Pharyngula

Interesting aliens, for a change

I’ve long held a gripe about science-fiction aliens: they’re always far too unimaginative. I know it’s because SF is rarely about real aliens but is always about ourselves (and is also usually but keeping the budget manageable, in the case of SF movies), but still…the model is always our species, and they can’t even broaden their horizons enough to look at the diversity within the phylum Chordata, let alone examine some of the weirdness in other phyla. And, of course, any alien life form isn’t even going to be at all related to us, so it should be even stranger. Avatar was just the worst example of this trend — and Cameron did not have the budget excuse — but Star Trek and Star Wars were also pretty feeble in biological creativity department.

Examples that buck the trend are rare. District 9 at least modeled their aliens after cockroaches. Babylon 5 had most of their primary interacting alien races boringly humanoid, but had a few oddballs lurking mostly offscreen.

At least here’s one artist who does biologically informed aliens. Here’s one example, check out his gallery.

i-fe5c5c99fb5fba3f94834dfc06b36d0e-aliens.jpeg

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    March 2, 2010

    Do they pass the Captain Kirk test? (That is, can he have sex with them?)

  2. #2 nixscripter
    March 2, 2010

    So instead of copying humans, he copied… invertebrates (or so it looks to me).

    No wonder PZ likes them.

    (By the way, I had trouble viewing the gallery, so I might be wrong).

  3. #3 SC OM
    March 2, 2010

    :)

    In part of Cosmos, Sagan described and had renderings of what some life forms in different environments might look like (not at all humanoid). It, and the fact that I’ve never been too into scifi, shaped how I imagined them since I was a kid.

  4. #4 Sven DiMilo
    March 2, 2010

    2 words 1 name: James White

  5. #5 nixscripter
    March 2, 2010

    Fixed it. Still quite a few invertebrates in there, though some are more interesting.

  6. #6 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    March 2, 2010

    H.R. Giger

  7. #7 Dweller42
    March 2, 2010

    Kind of reminds me of Phil Barlowe’s Expedition. Don’t know how to do URL tags in HTML, so here’s a massive, ugly link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Expedition-Account-Artwork-D-Voyage/dp/0894806297/ref=pd_sim_b_5

    And how is the thing with the tri-part tail, four articulated wings and no other visible limbs at all like an earthly invertebrate? I can see a better resemblance to simple multicellular organisms there.

  8. #8 tamar
    March 2, 2010

    One of my top favorites in alien species is the aliens in toorchwood, season 3. In the first 2 seasons they have mostly the old humanoid ones, but season 3 was different. They didn’t even breath the same air we do.

  9. #9 Pascalle
    March 2, 2010

    There is a discovery documentary Alien Planet which has awesome non human aliens.
    I have it on dvd and it’s really really cool.

  10. #10 broboxley
    March 2, 2010

    what! no silicon based life forms? how pedestrian

  11. #11 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    Is that a domesticated Great Grabopengichthyosaur I espy?

  12. #12 austinfilm
    March 2, 2010

    #7: Actually it’s Wayne Douglas Barlowe, and yes, his oddball lifeforms are biologically probable. Except for his famed paintings of hell, where he can just let his imagination run wild. He’s the Bosch of our times.

  13. #13 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    Pascalle beat me to it… but yes… I also really enjoyed Alien Planet.

    I thought it was well thought out and quite original, if not a little simplistic (a result of a desire to target a mass appeal audience, no doubt). Check the link out I provided to see more about it…

  14. #14 catgirl
    March 2, 2010

    When I was a teenager, I used to wonder why almost all the alien species on Star Trek were humanoid. Someone put it simply: there aren’t many extra-terrestrials in the screen actors guild.

  15. #15 Dweller42
    March 2, 2010

    #12 Oopsie. And I even posted the link.

    The biology’s probable, but his grasp of ecology lacks subtlety. And, yeah, his painting of hell are quite something.

  16. #16 t3knomanser
    March 2, 2010

    My favorite alien aliens: Blightsight. Even the human characters are aliens due to the changes that have been made to them.

    Should a first contact situation ever occur, it’s likely going to go something like this.

  17. #17 Alverant
    March 2, 2010

    Part of why aliens are humanoid in SF is so we can relate to them. SF is more about entertainment and introspection than getting the science exactly right. Non-humanoid aliens are more likely to be found in horror movies because they tap into our primal fear. The kind of fear developed by millions of years of evolution that tells our mind, “Run! It will eat you!”.

  18. #18 tanyawalker79
    March 2, 2010

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that has this gripe with sci-fi. I can’t stand watching shows that are supposedly about alien planets and all you get are you basic, run-of-the-mill humans. My boyfriend is really into Caprica, but I can’t watch it without wondering how these humans ended up evolving exactly like us on earth. We had a debate about how unlikely two separate planets would end up evolving EXACTLY the same. He said it was possible, and I agreed that it could be possible, but so unlikely that it would never happen. He asked me how I knew this and I mentioned the two evolution tracks that this earth has seen (1st dinosaurs, then 2nd mammals). I never convinced him otherwise..

  19. #19 Becca Stareyes
    March 2, 2010

    About the only reason I wanted Avatar to be a success is that the technology means we could do really neat non-humanoid aliens in movies. Babylon 5 and the various Star Treks get a pass due to budgetary concerns — it’s easier to pay an actor in latex prosthetics than to try to work out a means to make non-silly-looking non-humanoid-looking aliens (Kosh was interesting, because you rarely saw him, just his giant suit built for interacting on a space station designed for humanoids). I think I remember an interview with the Voyager writers about Species 81-whatsits and budgeting for CGI aliens. Though it does make me wonder what can be done for TV science fiction to make alien aliens on a budget without getting silly.

    Literary SF (and animation or graphic novels to a lesser extent*) can do it a bit easier — I’ve seen various Star Trek derivative-work writers (and interviews with the folks who wrote the animated series) note this. Also, seconding James White — I just finished his books, and while they are a bit scientifically dated, and problematic with gender issues (especially the early ones), the man knew aliens were alien. Octavia Butler had humanoid aliens, but for a reason — most of the aliens in her Xenogenesis trilogy were engineered to be as humanlike as possible, and this was a normal part of their culture. Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy also had some oddballs.

    * Mostly because of conveying emotion. It’s easier to write about nonhuman body language than to show it and hope the audience gets it.

  20. #20 Lolewhin
    March 2, 2010

    PZ, have you seen Sovereign, from Mass Effect? It’s a robotic cuttlefish space dreadnought. What’s not to love?

  21. #21 Kevin Anthoney
    March 2, 2010

    He’s from Australia. He’s probably drawing what’s wandering around in his back yard!

  22. #22 t3knomanser
    March 2, 2010

    @#18: Actually, I didn’t pay much attention to BSG, but apparently these aliens populated Earth. Or something.

  23. #23 Doug Little
    March 2, 2010

    Speaking of District 9, which I just watched, I did a little research on the alien’s back story as I am always interested in finding out if they actually put thought into coming up with something that is at least plausible.

    I came across an interview with the director who stated that when it came to the alien’s body plan they had to go with something bipedal in order to create the level of empathy that they required for the movie. I thought that this was an interesting comment.

  24. #24 Callinectes
    March 2, 2010

    I’m very proud to say that I assisted Abiogenesis in the redesign of his Pseudoraptor.

  25. #25 ted.dahlberg
    March 2, 2010

    I haven’t really thought about it like that before, but Stargate SG-1 manages to be reasonably original on a budget by having the aliens be snakelike parasites which you hardly ever see since they’re inside humans. Of course all the other alien races are just humanoids…

    I’ll also second the Vorlons of Babylon 5 being interesting. While I suspect “energy beings” to be slightly implausible I think they managed to pull that off since we never actually got to see what a Vorlon looks like, as even outside their encounter suits the other species (and by extension the viewer) only saw what they were conditioned to see through genetic manipulation by the Vorlons, i.e. angels and similar. Clever.
    And at least the Shadows were insectoid. I wonder if it’s easier (storytelling-wise) to have a villain which is non-humanoid as the primary feeling they are usually meant to get across is menace.

  26. #26 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    There were actually many non-humanoid aliens in Star Trek (tribbles, spaceborne entities, Tin Man, Horta, Q, Changelings, etc.), but I suppose if you did a complete humanoid vs. non-humanoid chart the non-humanoids would be far less abundant. The real problem wasn’t that there were no non-humanoid aliens in Star Trek, it was that there were any humanoids at all (although this was sort of explained away at one point IIRC as the main humanoid races having been seeded by an ancient master humanoid race).

  27. #27 btj
    March 2, 2010

    I really like the concept of the dog-like creatures in “A Fire Upon the Deep” by Vernon Vinge, which incorporate the idea of shared intelligence (not through some mystical mumbo-jumbo, but by evolved appendages that facilitate communication between pack members’ brains). Too bad you never see anything that creative on the big screen.

  28. #28 PhilJo
    March 2, 2010

    Always thought similarly that aliens in films tend to lack imagination, some authors do play about a bit, however interesting forms could be had starting at the Devonian extinction and moving on.

    Also they all speak English, what’s that about? Surely a different set of available senses/communication methods would seem reasonable in creatures which evolved independantly

  29. #29 Spiv
    March 2, 2010

    Forbidden Planet did a great job of skirting this one. Implying the look and form of the alien with only the imagination of the viewer, based on the shape of a doorway. Was brilliant.

  30. #30 martha
    March 2, 2010

    I see they are all nude, except for the thing on the left alien in the first picture.

  31. #31 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawl93KlLaiUvnz8df1GGBaJJfNORAkX_7UI
    March 2, 2010

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here yet, but a while back I considered Babylon 5′s Minbari race …

    Evidently, they must have evolved in conditions almost exactly like ours, except for something that frequently whacked them upside the backs of their heads.

    And that lead me to theorize the Clownhammer Birds of Minbar.

    (Either that, or they had a lot of Moe Howards running around, or maybe a bunch of Jethro Gibbses.)

  32. #32 catgirl
    March 2, 2010

    Well, the real problem I have with Star Trek is not that some aliens are humanoid, but that they’re similar enough to mate with Earth humans even though they presumably had completely different evolutionary paths. If they coincidentally looked alike, I could maybe let it go. But being superficially similar doesn’t mean they would be genetically compatible. It’s sort of like saying that birds could mate with bees because they both have wings and can fly. In TNG, they did slap a band-aid on this problem by finding out that different planets were somehow seeded with the same DNA a long time ago, but I still don’t buy it.

    Anyway, Alverant made the point that aliens are humanoid so we can relate to the characters. This is largely true, and one of the reasons I don’t like sci-fi as much as I could otherwise. It very often takes on a moralizing tone, and tries to show how society will be ruined in the future if you keep doing things someone disapproves of, or how good society will become if you just start doing the things someone approves of. IMO, fantasy is better because it’s harder to fall into that moralizing trap. Also, magic and dragons.

  33. #33 justjohn
    March 2, 2010

    (Yikes! Comment #31, the Clownhammer Birds of Minbar one, was posted by me from another account. Who knew the Google connection was so kludgey? I’ll try to stick to this one, in future.)

  34. #34 Pinkydead
    March 2, 2010

    Ahem… Galaxy Quest.

  35. #35 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    what! no silicon based life forms? how pedestrian

    Silicon chemistry requires cold temperatures and is therefore extremely slowly. I’ve heard that “sex between silicon male and silicon female takes longer than the universe is old”.

    The real problem wasn’t that there were no non-humanoid aliens in Star Trek, it was that there were any humanoids at all (although this was sort of explained away at one point IIRC as the main humanoid races having been seeded by an ancient master humanoid race).

    This backfired mightily, because it means that ancient master race must have come from Earth? and must have been an ape species? closely related to chimps and bonobos? basically, it has to be us. Erich von Däniken in reverse. <Picard & Ryker double facepalm>

  36. #36 scribe999
    March 2, 2010

    Dweller42: I worked for the publishing company that produced Barlowe’s ‘Expedition’ so I thought of the exact same thing. Also interesting was how the aliens of that planet mostly navigated by active sonar pinging.

  37. #37 Givesgoodemail
    March 2, 2010

    Another name: Larry Niven.

    There are well-thought-out aliens galore in his works. Pierson’s Puppeteers, grogs, and the entire menagerie in the Smoke Ring.

  38. #38 Epikt
    March 2, 2010

    ted.dahlberg:

    we never actually got to see what a Vorlon looks like

    I thought we got to see a real Vorlon when they killed Kosh 2.0.

  39. #39 lawguy
    March 2, 2010

    Galaxy Quest with Tim Allen has some interest aliens. They mostly are in a humoid mode to comfort the humans, but every once in awhile you see at least part of them in their original form.

    Kind of interesting for a comedy.

  40. #40 Steven Dunlap
    March 2, 2010

    My favorite “interesting aliens” appeared in a short-lived TV series called Threshold. Critics panned it for various reasons (some I kind of agree with). But I would be interested if anyone knew of a discussion by scientists of how realistic it was. (I doubt it scores anywhere near 100%, but since I do not have Ph.D.s in biology, acoustics, astrophysics, etc. I really can not tell).

    Star Trek from the beginning (according to Gene Roddenberry as quoted in some silly book I read many years ago – how’s that for a citation) intentionally used science fiction to make social commentary on current human events. A species could not be too alien or that would not work. Recall the context is 1960s. Despite the reputation “hollywood” has for “being liberal” then and also now the ones with the money who ultimately decide what gets made are more right-wing and also wary of controversy. This is likely the main reason science fiction takes on the moralizing tone commented upon earlier. Some writers can pull off a bit of social commentary but others fall flat.

  41. #41 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    If we were to find closely matching bi-pedal humanoids on distant alien planets, I might find myself embracing Intelligent Design as a possibility far more than I ever would otherwise.

    Even if you allow for the possibility of “cosmic seeding”, that the basic building blocks of life on earth were initially carried from space-born bodies like comets or such, the fact is that evolution has occurred on this planet, and would not likely occur similarly on other planets, even if the original organic material was the same. So in my mind, a higher intelligence would have to be responsible if other sentient life on other worlds wound up looking much like us. (Well, I suppose random chance could, statistically, produce a similar bi-pedal creature with many common features… but the statistical probability would be so small as to hardly merit consideration, as tanyawalker79 already pointed out).

  42. #42 Alverant
    March 2, 2010

    tanyawalker79 #18
    I’m not too familiar with BSG but from what my aunt says (who is a fan); long ago humans left Earth and founded Capricia. The cylon war happened and we lost and had to settle back on a ruined Earth to start over. So we became them, and they became us. So they’re not really aliens, just old humans.

    On the other hand Star Wars has no excuse. It took place in a galaxy “far far away” and is dominated by humans. OK Lucas, we want an explanation and we want it now. It had better be good.

  43. #43 mothra
    March 2, 2010

    I was always surprised that the artist of Expedition to Darwin iv(?) did not sue the producers of the movie Pitch Black, same concept and many of the same aliens- all of which were great.

  44. #44 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    But being superficially similar doesn’t mean they would be genetically compatible. It’s sort of like saying that birds could mate with bees because they both have wings and can fly. In TNG, they did slap a band-aid on this problem by finding out that different planets were somehow seeded with the same DNA a long time ago, but I still don’t buy it. -catgirl

    Right, I agree. And the band-aid really makes no sense because Earth humanoids supposedly still evolved from single-celled organisms even in the Star Trek universe, which would mean the master race had to have predicted the course of Earth evolution 3.7 billion years into the future in parallel with the seeded life on all the other humanoid-bearing planets. And then what are we supposed to believe—that evolution somehow stops or stagnates or what?

    I rather think the reason behind the proliferation of humanoid aliens is a combination of screen actors guilds, budgetary/technical constraints, and the need for the audience to relate to the character and to avoid the uncanny valley.

    the real problem I have with Star Trek is not that some aliens are humanoid

    My concern about aliens being humanoid would be, how likely is a humanoid form? I would think there are so many underlying evolved systems unique to Earth going into the humanoid form that it would be highly unlikely for the humanoid form to evolve on a different life-bearing planet. That is not to say that lizards or dinosaurs or birds or salamanders or other species on Earth could not have evolved (or may not evolve) into a humanoid form (they almost have it already, don’t they?).

  45. #45 broboxley
    March 2, 2010

    @David Marjanovi? #35 silicii’s are hotties

    One is startled towards fantastic imaginings by such a suggestion: visions of silicon-aluminium organisms ? why not silicon-aluminium men at once? ? wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say, by the shores of a sea of liquid iron some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace.
    http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/S/siliconlife.html

  46. #46 RLFoster
    March 2, 2010

    Lets not forget truly alien behaviors while we’re at it. One of the things about sci-fi aliens that always bugged me was that they are usually emotionally deficient in some way. They always admire our emotions (love, passions, etc.) and wish to be more like us. Their emotional flatness is also their Achilles heel and often allows us to triumph in the end. Sorry, but I have a feeling that our run-amuck emotions aren’t a strength but a real weakness.

  47. #47 Alverant
    March 2, 2010

    catgirl I won’t deny that scifi can be a bit moralizing. It is an analysis of the human condition as seen from a different angle. As such it does have the creator’s beliefs reflected.

    But if fantasy really that different? The “aliens” in fantasy can be just as lame as seen in scifi. Instead of Vulcans and Tellerites and Klingons, there are elves and dwarves and orcs. Fantasy takes us back to medieval times while scifi takes us into the future. Part of my dislike of fantasy is that often the culture is static. You could go 1000 years back or forward in time and discover little has changed culturally.

  48. #48 Steven Dunlap
    March 2, 2010

    On the topic of evolution of human-like other species on other worlds I recall an episode of the “new” Star Trek that attempted to address this. It was one of the rare times when I bothered to get angry with a TV show. The whole episode built up more and more suspense – the macguffin was something hugely important, blah, blah , blah. Then the “big reveal” was a holographic image of some ancient being (speaking in plain English, of course) explaining how her civilization “seeded the various planets” with primitive life that would evolve similarly (which explained why the hologram, the Klingons, the humans, etc. all resembled each other). I almost threw something at the idiot box. That’s it?! That’s all – that’s the big reveal?!

    Afterthought: An African-American of my acquaintance remarked that the hologram looked awfully pale.

  49. #49 beelzebuddha
    March 2, 2010

    I always thought Farscape did a good job with their alien creations — helped that they were a Henson Production.

  50. #50 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    On the other hand Star Wars has no excuse. It took place in a galaxy “far far away” and is dominated by humans. OK Lucas, we want an explanation and we want it now. It had better be good.

    I always felt like Star Wars had a bit of a religious undertone… the Force being this all-encompassing entity of universally conscious microbial beings, essentially (if I remember it correctly)… seems like exactly the sort of entity that might direct and control the dissemination of life forms across the universe.

    Taking at is pure fiction, I always reconciled it that way and left it at that… I’d be willing to here arguments against that, though…

  51. #51 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    This backfired mightily, because it means that ancient master race must have come from Earth? and must have been an ape species? closely related to chimps and bonobos? basically, it has to be us. Erich von Däniken in reverse. <Picard & Ryker double facepalm>

    Thanks for the perspective, David. It is ugly, isn’t it, and unfortunate. The seeding explanation was used as a social commentary on how similar we human tribes are to our enemies. As if anyone watching Star Trek didn’t know that already.

    Then the “big reveal” was a holographic image of some ancient being (speaking in plain English, of course) explaining how her civilization “seeded the various planets” with primitive life that would evolve similarly -Steve Dunlap

    Yep, that’s the one. The band-aid. http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Ancient_humanoid

  52. #52 LMR
    March 2, 2010

    Yes, the STTNG thing with the “seeded” planets was meant to explain the similarities between the different humanoid races. It falls flat because it doesn’t work that way, but is consistent with the misunderstanding of evolution shown in the Trek series of that era.

    I remember a Voyager episode where they encountered a species of saurians who had left the earth millions of years ago. There was a point in the episode (when they are starting to piece the puzzle together) where they are in the holodeck. They have the computer display for them the “most advanced” known species of dinosaur. They then ask the computer to extrapolate, and show them what that species would look like if it “kept evolving” for the subsequent 70 million years. Lo and behold it looked just like the species they had encountered on the alien ship.

    On another episode, I can’t remember the plot device, but Janeway and Paris evolve into a future form of human evolution (whatever that means) where they are giant pink slugs.

    The (completely mistaken) concept of evolution in that era of Trek seemed to be under the assumption that there was a known direction to evolution, so having aliens “seed” a planet with some DNA would invariably result in a species evolving with very similar DNA.

  53. #53 Darren Garrison
    March 2, 2010

    #13– Alien Planet was garbage. An extreme Hollywood dumbing down of the source material. It made me sick and angry to see Expedition reduced to that tripe.

    All of Expedition can be seen on-line, if you check the usual sources…

  54. #54 nardo
    March 2, 2010

    By far the best “speculative exobiology” I’ve seen is the National Geographic documentary “Extraterrestrial”. It’s on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNeTxPgGJ7I and is worth watching.

    . . . and for the Trekkies, it’s narrated by Worf :-)

  55. #55 ted.dahlberg
    March 2, 2010
    The real problem wasn’t that there were no non-humanoid aliens in Star Trek, it was that there were any humanoids at all (although this was sort of explained away at one point IIRC as the main humanoid races having been seeded by an ancient master humanoid race).

    This backfired mightily, because it means that ancient master race must have come from Earth? and must have been an ape species? closely related to chimps and bonobos? basically, it has to be us.

    Considering how often they jump back and forth through time in Star Trek, that actually sounds likely. The biology is still silly, of course.

    I thought we got to see a real Vorlon when they killed Kosh 2.0.

    Hmm, you’re probably absolutely right. My memory is quite hazy as to what was shown. Personally though I’ll still pretend I don’t know what they really look like, I prefer my Vorlons enigmatic ;)

  56. #56 ZachMiles
    March 2, 2010

    I’ve always thought that the creatures described by Arthur C. Clarke as the Star-child Bowman descends into Jupiter in 2010: Odyssey Two were very creative and interesting.

  57. #57 pteryxx
    March 2, 2010

    To RLFoster @46:

    “Lets not forget truly alien behaviors while we’re at it.”

    I have this to say:

    “Words of Love, Soft and Tender” by Mark Rudolph

  58. #58 armillary
    March 2, 2010

    Another interesting series of books is the C J Cherryh “Chanur” series. The main species of interest here are various oxygen-breathers which are pretty boring – apes, lions, rats and Chinese (yes, you read that right). More interesting are the methane-breathers, which include the Tc’a (five-eyed worms who talk in matrix notation), the Chi (basically big plasmids – allies, symbiots or pets of the Tc’a, opinions vary since they’re not talking), and of course the Knnn (unpredictable hairy balls of who-knows-what, whose approach to trading is … unique. And they sing.)

    There are other species in the books, but what is interesting is how they barely manage to understand each other just enough to trade. This seems a more probable scenario than the basic humans-with-funny-heads style of various TV shows, where the difference is only as deep as the episode dictates. I doubt it will be as easy as that to comprehend a species which has adapted for an entirely different ecological niche, not to mention ecosystem.

  59. #59 sotonohito
    March 2, 2010

    While the writing isn’t the best, I do think that in Mother of Demons Eric Flint managed to create some genuinely interesting aliens.

    Evolved from pseudo-mollusks, invertebrate, land going, tentacled, non-humanoid, and with a reproductive cycle and strategy (they’re semi r-strategy reproducers) that is completely different from humans. For the aliens alone I liked Mother of Demons, especially since he doesn’t describe them from a human standpoint until about 1/4 of the way into the book; for that matter he starts the story from their POV but doesn’t explicitly tell you that it’s a non-human POV. I like it when writers don’t insult my intelligence.

    I’ll also second the Tines from A Fire Upon the Deep, and again I loved the way Vinge didn’t feel it was necessary to spell out their morphology and biology from the onset, and it is a very nifty species despite being vertebrate.

  60. #60 scidog
    March 2, 2010

    maybe all “human” life is like us because this is the only way to assemble the basic elements and come up with a “person”.the laws of nature seem to be the same all over,speed of light,star formation,black holes and so on. are we confusion reality with science fictions story lines?.

  61. #61 Die Anyway
    March 2, 2010

    My biggest complaint about depictions of alien life forms, when they are not humanoid, is the unfeasability of the form. Advanced alien civilizations with space ships, etc. who have appendages like crab claws. How the hell did they ever manipulate materials well enough to create advanced technology? Or creatures like the one in Alien who drip hundreds of gallons of slime but are living in a waterless environment.
    I don’t expect technologically advanced aliens to be bipedal humanoids but I would expect them to have separate appendages for locomotion and tool manipulation, with something like fingers to allow for grasping, turning, etc.
    Another unreasonable alien form were the ones in that stupid crop circle movie, where the kids killed the aliens with squirt guns. Come on. Any beings intelligent enough to create space ships to get here are intelligent enough to know that this is a water planet and if they react to H2O the way we react to H2SO4 then they would have come prepared. Stoopid, stoopid, stoopid.

  62. #62 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    Alien Planet was garbage. An extreme Hollywood dumbing down of the source material. It made me sick and angry to see Expedition reduced to that tripe.

    While I understand where you are coming from, I think that’s a bit harsh… I’ve read and am quite familiar with Barlowe’s Expedition and while I agree it was a fairly dumbed-down and hollywood-ized extrapolation, I think it was meant to be so as to be more palatable for mass consumption… as are many things produced for Discovery channel… taken by itself, though, if you had no knowledge of Barlowe’s excellent work, it’s still not bad. (My opinion, only, of course).

  63. #63 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    maybe all “human” life is like us because this is the only way to assemble the basic elements and come up with a “person”.the laws of nature seem to be the same all over,speed of light,star formation,black holes and so on.

    This sentiment shows a complete lack of understanding of evolution… I know that sounds insulting and demeaning… it’s really not meant to be. Just sayin…

  64. #64 Gyeong Hwa Pak, Pikachu para lang sa iyo.
    March 2, 2010

    My problem with depiction of aliens is their langauge. In many cases they look like they were derived from a human language. And their writing script is almost exactly the same as the English alphabet. Langauge on earth is far more diverse.

  65. #65 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    maybe all “human” life is like us because this is the only way to assemble the basic elements and come up with a “person”.the laws of nature seem to be the same all over,speed of light,star formation,black holes and so on. -scidog

    Nah. I would dismiss that first of all because we don’t know of any extraterrestrials so there is nothing to compare the humanoid form against; secondly because the variation in what an environment could be like that supports life is enormous; and thirdly because it sounds too much like the fine tuning argument of how well a puddle fits in its hole.

  66. #66 Kagehi
    March 2, 2010

    On the other hand Star Wars has no excuse. It took place in a galaxy “far far away” and is dominated by humans. OK Lucas, we want an explanation and we want it now. It had better be good.

    Actually, the game “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” kind of answers that. Humans originated on the world of the Sand People, who are actually human, but have a mess of crazy religious conventions, one of which is that “other humans” can’t possibly be one of them, because only the true people belong on the planet.

    Basically, at some point there was another race that tend to do a lot of slave trading, and possibly genetic engineering, and they got really pissed off at humans daring to fight back, so they glassed Tatooine, with survivors hiding out in caves, until the worlds surface wore away enough to be habitable again. The presence of all other human, on other worlds, and possibly some of the other species, is that its where all of them got dropped, before the original race of slavers suffered a massive plague, which wiped all but their original home world out (and in the process, seems to have erased their ability to detect/use the force, which they somehow drained from living beings to power their equivalent of a giant war machine, a space station capable of manufacturing nearly endless numbers of ships, by literally sucking the raw materials from out of a nearby sun).

    Mind.. This isn’t considered “canon”, but some other consider the original three movies to be canon, so.. lol

  67. #67 Kagehi
    March 2, 2010

    This backfired mightily, because it means that ancient master race must have come from Earth? and must have been an ape species? closely related to chimps and bonobos? basically, it has to be us.

    Well, First, no. They just had to come from a long dead world that are “reasonably close” to that. The implication being that they didn’t much care, in general, what the final result would always be, but “front loaded” the system so that it would have a high odds of producing at least “one” species with the same characteristics as they had (using the same basic, front loaded, genetics).

  68. #68 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    It’s sort of like saying that birds could mate with bees because they both have wings and can fly.

    It’s a lot worse.

    Carl Sagan compared Spock to a human-artichoke hybrid, but it’s a lot worse still.

    There is no reason other than historical accident for why Life As We Know It (viruses included) uses RNA and DNA. Lots more possible nucleotides than the universal 5 exist (some have been made in the lab, others occur in tRNAs or as intermediate metabolites), and the backbone doesn’t need to consist of phosphate and (deoxy)ribose either ? apart from several sugars other than (deoxy)ribose, a nucleic “acid” with a protein backbone has been synthesized.

    Then consider that some 800 amino acids occur in known organisms, but only 22 are ever coded by the genome. Again, “everything is the way it is because it got that way” (J. B. S. Haldane), and it’s laughably improbable that everything got the same way on any other planet.

    visions of silicon-aluminium organisms ? why not silicon-aluminium men at once? ? wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say

    Would burst into flames immediately, leaving smoke and ash composed of aluminium sulphide and silicon sulphide. And then that stuff would probably react with the liquid iron.

    Is there a way for life to exist without a polar liquid? It may not need to be water, perhaps ammonia or hydrogen cyanide would also work, but iron won’t.

    Also, please learn to use the <blockquote> tag.

    Yep, that’s the one. The band-aid. http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Ancient_humanoid

    <headdesk>

    Wow. That might be compatible with Lamarckism, but Darwin and Wallace killed it dead in 1859 (never mind their two ignored predecessors earlier in the same century).

    <headdesk>

    <headdesk>

    Metal-reinforced lab desk, fortunately.

    Considering how often they jump back and forth through time in Star Trek, that actually sounds likely.

    Point taken!

    “Words of Love, Soft and Tender” by Mark Rudolph

    Link doesn’t work.

    methane-breathers

    Methane-exhalers ( = carbonate breathers)? Or methane-eaters maybe?

    maybe all “human” life is like us because this is the only way to assemble the basic elements and come up with a “person”.

    There’s no reason to think this speculation is correct.

  69. #69 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    I liked Alien planet. I agree it was dumbed-down, but it had to be to fit into the time alloted. They just couldn’t go into the detail Barlowe did without spending a whole episode on each species. They had to compress stuff down a lot.

    Did you know Barlowe also did the creature design for Avatar? I recognized the art-style, and when I checked the credits it turned out I was correct. He also did the creature design for Hellboy II, which I was also able to identify.

    The artist that PZ links to actually credits Barlowe:
    http://abiogenisis.deviantart.com/journal/17097695/

    Besides Barlowe, another very good book is Terence Dickinson’s “Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings”. That book approaches thing from a much more analytical and scientific perspective. Rather than Barlowe who tries to create a single unified world, Dickinson’s book is much more an overview of the various issues relating to alien life. For instance he covers what sorts of senses we might see, how the mass of the planet will affect the life there, how planets with much more water, slightly lower temperatures, or other changes might affect the development of life, various forms of communication, the role of intelligence, a section on non-carbon-based life, a section on the problems with movie aliens (titled “ugly and probably drooling”), a section on what first contact with an alien race might be like, and so on. So for anyone who wants to think about alien life from a scientific perspective, it is an excellent book. The author is an astronomer by trade.

  70. #70 Danaleigh
    March 2, 2010

    “I haven’t really thought about it like that before, but Stargate SG-1 manages to be reasonably original on a budget by having the aliens be snakelike parasites which you hardly ever see since they’re inside humans. Of course all the other alien races are just humanoids…”

    Well, not *all*. There was an interesting crystal-based race they met in “Cold Lazarus.” There was a sort of microscopic race in “Message in a Bottle,” and a race that was basically electronic in the episode “Entity.” The Reetou were usually invisible, but when seen weren’t much like us. The Asgard are humanoid in that they have the same basic body plan of head, trunk, two arms, two legs, but they owe more to ET in appearance than a human being. And as for all the “humanoids” that they met on other planets, there actually was an explanation for it…part of the mythology of the show was that, way back in Earth’s history, the Goa’uld, the parasitic race you mentioned, used to regularly capture humans and take them to other planets to establish human populations that they could then use as necessary for slaves or hosts. So many of the “alien” races they met were actually supposed to be humans.

  71. #71 Darren Garrison
    March 2, 2010

    Celtic_Evolition: “while I agree it was a fairly dumbed-down and hollywood-ized extrapolation, I think it was meant to be so as to be more palatable for mass consumption…”

    Yeah, and while making it more palatable for mass consumption, they tied up ownership of the contents so as to prevent a possible deeper, more accurate version (much the way the character Molly Millions was tied up to that piece of shit Johnny Mnemonic, damaging the ability to make a movie of Neuromancer (which probably shouldn’t be done anyway.))

    Anyway, for anyone who can’t find (or afford) the high-priced used copies of the OOP book, google “speculative evolution torrent.”

  72. #72 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    But I would be interested if anyone knew of a discussion by scientists of how realistic it was. (I doubt it scores anywhere near 100%, but since I do not have Ph.D.s in biology, acoustics, astrophysics, etc. I really can not tell).

    Threshold’s science was absolutely terrible from pretty much every imaginable perspective. I watched it, but every time they did something remotely related to science I just wanted to scream at the TV. It is way, way into the “not even wrong”
    category.

  73. #73 MikeyM
    March 2, 2010

    @37: Pierson’s puppeteers! The Brave Sir Robins of Known Space.

    I also liked the Bandersnatch.

  74. #74 sinz54
    March 2, 2010

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned the Andromeda Strain yet (from both the movie and novel of the name).

    That was a totally alien life form: Crystalline, no amino acids, able to convert energy into matter. And deadly to mammals if they breathed it in.

  75. #75 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    Well, First, no. They just had to come from a long dead world that are “reasonably close” to that. The implication being that they didn’t much care, in general, what the final result would always be, but “front loaded” the system so that it would have a high odds of producing at least “one” species with the same characteristics as they had (using the same basic, front loaded, genetics).

    You’re right, it’s frontloading.

    It still doesn’t work, however, for the same reason why it doesn’t work when the Disinformation Institute proposes it: mutation and natural selection turn unneeded genes into pseudogenes which eventually turn to background noise that can even get lost.

  76. #76 Opus
    March 2, 2010

    I haven’t had time to peruse the whole thread but I don’t see any mention of Robert L. Forward’s work. I found Dragon’s Egg fascinating: beings living on the surface of a neutron star is a little outside the norm in science fiction. His career (rocket scientist!) is also fascinating.

  77. #77 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    Here is a link to “Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Extraterrestrials-Field-Earthlings-Terence-Dickinson/dp/0921820879

    Another book I read was “Other Senses, Other Worlds”, which I frankly thought was terrible. The science was not great, although it wasn’t terrible, but basically every chapter explained how changing a sense in some way will make the species live in peace and harmony forever, the implication being that the only reason humans are so mean to each other is because of the particular set of senses we have. It was annoying and utterly unsupported.

  78. #78 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    Snaiad should have been mentioned long ago. Unfortunately the site is down, so I can’t link to it, and googling is rather useless.

    mutation and natural selection turn unneeded genes into pseudogenes which eventually turn to background noise that can even get lost

    Genes can be lost in one step, too.

    able to convert energy into matter

    Yeah, riiiiight. Inbuilt collider or what? Morons.

  79. #79 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    I’m pretty sure I remember that at one point JMS explicitly came out and said that budgetary constraints limited the degree of creativity they could apply to their aliens in B5.

    I also remember that many of the B5 episodes that did dare to feature outlandish aliens prominently were criticized for the special effects being cheesy and unbelievable. (Though I liked those episodes).

    There is also the technical constraint that in films you have to depict your aliens moving, and even with the best available CGI, you still need a real world model as a basis for keeping those movements realistic-appearing. As a film-maker you don’t actually have access to the entirety of earth’s biodiversity in your selection of models, but only the minority of species that have been sufficiently well studied to have the data you need available. And you can’t just scale up a praying mantis to the size of a horse, either. Avatar, even with its big budget, had to work within those restraints.

  80. #80 Chris Hegarty
    March 2, 2010

    I was raised on Star Trek TNG. I’m very familiar with the over-anthropomorphism of aliens.

    But I still love the Ferengi.

    The artist PZ linked has a lot of interesting, non-anthropomorphic aliens, to be sure, but there’s still a lot of human-ish looking things. Not that I’m complaining; it’s all very well done.

  81. #81 Celtic_Evolution
    March 2, 2010

    TheBlackCat #78

    I’ve read Dickinson’s “Other Worlds” and “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” and enjoyed them… I’ll have to pick up this one as well…

    Crap… my local library (Ithaca, usually excellent) does not have this book. Guess I’ll have to fork over the money to buy it. Thanks for the link.

  82. #82 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    David Marjanovi?: Life on Snaiad has them and it has a link to a Tetrapod Zoology posting about Snaiadi lifeforms.

  83. #83 Pikaia
    March 2, 2010

    I am also a fan of Robert Forward’s cheela.
    For another truly alien alien read Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud” – the only SF novel I know which has calculus in it!

  84. #84 ted.dahlberg
    March 2, 2010

    The Asgard are humanoid in that they have the same basic body plan of head, trunk, two arms, two legs, but they owe more to ET in appearance than a human being. And as for all the “humanoids” that they met on other planets, there actually was an explanation for it…part of the mythology of the show was that, way back in Earth’s history, the Goa’uld, the parasitic race you mentioned, used to regularly capture humans and take them to other planets to establish human populations that they could then use as necessary for slaves or hosts.

    That’s pretty much the definition of humanoid; ET is humanoid too. I didn’t count all the humans they meet since they’re, well, actually human (and indeed, I feel an annoyed pedantic twinge every time they call them alien).

    Well, not *all*. There was an interesting crystal-based race they met in “Cold Lazarus.” There was a sort of microscopic race in “Message in a Bottle,” and a race that was basically electronic in the episode “Entity.” The Reetou were usually invisible, but when seen weren’t much like us.

    Good points there though. I wish they’d been inventive like that more often.

    Speaking of things which annoy me about Stargate (don’t get me wrong, I really like the show, excepting of course the abomination which is Stargate Universe); the Replicators. An artificial form of life which, given enough time evolves into – yes, you guessed it – humans! Grr. Really, that seems like taking a step backwards, if anything.

  85. #85 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    I found Dragon’s Egg fascinating

    ?too? much? awesomeness?

    Life on Snaiad has them

    I have teh stoopid today.

  86. #86 Darrell E
    March 2, 2010

    Some alien life forms from written scifi that I think were well conceived.

    The “Brothers” in Greg Bear’s “Anvil Of Stars”. There are many other aliens in this story also, though most are constructed beings. In general terms I think Bear did a very good job of creating a sense of “alieness” with this story.

    The “Kelly” from the “Exordium” series by Sherwood Smith and David Trowbridge. The “Eyaa” from this same series are also very well done. This series is kind of obscure for some reason, but if you like a really good space opera, or just rich complex story telling period, give this series a try. It takes a while to get into it but it is worth it.

  87. #87 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    I haven’t had time to peruse the whole thread but I don’t see any mention of Robert L. Forward’s work. I found Dragon’s Egg fascinating: beings living on the surface of a neutron star is a little outside the norm in science fiction. His career (rocket scientist!) is also fascinating.

    Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings talks about Neutron Star life very much like that in the section on non-carbon-based life. Dickinson probably got the idea from that book, since his description sounds identical. His book also mentions, if I recall correctly, silicon-based life, intelligent comet nuclei (based on superconducting electric circuitry if I recall correctly), and I think a couple of others.

  88. #88 simonator
    March 2, 2010

    I rather liked the reviewer in the Washington Post that commented that the aliens in Star Trek: The Next Generation,”Looked just like white people with bumps on their heads.”

  89. #89 simonator
    March 2, 2010

    And I have to agree with Darrell E about the greatness of the Exordium series. There are also a number features of the human culture that aren’t simply historal cultures with the serial numbers filed off. The Praerogates for example. OTOH it does suffer from spaceships that are ginormous for no discernable reason.

  90. #90 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    the aliens in Star Trek: The Next Generation,”Looked just like white people with bumps on their heads.”

    Tell that to Whoopi. :P Seriously, though, this is entering the realm of Hollywood business politics of which writers have little to no control.

  91. #91 flightpapers.org
    March 2, 2010

    Vaguely related: sleepwalkers.

  92. #92 jesse.l.sinclair
    March 2, 2010

    Are humanoid aliens really that improbable?

    I don’t mean ‘human-looking’, I mean ‘bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical, two arms, two legs, maybe a head’.

    Considering that, to the best of our knowledge, the natural laws of the universe are constant, and presuming we live in a universe fairly full of complex life (Bab5, Star Trek, Star Wars etc all do, and it is the prominent template for SciFi), then the conditions on Earth would probably be replicated fairly often.

    It’s likely that most species achieving interstellar travel would be terrestrial, rather then aquatic, as fire is required for the advancement of technology.

    There seems to be some natural constraints imposed upon the size of invertebrates on earth, so it seems likely those constraints would be similar on other planets, so there is probably a good likelihood that they would be vertebrate analogs.

    Extra limbs don’t necessarily confer a competitive advantage, and might actually come at a disadvantage, depending on the circumstances, so you should probably get a decent range of limbs, of which an equal proportion are tetrapods.

    Convergent evolution is a powerful force on earth today, I see no reason why that shouldn’t be true across the universe. So while I agree that humanoid aliens certainly wouldn’t be the norm, I don’t think they’d be quite as rare as everyone is making out.

    As a side note; I do sculpture and effects and the artists and designers complain about humanoid aliens as much as the fans do. To bad so sad though, non-humanoid aliens are horrendously expensive, and if you do them on a lower budget the same fans who complain about too many humanoids bitch about the cheesy quality. It’s a lose-lose situation.

  93. #93 ButchKitties
    March 2, 2010

    I don’t mind Star Wars and Star Trek having lots of humanoid aliens. An actor in latex is easier for the audience to relate to and easier on the budget. The older the series, the more of a pass it gets.

    But the idea that star ships making whooshing noises as they travel? Loud explosions in space? Other assorted examples of sound traveling in a vacuum? That always bugged me much, much more than the unrealistic aliens.

  94. #94 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    Convergent evolution is a powerful force on earth today

    It is not a force. It is the result of similar environments generating similar selecting pressures on fairly similar starting-point organisms. Try that with drastically different starting points, and you get different results ? saber-toothed mammals over and over, but also tyrannosaurs, for instance.

    This is also what Simon Conway Morris overlooks (as I’ve told him twice in person ? he happened to speak at meetings I attended).

  95. #95 Hodor
    March 2, 2010

    The Thylacosmilus and the Tasmanian tiger bear a remarkable resemblance to the sabertooth cat and the wolf, respectively, despite both being marsupials, i.e. pretty far removed from either felines or canines.

    Likewise, I would expect an alien race that fills a similar evolutionary niche to also share several similarities with us humans. Sure, they won’t look like humans with latex foreheads and ears like in Star Trek, but they’ll probably possess appendages with digits capable of fine manipulation, a sophisticated method of communication allowing for the efficient exchange of detailed information (likely sound-based) and a sensory organ allowing for the detailed examination of objects (most likely based on electromagnetic radiation)

    Many of the more “exotic” concepts for sentient alien races may be fascinating at first, but the likelihood of such beings to ever develop space flight would be extremely small – aquatic lifeforms, for example, wouldn’t be able to achieve the mastery of fire that would be necessary for even the most basic understanding of chemistry or metallurgy.

    Another thing that bugs me about the portrayal of “exotic” alien races in SciFi: Why are so many of these alien species purely based off a single terrestrial lifeform? Why do we have to have pure “bug aliens”, “lizard aliens” and “cat aliens”? Why not have a species with a bird-like beak and scaly skin that nurses their young? Why not have an arthropod-like species with tough leathery skin rather than the heavy chitinous exoskeleton that would be utterly impractical for a human-sized non-aquatic creature?

  96. #96 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    Why not have an arthropod-like species with tough leathery skin rather than the heavy chitinous exoskeleton that would be utterly impractical for a human-sized non-aquatic creature?

    Probably because arthropods, by definition, have exoskeletons.

    I hate to keep harping on the same book, but one interesting example of intelligent life in Extraterrestrials: A field guide for Earthlings is the Gas Giant life section. Here the two forms of intelligent life in the planet are massive “aerial whales”. They obviously lack intelligence, but they are accompanied by a smaller, intelligent arthropod-like creature that does the actual manipulation of the environment (like building structures out of floating plants). The crab can’t get around because it is too dense to float, but the whale can’t manipulate it’s environment, so the two have to cooperate to get anything done.

    But for your other examples, the book has creatures that mix and match traits exactly like you describe. For instance a furry creature with a beak, a smooth-skinned biped with horizontal jaws like insect, and so on.

  97. #97 TheBlackCat
    March 2, 2010

    Sorry, that should be “They obviously lack limbs to manipulate their environment”, not “They obviously lack intelligence”.

  98. #98 krc [clowersnet.net]
    March 2, 2010

    The true form of the Vorlons can be seen here: http://www.firstones.com/wiki/Ulkesh

    Definitely not humanoid.

  99. #99 ian.monroe
    March 2, 2010

    There were intelligent gas planet creatures like this in Hyperion.

  100. #100 Stogoe
    March 2, 2010

    OK Lucas, we want an explanation and we want it now.

    Star Wars is a film series produced on the third planet of the Sol system contemporaneous with the native species’ first halting steps into space travel within their own system. As of the date of production the only available actors for the film series were a)humans, b) other terran species trained to respond to commands, or c) really shitty puppetry or other animatronics. Additionally, the primary audience for said films wants to see relatable characters in film, which, at this point, still means human-with-makeup. See Also: Avatar, which proves that nothing’s really changed in re relatable characters in 35 years. (Yes, the Na’vi are still human-with-makeup.)

  101. #101 Stogoe
    March 2, 2010

    An artificial form of life which, given enough time evolves into – yes, you guessed it – humans!

    I like to believe that the “human-form” replicators were only in human-form to make communication with humanoids easier. The Asurans were created by humanoids to resemble humanoids, sort of like how we are enamored of humanoid robots no matter how impractical.

    Incidentally, I don’t think SGU is an abomination. It’s more serialized than SG-1 or Atlantis, sure, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s still pretty damn episodic compared to BSG.

  102. #102 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    There seems to be some natural constraints imposed upon the size of invertebrates on earth, so it seems likely those constraints would be similar on other planets, so there is probably a good likelihood that they would be vertebrate analogs.

    These constraints are dependent upon things like the strength of gravity, the density of the atmosphere, the concentration of O2, all of which are unique to earth and would be different on another habitable planet. They are also dependent upon things like for example certain details of the insect respiratory system – unique features dependent on evolutionary contingencies of particular lineages, which we would certainly not expect to be universal.

  103. #103 MultiTool
    March 2, 2010
  104. #104 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    It’s likely that most species achieving interstellar travel would be terrestrial, rather then aquatic, as fire is required for the advancement of technology.

    We can only say that fire was helpful for *us* to achieve advanced technology. We cannot say with our little sample set of 1 that fire is *necessary*, or that an aquatic species cannot achieve fire.

    For example, you’d think that a terrestrial species like us would have a great deal of trouble developing advancements in aqueous chemistry, which would be required for any level of sophistication in biology. But we did develop it, *after* we invented containers for holding water.

    Likewise, an aquatic intelligent species that is in some way dependent on air (air breathers, for example), may well invent containers to collect air from the surface in order to carry it with them underwater for whatever use they put air to. (There are aquatic spiders on earth that do the same thing). From there it would not be hard to develop fire.

    Or consider an aquatic species that uses electric fields for navigation and hunting, like many fish do. They might as a result develop a technical mastery of electricity very early in their development (as compared to the equivalent point in our technological development when we started learning about electricity). From there they could develop electroplating and get metallurgy, no fire required.

    Or what about an aquatic species that uses sonar for navigation, as whales do today? This might give them an advantage in discovering particle/wave duality, and in radio communication (given the parallels between radar and sonar).

    These are all speculations, of course. But the point is you cannot validly say anything about the likelihood of alien intelligence and technology being limited/precluded/prevented by such and such conditions just because such and such conditions proved useful (or not useful) for us humans in our own development of technology here on earth.

  105. #105 llewelly
    March 2, 2010

    For pure biological fascination I must second (or is it third?) the recommendation of Snaiad. PZ, you would really, really love Snaiad; the aliens of that world have their own homology (with each other, not with earth creatuers), their own biogeography, their own ecologies, and so forth. Best of all – many of Snaiad’s creatures have features similar to those of earth creatures, but with a totally different evolutionary history; some Snaiad creatures have jaw-like things that are actually highly derived sexual organs, nearly all have a “second head” that is actually an external digestive organ, and so forth. Really weird biology.

    I see someone already mentioned C. J. Cherryh, but unfortunately left out one of her best aliens: the Mri They are not particularly alien biologically, but they behave in mysterious ways.

    Someone already mentioned Niven, but left out the Moties.

    And, not alien, but strange and far more biologically plausible, I recommend After Man, if you can find it.

  106. #106 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    Just as a thought experiment, imagine an alternative evolutionary history of earth where it was a placoderm and not a lobe-fin that was the vertebrate lineage that first colonized the land. And imagine that these particular placoderms had six paired fins rather than four.

    I could imagine some superficially arthropod/insect-like (to human eyes) terrestrial vertebrates coming out of that.

  107. #107 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    The Thylacosmilus and the Tasmanian tiger bear a remarkable resemblance to the sabertooth cat and the wolf, respectively, despite both being marsupials, i.e. pretty far removed from either felines or canines.

    You could add several groups of gorgonopsians and therocephalians to that. But they are *not* “pretty far removed” from each other. In fact they are about as close to each other as it gets. They are all synapsis, all members of the same derived amniote lineage.

    As post #95 already pointed out, diapsids (which are *still* amniotes – from the perspective of a squid, tigers and tyranosaurs might was well be sister clades) faced with similar environmental/ecological pressures/requirements produced very different forms.

  108. #108 ted.dahlberg
    March 2, 2010

    Incidentally, I don’t think SGU is an abomination. It’s more serialized than SG-1 or Atlantis, sure, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s still pretty damn episodic compared to BSG.

    Eh, I’m glad someone’s enjoying it. Being more serialized is entirely positive in my book, I actually prefer that (and felt that the previous series were too episodic). But it feels far too much like they have identified and copied things that made BSG good (not necessarily a bad thing to do) without understanding why and how they worked in BSG. For instance they seem to have tried to make the series darker and more dramatic. Great! Except that (my personal opinion only, mind) the drama and interpersonal conflicts don’t feel in the least bit natural. There’s mostly conflict because the writers say there is. Which is not so great in a character driven drama that, for the eight or so episodes I watched, was also decidedly low on plot to make up for it. Hopefully it’ll get better.

    Er, I seem to have drifted a bit OT. Sorry :S

    For aliens from books, how about the Dwellers from Iain M. Banks’ “The Algebraist”? Not only different biologically, but also with a pretty interesting culture. I really liked the idea of their economy being based on kudos.

  109. #109 shatfat
    March 2, 2010

    Hey, Star Trek had some seriously weird aliens back in the day (probably not all of them plausible, but at least they tried): the Tholians, the Horta, the Metrons (I think… I’m thinking of the big red rock with tentacles, not that cute dude in a Greek midriff that was giving Kirk the “come hither” look), the Gorn, the Planet Eater (okay, so they stole that from comic books–details!), those fried-egg-shaped aliens that Ate Deneva, the tribbles (totally STOLEN from Heinlein’s “The Rolling Stones” … but hey ya steal from the readable Heinlein, gotta give props), NOMAD, Ruk, Norman, M5 and other self-aware non-life …

    I’m going to skip the “energy clouds” and stuff even though that was a big part of Trek, due to Roddenberry’s bizarre dualistic theories, because they abused any notion of prior plausibility. In “Obsession”, the two “science” characters lay out a pretty compelling argument that Kirk’s “evil telepathic gas cloud” is a load of horseshit, but guess what? In the end they’re wrong and Kirk is right. Oh yeah, the “cloud” somehow makes it from open space into the Enterprise. I guess it sprung a leak that day or something. Voyager (don’t ask how I know this) had a similarly stupid episode with the “dark matter creature” that magically busts through an airlock without getting caught but at least it didn’t have a five minute scene whose entire point is that spooky intuition trumps all the puny “facts” and “evidence” you could possibly trot out.

    Star Trek went “full forehead alien” when it became a franchise. This probably happened around Seasons 2 & 3 of NextGen.

  110. #110 BrianX
    March 2, 2010

    You know, I don’t think the humanoid body plan is especially unlikely (though no more likely than any other body plan), but that said, I’ve been working on an SF idea for years that includes contact with one alien species that could best be described as giant centipedes with prehensile tails. When the characters first run into one, it drops a couple of papers in startlement… after some scrutiny, one character realizes that it’s very likely the (juvenile) alien’s algebra homework.

  111. #111 shatfat
    March 2, 2010

    @16

    Re: humans modified by aliens:

    Did not Octavia Butler expand on this theme many, many times?

  112. #112 BrianX
    March 2, 2010

    (And when I say “not especially unlikely”, I still think the distance would be at least as much as the difference between the humans and the aliens in District 9.)

  113. #113 shatfat
    March 2, 2010

    @19

    Yeah, it was neat when the Vorlons left their encounter suits for that battle over the station. Probably an accident, but they looked like giant salps. (A very cool critter for the biologically inclined. And they’re chordates!)

    Of course, they were also Roddenberry-style energy beings who could “transcend” matter, whatever the hell that means, so, whatever. Uncle Joe never pretended it wasn’t science fantasy (although there was actually some pretty good scifi in there as well–I’m sure that confused some people!).

  114. #114 shatfat
    March 2, 2010

    On another episode, I can’t remember the plot device, but Janeway and Paris evolve into a future form of human evolution (whatever that means) where they are giant pink slugs.

    That episode was awesome! Don’t forget that Janeway and Paris mated and had offspring, too! (Swiftly marooned by VOY crew.) And Tuvok (the Vulcan) is the one who identifies them. That would have been the most awesome shark-jumping episode of all time if VOY hadn’t jumped the shark in the first episode.

    Actually, it was totally biologically accurate, I mean evolution has no direction, so it’s foolish to assume that our notion of “intelligence” or beauty is required for our descendants, hence their lack of language ability while crawling around the swamp. They were “telepathic” which I am going to presume means that they communicated by way of hormones secreted through the skin. Tuvok’s just tactful like that.

    Well, except for the ridiculous notion that a single organism can “evolve”, like a pokemon.

    (Speaking of shark-jumping, did anyone else see the premier of VOY, which was also the “launch” of the Paramount (UPN) Network, and see that horrible musical number with singers in Trek alien getups?)

  115. #115 D--rock
    March 2, 2010

    You should check out John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War.

    He tries to make a point of creating radically different aliens.

    A few examples: an alien species that is roughly the size of chipmunks, and whose space fleet is a match for the human’s ships. They are hard to target and what not.

    An alien species with big doe eyes and has a perpetual “puppy dog” look to them who are also vicious creatures that capture and raise humans for the delicious tender meat.

    that is just a taste.

    Plus, it just a damned good book series. I highly recommend.

  116. #116 shatfat
    March 2, 2010
    This backfired mightily, because it means that ancient master race must have come from Earth? and must have been an ape species? closely related to chimps and bonobos? basically, it has to be us.

    Considering how often they jump back and forth through time in Star Trek, that actually sounds likely. The biology is still silly, of course.

    That still doesn’t explain how Vulcans can have green blood yet be so genetically close to humans as to create viable offspring with them.

    My theory was that Spock was genetically engineered so that he could gestate in a human uterus (nutrients pass across the placental barrier) but other than that he was Vulcan in every way. Of course, there might be reasons to declare that just as silly.

    My last ditch theory is that Amanda is essentially a foster mother and Spock is looked at askance for having come under Terran cultural influence. Of course, that is torturing the authorial intent in TOS.

  117. #117 shatfat
    March 2, 2010

    @92 Thank you for sharing that comic. That was awesome.

  118. #118 BrianX
    March 2, 2010

    shatfat:

    Or, for that matter, Klingons having purple manganese-based blood.

  119. #119 jesse.l.sinclair
    March 2, 2010

    @95 David Marjanovi?;

    Force was a poor choice of words. What I was trying to get at is that it’s prevalence here on earth indicates, to me, that it will remain prevalent across the entire universe.

    I think my main disagreement is that the starting points on other worlds will be so different. I think they’ll be relatively the same. Look at Mars, the rockforms are startlingly similar to Earths. Ditto the moon.

    Whether or not it swims in water or liquid ammonia, an aquatic creature is still going to adopt a streamlined shape.

    Whether it flies in air as we know it or the atmosphere on Venus, the shape still needs to be aerodynamic and generate lift, sure if the gravity is vastly different you might get smaller or larger wing-analogs, but you still have the basic principles of lift etc.

    I’m not trying to say everything will be humanoid, that’s patently ridiculous, but saying humanoid aliens would be non-existent or extremely rare is just as patently ridiculous.

    @ 105 amphiox;

    I disagree completely, you need fire, or at least massive heat for metal-working and metal is the cornerstone of all technology. These aliens aren’t going to be living on planets with magically different materials then us.

    Electricity;
    Even if you can generate the electricity yourself you still needs conductors to create any items. Which means metal, or maybe they’ll what exactly, use ionized water in glass tubes? Guess what, you need fire for glass.

    Wave/particle duality;
    What good does understanding wave/particle duality do a Stone Age-analog civilisation? Seriously, what possible uses could it have at that point? Without fire for metal-working you do not get past the Stone Age.

    You actually can say a lot about technology development on other planets because they will have all the physical constraints and natural laws that Earth does. You cannot build an internal combustion engine out of stone, you cannot build an aircraft out of stone, hell you can’t even build 90% of buildings without steel. You need to be able to work metals to advance. Just because an alien race is vastly different from us and thinks in vastly different ways does not get it around the physical constraints of the universe.

  120. #120 Danaleigh
    March 2, 2010

    That’s pretty much the definition of humanoid; ET is humanoid too. I didn’t count all the humans they meet since they’re, well, actually human (and indeed, I feel an annoyed pedantic twinge every time they call them alien).

    True, I was just trying to point out that even all of their humanoid races aren’t just people in makeup, although they did plenty of those. I guess I just assumed they were using “alien” as synonymous with “extraterrestrial,” not “biologically nonhuman

    Speaking of things which annoy me about Stargate (don’t get me wrong, I really like the show, excepting of course the abomination which is Stargate Universe); the Replicators. An artificial form of life which, given enough time evolves into – yes, you guessed it – humans! Grr. Really, that seems like taking a step backwards, if anything.

    Totally agree on SGU and the Replicators.

  121. #121 Danaleigh
    March 2, 2010

    That’s pretty much the definition of humanoid; ET is humanoid too. I didn’t count all the humans they meet since they’re, well, actually human (and indeed, I feel an annoyed pedantic twinge every time they call them alien).

    True, I was just trying to point out that even all of their humanoid races weren’t just people with makeup, although they did do plenty of those. And I didn’t really have a problem with them using the term “alien” to refer to extraterrestrials, whether human or nonhuman.

    Speaking of things which annoy me about Stargate (don’t get me wrong, I really like the show, excepting of course the abomination which is Stargate Universe); the Replicators. An artificial form of life which, given enough time evolves into – yes, you guessed it – humans! Grr. Really, that seems like taking a step backwards, if anything.

    Totally agree about both SGU and the Replicators.

  122. #122 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    nardo #55, thank you for that link to the show “Extraterrestrial”; I’m really enjoying listening to Michael Dorn narrate it. Now I know why David Marjanovi? mentioned Simon Conway Morris in #95. Simon Conway Morris says something similar to what jesse.l.sinclair wrote in #93 at 19 minutes 44 seconds into the National Geographic special.

  123. #123 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    metal is the cornerstone of all technology

    All *human* technology. How can you possibly say that it is *required* for *all* technology with a sample set of 1?

    You cannot build an internal combustion engine out of stone, you cannot build an aircraft out of stone, hell you can’t even build 90% of buildings without steel.

    On *earth*, with earth gravity and earth atmospheric pressure and composition you can’t. On a planet with a thicker atmosphere you could probably build an airplane with the local equivalent of bamboo and leather. For that matter many early airplanes here on earth were built with wood and canvas. Gliders, certainly, do not require metal. This is just one example of a general failure of imagination on your part. The laws of chemistry and physics are the same, but they are not as restrictive as you think they are.

    Are you *so* certain that internal combustion is the *only* method of power/motor generation that allows for technological advancement? Just because it was important to us on earth? Sample set of 1.

    You need heat for metallurgy, or more precisely, you need energy. Are you so certain that fire is the *only* source of such energy?

    Which means metal, or maybe they’ll what exactly, use ionized water in glass tubes? Guess what, you need fire for glass.

    Maybe you do need a tube. Guess what, you can make a tube without glass. Tubular structures are among the MOST COMMON existing natural biological structures out there. Earth’s oceans are full of them. Heck, there might even be conductive filaments naturally available in the environment. It’s not like biological conducting filaments like nerves and muscles are unprecedented.

    What sorts of structures would it be possible to build by precipitating dissolved minerals/metals out of the sea water around hydrothermal vents? Maybe, for various reasons, this specific example won’t work, but are you so absolutely certain of this? And that no other possible conceivable similar such methods would work?

    And you still haven’t addressed my very first point, which is, even if fire were necessary, there is nothing stopping an aquatic species from mastering fire (so long as they’ve got an oxygen atmosphere on top of their ocean). Nothing is stopping them from collecting air from the surface, storing it in a larger structure under water, and setting fires inside that structure. Watertight biological structures that store gasses inside them are widespread on earth. Using them as a basis for a technology for making air holding containers is child’s play. And nothing is stopping these aquatic intelligent aliens from building a floating platform out of organic materials, and setting a fire on top of that.

    The only requirement is that air must be of some importance to them, so that they would have motivation with experimenting with it and manipulating it. Maybe they might not get around to inventing fire as quickly as we or another terrestrial species did, but once they do, the rest could follow in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

  124. #124 ted.dahlberg
    March 2, 2010

    True, I was just trying to point out that even all of their humanoid races weren’t just people with makeup, although they did do plenty of those.

    Ah, I get you. That’s certainly true, and a nice change from the standard. And even when they had people in make-up they were usually pretty good about not just putting a funny nose on them a la Star Trek (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That).

    I guess I just assumed they were using “alien” as synonymous with “extraterrestrial,” not “biologically nonhuman

    Yeah, you’re right. I can’t really claim that it’s wrong. Just a preference of mine. Seeing as how the Earth humans and non-terrestrial humans are presumably still the same species, it seems needlessly confusing to call them aliens when there are actual proper aliens around as well. Oh well, I suppose there are worse things in the world to be upset about :P

    Totally agree about both SGU and the Replicators.

    You are obviously a highly intelligent human/humanoid/sentient being (delete as applicable) ;)

  125. #125 amphiox
    March 2, 2010

    What is required for technology is an energy source. Everything else follows from that. On earth, for humans, fire was that source.

    But how do we know that this is universal? Fire might well be completely contingent and unique to the biosphere of earth. It is, after all, just a faster, less controlled version of oxidative metabolism. Without the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis to create both the oxygen atmosphere and the organic combustible matter to serve as fuel, there would have been no fire on earth.

    But there are lots and lots of other energy sources available. With our earthly sample set of 1, how can we say with such certainty that it *has* to be fire?

  126. #126 David Marjanovi?
    March 2, 2010

    I’m not trying to say everything will be humanoid, that’s patently ridiculous, but saying humanoid aliens would be non-existent or extremely rare is just as patently ridiculous.

    Snaiad.

    There are so many possibilities for different starting points that there’s really no reason to assume the human shape is at all common.

  127. #127 calcinations
    March 2, 2010

    Written SF has had plenty of weird and biologically accurate aliens. The only problem is that I am currently separated from my library and can’t recall any particular titles.

    So of course many of you are beating up on TV/ film SF, when they are usually made to be more mainstream than written SF. But to be more mainstream it has to appeal to a wider audience, and therefore has to be more easily comprehendable by them, from motivation to the aliens being quite humanoid. Also some good authors manage to make humans quite alien as well.

  128. #128 jesse.l.sinclair
    March 2, 2010

    @ 124 amphiox

    So they can build a glider out of the local equivalent of bamboo and leather in a thicker atmosphere. Forgive me for saying so but; so what? To get supersonic speeds, or to build anything that can survive the speeds required to make aviation practical you still need very strong, relatively lightweight materials. You need metal. Even the earliest plane crafted by the Wright brothers had metal elements.

    You can make a tube out of more then glass, but it would more then likely by useless as for the purpose I described. Are you going to argue that some alien will make functioning radio out of crabs legs, water, and it’s own ability to generate electricity?

    This is not a ‘general lack of imagination’ on my part, this is wishful thinking taken to the extreme on your part.

    Every example you give is a carefully constructed chain of events that allow for something incredibly improbable, and possibly impossible, to happen. Are they theoretically possible, sure, but that doesn’t mean I have to take them seriously.

    Your aquatic but dependent on air hypothesis is interesting, but I find it unlikely for two main reasons;

    1.) If air is of benefit to them and there is any land at all you will have terrestrial life (if fact your own first example was of a species that was terrestrial and then adapted to aquatic life again), and more then likely the terrestrial life will beat the aquatic life to the post, you could make an argument that this is exactly what happened on earth, as two of the most intelligent non-primates are octopi and dolphins.

    2.) If there is no land then it is incredibly unlikely that anything would evolve dependent on air, or at least dependent on air bubbles, which is entirely different then being dependent on air.

    Again I’m not saying it’s impossible, and I think I came across as ruder then I intended last post, for which I apologize, but just because something is conceivable doesn’t mean its going to happen.

    If we assume the kinds of numbers of alien species large SciFi productions are fond of (since that is how this conversation got started) I would put good money on there being mostly a small number of dominant forms that convergent evolution narrows in on, and a much smaller number of completely radical forms from the very specific and strange worlds required for the things you propose.

  129. #129 BrianX
    March 2, 2010

    Maybe it’s a just-so story, but the humanoid body plan is one of only a few I can imagine that would be among the more efficient ways to build an intelligent life form. Like I said, though, that by no means assumes an exact equivalent — consider Sebulba, in Star Wars I, whose “legs” and “arms” were switched from their usual humanoid function, or trilaterally symmetrical aliens like the Masters from the Tripods books by John Christopher, or (less realistically) Arex from Star Trek animated. All are roughly humanoid, and yet are still qualitatively different enough from what we know as a humanoid biped that they could plausibly exist. (The Masters’ bizarre whirling locomotion, though — that doesn’t strike me as all that likely.) Even some dinosaurs — particularly dromaeosaurs — have the potential, but are still essentially quasi-humanoid bipeds despite their flat stance and long tails.

    But then, humanoid is hardly the only likely possibility either — the key to deciding what would be a good body for an intelligent life form is how well it can manipulate its environment. A cephalopod-like body plan is excellent, and in fact octopi are intelligent enough to take full advantage of it. A dolphin, on the other hand, is severely handicapped, since dolphin fins are only of use for locomotion and biting and poking with the mouth are pretty rough methods for manipulating anything smaller than a baseball; a quadruped or hexapod would have to be able to assume an upright stance for fine work and therefore would likely count as quasi-humanoid. An intelligent snake would certainly work as well (assuming a prehensile tail). Even an arthropod-like being would work on a planet with low gravity or a high-oxygen atmosphere.

    I suspect overall that there’s probably a certain conservation of body plans if intelligent aliens exist — the whole ability to create true technology is dependent on fine motor control, and beyond thumbs, pincers, or tentacles, there really aren’t many other options.

  130. #130 BrianX
    March 2, 2010

    Jesse #129:

    You’re forgetting one very important thing about building materials — we have no idea what organic (or analogous) building materials on another world would look like. Even on Earth we have natural plastics — latex rubber, arthropod silks, keratin, chitin — so how do we know what some alien bamboo would contain chemically? (Hell, look at Avatar — it explicitly created a planet-wide composite organism where every creature could communicate with any other. Under those circumstances, the distinction between “plant” and “animal” might very well be completely moot.)

  131. #131 Exocrat
    March 2, 2010

    Funny, I was just reading about this subject earlier today over on TV tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StarfishAliens

    And the Star Wars Universe does have a good deal of weird aliens in addition to the massive number of “rubber forehead” aliens.

  132. #132 Snoof
    March 2, 2010

    re: necessity of fire for metallurgy

    I’m not convinced one does need fire. Off the top of my head, the Blimp/Wheeler ecology from the novel Wheelers might work (mild spoilers follows):

    Blimps are gasbag lifeforms living in gas giants. They naturally accrete heavier metals in their bodies, which they have to excrete so it doesn’t kill them.

    Variation in their metal-collecting bladders led to different _shapes_ of metal objects being excreted. Eventually, they got metal tools, probably simple blades at first, then more interesting objects.

    (From this, the tools they secreted got more and complex until they worked out that they were picking up plenty of silicon and germanium, and could actually put together simple computers, then more complicated computers, then eventually fully-fledged artificial intelligences, the Wheelers. This is a little harder to believe, but I don’t have a problem with the initial tools, especially since they specifically were noted as having tens of billions of years of evolution with no major diebacks behind them.)

  133. #133 timrowledge
    March 2, 2010

    The doggy-aliens in Vinge’s book s are Tines; the communicate with an ear-like organ the emits as well as receives. IIRC human ears have been found to emit noise to some extent. The Tines for linear groups where ‘though’ passes slowly along the line, tight groups where thought moves more easily, and tend to go to pieces when they… go to pieces. To think really well they gather in a pile and get their heads close together, kinda like a Cray 1. Vinge also had the Skroderiders – now they’re pretty wild aliens.

    Forward also came up with mathematically gifted starfish-like critters for RocheWorld. Banks has come up with a few interesting aliens. Niven, as previously mentioned has dreamed up quite a few oddities ranging from Protectors and Puppeteers to Gligs and Triunes and Rukh. (“How many bandersnatchii does it take to change a lightbulb?” ”
    Two- one to sit on your armoured hunting car, and one to explain what you’ll have to do before it gets off again.”)

    Aw hell, if you honestly think no one can think outside the humanoid, you’re simply not reading enough SF.

  134. #134 Hieronymus The Troll Braintree
    March 2, 2010

    The thing that bothers me about movie aliens is how few of them seem to wear clothes. E.T. couldn’t be bothered to put on so much as a pair of Speedos never mind a tux with roller skates.
    And the evil aliens in “Independence Day” were all running around in the nude too.

    Of course, since movie aliens often seem to also be completely lacking in genitalia or anything else that might be construed as naughty bits I guess this makes sense.

    What if alien breasts looked like circumsized penises? There’s a thought to keep you up at night.

  135. #135 jack asterisk
    March 2, 2010

    (Urge to. Self promote. Almost. Unbearable. Must resist. For good. Of blogosphere.)

    Let me just say that some modern science fiction tries to take evolutionary biology into account. The main issue is that real understanding is — as Dan Dennett put it — universal acid that destroys many cultural prejudices. For many, it’s hard to reconcile what’s left with a good human story.

    Sometimes, given what science finds, science fiction seems trite.

    My main objection with Avatar was: why weren’t the Navi hexapedal? Everything else was.

  136. #136 aratina cage of the OM
    March 2, 2010

    My main objection with Avatar was: why weren’t the Navi hexapedal? Everything else was.

    James Cameron already answered that one. He wanted the audience to connect with the Na’vi, so he violated the rules out of expedience:

    “Because this is a movie for human people.”… Cameron went on to explain further his philosophy of the Navi character design. He boiled it down to: “Let’s focus on things that can create otherness that are not off-putting.” (source)

  137. #137 Kagehi
    March 2, 2010

    Speaking of things which annoy me about Stargate (don’t get me wrong, I really like the show, excepting of course the abomination which is Stargate Universe); the Replicators. An artificial form of life which, given enough time evolves into – yes, you guessed it – humans! Grr. Really, that seems like taking a step backwards, if anything.

    Sigh.. I am hardly the sort of obsessed fan that owns copies of every episode, a uniform from the show, and a life sized Asgard. Heck, the only thing I *do* own from it is the two movies. But, even I know the answer to this one. The “two” replicator species where:

    Milkyway – Made by a scientist, as a humanoid robot, kind of like Data from Star Trek, who then made simpler “toys”, and gave them commands to “copy yourselves”. It wiped out the civilization they where created in, with the original being “shut down”, too late to stop it. These replicators where the ones “existing” already, and attacking the Asgard. Later, she was found, reactivated, discovered to be the source of them (when she made a few more of those “toys”), and was shut down and damaged, so she no longer functioned, but captured, along with the Asgard ship she was on, by the older replicators. They recognized her technology as being vastly improved over theirs, to did what any machine would do, under those conditions, they “replicated” that technology, and adapted it into themselves.

    What did you expect them to look like, given that, squid?

    Pegasus – Made, intentionally, by the Ancients, to **look like** the ancients, with the intention of having them work side by side with them.

    They didn’t “evolve” into humans, in either case. In the first case they borrowed the shape, along with the improved technological design, from their original source, and in the later, where made that way intentionally.

    And the evil aliens in “Independence Day” were all running around in the nude too.

    Sigh… Yeah, the “form fitting” skin suits/armor they wore wasn’t anything like clothing…

  138. #138 ermine
    March 2, 2010

    I must be getting old. No one ever seems to bring up Hal Clement’s Mesklinites, (Mission of Gravity, Star Light), ammonia-breathing, semi-aquatic centipedes from a flattened, rapidly-spinning planet, where the gravity runs the gamut between about 30Gs at the equator and 700Gs at the poles.

    Good writing, and I was very happy with the way the aliens didn’t generally think like humans, often tripping the humans up by doing the unexpected.

    It’s old sci-fi, but very good. Amazon is selling a compilation of both books and several early short stories from early pulp magazines under the name ‘Heavy Planet’.

  139. #139 Sean McCorkle
    March 2, 2010

    Easier to find good aliens in literature than in film.

    I would submit this film – a 1989 grade-B movie called “High Desert Kill” with Chuck Conners and Marc Singer. Creepy alien stalking a western hunting party. Its finally revealed at the very end and is worth waiting for IMHO – definitely non- bipedial – it made me think of a giant trilobite or something. When I saw it, I thought “Now THATs a damn ALIEN!”

    Also “Invasion: Earth” with Fred Ward – 1998 miniseries. While the “good” aliens are humanoids, the “bad” aliens are pretty bizzaro.

  140. #140 Sean McCorkle
    March 2, 2010

    I almost forgot, “Five Million Years to Earth” (that was the US release title, originally
    “Quatermass and the Pit” Great film – aliens are large grasshopper-like things.

    And while it is a biped, Ray Harryhausen’s creature from Venus will always have a special place in my heart.

  141. #141 bill.farrell
    March 3, 2010

    Aliens are a wool-gathering pastime of mine.

    I’ve been fascinated by a couple of things.

    First, are there some general principals of chemistry/biology that would favor some structures over others? For example, the bilaterally symmetrical tube structure has been successful for us. But, then there are sponges, plants, starfish, jellyfish and others.

    There must be physical constraints that favor an internal skeleton over an exoskeleton, at least in terms of size. Maybe not.

    Second, I wonder about our planet’s psychology: kill or be killed. It seems to me that aggression is a root of many other behaviors, including the group psychology of our own species. I can see where aggression leads to curiosity, intellectual achievement and not just the expected survival drives.

    Could some of these concepts be general or universal in nature such that they would apply to other lifeforms.

  142. #142 OnePumpChump
    March 3, 2010

    Farscape has the best collection of aliens ever on television, and the only thing that comes close in film is Star Wars (what a coincidence!). Even their humanoids are more imaginative than just about any other show’s.

    BrianX 130:

    Do cilia count as tentacles?

  143. #143 BrianX
    March 3, 2010

    OPC:

    More like pincers or fingers, unless there’s some kind of mechanism to create prehensile cilia, in which case they’re more or less indistinguishable from tentacles anyway. I would tend to think, though, that cilia would be more like the suckers on an octopus — they’d be part of a larger mechanism, not necessarily operational on their own. I mean, picture trying to make a hand of some sort using living velcro as the main gripping surface — it would work, but the utility would be rather limited.

  144. #144 Kagehi
    March 3, 2010

    There must be physical constraints that favor an internal skeleton over an exoskeleton, at least in terms of size.

    There is. Basically, the reason we don’t see giant insects any more is because if you want to move fluid, and thus nutrients/oxygen, into limbs, you can either do it in “large” concentrations, or you can do it by having larger supply lines. The key problem for an exoskeleton is that your “joints” need to be small, to work at all, but they also need to provide the channel via which those resources get transferred. At this moment, it doesn’t appear that their is simple *enough* oxygen in the atmosphere to allow high enough concentrations in those fluids.

    Now… One could suppose solutions to those problems, maybe, like a more efficient heart, by you still have the same problems, unless you have a “lot” of something like oxygen, coming in, you can’t get enough of it to extremities, unless you can significantly increase the size of the tubes you are using to get it there. And, in an exoskeleton system, that means less room for critical muscles, connective tissue, etc. Vertebrates don’t have this issue. They need internal supports that are seriously enough to carry the weight, but after that, they can, within that weight limit, add as many blood vessels, muscles, etc., as they need. The range of possible amounts of each can be far more variable, as well as far larger, and numerous, and so, even if you had an inefficient system to get it there, you would still get more of it to where it was needed. Or, at least that is the hypothesis, which is supported by the fact that, when oxygen was far more abundant, you had **huge** insects, while now, the largest is maybe the size of a rat? And, the key reason seems to be that narrow, limited, joint, which won’t let more fluid, and thus, more oxygen, through the gap, in to the limbs.

  145. #145 rmaynard85
    March 3, 2010

    “My main objection with Avatar was: why weren’t the Navi hexapedal? Everything else was.”

    Despite the obvious reason as someone mentioned that this was violated because “it’s a movie for human people,” I thought the movie deserved extra points for the short scene with the ‘lemur’ (Weaver’s character calls them that anyway) creatures that hinted at why the Navi are no longer hexapedal. The lemurs had bisected forearms – that is, their front two pairs of legs were partly fused around the elbow, presumably as a result of their tree-dwelling lifestyle.
    If we suppose that the ‘lemur’ creatures and the Navi are closely related, as part of a kind of tree-dwelling ape-equivalent lineage, we could suppose that the Navi simply fully fused their two forearm pairs into one.
    On the contrary to PZ’s dislike, stuff like that really gave me the impression that someone working on the creature design deliberately put that in there to try and reconcile the four-legged Navi with the hexapedal body plan they’d created for everything else. I thought the creatures were fantastically designed.

  146. #146 see _the_swells
    March 3, 2010

    As peculiar as some of his aliens look they are still strangely familiar don?t you think. They look like animals from the burgess shale, actually probably not even as strange. Most of them seem to have an anterior end, a posterior end, different sections with limbs? perhaps they have the same set of Hox genes we do. No, no, that couldn?t be. Must be a case of convergent evolution.

  147. #147 jesse.l.sinclair
    March 3, 2010

    @ 131 BrianX

    This is my point exactly, though perhaps I am still not explaining myself well. We have no idea what organic chemicals and analogs would evolve. Because of this everyone is assuming that every conceivable thing is possible. Statistics is against us there though. Unless you are going to fall back on ‘we are special and unique because we want to believe that we are’ then it is more then likely that Earth, and Earth’s ecosystems represent an average of what you would find across the universe. We are more then likely in the middle of the bell-curve, so to speak.

    Every one makes a huge deal about ‘initial conditions’ making everything different, but look at the weather on Earth, Mars and Venus, even Jupiter, you get raging winds, cyclones etc on all of them. They may be comprised of different gases and have different intensities but they are all fundamentally the same.

    I argue that biology would follow similar rules because the physical constraints are the same across the universe. You would still probably get a wide range of body shapes, and there would still be crazy outliers, but there would almost certainly be a core group of forms that cropped up the most often. That is how statistics works in every field we’ve ever discovered, why would alien biology be different?

    It is much more logical to assume we are in the average group then an outlier.

    @133 Snoof;

    I think your example is completely impossible to be honest. You can only have so much change in size and shape before you started having massive problems excreting them, but even if you could excrete harmlessly perfect carpenters hammers they would be useless, they would literally be accretions of metal, much like sandstone, and would flake apart instantly. you need intense heat to fuse them together, and even more intense heat to temper the metal up to the hardness required for anything industrial.

    Is it possible that you could develop technology without fire, maybe, I can’t rule it out, but every example I’ve seen has been ludicrous, which implies to me that if you had 100 intelligent species the vast majority, like in the 80 or 90 percent margin, probably higher, would have required fire.

  148. #148 Pygmy Loris
    March 3, 2010

    jesse.l.sinclair,

    I’ve been reading your comments about the necessity of fire for metal working and how metal working is necessary for technological innovation.

    You are clearly unaware of the technology of Native American civilizations before European contact. Metallurgy never really developed in the Americas, but the people were still able to develop technology.

    Besides, our fire sources are the product of Earth biology. For the most part our sources of fire are the remains of ancient plants and animals. If we weren’t carbon based, there might not be a good source of flammable material.

  149. #149 sherardson
    March 3, 2010

    No. There is no logical explanation, besides photos which can be glare. Videos with proof is usually in low-quality which could be airplanes mistaken as those alien-ships.Acai Optimum

  150. #150 amphiox
    March 3, 2010

    1.) If air is of benefit to them and there is any land at all you will have terrestrial life (if fact your own first example was of a species that was terrestrial and then adapted to aquatic life again), and more then likely the terrestrial life will beat the aquatic life to the post, you could make an argument that this is exactly what happened on earth, as two of the most intelligent non-primates are octopi and dolphins.

    And on what mountain of evidence, what catalogue of example biospheres with both aquatic and terrestrial species, do you propose to support this argument? And how much more likely? 60% vs 40%? 99% vs 1%? Anything less than 95% vs 5% could still mean lots and lots of technologically capable aquatic species.

    What if the terrestrial species does achieve technology first, but then goes extinct – ruins its environment, blows itself up in a nuclear war, or whatever (and killing off most of the other intelligent terretrial species in the process), leaving behind its discarded technological refuse for the second most intelligent pre-technological aquatic species? What happens to the potential future development of that aquatic species then?

  151. #151 amphiox
    March 3, 2010

    This is not a ‘general lack of imagination’ on my part, this is wishful thinking taken to the extreme on your part.

    ‘Wishful’ thinking is speculation in spite of and in contrast to strong evidence to the contrary.

    In the absence of anything remotely resembling meaningful evidence there is no such thing as wishful thinking. Or, alternately, all thinking on the subject is wishful.

    And that is exactly the kind of thinking we should be doing. We do not limit our imaginations before we have evidence (though of course for practical purposes we must limit, based on likelihood and feasibility, which of our imagined scenarios we should try to explore first). We imagine as widely as possible, and as evidence comes in, we rule out our original hypotheses one by one.

  152. #152 amphiox
    March 3, 2010

    re: #146

    I would have liked it if the makers of Avatar were just a little bolder with their design, and gave the N’avi a vestigial 3rd pair of limbs. They could have put a little bony spur on the elbows, for example. It could even have been decorative and added to the visual appeal of the N’avi.

  153. #153 amphiox
    March 3, 2010

    jesse.l.sinclair,

    You keep trying to shoot down individual examples but fail to grasp the overall argument, which is that there are any conceivable paths to high technology, and we are in no position with our limited knowledge to say as firmly as you try to do as to which ones are and are not possible.

    Fire is just a simple oxidation reaction. I think it likely that pretty much any and every technological civilization will, at some point, discover fire. But, the question is, does it have to be an early event in their development?

    And that is the point. Because at a certain point in technological development, the starting point is not going to matter any more. Any civilization that gets to this point will be able to generate lots of energy and lots of heat. They will be able to work metal using that heat (so long as they have some on their planet). They will be able to produce synthetic composite materials. They will have a good understanding of their own biology and medicine. The challege for any developing technological species is to get over that point, from any variety of disparate starting points.

    Back to my example of the organic-material glider which you dismissed. But you failed to grasp the entire point of that example. It is an example of an enabling technology. A first step, that gets our hypothetical species interested in aviation, and gives them a chance to learn the science behind it. Eventually, if they continue to develop, they will get metals, or they will stumble upon composite materials just as light and strong as metal (have you considered the possibility that such materials might be biologically available, and thus be accessible for use even with very primitive technology? Spider silk has greater tensile strength than steel. It is not biologically impossible for a bamboo analogue to be lighter and stronger than steel). And then they will get supersonic flight. But they will not have needed metals and fire at the very beginning, to get them started.

  154. #154 amphiox
    March 3, 2010

    I argue that biology would follow similar rules because the physical constraints are the same across the universe. You would still probably get a wide range of body shapes, and there would still be crazy outliers, but there would almost certainly be a core group of forms that cropped up the most often.

    Yes, if earth is typical, then the example of earth tells us that the “core” group of forms would be so general as to be essentially meaningless when we are talking about something as highly derived as a “humanoid” form.

    Essentially we are talking about bilateral symmetry, segmentation, appendages (numbers of which being essentially completely variable), and a concentration of sensory organs, along with the brain, near the front end.

    Everything else is completely up for grabs.

  155. #155 coffeeandsci.wordpress.com
    March 3, 2010

    There have being an interesting exchange, in Le Monde, about Pandora’s life forms, starting with an article from Thomas Heams, a biologist (19.dec.09), criticizing Cameron’s take as non-darwinian.

    That induced a reply by Jean Staune (21.jan.10), a local John Templeton Foundation agent, presenting himself as philosopher of sciences these days, celebrating the non-darwinian vision of Cameron, almost presented as a support of convergent evolution, à la Conway-Morris. Yep, he is using SF to support his anti-Darwin views; including Star Trek in his last book. One of Staunes scientific pillars is Vincent Fleury (and that name is known here), who’s theory became central to support the idea of platonic forms (say tetrapods) existing independently of any selection.

    Jean-Baptiste André and Nicolas Baumard, evolutionary biologist and anthropologist respectively, commented on Heams’ and Staune’s takes (27.jan.10), considering the first as to much based on randomness and not taking in account environmental and physical constrains, and criticizing the teleological stance of Staune as not really supported by convergent evolution. Including in their criticism, along with Staune, Vincent Fleury and the members of the Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris (UIP – Interdisciplinary University of Paris), not a university in the sense of an educational organization delivering diplomas, a non-profit organization lead by Staune and the direct or indirect recipient of JTF’s money.

    Fleury defended his name a two days later (29.jan.10), supporting his theory and making clear that he is not member of the UIP and that Staune isn’t a researcher who could be considered as co-author of his theory (?!) and that he (VF) is not anti-darwinian or creationist.
    Fleury may (or not) be pissed off from the hexapody of Pandora’s fauna, as a few months ago he had place his confidence on the imagination of artists and their ability to extrapolate, that is depicting bipedal tetrapods with big brains.

    Now, about the Na’Vi, from the horse’s mouth, and the horse being Avatar’s Concept Designer, Jordu Schell:

    Well, he [Cameron] wanted them to be very beautiful. And I do believe that, at some point, he said something to the effect of?the audience has to want to fuck her. I mean, Jim is very plain in his language

    This comes in addition to the more soft comment by Cameron aratina cage of the OM report at #137

  156. #156 Azkyroth
    March 3, 2010

    I would be interested to hear what PZ thinks of the Zerg and the various denizens of the Half-Life series.

  157. #157 seiryoden
    March 3, 2010

    A couple of people have mentioned him, but Banks does incredible aliens. My favourites are the Idirans (a galactic taliban) and their, more genial cousins, the Homomdans. The heart of “Consider Phlebas” is the story of two very alien, erm, aliens living in self-imposed exile in the midst of a sea of utterly baffling humanoids.

  158. #158 jesse.l.sinclair
    March 4, 2010

    @ 155 Amphiox,

    That’s all I’ve been trying to say, you basically just listed my original definition of humanoid (though I missed segmentation, which is a good one). I wasn’t trying to argue that they would be human, or mammals or anything like that. Just that the basic derived humanoid shape is probably more common then the first half of the comment stream was willing to admit.

    I do still disagree that number of appendages would be completely variable. Extra appendages need to confer an advantage, otherwise they are incredible wastes of resources. I don’t know if tetrapods would be the norm, but 16 large limb style appendages would probably be more of a hindrance then a help.

    @ 149 Pygmy Loris (and Amphiox)

    First to the Native Americans; interesting that you bring up the Native Americans because if your definition includes all of the Americas, not just the tribes and nations from what is now the US and Canada, then all of the most advanced ones developed metal-working to a degree.

    If by the Native Americas you just mean those tribes and nations from what is now considered Canada and the States then you are actually making my point for me because while they had impressive cultural and political traditions, they never got anywhere technologically. In fact, looking back on them it is actually surprising how little technological advancement they achieved when you compare it their cultural advancement.

    You have a point though Amphiox, I shouldn’t be trying to pick apart each individual example, I should point out that just because you can imagine it, doesn’t make it possible. To replace metal-working you would need a staggering amount of luck in your planets biosphere. One planet would have to through up literally thousands of analog items naturally to do all the enabling you are asking for.

    There are no organic compounds, organically excreted compounds etc on Earth that can replace metal. Could they occur on another planet? Maybe. Should you rest all your arguments an a series of less and less likely what-ifs? I don’t think so.

    I think that is where we are going to have to agree to disagree. I find that, limited as our sample size of 1 is, it is preferable to a sample size of nil. You find that since our sample size is so small we should more or less discount it and try our best to imagine every conceivable possibility. I think thats going to have to just be the end of it.

  159. #159 Citizen of the Cosmos
    March 6, 2010

    If they have developed advanced technology, I would expect them to have arms and hands of some sort. Eyes would certainly be a big help. Some form of technology would be possible under water and for species living in the clouds of a dense atmosphere, but to what extent?

    Only species that can manipulate their environment and make tools can develop advanced technology, so legs, arms with hands, and some sensory input would be necessary. Of course that doesn’t mean they should be humanoid, but it doesn’t make it impossible either. So among technologically advanced species, I would expect some restrictions.

  160. #160 timrowledge
    March 7, 2010

    Only species that can manipulate their environment and make tools can develop advanced technology, so legs, arms with hands, and some sensory input would be necessary.

    Not necessarily. Consider the Grog. A sessile beasty with no manipulatory appendages. They have telepathic enslaving powers though and thus-
    “How many Grogs does it take to change a lightbulb?
    One; a creature with manipulatory appendages will be along soon enough”

    We shouldn’t forget the Zabriskan Fontema – possibly an ancient evolutionary ancestor of the fundie.

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