Biologist's 'Map Of Life' Predicts ET. (So where is he? She? It?)
You must have noticed the explosion of interest and speculation about alien life, and even alien life that has visited Earth across so many media outlets. It's like the Pet Rock fad of our decade. From a writer's viewpoint, this has led to some wonderful speculative science fiction from Jules Verne to The Hitch Hikers' Guide - literally thousands of titles by hundreds of authors - over the past century and a half.
Have you wondered what research scientists think, research and write about the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe? I mean, serious, highly trained and disciplined men and women working at the forefront of their fields?
Please don't go wandering off into any of the myriad conspiracy theories about cover-ups of UFO crashes and reverse-engineered technology and freeze dried alien corpses. And certainly not the popular ancient Alien theories of von Däniken of others. There are many blogs and websites where this speculation is appropriate and even fun, and I refer you to any of those. We're looking into what mainstream science has to say.
The question is is what do scientists through vetted, reproducible research say about the possibility of alien life? Many articles and books have been written on the predictability of life in the universe outside of Earth, developing conservative mathematical models predicting that life is highly likely to exist elsewhere. But mathematical models are not proof. They predict, and physical evidence is needed to confirm the predictions.
A new book, "The Runes of Life", by Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Fellow at St John's College, University of Cambridge, takes the science of evolution into the fray, showing that on Earth very different, unrelated organisms develop many of the same features. This leads the author to speculate that if animals evolve like features from different genetic backgrounds on Earth, it is likely that the same phenomena will occur other places in the universe.
A note to bear in mind when speculating on life on other planets - the distances between planets, solar systems and galaxies are far beyond the human mind's ability to comprehend. And, that while we are in a galaxy, the Milky Way, with millions of solar systems, ours is located between two more densely populated spiral arms of the galaxy. In essence, we are way out in the galactic boonies, far from the galactic center where stars as old as 11.5 billion years old show signs of habitable planets. (Our cute but immensely tiny solar system is but 4.5 billion years old.) Intelligence living on one of those worlds should be, or could be, very far advanced indeed and may have no interest in primitives like us. Add to this the likelihood that alien life could stand right in front of us, announce itself, and with our limited perceptual abilities, we wouldn't even know it.
Finally, we are, on Earth, still in the earliest days of our scientific revolution where there is still far more we don't know about the universe and how it works than we actually can prove we know. So much is still speculation or simply beyond our comprehension.
Here's the article, with a link to purchase Professor Simon Conway Morris' book and a link to the original story.
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'Map Of Life' predicts ET.
(So where is he? She? It?)
(So where is he? She? It?)
A new theory in biology and other sciences, evolutionary convergence, is based on the evolutionary development of similar features by organisms with distinctly different ancestors such as wings in insects and birds. For example, almost all land creatures on our planet have two arms, two legs and a head despite having different, often extremely different genetic backgrounds.
Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Fellow at St John's College, University of Cambridge, argues that the development of life on Earth is predictable, meaning that similar organisms should therefore have appeared on other, Earth-like planets by now. So why do we appear to be all alone in the universe?
Extra-terrestrials that resemble humans should have evolved on other, Earth-like planets, so it seems strange that we still appear to be alone in the universe. According to Conway Morris', evolution predicts the existence of extraterrestials. So if it's likely that ET's exist, where are they?
The argument is one of several that emerge from The Runes Of Evolution, a new book in which a leading evolutionary biologist, Professor Simon Conway Morris, makes the case for a ubiquitous "map of life" that governs the way in which all living things develop. It builds on the established principle of convergent evolution, a widely-supported theory -- although one still disputed by some biologists -- that different species will independently evolve similar features.
Conway Morris argues that convergence is not just common, but everywhere, and that it has governed every aspect of life's development on Earth. Proteins, eyes, limbs, intelligence, tool-making -- even our capacity to experience orgasms -- are, he argues, inevitable once life emerges.
According to Conway Morris, evolution is far from random, but a predictable process that operates according to a fairly rigid set of rules. If that is the case, then it follows that life similar to that on Earth would also develop in the right conditions on other, equivalent planets. Given the growing number of Earth-like planets of which astronomers are now aware, it is increasingly extraordinary that aliens that look and behave something like us have not been found, he suggests.
"Convergence is one of the best arguments for Darwinian adaptation, but its sheer ubiquity has not been appreciated," Professor Conway Morris, who is a Fellow at St John's College, University of Cambridge, said.
"Often, research into convergence is accompanied by exclamations of surprise, describing it as uncanny, remarkable and astonishing. In fact it is everywhere, and that is a remarkable indication that evolution is far from a random process. And if the outcomes of evolution are at least broadly predictable, then what applies on Earth will apply across the Milky Way, and beyond."
Professor Conway Morris has previously raised the prospect that alien life, if out there, would resemble earthlings -- with limbs, heads, and bodies -- notably at a Royal Society Conference in London in 2010. His new book goes even further, however, adding that any Earth-like planet should also evolve thunniform predators (like sharks), pitcher plants, mangroves, and mushrooms, among many other things.
Limbs, brains and intelligence would, similarly, be "almost guaranteed." The traits of human-like intelligence have evolved in other species -- the octopus and some birds, for example, both exhibit social playfulness -- and this, the book suggests, indicates that intelligence is an inevitable consequence of evolution that would characterize extraterrestrials as well.
Underpinning this is Conway Morris' claim that convergence is demonstrable at every major stepping stone in evolutionary history, from early cells, through to the emergence of tissues, sensory systems, limbs, and the ability to make and use tools.
The theory, in essence, is that different species will evolve similar solutions to problems via different paths. A commonly-cited example is the octopus, which has evolved a camera eye that is closely similar to that of humans, although distinctive in important ways that reflect its own history. Although octopi and humans have a common ancestor, possibly a slug-like creature, this lived 550 million years ago and lacked numerous complex features that the two now share. The camera eye of each must therefore have evolved independently.
Conway Morris argues that this process provides an underlying evolutionary framework that defines all life, and leads to innumerable surprises in the natural world. The book cites examples such as collagen, the protein found in connective tissue, which has emerged independently in both fungi and bacteria; or the fact that fruit flies seem to get drunk in the same manner as humans. So too the capacity for disgust in humans -- a hard-wired instinct helping us avoid infection and disease -- is also exhibited by leaf-cutter ants.
The study also identifies many less obvious evolutionary "analogues," where species have evolved certain properties and characteristics that do not appear to be alike, but are actually very similar. For example, "woodpeckerlike habits" are seen in lemurs and extinct marsupials, while the mechanics of an octopus' tentacles are far closer to those of a human arm than we might expect, and even their suckers can operate rather like hands.
Conway Morris contends that all life navigates across this evolutionary map, the basis of what he describes as a "predictive biology." "Biology travels through history," he writes, "but ends up at much the same destination."
This, however, raises fascinating questions about the possibility of life occurring on other planets. "The number of Earth-like planets seems to be far greater than was thought possible even a few years ago," Conway Morris said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that they have life, because we don't necessarily understand how life originates. The consensus offered by convergence, however, is that life is going to evolve wherever it can."
|The Runes of Evolution:|
How the Universe
by Simon Conway Morris
Click to order
If this is so, as the book suggests in its introduction, then it makes Enrico Fermi's famous paradox -- why, if aliens exist, we have not yet been contacted -- even more perplexing. "The almost-certainty of ET being out there means that something does not add up, and badly," Conway Morris said. "We should not be alone, but we are."
The Runes Of Evolution was six years in the making and draws on thousands of academic sources, and throws up numerous other, surprising findings as well. Sabre-teeth, for example, turn out to be convergent, and Conway Morris explains why it is that the clouded leopard of Asia, Neofelis nebulosa, has developed features that could, as it evolves "presage the emergence of a new sabre-tooth," although sadly it looks set to become extinct before this happens. Elsewhere, the study suggests that certain prehistoric creatures other than bats and birds may have attempted to evolve flight.
"It makes people slightly uneasy that evolution can end up reaching the same solutions to questions about how to catch something, how to digest something, and how to work," Conway Morris added. "But while the number of possibilities in evolution in principle is more than astronomical, the number that actually work is an infinitesimally smaller fraction."
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