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E.T. uncovered – the creature behind the myth

19 August 2012

Erm.. No. Sorry, E.T. doesn’t look like little grey men.
Not even a little bit.

I’ve written about extraterrestrials before, both in regards to their absence (“The Fermi paradox or ‘Where is everyone?’“) and regarding their biological plausibility (“Movie monsters and astrobiology“).

I’ve also touched upon the evolution of the human species and the birth of our civilisations on various occasions. I have not, however, addressed one of my most favourite subjects: what would a highly intelligent and technically advanced extra-terrestrial actually look like?

Even though we can’t be sure, we could take our current knowledge of biological, social and technical evolution here on Earth and make some extrapolations. With that we can deduce what aliens could look like, since it’s reasonable to assume they would obey to similar rules as life here on earth. But let’s start with the basics: chemistry.

Alien chemistry kit

The chemistry of life is heavily dependent on molecular symmetry. Yeah, I know – it’s very shallow.

As we gain more knowledge on how life appeared here on Earth some 3.7 billion years ago, we become more and more competent in guessing how it could have started on other planets. Almost without doubt an inactive and stable liquid of some sort would be required. Water is an obvious candidate, not only because we’re familiar with it, but because it easily forms in huge quantities, is extremely stable and simple enough to work with semi-permeable membranes such as cell membranes. This makes water essential for almost all know chemical processes performed by living organisms, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that at least some of the alien lifeforms would be water-based. And (as demonstrated by the awkward science in the film Signs), any lifeforms visiting Earth would most definitely benefit from being water-based.

As to the rest of the chemical setup, it could be similar to that of life on Earth or it could be completely different. But at the core, some kind of basic building block are required, blocks that could be combined to build a vast collection of complex molecules used to run all the chemical processes required for life to exist, like metabolism, replication, multi-cellular communication, waste disposal etc.

Speaking of multi-cellular: I think we can safely assume that any alien civilisations would consist of multi-cellular organisms. For intelligence to evolve, it would require a very complex and flexible internal organisation, and a multi-cellular platform would be more easily maintainable than a huge sack of water with loose molecules swimming about inside.

Body plan X

Look at that enormous swordswallower – isn’t it just magnificent? Too bad it isn’t real. (© Alex Ries)

Now that we have a hunch that E.T. probably is a creature consisting of a multitude of water-based cells, the next question is: what would their body plan be like? We have what seems to be a huge range of body plans here on Earth to choose from, but on closer inspection there are grouped into types. We got the a few basic symmetries like branching body plans of most plants and fungi, where a single strain or trunk is divided repeatedly to form a crown or root system. Then we got radial-symmetric body plans with a body assembled from identical sectors (like a pie). Examples of animals with this symmetry would be jellyfish, starfish and sea anemones. And finally we got bilateral symmetric ones where the animal is mirrored down the middle, like all land animals and the majority of marine animals. Bilateral symmetries are by far the most common in ‘advanced’ lifeforms, since it gives the organism a front and a back which aid the evolution of streamlined propulsion systems with fins, wings and legs.

In addition to those main symmetries, there are also different types of support systems: endo-skeletons (mammals, birds, fishes etc.), exoskeletons (crustaceans, insects, shellfish etc.) and hydraulic (squid, worms and slugs etc.). And after that,  there is the number of body segments and number of extremities. So, we’re now looking at a range of possible body types, with anything from vaguely vertebrate-like creatures to anything from octopoid to armoured catepillar-like animals. Add to that a huge range of body sizes, and you will appreciate the arrogance in assuming they would even look remotely like us.

Alien sociology and technology

Just as we thought it was getting a bit complicated with all the different body plans, add sociology and technology to the mix and the possibilities multiply again. What kind of society would E.T. be coming from? Are they solitary individuals with a strong sense of self? Or do they unite into groups where the individual doesn’t matter that much? Or do they even physically join to form super-organisms, where each individual only represent a particular part or function?

And then there’s technology. We’ve been wielding manufactured tools and weapons for millions of years, but it’s still only in the last 100 years or so we’ve made any real progress in advanced technology like polymers, nuclear energy and space travel. Imagine if we were to survive for another 500 years, or even 5,000 years? What marvelous feats of engineering would we not be able to achieve by then? So unless advanced civilisations always self-destruct after a given amount of time, we could assume that almost anything we can imagine could theoretically be possible for E.T.: levitation, teleportation, mind-reading/control, advanced autonomous systems, faster-than-light travel, resurrection/ascension and so on. So even though they would still be slaves to the common laws of physics, their understanding of them might allow them to achieve many things we see as impossible today.

In media

They might look frightening, but in reality they are quite defenceless.

There are countless stories depicting our first encounter with an alien civilisation, but one of the best is over 100 years old: The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In his book, the aliens were depicted as being at once “intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous”. In the most recent film adaptation (War of the Worlds), they are shown as awkward-looking, frail tripedal creatures, obviously nocturnal and apparently lacking any kind of natural defences like claws, fangs, shells or horns.

This is interesting. Wells was an avid fan of Darwinian evolution, and was fascinated by how species adapting to and mastering their own environment rarely managed all that well in foreign ones. The book could also be seen as a comment on how biologically weak species might adopt technology as a means of coping with its natural deficiencies. So perhaps we should expect E.T. to be rather helpless?

Perhaps not. Even though a species without any natural defences would benefit from becoming highly intelligent, it would seem less costly to just develop something like speed, strength, armour or stealth instead. The aliens from the film District 9 (no, we’re not supposed to call them ‘prawns’; that’s derogatory) were certainly not weak and helpless and could easily rip the arms of a human if provoked. The film depicts the aliens having a vaguely crustacean appearance, practicing a very advanced clicking language.

MNU official Wikus is trying to evict the alien Christopher – don’t you just love Wikus’s condescending tone of voice?

So what would the look like?

I should be clear by now that we can’t really say with any certainty what E.T. would look like. They could be much larger than us – ten times larger or more –  or just tiny little things. They could have two, four or six or more legs. They could be supported by a skeletal structure or wear some kind of shells. They would most likely be land-based, since otherwise they would never get past the stone age (it’s nigh impossible to melt and work with metals under water). Their surface might be covered with fur, feathers, scales, spikes or it could just be naked skin. They might be powerful carnivores or defenceless herbivores. They could have big composite eyes, eyes on stalks or no eyes at all. They might be red, blue, brown, yellow or iridescent; spotty, striped or covered in irregular blotches. They would probably be counter-shaded. They might be able to fly, burrow or climb and could therefore have wings, claws or prehensile tails or tentacles. They could have fangs, big incisors or no teeth at all. They might or might not have opposable thumbs.

The floating eosapien

They might be using a spoken language, a language of gestures or perhaps a chemical or colour-based language. They could be controlling remote avatars of themselves and not actually visit us in person at all. They would know the meaning of Pi, as mathematics is a fundamental way of describing the universe in the simplest terms.

We can however categorically state what they won’t look like: human beings. Not even if another hyper-intelligent life form was to appear here on Earth would it look anything remotely like us. So assuming that an alien would be ‘humanoid’ is obviously utterly ridiculous – no matter how many pointy ears and face-folds we add.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 August 2012 15:59

    This is very sciency! I assume there are aliens, only because I think it’s rude to assume there aren’t. Also, it would make me sad if humans were the only lifeform, because we’re so fighty. I’d like to think there’s a more evolved lifeform out there.

    Sadly, I’m old enough I doubt I’ll live to see us coming in contact with anything extraterrestrial. Maybe The Nephew will. I’ll tell him to say hi for me.


    • 19 August 2012 17:11

      Yes, sorry about the overload of science. I’m in two minds regarding the existence of other civilisations. On the one hand, I’m convinced life is rather common in the universe, so hyper-intelligent life should show up and form civilisations from time to time. On the other hand, all those civilisations might be separated by time spans of 10 or even 100 million years. (After all, on Earth we had to wait for 3.7 billlion years before we got any semi-advanced civilisations.) Which would mean that the probability of us ever getting into contact with an alien civilisation could be extremely low or even non-existent. Still: here’s hoping!


  2. 20 August 2012 09:12

    Ah, a familiar topic!

    You know I agree with the principles of your argument, but what you suggest doesn’t entirely fit with accepted understanding of EBEs.

    You mention Symmetry. The Reticulan ‘Grey’ is symmetrical. Surely evolved symmetry will benefit a species more tot he possibility of achieving space travel more than a, say, blob?

    Also, the planetary physics from which they have evolved. The ‘Grey’ *is* a similar buld to us, if a little smaller. (And yes, they are upright). This suggests a similar gravity, no doubt other species are precluded from visiting?

    Though our understanding is through a lens of our previous understanding. In the 50s, ET came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, After sufficient movies and stories, we more or less agree on the ‘Grey’. Those who are not familiar with the Grey explain their visitations through their own understanding, often saying they look like Owls. So symmetrical, yes, but only because we understand them that way.

    Either way, it at least emphasises the total lack of imagination by our governments and those men in black suits ….


    • 20 August 2012 12:01

      All living things have some form of symmetry, but by far the most common for animals (or any mobile organism) is the bilateral symmetry. This is probably because such a symmetry would aid the evolution of mobility by giving the organism a front to move towards (containing sensory organs for navigation) and propulsion systems along the side or at the back (for speed and maneuverability).

      Regarding the grey: even though they are indeed bilateral symmetrical (which would be quite plausible), they are essentially just small humans with big eyes. The probability of something like that ever evolving is lower than the probability of some alien civilization by chance coming up with an exact clone of our C# programming language (in English), compatible with our compilers and everything. It’s just never going to happen.

      If, however, the hyper-intelligent species that had come to visit us had evolved on a similar planet to Earth they could indeed have similar traits to animals over here. Bipedal – not a problem. Internat skeleton – fine. Some kind of arm-like appendiges – sure, why not. A big head at the top (front) of the body – makes sense. But that just as well describes a velociraptor as it does a human. Making aliens look like the grey isn’t just an amazing lack of imagination, it’s factually incorrect giving our current understanding of evolutionary biology.


      • 20 August 2012 14:24

        But a Velociraptor’s eyes aren’t as good as those big eyes of the Greys in finding those super-metal screws that they dropped on the floor and their digits aren’t as useful at picking them up. And their brains aren’t as useful because they just like to eat things. Preferably small children but if none are about, anything will do 😉

        I imagine the Grey does exist more in our psyche than reality, but I struggle to see how a species could evolve any other way and still have the tools to conceive and execute space travel. Digits, bilateral symmetry, compatible frame for gravity, etc. But they can have complex eyes if that helps you.

        See, you’re correct in principle, but once again you get it wrong in execution 😉


        • 20 August 2012 15:09

          Oh, silly little humans! How limited your frame of reference is!

          As useful as hands with opposable thumbs are, many other potential solutions could easily be conceived: branching tentacles with either a sticky surface or suction cups, an array of rubber-like and dexterous claws on stalks, some kind of soft malleable membrane that could wrap around small objects or perhaps a combination of different solutions with small appendixes for micro-manipulation and larger ones for heavy lifting.

          The only reason our human arms look like they do is because we are descendants of arboreal primates, who in turn come from quadruped reptiles, who descended from a particular type of fish with two pairs of lobed fins.


  3. 21 August 2012 22:21

    This is just a comment to see how


    I can get this comment box.


  4. Sonami permalink
    24 August 2012 20:31

    About alien life : someone said that it would be very bad news if we found any life forms in Mars or Titan or whatever. If life appears so easily, surely intelligent life should follow quickly. So why do we have such a difficult time finding alien civilizations? Well, if the problem isn’t in the past, it must be in the future… How long does an intelligent civilization survive, anyway? 🙂


    • 25 August 2012 07:32

      Yes, exactly. As I wrote in a previous post: our human civilisation has been around for a ridiculously short amount of time compared to life on Earth itself, and it already looks doubtful if it’s going to survive. If advanced civilisations only stay around for a few thousand years, the chance of us actually finding one is practically non-existent.


  5. 31 August 2012 20:28

    I wonder what the aliens in the movie Signs were planning on doing when it rained. You’d better make damned sure not to forget your umbrella.


    • 31 August 2012 20:33

      Don’t even get me started! Just think about the air here on Earth; it’s full of water vapour. What would that do to their lungs? They must be constantly hemorrhaging which sounds rather uncomfortable.


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