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Clifford Pickover

to an intelligent human.  With only slightly different starting conditions on Earth, humans would not have evolved. In other words, evolution is so sensitive small changes that if we were to rewind and play back the ‘tape’ of evolution, and raise initially the Earth’s overall temperature by just a degree, humankind would not exist. The enormous diversity of life today represents only a small fraction of what is possible. Moreover, if humans were wiped out today, humans would not arise again.  This means that on another world, the same genetic systems and genes will not arise. This also suggests that finding another planet with humans, dinosaurs, or apes is more unlikely than finding an island in Lake Michigan where the inhabitants speak English through dog-like snouts.

Given all this, I should point out that evolution on Earth tells us a lot about possible alien shapes. Although every detail must be different, there are patterns of general problems, and common solutions to those problems, that would apply to life on aliens worlds. In the course of Earth’s history, whenever lifeforms have had a problem to solve, they have solved it in remarkably similar ways. For example, three very unrelated animals–a dolphin (a mammal), a salmon (a fish), and an ichthyosaur (an extinct reptile)– all have swam in coastal waters darting about in search of small fish to eat. These three creatures have very little to do with one another either biochemically, genetically, or evolutionarily, yet they all have a similar look. To a first approximation, they are nothing more than living, breathing, torpedoes.  Despite their differences they have evolved a streamlined body to help them quickly travel through the water. This is an example of convergent evolution, and we might expect aquatic aliens that feed on smaller, quick-moving aliens to also have streamlined bodies. 

With convergent evolution, successful solutions arise independently in different animal lines separated in time and place. The reason for the similarity of solutions is clear: Animals encounter similar environmental problems and cope with them in a similar way because that solution is an efficient one. These universal solutions will be found on other planets with life.

David: How do you think science, philosophy, art and entertainment may have developed in an advanced extraterrestrial culture?  

Clifford: First let us ponder what aliens would consider as beautiful art. Would an alien race of intelligent robots prefer a combination of graffiti-like figures echoing the art of children and primitive societies, or would they prefer the cold regularity of wires in a photograph of a Pentium computer chip? If we were to give these aliens a musical CD, they should be able to conclude we have an understanding of patterns, symmetry, and mathematics. They may even admire our sense of beauty and appreciate the gift. What more about us would our art reveal to them?  What would alien art reveal to us? Whatever their aesthetic differences, alien math and science might be similar to ours, because I believe that the same kinds of mathematical truths will be discovered by any intelligent aliens. But its not clear our art would be considered beautiful or profound to aliens. After all, we have a difficult time ourselves determining what good art is.

Because alien senses would not be the same as ours, it’s very difficult to determine what their art or entertainment would be like. If you were to visit a world of creatures who primary sense was smell and who had little or no vision, their architecture might seem visually quite boring. Instead of paintings hanging on the walls of their home, they might use certain aromatic woods and other odor-producing compounds strategically positioned on their walls. Their counterparts of Picasso and Rembrandt wouldn’t make paintings but would position exquisite concoctions of bold and subtle perfumes. Alien equivalents of Playboy magazine would be visually meaningless but awash in erotic aromas. Their culinary arts could be like our visual or auditory arts: eating a meal with all its special flavors would be akin to listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. If all the animals on their world had a primary sense of smell, there would be no colorful flowers, peacock’s tails, or beautiful butterflies. Their world might look gray and drab…. But instead of visual beauty, an enchanting panoply of odors would lure insects to flowers, birds to their nests, and aliens to their lovers.

If we were able to extend our current senses in range and intensity, we could glimpse alien sense-domains. Think about bees. Bees can see into the ultraviolet, although they do not see as far as we do into the red range of the spectrum. When we look at a violet flower, we do not see the same thing that bees see.  In fact, many flowers have beautiful patterns that only bees can see to guide them to the flower. These attractive and intricate patterns are totally hidden to human perception.  

If we possessed sharper sight we would see things that are too small, too fast, too dim, or to transparent for us to see now. We can get an inkling of such perceptions using special cameras, computer-enhanced images, night-vision goggles, slow-motion photography, and panoramic lenses, but if we had grown up from birth with these visual skills, our species would be transformed into something quite unusual. Our art would change, our perception of human beauty would change, our ability to diagnose diseases would change, and even our religions would change. If only a handful of people had these abilities, would they be hailed as Messiahs?

If technologically advanced aliens exist on other worlds, Earthlings have only recently become detectable to them with our introduction of radio and TV in the latter part of the 1900s. Our TV shows are leaking into space as electromagnetic signals that can be detected at enormous distances by receiving devices not much larger than our own radio telescopes.  Whether we like it or not, Paris Hilton’s sex video is heading to Alpha Centauri and South Park is shooting out to the constellation Orion. What impressions would these shows make on alien minds? It is a sobering thought that one of the early signs of terrestrial intelligence might come from the mouth of Bart Simpson.

Similarly, if we receive our first signal from the stars, could it be the equivalent of “The Three Stooges,” with bug-eyed aliens smashing each other with green-goo pies?  What if our first message from the stars was alien pornography that inadvertently leaked out into space?  SETI funding would be even more difficult if the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other conservatives found that our first extraterrestrial message was of a hard-core Playboy–and our first images were of aliens plunging their elephantine proboscises into the paroxysmal esophagus of some nubile, alien marsupial.

As hard as it may be to stomach, our entertainment will be our earliest transmissions to the stars. If we ever receive inadvertent transmissions from the stars, it will be their entertainment. Imagine this. The entire Earth sits breathlessly for the first extraterrestrial images to appear on CNN. One of our preppy-and-perfect news anchors appears on our TVs for instant live coverage. And then, beamed to every home, are the alien equivalents of Pamela Anderson in a revealing bathing suit, Beavis and Butthead mouthing inanities and expletives, and an MTV heavy-metal band consisting of screaming squids.

This is not such a crazy scenario. In fact, satellite studies show that the Super Bowl football action, which is broadcast from more  transmitters than any other signal in the world, would be the most easily detected message from Earth. The first signal from an alien world could be the alien equivalent of a football game. Lesson one: we had better not assess an entire culture solely on the basis of their entertainment. Lesson two: you can learn a lot about a culture from their entertainment.

David: What are your thoughts on the evolution of intelligence, and why do you think that animal brains have been increasing in size and complexity over time?    

Clifford: Despite what we see in Star Wars and Star Trek, I don’t expect intelligence and technology to be an inevitable result of evolution on other worlds. Since the beginning of life on Earth, as many as 50 billion species have arisen, and only one of them has acquired technology. If intelligence has such high survival value, why are so few creatures intelligent? Mammals are not the most successful or plentiful of animals. Ninety-five percent of all animal species are invertebrates. Most of the worm species on our planet have not even been discovered yet, and there are a billion insects wandering the Earth. 

If humankind were destroyed in some great cataclysm, there is very little possibility that our level of intelligence would ever be achieved on Earth again. The historian of science C. Owen Lovejoy regards cognition as

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