The longtime head of Russia’s effort to find intelligent life in the cosmos is convinced that we’ll find extraterrestrial beings within the next 20 years, and he’s also pretty sure that they’ll probably look a lot like us.
According to a recent Reuters report, Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute, told an international conference on searching for extraterrestrials in St. Petersburg that finding aliens is a virtual certainty, because 10 percent of the known exoplanets in the galaxy are Earthlike rocky planets in the so-called habitable zone of their solar systems, in which conditions permit the existence of surface water.
Finkelstein, who runs a program to detect radio signals from space that first began during the Soviet regime in the 1960s, infers that if water can be found on planets, the intelligent creatures who live there will resemble humans, with two arms, two legs and a head.
“They may have a different skin color, but even we have that,” he explained.
Finkelstein’s confident prediction about the humanoid nature of aliens is a bit curious, since the question of what aliens might look like has been the subject of fairly intense debate.
Some scientists do agree with Finkelstein. For example, in this article from the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, Earth Sciences professor Simon Conway Norris of Cambridge University argues that on a planet similar to our own, evolutionary imperatives would shape alien life in a way similar to our own.
It is difficult to imagine evolution on alien planets operating in any manner other than Darwinian. In the end, the number of options is remarkably restrictive. I don’t think an alien will be a blob. In short if there is any life out there then it is likely to be very similar to us.
In this 2009 video, psychologist, science historian and professional skeptic Michael Shermer argues that the likelihood of aliens being bipedal primates is extremely low.
In this Scientific American article from the same year, Shermer also invokes the late, great astronomer and author Carl Sagan’s words in a 1995 debate with Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (also deceased):
They may have unimaginable chemistries, shapes, sizes, colors, appendages, and opinions. We are not requiring that they follow the particular route that led to the evolution of humans. There may be many different evolutionary passways, each unlikely, but the sum of the number of pathways to intelligence may nevertheless be quite substantial.
To keep the debate in perspective, it may be useful to believe that prior to the exploration of the Americas, cartographers often depicted the unknown lands as being full of fanciful monsters. The only way we’ll find out for sure whether aliens resemble “grays” or glowing blobs, of course, is if the first part of Finkelstein’s prediction–that we’ll find extraterrestrials by 2031–comes true.