Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.
The biologist Steve Jones has described natural selection as a ‘machine that makes almost impossible things.’ Not satisfied with these products of natural selection, we humans have used the power of artificial selection to make even more ‘almost impossible’ things. For thousands of years, we have been modifying animals and plants for our own benefit through artificial selection. Those organisms more favourable to us have been successively bred to be successively yet more favourable, over countless generations.
Fruits that used to be small and bitter are now big and juicy. Skinny gristly quadropeds have become lumbering, swaying meat-mountains on legs. Fierce carnivores have become friendly pets, or functional working companions. Various furry, fluffy, fleecy or feathery creatures have become furrier, fluffier, fleecier or featherier according to our taste for fabrics, as we personally hairless primates use other species for our clothing and furnishing.
If this is what we can achieve, with genetic engineering still in its infancy, what even-more-almost-impossible things might an alien civilisation achieve? Let us imagine a technologically advanced civilisation of aliens for whom artificial selection and genetic engineering have become the natural way of creating new products and technologies organically, creating a fantastic menagerie of artificial
organisms to supply their needs.
First off, let us consider food. We could imagine our aliens breeding curry-flavoured cattle, whose cooked flesh makes an instant beef curry, in a gravy of natural curry sauce. A specially bred species of lemon-chicken would taste of, well, lemon chicken. Sweet and sour prawns would live sweet and sour lives, long before reaching their sweet and sour fate in the kitchen.
One could also imagine alien chickens bred to lay eggs whose yolks and ‘whites’ were like broths and sauces of different alien flavours. And new breeds of brown and yellow and pink cows would naturally dispense chocolate, banana and strawberry flavour milkshakes.
The resourceful aliens would also breed gastronomic creatures for their form, not just their flavour. Alien sushivores could artificially create dedicated new sushi-species, that were naturally rectangular
bite-sized chunks of flesh. And alien noodlevores could genetically engineer different kinds of soba or udon noodle creatures. Diners at noodle restaurants could observe the live noodle-creatures swimming about in tanks, before selecting them for their meal.
There are also many non-food uses of plants and animals. The ideas of self-assembly furniture trees or grow-your-own-house-plants have been suggested elsewhere. Alien biotechnologists could also create different kinds of oysters, producing different varieties of pearls, beads, marbles and ball-bearings. From sponges and loofahs, it would be a short step to engineer various species of household cloths or brushes. Silkworms could branch out to manufacture different kinds of threads, from dental floss to natural ‘nylon’ and carbon-fibres.
The aliens might also genetically modify their own symbionts, like the different kinds of ‘fungi’ that may live on their skin – custom-engineered to create various kinds of protective coatings for different environments, or simply create different decorative patterns, like organic tattoos. Dedicated micro-aliens might go creeping and crawling over their hosts’ skins, hygienically cleaning their pores naturally. And inside their bodies, they could even engineer gut bacteria that could digest foodstuffs otherwise inedible to them, which could be handy for exploring alien territories.
(Of course, it would be no consolation to encounter a fierce, tattooed, hungry alien, that normally could not digest Earthling flesh, but whose guts were stocked with genetically engineered Earthlingivorous bacteria.)
Or – having returned to food – we could imagine more pleasantly that our biotechnically-savvy aliens could make organic versions of things we normally have to create artificially. Imagine the aliens’ finest engineered chocolate-candy-bee, whose finest engineered combs would be chocolate hexagons with centres of praline, nougat and caramel.
With all these almost impossible things, we might get confused as to what is natural and what is artificial. But that is quite normal when considering an alien perspective. Artificial selection only differs from natural selection in that humans take a conscious controlling influence on the selection, in a process that we consider to be apart from nature. To a (naturally) non-anthropocentric alien, all kinds of selection and engineering could just be considered part of the grand workings of a provident – however implausible – Nature.