Dominic Sivitilli and David Gire. “The distributed cognition of the octopus demonstrates that intelligence can manifest in a form entirely dissimilar from the way humanity thinks and behaves.” What then should we send in an interstellar message? “Include a large amount of detailed local astronomical data,” Sivitilli and Gire concluded. “This will be an immediate source of useful information and will also serve as a means for calibration of future telescopes and algorithms.”

“By launching ISDC 2016 with a daylong meeting on the nature of intelligence in the universe, we set the stage for an engaging conference that includes sessions on the habitability of other worlds, the latest research from Arecibo Observatory, and updates on cutting-edge space missions like StarShot to Alpha Centauri (Pete Worden) and New Horizons (Alan Stern),” said Dave Dressler, Program Chair of ISDC 2016.

Journalists desiring complimentary conference registration should contact <>.

Supporting Papers

For papers by Anna Dornhaus, by Sheri Wells-Jensen and colleagues, and by Dominic Sivitilli and David Gire, see <>, password: SETI

Supporting Graphics

For an artist’s representation of key themes of the workshop and photos of Anna Dornhaus, Sheri Wells-Jensen, Dominic Sivitilli, and David Gire, see <>, password: SETI

Illustration credit for “The Intelligence of SETI artwork”: Danielle Futselaar, Creative Director, METI International

About METI International and the National Space Society (NSS)

METI International ( is a non-profit organization devoted to scientific research and educational programs in Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and astrobiology. METI International promotes research on the many factors that influence the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, with a special emphasis on the last three terms of the Drake Equation: (1) the fraction of life-bearing worlds on which intelligence evolves, (2) the fraction of intelligence-bearing worlds with civilizations having the capacity and motivation for interstellar communication, and (3) the longevity of such civilizations.

The National Space Society (NSS) is an independent, educational, grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization.  NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space, and it has over 50 chapters in the United States and around the world. Each year NSS organizes the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), where space leaders, astronauts, professionals, and the next generation of students convene to examine the technical, scientific, economic, and social challenges and potentials of space exploration.

Contact Information:

Douglas Vakoch
President, METI International
Skype: dougvakoch
Phone:  510-612-0097

Dave Dressler
ISDC 2016 Program Chair