What’s the Worst-Case Scenario for Extraterrestrial Life—Like Us, Not Like Us, or None at All?

The worst case?

a) If they are like us. Ever read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? It is a counterfactual novel about the postwar world, with one tiny difference: The Germans have won. Like so much of Dick’s writing, it has a terrifying plausibility and is deeply unsettling. Well, we know we “ought” to have won, and once America was in the fray, victory was almost guaranteed. But things can go differently; a world dominated by Nazis isn’t unfortunately an impossibility. Now suppose that “out there” you have a cross between a storm-trooper and an Aztec priest?

b) Not like us. No chance I am afraid. We now know enough about evolution on this planet to show that an extraterrestrial civilization will be staffed, to use the words of Robert Bieri, by beings “that are just like us.”

c) No life at all. By far the most likely possibility. All alone in the Universe, a true fluke of Nature. Well, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything …

Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist in the department of earth sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Category: Q&A


6 Responses

  1. Michael Riolo says:

    Ya, I am not too sure how I feel about this article. Just because we have the “theory of evolution” and lets not lose sight of the fact that its theory, doesnt mean that life evolved the same way everywhere else. After all, we used to believe the world was flat and the earth was the center of the universe. So I will take modern science with a grain of salt. Until we can make a journey further than our own moon I think it is irresponsible and downright absurd to say that life evolves the same way all over the cosmos.

  2. mike says:

    Life is not a fluke, and they “theory” is that if we can find bacteria living in geothermal geysers and thriving in caves depths that will never see daylight then it will spawn under equal or greater constraints throughout the universe. Life in the universe is INHERENT. If you believe for an instant, that out of the billions of galaxies and trillions of planets orbiting stars, that you are unique or special, well then yes you would believe anything. Perhaps a flying spaghetti monster who grants wishes will agree with the notion that life is an accident.

  3. liz says:

    worst case scenario:

    a – of they are like us, possibly the worst case scenario in itself. Of course it would depend on how we discovered each other, if it was a mutual exchange of radio signals via seti I don’t think we would have anything to be concerned with for at least a few 100 years. If they came knocking on the atmospheric door however then a race similar to ourselves but with superior technology, conquistadors anyone?

    b – they’re not like us. Is highly likely and could go either way. See a plethora of sci fi movies to see what could happen if either reptiles, insects amongst other things evolved to a superior intelligence. Of course it could be something completely different. We may find it extremely difficult to communicate at all with them as they could be so different. Worst case scenario I would wreckon would be an insect/reptillian/avian style creature with survival of the fittest mindset, superior intelligence/technology that did not have emotions or capacity to empathise with other species. To be honest though if it was going to be a worst case scenario it would mean they were coming here to harvest us as plenty other planets easier for them to raid for minerals etc.

    c – highly, highly unlikely that there has never been any other life. There is probably lots. Worst case scenario is that intelligence is an anomoly of nature and intelligent species are doomed to self destruct making it impossible to evolve to the state to contact each other before they have destroyed themselves.

  4. mike says:

    Where do you get off assuming that all inteligence is violent and manipulative? Chances are, the only anomolous behavior is OURS. Do not undermine intelect by compairing human tendancies with those of species thousands of years more technologically AND sociologically advanced. We are most likely the “cavemen” of the universe, that is to say, BOTTOM of the food chain.

  5. liz says:

    If that comment was in response to me, I don’t think that at all, I was just highlighting “the worst case” scenario, which was what I took the article to be trying to define. Intelligence misuses or that lead to self destruction in my view would be the worst case scenario.

    I actually think that super intelligent beings would hopefully have evolved beyond violence, ego and destructive ambitions as they would see them as counter productive anyway.

  6. Rick says:

    What most folks miss out on is the arrangment where there are checks and balances in the Alien Agenda for this planet. First off, the planet is badly overpopulated, so it’s time to thin the heard. So called ‘Natural Disasters’ and plagues like AIDS are useful to the malevolent Aliens to bring earth’s population under control. The 2012 shift of the Earth’s poles will wipe out 1/2 to 2/3s of our population. This will make it easier to recolonize the planet with a new Alien Human Hybrid. It’s all being orchestrated. We are similar to an ant farm a child may have; The Intelligence of most Alien Races are in some instances 100,000 years more advanced than we are
    However, there are positive Alien races who monitor the planet and prevent the hostile Alien races from totally enslaving us. Simple checks and balances to keep ‘the ash can of the Universe’ from spinning out of control. Remember; the Universe will shed not one tear for our demise, if it comes to that. Earthlings will just be another failed experiment, and the Earth will be another planet ready for re-population.

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