When seeing their favourite scifi hero has travelled light years to a distant planet which has sent out an audio-visual distress signal in English to help the locals, nerds get distressed.
They don’t whine that faster-than-light travel is impossible. They don’t mention that faster-than-light communication is impossible. They don’t mention that audio-visual distress signals are impractical or that English as a universal language suggests that colonialism has a bright future ahead of it.
For all the problems that they could highlight, a small amount of angst has popped up on the internets once again about scifi aliens that are basically humanoid Earth animals.
The problem with this whining is that it assumes — from the outset — that alien life forms are not going to resemble Earth lifeforms. Philosophically, that’s a bad way to go.
In ‘Where are the dolphins?‘ (Nature 409, 1119-1122 (22 February 2001)), Jack Stewart and Ian Cohen note that alien life will resemble ours in universals but not in parochials. Universals are those characteristics which have evolved several times independently of each other (for example, fins for swimming through water have evolved in fish, in mammals, and in birds). Parochials have evolved once and any creature expressing that trait is related to a common ancestor which had that trait (the backwards pouch, for example, is an easy example and it shows that koalas and wombats had a common ancestor who first made the backwards pouch fashionable).
This means that, in space, we can expect to find fins, wings, fangs, claws, &c., &c., &c.
And that’s all well and good but we can go a few steps further!
If the alien race has sent out a faster-than-light distress signal then they must have the ability to purposefully and precisely manipulate the physical world around them (probably with magic if they’re sending faster-than-light signals, but let that go). That means that they’re going to have something awfully similar to hands (perhaps very precise tentacles, for example).
Finally, talking animals in space have an authenticity that, say, the xenomorphs from Alien don’t. We know that feline characteristics are possible. Why do we know that they’re possible? Because feline characteristics have evolved at least once in the universe already (Earth). We know that humanoid creatures are possible. Why do we know that they’re possible? Because humanoid creatures have evolved at least once in the universe already (Earth). We know that the xenomorphs are impossible (which isn’t that shocking, given that it’s just Giger’s fear of sex personified) and yet the xenomorphs will attract less scorn than Hepzibah the Mephitisoid.
In other news, you can apparently get to this backwater blog by searching for “evil robot”. While I’m certain that robots will bring about our destruction, I’m not sure that I’ve expressed that sentiment anywhere in this blog. Weird.