“Fine, I’ll tell you. But I have to warn you, Richard, that your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human.”
“Why flawed?” asked Noonan.
“Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”
“Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”
“True. And that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”
“And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.
“Believe it or not, we don’t. We usually proceed from a trivial definition: intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from his dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”
“Yes, that’s us,” agreed Noonan.
“Unfortunately. Or here’s a definition-hypothesis. Intelligence is a complex instinct which hasn’t yet fully matured. The idea is that instinctive activity is always natural and useful. A million years will pass, the instinct will mature, and we will cease making the mistakes which are probably an integral part of intelligence. And then, if anything in the universe changes, we will happily become extinct—again, precisely because we’ve lost the art of making mistakes, that is, trying various things not prescribed by a rigid code.”
“Somehow this all sounds so … demeaning.”
“All right, then here’s another definition—a very lofty and noble one. Intelligence is the ability to harness the powers of the surrounding world without destroying the said world.”
Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky