Predicting what extraterrestrials will be like: and preparing for the worst

Conway Morris, S. (2011) Predicting what extraterrestrials will be like: and preparing for the worst. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369 (1936). pp. 555-571. ISSN Online ISSN: 1471-2962 DOI 10.1098/rsta.2010.0276

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Abstract

It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien biospheres operating in any manner other than Darwinian. Yet, it is also widely assumed that alien life-forms will be just that: strange, un-nerving and probably repulsive. There are two reasons for this view. First, it is assumed that the range of habitable environments available to extra-terrestrial life is far wider than on Earth. I suggest, however, that terrestrial life is close to the physical and chemical limits of life anywhere. Second, it is a neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that evolution lacks predictability; imagining what extra-terrestrial life would look like in any detail is a futile exercise. To the contrary, I suggest that the outcomes of evolution are remarkably predictable. This, however, leads us to consider two opposites, both of which should make our blood run cold. The first, and actually extremely unlikely, is that alien biospheres will be strikingly similar to our terrestrial equivalent and that in such biospheres intelligence will inevitably emerge. The reasons for this revolve around the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, the determinate structure of the Tree of Life and molecular inherency. But if something like a human is an inevitability, why do I also claim that the first possibility is ‘extremely unlikely’? Simply because the other possibility is actually the correct answer. Paradoxically, we and our biosphere are completely alone. So which is worse? Meeting ourselves or meeting nobody?

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: 2010AREP; IA61;
Subjects: 04 - Palaeobiology
Divisions: 04 - Palaeobiology
Journal or Publication Title: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Volume: 369
Page Range: pp. 555-571
Identification Number: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0276
Depositing User: Sarah Humbert
Date Deposited: 03 Sep 2010 15:55
Last Modified: 23 Jul 2013 10:00
URI: http://eprints.esc.cam.ac.uk/id/eprint/1921

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