Aliens among us

Forget about going to the movies to understand what a real alien might look like, as the Hollywood kind are generally just men in play-suits or a bit of computer-generated special effects. If you want to see something really “alien” go for a walk in a forest, down by a lake, or along the sea shore, and look at the astounding diversity of life here on Earth. Much of it defies the imagination of the best science fiction writers.

As a science fiction writer, I enjoy thinking conceptually about the various forms in which alien life may exist. It’s not a case of trying to come up with creatures that have an absurd number of arms or a something weird and implausible, like a star-whale, rather it’s an attempt to consider how life could evolve in different environs and to consider how we might interact with any alien intelligence.

And it’s not all death rays and anal probes, there has to be rational, reasonable, plausible motivations behind the actions of any intelligent being, human or alien. If an alien space craft ever does arrive on our front door step, the single most likely reason for it to turn up would be exploration, not exploitation.

The most precious commodity in the universe is life itself. Any visiting aliens are going to want to understand how our evolutionary past led to our current biodiversity, so rather than finding them hovering over the White House with a laser beam poised to fire, you’re more likely to find them in universities and museums, perhaps even helping out on a dinosaur dig.

One thing that’s missing from almost all alien movies is an ecosystem. Aliens, as Hollywood portrays them, are only ever shown as a single species. For all its faults, the movie Prometheus is one of the few movies that had several variants of alien life, one of which eventually transforms into something vaguely like the critters Ripley runs into. In reality, though, aliens will evolve in an ecosystem that’s at least as complex and diverse as our own, with as many of the subtleties and surprises as we find on Earth. In this regard, the best way to understand alien life before we come across any actual examples is to better understand our own biosphere.

Although we have no idea what aliens look like, we can be reasonably certain they won’t look anything like us. Good science fiction writers try to escape the regular, predictable alien-tropes, where aliens are bipeds roughly the size of a man or slightly larger and more imposing, having arms and legs along with a clearly recognizable head with two eyes and a mouth, etc. There certainly could be some convergent evolution in our celestial neighbours, but given the extreme diversity of life on Earth, any similarities are probably going to be quite fleeting. Life on Earth demonstrates that an astounding array of differences are possible.

What could be more “alien” to us than an octopus, or the zombie-like sea squirt that eats its own brains? And an octopus is more than just some squidgy alien-esque invertebrate with eight flexible arms, those arms think for themselves, being semi-autonomous, with their own ganglia. Essentially, an octopus is a living neural network with a central brain that issues orders to the arms and then leaves them to get the job done while it moves on to think about something else. Quite a marvellous adaptation, and this highlights something missing from movies. In movies, aliens are visibly distinct and different to humans, even if it’s only by a set of pointy ears. In reality, the physiology of aliens is going to be vastly different to that of Homo sapiens, from the microscopic layer on up through to morphology. They may well have “brains” that are sooo distributed that there’s no one central point at all, extending the kind of adaptation we see in the octopus even further.

It’s all speculation, of course, but speculation based on the rudiments of life we see around us and not just on our imagination.

Octopus and cuttlefish are remarkably intelligent, being capable of negotiating a maze, solving puzzles and opening screw-top jars. One of the earliest observations of their intelligence is a curious tale where lump fish kept disappearing from an isolated tank within an aquarium in England. It took the curators a while to figure out the thief was an octopus, climbing out of his tank at night, crossing the floor, entering the second tank, devouring the fish, and then surreptitiously returning to his own tank by morning!

Cuttlefish have the most beautiful form of communication, transmitting vacillating/undulating waves of light to each other to signal danger, courtship, etc in a visual form of speech, highlighting how different terrestrial animals are in their forms of communication. If we run into ET, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to chat audibly with them as speech may well be as peculiar to aliens as cuttlefish flashes are to us.

Like something out of The Blob, slime are another example of how “alien” life on Earth can be when compared with our normal assumptions on the nature of microscopic life. Slime give us a unique insight into how even the simplest lifeforms can have remarkable complexity.

Place an oak flake in the middle of a maze and Physarum polycephalum will find it for you, using the shortest path through the maze, simply by following the chemical attractants given off by the oats as a food source.

If you place slime mold on a map of Japan or the US and place food where the various cities are and let the slime mold spread out across landscape, Physarum polycephalum will optimize the network, consolidating on the best routes between food sources, essentially replicating the actual transit map designed by human engineers.

And it gets better… Give mold a choice and its “decisions” become deceptively human-like.

Physarum polycephalum doesn’t thrive in bright light. In one experiment, researches gave Physarum polycephalum two food choices: 3% mix of oats in darkness or 5% mix of oats in bright light. The mold spread out, taking nutrients from both sources equally even though the richer source was more irritating to the mold. There’s nothing too remarkable about that, but scientists then introduced a third food source: 1% mix of oats in darkness.

Surprisingly, with three choices, the mold made what seems like a comparative decision, and instead of being split between the 3% in darkness and 5% in light as it had previously been, the mold devoted 80% of its effort solely on the 3% in darkness. The introduction of a poorer option allowed the mold to “realize” the best option all along had been the 3% in darkness. Going after the 5% was too costly for the mold, but the slime only came to this point of “realization” when given sufficient comparative options. This illusion of a decision is the result of a biological comparison where the best return/result is unthinkingly sought out by the organism, but that a colony of amoeba could replicate the reasoning of a creature with a brain is quite remarkable, demonstrating the tenacity and versatility of even the simplest of lifeforms.

Dictyostelium Discoideum are even more astounding, starve this colony of single-celled amoeba and they’ll do something beyond belief, they’ll band together to form a giant slug.

And Dictyostelium Discoideum aren’t just huddling together like rugby players in a scrum, they’re differentiating, taking on set roles within their pseudo-slug, with some of the amoebas playing the role of an immune system, policing the newly formed organism for any bacteria or pathogens, attacking them so the newly formed “slug” can live. The slug, in the meantime, takes on a life of its own, searching for light. In this video, it can be seen moving, lifting itself from the surface of the petri dish, and finally transforming itself yet again, this time into a fruiting spore at the end of a raised stem. Like the polymorph in Red Dwarf, if we find even the simplest of alien lifeforms on the moons of Europa, Encleadus or Titan, they may well have this kind of chameleon ability.

Life is astounding. There’s only a handful of science fiction books or movies that come close to anticipating anything like the versatility and interconnectedness we observe in Nature, and yet if life has arisen on other worlds, it will have followed the same basic laws of Natural Selection, so there will be similar levels of adaptation to common challenges. As a science fiction writer, this challenges me to think deeper about the kind of life we might find on other worlds.

Planarians are another example of the unpredictability of life. These simple flat-worms are hunters with a difference, with their pharynx/mouths secreting digestive fluids before eating their prey, only their mouth also doubles as an anus. Although they have brains, eyes and complex body organs, you can slice and dice a single planarian into hundreds of sections and they’ll all rejuvenate into entirely new planarians. In one simple creature, there’s a level of sophistication and versatility science fiction writers struggle to emulate when imagining alien life forms.

Life on Earth never ceases to amaze me. From a gecko climbing a wall utilizing the Van Der Walls nuclear force without ever realizing it, to bats locating insects on the wind with sonar they never consciously built, it seems there’s no limit to how evolution has honed life on our humble little planet. If we find life on Mars, Europa, Titan or Encaledus, there’s one thing for sure, it will surprise us with its versatility and resourcefulness.

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30 thoughts on “Aliens among us

  1. Awesome post! You hit the nail right on the head. Further, if we think not just about living organisms, but also think about the millions of species now extinct, many of them without ever leaving a fossil record or any other trace of their existence, (literally) only God knows the true extent of biodiversity. As you well said, any other biosphere ‘out there’ will display at least the same degree of endless forms…

  2. Holy cow, Peter. You know how much I love this post, right? It’s fantastic!

    There’s no other source of inspiration greater than nature, both in a poetic sense, and in an utterly bewildering and speculation-fostering way. I’m blissfully drunk with a state of wonder whenever I learn of new ways in which biological life defeats human imagination. This is why I’m so fascinated with insects, parasites and invertebrates, and it’s also why I love science-fiction. I’m more curious about alien life and what it would be like, than in future technology.

    Great post, wonderful examples and an awesome perspective. Thank you!

    • Thanks Vero… Yeah, biology is fascinating, it’s very much a case of truth is stranger than fiction. I was soooo tempted to go on with lots of other examples like the Bombardier beetle, tardigrades (microscopic water bears that can live in space), phosphorescent sea creatures, Nepenthes attenboroughii (the rat-eating pitcher plant), etc, but the post was already quite long, and I think some of these deserve posts of their own :)

      The material for this post came from the background research I did for the book Galactic Exploration, which is set in an alien biosphere

      • I love tardigrades, they’re so cute and resilient! :P

        P.S. Galactic Exploration is already on my Kindle, but I’ll only read fiction when I finish my WIP, for very self-preserving reasons. ;) Have about 10 novels that are waiting to be read.

      • very cool… GE is a collection of four stand-alone novellas. The second is Trixie & Me and you’ll definitely see this influence

        Keep ploughing through your WIP, I need to get back to mine :)

  3. Everyone talking biology, this is my time to be a d***… Am I one of the few people who considered the existence of non-organic life forms or even non-biological (like the Von Neumann you mentioned – after some time it’s inteligence for exploration might turn into sentience – and those probes scare the F*** out of me, especially if they can replicate) possible. The amazing biodiversity here makes me wonder what momma nature has cooked out there. Maybe ou race will find in the future a world with weird multi feature creatures that are part plant and part reptile. Technically we are like plants requiring sun-light to get vitamin D and other substances.

    And by non-organic I meant the one’s not based on carbon. One of my physics teachers back at high school told me about a theory that we could have also be formed of silicon. I wondered what else life could be formed from.

    If aliens do show up in cool spaceships, I sincerely hope you are right and they actually see us as an inteligent species worth of study and preservation. If they see our religions and our industry killing the environment they might as well terminate us to hell to preserve the planet. Let’s hope Neil Degrasse Tyson isn’t right at his assessment about aliens knocking at our doors.

    • Oh, and as for silicon based life, yes, that would be quite astounding. I suspect the “choice” of carbon or silicon as a base element would be largely dependent on how gravity & atmospheric pressure/environment impact the chemistry possible.

      • Machine based life, looking forward to this. Having nano-machines in my blood stream keeping me up and running would be awesome. Add a boost to my semi-eidetic memory and done – half way to super inteligent.

        I hope our singularity comes from adding machines on us and not improving them to AI level. AI is a bit scary thing for me. Anything without emotional motivation/attachment is to be worry. Like a psycopath, only without narcisistic self-love and no motivation but whatever goal/protocol that is installed on it. And psycopaths are predictable. You have to understand machine coding to predict it’s moves and I doubt the machine we’ll let near it’s source code.

        The non-tech singularity you mean is in any way related to the idea that we may evolve biologically to the point that we no longer need a physical body to exist? Or turn to Futurama’s floating brains in space? I’m only cool with the first if it’s like Babylon 5′s Vorlons (tech only to interect and move around). To achieve organic singularity we may take ten folds longer than tech. I’m pretty sure tech is likely the way we’ll move from here. Look at how we are dependent on tech today.

      • Did you ever seen the movie Aeon Flux? It’s not the greatest of movies, but it did show off a biological singularity of sorts, where one of the other characters makes a decision (outside of the movie timeline) to have her feet genetically altered into hands, similar to quadrumana (an archaic term for primates with four hands, like apes and orangutan). So the implication is that this future society had developed the means of modifying the DNA of a living creature (how her feet transformed into hands or how long the presumably gradual transformation took isn’t addressed in the movie).

        I suspect that such a biological “singularity” (if that’s the right word) would trump any mechanical/computer singularity. Although, as you note, it may be a considerable way off into the future. I’m with you on the AI, yet there’s been so much speculation about AI going bad that when it arrives it will be heavily controlled.

        Fun to think about.

      • About silicon…. Hmm I dunno. The environment will surely play a part, but silicon is more limited than carbon with regards of the variety of structures that can be formed. I may be wrong, but my money is still on good old C…

      • Yeah, that very well may be the deciding factor.

        We still don’t know quite how hard/easy it is to kick start carbon-based life, but it happened quite quickly here on Earth. Also, we do know that formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, acetylene, carbon dioxide & simple amino acids like glycolaldehyde (all of which are carbon based) have all been found in vast quantities in space. So certainly there’s a chemical/physical predisposition toward carbon as a building block. Could silcon-based life arise? Sounds like a heavily technical discussion point, possibly, but as you point out, Carbon is the odds-on favourite.

      • I watched Aeon Flux (the animated series was waaaaayy better). A quick thing… one of your comments for me was tagged as spam for some reason. In the movie we only see her and if I’m not mistaken in the animated series we see more people with that form of body modification/adaptation. Now that you mentioned I remember seeing over a decade ago on discovery that instead of trying to find a Earth like world, we should just modify ourselves to the ones we know: Desert world, get thicker skin and a liver to retain and reuse water. Ocean world, turn into half-fish creature. Live in space in zero gravity, replace legs with extra pair of arms and hands. For spreading out in the galaxy that might be better suiting for us than technological advancements. Especially the way we are changing the environment here. Also, it’s cheaper than terraforming. Also, imagine for today’s medicine and stem cell research… growing back lost limbs and organs is sort of nearing in the first stages for the organic singularity process. I’m pretty sure the way we are evolving and discovering new tech and medical marvels from nature we’ll be applying a mix of biomechnical technology to our bodies. Think of organic computers or even the brain in jar theory to improve processing and eventually us.

        On that matter I recomend you try to find an old trilogy of OVA’s named Detonator Orgun. The science in it is a bit weird, but the possibilities are intriguing.

        AI is something to be really careful. We can’t play around without safeguards and protocols for this sort of things. Especially if we encounter a Von Neumann (did I mentioned I’m scared of those). We have to know how to interact with it without making it react bad on us. Berserkers theory feels like an invincible enemy might come instead of a probe dark monolith.

        Indeed fun to think about.

      • Yeah, it would be a big call for someone to make, adapting to the environment rather than adapting the environment, but that day may well come. I’ll have to check out Detonator Orgun. Thanks.

  4. Great write-up.
    Yeah, movie aliens tend to be fairly singular in their worldly species, but it could also be said that where our planet is concerned, not taking races or religion into account, human beings would be the representative species of the planet, right? Might be why I love the aliens of Babylon 5 more than Star Trek.
    And we did have a nice moment in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where the alien probe was searching to communicate with whales.
    In part of my own work tho, I did have alien visitors (or rather, exchange students of sorts) on Earth, but there were requirements within the story that they had to at least pass for humans, and adaptable to our atmosphere before they could partake in the exchange program. I even had them discuss comparisons between life on our planet and the planets they come from, pointing out certain similarities and acknowledging the basic symmetrical design of most species (probably not counting invertebrates).

    • Interesting point… convergent evolution describes how natural selection provides different organisms with similar solutions to a common problem. The best example is the eye, which has evolved independently at least 20 times! Why? Eyes are just so darn useful that as soon as some sensitivity to light develops, it bestows an evolutionary advantage and is refined and improved over numerous generations. In the same way, as you’re describing in your book, there’s going to be comparable aspects of human/alien physiology. Unless aliens evolved in a cave, they’re going to have eyes of some type, simply because it’s pretty darn hard to reach for the stars if you don’t know they’re there, etc. Fascinating to consider, though, isn’t it?

      • Right, “convergent evolution” – that’s the phrase. Something I picked up a long time ago from Carl Sagan’s documentary, Cosmos.
        I always figured that if aliens did walk or live among us, it was just likely that we would never really have noticed. We’re always looking into space for planets similar to ours on the assumption that life like ours would be abundant there – and if that possibility were true, the likelihood of aliens there being similar to us would be fairly high, with perhaps only a few physical differences given the environment they would evolve in.
        Just consider that in this day and age, within any city, how often are we likely to look up and really notice anyone who might really look out of place?

      • It’s fascinating to think about all this stuff. Aliens are probably not going to look anything like us, even with convergent evolution. Think of how different the eye of a human is to that of an octopus, or better yet, the compound eye of a fly. So via natural selection, convergent evolution came up with similar solutions for a particular problem (lack of sight) that are completely unrelated. Given how vast and diverse life on Earth is when there’s only four nucleotides in DNA, there’s a seemingly infinite amount of variation possible. So aliens could converge on eyes or hands (with or without using something similar to DNA) but in such a way that is as different to us as an octopus is physically. They could be physiological quite similar, with arms and legs, etc, but given the amount of variation possible just here on Earth, the odds are they’re probably not.

        You raise a very interesting point about not necessarily seeing what’s around us. And it’s something scientists do take seriously. They’re hunting for a shadow biosphere, another order of life that’s not part of the grand phylogenetic tree of life. Such life could have originated independently on Earth or been introduced, and we could stare right at it and not even notice. It’s a bit like me seeing a rock where a scientist sees a fossilized bone. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, even the most remarkable objects can seem mundane, but scientists are looking :)

  5. I concur with ObiWan (who am I to contradict a master jedi?)… also, the shadow biosphere is a very interesting concept indeed, but they will have to come up with very good evidence to confirm its discovery. Just look at the arsenic-based bacteria case not so long ago…

    • Yeah, speculation is interesting from a hypothetical perspective but until there’s hard evidence it’s nothing more than a nice idea. Without evidence that can be consistently and repeatedly examined, explored and studied it holds no weight.

  6. I was listening to Metallica out loud when the thought hitted me: does an alien culture have art, music and appreciation for aesthetics that is not for balancing out and preserving it’s own existence? If they are very much different, I’m pretty sure their brains don’t work the same way as ours and that they are likely to be all sociopaths without emotions or with different form of emotional bonding… and I’m tripping here…

    • Hah… heavy metal will do that to you… I’d be surprised if an advanced alien civilization didn’t have art, as aesthetics/creativity are an outlet for intelligence. Beauty, though, is in the eye of the beholder. If they “see” in an entirely different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, their equivalent of Rembrandt could appear as a blank sheet of white paper to our eyes. Hey, maybe that means Andy Warhol was an alien :)

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