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.
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.