2015 April

On the Implausibility of Human-looking Aliens

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First, I want to issue a disclaimer: I love science. I think it is a wonderful, life-affirming, magnificent process that we humans have developed.  But it often gets spoiled by people being people, turning science into a religion of sorts, and gets interpreted as the Truth before all the facts are in.  I may say some things in this post that sound like I’m down on science, but really, this is about what people do with it, not the science itself.

With that said, onward.

Serious Science, with a capital S, tends to poo-poo the idea of aliens visiting us.  Many reasons are given, such as “space is simply too vast for civilizations to travel here”, or “We are just not very interesting”, or “Aliens would destroy themselves before they got advanced enough to visit us.”

This always struck me as peculiar.  Why would scientists who agree, without blinking, that alien life almost certainly exists, insist that under no circumstances has it ever come here. Not only that, but the idea is so absurd to them that they will refuse to even humor the argument.  I’m all for healthy skepticism, but automatic dismissal seems an ironically unscientific response to the idea of alien contact.

The Contactees of the ’50s and ’60s didn’t make things easy for themselves.  Faced with the unbelievers, they doubled down by saying the aliens were coming from our own solar system, they looked just like us, and they found us very interesting indeed.  In the basic Contactee tale, a person meets with beings from another planet that are not only humanoid, but human.  They might have slightly slanted eyes, or be unnaturally tall, but are otherwise indistinguishable from we Earthlings.  Consider the film The Day the Earth Stood Still–Klaatu was a regular man to all appearances, and was in many ways something of a Space Brother.

A little ahead of his time in terms of fashion, however.

Even to UFOlogists of the era, this was just too ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to believe that aliens could be visiting us.  But that they could look like us?  That they could be kind and have our best interests at heart?  Preposterous.

This is a pattern that continues even today.  I often find articles or papers written by scientists that seem hell-bent on making up for the sins of geocentrism by making humanity as insignificant as possible.  Aliens must be alien, and must not be like us.

Some, like Susan Schneider, think they must be “postbiological,” which is to say, they’ve uploaded themselves into immortal machinery.

I do not believe that most advanced alien civilizations will be biological, Schneider says. The most sophisticated civilizations will be postbiological, forms of artificial intelligence or Alien superintelligence.

This assumes, of course, that intelligent aliens would have a similar manner of thinking that we do, in terms of mechanistic, technology-based intelligence.  What if they found spirituality more important than mechanics, and their “technology” was based in the mind, or in psychogenic drugs?

SETI proponents have stated that intelligent alien races would almost necessarily be vastly older than us, as we are a relatively young planet, and would therefore be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable to us.

More recently, cosmologist Fergus Simpson stated in a paper that aliens must be huge in comparison to us.  He speculated that the average size of an intelligent alien would be 650 pounds.  The article linked to above goes into the specifics, and while the conclusions are interesting, the article makes this point:

However, that work, just like Simpson’s paper, is all speculation. Fun and fascinating stuff, but still speculation. “It’s interesting, but there’s really no concrete data to work with,” he says. We only have our planet and its inhabitants to serve as a model for what life looks like. 

It is fun, but without any data is about as valid as the Jetsons.  Could these scientists be right?  Certainly they could.  But so could the Contactees or the experiencers, whose stories are a stark contrast to what these scientists say.

In the spirit of speculation, I offer some thoughts that came to me after a conversation with a microbiologist a couple years ago.  I asked him if, given identical conditions to Earth, could DNA like ours possibly evolve by chance?  Not only was it possible, he said, but “damned near inevitable.”  There are only so many ways amino acids can combine, and if you have the right conditions, they’ll probably do it in the way that leads to DNA.

So, extrapolating on that, assuming evolution proceeds by balancing energy expenditure and reproductive prowess, it stands to reason that only so many form factors would be ideal for an intelligent species.  One of the best shapes happens to be humanoid.

Sure, there’d be a few planets of Wookies and Grays, but there would also be beings indistinguishable from humans.

It’s a nice setup for a science fiction novel, and has about as much validity as any of the scientific papers I’ve mentioned above.  I don’t know how accurate the science I’m making up is, but it doesn’t matter, because aliens will be aliens and are therefore undefinable.

Speculating on what alien life is like can never progress further than fantasy, because there is literally zero data (at least data acceptable for scientific study) to speculate from.  Conversely, you can’t speculate what alien life isn’t like, either.

NASA scientists look for planets in the “Goldilocks zones” around stars, where water would be liquid and life as we know it could exist.  But even on our planet, we find creatures that shouldn’t exist–bacteria in nuclear reactors and chemosynthetic plankton in boiling water at the bottom of the ocean.  What could we say about a planet that orbits a blue giant?  Or a white dwarf?  Could there be lighter-than-air creatures living on a gas giant?   What if a creature was silicon-based, instead of carbon-based like we are?  What if it was arsenic-based?

Speculation is fun, but useless, and articles pronouncing that aliens would be huge, or microscopic, or evil, or squids, or so advanced we couldn’t understand them, are so filled with assumptions as to be nothing more than sensationalism.

That’s what appeals to me about the Contactees.  To them, space is a fairly ordinary affair.  Not only are some of the planets inhabited, they all are.  Not only are some aliens human-looking in their appearance, almost all of them are.  And the main reason for that is not that they are, in fact, our ancestors.  They put us here, either as a colony or a prison or a slave race, depending on whose story you listen to.

In their view, the aliens are literally space “brothers”, because they’re related to us.  And because of that relation, they were compelled to help our civilization navigate the troubled waters of nuclear self-destruction.

Are the stories of the Contactees scientific?  Absolutely not.  Are they fun?  Most definitely.