Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will aliens look like us?

Michael Shermer - science writer and founder of The Skeptics Society - has made a brief video in which he explains why it's quite unlikely that aliens would look essentially like humans with minor differences in eye shape or forehead topology.

He continues in an article in the November issue Scientific American in which he discusses the possibilities with Richard Dawkins, who isn't quite as skeptical as Shermer. Dawkins argues:
In the film vignette, you implied a quite staggering rarity, so rare that you don’t expect two humanoid life-forms in the entire universe. Now you are ... pointing out, correctly, that a certain inevitability would predict that humanoids should have evolved more than once on Earth! So, yes, we can say that humanoids are fairly improbable, but not necessarily all that improbable! Anything approaching “a certain inevitability” would mean millions or even billions of humanoid 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 suspect that humanoids are not so very rare as to justify the statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette.
The argument depends on how often life has actually arisen in the universe, and I hard to find it disagree with Dawkins when considering the potentially vast number of intelligent species that could have arisen in an infinite universe.

However, I think Dawkins slightly misses Shermer's point. The way that popular culture depicts aliens - from the many humanoid species in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes to the big-eyed Greys of UFO abduction stories - is almost certainly wrong. Even if the universe holds a million planets with intelligent humanoids, the chance that humans will encounter them is vanishingly small. If we do eventually find intelligent extraterrestrial life, it's likely that they won't be anything like us. And they almost certainly won't look like this:

Related: Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology on "Richard Dawkins and the crappy 'humanoid dinosaurs' that just won't die" (based on Dawkins' comments quoted in Shermer's column).

Read "Will E.T. look like us? at Scientific American

Or if you want something a bit lighter, check out "Star Trek's 6 Most Ridiculous Alien Races" at (although in an infinite universe perhaps there really is a planet inhabited solely with individuals who appear to match the "cartoonish Italian mobster stereotype" of early 20th-century Earth - anything's possible, right?).

Image: Cantina scene from the Star Wars Holiday Special


  1. It's not really fair to pick on Star Trek or Star Wars, etc. TV and movies require human actors to create believable characters. Star Trek has featured some non-humanoid aliens, but are you really going to build a weekly series around a Horta?

    It's sf novelists who should be mocked here: unconstrained by special effects budgets or technology, how many sf novels still give us more or less humanoid aliens?

  2. I agree with you Alurin, in that it's obviously a technical problem for movies and TV shows to have aliens that are too alien. Both ST and SW have spawned many tie-in novels which should indeed have provided more opportunity for non-humanoid aliens in those universes, and I don't think that happened.

    That said, there are a number novels that do have truly alien aliens. There is the problem, even in written fiction, that if you want to depict a personal relationship between a human and alien, it's much harder to make a sympathetic character that doesn't have at least some humanish traits.

    I think I'll save more of my mockery for the UFO believers, who do think we've had numerous visits from bipdal aliens and/or that we have been infiltrated by humanoid lizards wearing human masks (sort of like "V", only real). I suspect that they were Shermer's main target.

  3. great...
    awesome topic~
    thanks for sharing yea..^^

    and take care =]

  4. This is a nice topic! Aliens have been long described in the movies as those weird looking creatures but also look like humans. It has been stereotyped like that, that is why we believe that they look like us.

  5. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Michael Shermer makes a good point STATISTICALLY, but I think another way of looking at it is asking WHY our species should have this configuration. When coming up onto our hind legs from quadrapeds we lost a lot of structural stability (I've heard quadrapeds described structurally as walking bridges), but what did we gain? OUR HANDS! It freed up our upper limbs to be almost exclusively involved in fine manipulation-e.g.-even if a dog had the conceptual capability and memory, etc, to build, say, a motorcycle, she wouldn't be able to physically build it with the organs of manipulation she has available-her teeth and her front paws, which would be far too clumsy.
    So my point is, for an advanced tool user to develop, they'll need something that performs the same function as a human hand with an opposable thumb. Some of our closest primate relatives are not fully erect, but partly so, freeing up their upper limbs part of the time, and they seem to be some of the most adept tool users apart from us. Elephants use tools, but then they their trunks, Which are quite supple and dextrous. (Can you imagine elephants in our niche?)
    So yes, true bipedal species are rare on this planet, but quadrapeds are not. So if quadrapeds are a plausible concept on another planet, STATISTICALLY, then I don't think it's such an unreasonable conceptual jump to assume that evolution could hit on the same solution to produce advanced tool users.
    Also, I don't think we have been the only true bipeds on this planet. The other ones were competing with us for the niche that we now occupy, and they lost (in other words, they're dead).
    Thanx for such a thought provoking topic.

  6. That's a good point that Homo sapiens is really just the winner of the contest for survival - although the other bipeds would have been our very close relatives, biologically speaking. They weren't lizard people or even cat people.

    And while bepedalism has worked very nicely to free our hands up, I think there should be other biological solutions to the problem. The first is that perhaps quadrapedalism isn't that common either - 6 legs or 8 legs would allow both stability of movement and spare limbs for toolmaking. Another would be prehensile appendages like the elephant's trunk or a really long tongue.

    But consider the rudimentary tool-making ability of the crow, which is indeed bipedal, but doesn't have hands or any other special grasping appendages. There are probably lots of ways for toolmaking ability to arise that we haven't considered because we would find the method awkward or difficult.

  7. Anonymous7:16 AM

    Well here's my stance. NO-not all life will look like things on Earth, but consider the following.

    1. This is intelligent.
    2. Let us assume it is intelligent enough, and has built space ships.

    WHAT does this mean?

    3. They must have at some point been primitive, they must have started with simple stone tools, then bronze, and later iron, etc. If you have never made a sword or a farmtool as a species, or were incapable do doing so, you will not build a space craft. If a form envisioned cannot do simple smithing or metalwork then it is not a suitable form to build spacecraft. To do this you NEED Hands/Claws/Tentacle/etc. You nee two kinds of limbs.
    A) Manipulation limbs
    B) Walking or locomotive limbs

    How many they have of each, or what type they are is highly variable.

    4. They must have a "head" of some sort (not necessarily a human-like head, highly variable here), where lays the brain and sensory organs, and likely the mouth.

    5. Put it all together and what do you get? Arms/digits (suitable for manipulation) + Legs/feet + head + body =....only so many forms.

    Outside of a basic humanoid stick figure arrangement, I could suggest perhaps a "tauric form" with a longer lower body with any number of limbs, and an upper torso, OR perhaps a more serpent like locomotion, OR something like an octopus in which walking/manipulation limbs are interchangeable.

    Ultimately, the "humanoid" assumption basically requires something with any number of limbs (reasonable primitive creatures start out using all limbs for locomotion in their earliest forms, like fish) to eventually evolve so that it can use some limbs for manipulation and some for walking without growing more limbs for the latter.

    Even if something were hunched like a gorilla with a crocodiles head and multiple arms and legs, it would meet "my" basic definition of a humanoid shape.

    But maybe calling the design "humanoid" is a bit of arrogance on my part, who are we to lay claim to it.


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