Professor Simon Conway Morris at Cambridge University will tell a conference on alien life that extraterrestrials will most likely have evolved just like "earthlings" and so resemble us to a degree with heads, limbs and bodies.


Unfortunately they will have also evolved our foibles and faults which could make them dangerous if they ever did visit us on Earth.

The evolutionary paleobiologist's beliefs mean that science fiction films such as Star Wars and Star Trek could be more accurate than they ever imagined in depicting alien life.

Prof Conway Morris believes that extraterrestrial life is most likely to occur on a planet similar to our own, with organisms made from the same biochemicals. The process of evolution will even shape alien life in a similar way, he added.

“It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien planets operating in any manner other than Darwinian," he said.

"In the end the number of options is remarkably restrictive. I don't think an alien will be a blob. If aliens are out there they should have evolved just like us. They should have eyes and be walking on two legs.

"In short if there is any life out there then it is likely to be very similar to us."

Extra-terrestrials might not only resemble us but have our foibles, such as greed, violence and a tendency to exploit others' resources, claims Professor Conway Morris.

They could come in peace but also be searching for somewhere to live, and to help themselves to water, minerals and fuel he is due to tell a conference at the Royal Society, in London.

However he also thinks that because much of the Universe is older than us they would have evolved further down the line and we should have heard from them by now.

He believes it is increasingly looking like they may not be out there at all.

Thoughts on this?

Conway Morris is a big hitter in the scientific establishment. He is, however, a theist, and has "argued against materialism" according to wikipedia. But what are his arguments? Alas the press piece doesn't say. Kudos to anyone who finds the conference and posts the arguments.

“It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien planets operating in any manner other than Darwinian,"

Is this just an instance of a slightly woo scientist-theist failing to take into account that nature might be more imaginative than him?


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I'm going to come out and say it: this guy is an idiot. He plausibly has some narrow domain expertise in paleontology, but outside of that, he has no clue what he's talking about. Even on Earth, the most intelligent species are dolphins, crows and chimpanzees (including us); any alien intelligence is going to be more different from you than you are from a dolphin or bird. Star Trek aliens ("rubber forehead aliens") are more similar to us than we are to chimps; to call that "unrealistic" is a huge understatement. And, searching for water? Really? Water is composed of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, and oxygen is the third most abundant (after hydrogen and helium). A shortage of water is about the last problem an intergalactic civilization is going to have.

Why is this folly worthy of our notice?

Posting something suspect to allow the community to debunk it seems reasonable -- you yourself don't have to take notice, but let other people dismiss it for you. I suppose this could become a problem if people start asking the community to debunk outrageously stupid things as top level posts, but the karma incentives should work to minimize this. Personally, I'm prepared to blow my karma in order to get answers to things that I don't know.

I agree that in the site's current form, link sharing is often best relegated to the open thread.

Are we missing a January 2010 meta-thread or can I just not find it?

The January Open Thread is here.

No one has made a meta-thread for this month.

Meta-threads should be seasonal, not monthly (i.e. Winter 2010).

An interesting question is how such views persist in the fairly high echelons of the scientific community, and why he can't be debunked in peer reviewed journals.

Conway Morris is best known as a champion of convergent evolution - and about that he makes a number of good points.

I doubt his views about aliens will be debunked in peer-reviewed journals - since aliens are currently a rather speculative concept.

Conway Morris gets a lot of ridicle for his theology. I find it hard to get people to discuss his main ideas - since they just look at the last chapter and conclude that he is nuts.

Anecdotally, I think an emerging consensus is that convergent evolution is more rare than we have thought. Based on genetic information, things that appear convergent are merely divergent from a really long time ago.

I posted an example of this somewhere below regarding animal eyes.

I find the readiness to find examples of convergent evolution based on apparent physical (rather than genetic) data somewhat akin to quack medicine's conjecture that a herb or plant structure that resembles a human body/organ had the ability to heal ailments of that organ. (example:

"Convergent evolution" normally refers to a convergence of phenotypes - not genotypes.

Eyes have lots of genetic homology and are therefore not convergent by your own definition. Link is somewhere below in another comment.

I take your point, but I wonder how many of these examples would reveal evidence ancient divergence if further genetic testing were done.

In any case, what's the average time line of the common ancestor between any two of these examples? I'm guessing on the order of hundreds of millions of years?

When you draw the timeline back farther to the origin of life itself (3.5 billion years) the corresponding likelihood that evolution takes produces something similar to the present goes down.

Although if origin of life on earth is through seeding, perhaps the OP could be more likely

Thoughts on this?

Conway Morris has become attached to "convergent evolution" as a mechanism by which import his personal brand of theism back into science. Whilst I have no guarantee that he'll say the same things, here he seems to reveal his personal opinions. TL;DR is that evolution is predictable by convergence, add mind and recover god...

Given that his early work was on the Cambrian explosion, you'd expect that he have more of a clue than to assert that they will have evolved "just like us". I'd suggest this is an instance of a scientist compartmentalising his map, and distorting it with desiderata other that truth.

This is the conference. Found it through the guardian article.

Off the cuff thoughts. I see no reason at all why they couldn't have four legs and two arms. That is quadrapeds seem like a choice baked in early. I can see why intelligent aquatic life might have a harder time forming heavy industry due to lack of oxygen, but I don't think it is impossible that there are sentient squid out there. I'll read some more.

ETA: In a way it doesn't matter what the aliens originally looked like, I doubt we will see squid in a can coming our way for much the same reason that monkey in a can doesn't seem realistic. The TL;DR of that link is that to create a living self-sustaining biosystem requires too much mass and complexity, and having ultra advanced technology implies a singularity/uploads type scenario, so we wouldn't see their original bodies.

As to psychology, all bets are off if they have done significant self-modification.

I'll post some organic Kudos to you. What's your address?

I don't see why darwinian evolution would necessarily create humanoid aliens in other environments-- sure arguing that they are likely to have structures similar to eyes to take advantage of EM waves makes sense, and even arguing that they'll have a structure similar to a head where a centralized sensory-decision-making unit like a brain exists makes sense, but walking on two legs? Even looking at the more intelligent life-forms on our own planet we find a great diversity of structure: from apes to dolphins to elephants to octopi... All I'd say we can really gather from this argument is that aliens will look like creatures and not like flickering light rays or crystals or something incomprehensibly foreign.

No reasonable scientific evidence would suggest so. You're supposition is most likely correct. The OP's scientist's conjecture is anthropocentric drivel.

I predict that any intelligent species decended from apes or apelike animals will greatly resemble us.

Ones decended from proto-octopi will look different.

I'm not sure he's only slightly woo. Just because he's not a typical creationist doesn't mean he's not more woo. If he's got a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, then all his evolution talk is just science themed woo.

Also: He's saying they'll look like us if they're out there, but it looks like they're not out there. This seems like he's making a prediction that's exactly as precise as he thinks it's unfalsifiable.

Because we have a sample size of life of 1, and sample size of intelligent life of 1, we have very little way of figuring out what would the second sample look like.

One thing I'd be willing to bet on is that it will be based on CHONPS chemistry like us.

Or at least, if it is constructed rather than evolved, that its evolved ancestors are CHONPS

“It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien planets operating in any manner other than Darwinian,"

In that respect, I'd say he's right. I think Dawkins has said the same thing, in fact. But you're right that there's no reason to expect that any extraterrestrial life would look more like us than our most distant earthly relatives.

natural selection seems largely consistent with how other physical laws operate (and therefore we can model genetic evolution by using physical processes such as random walks, brownian motion, etc).

This is not a bad assumption.

But, by the same token, there's no reason to think that evolution will produce the same outcome everytime. Even if you have selection forces on a randomly moving particle the path and therefore outcome, will not be the same every time.

Is this guy's paper pretty much universally refuted by LWers?

I agree.

Have biochemists found any other molecular combinations that are of as good a fidelity as RNA and DNA to reliably transmit information?

But any DNA based combo could be equally likely. The superhappies of eliezer's fiction sounded like a DNA based species having genetic memory and they looked like blobs.

Depending on precisely what type of theist he is, his observations need be taken with an additional grain, or perhaps heaping tablespoon, of salt.

If he's even roughly Christian, ET life poses extraordinary problems, namely, if God created other sentient life, then we aren't special, like the bible says, and the bible is missing some rather large facts that are particularly difficult to explain the absence of. The only way to "solve" this is if there is no ET life (which may be why he says "it is increasingly looking like" despite our incredibly limited search capacity) or that it looks a whole lot like us. The latter would solve the problem because something that looked like us could still have been created "in the image of God." In a (purely) superficial way, rubber forehead aliens pose a smaller threat to the Bible than starfish aliens.

That's my best explanation for how someone ends up with the conclusion that a process occurring on an unknown world with an unknown atmosphere, unknown environment, unknown self-replicating molecules, unknown chemistry, unknown gravity, unknown methods of reproduction, unknown selective pressures, and unknown unknowns ends up looking like something that could seduce a young William Shatner. The only other explanation that occurs to me is that he just came to a conclusion early on and doesn't feel like honestly reconsidering it.

His argument is based on the idea that organisms evolve to fill some niche in an ecosystem, and that different ecosystems may develop niches that require similar characteristics. E.g. a "carnivore" niche may call for organisms with sharp teeth, fast movements, etc, and we should be unsurprised when we find that independently evolved carnivores on different continents on Earth all exhibit these same characteristics. He points out examples of independently evolved organisms that have ended up very similar due to this phenomenon (I think sabre tooth tigers and a particular ecosystem of rainforrest frogs were among his examples).

Morris posits humans as filling the "intelligent" niche, which he would claim requires many of the characteristics we exhibit, so he would say that if we "ran evolution a second time" then we may again end up with intelligent bipedal creatures not unlike humans.

the "sharp teeth" assumption is a silly one, because it requires evolution of earth-like mouths, digestive systems, etc. There is no reason whatsoever to assume evolution would take this course in two independent "trials."

Perhaps so, but I guess Simon Conway Morris would disagree here. He might point out the independent evolution of the camera eye in multiple phyla, or any of these: His view is certainly an extreme one but it's backed up by extensive evidence and shouldn't be dismissed off-hand.

that list is broken, but I take your point.

However, I'm not sure how relevant it is. Covergent evolution is quite rare, when you consider all of evolutionary history. The last common ancestor of cephalopod and vertebrates (camera eye) was 750 mya and had a distinct photorecevier. A recent studies have shown a 70% similarity in the gene expression profile between octopus and human eye tissue. This suggests that they are not so convergent as commonly thought. (source:;313/5795/1914)

Simmons suggest that convergent evolution, is not only possible but likely, by tacking on an extra almost 3 Billion years to this time scale? I doubt that our genetic material and/or cell structure would even be the same, given this amount of time.

Sounds like someone needs to check their priors.

Is this just an instance of a slightly woo scientist-theist failing to take into account that nature might be more imaginative than him?

The stuff you quoted has all the ear-marks of generalizing from one example. Your quip about nature being imaginative reminds me of Think Like Reality.

Personally, I know nothing of the subjects behind the statements. It just sounds like really restrictive statements about something that seems impossible to verify at this point in history.

This seems like a very limited, anthropogenic view of things. Because Prof. Conway can't imagine life evolving on a planet much different than our own, and he can't imagine intelligent life evolving out of a different niche as ourselves, he concludes that it is necessary for alien life to resemble ourselves.

How very Twilight-Zone like thinking.

Along these lines, has any scientists attempted running evolutionary algorithms to see if we can simulate approximations of spontaneous evolution of human-like life forms?

Along these lines, has any scientists attempted running evolutionary algorithms to see if we can simulate approximations of spontaneous evolution of human-like life forms?

Not exactly like that, or as complex, but I've been planning to do a small-scale simulator of evolution. It would achieve its computational shortcuts by having much simpler chemisty to work with: just enough so that you can have diverse types of reactions and a favored direction for them, and some type of self-replication is possible.

But the goal in my case is not to learn about extant species or alternate evolutionary paths, but rather, to explore the interplay between life, intelligence, thermodynamics, and complexity. Issues like: under what conditions can a self-replicator become more complex while continuing to replicate? What thermodynamic conditions permit systems to stay very far from equilibrium (i.e. become dissipative systems)? What rules must "intelligence" adhere to, and what costs must it pay?

I'd be very interested in seeing the results of such an experiment. Is this intended to be for AI-related research, by the way?

Yes, though not in affiliation with any university or other group. And it's as much for my understanding as to come up with something novel.

Be patient though: I announced my intentions to do this ~4 months ago, and still haven't done anything on the implementation side. I've just been reading books and papers about those topics and gleaning insights on how they relate.

I've been involved in that kind of research: in short, we lack the computer power to do it at the moment.

Do you have an estimate of how much would be required?

I think it would be impossible for humans, but possible for a super-intelligence that could intelligently take shortcuts and cut corners without skewing its results. Even then, I think it would take dyson-sphere levels of computer power.

Modern computers can't even simulate one protein folding in real time as far as I know, and simulating a whole ecosystem is unimaginably harder than that.

What are his arguments - against materialism? It seems to have something to do with the afterlife:

"This may be a distortion of the time in which we fortuitously find ourselves; what was rare in the last four thousand million years of evolutionary history might be common in the next four thousand million years. Weak support for this argument might come from the most closely related species to us, the Neandertals. Perhaps independently they developed some sort of sense of an afterlife, at least to judge from their practice of deliberate burial. Materialists will scoff at this as a shared delusion, but there are metaphysical alternatives that are perhaps more fruitful."

  • The Crucible of Creation, p. 6.

I am absolutely willing to accept that there is life out there in the universe that looks like us, or the aliens James Cameron made up for the movie Pandora. However, it seems unlikely that most life in the universe is like us. We could quickly contrast with the similarly dumbed down press piece about the possibility of non-human like aliens.

As a more rigorous counter-example, here is a relatively rigorous description of inorganic life: (not very good popular summary) (2004 abstract, talks about plasma clouds with dust boundaries) (2007 abstract)

I wonder if a living plasma dust cloud could evolve the ability to communicate with a probe sent by transhumans. I'd put the odds above 1%.

If anyone has access to the papers, please email them to me or upload them on Scribd. The main idea I want to understand is what "Self-organizing structures are frequently seen both in laboratory and natural conditions" means, especially with regards to natural conditions and if the scientists have any probability estimates for how common helical growing plasma dust clouds are in the universe.