More thoughts on Aliens

A while back, I did a post speculating that if we ever meet aliens, they will have (or will have once had) cancer.

I still think that’s correct. In fact, I have a feeling it can be extended. For example, isn’t it reasonable to suppose aliens will get the flu?

Okay, not the flu per se, but something very much like it. Unless alien life were wildly different from us, we can probably make a few assumptions and deductions:

1) It must have some way to take in energy and excrete waste.

2) That there will be other life around it.

3) That therefore there will be some subset of life that parasitizes other life.

4) That some of that subset will make use of bodily functions to reproduce itself.

5) That if a bodily function can be successfully co-opted by the subset of organisms, in the passage of evolution, it will necessarily become co-opted.

6) That therefore, any alien life we meet will have diseases which are, in essence, similar to our own.

The only exception I can think would be some sort of organism (say an artificial organism) that has constant complete access to its own code. Part of the difficulty being a human is that even if you know what disease you have and roughly where it’s hiding, you can’t do much about it. Herpes, for example, is notoriously good at hiding from the immune system. HIV is known for disguising itself very well. If you could just scan the body for every problem and remove it, you wouldn’t have to worry about disease. Well, unless it were very cleverly made. Then artificial life might very well have a monoculture problem.

Ahh, speculation.

Thoughts?

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14 Responses to More thoughts on Aliens

  1. Telanis says:

    Yeah, even our robot overlords won’t be immune from this, because the bit that does the scanning can be corrupted, infected, disabled, etc.

  2. john says:

    There are folks working on inventing a different DNA alphabet. If it doesn’t use the standard transcription rules it would be immune to natural viruses: http://www.astrobio.net/index.php?option=com_retrospection&task=detail&id=3074

  3. Timothy says:

    I came here expecting your thoughts on the movie “Aliens.” I stayed for the interesting speculation.

    I think your conclusion is pretty reasonable, and (in a way) obvious. To assume that aliens have evolved or advanced so far as to become immune to disease is dangerous, and pretty lazy from a world-building perspective (oh look, I no longer have to create a thousand other species to make this fictional world look realistic!).

    Bravo for the interesting post, and genuine futurism.

  4. Pixelation says:

    Hm. If you assume something like Leigh Van Valen’s Red Queen Hypothesis to be true, then you would be right.

    (RQH is something like: since organisms and their environment constantly adapt to each other, no group will have an advantage on the long run and all will have equal chance of going extinct.)

    But if life elsewhere had no variation or if selection were much, MUCH stronger than the variation that existed, then you would be wrong.

    That said, I very much think you are right.

  5. Hitler's Cat says:

    UHHH I donno- I’m with you on your cancer assumption- but your flu assumptions here seem a lot weaker.

    The idea that an organism must excrete waste- is this strictly correct?

    Can we imagine an organism that uses the waste byproducts in metabolic processes to add to it’s structure? Or perhaps it simply never excretes waste, and bloats until it bursts. (this would be a limiting factor in the natural lifetime of the alien)

    I don’t know if either of these possibilities are plausible, I’m not a biologist- however I’d be wary of making such close parallels between our life and alien life without strong cause.

    While the excretion of waste may seem obvious to us- that’s because we’ve been living in a world where it’s so widespread and of obvious utility. But remember, because something iappears to have obvious utility does not mean that it’s a sure thing.

    Look at the structure of mamillian eyes, and note the blind spot caused by the back to front wiring of the retina- obviously a better solution exists, as cephalapod eues do not have this blindspot (their retinas are wired as an ‘intelligent designer’ would wire them).

    If we consider a case where rudimentary organisms exist that do not excrete waste, and there is an increase in this organism’s fitness when rather than getting rid of this waste, it is incorporated into the organism’s structure (e.g. using excess carbon and calcium to make a shell, or bones) or re-metabolising waste-

    Uhh- if weak processes are used by the majority of the population to re-metabolise waste or efficently store it, then there would be a positive ‘fitness differential/gradient’ (is that the right term?) in improving those processes.

    Gradual re-plumbing of the organism to get rid of waste would probably have a zero or negative ‘fitness gradient’ and I’d imagine would be unlikely to be selected for over improving efficiency of re-metabolisation.

    I can’t remember who said it- but something about evolution being niggard in innovation but rich in improvement or something?

    Whatever- I don’t know if this is a realistic analysis- for all I know there could be a fundamental chemical or entropic reason that waste could not be re-metabolised or re-processed, and maybe there’s a strong reason that a waste-retaining organism would never compose a majority or significant minority of a ecology.

    But I’d be wary of making any broad suppositions about alien life being analogous to our own.

    I’m a bit sketchy as well on what you mean as “diseases similar to our own”- do you mean “diseases caused by parasitic micro-organisms that effect the processes of the host”? because that sounds pretty broad.

    Greater clarification and some solid definitions would help anchor this train of thought.

  6. Brandon says:

    We forget sometime that disease, in the most pernicious sense, is fairly recent in humans. Things like the flu, the cold, anthrax, smallpox, scurvy, cholera, and dozens of others only became part of the human condition when two developments (which were almost simultaneous) occurred. Livin in close proximity to eah other and livin in close proximity to animals. In the first generations of sedentary civilisation man encountered real communicable disease for the first time. The life expectancy and average bight both dropped as disease spread and staid, unvarying diets led to the first cases of vitamin deficiency.
    Now, while I believe we may assume that civilisation, or at least something like it which allows for specialized research and labour, is necessary in order for a race to become spacefaring, the blanket statement that any intelligent bein must have an understanding of serious disease is not necessarily a solid one. While there will always be parasitic organism, we have created a golden age for them by living close to each other and animals.

  7. Tab Atkins says:

    When you eliminate natural diseases, you’re still left with auto-immune diseases (Telanis basically says this too).

    You can maybe put enough layers and checks into your immune system that you end up pretty safe, but still.

  8. Jason Dick says:

    Well, one thing I’d point out is that disease-causing organisms are a teeny tiny subset of all parasitic organisms. The vast majority are symbiotic. Check out this craziness:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/06/27/discovering-my-microbiome-you-my-friend-are-a-wonderland/

    But yes, I think we can generally expect parasitism to be common. The symptoms of the disease-causing subset, however, are likely to be wildly different (though there is likely to be a disease-causing subset in any case).

    I’d also like to point out that any aliens, if they exists, are likely to be more different from us than we can possibly imagine. Consider, if you will, the differences between the octopus and the fish: similar environment, similar lifestyles, and even closely-related genetic toolboxes. But look how wildly different they are! If there is life on other planets, it’s going to be pretty incredibly different.

  9. Evan says:

    After some googling it turns out that plants can get cancer. I feel as though as a rule of thumb, anything that mammals share with plants can be reasonably said to show up in any life with enough complexity. At least until we find evidence to suggest otherwise.

  10. Sean says:

    In agreement with a few other posters, I think it’s a bit “dangerous” to make assumptions based on observations of biological systems on our one lonely planet.

    Most animal life on Earth shares many characteristics (compare a dinosaur skeleton to a human skeleton; even the rib counts are often the same!) because we’re on the same (admittedly very very long) evolutionary branch. But, had that branch been clipped, or diverged in a different way, things would probably look a lot different than they do now, but still relatively similar to the rest of the things on that branch.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are probably very many types of life that we can’t really imagine, and to say that alien life should fit a certain mold, based on what we see around us, is too restrictive.

    What you’ve described is probably true for a certain percentage of alien life in the universe, but I don’t think we can say at all how big or small that percentage is.

    Wish we could all have a beer sometime, because this is the kind of discussion I love, and which I don’t get enough of.

  11. Evan says:

    Man, these comments are being awfully skeptical here on what we can reasonably predict about alien life. I mean, I get it, we only know what Earth life is like, so who’s to say what an alien life would be like.

    How about this, “there exists a threshold of complexity wherein any life form which uses reproducing cells to perform its life functions must have to deal with cancer.”

    That statement is just guaranteed to be correct, though an alien’s cancer may not act like ours. For instance, with the whole “plants can get cancer” thing, that’s true, but plan cancer isn’t going to metastasize to other regions, it’ll just make a tumor that might just get bigger and bigger or might just stop. But plants don’t have cells moving all over the place with a circulatory system, so it’s a totally different monster.

    But that’s what “cancer” is, and don’t try to sell me that snake oil of “maybe alien cells will all be the same with 0 variation” because that’s all kinds of inconsistent with quantum mechanics, radiation, and plausible evolution.

  12. Hitler's Cat says:

    Evan I’m pretty sure you’re responding to an argument nobody’s made.

    We’re all on board with cancer (i.e. faulty ‘cell’ replication) it’s flu we’re skeptical with.

    • Evan says:

      Hah, looks like you’re right. I guess I was just in a mood to pick an internet fight.

      And yeah, unless the flu is defined as something that plants can get I think that one answers itself (and if the flu is defined as something that plants can get, then as per my rule of thumb, that answers itself as well!).

  13. vanbergen says:

    The coolest thing is that we can elaborate on the ‘alien disease’ theme even further without leaving a basic level of assumption.

    I think we can be pretty sure that there are no disease-free organisms on Earth, just because organisms, composed of large number of replicating, semi-authonomous units (in our case – cells) are very complex systems and the first conclusion is that they, as any very complex system, are constantly broken*. By broken, of course, I mean not “not working at all”, but “being in a state of homeostasis, i.e. being in a constant balance between entropy and self-assembly”. The “healty” state of an organism is “the state in which the rate of enthropy is lesser that the rate of the organisms self-constructing processes”. It’s not that we don’t lose skin cells, we just replace them efficiently enough.

    That being said, I think that if we accept the “cancer conclusion” (and I certainly do), we can not reject other related conclusions.

    Basically what I’m saying is that (now that I think about it) there are three types of diseases that all life form share:
    ‘Tumor/Cancer’ – if the life form is a complex system of semi-authonomous cells, dividing according to specific ‘plan’; a ‘gone wrong’ version of a normal process.
    ‘Homeostatic disfunction’ – if the self-repare system has been compromised; a ‘repare what is not broken’ problem.
    ‘Flu’ – if some other organisms disrupt our homeostasis, so that they can prosper instead; an ‘unwelcome tenants’ syndrome.

    I think that covers it, more or less. I mean – those three types are based on two assumption – the one that Zach made in the old post, about the ‘assembled life’ and on another one – about the organisms being all open systems.
    To be honest, I can imagine an organism that is undivisible and whole (and in it’s case the terms ‘cells’ and ‘replication’ would not be applicable), but it will still have a valid homeostatic processes (because that’s how life executes itself) and it will certainly interact with other organisms, so that peculiar life form will know what is ‘autoimunne disease’ and ‘contagion’. And that is just as sure, as it is that any life form can be ‘wounded’ or can ‘fall on it’s [insert body part here]‘. Too basic to dismiss.

    /*Even small organisms – Deinococcus radiodurans (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans) gets it’s DNA blown to parts on a ragular basis and assembles it back with a ‘no sweat’ attitude./

    Where I’m going is… well, “Handbook of xenomorph field diagnostics” is a book I’d certainly like to have :)

    /aaand I’m really sorry for the long post/

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