Will E.T. Look Like Us?
By MICHAEL SHERMER - SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Added: Sat, 24 Oct 2009 23:00:00 UTC
What are the odds that intelligent, technically advanced aliens would look anything like the ones in films, with an emaciated torso and limbs, spindly fingers and a bulbous, bald head with large, almond-shaped eyes? What are the odds that they would even be humanoid? In a YouTube video, produced by Josh Timonen of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I argue that the chances are close to zero (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKAXrmkx12g). Richard Dawkins himself made this interesting observation in a private communication after viewing it:
I would agree with [Shermer] in betting against aliens being bipedal primates, and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against. [University of Cambridge paleontologist] Simon Conway Morris, whose authority is not to be dismissed, thinks it positively likely that aliens would be, in effect, bipedal primates. [Harvard University biologist] Ed Wilson gave at least some time to the speculation that, if it had not been for the end-Cretaceous catastrophe, dinosaurs might have produced something like the attached [referring to paleontologist Dale A. Russellâs illustrated evolutionary projection of how a bipedal dinosaur might have evolved into a reptilian humanoid].
I replied to Dawkins that if something like a smart, technological, bipedal humanoid has a certain level of inevitability because of how evolution unfolds, then it would have happened more than once here. In his 2001 book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright argues that our existence precludes other terrestrial intelligences of our level from arising. But Neandertals were as close as one can get to a counterfactual experiment: they had hundreds of thousands of years to themselves in Europe without our interference and showed nothing like the technological and cultural progress of the modern humans who displaced them. Dawkinsâs rejoinder to me is enlightening:
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