Making Star Trek Possible: The Humanoid Problem

Posted by on May 7th, 2009

A five-part series that tries to explain how to make the science of Star Trek real…

Separated at birth?

In an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called the “The Chase” a long running problem in Star Trek was finally solved – Why do all the aliens in Star Trek look humanoid. The answer was not “budget”. It was that a race that lived 4.5 billion years ago seeded the galaxy with its DNA. Humans, Vulcans, klingons etc., all got their imprint from them. We kind of look like each other because we all look like some alien race from 4.5 billion years ago. Problem solved. But is Intelligent Design really a satisfying answer?

If we find aliens that look like us, what other explanations could account for them?

Having to deal with a slightly more sophisticated audience that grew up watching Star Trek, the producers of Stargate and the producers of the television series had to come up with a simple explanation for there being humans all over the galaxy in present day time. Their solution was a popular one in sci-fi literature: We were kidnapped. Over the last 100,000 years humans have been relocated to the distant corners of our universe. Once there, they go about their business. Building monuments to their gods (Star Trek and Stargate) or becoming thriving interstellar civilizations more advanced than us on earth (Iain Banks’s The Culture).

Ian Banks Matter

Plastic surgery
Let’s face it, we’re one sexy species. Of course we’re biologically programmed to think this, otherwise evolution would come to a stand still if we spent all our time trying to reproduce with some other species just as sexy in its own way (like sexy, sexy moss). But lets assume that we’re universally considered sexy. Then it makes sense that sophisticated civilizations would want to look like us – or at least some of them would. History is replete with examples of one culture adopting the style of another (sometimes less sophisticated one); Romans copying Egyptian fashion. Revolutionary France emulating the American Frontiersmen and Native Americans. British punks emulating Caribbean culture and Native American, etc.

Any civilization that can travel interstellar distances should also possess the ability to shift shape. We can do this in some small form through surgery and prosthetics. Eventually, nanotechnology should give us the ability to radically change our shapes, colors and features. It’s not impossible to think that if we ever meet some other species we might adopt their shape to fit in just like we do the wardrobe of other countries. Because nothing screams tourist on Epsilon XII like only one pair of arms and concealed genitals.

This is a hard one to accept initially. Our planet is filled with billions of different life forms. The only ones that ever came close to looking like us are distant relatives. But given a universe filled with over 70 sextillion stars (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars), if intelligent life happens a lot and knowing that nature favors certain solutions (eyes, wings, flippers, feet) it’s not too hard to accept that somewhere out there are a lot of roughly humanoid looking species. But for every one of those would be a billion squidlings that think we’re very unsexy.

This is a concept used in sci-fi to explain why patterns often repeat themselves. It’s not a matter of coincidence, it’s that there’s some property of the universe that makes systems move to the same metronome. A kind of galactic zeitgeist. In pop culture there have been a number of crank theories like Morphic-Resonance and The Hundredth Monkey that try to prove this. They fail because their own examples are easily debunked. They try to explain phenomena that don’t require a sophisticated explanation and supply a mechanism without really saying what it is.

Ignoring the crackpot examples, there are other examples of synchronicity fully understood and some that aren’t. Quantum entanglement is one form of it. It’s spooky action at a distance shows how previously connected particles are still mysteriously connected. Since the universe started out as a tiny point, we’re all connected in some way. In more mundane physics you can do fun experiments with tuning forks and other objects and observe how similar shapes can make each other resonate at a distance.

If at some level matter can influence other matter at a far off distance like two tuning forks, then maybe that influence can scale up to systems and cause co-evolution over similar paths. This could result in humanoids in the most far off places. For a great exploration of this idea, check out Anathem by Neil Stephenson.


Check out the rest of the series on making the science of Star Trek possible

2 Responses to “Making Star Trek Possible: The Humanoid Problem”

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  2. kongrit Says:

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