Nautilus

Life Beyond Human Has to Play by the Rules

There are many ways to think about alien, extraterrestrial life forms. Science-fiction writers do it all the time. Scientists, more interested in nonfiction, think about how to receive signals that real aliens might send, as well as what sort of signals we might send to “them.” SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a real, ongoing project, with a real budget overseen by real researchers. Others partner with biochemists and evolutionary biologists to investigate how life might have begun on Earth and whether, and under what circumstances, it could also exist elsewhere in the universe.

But not many scientists have gone beyond to speculate on what alien life might actually, seriously, genuinely be like. One exception is Arik Kershenbaum, a zoologist at Cambridge University, whose recent book, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, might remind readers of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Zoologist’s Guide, though, is definitely science and not fiction. Kershenbaum, a field researcher and evolutionist whose feet are firmly here on Earth, takes the novel perspective of assuming that aliens likely exist, and that if so, those of greatest interest (to him and to us) wouldn’t be simple micro-organisms but, rather, complex creatures of some sort. The guiding principle of The Zoologist’s Guide is precisely what one would expect from a well-trained zoologist: evolution by natural selection. That’s what got my attention.

As someone who has spent decades studying what evolution has produced here on Earth, but never allowed myself to ask what it might have wrought elsewhere, I was a bit skeptical at first of Kershenbaum’s thesis. But reading The Zoologist’s Guide, and then in conversation with Kershenbaum, I was increasingly won over—not only by Kershenbaum’s avid intellectuality (combined with his beguiling British accent), but also by the prospect of taking our hard-won knowledge of life and applying it to the widest possible horizons.

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