Monday, October 26, 2009

Will E.T. Look Like Us?

First watch the video. I'll wait.

My reaction? FACE PALM. This is a horrible argument! He says that because we are so rare, that it would be statistically impossible for intelligent life to form on another planet that is also a bipedal primate.

So after the evolution of hundreds of millions of species on earth, only one of them turned into a bipedal primate. And in the blink of an eye (in evolution time) that species became intelligent. Hmmmm. Could the two be related? For all we know bipedalism is a prerequisite of intelligence!

Look at it the other way. One could argue that bipedal primates are rare because we are the only ones, but we are just the first ones. Isn't it also clear that the first became intelligent, and we haven't been around long enough to see any more show up? The first of anything is rare by definition!

Here's a thought experiment. What prerequisites could there be for intelligent space faring life that we could communicate with. Let's assume a planet like ours with similar foundations of life (carbon based, etc).

1. It will NOT be underwater. Why? Because they can't use fire. Without fire there isn't anywhere to go. Feel free to speculate why I could be wrong here, but I just don't see it happening.

2. Next we need a species that can manipulate objects with great versatility. Candidates include primates, some birds, and elephants (dolphins and octopi don't count: see #1). Birds use their beak and legs, and elephants use their trunk. Two arms with many digits each makes more sense economically. Am I biased? Of course, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Evolutionary Biologist Ernst Mayr said: “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of the origin of high intelligence better than the millions of phyletic lineages that failed to achieve it.”

But this is looking at it all wrong. Intelligence isn't a goal of evolution. There is no goal! You can't fail without a goal. Intelligence is just an arbitrary feature of a single species. You could pick any species out there and find something unique to it that has never evolved in any other species and say the exact same thing (and it would be equally meaningless).

Anyway, my money is on E.T. to be a biped a lot like us. It won't necessarily be a primate, though. It could be amphibious, or nocturnal, or have a pouch like a kangaroo, or a number of other details, but I think the chances are a lot higher than this guy says that it will be bipedal with two arms. And to be sure, I'm not saying it couldn't be something else. In fact I think it's fun to ponder the other possibilities.


Andrew said...

I would just like to say that I'm glad you found a great link between your huge fascination with evolutionary biology and this blog. I agree with your theories about what intelligent life could be like. Bipedal and all.

Mark said...

Agreed, Mike!