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People of a Different Shape
by Peter Rogerson

There seems to be a growing interest in reviving the ETH as an explanation of certain UFO experiences. This would seem to be a good time to examine this hypothesis again.

To understand the role which the ETH played - and still plays - in ufology, it is necessary first to examine some ufological history.

When, in late 1947 or early 1948, sections of the US military and media decided that certain UFO cases pointed to the existence of flying machines with unusual characteristics, the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence had received only limited intellectual treatment. The notion of life in distant solar systems had little scientific credibility. Indeed, for a generation, under the influence of the "collision theory" of planetary formation, great scepticism had been expressed about the existence of other solar systems at all. (1) This concept was only just about to be assaulted by a revived nebular hypothesis of planetary formation.

There was a potent source of cultural imagery about extraterrestrials in the vast quantities of science fiction published in the pulp magazines during the "golden age" of science fiction from 1929 to 1939. The alien participants in these stories were usually just people in a different shape, with human (often hostile) motivations. The influence of this literature on the young and technologically minded was great. There cannot have been any small town in America where there was not at least one science fiction fan: this was to provide an audience for the idea of alien visitation - though it must be borne in mind that most of science fiction fandom was hostile to ufology.

There was, however, some scientific speculation about extraterrestrials, largely speculation about Martians. Percival Lowell's ideas about Mars had wide currency. He speculated that Mars was an older planet, whose inhabitants were dying as a result of drought, and had constructed a great network of canals to delay this. These ideas gained wide currency through the writings of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others. In 1947 "aliens" meant "Martians". It should be remembered that Orson Welles's broadcast of War of the Worlds was still fresh in American minds. (2)

Civilians and the military both began wondering about Martians seeing nuclear explosions, and coming to Earth to investigate. Donald Keyhoe in his pioneering True article, (3) and subsequent books (4) expanded on the theme of Martians with a technology several hundred years in advance of the Earth's.

Though these Martians may have been super-bees, as suggested by writer and mystic Gerald Heard, (5) they were invariably ascribed human motivations. The technology granted to the ETs was similarly assumed to be just around the corner, though often based on theories about the aether, anti-gravity and the like, which were already very out of date, (6) and never bore any close correspondence with any of the concepts of mainstream physics. Throughout the 1950s speculation in the ufological literature about ETs seldom rose above the space-opera stage, and was often very deficient in imagination when compared with even the worst science fiction.

Having been given human attributes, motivations and abilities, the aliens became assimilated to other military menaces. Never once did any sense of real alienness cross the minds of most ufologists.

The general acceptance of the nebular theory of planetary origins and the development of space technology led to a growing scientific interest in the idea of extraterrestrial life and communicating with intelligences elsewhere in the universe; an interest which culminated in Project Ozma. During the 1960s a steady stream of books with titles such as We Are Not Alone, Intelligent Life in Space, etc., were published. The reader who expected a serious philosophical discussion of the nature of non-human intelligences was usually disappointed, as such books usually followed a set pattern. Chapters on the evolution of the solar system and life led to chapters on radio astronomy, the "uniquely rational" method of communicating with ETs.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the upsurge of these writings occurred at the same time as the heyday of Hermann Kahn, the Peace Corps, and the cult of the high-rise, white-hot technological revolution. An implicit faith in the ability of science and technology to overcome all problems, and a belief that the values and achievements of western civilisation were universal, permeated these books. The underlying assumption might be expressed: "We are such clever chaps, it is only natural advanced aliens must be just like us", and, as one cynic suggested, were probably educated at the Sorbonne or MIT!

Thus whilst the ufologists had seen the ETs as just another community of invaders or explorers, the saucerites had seen them as another community of gurus and missionaries, and the exobiologists had seen them as another community of scientists. All saw them as people.

At a popular level such anthropomorphic attitudes persist. A few years ago some American engineers presented a paper in which they seriously argued that information supplied by abductees under hypnotic regression could provide clues as to the design and propulsion of alien spacecraft. (7) Aircraft hangars are rumoured full of crashed flying saucers, and naive notions still persist of investigating UFOs with home-made electronic gadgets, toy telescopes and chemistry sets.

Nevertheless, it seems apparent that the ETH as an explanation of the ORIGINAL unidentifieds (ostensible high-performance flying machines) never really survived the discounting of the "Martian" hypothesis. As human space travel developed it became clearer that Ruppelt was very wrong when he predicted in 1956 that "within a few years there will be a proven answer". (8) Furthermore, ufologists believed that they had uncovered evidence that the UFO phenomenon was as old as written records, if not older, and possessed all sorts of curious sidelines. The airship stories of 1897 were the road which led many American ufologists out of the ETH. A similar role was being played in Britain by the 1904/5 Welsh Revival stories. The idea of nuts-and-bolts extraterrestrial spaceships not only could not accommodate to these new data, but also involved the none-too-plausible notion that mid-twentieth century science knew all there was to know about the universe.

Faced with these realisations many ufologists abandoned the ETH in favour of either psychological or supernatural explanations; others tried to construct a more sophisticated version. The latter correctly pointed out that a genuine alien "intelligence" was likely to be something far stranger than was commonly thought. They began to think not just in terms of "people of a different shape", but in terms of "higher level of organisation" beyond mind. This can perhaps be called the Super-ETH.

The pioneer in this line of speculation was Aime Michel, who had suggested as early as 1957 that contact with "the other" may be impossible because it represented a "higher order of mentality". (9) In a series of FSR articles (10) Michel elaborated on this point. His "superintelligence" which he called magonia was perhaps the first advanced intelligence in the galaxy, which it now permeated in much the same way that human intelligence permeates the Earth. It is now, he suggested, far beyond what we understand as mind, and human beings are in relation to magonia as domestic pets are in relation to humans - the core of magonia is inaccessible to humanity, but humankind may have access to the "human in magonia" just as a cat can appreciate the "cat in humanity".

The logical errors here are obvious. It is quite illegitimate to think of cats as being somehow stupid people - they are the highly successful product of their own evolutionary adaptation. What cats and people have in common is their mammalian nature, the product of 2 billion years of common evolution (and evolutionary divergence of only some 70 million years. No hypothetical ET has such a common ancestry or nature. Indeed people have far more in common with the aardvark, the sea slug or the geranium, than with "ET", with whom we share only the "laws" of physics and chemistry.

We should be particularly wary of treating ET in terms of extrapolation to our own future. Even in terms of our own future, thinking in terms of better and faster spacecraft is probably just as absurd as my own great-great-grandfather's vision of a future dominated by giant steam-hammers! (11) The best we can say about the future is that significant aspects of it are not predictable. (12)

It is therefore incorrect to talk about ET as "advanced" upon us. ET is likely to be wholly different, so that when I said that ET would be linked to us only by the laws of of physics and chemistry, I should add that physics, chemistry, mathematics, laws, concepts,emotions, motivation, technology, travel, etc., are human phenomena: products of the way human beings perceive the universe. We cannot be at all sure that they hold true for ETs which may perceive the universe in quite a different way to us. Even if ET does share our perception of the universe in general, there will almost certainly be aspects of physics available to them, but not to us, about which we can say nothing. (13)

Clearly, then, the idea that the ETH implies "an unguessable psychology operating a technology like magic, impelled by non-human motivations" is probably still over-anthropomorphic.

It is this situation that the post-revisionist ufologists are putting forward as an explanation for UFO experiences. The problem with this Super-ETH is not that there is evidence against it, or that there is much validity in the arguments of those who argue that "they" could not get here: the latter are clearly as naive as the proponents of spaceships.

No. The real objection to the ETH lies in the fact that in the absence of any independent evidence as to the nature, powers, or even existence of ET, there is NOTHING that the ETH could not be made to explain. Even the 90 per cent or more misinterpretations conceded by the ETH proponents could be "explained" by arguing that the ETs cause us to misidentify the moon as a spaceship by projecting N-rays at us! Not only is such a theory impervious to evidence and allows no useful predictions to be made, but a very great question exists as to whether the nature and activities of such ETs could ever be tackled by human intellectual analyses.

What the Super-ETH (and some of its more esoteric rivals) then implies is the evocation of what to all practical purposes are "arbitrary wills" in order to explain certain peculiar experiences. These "arbitrary wills" are by their nature not susceptible to intellectual analysis. Now the whole ethos of the scientific enterprise has been to eliminate such "arbitrary wills" as explanations of physical events, therefore the post-revisionists are setting themselves into a collision course with science - which can be considered as a game with its own set of rules, high amongst which is "no arbitrary wills"! It seems unlikely, to put it no stronger, that the scientific community would endorse concepts which, if taken seriously, would mean an end to the scientific enterprise itself.

Indeed, acceptance of such "arbitrary wills" would have even more drastic consequences than a regression to a pre-scientific state, for almost all traditional societies place very strict social constraints on the powers of "spirits". Many reserve certain important areas of life to creator gods which no longer intervene in the phenomenal world, and thus ensure regularity, while within the Judaeo-Christian tradition there have been repeated attempts by theologians to impose de facto limits on the activities of God - a lawful God would not break His own laws, etc.

Even if the damage could be limited to ufology (and given the readiness of ufologists to invoke mysterious agencies to explain everything from football hooliganism to the deaths of miners, one doubts it!) it is hard to see what possible practical value such people could see in continuing UFO investigations. The fact that most do suggests that few take the Super-ETH seriously, but rather treat it as an amusing intellectual sideline. For those that really do, it is difficult to believe that they could take a more intellectually honest course than to follow one former reader of this journal, who left ufology for mysticism in his attempt to comprehend the "other".

Given these rather unpleasant consequences it strikes me as most unwise to evoke the ETH except as a desperate last resort, when all else has failed. Perhaps when we get simultaneous video recordings of a landing then such speculation may have to be revived, but if we discard anthropomorphic notions about spaceships it by no means follows that evidence for unusual aerial craft would be evidence for ETs.


1. It is amusing to note that amongst the proponents of this hypothesis was Sir James Jeans, much admired by a previous generation of "anti-materialist" ufologists and psychical researchers.

2. See Cantril, H. "The Invasion from Mars", Harper and Row, 1966. It is interesting to note that Cantril's study was paid for by the US Defense Department.

3. Keyhoe, Donald. "True UFO Report".

4. Keyhoe, Donald E. "The Flying Saucers are Real", Fawcett, 1950; "Flying Saucers from Outer Space", Hutchinson, 1953

5. Heard, Gerald. "The Riddle of the Flying Saucers", Carroll & Nicholson, 1950

6. Cramp, Leonard. "Space, Gravity and the Flying Saucer", Werner Laurie, 1954, is a classic example.

7. An even more prize example comes in James McCampbell's position statement in "Encyclopedia of UFOs", where he suggests that we ask the people in the flying saucers how the machines operate.

8. Ruppelt, Edward. "The Report on UFOs", 1956

9. in "Flying Saucers and the Straight-line Mystery", Criterion, 1956

10. Michel, Aime. "Of men, cats and magonia", Flying Saucer Review (FSR), 16, 5, pp 19-20; "Project Dick", FSR, 18, 1, pp 13-19; "The mouse in the maze", FSR, 20, 3, pp 8-9; "The cat flap effect", FSR, 25, 5, pp 3-5

11. Rowlandson, Thomas Smith. "The Evolution of the Steam Hammer", Eccles, 1865. This little booklet is not, I believe available at the British Museum.

12. It is quite impossible to imagine in realistic detail, say, a society in which total mechanisation of production is coupled with total abolition of want. We simply do not have the vocabulary to articulate the values and aspirations of such a society.

13. Discussion of this point is contained in Boyce, Chris. "Extraterrestrial Encounter", 2nd ed., New English Library, 1981. For discussion which often falls into anthropomorphism see Hayakama (ed.). "Cultures Beyond the Earth". As an intellectual exercise readers may like to speculate on the life style of "intelligent" beings with six sexes, the gender of whose offspring is determined by the mathematical pattern of a mating game having affinities to three-dimensional chess, and who communicate by wavelength changes at the angstrom level in the colour of their bioluminescence!

After 15 years I am still trying to get supporters of the ETH to address some of the points made in this article. The silence has been deafening. If anything I am now more sceptical of the ETH than I was then. I don't think I had fully taken on board the role of evolution. Contrary to what ETH/ SETI enthusiasts seem to believe, there is no directional force in evolution pushing towards us. Evolution occurs in response to short term events, changes in environment, random mutation and the affects of natural selection on slight variations in population. It is a huge bush, not an escalator. The moment you try to really think about it, just how likely is it that entities which would be vastly more genetically different from us than sea slugs, slime mold, bananas and yeast would share our hopes, dreams, concerns and technological visions. Get real folks.

~Peter Rogerson, 1999

Little Green Men
Bug-eyed Monsters

Life on Earth points to intelligent aliens

As far as we know, our planet has never been visited by intelligent beings from outer space. And we have never received any messages from such creatures. But our knowledge is limited.

If the technology of intelligent aliens is no better than our own, then we can as yet exclude their presence only from a "tiny" bubble of radius 25 light-years centered on the Earth. And we can do even this only by assuming they would communicate with us if they could.

That will change. If our civilization survives long enough, then we should be able exchange information with, and perhaps even see in person, just about any intelligent aliens living within the Milky Way.

But we can't do it yet. So our only tool right now for assessing the probability that such creatures exist is our knowledge of life on Earth and of the mechanisms that drive evolution. And our big problem with making use of this knowledge is that we have only a limited grasp of the role that historical contingency plays in the evolution of intelligence.

On the one hand, our own existence is in some sense accidental. The impact of a large meteorite 65 million years ago ended the Cretaceous Era of dinosaurs and began the Tertiary Era during which mammals rapidly took over niches left vacant by the dinosaurs' extinction.

More recently, by some particular series of genetic accidents, our species alone among all those mammals acquired the capacity to use language, a capacity essential for the transmission of culture and the development of technology essential for sending of messages through empty space.

On the other hand, creatures with intelligence essentially similar to ours might well have evolved even if those particular accidents had never happened. Birds descended from dinosaurs. And recent experiments suggest that some corvids (crows and the like) are better than our simian cousins at making tools and at communicating.

The luxuriant redundancy of terrestrial life may be telling us that if a niche exploitable by intelligent beings opens up anywhere life exists, intelligence will, sooner or later, evolve to fill it.

The popular equation of evolution with progress has recently been subject to heavy criticism. Zen Faulkes, a contributor to the Prometheus Books study The UFO Invasion, argues that: Evolutionary theory does not predict that there should be any trend to increasing intelligence. For that matter, evolutionary theory does not predict any trend toward any sort of increasing complexity . . . when one considers that the Anomalocaridids were Cambrian-era predators with well-developed eyes, raptorial appendages, and reaching two meters in length . . . one is hard-pressed to argue how such an animal would be "simpler" than the vast majority of animals alive today."


At a very early stage in the investigation of UFO reports it became generally accepted that if a significant number of verified reports remained unexplained after exhaustive investigation then these UFOs must be interplanetary spacecraft. Some people argued that there were no really good cases and that the whole business was just a manifestation of human irrationality and gullibility. Students of the subject thus became divided into believers and sceptics. This made for lively debate, but it did little to advance scientific research on rare or unexplained phenomena.

The reason for this state of affairs lies in the use of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) by UFO enthusiasts as a blanket explanation for all unsolved UFO cases. The problem with the ETH is not that it is absurd. It is, indeed, perfectly rational. Many scientists have devoted a great deal of effort to setting up radio equipment and monitoring the output to see if they can detect signals from other civilizations which may or may not exist elsewhere in the galaxy. Why, many ufologists might ask, do they not simply study the best UFO reports, then they might learn something about the ETs?

The reason is that if they discovered signals which they could demonstrate were coming from a source umpteen light years away and that these signals were artificial, then that would be positive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. This reasoning does not apply to UFOs, as no one sees where they go to or where they come from. The ETH is not a scientific theory, as applied to UFOs, because it can account for all reports for which conventional explanations are not easily found. A theory which so easily explains everything explains nothing. If you say that such and such a UFO was an alien spacecraft then you don't have to bother investigating any further.

It is rather like a man who watches a conjuring act. He can't imagine how the effects are achieved, so he comes to the conclusion that the conjuror has amazing paranormal powers. This saves him the effort of studying the literature on magic to discover how the tricks are actually performed.

It is this sort of attitude that has resulted in the neglect of some interesting reports. The question which arises is: Are there any good UFO reports for which a convincing physical or psychological explanation has not been found? Now there are some really stunning reports but few of them can stand up to critical examination. What we need are reports with the following characteristics, and I won't spell out the reasons for them because they should be fairly obvious:

(1) Independent witnesses separated from one another;

(2) Reports made with all relevant details to a responsible person or organization shortly after the event;

(3) No significant internal inconsistencies in the reports;

(4) No obvious explanation of the phenomena reported.

The effects on witnesses of the ETH should always be considered when reading or investigating UFO reports. The ETH strongly distorts many reports of unusual phenomena, or normal objects seen in unusual conditions. Some good reports may be sightings of rare and poorly understood natural phenomena. Although it is desirable for there to be multiple independent witnesses, they are no guarantee that anything really strange or unusual has taken place.

In rejecting the ETH as a blanket explanation for all puzzling UFO reports it is important not to substitute another blanket explanation, such as mirages or ball lightning. In comparing new reports with cases described in the literature it should be realised that many of these are highly inaccurate summaries of the original reports, and some of them are totally false.

It is only by separating the ETH from the UFO that any progress is likely to be made in obtaining reliable information about the unusual natural phenomena which probably generate some of the more interesting UFO reports.

by John Harney


In recent years there has developed a two-pronged attack on the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) as an explanation for UFO reports. These two prongs may be termed the cosmological approach and the psycho-sociological approach. We can put them together and sum them up as follows:

There are no visitors from other planets because the Earth is the only planet in this galaxy (or in the entire universe) on which intelligent life has evolved. Thus, if we want to explain the UFO reports we must study the witnesses, their psychological problems and their interactions with society.

Now it cannot seriously be doubted that the disciplines of psychology and sociology are relevant to the study of UFO reports. However, there is a danger that total commitment to this approach could lead us astray by being employed as a catch-all explanation for anything resembling a UFO report.

The psycho-sociological approach is reinforced by current theories about extraterrestrial life which generally conclude that it is so unlikely that we might as well forget about it. This set of theories, which I have termed the cosmological approach, is itself two-pronged. Various theories of biological evolution and the evolution of stars and planets are considered in an attempt to demonstrate that the evolution of life is a singular event. This is backed up by the other prong of the cosmological approach, which is a set of arguments designed to convince us that if the ETs existed they would have colonised Earth millions of years ago.

In this paper I intend to point to some apparent weaknesses in these arguments and to urge that the ETH should not hastily be abandoned.


2.1 Suitable stars and planets

Intelligent life resembling in any way that which we know here on Earth would have to have its origin on a planet which would provide an environment having certain essential properties. It seems to be generally agreed that such a planet would have to be rather similar to Earth and be orbiting a star similar to the sun.

It is estimated that there are about 200 thousand million stars in our galaxy, and Isaac Asimov (1) considers that about 75 thousand million may be considered sufficiently sun-like to nurture life on planets which may orbit them. Although there is still much uncertainty, some theoretical work suggests that planetary systems may be common. (2)

The main argument against life arising in such systems is that it is considered very unlikely that a suitable terrestrial (i.e. earth-like) planet will exist in a stable orbit which is not too near or too far away from its parent star.

2.2 Climatic stability

Life has existed continuously on Earth for about 3,000 million years. It follows from this that the Earth's climate cannot have changed drastically in all that time. If, in any period, the mean surface temperature had strayed outside the range 0-100 degrees Celsius then life would have been extinguished. Also, if the Earth cooled until it was completely covered with ice, the situation would be irreversible, as would a runaway greenhouse effect which would be caused by excessive heating.

It has been calculated that only very small changes in the Earth's orbit or in the output of energy from the sun are required to produce either of these effects. Thus it is considered unlikely that any planet would remain habitable for long enough for advanced life forms to evolve.

In the opinion of the Russian scientist M.I. Budyko: "It is believed that the maintenance on Earth of a mean temperature within the narrow zone necessary for life for billions of years seems to be a random event, the probability of which is very low. To a considerable extent the comparatively small changeability of the atmospheric chemical composition, whose variation could easily destroy all organisms was also random." (3)

2.3 Improbability of the emergence of life

It is generally believed by scientists that life on Earth arose spontaneously out of non-living matter, beginning with the formation of complex organic compounds in the primeval ocean. It has often been argued that the odds against these compounds arranging themselves in such a way as to form the first living organism are so great that the existence of life on Earth must be a singular event. For example, Jacques Monod has written that: "Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance." (4)

2.4 Is there life on Earth?

The arguments in sections 2.1-2.3 summarise very briefly the views of those scientists who believe that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is extremely unlikely. Astronomers think that there are unlikely to be suitable planets at the correct distances from sun-like stars. Climatologists believe that earth-like planets would inevitably be covered by ice, or be boiling hot (like Venus). Some biologists think that the emergence of life is so improbable that it is inconceivable that it could have happened more than once. Each group calculates enormous odds against conditions being favourable to life from the point of view of their own discipline. So if we take their views seriously we must multiply these odds together and arrive at a figure so enormous that we are forced to conclude that we are merely figments of our own fevered imaginations!

As the notion that we do not really exist but only imagine we do is incoherent, we can reasonably suppose that extraterrestrial life really does exist on other planets although it perhaps does not arise very often.


3.1 The galaxy should be completely colonised

The scientific opinions mentioned in section 2 cannot lightly be brushed aside, so it is reasonable to speculate that the number of planets in the galaxy on which intelligent life develops is quite small. However, it has been calculated that any beings which achieved interstellar travel could spread throughout the entire galaxy in a period which is short compared with the age of the solar system. Eric M. Jones, for example, considers 60 million years to be a reasonable estimate. (5) Some writers have used such estimates to argue that the fact that aliens have not taken over the Earth strongly suggests that we are alone in the galaxy.

3.2 Anthropomorphic assumptions

The main weakness of this kind of argument is that it is hopelessly anthropomorphic. It is surely possible to think about extraterrestrial intelligence without having to see it in terms of the Star Wars films and similar space operas. The first race of beings to spread throughout the galaxy would doubtless be aware that they could establish themselves on every habitable planet. But they would also be aware that such a policy would pre-empt the emergence of any other intelligent life forms. Once they had spread throughout the galaxy they would also be in a position to discourage any emergent space voyagers from adopting the traditional space-opera approach to any habitable or inhabited planets which they might encounter.


4.1 Naive versions of the ETH

There are several versions of the ETH and most of them are presented in such a manner in the UFO literature as to discourage any serious enquirer from pursuing the matter any further.

There is the straight anthropomorphic version which sees the ETs as being like us mentally, if not physically. These are the kinds of beings who apparently inhabit the imaginations of writers such as Keyhoe and some of the good old-fashioned American organisations. They are so familiar, from UFO literature and science fiction, that no more need be said about them here.

Then there are the aliens of the UFO cultists, which are more difficult to deal with, as one is not sure whether they are supposed to be physical entities or purely spiritual beings, like angel

4.2 Looking at the question from the ET's point of view

It seems to me to be unreasonable to assume that beings who have travelled throughout the galaxy for millions of years would treat a newly discovered planet in the same way that we would undoubtedly be treating, say, Mars if it were found to be inhabited or habitable. They would sometimes find it necessary to control, as well as monitor, the activities of other emergent intelligences, but they would have had plenty of time to evolve methods of exquisite subtlety, so that no creature would be aware of their activities unless they decided to reveal themselves.

As a result of the persistence of UFO reports and speculation about them since 1947, a large proportion of the Earth's population is mentally prepared for the idea of alien contact. It could be argued that the UFO phenomenon has been carefully devised by the ETs in order to prepare us for possible overt contact. It should be possible, by means of a careful study of the pattern of UFO reports, to decide whether or not such an idea should be taken seriously. This possibility has already been discussed - but probably with tongue in cheek - by Vallee. (6)

4.3 A future for the ETH?

There is a clear division between those scientists who are interested in SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and those who are interested in the study of UFO reports. The SETI scientists are apparently quite happy with the alien intelligences, provided that they remain at a safe distance. Scientists interested in the study of UFO reports tend to be more committed to the idea that they are a version of modern folklore. However, folklore is generally concerned with amazing experiences which are supposed to have happened to "a friend of a friend", whereas UFO experiences generally happen to identified individuals.

A revival of the ETH would depend on the bringing together of SETI scientists and "serious" ufologists. A possible meeting point might be achieved by considering the ideas of Michael D. Papagiannis, (7) who has advanced the idea that interstellar visitors to the solar system might use the asteroid belt to obtain raw materials for refuelling and refurbishing their fleets. Such visitors, if they exist, would perhaps also be curious about what is happening on Earth. Further study of such ideas might provide the basis for a fruitful exchange of ideas between ufology and SETI.


If UFO reports have nothing to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, then there is no point in pursuing the subject popularly known as ufology. If some UFO reports, or UFO reports in general are manifestations of alien intelligence, then this fact will be obscured by an exclusively psycho-sociological approach. There is a chance that the revival of the ETH, in a more subtle and sophisticated form, might possibly yield interesting results.


1. Asimov, Isaac. "Extraterrestrial Civilizations", London, Pan Books, 1981

2. Isaacman, Richard and Sagan, Carl. "Computer simulations of planetary accretion dynamics: sensitivity to initial conditions", Icarus, Vol. 3, 1977, pp 510-533

3. Budyko, M.I. "The Earth's Climate: Past and Future", London, Academic Press, 1982

4. Monod, Jacques (trans. Austryn Wainhouse). "Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology", London, Collins

5. Jones, Eric M. "Estimates of expansion time scales", in Hart, Michael and Zuckerman, Ben (eds), "Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?", Pergamon Press, 1982

6. Vallee, Jacques. "UFOs: The Psychic Solution", St Albans, Panther Books, 1982

7. Papagiannis, Michael D. "Colonies in the asteroid belt, or a missing term in the Drake equation", in Hart and Zuckerman, op. cit.


N.J. SPALL Bearsted, Nr. Maidstone, Kent, England
SOURCE: Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol 32, pp.99-102,1978

There can be little doubt that one of the most important factors that will determine the manner in which our society reacts should contact ever be established with intelligent extraterrestrial (ET) life forms will be the physical appearance, or morphology, of the alien. All the prejudices, the fears, the mistrust and the bigotry that exists amongst the races that make up mankind will be focused into this reaction. Thus, speculating on the morphology of an intelligent alien is important for the future of space exploration. Serious efforts are now being made around the world in the field known as Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the manner in which our society reacts to contact will depend to a great extent on the appearance of the alien. Anticipation of the possibilities now may reveal whether a shock for the world is likely. It is also useful to consider alien morphology in terms of gauging how likely the chances of intelligent aliens evolving really are.

The problem of trying to anticipate the physical appearance of the ET is at first sight ludicrously impossible. To start with, we don't even know if intelligent ETs exist, let alone what their planet of origin is like or what their morphology may be. Our task is therefore limited to using what knowledge we have of the evolution of intelligent life on Earth, considering possible extraterrestrial planetary environments and making a series of reasonable assumptions. A combination of biology, zoology, and anthropology is required as well as the newer science of exobiology. Most important, the overriding thought when considering the subject should be "how would this imagined alien become intelligent?"


Conveniently, disagreement over the likely appearance of intelligent ETs divides itself into two opposing camps. On one side are those who take a rather anthropormorphic view of the ET and believe that it would basically be humanoid in shape with two arms, two legs, a head at the top of the body and the main sense organs located on the head. Opposing this view are those exobiologists who believe that the intelligent ET is bound to appear exotic because the creature would inevitably have taken a totally different evolutionary path from man and would have arisen in a very un-earthlike planetary environment. This article will show, however, that the case put forward by the non-humanoid ET protagonists will not stand up to the example of the evolution of intelligent life on Earth, nor the necessities of morphology that a creature requires to become intelligent. It is therefore suggested here that any intelligent life across the galaxy will have evolved into a basically humanoid form.


A possibility often suggested by more radical exobiologists is that extraterrestrial life might depend on a chemistry that does not require the carbon atom. Bracewell [1] has proposed that life could make use of the chemistry of the silicon atom rather than the carbon atom. Silicon based organisms would, for example, breathe out silicon dioxide (sand) instead of carbon dioxide. The rock eating creature has often been suggested as a product of this biological system. [An example of this can be seen in the STAR TREK episode about the Horta] The problem is that silicon polymers of the protein type are unlikely to form the compounds essential for chemical evolution. Bieri [2] points out that the energy requirements for duplicating a living system are fulfilled only by carbon and the rght energy phosphate bond. It is very difficult to envisage any life other than that based on the carbon compounds forming in water. Unfortunately this limits the planetary considerations necessary for the evolution of larger sized organisms somewhat severely -- in fact it restricts planets that may have intelligent to those with broadly Earth-like surface temperatures and pressures. (It also restricts the type of star that may shine on life producing planets -- the DNA molecule is sensitive to high levels of radiation, particularly the ultraviolet.

What of possible creatures that could get by without requiring the availability of an Earth-like oxygen rich atmosphere? The conjectured 'balloon' creatures floating in the gas belts of Jupiter and using, instead of oxygen, a metabolism of hydrogen -- could they ever become intelligent ETs? And what is wrong with with Fred Hoyle's "Black Cloud," an intelligent gas cloud thousands of kilometres across? The answer lies in our prime question, "how could this creature become intelligent?" Intelligence, it is argued later, will probably only arise from a stimulating predatory existence in a harsh but survivable physical environment. Conceding defeat to the necessity for life to be based on carbon in a water medium, the exotic morphology ET supporters suggest that there are enormous variations open to chance evolution even under Earth-like conditions. Slight differences in surface pressure, temperature, gravity or solar radiation, they argue, will produce widely divergent evolutionary trends [3]. Steen [4] suggests that intelligent ETs might be insect like, bird like, fish like or even plant like. They may be spherical in shape, glutinous jelly-like creatures, such as "Quatermass" might meet, or possibly even a planet sized oceanic intelligence such as that in Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris.

For less bizarre (but still very exotic) alien creatures proposed for extraterrestrial life bearing planets, the exhibits on display at the National Air and Space Museum's "Life in the Universe" section in Washington, DC provides some good examples of exotic aliens [5]. Biologist Bonnie Dalzell has designed for a dry Earth-like world the "hexalope," a six legged antelope. For a high gravity planet, we are presented with the "bandersnatch," a monstrous herbivore with eight legs, a large mouth in its chest, two eyes on stalks and ears along the side of its body -- the creature weighs 30,000 lbs. on its 3-G world! The intelligent ET that Dalzell presents us with is a six legged toad like creature. Life on Earth shows us just how strange creatures can become in the chain of evolution. The giraffe is a good example of this. But it is highly unlikely that these creatures could ever become intelligent.


The problem ignored by exotic ET protagonists is that speculation on the morphology of the ET must take account of the lessons taught us by evolutionary development on Earth. (The argument for humanoid ETs given here is based on the works of Robert Bieri [2], N.J. Berrill [6] and Robert Puccetti [7])

In the early period of the development of life on Earth, organic matter based on carbon compounds began in a water medium before the invasion of the land. The early sea bound creatures developed a critical characteristic that would decide the future form of land dwellers -- that of bilateral symmetry in the shape of the body. This shape reduced water resistance and turbulence to a minimum and became the characteristic of all the higher creatures of the sea. It can be seen that adoption of a predatory way of marine life has developed bilaterally symmetrical creatures as diverse as the squid, the penguin, the seal, the otter and the large fish. Radially symmetric ocean dwelling creatures all adopt a relatively stationary way of life, jelly fish, sea anenomae etc., having a loss of sensitivity and degeneration of the nervous system when compared to the more active predators. Bieri points out that predatory animals with complex nervous systems and bilateral symmetry possess the largest and most important sensing and grasping organs close to the mouth. Also, digestion and excretion is most convenient with an anterior mouth and posterior anus for an active hunting animal. In order to reduce time for nerve impulses to travel from the sensing organs, the brain is at the head.


Conceptualization, it would seem, can arise only in a land animal. Birds cannot possess brains large enough for this due to the fact that they must be light in weight and have hollow bones to fly. A large intelligent brain requires a considerable amount of blood and therefore a heavy cardiovascular system -- both these factors would lead to an impossible power to weight ratio for an intelligent airborne creature. It is also difficult to imagine an intelligent ET evolving from gliding winged creatures such as the flying squirrel (which glides from trees with the use of membranes under its front legs) -- it is too small to evolve intelligence. It is doubtful that even a gliding creature as large as the extinct Pterodactyl could ever develop a large enough brain.

The question of intelligence arising in sea animals is somewhat more complex due to the fact that the whale family happens to possess large brain capacity, a very advanced system of communication and displays remarkable feats of intelligence. However, conceptualization, as Puccetti attempts to define it, seems to arise in conjunction with a social existence, speech and the use of tools. The development of tool usage undersea is extremely difficult due to the density and viscosity of water. Predatory sea animals rely on their natural hunting equipment -- teeth, streamlining, speed, etc. -- rather than weapons and tools. Only semi-land creatures, such as beavers and otters (both mammals) possess any sort of manipulating appending and these they use on the surface. How the whale family came to develop such a large cerebral capacity tends to cast some doubt on the whole question of conceptualization development. Here it is assumed that whales are clever, but do not conceptualize on their existence. An encounter, therefore, with a race of intelligent aliens who are either aquatic, reptilian or are creatures capable of flight and who developed conceptualization characteristics with a high level of technology, seems highly unlikely. Our intelligent ETs would have to be land dwellers.


It should be emphasized that it seems most likely that all intelligent conceptualizing creatures in the galaxy will have their own origins in predatory animals. Man's origins appear to stem from herbivore apes that, faced with climatic and vegetation changes, left the trees, became omniverous and adapted to running on the savannah, hunting other animals in groups and using their ability to grasp and manipulate to develop weapons, tools and eventually a basic technology. It is difficult to imagine an animal bothering to use weapons and tools, firstly if it was a fully adapted herbivore and secondly if it was already a competent predator, such as the lion or tiger. Arthur C. Clarke describes this critical path that the early hunting apes had to take extremely well in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (although of course he did not let his apes develop their technology purely on their own initiative.) Man has remained the only creature with a technology on this planet because of his predatory hunting nature, despite the basic ingenuity of creatures such as the ant with its ingenious city like hills, chimpanzees which can fish out termites with sticks, birds that can break shells with heavy stones, and the sea otter that can break open shells by floating on its back and beating them against stones on its chest. These creatures have stretched their manipulative abilities to the limits.


The development of legs, arms and grasping appendages is critical to our conceptual ET's road to intelligence. A primitive technology will require the ability to hold and manipulate, with some degree of sensitivity, basic tools and weapons such as clubs, spears, knives and twine. The intelligent ET must have this manipulative capability combined with speed of movement, otherwise it will remain in its comfortable environment (as did the dolphin) and we would certainly never meet it stepping out of a star ship. As a method of movement, sliding, wriggling and rolling are all much too slow for the land predator. As Puccetti points out, walking is the only viable means of moving at high speeds and for long distances.

The wheel was never used as a means of locomotion by nature except in some tiny bacteria. Although the reciprocating knee joint in the human leg can put up with large shock loads and the shoulder and hip joints can rotate through a considerable arc, it is difficult to imagine an organic bearing that could rotate through 360 degrees. Insect like appendages are unlikely. Insects possess legs that are basically hollow cylinders with muscles and tendons inside the skeletal tube. The problem with this arrangement is that if the creature grows in size the tube will constrain the inner muscle size -- hence the Tarantula being the largest land insect left since prehistoric times. Hard levers and struts surrounded by muscles and tendons, as in land walking vertebrates, is a much more likely arrangement in the predator land dwelling alien.

The question of the number of legs is one of the most contentious when discussed by those speculating on the morphology of the intelligent ET. The four legs that we have are the product of genetic inheritance from our earliest mammal ancestors; but this inheritance allowed us great speed of movement and thus played a major factor in the development of intelligence. One leg is out of the question -- the creature could never get up if it ever fell over. Odd numbers are unlikely because of balance problems. More than four can only be found in insects. Galloping after prey with six legs is too complex for land predators (and herbivores, as we have established, are unlikely to become intelligent). Each leg has to swing through a wide arc for speed and with more than four this becomes very difficult. Monkeys and apes can use their two legs for manipulation but have to run on both arms and legs together. Indeed the ape cannot use weapons to hunt whilst running on all fours. It is difficult to imagine the development of an intelligent hunting animal such as man running on two sensitive grasping appendages. Thus we have the evolutionary step of the conversion of one pair of legs to manipulating, pushing and pulling devices and the other pair to movement. In this way the creature optimizes between high speed movement and delicate manipulation.


So far we have formulated the picture of an intelligent ET with a body much like our own. Its sensory organs, however, show characteristics that are somewhat different, though not greatly. Sense organs would largely depend on the characteristics of the aliens planetary environment and the illumination provided by the local sun. More than two eyes is rare in land creatures -- the spider possesses multiple eyes, but they are of doubtful sensitivity, and would confuse a large hunting creature. Stereoscopic vision near to the brain and high on the body is the most suitable. Binaural hearing would seem the most logical. This is required for location bearing -- and thus the ET requires just two ears. Again these would be on the head. Only one mouth is needed with the smell sensor close to it and taste sensors inside it. The smell sensor can be used for breathing, whilst the mouth is occupied with eating and drinking. Additional sensory devices such as bat like acoustic ranging systems or infra red sensors similar to those possessed by the rattlesnake, are possible. But as Bieri points out, they imply a corresponding reduction of vision in the normal sun illuminated spectrum.

As we have established above that carbon life probably only develops on planets with suns much like our own we can assume that the visual spectrum would be similar to that on Earth for the alien ET. Although, therefore, the sensors of the ET are similar to our own, the placement on the head and their form might be quite different. Odd shaped heads are likely, different ear shapes and sizes most probable and eye size and colour would be different.


The argument presented above gives backing to the anthropomorphic view of the intelligent ET -- that is that the creature would be basically humanoid. But this only a starting point. What would the intelligent ET look like in detail? This question is, of course, even more difficult to contemplate than speculating on the ET's likely basic form. However, here are a number of possible variables to consider:

1. SIZE AND BUILD -- The height and build of the alien has often been suggested as being related to the gravity on the creature's planet of origin. A planet slightly larger than Earth, with a subsequently higher gravity would result in the alien being squatter, with heavy bones and a powerful physique -- in other words, something like a gorilla. On the other hand, a lower gravity planet would result in taller, more spindly aliens. This argument is a little simplistic in its conclusion and does not explain the wide range in the sizes of Earth creatures -- for example, why is there such a large variation in the size and build of the apes, all of which are fairly clever animals? It seems probable that one can draw parameters about the ET's size, the likely range being between the smallest of the human races (the pygmy) at about 4 1/2 feet tall and the upper limit being around 7 1/2 feet tall. If the alien is very much heavier than man, he would have problems with running for long distances in pursuit of prey in his early development as a land predator and would require a very large supply of readily available food to maintain himself.

One interesting point about man is that we appear to be getting taller due to our evolution; our bodies are losing their broader muscles and our heads changing shape. It is more than likely that the humanoid intelligent alien also experiences this form of slow morphological evolution due to changes in dietary nutrition and life style. There is, of course, no guarantee that the alien will meet man as we appear now. An intelligent alien basing his conception of what man looks like from previously discovered spacecraft message devices (such as those carried by Pioneers 10 and 11), or picked up TV images in, say, 50,000 years time, may be in for a surprise when he meets a hairless, chinless, towering egghead from Earth! Equally interesting is the question of the differences between the male and the female of the intelligent aliens' species. Would the two be quite different morphologically as in the case of homo sapiens, or would the two be virtually indistinguishable as with some creatures on Earth?

2. SKIN COLOUR -- The wide variation in skin colour and tone with creatures on the Earth is enough to indicate the extreme range that could occur with the intelligent ET. Indeed, why would the ET have a smooth skin? It is possible that fur may cover the alien having been left behind after an evolution stemming from a bear like creature, for example. (Indeed, it is interesting to wonder whether whiskers or some sort of delicate sensory feelers may remain with an intelligent creature after it has begun to rely on its hands).

3. FACIAL ARRANGEMENT -- This, as already stated, is mainly constrained by the smell and taste sensors being close to the mouth and by the need for stereo vision and binaural hearing. Beyond this the facial arrangement possibilities would be reasonably wide.

4. NUMBER OF FINGERS/TOES -- Again, variations could be wide although beyond ten fingers or toes on each hand or leg would seem excessive and difficult for the brain to coordinate. Less than four fingers on the hand would make basic technology difficult to manipulate.

5. INTERNAL CHARACTERISTICS -- The internal digestive, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems inside the intelligent ET would most likely be quite different and it is not possible to list all the variations within the confines of this article.


Our immediate impressions of the intelligent ET will be critical to how society later reacts to the contact. The theme of this article is that, because of the evolutionary demands to become intelligent and the probable similarity between Earth and the alien planet, the intelligent ET will be basically humanoid in form. Therefore, our reaction will most likely not be too extreme. Various questions, however, remain. For example, how far will the ET have evolved beyond the humanoid morphology? It is unlikely that prosthetics will change the basic form of the ET. In general, artificial limbs (and bionics) are intended to resemble those currently possessed. The aliens' view of good looks will be determined by the most perfect and healthy of its species. Consequently any artificial aids will be designed to blend with the pure form of the alien -- contact lenses replacing glasses is a good example of this. It is difficult to imagine the advanced alien ever giving up its basic body appearance.

Some writers have suggested that semi-immortality might be achieved by removing the brain from the failing body and installing it in a machine, thus creating the cyborg. If this is ever done it is likely that man would want the new machine body to resemble the original organic body shape. An even more radical idea is that once the alien has developed very high levels of knowledge and consciousness, the mind may even be liberated from the body. If this occurred we might never discover its original appearance. A final question is to what degree will alien clothing and cosmetics mask the basic morphology? Fashions can enhance and emphasize body shapes in certain cases with our own current civilization -- possibly the same will occur in the intelligent ET's society. Hair styling, however, is an example of how sometimes fashion can seriously alter the shape of the body. Also, any spacesuit or breathing apparatus might appear unusual. Unfortunately, only through the discovery of artifacts or through contact itself will we ever learn what the actual morphology of the alien may be. Indeed, the chances are that the first close encounter with an alien civilization will be via the radio telescope. Video pictures will in this situation have to suffice for many years in the place of face to face contact. It is the conclusion of this paper that these images of the intelligent ET will not shock us; they may surprise and intrigue us, but it is unlikely that mankind will find the alien fearful in physical appearance.

Hopefully, the ET will feel the same way about us.


1. R.N. Bracewell, "Life in the galaxy," reprinted in INTERSTELLAR COMMUNICATION, ed. A. Cameron (Benjamin, NY 1963).
2. Robert Bieri, "Humanoids on other planets?" AMERICAN SCIENTIST, LII December, 1964
3. P.M. Molton, "Is anyone out there?" SPACEFLIGHT, 15,p.250, July, 1973
4. S.W.P. Steen in the review of Freudenthals "Lincos" language, BRITISH JOURNAL OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, 336, (1962)
5. Dooling, "Speculating on man's neighbours," SPACEFLIGHT, 17, p232, (Juen, 1975)
6. N.J. Berrill, "Worlds without end," Chapters 9 and 10
7. Roland Puccetti, "Persons: a study of possible moral agents in the universe," Macmillan, 1968


E.T. or Alien? The Character of Other Intelligence

by David Darling, Ph.D.

Science fiction has envisaged the possibility of everything from kind, wise, and even cute extraterrestrials, like E.T., to utterly malicious, scheming monsters, like Giger's Alien. On balance, ever since H. G. Wells unleashed his marauding Martians, the fictional creatures from "out there" have tended to be of the usurping, death-ray variety - not surprisingly, since this makes for a more compelling plot. But if we do encounter other intelligences among the stars, will they in reality prove to be friendly or hostile?

A poll conducted by the Marist Institute in 1998 suggested that 86% of Americans who think there is life on other planets believe it will be friendly. Similar optimism has been expressed by many prominent figures in SETI, including Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, and Carl Sagan. An argument in favor of alien beneficence is that any race which has managed to survive the kind of global crises currently facing humanity (and which presumably confront all technological species at some stage in their development) is likely to have resolved the sources of conflict we still have on Earth. Morrison, for instance, doubted that advanced societies "crush out any competitive form of intelligence, especially when there is clearly no danger." Similarly, Arthur C. Clarke has stated that: "As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying."

However, there can be no assurance on this point. After all, human beings appear to have made little progress, over the past two millennia or so, toward eliminating or controlling their aggressive tendencies. And there is no reason to suppose we shall change much in this respect over the next few centuries, during which time we may well develop the means of reaching the stars. Those who are pessimistic about the general nature of extraterrestrials argue that Darwinism, and its fundamental tenet "survival of the fittest", virtually guarantees that any advanced species will be potentially dangerous. Michael Archer, professor of biology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has put it this way: "Any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator."

Perhaps the most reasonable assumption, in the absence of any data, is that, just as in our own case, the potential for good and evil will exist in every intelligent extraterrestrial race. Civilization is unthinkable without some measure of compassion, and yet how could a species that had emerged successfully after several billion years of live-and-let-die biological competition not also possess a ruthless streak? The question is surely not whether any advanced race we may meet among the stars is capable of aggression - it certainly will be unless it has genetically or otherwise altered itself to be purely pacific - but whether it has learned to override its more basic instincts. Bear in mind, too, the variation in character that can exist between individuals within a species. Will the first representative of an alien race that we encounter be a Hitler or a Gandhi?