“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens – and Ourselves”

author Arik Karshenbaum/
book cover

By MARTIN ZEILIG “That life exists elsewhere in the universe seems almost inevitable,” Dr. Arik Kershenbaum writes in this intriguing and entertaining book.
“That we could know anything about it seems almost impossible. But my goal is to show you that we can actually say a great deal about what aliens must be like, how they live, and how they behave.”

Dr Kershenbaum is a zoologist, College Lecturer, and Fellow at Girton College, University of Cambridge, says his bio. He has researched animal vocal communication for the past ten years in Europe, Israel and the United States and has published more than 20 academic publications on the topic.

He is also a member of the international board of advisors for METI.org, 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.

Using his own trained understanding of life on Earth and Darwin’s theory of evolution—“which applies throughout the universe,” according to Dr. Kershenbaum’s book—Dr. Kershenbaum explains what alien life must be like: how these creatures will move, socialize, and communicate.

Dr. Kershenbaum agreed to do an interview with The Jewish Post & News.

JP&N: Why did you feel it necessary to write this particular book?

AK: Until recently, it was absolutely fine to restrict thoughts about alien life to science fiction. It was fun, and it was entertaining, and it didn’t have anything to do with science, or biology, or real life of any kind. All that is changing now.
Our understanding of the possibilities of life in the universe has blossomed as our technology for examining other planets has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Difficult as it is, we’re going to have to put aside the science fiction, and make a study of alien life into a well-grounded scientific discipline. And everyone should realize that the universe almost certainly is teeming with life - now we just need to find it.

But the search for extraterrestrial life isn’t enough. It’s also important to think about what that life is going to be like. What are the principles that determine how life evolves elsewhere in the universe? Will it be similar to life on Earth, or totally different?
These questions were very hypothetical as long as the chances of discovering life on other planets was remote in the extreme. Now that scientists are quietly optimistic, we all need to make an adjustment.
Fortunately, the Earth is an amazingly diverse habitat, full of life in the most surprising range of possibilities. Even if the conditions on other planets are very different from here, we have learned enough on Earth about the processes of evolution, and the forces that drive the properties of life, so we can apply those principles more generally to whatever exists on other worlds.

JP&N: Daniel Fabrycky, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, has argued that “over billions of years no intelligent aliens have made it to the point of reaching Earth, meaning humanity has dismal prospects for space exploration and expansion.”
What would you say in response to Prof. Fabrycky?

AK: I think that the current climate crisis gives us a clue to how unlikely it is that humanity will survive to get the chance to explore space. It has always been thought that the process of life arising from “non-life” (i.e. a mixture of chemicals) was the limiting step in the distribution of civilizations throughout the universe.
But a more serious barrier might be the challenge of surviving rapid technological advances, without destroying ourselves through environmental destruction and war. It may be that many planets produced civilizations like ours, but they’re all dead.

However, there are many other possible explanations for why we’ve never noticed any alien civilizations. The laws of physics, as we know them, seem to make travel between the stars almost impossible. Maybe alien civilizations know things that we don’t, but maybe we’ve got things right, and aliens haven’t developed warp drive simply because it’s not possible.
As for not having received any radio or similar signals from outer space, we’ve only been looking for the last few decades - we only invented radio just over 100 years ago! - and we’ve never had funding to do a really comprehensive search for intelligent signals. I’d say that Fabrycky may be right, but that it’s too early to rule out a better possibility.

JP&N: What else would you like our readers to know about this topic?

AK: Life evolves according to the laws of biology, just like balls roll according to the laws of physics. We’ve come to understand a lot about these biological laws, and we can apply them to make predictions about life, even on other planets.
We can’t predict what colour aliens will be, but we can say a lot about the way they will interact, and solve problems like moving around, finding food, and cooperating or competing with other animals. Much of the underlying diversity of life on Earth - plants vs. animals, predators vs. prey, etc - arises as the result of common rules, and that means that this diversity is going to exist on other planets too.

“A direct biological comparison between us and alien intelligences could bring us to a more complete and more satisfying description of life in the universe. Perhaps we will be able to come to an acceptance of a wider type of humanity; one that has room for creatures that don’t look like us, no matter what planet they inhabit,” Dr. Kershenbaum writes in “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.“

“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy”
By Arik Kershenbaum
A Penguin Book
356 pages