Aliens resembling humans should have evolved elsewhere, author claims in new book

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A leading evolutionary biologist and professor Simon Conway Morris has penned a new book entitled “The Runes of Evolution” wherein he has put forward a theory based on convergent evolution that extraterrestrial aka aliens resembling humans should have evolved on other Earth-like planets somewhere in the Universe.

Conway Morris makes the case for a ubiquitous “map of life” that governs the way in which all living things develop. He claims that evolution is far from random, and 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 the 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 said.

“Convergence is one of the best arguments for Darwinian adaptation, but its sheer ubiquity has not been appreciated,” Conway Morris, a Fellow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, says. “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,” he said.

Conway Morris has previously raised the prospect that alien life, if out there, would resemble earthlings – with limbs, heads, and bodies – 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 characterise 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 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”.

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.”

‘The Runes Of Evolution’ is published by Templeton Press.