“The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?” — Jodie Foster (Eleanor Arroway in Contact)
The idea that humans may have evolved on more than one planet isn't as crazy as it sounds. In fact, according to a University of Cambridge astrobiologist, the chances of this happening are higher than you might think!
In a recent interview with BBC's Science Focus magazine, an evolutionary palaeobiologist at the institution's Department of Earth Sciences named Simon Conway Morris declared that researchers can "say with reasonable confidence" that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the Universe.
The core of Morris' belief comes from the theory of convergent evolution. It claims that life will repeatedly evolve in different ways due to similar pressures or starting points.
While the theory has been around for more than a century, most scientists still think it's far-fetched. But, Conway Morris argues that convergent evolution not only occurs on Earth but might be widespread throughout the Universe, mainly because life will evolve to survive whatever conditions it finds itself in.
What is Convergent Evolution?
According to Encyclopedia.com: "Convergent evolution is the process by which unrelated species independently evolve similar traits due to having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches."
This mechanism has played an essential role in shaping the planet's biodiversity and may even lead to intelligent alien life on other planets!
How does Convergence happen? Convergent evolution is a response to evolutionary pressure, the need of an organism to survive. This may occur under conditions similar across different species (such as living in certain climates), or it can be driven by unique factors depending on what type of life form we're talking about.
What does this mean for intelligent life?
So far, convergent evolution has only been observed here on Earth; however, Conway Morris argues that there's no reason why we shouldn't expect non-human intelligence elsewhere in the Universe!
Conway Morris' comments aren't just idle speculation: he claims that scientists can say with "reasonable confidence" that human-like creatures have evolved outside our solar system due to decades spent studying the theory of convergent evolution.
Like most scientists, he believes that life evolved on Earth due to unique conditions and characteristics — but given our planet's similarities to other planets in the solar system, it isn't unreasonable to think we might find human-like creatures elsewhere!
Is Convergence Evolution only Science Fiction?
While Conway Morris' comments may be controversial among biologists and astrobiologists who study extraterrestrial life forms, they're intended more as thought experiments than anything else: there is currently no evidence for non-human intelligent species outside our planet.
However, these ideas are still important because they help us consider what kinds of creatures (if any) could evolve under different circumstances or environments.
Perhaps E.T. is not a green alien but rather a being with similar characteristics to you and me.
Suppose you think of the entire Universe as one enormous ecosystem. The Universe is a prominent place so that some aliens will have brains and bodies resembling humans. Don't you think?
The theory that intelligent life could have evolved on other planets isn't new. But Conway Morris' recent comments are intended to provide some science behind the idea.
Conway Morris' belief is based on his research on convergent evolution. But, most scientists believe that our planet was unique in its ability to support life and may not confidently say whether intelligent species could evolve elsewhere.
In his "Science Focus" article, Paul Parsons asks this question that has my mind spinning:
“Could it be that our species is the principal indigenous race in the Universe — that Homo sapiens, or something close to it, has evolved independently on multiple other worlds?”
I've always thought that for us to be alone in the Universe like Jodie Foster's character says is "an awful waste of space." But I never considered the possibility of those other life forms being like us.
What do you think? Do you believe there is life on other planets? Do you believe homo sapiens or something very similar is the prominent universal species?