An Alien Earth

Seeing ourselves in an entirely different way.  Published by Corgi Books 1973

Seeing ourselves in an entirely different way. Published by Corgi Books 1973

We see the universe from a human point of view. We could hardly be expected to do otherwise. But that doesn’t help if we’re trying to assess the prospects for life, even intelligent life, to have developed on other worlds. It could be that life elsewhere is not even remotely as we know it, and our human way of looking at the cosmos is a serious obstacle to knowing that it’s there.

EJ Coffey discussed this in The Anthropomorphic Fallacy (JBIS, January 1992), using the well-known “Face on Mars” as an example. We project human qualities onto the external world – we can’t help doing it – and this psychological projection operates all the time. So, although we may not go so far as to conclude that all intelligent extraterrestrials must necessarily look exactly like us, we still tend to assume that they will be broadly similar in many respects. For example, we believe that any intelligent life must surely use tools and develop technology because that’s what we have done.

But they might have evolved to bear no resemblance to us whatsoever, and even here on Earth there is evidence that evolution might have played out entirely otherwise than it has had things been a bit different. Coffey refers to the analysis in the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s popular 1990 book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

Gould’s fascinating account describes how the fossils in the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies show a wide range of varieties of life-forms over 500 million years ago, far different to anything found in oceans nowadays. Early life was “an explosion of creativity” which far surpassed the variety of forms in today’s animal kingdom, but most were wiped out in mass extinctions. We are led to conclude that, if they had survived, life on Earth would barely resemble what we see around us now.

Taking the idea beyond our own planet, there is little or no reason to believe that extraterrestrial life would be anything like ours, but it’s quite difficult for us to accept that. Another of Coffey’s papers, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind (JBIS, January 1992) extends the argument to communication with intelligent aliens, arguing that we cannot, even in principle, enter into the experiential worlds of other creatures. We can’t even do that on our own planet, let alone others, so it’s unreasonable to assume that any meaningful communication with extraterrestrials is even possible.

Similarly, we may expect that intelligent extraterrestrials would have precisely the same problem with respect to us. They couldn’t communicate with us even if they wanted to. And to them, life forms like us might exist only in their most far-fetched science fiction – they could not avoid similar obstacles to their thinking when considering what life might be like elsewhere than on their planet.

This was the subject of Report on Planet Three, the first of a collection of fascinating essays by Arthur C Clarke published in 1972. Intelligent Martians looking at our world some three thousand years ago find it inconceivable that advanced life-forms could have evolved on the Earth with its exceptionally high gravity, thick atmosphere containing “large amounts of the poisonous and very reactive element oxygen”, excessive heat from being so close to the Sun, and generally stormy environment. To them, no intelligent life could possibly exist in a place so different from their comfortable Mars.

Clarke writes in a suitably light-hearted style, but the point he makes is serious. From the Martian perspective, the potential for life is judged from the conditions on Mars. We believe that we cannot fall into the same trap because we are so much more clued up on the hostile environments in which life might evolve elsewhere, but we are still hide-bound by our terrestrial origin, whether we like it or not. Truly breaking free of such a constraint is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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