One of the great questions in science is “could intelligent life develop on planets other than Earth?”. Even the general populace has heard of programmes such as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life) and mathematical models such as the Drake equation that attempt to predict the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent civilisations. But an equally intriguing question we seem to neglect is: “could intelligent life develop on Earth?”.
The definition of “intelligent life” is hugely varying, but nonetheless attempts have been made to compare our intelligence level to other animals. From the pool of research throughout the decades, the most “intelligent” non-human animals appear to be chimpanzees, bonobos, great apes, dolphins, elephants, certain parrots, ravens and rats. There is much research on the intelligence of cephalopods (e.g. the octopus) that has shown promise. If we were to shift the focus from individual intelligence, we could also consider “civilised” animals such as ants, as they are capable of building vast cities with intricate societies. All of this shows that intelligence is not exclusive to our species. We have simply walked down the path of evolution where the trait of ever-increasing intelligence, knowledge and wisdom have allowed us to adapt to and survive our environment. Ergo, it is fair to consider the possibility that other animals are walking a similar path that may lead to the making of a species with intelligence comparable to us.
However, this only raises the theoretical possibility of intelligent life. What is the realistic, practical possibility of intelligent life developing on Earth in the near future? Put another way, could intelligent life develop in the presence of a higher intelligent life (e.g. humans)? The road that brought us to throne of “the most intelligent species on Earth” was not an easy one. We are but one of many other hominid (human-like) species that evolution produced while tinkering with the concept. For example, there was a time when we (Homo sapiens) shared the Earth with other intelligent hominids such as the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals are commonly pictured as simple, knuckle-dragging apes but in reality they were just as intelligent as Homo sapiens during that time. They had a culture similar to our own, developed stone tools just as complex and even made cave paintings in a display of art. The reason why we are not breaking bad with Neanderthal neighbours now is that (according to one theory) we successfully outcompeted them, driving them to extinction (there is debate whether genocide and cannibalism was involved).
Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for an intelligent species to wipe out another species trying to compete with the ecological niche of intelligence. This has been discussed in many works of science fiction, such as Planet of the Apes where the emergence of intelligent apes leads to the destruction of human civilisation. Arthur C. Clarke discussed this as a side plot in his novel The Songs of Distant Earth. Upon discovering a species of sea scorpions that show signs of intelligence such as social hierarchy and metal collecting, the scientists suggest that they should allow it to develop, but ultimately the government decides to eradicate them as soon as they attempt to migrate to land.
Suffice to say, given our track record in history involving the countless times colonists wiped out other civilisations to serve their purpose, there is a good chance that any new intelligent life would immediately be removed by us if they had the misfortune of arising during our time.