When we discover aliens, they will have teapots

When we (inevitably) discover intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, I predict that they will have teapots. My line of reasoning is that just as the evolution of body plans inevitably stumbles across useful things like mouths and body armour, so too the evolution of tools will inevitably stumble across useful forms like teapots. This can be extended into the world of ideas, with interesting consequences for first-contact with other intelligences.

At least some of the life in this galaxy must resemble our own here on Earth. It must have evolved from something like the archaea that exist in hostile proto-Earth conditions – themselves perhaps born from some kind of panspermia that permeates the stars. Evolution naturally takes life towards more complex forms, where conditions permit, and these must he able to manipulate a planetary environment. Evolution inevitably creates creatures which have mouths to eat each other, armour to protect themselves, things like legs to move, hands or claws to grasp, ears to detect vibration in the atmosphere, eyes to see into the electromagnetic spectrum, voices or lights to communicate. They will also modify their environment to extend these functions – burrows and nests for protection, symbiosis with plants, cleared paths to walk on, tools to capture food, vessels to contain it, and systems of behavior that coordinate activities for mutual benefit. Eventually as coordination increases, languages will evolve to communicate complex information, writing will evolve to store it, and civilizations will be constructed.

These forms as a product of evolution are as inevitable as is the production of carbon atoms in giant stars from helium nuclei. Their existence given evolution and stable terrestrial conditions is a universal law.

This is a deterministic view which can be contested (see here and here for discussions on contingency vs determinism). It won’t be proven until we begin to discover other life forms. But I think that when we look at convergent pathways of evolution on Earth, and notice that the galaxy also has a limited range starting conditions and habitats for life, then the parameters that we can expect life to stay within are already fairly well known as they have existed on Earth. There will be some surprises – we don’t know which qualities of Earth life are peculiar to Earth. I wonder if sexual reproduction is ubiquitous across the galaxy for instance? Or bilateral symmetry? And beyond our galaxy the variation is likely to be even greater and harder to speculate on. But there is no reason to think that life on other planets, forced to travel a similar path of evolution, wouldn’t turn out much the same as here.

Just as life itself has a limited range of useful body forms, which are discovered again and again by evolution, intelligence also develops the same tools and features which are innately useful in an Earth-like world. Wheels, swords, cups, flags, music, lamps, steam engines – all these things would be discovered again and again as useful by evolving societies, reappearing each time like reliable milestones on a pathway to complex civilization. Indeed, we know this is true, as disconnected early civilizations on Earth to simultaneously develop say, agriculture, and scientists have regularly simultaneously discovered the same thing. And once a particular thing is invented, for example music, the same process would continue to a deeper discovery of the same familiar forms – pentameter scales, minor and major keys (all based on natural harmonics), perhaps even some of the same simple tunes. Once drinking herbal infusions – tea – is common, then teapot forms naturally follow. Wheels lead to chariots and carriages and cars, steam engines lead to trains. These things must exist throughout the galaxy, showing up again and again, and are as integral to nature as the elements of the periodic table.

One interesting speculation is what complex societies naturally discover that is more abstract. Mathematics seems to be a given. What forms of belief, what systems of government, what ethics, what art, what jokes? Just as the featureless Hadean terrain of the Earth eventually after four billion years spawns skyscrapers, so the terrain of the mind will naturally accrue patterns, I hesitate to say memes (but I think it captures the right idea), given time for information to accrue and breed with itself. The stronger ideas will succeed, the weakest fail, just like the faunas of the Cambrian explosion.

This intellectual terrain is the evolutionary battlefield of the future, where ideas will continue to be constructed and pitted against each other. The pace of this has increased, and will do so ever more as we spend our lives interacting more and more with ideas alone, in the virtual worlds of social media. The effect of Artificial Intelligence in generating or promulgating new ideas is impossible to imagine, and it will become ever clearer that ideas are the most powerful tools in controlling society. We have created the atom bomb, but they are useless in their bunkers. It is the powerful meme which inhabits the brain of the human who has the button (#MAGA anyone?).  Now consider, that as we likely approach the date of first contact with other civilizations, although they might be millions of light years away, their ideas will instantly able to infect us and change us. The effect would be like the Christianity meme that obliterated native belief systems, but it would spread very quickly like wildfire through the internet, in comparison to the slow pace of the conquistadors, journeying up the amazon with their bibles.

Our only defenders are the creators of today’s memes, our poets, musicians, artists, writers, thinkers. These are the people who are out ahead, discovering and mapping the new world, and preparing the cultural and intellectual foundations on which the future of human civilization will stand or fall.