E.O. Wilson: What Does E.T. Really Look Like?

The Pulitzer-winning biologist draws from our own knowledge of evolution and Darwinian theory to posit the physical and mental characteristics of extraterrestrial life.

E.T. is out there.  There just has to be in the hundred million star system a galaxy that we belong, that we dwell in, other cases of life originating, because we now know there's so many planets that almost certainly you're going to have certain planets that are goldilocks, that is a right position nearest their sun, the right size and so on that can have the potential to create life.  And of those it seems, and we don't have any basis for this except intuition, that given enough millions of years, in our case we have had half a billion years since life came on the land, to produce a human grade eusocial species.  So we can only guess that it's likely that that has occurred in some of them.  So ET probably is out there.  We don't know if whether it's one of the several planet circling star systems one light year away or whether it's dozens, ten light years away or it goes into the thousands with a hundred light years away.  And that's pretty close by galactic standards.  And so they're probably out there.

So, here's what I did.  In the course of this book actually I did it with some care, the Meaning of Human Existence.  I looked over the many examples of the origin of whole new lines of animals that have occurred on the land since the early Paleozoic.  Now we're talking going back more than 415 million years, that's a long time.  The land of earth was populated by the first plants, then forests and with them a whole array of animal types.  But we have these many multiple lines of animals that originated and we can I think reasonably conclude that eusociality, when it did it develop, including big animals that have the capacity to create a big brain, cerebrum, memory storage areas essentially is what it is and this bizarre round head shapes that we have, I mean seen from the point of view of gorilla we have a bizarre funny looking head, that here is what they all have in common.  Now I'm talking empirical information.  First, you have to be on the land.  You can't develop advanced societies and anything like civilization, which in humans goes back a couple hundred, or at least complex eusocial societies, goes back in the human line a couple hundred thousand years.

Well, why not?  Why no marine, freshwater creatures? Because they don't have fire.  You just have to have, in order to build tools beyond chipping some rock or stone away or maybe crude binding or fashioning materials together, you don't have any way to create more advanced technology without concentrated power source that you can transport from one place to another.  ET, and now drawing this again from the record of multiple origins of animal lines on earth, ET has got a head.  And the head's upfront and the head contains a central organizing center for all of the senses that are spread out through the body.  And the body itself is almost like part of the brain but the information is concentrated in a head that is a forward part.  No octopuses limping along on ten legs or anything like that; they got a head.

E.T. has got a small number of limbs, multiple, maybe six, who knows maybe eight like a spider, but not that many, relatively few.  And ET has on these limbs fingers or tentacles, something with strength and flexibility that are free.  That was the prerequisite that we had when we stepped out of the trees, our ancestors did five million years or so ago.  The earliest known Australopithecus prehumen already was walking on hind legs.  That was just an adaptation it had.  And one of the consequences of freeing the front legs is that now you have organs that can be modified to manipulate, but there's more.  And that is you have to have soft pulpy fingertips.  And when you think about it, and preferably flat nails to protect them, when you think about it think about the primates you know, old world and New World.  That's a primate trait, soft pulpy fingertips.  Because you need those to manipulate finely, in our ancestors case and all the primates that are arboreal and so on, you need to be able to manipulate bits of food like plucking free a piece of fruit, plucking seeds out of a fruit, taking a flower and opening it and eating it and so on.  So that's another trait of ET.  And I would admonish scriptwriters for Hollywood films that have space and alien monsters invading earth.  Don't give them claws.  Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an ET.  There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization.

That was a bit of a stretch but I feel confident about that.  Claws, no, that's for carnivores.  ET is big.  Not big elephant size, adjusted for gravity.  If you have very light gravity on a smaller planet you would be able to get a gigantic animal that's very mobile.  For a plant earth size an elephant is just too big to really get anywhere.  A primate is just the right size.  This is the sort of the goldilocks rule for size.  An ant size is too small.  You can get amazing social adaptations and advance based on pure instinct in ants and termites and other insects, but that's too small to develop the big memory banks.  The elephants, the big antelopes and so on they're too big and clumsy.  They can't develop the same resilience and versatility.  The primates are just right.  So those are some of the traits of ET.  And to that I'll add the addition to being omnivore that they will have moral instincts.  That is they will be able to be generous, to at least some extent, caring and altruistic, not just to individuals of their own species but to other species.  And there's a reason I say that and that is because almost certainly all of the eusocial creatures that produce advanced societies did so through group selection.  Group versus group.  

When you have groups competing with groups and helping drive social instincts by this Darwinian superiority of cooperation within the group, then you have the capacity for a moral system within a group and then eventually between groups under certain circumstances, but not nearly as strong between groups as it is within groups.  That I think is a statement of the prevailing theory of the origin of morality in human beings.

And I'll close this with a mantra that's useful and that is as follows: within a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals if you have both genetic propensity, those who have a genetic propensity towards selfishness versus those that have capacity for altruism and more cooperative behavior within the group, the selfish ones prevail over the altruistic ones.  But, in competition between groups, which is absolutely intense in all eusocial species including humans, and that group competition is what defines humans to a large extent, between groups the competition is such that groups of altruists defeat groups of selfish individuals.  So you get a kind of balance always in human evolution between a tendency to be increasingly altruistic and cooperative, balanced to some extent by a tendency of individuals in these groups to behave in a selfish manner with respect to others.  And that's balance in human beings and it's unstable.  It can never come to some point like a Nash equilibrium and stop, but it means that we're always going – this is the nature of humans that we are eternally, internally, eternally conflicted in our thinking, in our self-examination and our decisions we're making.  And that's a good thing that it's unstable, that it's a product of this great fundamental conflict because that's a source of human creativity in the creative arts and competitive behavior among people and between groups that drives a lot of the best salience of the evolution of civilization.



Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

The Pulitzer-winning biologist draws from our own knowledge of evolution and Darwinian theory to posit the physical and mental characteristics of extraterrestrial life. Wilson's new book is titled "The Meaning of Human Existence."

Why the singular “They” is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.

Pixabay by pexels
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
  • The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
  • Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
Keep reading Show less

'The West' is, in fact, the world's biggest gated community

A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.

Image: TD Architects
Strange Maps
  • Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
  • Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
  • This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Keep reading Show less

Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Butler / Flickr
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.