Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?
My answer? Not much at all.
Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.
What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.
Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.
All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us. An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.
If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.