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Will E.T. Look Like Us? - Comments

Fuzzy Duck's Avatar Comment 1 by Fuzzy Duck

For a much more satisfying (aesthetically and scientifically) variation on the sentient dinosaur hypothesis, I strongly encourage that you check out Nemo Ramjet's Dinosauroids. Such eerie and beautiful artwork, and artwork by the imagined creatures as well:

Kevin Schreck

P.S. First. (Never got to do that on this website before.)

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 02:20:00 UTC | #408171

j.mills's Avatar Comment 2 by j.mills

In just a few thousand years we advanced from hunter-gatherers to global domination. The probability of two species on one planet achieving intelligence and culture in the same short window of time is at most the square of the reciprocal of it happening once. Contrarily, once one species is dominating the world, we can see that it is difficult for other species to even survive; no way are chimps, dolphins, ant colonies or crows going to develop significantly in short timescales and under our thumbs and noses. Shermer's Neanderthals are an irrelevance here: somebody had to get there first.

The upright form has advantages, notably the good field of view and the freeing of upper limbs for manipulation. Whilst the economy-driven prevalence of humanoid aliens in Star Trek and Doctor Who paints a preposterous picture (one that must regrettably colour public perception of alien life), the benefits of features like symmetry and 'verticalness' are likely to be stumbled upon by natural selection elsewhere; though no doubt there are other routes to braininess.

But intelligence like ours so outclasses everything else that the winner takes all. If you don't get it first, you won't get it at all.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 02:23:00 UTC | #408172

chewedbarber's Avatar Comment 3 by chewedbarber

What prevents us from applying the same argument to intelligence like ours?

edit: I realize it's not a very good question. I guess I just assume that intelligent life like ours exist elsewhere and I don't feel the slightest pressure to move from that assumption because of arguments from (?)rarity.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 02:50:00 UTC | #408176

Reckless Monkey's Avatar Comment 4 by Reckless Monkey

I agree with Michael. However, there have been numerous Bipedal Primates. Some of them where our direct ancestors some branched off. We of course most likely wiped the others out or at least out competed them. He needs to be careful he doesn't fall into the same trap which is the main point of his his argument. We are not quite a unique as he makes out.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 03:06:00 UTC | #408178

Fuzzy Duck's Avatar Comment 5 by Fuzzy Duck

Reckless Monkey: But those other bipedal primates were closely related to us, so of course they would be similar. But think of all of the species on this planet that look (and are) so radically different from us in so many ways. Now try to think of a planet which may have creatures of totally different chemistries, anatomies, evolutionary histories, etc. Squid are highly intelligent animals, and they aren't even deuterostomes (they're more closely related to earthworms and dung beetles than to sea stars and chimps).


Sun, 25 Oct 2009 03:15:00 UTC | #408180

Sally Luxmoore's Avatar Comment 6 by Sally Luxmoore

I have always presumed that (assuming suitable minerals and 'usable' chemicals) things like gravity, density of atmosphere, temperature fluctuations, the presence or absence of liquids and the ruggedness or otherwise of the landscape etc would be the first determinants of what sort of life could evolve.
After that, I would presume the arrival of very spindly looking lifeforms and more flying creatures in low gravities and low and stocky looking things and crawlers in stronger gravities.
After that, I see no particular reason why at least some of the forms of life that we have here should not be replicated elsewhere. There would presumably be similar problems of food gathering, digestion and respiration to 'solve', locomotion must surely involve some of the methods that have evolved here and reproduction could well still be sexual as well as some kind of parthenogenesis, cloning or grafting. I don't see why not!
Competition and predation are also reasonable to assume, as means of dealing with limited food and mates. Some limiting factors would surely have developed anyway as checks on population. Diseases, too, seem reasonable to assume.
I find it interesting to imagine plants in low gravity. Long wavy tendrils, a bit like sea kelp, but in 'air', or even mists of algae come to mind.
As for bipedalism, well, why not? 4 legs are more stable, but 2 legs work for birds as well as us...
In my view the oceans contain creatures so strange that they already seem like aliens!
It's all very interesting.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 03:35:00 UTC | #408182

Fuzzy Duck's Avatar Comment 7 by Fuzzy Duck

You don't need to be bipedal so much as need dexterous appendages to use tools. You could have seventeen "legs" and if you had at least one "limb" that could grasp or manipulate well enough (plus the intelligence we're looking for), that species could fit the bill. Maybe there are bipedal, hominid-like sapients on other planets, but maybe we should lower our primate chauvanism.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 03:56:00 UTC | #408184

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 8 by Dr. Strangegod

I remember some cool kids-level science book from back in the early '90s that was all about what aliens would look like from other planets in our solar system. It took all the data about the atmosphere and such and gave you nice paintings of weird aliens that actually made sense. None of them were bipeds (airborne balloon jellyfish on Jupiter, etc.). Does anybody else remember that? It was like a Time-Life book or something.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 04:07:00 UTC | #408185

chuckg's Avatar Comment 9 by chuckg

I agree Reckless Monkey, many of those other hominid lines may have gone on to become the dominant one, if they had not been driven to extinction by the line that led to us. I think that the pressure would have been for any of them to become more like us. For instance, Ardi's feet would not have kept the grasping big toe. The advantages it provided in climbing would not have outweighed the disadvantages it caused in upright walking efficiency.

I recall from a reading assignment we had in elementary school, I believe it was a reading laboratory called SRA or something like that-it would have been around 5th grade, one of the modules had an article that dealt with this topic precisely. The author argued that there are limits on what kind of alien life would be able to operate a ship, and make the trip here from across space. I don't remember him talking about the distances and timescales, but concrete things like manipulating controls and levers, the kinds of atmospheres, etc. The author made a fairly convincing argument(to a 5th grade nerd, at least) that the aliens would be like hominids, with body size and weights about like ours, breathing oxygen, with opposable thumbs, similar metabolisms, etc. Dolphin like or octopus-like creatures wouldn't work, nor would insect or arthropod-like creatures work, for reasons that made sense at the time.

As for the idea that only once in 4 billion years of life on earth, intelligence has arisen. Given how good plate tectonics is at resurfacing the earth's crust, I wonder if we can absolutely say that life hadn't evolved to advanced states several times in the first few billion years, only to be wiped out, or rather knocked back down to prokaryotic states several times by the rough and tumble early solar system. Sedimentary rocks(where fossils would be found) that have not been highly altered and are older than 3 billion years are very rare, and get even rarer the older you get. These are the only places evidence of highly evolved life would be found. Asteroid collisions in the first billion years of Earth's existence might have melted most of the surface, several times. And in between, life recovered from the few prokaryotes that survived deep in rocks that didn't melt, or that were ejected into space, and reentered when the surface had cooled. Extemophile prokaryotes are very hard to kill. There is just so little rock material to study, that the very early life on Earth is nearly a complete mystery. On the other hand, evolution can drive life to explode and diversify rapidly on the scale of 100's of millions of years. There are billions of years for life to have advanced, been knocked back, and recovered, maybe several times.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 04:10:00 UTC | #408186

Fuzzy Duck's Avatar Comment 10 by Fuzzy Duck

Lucas: That sounds very similar to creatures imagined in Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" (and then Richard Dawkins' "Growing Up in the Universe" TV special).

Does this look familiar?:

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 04:29:00 UTC | #408187

Thanny's Avatar Comment 11 by Thanny

It seems strange that everyone's assuming multicellularity, when, on this planet, it's possible only due to what may be considered a quite improbable event (the incorporation of alpha-proteobacteria into methanogenic archae).

Perhaps such an event is probable, once the right conditions arise, but how probable are those?

Until we can figure out a way to duplicate the origin of life in a lab, and then do the same for big events like the "invention" of mitochondria, I don't think any estimates of probability concerning the evolution of intelligence have any grounding at all.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 04:32:00 UTC | #408189

TIKI AL's Avatar Comment 13 by TIKI AL

One thing I strongly suspect is that no matter what form they inhabit, if they copulate to reproduce someone will be selling them some form of Viagra.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 05:05:00 UTC | #408192

Sarmatae1's Avatar Comment 14 by Sarmatae1

In that illustration of the hypothetical dinosauroid, is that Will, Rick and Holly I see in the distant background?

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 05:15:00 UTC | #408193

Roy_H's Avatar Comment 15 by Roy_H

Well according to every "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" movie, ever made,they will come in a variety of forms, some humanoid, but they will all speak in English albeit in a very annoying stilted accent.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 06:38:00 UTC | #408198

andersemil's Avatar Comment 16 by andersemil

There was evidently a time where human traits like communication skills, tool crafting and altruism was of very great value in the natural selection of our species. I'm wondering what exactly made those things more important than eg physical strength. I may be cynical, but I think those circumstances are very rare. I would anytime expect simple lifeforms to be much more likely to succeed. Somehow bacteriae and vira have not been able to bring us down yet, though they still try their best.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 06:43:00 UTC | #408199

quantum_flux's Avatar Comment 17 by quantum_flux

I predict that aliens will have evolved beyond the need for an organic body, perhaps they might have far superior metallic bodies powered by atomic fusion and live for hundreds of thousands of years as they travel amongst the galaxies collecting data.

Perhaps they will have evolved beyond needing material bodies altogether, perhaps they will have obtained the status of supercomputers and teleport between the stars in the form of electromagnetic waves of information, perhaps they reassemble their bodies from whatever native materials are found in a given location (like an intersteller hermit crab switches shells), or perhaps they replicate in such manner via sending their genetic sequence to another location via wave signals. This gets even more bizzare, perhaps evolutionary programming can decide what to assemble and where in the universe.

TAKE, for example, us humans. If we recieved a signal from ET telling us how to assemble ET, then they have just replicated their intelligence light years from their native home. Or perhaps ET could send us information how to develop a supercomputer that develops the optimal life forms and technologies based on evolutionary programming, LMAO.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 06:46:00 UTC | #408200

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 18 by Dr. Strangegod

Fuzzy and weavehole - Yeah, that must be where it came from. It was a big hardback book with lots of stuff about astronomy, and the part with the aliens was just one part. As I was writing the first post something told me it had something to do with Carl Sagan, but I wasn't sure. Seems the book may have just been illustrating his and others' ideas.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 06:58:00 UTC | #408201

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 19 by Jos Gibbons

It's worth distinguishing between it being unlikely for a given ET to look like us and it being unlikely for at least one other ET to look like us. Clearly, the latter is more credible; and, indeed, since there are probably approximately a mole of planets in the Universe, the upper bound on a single planet's probability of yielding life like us which is compatible with the first claim is much more relaxed than in the second case. Even if only 1 planet in a billion trillion (short scale) produces anything like us, that's still quite likely a fair few. My guess is there will be some other bipedal smarties, but they may well not be the norm for smarties.

Having said that, the best accepted explanation for what made us special is that, after we evolved bipedality, our hands were better used for controlling tools and not walking, causing a rapid co-evolution between hands and brains (as the high rate of cranial growth in the fossils indicates). If that is true, then all it would take for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to end up both much more intelligent and bipedal is for the evolution of bipedality to be encouraged by a suitable selective pressure. On Earth it was allegedly that we were tree-dwellers whose forest disappeared because the newly formed Himalayas cut off our humid winds. This scenario seems likely to happen a fair bit; so, if the "be smart, stand up, then get smarter" scenario made up a reasonable minority of cases of intelligent life, I wouldn't be astounded.

What would be really interesting is a species descended not from tetrapods, which is what vertebrates are here, but perhaps hexapods or octopods. If only bipedality was common amongst intelligent life, and we could observe their fossil record, I'd be fascinated to know whether they jumped straight to bipedality or gradually walked on fewer and fewer pairs of legs ... but then, maybe the intermediates would be missed in the record anyway.

All of this is far from practically important, but it remains fascinating, like all good semi-scientific conjecture should.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 08:04:00 UTC | #408206

Barry Pearson's Avatar Comment 20 by Barry Pearson

The mice and the dolphins are probably chuckling to themselves about that video and the comments here!

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 09:24:00 UTC | #408213

Muetze's Avatar Comment 21 by Muetze

Check out Star Trek Voyager's "Distant Origin", it's one of the best kind of what-if? science episodes from all of Trek. Very cleverly written and executed and with the right dose of wackiness and irony.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 10:00:00 UTC | #408215

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 22 by rod-the-farmer

For a definitive book on alien lifeforms, complete with full colour illustrations, please see

Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials's_Guide_to_Extraterrestrials

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 10:07:00 UTC | #408217

Danish's Avatar Comment 23 by Danish

If I understand it correctly, homo sapiens were very close to extinction some 70,000 years ago. If we had, in fact, gone extinct at that time, would we have left any signs of our existence and, more importantly, signs of our intelligence for a later intelligent species to discover? If not, might this not have happened to other species before us? Perhaps even many times?

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 11:41:00 UTC | #408229

jcs's Avatar Comment 24 by jcs

The article starts with the following questions/assumption:

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? probably

When starting from from the premise that the aliens are technically advanced, I don't think it is improbable that they are humanoid (whatever that exactly would mean).

Such some observations:

They would be land living creatures. Any sea (or other liquid) creatures will not be able to develop technology because of the big hurdle to overcome the pressure. For the same reason it is unlikely that intelligent technology on very high gravity planets will develop.

To develop technology the alien must have at least one free limp to develop to be able to create and construct things. For this reason air born animals will not be technology developed.

The alien must have a minimal size to be able to have a brain that is big enough to be intelligent. On earth all these land living animals have 4 limps. I expect that having 4 limps is dictated by evolution starting from a certain animal size.

I don't think it is unlikely that highly technical aliens are humanoid or passed though a humanoid stage during their evolution.

I don't have a clear view of they would be mammal or propagate in the same way as we humans, probably not. The same for their culture, although the basic principle should be there in order to have build a society.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 13:46:00 UTC | #408251

TIKI AL's Avatar Comment 25 by TIKI AL

jcs @ 24: "To develop technology the alien must have at least one free limp to develop to be able to create and construct things. For this reason air born animals will not be technology developed."

What about the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz?

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 14:04:00 UTC | #408258

j.mills's Avatar Comment 26 by j.mills

A good point, TIKI AL. And what about angels, and bat-winged vampires, and chupacabra? They have two free limps (probably resulting from a bad landing...).

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 14:26:00 UTC | #408265

MarcCountry's Avatar Comment 27 by MarcCountry

How about a sentient vapour? How about an intelligent liquid? A conscious gelatinous cube, perhaps?

Technological development is just "extended phenotype", but perhaps biological evolution is sufficient for satisfying an intelligent organism's needs, and it gets on just fine living a non-technological life. Or, like the spider, an organism can evolve to build structures and tools intuitively, out of their own biological secretions...

Hell, humpbacked whales are intelligent, non-technological animals, who are nevertheless smart enough to avoid letting us ever catch them having sex with each other... if that's not a conscious conspiracy against voyeuristic marine biologists, I don't know what is.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 16:27:00 UTC | #408283

sonnygll's Avatar Comment 28 by sonnygll

I agree with jcs. If we are talking about a technologically advanced alien, it is going to need the large, developed brain for intelligence. It will also need something that serves the same purpose as our hands. Those are the basics of developing technology.

Being warm blooded may be required for a large brain. Those are the only requirements I can think of.

I think that is enough to where there will be similarities even though we may otherwise look completely different.

How different the aliens are is going to depend on the climate and planet's gravity too.

Now of course with non-technological, non-intelligent aliens, like ones we would consider "animals", anything goes really. But climate and gravity are of course going to be big factors.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 18:33:00 UTC | #408306

zbob's Avatar Comment 29 by zbob

It is very obvious that the bipedal humanoids that have been “visiting” the earth for decades are from OUR future and have evolved over millions of earth years to appear as they do. They have traveled back in time and are here NOW to discover their ancestors. All of the evidence points to this conclusion of the origin of these “aliens“ (as much as it points to an “other world” conclusion for their origins) (^_^) jk

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 18:55:00 UTC | #408315

Ailes du Serpent's Avatar Comment 30 by Ailes du Serpent

Concerning the theme of "future of human evolution" and "aliens", I often heard this funny argument:

"What if the aliens that many people claim to have seen are actually HUMANS FROM THE FUTURE ?!" The rationalization for this is roughly as follows: "Well, look at the human evolution from past primates to present homo sapiens: less hair, bigger brains, slimmer body type, etc.." Then they extrapolate, "now imagine a human with even less hair, bigger head, limbs more fragile ... == popular conception of 'Alien'" (of the standart 'grey'-type variety)... cue "humans from the future", etc..

the problem with this (well... among many others, of course) is that it's a misunderstanding of evolution as a predictive mechanism. It's not like you can simply extrapolate like from a graph line. It's all about selection pressures, and what individual mutations flourish best (reproduce most) in a given enviroment, will shape the future of a species. Indeed, in the past the individuals with the 'biggest brains' reproduced the most (obviously, or else we wouldn't have gotten to the point where we are now), for example, but for this trend to continue the 'larger brains' still have to continuously 'outbreed' the others even now and in the future (which I don't really see happening, if one can infer this from the lower reproduction rate of academic people, for example).

How humans (or rather post-humans) in the future will look like depends upon what kind of selection pressures our species will confront, and what variations rise up best to the challenges. A "prediction" is hard to make, because the selection pressures are numerous and quite hard to define (additionally because humans operate on a different level than 'nature alone' because of our culture and technology, for example), and because evolution has often surprising ways of adapting (hard to grasp for people who have a pseudo-teleological "complexity-hierarchy" understanding of Evo).

On the related topic, speculation about what "(intelligent) life on other planets may look like?" :
One has to remember that the "popular conception of 'Alien'" that one sees in the media (and which has, via suggestive hysteria, influenced most 'encounter' reports) is ridiculed here and elsewhere (deservedly) as too anthropocentric.
Media's portrayal stems not from an informed scientific speculation or an understanding of evolutionary theory, but mainly from two things:
-lack of imagination, and
-budget limits
Media people often don't have enough time and money to spend on imagining creative aliens, so they go mostly the standart StarTrek-route of "normal human BUT oooh forehead-ridges, soooo alien now". The preference for bipedals, for example, is not really out of an educated analysis of convergent evolution, but simply because it's cheaper to put an actor in a two-legged rubber suit than to operate your 17-legged creative alien. One can hope that with the ever-better computergraphics-technology these days we'll see more imaginative aliens.

Sun, 25 Oct 2009 19:30:00 UTC | #408328