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What Animals Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves

An interview with Arik Kershenbaum about a fascinating astrobiological journey.

"Scientists are confident that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Yet rather than taking a realistic approach to what aliens might be like, we imagine that life on other planets is the stuff of science fiction. The time has come to abandon our fantasies of space invaders and movie monsters and place our expectations on solid scientific footing."

"Even if their biochemistry differs from our own in unexpected ways, there are still some things that make us all the same, whether we evolved on Earth or in a distant solar system." –Arik Kershenbaum

I recently read a fascinating book by Cambridge University zoologist Dr. Arik Kershenbaum called The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves. I totally agree he offers "a wildly fun and scientifically sound exploration of what alien life must be like, using universal laws that govern life on Earth and in space." Here's what Dr. Kershenbaum had to say about his riveting astrobiological journey.

Why did you write The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy?

It seems a weird topic for a zoologist, I know! But a few years ago I organised a workshop on animal communication, and a physicist named Laurance Doyle from the SETI Institute wrote to me asking to take part. Why would a physicist want to come to an animal behaviour meeting? Actually, he had previously written articles claiming that we won’t be able to understand alien language (when we finally meet them) unless we first can understand animal language. We got talking, and I became fascinated by this idea of what might be shared between animal, human, and alien languages. What general and universal rules (if any) might apply to all of them? I started looking at the fundamental statistical properties of animal communication, and comparing them to human language. My premise was, “if birds could talk, would we even notice?” The answer is, yes – but only if we look closely enough. There are certain rules that apply to communication everywhere. In fact, there are certain rules that apply to life everywhere. Many of the constraints on life on Earth must apply on other planets as well. This is a really humbling realisation, and I just had to tell people about it.

 Penguin Random House, with permission
Source: Penguin Random House, with permission

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

For my Ph.D., I studied the songs of hyraxes – small furry animals that are very vocal, almost like birds. I wanted to know why they order the notes of their songs the way they do – it’s not just random. As my background was in algorithm development (and Mathematical Biology is still one of the courses I still teach), I wanted to take a quantitative approach to answering this question, and this naturally led on to the question, “what is a fingerprint of language?” But beyond that, I (like most scientists, I think) grew up with a huge fascination with sci-fi. It’s not just exciting, it’s challenging. Science fiction strips away the plausible and lets us ask questions we hadn’t thought to ask. That’s what every scientist should be doing anyway. So rather than saying, “well, we have no evidence, so we can’t say anything about life on other planets,” I’d rather say, “if we eliminate the impossible… whatever remains is worthy of our consideration.”

Who is your intended audience?

There is a lot of interest in extraterrestrial life at the moment, particularly with the discovery of potential biosignatures on Venus. Anyone who wants to think broadly and open up the possibilities of what’s out there will find some really challenging ideas in this book. But also, it’s not just a book about space. It’s a book about understanding the fundamental nature of life everywhere, and that includes life on Earth. It’s as much about what we humans have in common with apes, dogs, and jellyfish as what we have in common with alien animals. And this book is very much written for a general audience. I’ve avoided terminology almost religiously – it’s the principles that matter, rather than a list of facts. Actually, that’s an important lesson for all biology: Understand the principles first, remember the facts later. However, people with a scientific background will also find the ideas stimulating – applying general theory to unfamiliar situations is very satisfying.

What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

The first message is that all life, all across the universe, shares something. Not a common origin, but a common process. We may not be “related” to aliens, but we can relate to them, because the nature that made them is the same nature that made us. Laws of biology are universal laws, just like the laws of physics or chemistry. True, they give us slightly more fuzzy answers: We won’t know what colour aliens are, or even how many arms and legs they have. But studying life on Earth tells us how the laws of biology play out. “Animals” of some sort are likely – because all life needs energy, and when competition heats up, some organisms are going to start eating other ones. Movement is highly constrained by the physical properties of a planet – where animals live on a solid surface, legs are very likely to evolve. Intelligence is also very likely to evolve – the universe is full of unpredictable events, and animals that can predict what’s going to happen will have a definite advantage. But then, once you have intelligent animals, what will happen next? Is it not likely that social, communicative, intelligent creatures might evolve into something rather like us? The evolutionary pathway to humans on Earth might not be so unlikely at all.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

Astrobiology is a new science, and many scientists are reluctant to write about it, for fear of falling into speculation. So far, astrobiologists concentrate mostly on concrete questions like, how did life arise? What kind of biochemistries could support life? What kind of simple organisms might exist in the clouds of Venus or the oceans of Europa? But I think it’s time for a new discipline, one of astrozoology, looking at what complex life might be like elsewhere in the universe. Of course, complex life is going to be rarer than simple life, and it might take a long time to find it. But at the moment, if you look for books on alien life, you’ll find nothing between scientific descriptions of possible alien microorganisms and speculative science fiction about alien “animals.” There’s no reason for this to be so – we have sufficient understanding of evolutionary theory to bridge that gap.

What are some of your current projects?

My main research right now is looking at the information in wolf howls, and at the vocal interactions between wolves, coyotes, and farm dogs. How much are they saying to each other? Do they pay attention to what the other species are saying? Looking for where that information is in animal communication is endlessly fascinating, because they all evolved their communication separately, but it’s serving a very similar purpose, even in birds and hyraxes. We do this using automated acoustic monitoring devices that can triangulate the position of the animal making the sound, as well as recoding what they’re saying. This is a really powerful technology, but we’re only just starting to leverage its potential. I have to shout out to my brilliant team from different universities around the world – you can find out more about our work on Twitter (@CanidHowlProj).

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Yes. You want to see aliens? No problem. Go outside with some binoculars and watch the animals around you. Because if you see beyond their obvious shape and colour, and watch the things they’re actually doing, looking for food, watching out for predators, displaying to potential competitors, you’re seeing what’s fundamental to animal life, and will be fundamental to alien animal life as well.


Bekoff, Marc. Do Human-Animal Relationships Inform our Future with Robots?

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, Words and layout by Jacqueline Garget

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