When the Aliens Arrive, What Will They Look Like? A Zoologist Has Answers

What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves
By Arik Kershenbaum

Is anybody else out there? For as long as humans have recognized Earth as but one planet in a vast, orb-speckled universe, we have pondered the mystery of extraterrestrial life.

After Nicolaus Copernicus introduced heliocentric theory to 16th century Europe, astronomers began to dream about “other worlds” — and populate them with imaginary creatures. Pioneering astronomers such as Johannes Kepler (father of planetary motion) and William Herschel (discoverer of Uranus) believed in the existence of alien life. Peering through his telescope, Herschel thought he spied towns and forests on the lunar surface.

We’re still looking. In 2017, a mysterious object named “Oumuamua” was observed passing through our solar system and some astronomers have made the controversial suggestion that it may be a scout probe sent by an alien civilization. In February, the NASA Mars Perseverance Rover landed on the red planet to search for traces of ancient microbial life.

The search field is incomprehensibly large: Astronomers estimate that there are more than 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone — plus exponentially more in the rest of the universe.

What might we find elsewhere?

One zoologist suggests some answers actually may be hiding in plain sight, right here at home. In a provocative new book, “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Arik Kershenbaum contends that life on Earth provides hints of what we might expect to find on other planets.

Kershenbaum, a scientist at the University of Cambridge, asserts that the “universal laws of biology” that govern life on Earth also apply to aliens. The most important is that species evolve by natural selection, the bedrock idea of evolutionary biology proposed by Charles Darwin. No matter how alien biochemistry might work and no matter how planetary environments might differ, Kershenbaum argues that some version of Darwinian selection would be at work — and would have channelled alien evolution to restricted menus of possibilities.

Thus, Kershenbaum predicts that alien life will bear striking parallels to earthly life. Most aliens will be bilaterally symmetrical and use familiar forms of locomotion (such as legs, paddles or jets). “Do aliens have sex?” he asks. “I wish there were an easy way to answer this question.” Alas, aliens have kept this private, along with everything else.

The book avoids the fantasy game of proposing any specific vision of what aliens might look like — thus no Wookiees, E.T.s or little green Martians — and focuses on how they might behave. Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language (“Teatime with our alien neighbors may be possible after all,” he writes). He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence. “We all want to believe in intelligent aliens,” he writes. “It seems inevitable that they will, in fact, exist.”

Indeed, the word inevitable pops up repeatedly in this book. Consequently, some extraterrestrials envisioned by Kershenbaum might turn out to be quite familiar: “Finally, possibly inevitably, a social and intelligent organism, with the skill of language, develops complex technology. It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible. Soon, they will be building spaceships and exploring the universe — if they manage to avoid destroying themselves first.”

It has become a cliché in evolutionary studies to repeat a quote from L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.” With alien planets, that caution might be increased exponentially.

Life on Earth flourished for 3.5 billion years before humans appeared. We are latecomers to the long biological saga on this planet and just one lineage among millions of species. We also are biological oddballs: upright bipeds with big brains, language, increasingly complex technology and the ability to alter our planetary habitat — and even explore other planets.

Our big brains come with big imaginations. Kershenbaum offers some otherworldly ideas, such as musing that “alien seeders” possibly gave us life — which would make us earthlings just an experiment conducted by a superior intelligence.

The author acknowledges that his arguments might not convince all readers and are unlikely to be tested in our lifetimes because the likelihood of meeting intelligent aliens anytime soon is “so remote as to be almost dismissed.” Until that first encounter, though, theorists like Kershenbaum will be free to float through an atmosphere unweighted by evidence.

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