'Star Trek's Humanoid Aliens May Not Be Far Off, Argues New Extraterrestrial Evolution Book

It's commonly accepted that of course extraterrestrial life doesn't look like aliens do on Star Trek. Real aliens, wherever they are and whatever they may look like, certainly haven't spent a few hours in a makeup chair to add brow ridges or threat ganglia. The possibility that aliens may be too strange to even recognize as intelligent life has been proposed as a possible response to the Fermi Paradox, which ponders why we haven't yet encountered signs of extraterrestrial civilization.

But while it may be spectacularly unlikely that alien first contact will be with people who look like us (except with bowl cuts and pointy ears), a new book argues we shouldn't be so quick to assume extraterrestrial life will be so far out of our biological frame of understanding. Alien life may be more Star Trek than Lovecraft.

The Equation of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh, argues for the possibility of a "universal biology."

via Gfycat

"My view is underpinned by a simple proposition," Cockell writes. "Evolution is just a tremendous and exciting interplay of physical principles encoded in genetic material. The limited number of these principles. The limited number of these principles, expressed in equations, means that the finale of this process is also restrained and universal."

Cockell argues that carbon and water aren't just incidental to life on Earth, but are close to the optimum material and medium for the emergence of organic life (so no silicon-based Horta), themselves bound by the narrow physical parameters in which organic molecules can exist.

Extraterrestrials could look "eerily similar to the life we see on Earth," Cockell told Forbes. "Life on Earth might be a template for life in the universe."

Klingons in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." Paramount Pictures

Cockell believes the physical laws underlying evolution likely reverberate up through complex, multicellular organisms, essentially establishing a restricted scope of biological possibilities, many or most of which may already be expressed on Earth.

Cockell even argues against some common depictions of extraterrestrials with high alienness, like the ever-popular "quixotic intelligent interstellar cloud," which may work just fine for Rick and Morty and Futurama, but it's unlikely to be a form that came about by evolutionary processes.

"The diffuse nature of the molecules and atoms in such clouds make it unlikely that such a form could forge a self-replication system that would evolve or be sustained over long time spans," Cockell writes.

We may not be any closer to a true understanding of extraterrestrial life, but The Equation of Life at least gives hope that future sci-fi series won't have to retcon themselves to explain why all their aliens look like humans in makeup, as Star Trek: The Next Generation did in an episode introducing a common ancestor to humans, Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons and Cardassians. While Cockell's suppositions are frustratingly untestable (at least until Zefram Cochrane builds a warp drive in 2063 and makes first contact with the Vulcans), his book gives surprising argumentative validity to our depictions of aliens as four-limbed humanoids with roughly similar sensory apparatus.