Scientists think that we may have more in common in aliens--looks-wise, anyway--than sci-fi would like us to believe.
At this point, things may be getting confusing. There have been a lot of speculations on what extraterrestrial life might look like, and they don’t all necessarily agree with each other. Literature and movies would like us to believe that aliens are monstrous or shape-shifting creatures that don’t look much like us. Some researchers, meanwhile, propose that alien life on Mars in particular is likely microscopic. It’s also possible that aliens may not even look anything like we can imagine, and may not even necessarily be carbon-based lifeforms like us.
A new study takes this into account. Researchers have taken an “alternative approach” by using evolutionary theory in predicting the characteristics of aliens. This approach also can cover silicone-based lifeforms as well as other kinds of life forms. Thus, this approach can encompass aliens that may have evolved in environments vastly different from ours.
A hierarchy of complexity, from relatively simple to complex, with many working parts. [Illustration by Helen S. Cooper - University of Oxford]
However, the environment and chemical attributes of a potential alien species isn’t the only thing that we should consider. According to the researchers, we should focus more on the way that the aliens evolved, which may be the same processes that shaped humans. One of these processes, for example, is natural selection.
The framework of natural selection among aliens aided researchers in predicting how complexity might come about on other worlds in outer space. “We still can’t say whether aliens will walk on two legs or have big green eyes,” says Sam Levin, one of the researchers. “But we believe evolutionary theory offers a unique additional tool for trying to understand what aliens will be like, and we have shown some examples of the kinds of strong predictions we can make with it.”
According to the researchers, we should be looking at significant global events, called major transitions, in other known planets that can trigger evolutionary changes. On our own planet, major transitions have led to things like the development of multicellular organisms. Extreme conditions, however, are necessary for triggering these major transitions. The same could be true on other planets.
So, using these predictions, what exactly would aliens look like?
The "Octomite", a complex alien that the researchers thought of based on their new approach to alien evolution. [Illustration by Helen S. Cooper - University of Oxford]
Though the researchers have found a new approach to tackle the issue of what aliens would look like, they didn’t actually go into the finer details. They can’t say for sure if certain aliens would have certain physiological features, while other alien species would look different in a certain way.
"Like humans, we predict that they are made-up of a hierarchy of entities, which all cooperate to produce an alien,” says Levin. “At each level of the organism there will be mechanisms in place to eliminate conflict, maintain cooperation, and keep the organism functioning. We can even offer some examples of what these mechanisms will be.”
Thinking about what aliens would look like is like being curious about neighbors that you’ve never actually met, but you’re kind of sure are there somewhere. Whether or not the findings of the study turn out to be true, they’re at least a way to satisfy our curiosity about our missing neighbors for the time being.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!