Speculations on Alien Life
👽

Speculations on Alien Life

All of our conceptions of what aliens might be like are usually human bodies with heads or faces an artistic mix between human and other animals of earth.

Their civilisations are usually very similar to our own.

We must first see alien life to be able to imagine it.

Range of alien life

We have pretty much no idea.

So it is fertile ground for speculation, and that is exactly what this section is all about.

Even with low end estimates for the probability of life occurring on a planet, with so many galaxies in the universe you still end up with estimates of civilisations in the hundreds of billions, and for more basic life it is many magnitudes higher than that.

With quantities like these, some truly crazy things must be around. We are free to speculate what lies deep in the universe beyond our ability to detect, like dragons and monsters on the edge of an ancient map.

There is also considerable overlap in this section with speculation on what the future of humanity may hold.

Extrapolating from animal strategies

Perhap you can use Animal strategies use this to speculate on Alien life, based on strategic requirements.

(I.e. "Being militarily strong would be advantageous for an alien civilisation", as opposed to "E.T. must have some kind of an armed forces" - like Sharing the Universe by Seth Shostak)

Intelligent aquatic species

A form of life that lives in oceans or lakes and that develops intelligence and tool use, or even civilisation, is by no means something that is out of the question.

Perhaps they would have limbs like the octopus or cuttlefish with which they could manipulate and shape their environment. They could also be huge in size, due to the same physics that gives Earth's blue whale its great size; the extra buoyancy of the surrounding liquid happily supports huge bodies in a way that an atmosphere cannot.

Their feats of engineering would be very interesting, as they would have to adapt to the limitations of oceans and lakes. Most metals, the key to humanity's first era of tool use (and every subsequent one, really) rust under water. Radio waves cannot penetrate water at long distances, so something else must be used for long distance communication. Imagine the suits they may create to walk on land, or spaceships full of liquid.

To an intelligent species such as these, we might appear equally as intriguing to them as they would to us. From their perspective perhaps, we breathe an atmosphere containing high concentrations of the highly volatile and reactive oxygen, which could be like breathing hydrochloric acid for a species such as this.

Such a species may exist even within our Solar System, in the deep oceans of Europa or Enceladus.

image

-Wikipedia, Cuttlefish

image

Airborne species

Carl Sagan, the American astrophysicist and author, speculated on what life that could arise on a gas giant like Jupiter may be like, where it is all atmosphere and no solid ground (at least a pressure that any life could conceivably survive).

He described creatures that resembled vast, living balloons. They stay buoyant by pumping heavy gasses from their interiors, or by keeping a warm internal temperature via a kind of metabolism, fed by the sun or by consuming microorganisms. These creatures, which he called 'floaters' could be kilometers across, or even the size of cities.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

We could see them arrayed in great lazy herds as far as the eye could see, concentrated in the great updrafts in the enormous sea of cloud.

But these creatures may be just one part of a flourishing ecosystem. There may also be 'hunters', who eat the floaters for their organic molecules and their stores of energy, and are fast and maneuverable.

image

Synthetics

Nanomachine swarms

Advanced metal or crystal based life forms. Built as mechanical cell-based machines by an organic alien race.

Think of a tiny 3D printer that, if you give it raw materials, can create another tiny 3D printer.

Grey goo

If a species invented a nanomachine that could self-replicate from widely available materials, and that nanomachine escaped into the environment and without any failsafe measures, it could multiply so rapidly that its progeny could consume an entire planet.

This type of scenario is called 'grey goo'.

Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation

Imagine such a replicator floating in a bottle of chemicals, making copies of itself…the first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined.

Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation

Early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. 'Plants' with 'leaves' no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous 'bacteria' could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop — at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.

You can imagine a visiting spaceship venturing too close to a planet encased in grey goo. They may unknowingly encounter a particle or two in the upper atmosphere and end up with a stowaway on the outside of the ship, which may spread the goo to another planet.

Frightening, maddening, incomprehensible

One of the central concepts the 'cosmic horror' writer H.P. Lovecraft loved to revisit in his works was the dawning of realization of the immensity of the universe, and that this massive size means that almost everything that could happen, including the most grotesque and abominable, has happened.

Almost all things are permitted, and they probably have happened, because the universe is so large that it caters for almost all possibilities. This means that everyone's nightmares are practically real, and that they have happened somewhere, sometime. The most grotesque and hideous monsters populate the universe, committing the most abominable acts (god knows humanity has contributed its share of the abominable). The grotesque characters of Lovecraft's imagination are not necessarily real life, but they might as well be, because something as bad as them has probably happened or will happen at some point in the massive, sprawling starscape vistas of the universe.

Lovecraft created a pantheon of cosmic god-like entities who are not so much gods, as other beings that are beyond our comprehension. They may enslave or consume other species, or most often just ignore them as we would an amoeba, while the mind of the observer breaks and descends onto madness.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings... It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.

H.P. Lovecraft, Through the Gates of the Silver Key

It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence's whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign…

Wikipedia, Cosmicism

Lovecraft never conceived of them as supernatural; but extraterrestrials who understand and obey a set of natural laws, which to human understanding seem magical. These beings (the Great Old Ones, Outer Gods and others)—though dangerous to humankind—are portrayed as neither good nor evil, and human notions of morality have no significance for these beings. Indeed, they exist in cosmic realms beyond human understanding. As a symbol, this is representative of the kind of universe that Lovecraft believed in.

Lovecraft considers these imaginative descriptions to be close-enough approximations to what is indeed out there somewhere, simply because of the sheer vastness of the universe. This realization, if you really feel it, brings a crushing terror and if you think about it too much, possibly madness. He proposed that its horror is measureless, and we would be better off not comprehending it.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Similar ideas have been proposed from more scientific sources, although they tend to focus more on power differentials as a result of a technology and less on colourful descriptions of cosmic horror.

Michio Kaku, Impossible science

Imagine walking down a country road, and meeting an ant hill. Do we go down to the ants and say, "I bring you trinkets. I bring you beads. I give you nuclear energy and biotechnology. Take me to your leader?" Or we have the urge to step on a few of them?? […]

If ants in an ant hill detect a 10-lane superhighway being built near them, would they understand how to communicate with the workers? Would they assume that the workers communicate only on ant frequencies? In fact, the ants are so primitive that they would not even understand what a 10-lane superhighway was.

I think it's an awful idea to advertize our existence in space, without understanding the motives and intentions of possible alien civilizations.

Remember what happened to Montezuma and the Aztecs when they encountered Cortez and his band of cutthroats. Within a few months, the great Aztec civilization was demolished, and Cortez only had technology a few centuries at most ahead of the Aztecs. Imagine what would happen if we met a civilization a million years ahead of us. Instead of David vs. Goliath, it would be a fruit fly versus Goliath […]

Also, the main danger faced by ants confronting workers building a 10 lane superhighway is not that the workers want to eat the ants or conquer and enslave them. The main danger faced by the ants is that they will be paved over. Think of most animals in a forest. The main danger they face is not that humans will shoot them and eat them. No, the main danger is that humans will rob them of their habitat, and they will die as a consequence, even if the humans are not aware of this.

So we may live in a universe where even the most wild fiction may turn out to be true. Perhaps even dreams are not fanciful, but are interpretations of very real possibilities that have occurred somewhere, sometime.

image

Unknown artist, Cthulu

image

Unknown artist, Azathoth

image

Unknown artist, Nyarlathotep

image

Steve Somers, Yog-Sothoth

Non-carnivorous planet

Imagine: An alien planet filled with plant-equivalent and animal-equivalent life, like ours.

Except there are no animal-animal carnivores. How is this possible? If an animal kills/eats another, it is destroyed by the other animals.

Let’s call it “Mutually Enforced Protection”. (MEP). Pheromones released by death send every life form nearby into a revenge-frenzy, preventing carnivorism.

All of their energy goes into competing with each other by non-lethal means. Eventually this leads to intelligence and civilisation.

In their alien cultures, the brutality of carnivorous species and murder is unheard of and outrageous.

Now imagine that MOST planets have developed MEP, but Earth hasn’t.

Some planets develop civilisations, advanced enough to travel space, make contact with other space civilisations as well as discover ‘wild’ planets like Earth.

Earth was a surprise discovery. They soon discover Earth-life lacks the pheromones they’re used to, and when something is killed... almost inconceivably... nothing happens. No MEP reaction. Animals kill each other all the time.

Earth is considered one of the most brutal planets in the galaxy, the planetary equivalent of a dog-fighting pit. Not just because of the slaughter of factory farms by humans, but of nature itself.

After discovery, Earth attracts the most unscrupulous civilisations as spectators. Their favourite arenas are war zones, favelas, and for the nature-inclined, the African savannah.

They are fascinated by the brutality and violent competition, which is so foreign and ...different.

Slowly at first but then all at once, a black market appears for Earth-life.

Gladiatorial arenas are built all over the galaxy to pit Earth species against each other. Elephants vs humans, venomous snakes vs lions, polar bears vs Siberian tigers, and of course, humans vs humans.

The vastness of the galaxy and it’s appetite for exotic and violent Earth-life is a seemingly infinite pit that threatens to take all of Earth’s life for its new arenas.

//Earth’s population depletes, and the capture of ‘wild’ Earth species becomes illegal. Still, illegal wildlife trafficking booms.

Breeding programs and advanced genetic engineering techniques produce hybrid species, and soon the number of ‘humans’ and other Earth-life housed in captivity exceeds their wild populations.

Civilisations discover that they can resolve political disputes in a way previously inaccessible to them. Warfare, with engineered Earth-life as it’s weapon.

An arms race develops between major powers, each competing to breed the most numerous and violent Earth species in their new armies. Soon most planets host a substantial Earth-life army.

As tensions reach their height, the unexpected happens. Revolts of Earth-life break out across the galaxy.

Lacking the capacity for violence themselves, the civilisations are caught off guard. Arming themselves with technological superiority, the civilisations attempt to weaponise their MEP against the Earth-life.

But after billions of years of non-violence, their capacities are dulled and cannot compete against the now genetically-engineered and hyper-violent Earth-life.

Ultimately, Earth-life wins out, unifying multiple civilisations into the first galaxy-spanning Empire, and Earth becomes the first galactic capital in the Earth Empire.

//Earth is fortified with alien technology and begin rebuilding the depleted biosphere...

Obsessed with violence, the new Earth Empire pools the resources of multiple now-defunct civilisations to reach the previously unreachable.

A fleet of raiding ships packed with warriors, to our neighbouring galaxy... Andromeda.

Alien communication

Aliens that communicate through flashes of light- like we do with flashes of sound. It's intricate too. And it doesn't have to be visible light either.

Alien culture

If they are spacefaring, surely they must include strong elements of science and engineering.

Potentially great, strange beauty

H.P. Lovecraft, The Silver Key

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

Conscious universe

What if the universe itself is somehow, someway, conscious? What if there is something about the universe that connects every part of it to each other, and through time? What if a future, highly advanced civilisation could build some kind of brain that experiences this all at once - thus 'awakening' the universe?

Matrioshka brain

From <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrioshka_brain>

A matrioshka brain is a hypothetical megastructure proposed by Robert Bradbury, based on the Dyson sphere, of immense computational capacity. It is an example of a *Class B* stellar engine*, employing the entire energy output of a star to drive computer systems.

Variations of life

A species that has genetically modified its own brain to be less emotional, and more intelligent. But those in power influenced the process, and has also instilled obedience. Their leadership decays into gluttony and decadence, but the 'people' cannot revolt, they can only obey.

They also end up with problems of variation. If everyone's smart in the same way, variation is lost.

A species that steadfastly refuses to modify their brains. They get stuck in that kind of 'theocracy' and don’t end up moving beyond certain problems. Also they refuse to develop because they don’t want to experiment on consciousness and brains.

A species that outsources questions of governance and attempts to move beyond problems like corruption (which may be a universal thing for 'living' things that are subject to natural selection) by using supercomputers or AI. But they run into problems in that the people who programmed the AI are fallible, and the AI ends up acting unfairly because of it.

A species that is actually evolved for space travel, without the use of tools. Like the Thresher Maw from Mass Effect. Maybe it doesn’t even care for living on a planet (since it might get stuck there), maybe they just exist in low gravity asteroid fields. Perhaps they have a number of life-stages like an insect; a deep space stasis, an asteroid state, and a state for if they land on a planet (I guess they'll be killed in landing though)

A species that is all about intelligence and the tools. They have no physical ability; that has been outsourced to the machines that they develop.

It's entirely possible that other alien species simply don't see the point in expansion.

Others

Crystalline entities

image

Say hey to Owlbert Einstein

Curator of the Big Ideas Network

Email Newsletter

Learn about the entire universe with the Discover Earth email.

✉️

Subscribe