You don’t have to have be a huge sci-fi buff to know that depictions of aliens in movies, video games, and books are almost always very wild. Whether it’s tiny grey dudes with big black eyes, violent primitives like the Xenomorphs of the Alien franchise, or the many odd-looking creatures of the Star Wars films, our imaginations tend to run wild when conjuring up beings from another world. Now, scientists are suggesting that might be all wrong, and that if other intelligent species are indeed lurking in the depths of space, they might look a whole lot like us.
Researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK just published a brand new report detailing how an alien species might evolve over time, factoring in many of the same processes that led to the evolution of humans. The idea being that mechanisms like natural selection are likely universal and not exclusive to Earth, meaning that there’s a good chance alien species could end up at the same place in their evolutionary timeline that we are right now.
“A fundamental task for astrobiologists is thinking about what extra-terrestrial life might be like,” Sam Levin of Oxford’s Department of Zoology explains. “But making predictions about aliens is hard. Past approaches in the field of astrobiology have been largely mechanistic, taking what we see on Earth, and what we know about chemistry, geology, and physics to make predictions about aliens.”
So, the researchers decided to go about things a different way, and looked at the natural processes that would shape life even if it was far different from anything we know here on Earth. “In our paper, we offer an alternative approach, which is to use evolutionary theory to make predictions that are independent of Earth’s details,” Levin says. “This is a useful approach, because theoretical predictions will apply to aliens that are silicon based, do not have DNA, and breathe nitrogen, for example.”
The research puts a lot of weight on what scientists call “major transformations,” which are huge leaps in the complexity of any given organism and can lead to vast gains in intelligence. If aliens experience similar evolutionary behavior, it’s not a stretch to think they may end up looking a lot like humans in both form and function.