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THE PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF INTELLIGENT ALIENS

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  • Royce Holleman
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      THE FOLLOWING MATERIAL IS MADE AVAILABLE BY

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      SOURCE: Journal of the British Interplanetary Society

      Vol 32, pp.99-102,1978

      TITLE: THE PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF INTELLIGENT ALIENS

      AUTHOR: N.J. SPALL

      Bearsted, Nr. Maidstone, Kent, England

      ABSTRACT

      ------------------------------------------------------------

      There can be little doubt that one of the most important factors that will

      determine the manner in which our society reacts should contact ever be

      established with intelligent extraterrestrial (ET) life forms will be the

      physical appearance,or morphology, of the alien. All the prejudices, the

      fears, the mistrust and the bigotry that exists amongst the races that make up

      mankind will be focusswed into this reaction. Thus, speculating on the

      morphology of an intelligent alien is important for the future of space

      exploration. Serious efforts are now being made around the world in the field

      known as Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the manner in

      which our society reacts to contact will depend to a great extent on the

      appearance of the alien. Anticipation of the possibilities now may reveal

      whether a shock for the world is likely. It is also useful to consider alien

      morphology in terms of gaugin g how lok ely the chances of intelligent aliens

      evolving really are.

      ------------------------------------------------------------

      1. AN APPROACH TO THE SUBJECT

      The problem of trying to anticipate the physical appearance of the ET is at

      first sight ludicrously impossible. To start with, we don't even know if

      intelligent ETs exist, let alone what their planet of origin is like or what

      their morphology may be.

      Our task is therefore limited to using what knowledge we have of the evolution

      of intelligent life on Earth, considering possible extraterrestrial planetary

      environments and making a series of reasonable assumptions. A combination of

      biology, zoology, and anthropology is required as well as the newer science of

      exobiology. Most important, the overriding thought when considering the

      subject should be "how would this imagined alien become intelligent?"



      2. THE TWO VIEWS

      Conveniently, disagreement over the likely appearance of intelligent ETs

      divides itself into two opposing camps. On one side are those who take a

      rather anthropormorphic view of the ET and believe that it would basically be

      humanoid in shape with two ,arms, two legs, a head at the top of the body and

      the main















      sense organs located on the head. Opposing this view are those exobiologists

      who believe that the intelligent ET is bound to appear exotic because the

      creature would inevitably have taken a totally different evolutionary path

      from man and would have arisen in a very un-earthlike planetary environment.

      This article will show, however, that the case put forward by the non-humanoid

      ET protagonists will not stand up to the example of the evolution of

      intelligent life on Earth, nor the necessities of morphology that a creature

      requires to become intelligent. It is therefore suggested here that any

      intelligent life across the galaxy will have evolved into a basically humanoid

      form.



      3. EXOTIC BIOLOGY

      A possibility often suggested by more radical exobiologists is that

      extraterrestrial life might depend on a chemistry that does not require the

      carbon atom. Bracewell [1] has proposed that life could make use of the

      chemistry of the silicon atom rather than the carbon atom. Silicon based

      organisms would, for example, breathe out silicon dioxide (sand) instead of

      carbon dioxide. The rock eating creature has often been suggested as a product

      of this biological system. [An example of this can be seen in the ST AR TREK

      episode about the horta. AB]

      The problem is that silicon polymers of the protein type are unlikely to from

      the compounds essential for for chemical evolution. Bieri [2] points out that

      the energy requirements for duplicating a living system are fulfilled only by

      carbon and the hight energy phosphate bond.

      It is very difficult to envisage any life other than that based on the carbon

      compounds forming in water. Unfortunately this limits the planetary

      considerations necessary for the evolution of larger sized organisms somewhat

      severely -- in fact it restricts planets that may have intelligent to those

      with broadly Earth-like surface temperatures and pressures. (It also restricts

      the type of star that may shine on life producing planets -- the DNA molecule

      is sensitive to high levels of radiation, particularly the ultraviolet.

      What of possible creatures that could get by without requiring the

      availability of an Earth-like oxygen rich atmosphere? The conjectured

      'balloon' creatures floating in the gas belts of Jupiter and using, instead of

      oxygen, a metabolism of hydrogen -- could they ever become intelligent ETs?

      And what is wrong with with Fred Hoyle's "Black Cloud," an intelligent gas

      cloud thousands of kilometres across? The answer lies in our prime question,

      "how could this creature become intelliegent?" Intelligence, it is argued

      later, will probably only arise from astimulating predatory existence in a

      harsh but survivable physical environment.

      Conceding defeat to the necessity for life to be based on carbon in a water

      medium, the exotic morphology ET supporters suggest that there are enormous

      variations open to chance evolution even under Earth-like conditions. Slight

      differences in surface pressure, temperature, gravity or solar radiation, they

      argue, will produce widely divergent evolutionary trends [3]. Steen[4]

      suggests that intelligent ETs might be insect like, bird like, fish like or

      even plant like. They may be spherical in shape, glutinou s, jelly-like

      creatures, such as as "Quatermass" might meet, or possibly even a planet sized

      oceanic intelligence such as that in Stanislaw Lem's novel "Solaris."

      For less bizarre (but still very exotic) alien creatures proposed for

      extraterrestrial life bearing planets, the exhibits on display at the National

      Air and Space Museum's "Life in the Universe" section in Washington, DC

      provides

















      some good examples of exotic aliens [5]. Biologist Bonnie Dalzell has designed

      for a dry Earth-like world the "hexalope," a six legged antelope. For a high

      gravity planet, we are presented with the "bandersnatch," a monstrous

      herbivore with eight legs, a large mouth in its chest, two eyes on stalks and

      ears along the side of its body -- the creature weighs 30,000 lbs. on its 3-G

      world! The intelligent ET that Dalzell presents us with is a six legged toad

      like creature.

      Life on Earth shows us just how strange creatures can become in the chain of

      evolution. The giraffe is a good example of this. But it is highly unlikely

      that these creatures could ever become intelligent.



      4. THE ANTHROPORMORPHIC VIEW

      The problem ignored by exotic ET protagonists is that speculation on the

      morphology of the ET must take account of the lessons taught us by

      evolutionary development on Earth.

      (The argument for humanoid ETs given here is based on the works of Robert

      Bieri [2], N.J. Berrill [6] and Robert Puccetti [7])

      In the early period of the development of life on Earth, organic matter based

      on carbon compounds began in a water medium before the invasion of the land.

      The early sea bound creatures developed a critical characteristic that would

      decide the future form of land dwellers -- that of bilateral symmetry in the

      shape of the body. This shape reduced water resistance and turbulence to a

      minimum and became the characteristic of all the higher creatures of the sea.

      It can be seen that adoption of a predatory way of marine life has has

      developed has developed bilaterally symmetrical creatures as diverse as the

      squid, the penguin, the seal, the otter and the large fish. Radially symmetric

      ocean dwelling creatures all adopt a relatively stationary way of lif, jelly

      fish, sea anenomae etc., having a loss of sensitivity and degeneration of the

      nervous system when compared to the more active predators.

      Bieri points out that predatory animals with complex nervous systems and

      bilateral symmetry possess the largest and most important sensing and grasping

      organs close to the mouth. Also, digestion and excretion is most convenient

      with an anterior mouth and posterior anus for an active hunting animal. In

      order to reduce time for for nerve impulses to travel from the sensing organs,

      the brain is at the head.



      5. CONCEPTUALISM AND INTELLIGENCE



      Conceptualisation, it would seem, can arise only in a land animal. Birds

      cannot possess brains large enough for this due to the fact that they must be

      light in weight and have hollow bones to fly. A large intelligent brain

      requires a considerable amount of blood and therefore a heavy cardiovascular

      system -- both these factors would lead to an impossible power to weight ratio

      for an intelligent airborne creature. It is also difficult to imagine an

      intelligent ET evolving from gliding winged creatures such as the the flying

      squirrel (which glides from trees with the use of membranes under its front

      legs) -- it is too small to evolve intelligence. It is doubtful that even a

      gliding creature as large as the extinct Pterodactyl could ever develop a

      large enough brain.

      The question of intelligence arising in sea animals is somewhat more complex

      due to the fact that the whale family happens to possess large brain capacity,

      a













      very advanced system of communication and displays remarkable feats of

      intelligence. However, conceptualisation, as Puccetti attempts to define it,

      seems to arise in conjunction with a social existence, speech and the use of

      tools. The development of tool usage undersea is extremely difficult due to

      the density and viscosity of water. Predatory sea animals rely on their

      natural hunting equipment -- teeth, streamlining, speed, etc. -- rather than

      weapons and tools. Only semi-land creatures, such as beavers a nd otters (both

      mammals) possess any sort of manipulating appending and these they use on the

      surface.

      How the whale family came to develop such a large cerebral capacity tends to

      cast some doubt on the whole question of conceptualisation development. Here

      it is assumed that whales are clever, but do not conceptualise on their

      existence.

      An encounter, therefore, with a race of intelligent aliens who are either

      aquatic, reptilian or are creatures capable of flight and who developed

      conceptualisation characteristics with a high level of technology, seems

      highly unlikely. Our intelligent ETs would have to be land dwellers.



      6. THE PREDATORY SUPREMACY



      It should be emphasized that it seems most likely that all intelligent

      conceptualising creatures in the galaxy will have their own origins in

      predatory animals. Man's origins appear to stem from herbivore apes that,

      faced with climatic and vegetation changes, left the trees, became omniverous

      and adapted to running on the savannah, hunting other animals in groups and

      using their ability to grasp and manipulate to develop weapons, tools and

      eventually a basic technology. It is difficult to imagine a animal b othering

      to use weapons and tools, firstly if it was a fully adapted herbivore and

      secondly if it was already a competent predator, such as the lion or tiger.

      Arthur C. Clarke describes this critical paththat the early hunting apes had

      to take extremely well in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (although of course he did not

      let his apes develop their technology purely on their own initiative.)

      Man has remained the only creature with a technology on this planet because of

      his predatory hunting nature, despite the basic ingenuity of creatures such as

      the ant with its ingenoius city like hills, chimpanzees which can fish out

      termites with sticks, and birds that can break shells with heavy stones and

      the sea otter that can break open shells by floating on its back and beating

      them against stones on its chest. These creatures have stretched their

      manipulative abilities to the limits.



      7. MOVING AROUND



      The development of legs, arms and grasping appendages is critical to our

      conceptual ET's road to intelligence. A primitive technology will require the

      ability to hold and manipulate, with some degree of sensitivity, basic tools

      and weapons such as clubs, spears, knives and twine. The intelligent ET must

      have this manipulative capability combined with speed of movement, otherwise

      it will remain in its comfortable environment (as did the dolphin) and we

      would certainly never meet it stepping out of a star shi p.

      As a method of movement, sliding, wriggling and rolling are all much too slow

      for the land predator. As Puccetti points out, walking is the only viable

      means of moving at high speeds and for long distances. The wheel was never

      used as a means of locomotion by nature except in some tiny bacteria. Although

      the reciprocating knee joint in the human leg can put up with large shock

      loads and the shoulder aND hip joints can rotate through a considerable arc,

      it is difficult to imagine an organic bearing that coul d rotate through 360

      degrees.







      Insect like appendages are unlikely. Insects possess legs that are basically

      hollow cylinders with muscles and tendons inside the skeletal tube. The

      problem with this arrangement is that if the creature grows in size the tube

      will constrain the inner muscle size -- hence the Tarantula being the largest

      land insect left since prehistoric times. Hard levers and struts surrounded by

      muscles and tendons, as in land walking vertebrates, is a much more likely

      arrangement in the predator land dwelling alien.

      The question of the number of legs is one of the most contentious when

      discussed by those speculating on the morphology of the intelligent ET. The

      four legs that we have are the product of genetic inheritance from our

      earliest mammal ancestors; but this inheritance allowed us great speed of

      movement and thus playeda major factor in the development of intelligence. One

      leg is out of the question -- the creature could never get up if it ever fell

      over. Odd numbers are unlikely because of balance problems. Mor e than four

      can only be found in insects. Galloping after prey with six legs is too

      complex for land predators (and herbivores, as we have established, are

      unlikely to become intelligent). Each leg has to swing through a wide arc for

      speed and with more than four this becomes very difficult.



      Monkeys and apes can use their two legs for manipulation but have to run on

      both arms and legs together. Indeed the ape cannot use weapons to hunt whilst

      running on all fours. It is difficult to imagine the development of an

      intelligent hunting animal animal such as man running on two sensitive

      grasping appendages. Thus we have the evolutionary step of the conversion of

      one pair of legs to manipulating, pushing and pulling devices and the other

      pair to movement. In this way the creature optimises between hi gh speed

      movement and delicate manipulation.



      8. SENSORY ORGANS



      So far we have formulated the picture of an intelligent ET with a body much

      like our own. Its sensory organs, however, show characteristics that are

      somewhat different, though not greatly.

      Sense organs would largely depend on the characteristics of the aliens

      planetary environment and the illumination provided by the local sun.

      More than two eyes is rare in land creatures -- the spider possesses multiple

      eyes, but they are of doubtful sensitivity, and would confuse a large hunting

      creature. Stereoscopic vision near to the brain and high on the body is the

      most suitable. Binaural hearing would seem the most logical. This is required

      for location bearing -- and thus the ET requires just two ears. Again these

      would be on the head. Only one mouth is needed with the smell sensor close to

      it and taste sensors inside it. The smell sensor can be used for breathing,

      whilst the mouth is occupied with eating and drinking.

      Additional sensory devices such as bat like acoustic ranging systems or infra

      red sensors similar to those possessed by the rattlesnake, are possible. But

      as Bieri points out, the imply a corresponding reduction of vision in the

      normal sun illuminated spectrum. As we have established above that carbon life

      probably only develops on planets with suns much like our own we can assume

      that the visual spectrum would be similar to that on Earth for the alien ET.

      Although, therefore, the sensors of the ET are similar to our own, the

      placement on the head and their form might be quite different. Odd shaped

      heads are likely, different ear shapes and sizes most probable and eye size

      and colour would be different.













      9. THE LIKELY ET APPEARANCE



      The argument presented above gives backing to the anthropormorphic view of the

      intelligent ET -- that is that the creature would be basically humanoid. But

      this only a starting point. What would the intelligent ET look like in detail?

      This question is, of course, even more difficult to contemplate than

      speculating on the ET's likely basic form. However, here are a number of

      possible variables to consider:

      1. SIZE AND BUILD -- The height and build of the alien has often been

      suggested as being related to the gravity on the creature's palnet of origin.

      A planet slightly larger than Earth, witha subsequently higher gravity would

      result in the alien being squatter, with heavy bones and a powerful physique

      -- in other words, something like a gorilla. On the other hand, a lower

      gravity planet would result in taller, more spindly aliens. This argument is a

      little simplistic in its conclusion and does not explain th e wide range in

      the sizes of Earth creatures -- for example, why is there such a large

      variation in the size and build of the apes, all of which are fairly clever

      animals?





      It seems probable that one can draw parameters about the ET's size, the likely

      range being between the smallest of the human races (the pygmy) at about 4

      1/2 feet tall and the upper limit being around 7 1/2 feet tall. If the alien

      is very much heavier than man, he would have problems with running for long

      distances in pursuit of prey in his early development as a land predator and

      would require a very large supply of readily available food to maintain

      himself.

      One interesting point about man is that we appear to be getting taller due to

      our evolution, our bodies are losing their broader muscles and our heads

      changing shape. It is more than likely that the humanoid intelligent alien

      also experiences this form of slow morphological evolution due to changes in

      dietary nutrition and life style. There is, of course, no guarantee tha the

      alien will meet man as we appear now. An intelligent alien basing his

      conception of what man looks like from previously discovered sp acecraft

      message devices (such as those carried by Pioneers 10 and 11), or picked up TV

      images in, say, 50,000 years time, may be in for a surprise when he meets a

      hairless, chinless, towering egghead from Earth!

      Equally interesting is the question of the differences between the male and

      the female of the intelligent aliens' species. Would the two be quite

      different morphologically as in the case of homo sapiens, or would the two be

      virtually indistinguishable as with some creatures on Earth?



      2. SKIN COLOUR -- The wide variation in skin colour and tone with creatures on

      the Earth is enough to indicate the extreme range that couldoccur with the

      intelligent ET. Indeed, why would the ET have a smooth skin? It is possible

      that fur may cover the alien having been left behind after an evolution

      stemming from a bear like creature, for example. (indeed, it is interesting to

      wonder whether whiskers, or some sort of delicate sensory feelers may remain

      with an intelligent creature after it has begun to rel y on its hands).



      3. FACIAL ARRANGEMENT -- This, as already stated, is mainly constrained by the

      smell and taste sensors being close to the mouth and by the need for stereo

      vision and binaural hearing. Beyond this the facial arrangement possibilities

      would be reasonably wide.













      4. NUMBER OF FINGERS/TOES -- Again, variations could be wide although beyond

      ten fingers or toes on each hand or leg would seem excessive and difficult for

      the brain to coordinate. Less than four fingers on the hand would make basic

      technology difficult to manipulate.



      5. INTERNAL CHARACTERISTICS -- The internal digestive, cardiovascular and

      pulmonary systems inside the intelligent ET would most likely be quite

      different and it is not possible to list all the variations within the

      confines of this article.





      10. THE LIKELY REACTION



      Our immediate impressions of the intelligent ET will be critical to how

      society later reacts to the contact. The theme of this article is that,

      because of the evolutionary demands to become intelligent and the probable

      similarity between Earth and the alien planet, the intelligent ET will be

      basically humanoid in form. Therefore, our reaction will most likely not be

      too extreme.



      Various questions, however, remain. For example, how far will the ET have

      evolved beyond the humanoid morphology?

      It is unlikely that prosthetics will change the basic form of the ET. In

      general, artificial limbs (and bionics) are intended to resemble those

      currently possessed. The aliens' view of good looks will be determined by the

      most perfect and healthy of its species. Consequently any artificial aids will

      be designed to blend with the pure form of the alien -- contact lenses

      replacing glasses is a good example of this.

      It is difficult to imagine the advanced alien ever giving up its basic body

      appearance. Some writers have suggested that semi-immortality might be

      achieved by removing the brain from the failing body and installing it in a

      machine, thus creating the cyborg. If this is ever done it is likely that man

      would want the new machine bodyto resemble the original organic body shape. An

      even more radical idea is that once the alien has developed very high levels

      of knowledge and consciousness, the mind may even be li berated from the body.

      If this occurred we might never discover its original appearance.

      A final question is to what degree will alien clothing and cosmetics mask the

      basic morphology? Fashions can enhance and emphasise body shapes in certain

      cases with our own current civilization -- possibly the same will occur in the

      intelligent ET's society. Hair styling, however, is an example of how

      sometimes fashion can seriously alter the shape of the body. Also, any

      spacesuit or breathing apparatus might appear unusual.

      Unfortunately, only through the discovery of artifacts or through contact

      itself will we ever learn what the actual morphology of the alien may be.

      Indeed, the chances are that the first close encounter with an alien

      civilization will be via the radio telescope. Video pictures will in this

      situation have to suffice for many years in the place of face to face contact.

      It is the conclusion of this paper that these images of the intelligent ET

      will not shock us; they may surprise and intrigue us, but it is unlikely that

      mankind will find the alien fearful in physical appearance.

      Hopefully, the ET will feel the same way about us.













      REFERENCES

      1. R.N. Bracewell, "Life in the galaxy," reprinted in INTERSTELLAR

      COMMUNICATION, ed. A. Cameron (Benjamin, NY 1963).

      2. Robert Bieri, "Humanoids on other planets?" AMERICAN SCIENTIST, LII

      December, 1964

      3. P.M. Molton, "Is anyone out there?" SPACEFLIGHT, 15,p.250, July, 1973

      4. S.W.P. Steen in the review of Freudenthals "Lincos" language, BRITISH

      JOURNAL OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, 336, (1962)

      5. D. Dooling, "Speculating on man's neighbours," SPACEFLIGHT, 17, p232,

      (Juen, 1975)

      6. N.J. Berrill, "Worlds without end," Chapters 9 and 10

      7. Roland Puccetti, "Persons: a study of possible moral agents in the

      universe," Macmillan, 1968



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