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Skeptic Contacted by Aliens

by Michael Shermer, Jan 13 2009

It has finally happened. After decades of skeptics proclaiming that they would drop their skepticism about UFOs and alien abductions if only an extraterrestrial intelligence would contact them directly, it has finally happened right smack in the middle of the Skeptics Society off Hamstring Treatment Manual ices. An ET appeared one day to lay to rest once and for all whether or not ETs have visited earth. And the aliens have a message and a warning about what we earthlings are doing to our planet:

Okay, so a cheap Halloween mask is no substitute for the real thing, but given the quality of the evidence presented by UFOlogists and alien abductees — blurry videos, grainy photographs, and stories about things that go bump in the night — proof of close encounters of the third kind remain masked in our collective psyches. So, until contact is actually made, we are left with speculation on what aliens would actually look like.

My explanation — that the chances of an ET turning out to be a bipedal primate are close to zero — is not one shared by all scientists. None other than Richard Dawkins wrote to Josh Timonen, the videographer who filmed and produced this piece (as well as the spoon-bending video we presented last week and the others still to come):

I would agree with him in betting against aliens being bipedal primates and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against. Simon Conway-Morris, whose authority is not to be dismissed, thinks it positively likely that aliens would be, in effect, bipedal primates. 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.

Richard then presented this page from Wilson’s and Lumsden’s book Prometheus Fire, based on the paleontologist Dale Russell’s evolutionary projection of how a bipedal dinosaur might have evolved into something like us had the dinosaurs not gone extinct.

promethean_fire_page

I then wrote back to Richard:

It seems to me that if something like a bipedal primate (or the equivalent thereof) has a certain inevitability to it because of how evolution unfolds, then it would have happened more than once here. In his book Nonzero, Robert Wright argues that our existence precludes other terrestrial intelligences of our level from arising, but Neanderthals were as close as one can get to a counterfactual experiment, and they had half a million years to themselves in Europe without our interference, and showed no signs of cultural progress whatsoever in that time (tool kits stayed the same, no symbolic art, etc.). So that seems to me a bit of data against that argument.

Richard then responded thusly:

But you are leaping from one extreme to the other. In the film vignette, you implied a quite staggering rarity, so rare that you don’t expect two android life forms in the entire universe. Now you are talking about “a certain inevitability”, and pointing out, correctly, that a certain inevitability would predict that androids should have evolved more than once on Earth! So yes, we can say that androids are fairly improbable, but not necessarily all that improbable! Anything approaching “a certain inevitability” would mean millions or even billions of android life forms in the universe, simply because the number of available planets is so huge. Now, my guess is intermediate between your two extremes. I agree with you that androids are rare, that is indeed suggested by the fact that they have only evolved once on Earth. I agree with you that science fiction, and the alien abduction subculture, have an unseemly eagerness to imagine androids, which you are right to denigrate. But I suspect that androids are not so very rare as to justify the statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette. I have discussed such matters in the last chapter of The Ancestor’s Tale. I think Conway-Morris goes too far in one direction, and you go too far in the other.

A point well made, as Richard Dawkins’ points always are, so I would be curious to know what you think. Give us your thoughts on the probabilities of an extraterrestrial intelligence being anything like us in body, shape, form, as well as psychology, communication, technology, etc. It’s a legitimate scientific debate. Tell us what you think.

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90 Responses to “Skeptic Contacted by Aliens”

  1. patrick says:

    I think bi-pedal is pretty likely. One of our markers of intelligence is tool use, so you’d want some free limbs to use the tools with. I suppose you could get a creature with 6 limbs, 4 for walking and 2 for tool use. Or 2 for walking and 4 for tool use.

    The primate/android form seems less ‘necessary’ and I think evolution can get find lots of ways to get around that. No reason that dinosaur pictured had to lose the tail, for example. Heck, a tail could be pretty useful for interacting with your environment. Balance, prehensile, etc.

    I’m not sure where to start on the technology or psychology side.

  2. Justin Higinbotham says:

    I would guess that some form of manipulator(s) could be expected, though an elephants trunk or an octopus’ arms offer a lot of advantages over co-opted walking legs that evolved to become hands.

    Other than that, stereoscopic vision, various organs of sense, some form of protective skin/fur/feathers for protection from the elements, etc.

    But overall, I’d posit that manipulators would be more likely to evolve from antennae or something else instead of forelegs.

  3. Tim says:

    If you really look at the world around us there are plenty of species with two legs and two limbs. Technically every bird fits this description. I think intelligence does make a difference also.

    Maybe the evolution of intelligence also followed the evolution of the body type. It appears that if we had one without the other then our civilization may have happened when it did.We know animals in Africa had a social structure but only ape like creatures where able to take the next step forward and create a tool.

    This does not mean that an alien would have our exact body type but it seem that you would need to have some ability to apply your thoughts into actions. Or you may have an intelligent race of beings unable to prove their intelligence through the creation of tools.

  4. Calin says:

    Another argument could be made that in a creature intelligent enough to invent space travel would have to have free limbs. Humans have developed as bipeds partly because of the need to use tools (as mentioned above), but also to carry their young efficiently. I had read somewhere that part of the reason for our extended childhood was tied into our intelligence. In order to carry/protect the young for years on end, you would need mobility while still having limbs free to defend or carry.

    This, of course, does not preclude an alien lifeform with more than two “legs”. However, I would guess that they would need at least two limbs on the ground (air if winged?) and at least two free.

    I think that using the history of the Earth as an example is dangerous. The Neanderthal did not develop long, but that could just have easily been despite their bipedal status. Likewise, we are the first on the earth to develop the brains we have, but we may not be the last. After we are gone, who knows? There is only so much ecosystem to go around. However, the fact that it is unlikely another biped will develop “higher” intelligence here has no bearing on the likelihood across the universe.

    In my head, if an alien lifeform has limbs at all, two will be just as likely as 4 or 6….given other limbs are free apart from locomotion.

    There is a chance that the development of higher language skills is tied into our bipedal status. The ability to walk upright came before language…but it is language and writing that sets us apart. Were these brought about or influenced by our free hands? If so, they would be requisite for aliens that we would see traveling the cosmos. Hands, of course, in the sense of manipulating appendeges free of the burden of mobility.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply to aliens we might discover on distant shores which aren’t hampered by the need for higher intelligence and language skills.

  5. RoaldFalcon says:

    The data show that bi-pedalism arose before advanced cognative ability. Although the evolution of intelligence is not inevitable (as it took four billion years to happen once here), it is reasonable to speculate that any intelligence that is encountered will also be bi-pedal (i.e., perhaps it is a necessary but not sufficient condition).

    I would not be willing to accept that notion, however, since at present we only have the evolutionary history of earth to work with, and nature tends to surprise.

    To make guesses at what forms intelligent life might take, we might look in to what sorts of environments would create selective pressures for intelligence. But that will have little predictive power since it might very well have been sexual selection that created it here. In short, that’s a bunch of words for “beats me.”

  6. However you address this question is going to require you to make several assumptions. What if intelligent life has also evolved on planets without any dry land? Those creatures possibly wouldn’t have need of legs at all.

    But on a planet similar to ours 2 legs with a good balancing system does seem more energy efficient than 4 legs. So i think that is pretty probable.

    Anyway, when/if we discover life on other planets we will be incredibly surprised a) how much like us it is and b) how much unlike us it is.

    • Steven Melendez says:

      I could imagine something completely different (say a creature that didn’t have “hands/fingers”, but instead used octopi type appendages to manipulate and for fine motor function. That would be very interesting. Or, maybe hands/feet similar, but something like a face of “Cthulu” lore… who knows. But I do agree that for land based, some things most likely are a must. Most likely a walker (slug types would most likely be too slow… key phrase ‘most likely’), most likely have appendages for manipulation of tools, and would have to have developed some kind of language skill. Personal opinion, please don’t blast me :D

  7. catgirl says:

    I think the most important things for space-traveling aliens are big brains (or brain-analogs) and some method of sophisticated speech (although sign language might work, depending on their home planet conditions). Other than those things, they would have simply whatever is most suitable for their own planet, which my be very different from Earth. Even if their planet were almost identical to Earth, the randomness of gene mutations could make life evolve in a very different way.

    If we went to other planets, life there would probably be very different even on the smallest level. It would probably have very different cell structure and organelles, and biochemistry. It might not have DNA as genetic material, or it might have a different chain of reactions to get energy from food. Even though phospholipids seem ideal for cell membranes, there might be other chemicals that work better on different planets, especially if certain chemicals are more common or more rare. I think that life on other planets would be so different, a better question to ask is if we would be able to recognize it as life if we found it.

  8. It’s certainly possible for two separate evolutionary paths, if subjected to similar environmental pressures, to produce similar results. There may not be any examples of non-human “androids” (Is that the technically correct term? I prefer “humanoids,” because to me, “androids” refers to human-like robots) here on Earth, but there are analogies among other species. Sharks and dolphins, for example, are pretty far apart on the evolutionary tree, but are superficially very similar. But the similar configurations shared by sharks and dolphins is by no means inevitable, as many creatures inhabit similar environments but look very, very different.

    So I would consider it possible but not inevitable that humanoids could evolve on other planets. And given the sheer size of the universe, “possible” becomes “likely,” somewhere.

    Which I guess puts me more or less in agreement with Dawkins.

    Of course, until our sample size of planets with life is greater than one, anything anyone says on this topic should be taken with an asteroid-sized grain of salt.

  9. Joseph Peacock says:

    The currently popular theory is that bipedalism evolved in the Australopithecines to allow them to carry belongings, and especially infants, with them while they migrated across the savannas between the stands of receding forests. Intelligence, creativity and ingenuity, then, became more useful attributes, since with them, an individual or tribe could develop increasingly complex tools with their newly available hands. Higher intelligence became a selective advantage, and our ancestors evolved to be smarter. So, bipedalism, then tools, then a cycle of increasingly complicated tools and increasingly advanced intelligence leading to where we are today.

    That, of course, is the theory of how it happened here, based on fossils and other evidence. Hypothetically, the development of intelligence and sentience could have followed a different path, responding to different pressures. I agree with the earlier responders that organs for effective physical manipulation of the environment would certainly be necessary. Intelligence of that level would likely not evolve without the ability to do something with it. E.g. a mutant genius guppy in my fish tank, who has somehow gained the ability to think like an engineer will not have the physical ability to build a house to protect its fry, and therefore, there is no selective advantage to his oddly complex brain, and that mutant trait is not likely to be strongly represented in further generations.

    So, with the requirement of manipulating organs being assumed, and Justin’s points about other possible organs notwithstanding, we would still have to make significant assumptions to presume that an intelligent species would be bipedal. The biggest assumption being that they were tetrapods. Russell’s depiction of the possible descendant of the dinosaurs is not unrealistic, but the saurids and the primates share an evolutionary history – both eventually emerging from earlier reptiles – so they already share a similar body plan. The tetrapod body plan (and for that matter, even bilateralism) appears to be an evolutionary accident, with no significant advantage, or higher developmental probability than a hexapod or heptapod or whatever (any evo-devo types out there, please correct me if I’m wrong).

    That being said, Dr. Dawkins’ point is spot on. The fact that the intelligent, bipedal tetrapod has evolved here demonstrates that it is a plan that can work. There may be other, equally successful plans that have worked on other planets. Given the number of times that intelligent life could have evolved, even just in the near galaxy, it is conceivable that some of them could have a similar, recognizable body type.

    Of course, the actual structure of that body – bones, muscles, skin, hair, etc., the details of our joints, the placement of our sensory organs, our method of communication (sound produced by air moving through noise-making organs in the midst of our breathing apparatus) – the more details you add, the less likely other “people” would share them if they don’t share at least some lineage with us.

    Anyway, I write too much (sorry).
    Conclusion: bipedal = possibly (depending on which aliens come to visit), primate = not likely, android = even less likely.

  10. Max says:

    Perhaps ET is an ocean that materializes people’s dreams and repressed thoughts. Anyone read Solaris?

    By the way, some people are giving up on SETI.

    http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_17.html
    Ray Kurzweil: “According to most analyses of the Drake equation, there should be billions of civilizations, and a substantial fraction of these should be ahead of us by millions of years. That’s enough time for many of them to be capable of vast galaxy-wide technologies. So how can it be that we haven’t noticed any of the trillions of trillions of ‘needles’ that each of these billions of advanced civilizations should be creating? My own conclusion is that they don’t exist.”

    http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_1.html
    Martin Seligman: “Maybe intelligent life is so unimaginably different from us that we are looking in all the wrong ‘places.’ Maybe really intelligent life forms hide their presence. So I changed my mind. I now take the null hypothesis very seriously: that Sagan and Shklovskii were wrong: that the number of advanced technical civilizations in our galaxy is exactly one, that the number of advanced technical civilizations in the universe is exactly one.”

  11. Justin Higinbotham says:

    With the exponential increase in habitats in a three-dimensional medium (such as water or air or something similar), do people think it more likely for aliens to have evolved not as terrestrial beings walking ON land, but rather organisms that swim/fly/etc. THROUGH some medium?

    If so, then “bi-pedalism” and all similar ideas would be much less likely, and creatures like an octopus or squid or even gryphon would seem more likely…

    Also, regarding if we’d even recognize an alien life form as intelligent or even alive, aren’t there clear-cut patterns in information that would lead us to conclude “intelligent speech”, or “communications signal” or “living organism” in general? I’m thinking along the lines of a mathematical sequence to catch our attention, or a numerically unlikely repetition of ‘words’ in a signal that follows known laws of language development.

  12. Max says:

    Force of gravity is another factor. Aliens from a gas giant would have very different means of locomotion than aliens from a gas giant’s moon.

    But why haven’t any animals evolved wheels or green skin or fur?

  13. Max says:

    Oops, I meant why are there no green mammals, except for a monkey and some barely green rodent.

  14. SteveN says:

    For possibly the first time in my life I find myself disagreeing with Richard here. I agree that there are likely to be many ‘android’ life forms in the universe but what are the chances (a) that many of these are intelligent and (b) that these few happen to be visiting the Earth. I see no reason to postulate a causal relationship between the android body plan and intelligence, after all.

    Cheers

    Steve

  15. Reece says:

    I wish I had the time to read all of the other comments before writing, but I don’t. Forgive me if something here as already been said.
    I think I have to agree with Shermer on this one. Evidence shows that the ability to manipulate the environment (tools, young, food, and the like) was likely what spurred along the selection of our bipedalism. We do, however, see many body plans in nature, none of which make sentience impossible. Take the arthropods, for instance; their appendages vary from six to many hundred. Given a few hundred million years and the appropriate variations/selective pressures, a sentient creature could very well come from this phylum without changing to a creature with 2 walking legs and 2 free arms. Virtually any animal phylum could, in theory, give rise to intelligence eventually. Even with the presumption that intelligence requires one or more free limbs, we needn’t look any farther than the elephant, a chordate and a mammal, which is a quadruped with a free limb.

  16. If intelligence means manipulation of environment I think you are looking at land-based or at least amphibious intelligent ETs. Tough to develop technology without fire. So, if land-based they are, then multipedalism is likely, with at least two ‘limbs’ beyond those required for ambulation available for said manipulation of environment.

    Alas, as long as we are forced to make grand assumptions, why not make a rather obvious assumption – that any ET capable of reaching Earth may very well have engineered bodies able to withstand space travel and the physiological problems it brings. Given our current tech trajectory, I think we’ll develop the genetic engineering required for making space travel-friendly astronauts before achieving interstellar space travel capabilities, and perhaps aliens go that route as well.

    The first aliens on Earth may bear little resemblance to their realtives back on their home planet, having been designed for the environment of their space ships rather than evolving with the conditions on their home planet.

  17. Alex Prudente says:

    Maybe the process is self-selecting. Maybe, becoming bipedal forces a species into a niche that, while precarious at first, ends up giving them much more options for world domination. And, before this species creates a culture that respects other forms of life, they will have long-destroyed any possible competitors to the throne (i.e. other bipedal tool users).

  18. Max says:

    If dolphins evolve to be as intelligent as humans, will they ever build stuff?

  19. MadScientist says:

    How can we assign a ‘probability’ apriori?

    Some things are essential – an appendage which can manipulate tools is one; on humans that is a pairs of hands each with an opposable thumb. Have a look around at how other animals manipulate objects in their environment; most are condemned to manipulating things primarily with their head (cattle grazing, etc) while some like rats do use their paws a bit for manipulating things, and the primates of course are far better at manipulating things with their hands (or even feet).

    Intelligence of course is essential, but who’s to say that a world hadn’t evolved with the equivalent of a human brain in something like a horse? Let’s ask Mr. Ed! We can see that other primates, despite their ability to manipulate and create tools, simply don’t seem to have the intelligence (at this point in time) to create complex tools as humans do; at the moment the humans have hands better suited to fiddly work, the brains to create complex objects, and the means to teach future generations their tricks.

    Now how do we assign a probability to creatures evolving with intelligence and the ability to manipulate the environment, both of which are necessary to have a human-like intelligent alien? (Sorry Dilbert fans, Dogbert will not be invading the earth any time soon.)

  20. Max, of course Dolphins will eventually build stuff. Just as soon as they grow opposing thumbs and get their accreditation from the Master Builder’s Society.

    I have a dolphin remodeling my kitchen right now. Unfortunately, his work is restricted by his reach from my sink.

  21. Brian says:

    One thing that we can say with relative certainty: science fiction will never outgrow its obsession with aliens that look like bipedal primates. People want stories about aliens, yes, but not about entities that are completely alien in nature — and therefore, as far as TV and movies are concerned, also not about entities that are completely alien in form.

  22. Nan McIntyre says:

    Jose the PS, your contractor problems are echoed by our difficulties getting cooperation from the octopus I hired to execute a couple of decks at my place; mobility isn’t really a problem with a few strategically placed tanks, however the detail required for her working drawings is quite beyond any drafting firm I can locate.

  23. patrik.e says:

    It’s fun to speculate. But that’s about it. The only references we have is life on this planet. And as far as we know, life elsewere (if it does exist) might – or might not! – look like life here. But there is no way of knowing. That’s why these kinds of discussions should be held just for fun.

    Arguing that someone is “probably wrong” is just unjustified. It’s like arguing what ghosts look like – we don’t even know if they exist in the first place! For all we KNOW, aliens might look like something from StarTrek (i.e exactly like us, but with blue ears or something). Unlikely? Sure, I think it’s unlikely. But again, we have no real basis for that kind reasoning. What it all comes down to is a matter of personal opinion and fantasies. None of them are science. Sure, a guess might be scientificly based on life here and gravity effects and such, but still, if there are countless worlds with alien life – what makes earth the correct one to base it on? Perhaps WE are the lifeforms that differ the most from the norm?

    Anyway, it’s a fun topic!

  24. Shahar Lubin says:

    Don’t forget the David Brin concept of uplift. In short the idea of one inteligent specie helpin others on other plantes make the technological jump. For example for a sea(water or methane or whatever) dwelling creatute it would be nigh impossible on his own to develop and build space technology(IMHO) but if someone helps them make the jump(mobile water tanks) it can happen.
    If only one specie starts “uplifting” others it could spread and the uplifted would outnumber the natrual risers. In that case all bets are off.

  25. Jeff says:

    I always have to wonder how things might have occurred if the first intelligent life was an aquatic creature (ie dolphins). I think a lot of things might be harder, but nothing insurmountable with enough evolution and technology. Of course, our dolphins will never get there on the human time scale.

  26. Dan says:

    Excellent points on both sides, as always. But it’s unfair to say Mr. Shermer is “leaping from one extreme to the other” with his “certain inevitability” after siting Conway-Morris as saying android evolution is “positively likely.” Shermer responds to that extreme and Dawkins says he’s leaping.

    In any case, whatever their form I hope evolution treated the ETs better than us, with our screwy eyeball design, lower back pain and intermittent hair.

    Great stuff Skeptologists.

  27. GH says:

    I find deeper, and at least as interesting, several questions related to this:
    • Why do bipeds have two of some features, but only one of others?
    • Why don’t bipeds have an odd number other than one of any features?

    Of course these questions can be further generalized beyond bipeds.

  28. Jeff says:

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. While I have to agree with both you Dr. Shermer and Richard Dawkins I tend to side more with your view point of higher intelligence beings not not necessarily looking like us. As you’ve said many times, we humans have a tendency to personify things and I think Aliens are a creation of our own fantasies.

    Having said all this, I would love your take on the new “theory” that is running on the internet thanks to Michael Tellinger and Zacharia Sitchin. Anyone who follows their theory would probably say that Aliens are infact bidepal beings who actually are the ones responsible for the creation of homosapien. They claim that evolution doesn’t allow enough time from early hominids to modern man, thus the interaction of a alien race was necessary to make us what we are now.

    I find all this rubbish as there is never any proof in their argument, but their theory seems to be gaining momentum. I think the reason why it’s gaining a mass audience is because it provides an alternative view to both, the religious points of view and the rational and factual evolution point of view.

    If you could, would you shed your opinion on the matter of “Planet X”, the Annunaki, and for that matter on Michael Tellinger. I would be greatly interested in your thoughts on this.

    As always thanks for your insight on all subject matter.

    Cheers from a frigid NYC, and hopefully I get to see you again when you’re back in NYC.

  29. r strle says:

    I think that what Richard Dawkins thinks is, as usual, right on.

    “Now, my guess is intermediate between your two extremes.”

    And like any guess it will stay a guess (science fiction) until we have more and sufficient data to determine the truth (science fact).

  30. upgrade01a says:

    It is very convenient for movie making to have aliens that look more-or-less like us. Although, I remember a “Star Trek, Next Generation” episode where alien creatures lived out in space and looked very much like Gyoza. My daughter and I refer to it as “The Gyoza episode”. My wife is Japanese, so I am so familiar with the food.

  31. Mastriani says:

    Gads, individuals on a scientific blog using the word “truth” repeatedly. There is no truth, only facts and errors.

    With all due consideration to convergent evolution, the mathematical probability against more forms of bipedal primates/hominids approaches infinity. Albeit, the argument that the probability does not entirely preclude another chance happening can be made.

    From my readings, and continuously arguing this point with others over many years, my perspective would be in line with Dr. Shermer, most assuredly.

    No disrespect to Mr. Dawkins, but anthropocentric fantasies about the Universe don’t change the facts as illustrated through fossil records and our understanding of genetic adaptation. We have zero evidence of life, beyond basic germs, from any of the completed explorations thus far. Not withstanding, the humanoid form, although it has survived somewhat well in this ecosystem, is riddled with inefficiencies.

    The anthropocentric view of the Universe is nothing more than fiction and fantasy; further it is debilitating to actual scientific advancement.

  32. It is amazing how sure Shermer is about what aliens look like, Only someone with a closed mind and a preconceived agenda has that much confidence in an unknown actuality. Stranger way to demonstrate being a “skeptic”, stranger yet is his ridiculous admiration for a proven liar James Randi, and certainly strange for the head skeptic is his refusal to even look at the evidence of the proof that Randi is a liar. Personally I believe Shermer is afraid to look at the evidence because if he does then he has to admit Randi is a liar, and then his hero crumbles, oh my, oh my, oh my, we can’t have the truth stand in the way our our agenda now can we.

  33. Jim says:

    While I agree that evolution and alien environment can produce surprises, we can extrapolate from the few “knowns” that we have. First, an intelligent entity has to have some means of interacting with, and moving about in its environment, as it’s unlikely that sentience would be a survival advantage for a stationary life form. Discounting any form of telekinesis, that means limbs of some type are probably necessary for locomotion. How many limbs? Simple physics suggests that three is the minimum number for a low-level creature to balance on and move efficiently, but walking would be much less awkward on four and a four-legged predator would easily outrun a three-legged prey. Any more legs don’t add much benefit for a larger creature, but they do add overhead to maintain.

    Putting what we would call a head at the front of this critter has all sorts of obvious advantages (sensory organs, food intake), and while the brain would be better protected if it was further back in the body, that increases the nerve length from the sensory organs to the brain. As brain complexity increases to the point where this critter can balance on two legs, all we need is some selective pressure to make this advantageous and we have a bipedal creature with two free limbs to learn to use in manipulating the environment. As many others here have said, that allows an almost unlimited growth of intelligence, with increasing survival benefits.

    Similar arguments can be made for having two eyes placed in the front of the head, and quite a number of other parts that have developed independently any number of times here on Earth. So now we have a land creature that, at least superficially, looks a lot like us. As for sea and air creatures, all bets are off, but even then there are good arguments to be made for having at least two limbs for manipulating the environment, and something resembling a “head” on top. I guess my point here is that while, yes it’s xeno-centric (is that a word? If not, it should be) of us to think intelligent life HAS to look like us, it’s also quite reasonable to think that in many cases, it could.

  34. kenn pappas says:

    I find it amazing how speculation about other life forms on other planets is so rife when there’s always one major problem … no evidence of any kind of life other than life on this planet. Personally, I’m still waiting for at least a microbe, some form of tactile or mobile form that could be construed as “intelligent” life so that there’s some reason for speculation.

    Why jump to speculation about what a multi-celled creature could look like when we’ve still reason to believe there’s not even a cell in existence anywhere in the known universe until we find at least one?

    Aaah ! Who am I kidding? Let’s go back and reembrace Platonic thought and actually imagine we can pluck evidence out of a higher way of thinking. Although I’d really rather say … thank god someone thought it was wise to send a couple probes to Mars.

  35. Tom says:

    Fermi’s Paradox: Where Are They?

    Enrico Fermi’s observation was that any technologically advanced civilization would’ve colonized the galaxy in an astonishingly short time, on the order of 50 million years IIRC. Given the long age of the Milky Way galaxy, why haven’t we been visited?

    Stephen Webb, in his book “If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life” , concludes present humans are likely the only advanced civilization in the Milky Way galaxy. I’m inclined to agree, sadly.

    Distances between galaxies are so cosmologically vast, that it’s hard to imagine any civilization undertaking a 2 million year, 1-way journey to Andromeda, for example.

  36. Dale Headley says:

    The directions evolution could take are essentially limitless. At each incremental step along the way, the evolving genome could be influenced by environmental factors to adapt in any of multiple possible ways. Therefore, after millions of years of natural selection, the notion that a bipedal primate would be one of its products is so mathematically improbable as to be not worth contemplating. And the idea that there is something especially adaptive about intelligence has no foundation; in fact, the idea is totally a product of anthropocentric bias. To a bacterium, which has been pretty much unchanged and robust through countless eons, the idea that we – Homo sapiens – who have only been here for a millisecond of geologic time have proven our supreme, if not unique fitness must be laughable (if a bacterium could laugh). Bottom line, the belief that something like us must exist elsewhere in the universe is ludicrous in the extreme. Sadly, even great science popularizers like Richard Dawkins, and Cal Sagan before him (with his SETI delusion), are unable to shake the deep-seated prejudice that there is something especially wondrous about human beings that impels the universe to strive towards us. No doubt the cockroach feels the same way about itself; but at least it has some evidentiary basis upon which to make such a supposition.

  37. Steve Doob says:

    Intelligent life on earth? Maybe, but in humans? How intelligent is it to flatter ourselves that we are intelligent? Are our imaginations that we are intelligent any more than just imaginations? We do all the defining of terms and don’t ask any other species what they think about it. Is it intelligent for us to use our brains to hasten our extinction? Other species don’t seem to be in such a hurry.

  38. Xsjado says:

    Humanoid life seems to be pretty likely to me assuming tetropod dominance. 4 legs is much more energy efficient than 6 or 8 (assuming bilateral symmetry) and baring the development of other manipulating limbs it makes sense that 2 of those legs would adapt to manipulators. This is quite common even among non-primates; rodents use their forelegs to manipulate food, and predators commonly use their forelimbs to catch prey.

    Invertebrates would most likely evolve following a different format but they are so structurally different from vertebrates that it isn’t easy to make a comparison.

  39. Bandsaw says:

    For the flying/swimming debate, I would suggest considering two points.
    1. Brain matter tends to be very dense (a diffuse brain would slow thinking rates). A large brain would be a heavy, dense thing. This would be disadvantageous for flying creatures. As such it would seem to me less likely to have a flying-based intelligence.
    2. One of the most basic technologies is fire. This would be fairly impossible in most liquid environments (and a flammible liquid would be disastrous). This would seem to preclude development of a technological society (at least along our lines), making a spacefaring aquatic society less likely.

  40. Robert says:

    IF extraterrestrial life exists then it seems to me that there could be an intermediate chance that it would be bipedal unless someone can come up with a large number of alternative routes that intelligent life could evolve. So I would agree with Dawkins in this sense. However, the number of contingencies for intelligent life to come about may be huge, so that possibly you may not find ET until you come to a galaxy in the next supercluster, if that. I think that if the universe were big enough there is a chance of extraterrestrial intelligent life but the chances are slim that we would meet them.

  41. Robert says:

    Sorry mistyped my website address. The link on my name should work now.

  42. dan says:

    hi, i never even bothered to read the above. but, IN MY OPINION i will just say this. i have seen ufo’s, ghosts, apparitions and have had experience’s of polterghist. much of what i have experienced as been witnessed. i am a quiet man and feel no great urge to convert, convince or impress others about the subject. once you really have had real experience/s something clicks and seeking the approval from other people and their egos and child like tantrums because they have not had such experiences themselves does not matter. because, in the grand scale of things such sceptisms are no longer important. i just feel a pity for those who frantically seek such experiences. maybe you are not meant to see them. i wonder why ?
    TO CONCLUDE THERE IS ONE THING I HAVE TO SAY – STAY CALM – SEEK THE CALM ENERGY – MANKINDS ENEMYS DO NOT WANT US TO SEEK THE CALM FOR THEY/IT HAVE AN AGENDA OF CHAOS AND CONFLICT. but they become reduntant when we have sought and found the calm – and its harmonious state of BEING. BUT ITS ALL JUST MY OWN OPINION-BLESSINGS!

  43. Jim Hull says:

    Dr. Shermer’s basic point is well taken, which is that many alien reports describe creatures that, rather too conveniently, resemble humans. It suggest that those narratives spring from mental states rather than external events. As for the odds of a real alien being bipedal: if you include semi-bipedal creatures, then this sort of animal has evolved many times on Earth, from dinosaurs to birds and beyond. Also, most great apes can stand erect, and birds, prairie dogs, and other contemporary animals often raise themselves to verticality. It’s possible, then, that those human-looking aliens might simply have been semi-bipedal creatures who were observed _standing up_ to stare at the witness. (Then they loped back on all fours to their spaceship.) Having said that, I seriously doubt whether anybody has really seen an alien, bipedal or otherwise — not yet, at least.

  44. NightHiker says:

    Before getting to the subject proper, I need to get a pet peeve out of the way. Guys, traits do not evolve to allow this or that, nor creatures needed to evolve this or that trait because of this or that. That inverts the causation of natural selection and implies planning. I know many times it’s just a semantic slip, but with all the creationist idiocy roaming rampant, it’s imperative to try to frame arguments regarding evolution correctly.

    Now on the matter of alien intelligence, it also saddens me to see so much linear reasoning. We criticize creationists when they say that evolution could not happen because it’s unlikely that life could sprout from innanimate matter by random chance. We answer that it’s not really random, for there are physical, chemical and environmental laws that must be obeyed by the atoms, molecules and organisms. But then, when our time comes to make assumptions on the matter, it looks like we completely forget what we told the creationists, and start talking about mathematical improbability, random chance, etc. There certainly is randomness in evolution of intelligence, but not even close to as much as people here implied.

    ALso, Shermer’s argument using Neanderthals and other bipedal set ups as evidence that bipedal species and intelligence are likely not related is very weak. The fact that there are (and were) many bipedals that are (were) not so intelligent has no bearing on the reasoning that bipedal set ups are the best alternative. After all, one can say that from all the variety that ever existed on Earth, only a bipedal species evolved to be intelligent enough – therefore that argument is in favor of bipedal intelligence more than it is against it.

    And we are not just talking about intelligence, since there are many highly intelligent animals that are note bipedal, but intelligence levels at least as high as ours (of which we only have us as an example). Jim at #32 already started to address the issue, and was complemented by #37, so I’ll just continue to build over their reasoning.

    First we have the environment. Is there really that much variation as far as possible selective pressures go? I don’t think so. I suspect that in order for such intelligence to evolve, a planet cannot be much different from ours, so the selective pressures would be somewhat similar.

    Why?

    Because carbon based life needs a narrow window of temperature to develop. Too hot and the bonds won’t be stable, too cold and there’s not enough energy to form the bonds. Also, we need a liquid environment at the start, since the particles need to be able to roam freely in order to combine in varied and ever more complex ways. So we likely have the same “acquatic life evolving toward terrestrial animals” scenario. And so on.

    What’s the main requirement for intelligence at the levels necessary for developing a civilization? A large brain cortex. There is a critical mass to be achieved as far as quantity of neurons (or other signal carrier) and their organization.

    Now, brains demand a LOT of energy, so only a body large enough to be able to afford that much energy would go on to develop such a brain. That pretty much eliminates insect like setups (exo-eskeletons) and other invertebrates, since they don’t have enough structural strength to sustain the body size needed.

    Also, the body obviously evolves before the brain becomes big, so the body itself also needs to support such intelligence in order for the brain to achieve the necessary size. Jim already talked about such requirements.

    We can also confidently eliminate any acquatic vertebrate species, for a simple reason: the level of intelligence we are talking about demands domain over fire. Acquatic animals would never meet the necessary energy requirements for developing such intelligence levels(we would not be as intelligent ourselves if we had not learned to cook our food and therefore have much more energy available to continue to develop our big brains).

    While those requirements still leave quite a bit of room for variation, it certainly is not enough to justify the “mathematical improbability” argument. And while we can’t say that roughly humanoid species should be the norm, it’s arguable that bipedal species may represent the most adequate setup.

    If we carefully add up all the necessary requirements for intelligence to develop, bipedal intelligent beings are not really that unlikely – and if we take into consideration the sheer size of the universe, bipedal space faring species may be more common than any other alternative.

  45. Julio Alfaro says:

    All this talk of intelligence and bipedalism, and not a single person has mentioned what I think would be an obvious factor in ET life evolving into a bipedal primate: GRAVITY.

    Unless the gravity of the host planet is the same as earth’s gravity, then it is not very likely that the life forms would evolve to be bipedal creatures – especially not if the life evolves on a planet where the gravity is much higher than earth’s gravity. Chances are that this life form would evolve as a blob with little skeletal structure…

  46. NightHiker says:

    Julio,

    “Unless the gravity of the host planet is the same as earth’s gravity, then it is not very likely that the life forms would evolve to be bipedal creatures – especially not if the life evolves on a planet where the gravity is much higher than earth’s gravity. Chances are that this life form would evolve as a blob with little skeletal structure…”

    Remember that we are not talking just about life, but highly intelligent life.

    If the gravity on the alien planet is much stronger than ours, complex life won’t likely evolve at all, even less highly intelligent beings. If the gravity is to much small, the planet won’t likely be able to hold an atmosphere long enough to develop highly intelligent beings. So the best scenario for highly intelligent life is a planet with a gravity that is not much different from Earth’s. Which is, eureka, one of the reasons highly intelligent life did evolve here.

  47. John Beck says:

    A few comments on the comments. We always get irked at Creationists for calling evolutionary biology “Just A Theory” and explain what that word means in the science community… and now I hear people talk about the “theory is that bipedalism evolved in the Australopithecines…”
    Um. This is, at best, an Hypothesis, since it cannot have been thoroughly tested – I am no expert (I’m a Solar Astronomer by trade), I suspect some experts would call it a ‘speculation’.

    The fact is we have precious little data when it comes to astrobiology so detailed speculation about the likely properties of an E.T. species are mental masturbation. We can draw some inferences based on biochemistry (e.g. it is extremely unlikely that complex will evolve in a stellar atmospheres) but body plans are so diverse and tiny modifications can have enormous effects. We see in Earth life that different solutions have evolved to solve the same problems, so it is foolhardy to assert that “Environmental Condition X” requires “Biological Trait Y” (or even a set of traits Y1, Y2, …).

    All I can say with confidence is: the probability of an E.T. Bipedal Primate existing lies between the values of one and zero. But I may be wrong.

  48. NightHiker says:

    John Beck,

    “We see in Earth life that different solutions have evolved to solve the same problems,”

    Would you mind to elaborate further?

  49. Max says:

    Julio, I mentioned gravity in post #12. Do Ctrl+F “gravity”.

  50. Mastriani says:

    Would you mind to elaborate further?

    Simplest example: yeast reproduces sexually and asexually.

    Problem: reproduction.

    Solution: bimodal.

    Again, fantasy and fiction are mildly entertaining, but not useful in a scientific realm. We do not have accurate data for determining the atmospheric conditions during the greatest majority of the Earth’s development. It is entirely speculative models. Any attempt to assert certainty with regards to evolution on another planetary body, is induction, and therefore an error. We don’t have the ability to determine with certainty what drove evolution on the planet that we evolved on, the planetary conditions responsible for our cognition.

    Mathematical probabilities are around for a reason.

  51. NightHiker says:

    Mastriani,

    “Simplest example: yeast reproduces sexually and asexually.”

    Thanks. I couldn’t think of an example. That one works. Of course, we can also speak of all the examples where some functionality evolved in diferent ways in face of similar selective pressures, so there’s nothing preventing someone from arguing that while some randomness do exist, the ultimate factor in the shape and function of a trait is the environment, and that similar environments might lead to different, albeit similar solutions. Bipedalism is a very recurrent theme, as some already argued – there are many species that are capable of limited bipedality, and it might very well be one important catalist for intelligence.

    “Mathematical probabilities are around for a reason.”

    Sure. Just not the one you mentioned. Mathematical models only work with proper data. So, if you say we “don’t have the ability to determine with certainty what drove evolution on the planet that we evolved on, the planetary conditions responsible for our cognition” in order to guess (yes, guessing, or, if you prefer, induction, also has its place in science) what path is more likely or not, then we don’t have enough data to say that the evolution of other bipedal intelligent species (not necessarily primates) is a “mathematical improbability” either. So, if you’re right, then you’re wrong.

    However, while you are correct when you say we don’t know such data with certainty, that does not mean we have no data at all. We know with a reasonable degree of certainty how the conditions on Earth evolved up to now. We don’t know about all body configurations that might work on each environment, but we do know which ones do work. So we actually can speculate about it. Unless, of course, you discredit any of the arguments others and I advanced, instead of just implying (inducing?) they’re wrong.

  52. Mastriani says:

    NightHiker,

    I would like to see sufficient data, and not the type generated by modeling speculations. This is a large problem, and likely always will be. Any number of models are used that are built upon “available data”. Any conclusions that come from such models are not in the realm of provisional conclusions, but they are less accurate, ergo, speculative conclusions. Pardon my lack of social decorum, but that is just a BS manner of not accepting that we don’t really have the ability to know.

    When I invoked mathematical probabilities, the bent wasn’t at modeling, but the numerical bias that can be applied. I recognise the legitimacy of your assertion, although it appears we have cross talked.

    As far as the atmospheric conditions present for the greatest majority of evolutionary development, and what selective pressures were applied by it; we really have little data. Speculation isn’t a far step from fallacy.

    With regards to like intelligence development, it simply isn’t required, and our level is purely happenstance. That so many species in the myriad have endured for so many millenia without it, refutes it as being a necessity. Further, as previously pointed out, all of the preceding hominids failed to evolve to our level with nothing but time on their side. Again, our physical state, anthropocentrically viewed as a measure of evolutionary greatness, is riddled with inefficiencies. Which is yet another argument against it being a recurring model. Further, in order for a species to reach a technological state of being able to move across light years, virtually defying everything we understand about astrophysics, means yet another evolutionary leap. Although I have no ability to assert a claim bound by evidence, our model suggests that the energy requirements of such cognition would be physically devastating.

    Everything has set limitations, including evolution. The fundamental laws of the Universe do not bend to genetics.

  53. Richard says:

    It seems likely that once animals had evolved that bilateral, cephalized animals would almost certainly evolve; and it might well go from there with diversification resulting eventually in bipedal species and eventually in a bipedal, intelligent, technological species. In other words, I don’t think this sequence is as remote as Michael would have it. But I don’t think it is all that likely either. There may be a limited number of morphologies that an intelligent, technological (and spacefaring) species can have, and maybe these are rare, even on nice, earthlike planets. I guess what I’m getting at is that IF a technological species evolves, it may have a fair chance of being bipedal and somewhat humanoid but that it may have a low chance of evolving.

  54. Richard says:

    Another thought: Neal Stephenson in his new book Anathem comes up with another way that aliens might be very much like us.

  55. Although some form of genetic interchange between alien individuals seems very likely – perhaps even necessary – we shouldn’t assume that alien “sexes” share our same level of dimorphism. Accordingly, we should consider the possibility of extremely dimorphic alien species (or even trimorphic etc.). This possibility permits one to imagine much wilder kinds of aliens…

    If we assume two sexes, perhaps their individual roles could be extremely differently adapted and mutually dependent. In such a scenario, for example, one member may possess a level of intelligence similar to our own – but may be equipped with only tiny, T-Rex style appendages – while the other member may have highly adapted manipulators, sharp teeth, and strong legs. They could function in close symbiosis, one the brain and the other the brawn.

    Or we could encounter hive-mind aliens, where only the “queen” possesses our level of intelligence. With masses of drones at “her” disposal, she may not need any limbs at all (something like termites come to mind).

    I’m in full agreement with you, Dr. Shermer. Our evolutionary path could have in a wildly different direction as early as day one. And in any case, our imaginations are limited by our experiences here on Earth. Let’s do be humble.

  56. llewelly says:

    I have a dolphin remodeling my kitchen right now. Unfortunately, his work is restricted by his reach from my sink.

    You need to look into telekinetic dolphins – the next step in dolphin evolution. Those guys can lay tile and cut wood with the power of their minds alone! No lame spoon-bending for those first-rate cetacean brains. (But be careful. They think hiding your underwear is funny. )

  57. Yair says:

    I think it is very likely intelligent technological species would be surprisingly similar to us in many ways, although it is less certain they’d be bipedal.

    As noted above, technology all but requires hands. While it is possible to manipulate the environment with other means, this is inefficient and so having hands – appendages specialized towards manipulating things with both force and precision – are most likely. Likewise, it seems bilateral symmetry is a repeating emergent feature, likely due to the way evolution works (it’s just easier to construct symmetric things, and a basic symmetric structure has advantages). Having more than two manipulating arms is inefficient, and therefore somewhat unlikely – although, again, this is not universal. One is therefore left with two arms, each very capable of fine as well as powerful manipulation – so a hand-like design is likely, but so are other designs, such as an Octopus’ arm or so on.

    Given a tetrapod origin, this implies bipedalism. However, it isn’t at all clear to me that a tetrapod origin is particularly likely. There are plenty of animals on earth that do not follow this form, and I see no reason for it to be the one leading to intelligence. There is some energy efficiency to the tetrapod plan over more numerous legs (or no legs, for creatures with appendages), however. This advantage is only lessened in small creatures, that need multiple legs to travel over rough terrain, or in certain marine designs, such as shelled creatures or cephalopods, where the number of appendages is not very critical. One can therefore conclude that while bipedalism is not unlikely, it is is far from necessary as well – we have every reason to think a creature could have developed with four legs and two arms, or either appendages and no legs, or two wings two legs and two arms, or so on.

    Regarding all the other traits, I think ETs are also very likely to be like us. They’d be must big predators/herbivores (i.e. not photosynthetic or otherwise at the bottom of the food chain), like us, to support all that information processing. They would likewise breathe in oxygen or otherwise engage in high-energy metabolism, for the same reason. They would probably be able to see with two eyes in their sun’s effective (atmosphere-filetered) spectrum-peak if they are surface dwellers, or use echolocation or some other means of remote sensation if not. They would probably have two genders, as this greatly accelerates evolution. They would probably have little diamorphism, as maintaining a highly-sensitive brain operation under extreme diamorphism would be difficult. They would probably have a single mouth and anus, as this has developed repeatedly and for good bio-physical and bio-mechanical reasons. They would probably use symbionts in their food processing, again for good evolutionary reasons. They would probably have long childhoods, large heads, and care for their children for many years – for these are the costs of intelligence. Their women will have painful and/or dangerous childbirth and a strong maternal instinct, as a result. This also means they would have few children, and so both parents will love for and care for their children throughout their lives. The social game of these creatures would therefore be very similar to ours, and so they will develop very similar emotions and morals – from maternal love to honor. They are likely to have hearing and therefore likely to use sounds for language. And so on.

    All of these points are only *probable*, meaning that any given species will *not* show some of them. Some departures could be common and major – for example, it is very possible most intelligent species would lay eggs and so have many children, and will feel less attached to babies. Extreme departures from these models are unlikely, however – a species that doesn’t invest in teaching its children, for example, would not succeed in becoming an intelligent technological species, so that it is highly likely that even in the egg-laying scenario above once the children are of learning-age they would be cared for and loved.

  58. Renald Tougas says:

    Entertaining the probabilities, of life elsewhere,the ideal of not being alone,in a way.. comforting for some?….I don’t know….It would re-define Who and What we are…?in response to an encounter from out-there!….I don’t know.

  59. Sinisa says:

    If we are talking about alien life with intelligence SIMILAR TO OURS, they would also have general appearance SIMILAR TO OURS.

    Intelligence is not a luxury of nature, not something acquired out of the blue or regardless of the environment – just as is the case with our shape. And it is also in line with our position – or direction taken towards – that same environment. I would here note that one and the same surrounding is not functionally the same for different species. Giraffes live and prosper in a slightly different place then a snake, don’t you think? Their senses and skills are different, their bodies as well as their minds.

    Space exploring technological species sitting in traveling machines would surely have the intelligence similar to ours. Interventions on the environment of that scale and kind would require it all: ability to delay gratification, ability for complex internal representation of the environment, to use symbols and to manipulate the symbolic material on a symbolic level and anticipate the results etc. Emotional component is not detachable from this, as it provides the motive. There’s no striving for the stars without emotion.

    The concept of intelligence we are discussing here is mostly the invention of psychologists, and as one of the great ones has put it, it is ” whatever intelligence tests measure”. But what is in essence is adaptation. To what? To the environment. But why? Out of fear. And so on.

    With emotions and use of symbols, we have arts. Imagination. Speculation. Science. Skeptics.

    As advanced as ET’s may be, they at least would have to come from a milieu similar to ours. If they are to be “technological” and “intelligent” in our terms.

    Yair, I would just add a couple of details to your analysis, which I otherwise sign entirely. An egg laying species less attached to its many babies is not a likely scenario in my opinion, since successful adoption of the adult world requires ultimate affection as a medium providing the fuel for the learning mechanism. Ask a psychologist. And all that from the first day. Eggs are convenient if you want to hide hundreds of your offspring in the sand and go, but it is (again) not the luxury of nature or coincidence that we (and other “smarter” inhabitants of the planet) do not produce many children. They have to be cared for and loved from the first day, since internalization of such a huge load of formative culture and knowledge can not happen without strong affection, dedication, in school or any other one-on-many situation. And so on. Our children go to school AFTER basic socialization. And even then, the children have the urge to LOVE the teacher, for that is the prerequisite for quality learning.

    For the flying/swimming debate, I would add to the already made points (fire, brain size etc) the factor of basic dynamics of the environment. More inert, less changing surrounding requires less technology. Why create a wheel, roof, air supply, heating…?

    And so on.

  60. NightHiker says:

    “I would like to see sufficient data, and not the type generated by modeling speculations.”

    Don’t we all? We agree we don’t have sufficient data to predict precisely what would happen in any given evolutionary scenario. But aren’t you demanding unreasonable standards? Many scientific endeavors have to deal with incomplete data. Take climate studies, for example. We don’t know for sure exactly how the weather will behave at any given moment, but we do have enough data to predict its general tendencies with good enough precision to make such predictions useful in all sorts of situations. Stopping antropogenic global warming has been turned into pretty much a consensus in the scientific community, all based on incomplete data. Are they being “close to fallacious”? And what is the alternative? To not speculate at all? It looks like you’re proposing some sort of weak scientific agnosticism. While technically that might indeed be the most “legitimate” stand, it is also the most useless, as “not thinking” certainly means no advancement of our understanding at all. Science is always provisional, so even though we might find out later on that we were completely wrong, speculating about how life might evolve in different scenarios helps us appreciate the patterns and relationships inside the data we do have, while searching for more.

    “When I invoked mathematical probabilities, the bent wasn’t at modeling, but the numerical bias that can be applied.”

    Again, I don’t see how legitimate that is. If we can’t assert anything about the likelihood of bipedal intelligence, like you say, then how can we establish that there is such numerical bias to begin with? How is your argument different from the creationist’s argument that evolution cannot happen because the odds of an eye being formed by random chance are close to zero (I know that has nothing to do with evolution, but you go tell them that)? After all, like you said:

    “Everything has set limitations, including evolution. The fundamental laws of the Universe do not bend to genetics.”

    And all we have been doing is trying to write those fundamental laws down. With this assertion you made a strawman of our position – no one here is saying evolution supercedes physical laws. We are actually doing the opposite: trying to specify how the fact that evolution has to obey such laws may delimit the universe of possibilities of how intelligence is likely to evolve or not. We have zero examples of highly intelligent non-bipedal animals, and one example of a highly intelligent bipedal animal. I don’t see how that would imply that the first scenario is therefore necessarily more likely than the second. If you are going to discard any speculative scenarios, then the only hard data you have is that intelligence was linked to bipedalism at least once.

    “With regards to like intelligence development, it simply isn’t required, and our level is purely happenstance.”

    Again, how is that not speculation? You are allowed to speculate on one direction, while we should not speculate on the opposite one?

    “That so many species in the myriad have endured for so many millenia without it, refutes it as being a necessity.”

    The fact intelligence is not “required” doesn’t mean anything – evolution is not about what is required, but about what is more viable. The only species that reached such level of intelligence dominated the whole biosphere, so we can confidently say that intelligence is a highly beneficial trait.

    “Further, as previously pointed out, all of the preceding hominids failed to evolve to our level with nothing but time on their side.”

    We are the result of the evolution of “all preceding hominids”, so one can argue that they didn’t fail to evolve intelligence at all. You speak as if all the previous hominids had the same conditions we had, while all the way from australopecine to the modern man the brain kept growing, and arguably the biggest jump in brain size was when we learned to cook our foods and therefore had more energy available to us. Shermer speaks of Neanderthals. However, their demise was likely at the hands of cro-magnon, so how can we know, if given enough time, they would not evolve higher intelligence as well? We are speaking at potentially billions of extra years of evolutionary time available. That such level of inteligence evolved so fast (a few millions years, and just a few hundred thousand for the last step), compared to how many other much simpler traits took to develop, is a good argument in favor of it being highly beneficial.

    “Again, our physical state, anthropocentrically viewed as a measure of evolutionary greatness, is riddled with inefficiencies. Which is yet another argument against it being a recurring model.”

    And how our ineficiencies can be an argument against such scenario, when inefficiency is predominat in all of nature? Evolution is inefficient only in hindsight, exactly because it doesn’t involve planning. What about the inefficiences of all the other body setups? Again, as inneficient as we are, we still managed to dominate every other species on the planet.

    “Further, in order for a species to reach a technological state of being able to move across light years, virtually defying everything we understand about astrophysics, means yet another evolutionary leap.”

    Virtually defying the incomplete data we have regarding astrophysics, you mean? You accept incomplete data that corroborates your take on the subject while dismissing incomplete data that corroborate ours, which implies bias. That you use astrophysics data it means you recognize that there are varied degrees of reliability in such incompletude. If you say that incomplete data is useless, then all the data we have is useless. But it’s not a case of either black or white. We have to draw a line somewhere and use incomplete data. And while some data is certainly not as good as a lot of data, it is hardly useless.

  61. Mastriani says:

    NightHiker,

    Your first paragraph is complete ad hominem, so I’m going to just ignore it.

    If we can’t assert anything about the likelihood of bipedal intelligence, like you say, then how can we establish that there is such numerical bias to begin with? How is your argument different from the creationist’s argument that evolution cannot happen because the odds of an eye being formed by random chance are close to zero (I know that has nothing to do with evolution, but you go tell them that)?

    Again, bordering on ad hominem, more at absurdum. I didn’t say there was no room for speculation, nor did I state we can’t “assert anything” about bipedalism and/or intelligence. Your angle on the creationist eye argument is definitively absurd, and not in the pleasant manner of Camus. There are mountains of evidence showing the development of the eye from a simple light/no light sensor, to our current functioning form. Therefore, the probabilities factor is negated.

    With this assertion you made a strawman of our position – no one here is saying evolution supercedes physical laws. We are actually doing the opposite: trying to specify how the fact that evolution has to obey such laws may delimit the universe of possibilities of how intelligence is likely to evolve or not.

    Two points here. First, you apparently aren’t aware of how informal fallacy, “strawman”, is used, and the position used by me doesn’t qualify.

    Secondly, you have created a self-negating statement. In a case where preset conditions exist at the most prominent level, subconditions cannot override those preset conditions. Yet, even though you agree that genetics/evolution must work under known laws, you still say genetics/evolution can “delimit” the Universal possibilities … ? I’ll be polite; that is an utter fallacy of the first order.

    The fact intelligence is not “required” doesn’t mean anything – evolution is not about what is required, but about what is more viable.

    Ahem. All that was stated was that intelligence of the homo sapien level is not required, I never stated at any point it wasn’t a “useful trait”.

    You apparently didn’t read what I stated. Evolution isn’t even about what is viable. It is simply a process of response to pressure at the biochemical level under the governance of the laws in play in a particular closed system. We have zero knowledge of any like system, and up to the time of this post, not even another shred of evidence of the process of evolution except on this planet. Speculating where there is no evidence, is an error.

    You speak as if all the previous hominids had the same conditions we had, while all the way from australopecine to the modern man the brain kept growing, and arguably the biggest jump in brain size was when we learned to cook our foods and therefore had more energy available to us.

    Neanderthal’s brain was larger than ours, and much less efficient in processing information. Before you attempt to argue that point, Neanderthal is extinct, which is evidence enough.

    However, their demise was likely at the hands of cro-magnon, so how can we know, if given enough time, they would not evolve higher intelligence as well?

    Simple. Individuals whose job it is to study, collect data, and disseminate information with regards to this topic have shown that there was literally zero movement indicating further evolution of intelligence with any of these species. My apologies if this isn’t acceptable, but I defer to their authority on the matter.

    a good argument in favor of it being highly beneficial.

    Again, with the misrepresentation. It was never stated by me that it wasn’t “beneficial”. Are you unawares of the difference between “required” and “beneficial” definitionally? There is no known condition to my knowledge, nor any evidence that I have seen that proves, even remotely, that our intelligence is an evolutionary exigency. In standard skeptics style, I say show me.

    What about the inefficiences of all the other body setups?

    Extinction has corrected them, and what species in this system is not awaiting that end?

    Virtually defying the incomplete data we have regarding astrophysics, you mean? You accept incomplete data that corroborates your take on the subject while dismissing incomplete data that corroborate ours, which implies bias. That you use astrophysics data it means you recognize that there are varied degrees of reliability in such incompletude. If you say that incomplete data is useless, then all the data we have is useless. But it’s not a case of either black or white. We have to draw a line somewhere and use incomplete data. And while some data is certainly not as good as a lot of data, it is hardly useless.

    An entire paragraph of unsubstantiated ad hominem. My statement, had you expended the energy to read it correctly, states clearly that we have achieved a certain level of knowledge regarding astrophysics. At no point was a statement made by me saying “useless” or anything remotely similar. In the general sense, it was supporting what level of knowledge we have attained, which shows a probabilistic bias against “ET” having the ability to move across the Universe.

    On a last note, incomplete data is still incomplete. Obviously, there are degrees involved. In those areas where the degrees are greater, speculation moves to induction, and again, is therefore an error.

  62. undrgrndgirl says:

    why are these two “non-believers” debating this anyway? shermer is out-right hostile to those who have seen ufos…and worse to those who claim to have been abducted…

  63. John Draeger says:

    I skimmed the previous comments and didn’t notice anyone pointing out the liklihood that first contact would not likely be with aliens themselves, but rather with robots sent by the aliens. Since star systems and galaxies are so far apart, it’s more likely that we’d see a nuclear-powered robot.

    The robot would not likely resemble the aliens since the aliens would have evolved to live in the physical conditions of their environment just like humans have on earth. Consider what our robots sent to Mars look like. But such aliens would probably include with the robot some sort of info on what they look like, where they exist in the universe, and the physical characteristics of their world/worlds.

  64. Though not specifically robots, I had always wondered if our first awareness of ET intelligence comes from finding not ET, but artifact, the alien screwdriver lying in the soil on Mars, the mmon, wherever. How frustrating would that be to have spent these millenia wondering if we are alone in the universe, then to find alien artifacts, and still spend further millenia without actual contact.

  65. NightHiker says:

    Mastriani,

    How’s this for politeness: You are nothing but a bully. Your interpretation and abstraction skills are non-existent, your real knowledge (not the way you bluff, though) is lackluster, and last, but not least, all you seem good for is to disguise fallacies as legitimate arguments, while blatantly downplaying, misrepresenting or outright dismissing other people’s arguments.

    Now someone could call this an unrefined ad hominem, but only if it was not completely substantiated by the argumentation that follows and make it relevant. Read on!

    “Your first paragraph is complete ad hominem, so I’m going to just ignore it.”

    Oh, is it? You said: “Any attempt to assert certainty with regards to evolution on another planetary body, is induction, and therefore an error.”

    You categoricaly and absolutely stated that “induction is an error”, without any further clarification. In my answer I politely asked if you were not demanding standards that were impossible to meet, and cited examples where the practicing of science could only be done by induction. Actually, if you understand that all of science is based just on our acumulated experience, and that nothing in science is absolutely certain (a prerequisite of deductive reasoning, which is really only good for mathematics and formal logic), then you have to accept that all of science is ultimately induction (and we still use today mostly what John Stuart Mill called his “eliminative methods of induction”). However, I made the effort to not take your assertion as literally and give you the benefit of doubt, only to have that resulting in my arguments being dismissed as “ad hominem”. Well, I understand how someone who got caught in public without his pants might wish it were so, but wishful thinking has no place in rational debates.

    Regarding my comment about “mathematical improbability”, you said:“Again, bordering on ad hominem, more at absurdum.”

    One more time you call “ad hominem” a perfectly valid argument. Besides the above statement, you also wrote:

    “We do not have accurate data for determining the atmospheric conditions during the greatest majority of the Earth’s development. It is entirely speculative models.”

    Now, if you know anything at all about probabilities, you will know that we can’t calculate the actual probability of any scenario unless we have all the relevant data involved. If we miss any of the variables and relationships betwen them, there is no way we can assert what its probability is. It will be “undefined”. So, if you say we do not have data regarding the conditions that might generate bipedal intelligent beings to even guess about the likelihood of such scenario, then you cannot say it happening is a mathematical improbability either. It could be incredibly rare as well as incredibly common – we can’t really know. Unless someone guesses, therefore resorting to induction (which is all you are really doing, while recriminating others for doing exactly the same, only because they got to results you don’t like), there is no way to make any sort of statement about it. You saying you were not talking about models but just about “numerical bias” is simply an empty sidestep with no real meaning.

    You again: “First, you apparently aren’t aware of how informal fallacy, “strawman”, is used, and the position used by me doesn’t qualify.”

    Here you were regarding my argument about this frase of yours:“Everything has set limitations, including evolution. The fundamental laws of the Universe do not bend to genetics.”

    This could only be one of two things. Since the debate was not about genetics bending the laws of physics and there was no one actually defending that idea, such assertion could be either a non-sequitur (irrelevant), or, if you implied that was the position you were trying to refute, a strawman (yes, a strawman, because then it would be a misreprentation of an argument that you then proceeded to disqualify, while never touching the real one).

    Then you commited this pearl of interpretation:

    “Yet, even though you agree that genetics/evolution must work under known laws, you still say genetics/evolution can “delimit” the Universal possibilities … ?”

    How one can get from “We are actually doing the opposite: trying to specify how the fact that evolution has to obey such laws may delimit the universe of possibilities of how intelligence is likely to evolve or not.” to what you wrote is beyond me. In other words, the laws of physics delimit the universe of possibilities that may emerge from evolution. It looks like you mistook the word “universe” in “universe of possibilities” for “universe” as in the universe we stand in and its laws. It irks me that you later on urge me to read you more carefully after commiting such a crass mistake yourself.

    More inanity follows: “Ahem. All that was stated was that intelligence of the homo sapien level is not required, I never stated at any point it wasn’t a “useful trait”.”

    Again, I had two options. Since we were not arguing about the likelihood of intelligence appearing, but only how intelligent spacefaring beings might look like ONCE they evolve, one more time you offered us a non sequitur. However, since I am all for trying to develop valid investigative roads from intellectual dead alleys, I took the chance to develop my arguments further, arguing that since intelligence is clearly a very beneficial trait, we can say that whenever the opportunity arises, it would be likely to follow (as far as the rate of beneficial mutations and other genetic mechanisms would allow). It was also irrelevant to the main discussion, but an interesting side track. So, you not only failed to make a valid argument yourself, but also failed to understand mine.

    You finished such fumbling of sinapses with: “Speculating where there is no evidence, is an error.” – I would agree with you, if only we had really no evidence at all. As many already stated, we do have a body of evidence to stand on: our knowledge about the laws of physics, of chemistry, of genetics and of natural selection and evolution. It’s not certain or absolute data, but it’s pretty good, if you assume the truth of the uniformity of the universe and its laws, without which there would be no point in our current scientific methods anyway.

    But that’s not all, you were on a roll: “Neanderthal’s brain was larger than ours, and much less efficient in processing information. Before you attempt to argue that point, Neanderthal is extinct, which is evidence enough.”

    One more time, when it’s convenient to you, you are quick to accept incomplete data to formulate your conclusions. The appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens ended any possibility for the Neanderthals to make the same jump, as they were competing in the same niche, and the less fit Neanderthals either got absorbed through crossbreeding or died out. The same argument goes for any of the remaining potential candidates. We cannot rule out the possibility that had the modern human not appeared, eventually in the remaining billions of years of evolution any one of those candidates would not make such jump. Adding to such vast time the high selective fitness of intelligence, and one would have a hard time to rule such scenario out.

    You continue: “Individuals whose job it is to study, collect data, and disseminate information with regards to this topic have shown that there was literally zero movement indicating further evolution of intelligence with any of these species.”

    Do you mean to imply that Homo sapiens sapiens appeared out of some spacetime anomaly? Because the current accepted knowledge is that homo sapiens developed from other hominids, so one can say they did evolve increased intelligence, only that in the process they also happened to become new species, which, by the way, is only our arbitrary way of classifying living beings.

    More from you: “There is no known condition to my knowledge, nor any evidence that I have seen that proves, even remotely, that our intelligence is an evolutionary exigency. In standard skeptics style, I say show me.”

    That is another strawman – again, we were not stating that our intelligence is an evolutionary exigency, therefore you are asking us to show data to prove someone else’s point, and not ours, what is preposterous. What we did, however, despite the fact you keep chosing to ignore it, is to reason about how the laws of physics, genetics and evolution might lead to bipedal intelligence IF and WHEN it appears, and in more likelihood than that of other known or imagined body configurations (our real argument).

    And then, the piece of resistance:

    “An entire paragraph of unsubstantiated ad hominem. My statement, had you expended the energy to read it correctly, states clearly that we have achieved a certain level of knowledge regarding astrophysics. At no point was a statement made by me saying “useless” or anything remotely similar”

    You were the one who didn’t really expended much energy, it seems. This was just another attempt to show you that even the science you were relying on as solid (astrophysics) was built upon the fundations of inductive reasoning, and therefore, if you accepted and used it, you could not condemn induction as you were doing and mantain a logically consistent argument. Not to mention, again, that the point about spacefaring demanding another evolutionary jump just adds to your list of non sequiturs, since, again, the likelihood of intelligent species developing space travel was not the point of discussion, but (pay attention) how they might look like if they evolve, when they evolve.

    To end this very long comment (I apologize to others, but Mastriani’s offensive and unsubstantiatedly condescending behavior was too much), two points remain:

    First, this is the last time I dedicated any time answer to something coming from you, unless it’s actually a reasonable point.

    And last, to mention all the time how you are being “polite”, as if I gave you reason not to be, is not polite at all – it’s actually very rude. So let me suggest that you shove your “politeness” up your evolutionary alley.

    Cheers,
    NH

  66. Sympneology says:

    I have always understood that a fundamental assumption of evolutionary theory was common descent. IOW every form of life on this planet contains DNA and RNA in common and has since the first bits of RNA learned the art of reproduction.

    Given that, it follows that any ET lifeform, if it is also built of DNA/RNA molecules, shares that common descent. It also follows that if the logic of evolutionary descent from the first double helix on earth dictated a chordate structure -> tetrapod -> bipedalism -> intelligence, then that same logic would eventually produce the same result on any other earth-like planet.

    Of course, it may be that the ETs were not humanoid at all, but really androids, i.e. artificially intelligent robots capable of enduring long periods travelling through space without deterioration and able to withstand extreme acceleration and deceleration while maintaining their ability to carry out observations and experiments and record their results for perusal by the descendants of those who sent them here upon their return.

    Sheer speculation, of course!

    Cheers,

    Symp

  67. NightHiker says:

    Symp (and others that speculated about the robots angle),

    That if and when we finaly meet another advanced intelligence it will be in the shape of their robotical servants is a very interesting and likely suggestion.

    After all, we ourselves are following that path. But I would go one step beyond: there might be no need to differentiate such intelligent aliens from their robotical creations.

    We are on the verge of seeing an explosion of cybernetic augmentations, and already are seeing very interesting applications of it at least in the prosthectics field. With ongoing advancements in nanotechnology and bioengineering, the pressure to continue to replace our biological systems, with all their inneficiencies, with better designed, artificial components, might be overwhelming, specially regarding life extension.

    There are already some pretty interesting research being conducted on that regard, like one from Robert A. Freitas: he is designing artificial blood cells (which right now I believe are in the beginning of the prototype phase) that if and when get out of the paper will likely completely revolutionize many human endeavors. Imagine having blood cells that can store oxygen enough to allow you to remain long periods of time in oxygen deprived environments while releasing their payloads at the necessary rate.

    There is no need to stop there. Artificial, mechanical systems have many advantages over biological ones. It’s not farfetched to imagine a future a few hundred years ahead where what passes then for “human being” bears little resemblance to its current equivalent, if the concept even remains relevant. I would also argue that the technological dificulties of practical space travel might easily surpass those of artificial body improvements, to the extent that would make it very likely that whenever a civilization develops the first it will be already very deep into the second.

    That’s why it’s hard to speculate in linear fashion about the subject. We need to take into consideration every possible angle, while remaining as faithfull as possible to what we already know.

    Cheers,
    NH

  68. Alas, it’s all rendered obsolete by remote viewing, in which we can be certain the aliens are quite facile.

  69. NightHiker says:

    “Alas, it’s all rendered obsolete by remote viewing, in which we can be certain the aliens are quite facile.”

    Only when they use collaborative computing from REMOTE@Home.

  70. Scott says:

    Considering that we’ve only seen life evolve on one planet, I don’t see how we can draw many conclusions about how intelligent life would evolve anywhere else. We don’t exactly have a broad sampling here. Not to mention, the only intelligent life that we’ve ever witnessed evolving to the point of space flight is of the bipedal humanoid variety.

    Simply put, we would need to actually see life evolve in other places to actually draw a conclusion either way. Anything less is pure speculation.

  71. George Stearns says:

    Comment to 37, one possibly very important requirement to life as we know it is the requirement for a moon which has a mass which is great enough to cause tides which stir the chemicals on which our life forms depend.
    Another more general comment, the requirement we make that lifeforms be based on carbon, it is conceivable that a life form could be based on silicon in a hotter environment. If it were, we might not even recognize it since it’s life might run on a much different time scale. Just food for thought.

  72. NightHiker says:

    George,

    “Another more general comment, the requirement we make that lifeforms be based on carbon, it is conceivable that a life form could be based on silicon in a hotter environment.”

    While silicon is an interesting candidate, I see some problems.

    Silicon is not nearly as versatile in combining with other atoms as carbon is. It looks like it could not, even in hotter temperatures, form as complex and varied components, like the long chains and circular structures that carbon forms and that can serve many roles.

    Another issue, likely even more dooming for silicon-based life, is that unlike carbon, which combines with oxygen to form a gas, silicon combines with oxygen to form a solid, what would make it somewhat prohibitive as far as any sort of working methabolism goes.

    Not to mention that carbon is much more abundant, and would make silicon at most the runner up in the evolutionary race, and even a small difference would be enough for any potential silicon based life to be erased by carbon based ones.

    Of course, this doesn’t make it impossible, only unlikely – maybe, as you said, in very hot environments where carbon has no chance that also happen to be devoid of oxygen, and supposing there is an alternative catalyst, silicon based life could emerge. I would not count on it being too complex or intelligent, though.

  73. NightHiker says:

    George,

    I decided to google the subject and found an interesting article on Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_biochemistry

    Cheers,
    NH

  74. Sympneology says:

    Scott wrote:
    Simply put, we would need to actually see life evolve in other places to actually draw a conclusion either way. Anything less is pure speculation.

    It may be happening. From Bob Park’s What’s New:

    2. FARTS ON MARS: TIME TO PUT THE RED PLANET OFF LIMITS.
    Plumes of methane have been observed in the atmosphere of Mars. Since methane is destroyed by sunlight, there must be a renewable source. Could it be living organisms? Methane seems to be a pheromone to Mars Trekkies, who immediately called for a human mission to check it out.
    Very bad idea; astronauts are huge bacteria cultures that must dump their contents daily for the 18 months the mission must remain on Mars. Humans on Mars are certain to discover bacteria but they may look familiar.
    Astronauts resist being autoclaved, but methane plumes certainly justify a sample return mission. Remember the 1976 Viking lander that scooped up Martian soil, plopped it into a nutrient broth, and monitored the evolved gas for evidence of life? And behold! There it was. However, NASA later backed down saying it was most likely an inorganic reaction.

  75. Damian says:

    I’m fairly certain that aliens exist and are among us in the form of quadrupedal, milk-drinking, pat-demanding, unblinking felines.

  76. Uwe Paschen says:

    The Image of aliens we make is merely a projection of our self’s.

  77. The Image of aliens we make are dictated by movie producers seeking to keep FX and make-up costs down, hence humanoid variants, lol.

  78. Mastriani says:

    “The Image of aliens we make are dictated by movie producers seeking to keep FX and make-up costs down, hence humanoid variants, lol.”

    Although a bit tongue in cheek, this isn’t off the facts. There were two studies, (I’ll have to see if I can find them again), that showed the “evolution” of proposed aliens ~ with the current socially accepted model being that of the “Grey’s”.

    Hollywood has more to do with humanoid alien shapes than evolution, under current known evidence.

  79. First we need to realise that we only have a sample size of one (or at most two, admittedly very closely related) species of intelligent primate, so comparative studies are, for the time being, out of the question. It could be that there is a strong correlation between intelligence and bipedality, but then again, it could be that this correlation will only prevail on worlds with conditions roughly similar to those on ours. We can at least surmise – though very imperfectly, given the tiny sample size – that on this planet, bidepality was the configuration most likely to be associated with intelligence. There could be other configurations that evolution might have actualised, but we just don’t know. As a subset of this, it’s possible that there are avenues open to artificial selection that would not be readily open to evolution in the wild.

    Life on Earth is life as we know it. Life on other worlds could be radically different – for example, using different sorts of energy pathways, a different element for respiration, etc. And the sorts of planets upon which this life resides may also be radically different, with a whole bunch of abiotic factors that must be taken into account (like the strength of gravity, the planet’s proximity to any satellites and other planets, the pressure in the atmosphere, the temperature, etc). If this is so, then all these factors – to do with the organisms themselves and the environments in which they live – could impose important constraints on the sorts of design solutions open to evolution. If, nevertheless, intelligent life is possible on worlds that are very dissimilar to ours (and that’s a big “if”), then the form that intelligent beings are likely to take will probably be vastly different to us, simply because the sorts of challenges posed by these factors may favour very different solutions, and to the extent that intelligence is favoured, it will likely be arrived at through a very dissimilar route to what took place on Earth. However, if planetary conditions and biological constitutions are more like those on Earth, then it is not at all unlikely – and is perhaps even inevitable – that that these beings will resemble us in many key respects (though I would be very surprised if they had, for example, five fingers on each hand and shared most of our mammalian characteristics. In broad outline, though, they would likely resemble us, and I imagine that they would be equipped with at least, say, the capacity for speech and some sort of symbolic representational system like language. They would also have sub-optimalities associated with being bipedal, some surely reminiscent to ours).

    As another complication, we need to take into account the pathways that might have been actualised if evolution on this planet could be rewound and started up again, how likely they are to prevail on planets with similar conditions to those on ours, and how likely they are to yield intelligent life if they are actualised (perhaps we could run a simulation some day of a million births of life). If Stephen Gould was right, then there is nothing particularly inevitable about the sorts of life that have as a matter of fact evolved. So on each planet, we need to have an idea of the tree of possibilities that is open from the inception of life on that planet.

  80. Ricardo Silva Lara says:

    the difference betwen believes and knowledge, is: you can believe in all things you can think, but only a few things that you think become knowledge. We have only one case in the universe, we can not talk about probabilities!!! It is a nonsense issue.

  81. David Taylor says:

    Well, you certainly provoked a lot of commentary. My own take is that too many things are being mixed up here to have a clear answer. Why would we even think that “bipedal mammal” is a meaningful yes/no category, much less something that we (especially you, Michael) can declare with *any* confidence to be likely or unlikely.

    The most I would hazard is that [1] bilateral symmetry would probably be fairly common because it’s an efficient, effective attribute for a body plan, and [2] anything with at least four limbs would probably have two of them freed up from locomotion in order to grasp and carry stuff.

    Beyond that, there are simply too many implicit assumptions about speciation & physiology to be an interesting question.

  82. chickenfish says:

    As a flight of fancy I would surmise that extraterrestrials, should they exist, would have very little in common with humans. My support for this is the inefficiency and fragility of the human design and the limitations brought on by the ego and the id.

  83. Trevor says:

    I would have to think the universe creates all things in a somewhat uniform fashion. Look at the planets, the moons, the galaxies. There is not much variation in appearance, however the inner workings obviously offer a higher contrast in makeup.

    I personally believe an advanced civilization could have seeded life throughout the galaxy, maybe even the universe by a means not yet known to us. They have may piggybacked on an asteroid, directing the object as they pleased – crashing into planets throughout the universe with knowledge of how to start the process of life. However, they may not have been in control of how that life evolved. They would have given the seeds a program of adaptation with the main goal of SURVIVAL.

    Any highly advanced civilization will bypass the need for any one body. They would be able to switch bodies like we switch clothes. That is difficult to grasp, but we are already working on mapping the brain and pulling the data. If a person’s every thought, every memory were pulled and placed into a computer ‘database’ of sorts with a fully functional program to manipulate those thoughts and memories, they would become immortal. A living consciousness without the need for a body. How would they manipulate their environment? They would control their robots or biological creations with their technology, thus eliminating any danger to them.

    I kind of think of it as an unlimited redundancy against death. Type III civ is immortal, right?

  84. I will be visiting South Africa for the first time and while I am defintiely a little nervous I do intend to go cage diving and hopefully see one of these great creatures up close and personal!

  85. Cedric says:

    I often think to myself that the true thanks for everything we have become goes not to power of our minds, but to the structure of our hands. Of course our minds had a lot to do with it, don’t get me wrong. Take the dolphin, for instance. It is an unusually intelligent creature, some speculate that their intelligence rivals or even surpasses our own. They apparently have advanced communicative skills among themselves, a social structure, and they also boast impressive sonar capabilities. All this makes them a likely candidate as a successor to mankind should we ever go extinct, in my honest opinion.

    Unfortunately the dolphin has one fatal flaw…it has no hands, or at least no way to manipulate the environment in any meaningful way. So for an alien species to become a civilisation, and eventually space-faring, I believe that hands, or at least some form of highly dexterous manipulator are an absolute must. As for being bi-pedal, I feel that although its not absolutely necessary, it would be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint to be bi-pedal, since it would free the hands to preform other tasks. As far as intelligence goes, its hard to say. There are many forms of intelligence, even here on earth. Human intelligence is basically measured by the average of all individual human beings. A single human being can be highly intelligent, while another can be incredibly inept. Other species such as ants are intelligent in a different way. An individual ant is surprisingly incapable. But when you have a hive of ants, they can accomplish some amazing feats. This isn’t because ants are telepathic, or can magically become smarter the more of them there are. Its because each ant plays an individual role within the hive, and the hive follows strict protocols which are sometimes dictated on demand by sensory organs. So while human intelligence can be measured individually, the ant’s intelligence can only be fully realised when viewed as a whole.

    Taking all of this into account, I think that if we were to ever encounter extraterrestrials, they would likely (and I stress LIKELY, and not ABSOLUTELY) be bipedal, with hands or some other structure that serves the same purpose, and may or may not be particularly intelligent (at least not individually).

    In any case, if I ever do see one of these extraterrestrials, I will rush back to this post to tell you exactly what it looked like, and surely enough, I will promptly be labelled a loon.

  86. Luke Derek says:

    The guesses here are based off the theory of evolution. If we truelly want to explore the possibilties we must look at other theories of how life came to be.

  87. Fred Dennis says:

    2/2011
    An “Update” for the “Uninformed”…which, by the way, inculdes the vast majority of the “scientific community”.

    There are 4 fundimental reasons why the “powers that be” take the position they do:

    1. They are deathly afraid of a national panic.

    2. They cannot admit that they have been lying to the public for over 60 years.

    3. They cannot admit that compartmental elements of both the military and intelligence communities have and are cooperating with Aliens.

    4. They cannot admit that human body parts have been found stored aboard downed alien space craft and that humans are abducted and kept alive in special storage vats underground for “scientific use” .

    Note: All of the above is true for all nations to greater or lesser degrees.

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  89. JaiGuru says:

    The real question we have to be asking here is if sexual reproduction and live birth scenarios are common in other advanced life forms.

    One of the primary reasons we are bipedal is because of our heads. We are born with GIGANTIC bulbous heads by comparison to other animals. They make up a full third of our bodily proportions when we are born. This is EXTREMELY tough on the mother during birth. With wide, upright hips, this birth becomes possible.

    SO! The list of things we need answered to ascertain the likelihood of other bipedal lifeforms: Do they reproduce sexually? Do they give birth through the same ports they copulate with? Are rigid skeletal systems common? Does advanced intelligence REQUIRE highly developed brains at birth (and thus large heads) as ours are? Are live births somehow linked to high intelligence or can intellectually evolved animals be born from eggs….other unthought of methodologies?