Science fiction writers have long had bizarre, vivid images of extraterrestrial life from Plutonians resembling intelligent ice cubes to H. G. Wells’ vision of  silicon-aluminum men in “Another Basis for Life” dwelling in an atmosphere of gaseous sulfur on the shores of a liquid iron sea. Astrobiologists have hotly debated how closely extraterrestrial life would evolve to resemble that on Earth, with some arguing that with a slightly different roll of the “Darwinian dice”, Earth would have been inhabited by creatures unimaginable. Others argue that if there is biology elsewhere in the universe we would find it strikingly familiar down to the carbon-based machinery in its cells.

Not so, argues Harvard’s evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Wonderful Life, we are here because “one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher answer’– but none exists.”

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