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The ins and outs of alien animals – ‘The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy’

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Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves” (Penguin Press, $28) is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Rest assured, Dr. Kershenbaum is not trying to tell you that he knows what is out there. Quite the opposite, in fact – he makes it very clear that much about alien life in unknowable. But through an exploration of what we know to be true about our own world and the life on it, he offers up some thoughts about how certain basics might well be the same.

In some ways, it boils down to Darwin: the idea that natural selection – evolution – would almost certainly apply to the development of life in other places. He argues that if you accept evolution as a reality here on Earth, then you must accept that it would be the path to life elsewhere as well. And if you accept that, then we have a certain very basic idea of how life might develop on other worlds.

As for the nature of that life, well … we don’t know. The building blocks of life that kickstart that process of natural selection could be very different than the ones that we understand. Those specific details are beyond our ken, a fact that Kershenbaum happily acknowledges.

However, he also recognizes some underlying truths that almost certainly must apply to alien life as completely as they do to our own.

For instance, movement. While the makeup of the medium through which we move might be different, the physical states of those media are the same throughout the universe. Gas, liquid, solid – all of them fluid to varying degrees. It seems safe to posit that parallel evolution would arrive at similar methods for animals to make their way from place to place through whichever fluid in which they live. Of course, when you take in the possibility that these aliens might not have the same A/B symmetry that most Earth animals do, then who knows?

And communication. What senses will we share with alien creatures? Will they operate with some combination of the five senses with which we are familiar? Or will their communication take other forms entirely? The argument would seem to be in favor of methods similar to our own – natural selection again – but the truth is that wildly different environments might bring wild divergence to the table. Still, even that wild divergence seems likely to carry some common ground with that with which we are familiar.

Kershenbaum continues down this path throughout “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy,” relying on his own depth of knowledge with regard to the nature of animal life here and finding ways that it likely will apply more universally. It’s not a treatise on the specifics of what alien animals will be, but rather the generalities of the qualities physics and evolutionary biology indicate they could well share with us. Obviously, we don’t KNOW – we’ve yet to get the keys to the Tralfamadorian Zoo, alas – but Kershenbaum puts a lot of work into determining plausibility.

The book strikes a fine balance, going into enough depth with the science to engage intellectually while never forgetting the fundamental fun that comes with this sort of speculation (the Douglas Adams allusion of the title is undoubtedly intentional). Dr. Kershenbaum gives the impression of a scientist and academic who has managed to maintain his sense of wonder, making him an ideal creator for this sort of work. He takes his flights of fancy, to be sure – and a work like this needs those flights – but even when he sails into the clouds, his feet remain firmly planted upon a foundation of sound scientific thought. Again, it’s all guesswork, but it would be difficult to find a more educated guesser than Kershenbaum.

“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a pop science delight, a book unafraid to have fun with its premise even as it refuses to lower its expectations of its audience. Obviously, Arik Kershenbaum doesn’t know what alien animals will look like or how they will behave – no one does – but this is as thoughtful and engaging a set of hypotheses you’re likely to find on the subject.

Last modified on Thursday, 01 April 2021 12:43

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