‘The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy’ Review: Critters of the Cosmos
There are many ways to be alone. You can be alone in a room, a house, or even in a crowd. You can be really alone in a desert, or really, really alone in the universe. This is the last, existential and cosmic loneliness that astronomers and astrobiologists have in mind when asking “Are we alone?”
In his book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arik Kershenbaum, a zoologist and lecturer at Cambridge University’s Girton College, takes a new and satisfying approach to this question. He does not worry too much about the evidence for or against the existence of extraterrestrial life. Instead, he is interested in guessing what forms he can take, given that we know about conditions in other worlds. Instead of the famous question of Enrico Fermi, but where is everyone? Mr. Kershenbaum asks: How would everyone be?
There are good reasons to believe that we may not be alone. There are people and other places, so life itself – for all its seemingly unique characteristics – is not entirely unthinkable. And there are many other planets, almost certainly in the hundreds of millions, maybe billions, including a very large number that look almost like Earth. Do we have any basis for assuming that our planetary life forms are so distinct?
In 2017, astronomers were puzzled by an object first spotted by a telescope on Mount Haleakala in Hawaii. It had many characteristics that seemed to distinguish it from other extraterrestrial objects that occasionally enter our planetary neighborhood: unusual shape, rotation, and speed. It was named “Oumuamua” the Hawaiian word for “detector”, and although most scientists doubt it was a scout from another culture, at least one well-known astronomer believes it was.
As befits a good biologist, Mr. Kershenbaum presents information that he knows from what we know about the process of evolution through natural selection. He argues that although the details will necessarily vary from one exoplanet to another – whether life can be based on, say, silicon, or whether gravity is stronger or weaker than Earth – life is likely to be subject to basic principles variation, selective conservation and reproduction. Regardless of the specific planetary environment, some kind of evolutionary mechanism could be inevitable. If so, there must be interplanetary similarities in biology – as there seem to be common patterns in chemistry, physics and mathematics that apply to other inanimate objects in the universe, from subatomic particles to black holes.
The Zoological Guide for the Galaxy
By Arik Kershenbaum
Penguin Press, 356 pages, $ 28
“A zoologist observing a continent discovered from afar,” writes Kershenbaum, “will be filled with ideas about the kind of creatures that can live there.” These ideas would not be wild guesses, but with sound rational assumptions based on the vast variety of animals we already know and how each animal’s adaptations are appropriate for the life they live: how they eat, sleep, find mates and build their hideouts. The more we know about how animals have adapted to the old world, the better we can guess about the new. “
The “Zoologist’s Guide” is a wonderful combination of science fiction and fun. Each chapter examines a different aspect of the behavior of animals on Earth that, according to the author, would most likely be reproduced on other planets: sociability, cooperation, communication, intelligence, language, and so on. He is always careful to anchor his conjectures in what is already known – not only for well-studied terrestrial species, but, above all, for universal (hence all over the world) evolutionary principles. Mr Kershenbaum continues to argue convincingly that “we have enough variety of adaptations here on Earth to give us at least potential mechanisms that seem appropriate solutions even in worlds almost different from our own.”
This may lead the reader to the conclusion that extraterrestrial creatures, as exotic as they are, will look like their earthly counterparts in recognizable ways. They may have long, short, flexible or modular attachments, but they will nevertheless have some kind of protrusions that will be used for movement or handling. They may have large, small, single, multiple, round, torn or geometric eyes, but in any case they will need some devices to understand what we call visible energy. Remember the canteen’s only favorite scene in the first “Star Wars” movie, in which the different inhabitants were all, in a way, “animals”.
Mr. Kershenbaum does not go that far, bypassing the temptation to make assumptions about himself about how aliens would behave rather than how they would behave. that is, their functions and not their forms. Thus, when assuming a foreign language, he focuses on the supposed universal compensation of communication, without making assumptions about, for example, the Klingon dialects, à la “Star Trek”.
“If aliens use sound for their alarm calls, their cries will probably be very similar to ours,” he writes. “Do not believe it if they say ‘no one can hear you screaming'” – the screams evolved to be heard and to be annoying. Even if the aliens do not use sound, it is possible that the alien alarm calls are just as chaotic on any medium they use. They will have any properties typical of an alien signal generator when you jump from behind a rock and give the alien a fear. “Scary” will be similar on every planet. “
A skeptic – even if one accepts the prospect of a complex extraterrestrial life – may object that the “Zoological Guide” is too full of Earth-centrism. But one benefit of Kershenbaum’s method is that while it absorbs credible theories about the possible nature of extraterrestrial life, the reader will learn a great deal about the true nature of life on Earth. The title of the book is intended to be indicatively similar to the wonderful sci-fi fantasy of Douglas Adams “The Guide to the Hitsikker Galaxy”. Readers will not discover Hitchhiker’s whimsical answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (spoiler: It’s 42). But Mr Kershenbaum’s answers to the questions he asks are just as original and have the added advantage that they could be true.
Mr. Barash is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Bullying and Dissatisfaction.
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