Could humans be the dominant species in the Universe, and we just don't know it yet?
In the universe of Dune, humans are one of the only species we see. Could it be that we've evolved on other planets, too?
The Dune universe seems to be dominated by a single species: humans. Contrast that with, say, Star Wars – think of that infamous cantina scene – and you might wonder if Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is struggling to meet its diversity quota.
Of course, the Dune saga is set some 20 millennia in the future, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose that by then humans will have travelled to every corner of space. But still, you have to wonder where all the other indigenous races are. With the exception of the sandworms on Arrakis, and one or two other fleeting examples, we see very few.
Could it be that our species is the principal indigenous race in the Universe – that Homo sapiens, or something close to it, has evolved independently on multiple other worlds?
The late evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould found this idea preposterous. He argued that if you re-ran evolution here on Earth – never mind on some bonkers planet 300 light-years away – then the probability of getting humans a second time round is vanishingly small. His reasoning was that evolution is driven by random sets of genetic mutations, modulated by random environmental effects, such as mass extinctions, and that it would be extremely rare for the exact same set of effects to crop up twice.
But it’s a view that’s not universally held. One school of thought, called ‘convergent evolution’, says that random effects eventually average out so that evolution converges, tending to produce similar organisms in any given environment. For example, flight has evolved independently on Earth at least four times – in birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs. Eyes may have evolved as many as 40 times.
One adherent of this view is Prof Simon Conway Morris, of the University of Cambridge. “Convergence is one of the best arguments for Darwinian adaptation, but its sheer ubiquity has not been appreciated,” he says.
“One can say with reasonable confidence that the likelihood of something analogous to a human evolving is really pretty high. And given the number of potential planets that we now have good reason to think exist, even if the dice only come up the right way every 1 in 100 throws, that still leads to a very large number of intelligences scattered around, that are likely to be similar to us.”
- This article first appeared in issue 369 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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Dr Paul Parsons is a science writer and analyst based in Aylesbury, England. He is a lapsed cosmologist, a former managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine, and once spent a summer working in a toilet roll factory. His books include 'The Beginning and the End of Everything', 'The Science of Doctor Who' and, most recently, '10 Short Lessons in Space Travel'.