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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Astrobiology

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves

Popular Science
By: Arik Kershenbaum(Author)
356 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Can we predict what alien life will be like? The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is a spine-tingling dive into the lessons that evolution holds for astrobiology.
The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy
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  • The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy ISBN: 9780241986844 Paperback Jul 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy ISBN: 9780241406793 Hardback Sep 2020 Out of Print #250498
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About this book

We are unprepared for the greatest discovery of modern science. Scientists are confident that there is alien life across the universe yet we have not moved beyond our perception of 'aliens' as Hollywood stereotypes. The time has come to abandon our fixation on alien monsters and place our expectations on solid scientific footing.

Using his own expert understanding of life on Earth and Darwin's theory of evolution – which applies throughout the universe – Cambridge zoologist Dr Arik Kershenbaum explains what alien life must be like: how these creatures will move, socialise and communicate.

For example, by observing fishes whose electrical pulses indicate social status, we can see that other planets might allow for communication by electricity. As there was evolutionary pressure to wriggle along a sea floor, Earthling animals tend to have left/right symmetry; on planets where creatures evolved mid-air or in soupy tar they might be lacking any symmetry at all.

Might there be an alien planet with supersonic animals? Will they scream with fear, act honestly, or have technology? Is the universe swarming with robots? Dr Kershenbaum uses cutting-edge science to paint an entertaining and compelling picture of extra-terrestrial life.

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is the story of how life really works, on Earth and in space.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An astrobiological page-turner
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Jun 2021 Written for Paperback

    Can we predict what aliens will look like? On some level, no, which has given science fiction writers the liberty to let their imagination run wild. On another level, yes, writes zoologist Arik Kershenbaum. But we need to stop focusing on form and start focusing on function. There are universal laws of biology that help us understand why life is the way it is, and they are the subject of this book. If you are concerned that consideration of life's most fundamental properties will make for a dense read, don't panic, The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is a spine-tingling dive into astrobiology that I could not put down.

    Fundamental to answering the question of what alien life might be like, Kershenbaum argues, is to recognize that evolution by natural selection is the most important law in biology, "an inevitable mechanism, not just restricted to planet Earth" (p. 8). Rather than trying to answer particulars (Will aliens have two legs? Six? Or none?), he focuses on process: "Movement, communication, cooperation: these are evolutionary outcomes that are solutions to universal problems" (p. 11). Thus each chapter discusses "some feature of animal behaviour on Earth that is not unique to Earth – that can't be unique to Earth" (p. 14). These three quotes nail down how Kershenbaum managed to hook me in right from the start of his book.

    A key observation to support his argument that natural selection will not be limited to planet Earth is convergent evolution. I find this one of the most exciting topics in evolutionary biology and have written about it extensively last year when reviewing three books in The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology from MIT Press. Brief refresher should you need it: convergent evolution refers to the ubiquitous pattern of evolution repeatedly hitting on the same or similar solutions to a problem in different organisms. Kershenbaum introduces it here with some examples and also touches on the contingency vs. convergence debate, of which Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris are the most prominent spokesmen. Convergent evolution can hold lessons for astrobiology, though George R. McGhee's book Convergent Evolution on Earth did not quite deliver on its promise to do so. Kershenbaum, however, does. There is no reason to think that convergent evolution would be limited to life on Earth because "we live in a universe where not everything is possible" (p. 46). The laws of physics circumscribe a limited set of possibilities, something that Charles Cockell so memorably expressed by writing that "physics is life's silent commander".

    So what are these characteristics that we can expect to evolve universally? Kershenbaum considers six, from very basic to likely rarer: movement, communication, intelligence, cooperation, information exchange, and language. Even though these are very fundamental properties of life that you could talk about in abstract terms, what makes The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy so accessible is Kershenbaum's pithy writing style. I will highlight three examples to give you a taster.

    Take movement: "We move because we must, not because we can [...] Life needs energy, and if energy is not evenly distributed, life must go in search of it" (p. 70-72). Earth life has tried pretty much every mechanism we can think of to move in a fluid medium (air or water) or on the interface between a fluid and a solid, so expect alien life forms to float, paddle, or develop legs.

    Cooperation similarly seems likely. There is a range of benefits to individuals cooperating, not in the least the threat of predation. "Predation is universal, because no ecosystem can exist for long without someone trying to take a bite out of somebody else; the selective pressure on acquiring as much energy as possible is just too strong" (p. 171). When and whether it is evolutionarily advantageous to evolve cooperation is something we can answer mathematically using game theory, "a simple technique, applicable on any planet" (p. 192). We should not be surprised to find aliens with complex social structures, dominance hierarchies, and reciprocal behaviour.

    A full-blown language, on the other hand, seems uniquely human. This chapter leads you through the difficulty in defining language and grammar, the contentious topic of language evolution, and an interesting dive into xenolinguistics, or how you would recognize whether a signal carries the signature of language. These are all areas of active research where no consensus has been reached between different schools of thought. Nevertheless, Kershenbaum identifies two fundamental features that an alien language would have: it is a means to communicate complex concepts, and it evolved by natural selection.

    This core of six chapters is padded out with a fascinating chapter that considers artificial life forms. After all, evolution as we know it acts blindly, without foresight. "But what if it were all different? What would life look like if it did know where it was going?" (p. 258). Well, perhaps not all that different. "Game theory [...] is ruthlessly inevitable" (p. 280), so expect conflict and cooperation. Furthermore "some things like mutation, and even death, can't be eliminated just by being incredibly smart" (p. 286).

    The whole is bookended by two more philosophical chapters. The first asks what an animal is and whether aliens would be considered animals. Though we would not share ancestry, the point of this book is to show that we would likely share fundamental processes and properties. The last chapter considers the impact that the discovery of alien life would have on us and whether we would recognize such life forms as a fellow form of humanity. Throughout, there are footnotes to general literature, and an annotated list of suggested reading provides plenty of material if you want to delve deeper.

    Kershenbaum admits that you probably wanted him to tell you what aliens look like, and his book contains less speculative zoology than e.g. Imagined Life. However, by the same logic of giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish, understanding the rules that life follows is ultimately more rewarding. Kershenbaum's smooth writing style makes it a proper page-turner.
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Dr Arik Kershenbaum is a zoologist, College Lecturer, and Fellow at Girton College, University of Cambridge. He has researched animal vocal communication for the past ten years in Europe, Israel and the United States and has published more than twenty academic publications on the topic. He is also a member of the international board of advisors for, a think tank on the topic of Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Arik has done extensive field work on animal communication, following wolves around Yellowstone National Park and the forests of central Wisconsin to uncover the meaning of their different kinds of howls, as well as decoding the whistles of dolphins among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, and the songs of hyraxes in the Galilee

Popular Science
By: Arik Kershenbaum(Author)
356 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Can we predict what alien life will be like? The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is a spine-tingling dive into the lessons that evolution holds for astrobiology.
Media reviews

"A highly entertaining, science-based consideration of what alien life might be like."
Library Journal

"I hope it's not just for the purely personal, idiosyncratic reason that he writes like me that I love The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy by Arik Kershenbaum. Although it sets out to be (and is) about alien life, what emerges is a wonderfully insightful sidelong look at Earthly biology."
– Richard Dawkins, via Twitter

"Entertaining [...] Rather than offer a fantastic version of extraterrestrial life, [Kershenbaum] gives readers something logical to consider, and in so doing provides insight on animals and humans as he explores how life, communication, and movement have evolved [...] [S]ure to please readers looking to learn about life on other planets, or even here on Earth."
Publishers Weekly

"Enjoyable and informative [...] [Kershenbaum] successfully conveys tricky subjects without sacrificing clarity or letting his narrative get buried in technical discussions, and he writes with an enthusiasm that is infectious [...] This is a fun, rewarding journey, and by the end, his analysis teaches readers as much about life on Earth as it does elsewhere."

"If you don't want to be surprised by extraterrestrial life, look no further than this lively overview of the laws of evolution that have produced life on earth"
– Frans de Waal, author of Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

"A fun, and thoroughly biological, exploration of possible and impossible alien beings. If you'd love to know what real aliens from other planets might really be like, this is the book for you"
– Susan Blackmore, author of Seeing Myself

"Surveying the deep-time of evolution on Earth and his own cutting-edge research into animal communication, Kershenbaum provides a fascinating insight into the deepest of questions: what might an alien actually look like"
– Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins

"Arik Kershenbaum takes us on a joyous voyage of animal diversity and illustrates the singular importance of natural selection in explaining life – here on Earth – and what will likely be discovered throughout the galaxy. A stimulating read!"
– Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles

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