“If it’s the same genetic code throughout the cosmos? Carbon based life, on similar environmental planets (Keplars), using the same DNA code which has been seeded… they could very well look like us”
“We have to make a distinction between extra-terrestrial ‘life’, and extra-terrestrial ‘consciousness'”
Maybe they’re not alien doppelgangers—mirror images of us.
But extraterrestrial life—should it exist—might look “eerily similar to the life we see on Earth,” says Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Indeed, Cockell’s new book (The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution, Basic Books, 352 pages) suggests a “universal biology.” Alien adaptations, significantly resembling terrestrial life—from humanoids to hummingbirds—may have emerged on billions of worlds.
“Life on Earth might be a template for life in the universe,” he says.
Here’s the backdrop for Cockell’s tantalizing theory, abbreviated:
Physical laws are the same everyplace. (Gravity, for instance, is omnipresent, not exclusive to our solar system.)
Restrictions are everyplace. (Organic molecules, on Earth or elsewhere, still disintegrate at high temperatures, deactivate at low ones.)
Certain ingredients, most everyplace, are indispensable for life. (Carbon is the optimal element to assemble burgeoning life; water is the ideal solvent to shuttle it.)
Now, Cockell’s provocative leap: Those limits deny “huge variation” in the look of living things throughout the universe.
“The laws of physics channel living creatures into restricted shapes,” he says. “They narrow the scope of evolution. Alien life may have many similarities to life here.”
A terrestrial analogy: “Go into the ocean,” he says. There, “creatures with slim, streamlined bodies” predominate, and for obvious reasons—“to move fast through the water.”
That has been true for hundreds of millions of years, of course; dolphins, sharks, the ichthyosaurus—mammal, fish, and extinct dinosaur—all have a reasonably comparable appearance.
“Things end up looking the same, even though they are completely different lineages,” says Cockell.
On land, most animals have appendages, limbs for moving about; in the sky, whether pterodactyls or pigeons, “laws that govern aerodynamics are observed.” Even butterflies, albeit exquisitely detailed —“endless colors, hues, and patterns”—follow the dictum.
“Too small a wing, and a butterfly can’t lift off,” Cockell says. Details, he concedes, can be “endless”—but “physics restricts the form.”
Exceptions occur, certainly. Snakes, limbless, slither. Tumbleweeds roll. “Nature experiments,” admits Cockell. But most life “is confined by rules that may be shockingly narrow.”
Including intelligent, technologically-savvy humanoids—if they’re out there.
Appendages are likely. “You can’t build civilizations without the ability to use tools,” Cockell says. But maybe they’re missing arms and legs; tentacles could grasp objects just as well. Then there’s the head—might they have eyes, ears, and a mouth? Probably.
“But there’s no reason why everything has to be in the same place,” he says. “A mouth doesn’t have to be below the eyes.”
Not duplicates, but distant kin. Classic sci-fi TV—sans CGI, just human actors and some slick makeup—was onto something.