Predicting what extra-terrestrials will be like: and preparing for the worst

Simon Conway Morris

Abstract

It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien biospheres operating in any manner other than Darwinian. Yet, it is also widely assumed that alien life-forms will be just that: strange, un-nerving and probably repulsive. There are two reasons for this view. First, it is assumed that the range of habitable environments available to extra-terrestrial life is far wider than on Earth. I suggest, however, that terrestrial life is close to the physical and chemical limits of life anywhere. Second, it is a neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that evolution lacks predictability; imagining what extra-terrestrial life would look like in any detail is a futile exercise. To the contrary, I suggest that the outcomes of evolution are remarkably predictable. This, however, leads us to consider two opposites, both of which should make our blood run cold. The first, and actually extremely unlikely, is that alien biospheres will be strikingly similar to our terrestrial equivalent and that in such biospheres intelligence will inevitably emerge. The reasons for this revolve around the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, the determinate structure of the Tree of Life and molecular inherency. But if something like a human is an inevitability, why do I also claim that the first possibility is ‘extremely unlikely’? Simply because the other possibility is actually the correct answer. Paradoxically, we and our biosphere are completely alone. So which is worse? Meeting ourselves or meeting nobody?

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