An Exercise in Speculative Biology

Here’s a fun exercise I’m doing. I invite you to do it, too! The intention here is push oneself to think in non-anthropocentric terms about what life might be like under other conditions.

Body Part Exercise 1
Four different structures, all from completely different environments
  1. Devise an evolutionary specification (that is, the way we do in fiction, where we need an alien to be a certain way, not the way it happens in nature, where successful reproduction is the only standard). Something like: “The aliens I’m interested in can manipulate objects, sense objects, and move.”
  2. Consider a single structure — not a whole creature —  that evolved other solutions than we did to the more basic questions than we did, here on earth. Like, we evolved jaws from the gill structures on fish. Imagine if gill structures hadn’t evolved, or perhaps some other structure was more effective than primitive jaws, and so jaws never had a chance to take off.
  3. What do those structures look like? How do they affect the lives of the creatures that grow them? If they have a culture, how do they affect their culture?
  4. Leave it there! Design another structure for a different environment!
Compressive Leg (detail)
Nearly every muscle on Earth works through tension: pulling the levers of the limbs. These creatures have compressive muscles, which are badly inefficient unless they’re constrained like the cylinder of a piston. These critters use compressive muscles to slide along, and then to jump like a spider toward prey and away from predators.

 

Beautiful Flower

These creatures use their feathery tendrils to smell an attractive, colonial microbe-infused rock, then detach the stalk. As they slurp their way through the surface of the rock, they grow a new stalk, which grows a new pod, which smells a new rock, and they continue. On this planet, there’s no clear distinction between plant and animal as there (usually) is on Earth; rather, motile structures evolved early on, and most life forms have at least a limited form of movement.

 

This polypod evolved clusters of many types of nerves at the ends of its limbs. This type of limb evolved a temperature sensor that eventually began to sense electromagnetic radiation into the visible red end of the spectrum. The sensor is on the front of the thin, brittle transparent dome, while the back of the dome forms a mirror that focuses an image onto the sensor. The creature keeps its eyes safely tucked down until it needs to see a clear or distant image, pulls its eyes open, looks, and then puts them away again. They are so far the only creatures on their planet to evolve sight.
This polypod evolved clusters of many types of nerves at the ends of its limbs. This type of limb evolved a temperature sensor that eventually began to sense electromagnetic radiation into the visible red end of the spectrum. The sensor is on the front of the thin, brittle transparent dome, while the back of the dome forms a mirror that focuses an image onto the sensor. The creature keeps its eyes safely tucked down until it needs to see a clear or distant image, pulls its eyes open, looks, and then puts them away again. They are so far the only creatures on their planet to evolve sight.

 

Trunk Hand
These creatures have dozens of tiny, well-developed hands that they can use to manipulate objects. Lacking bones, they instead have rings of dense muscle that pull on slivers of cartilagenous material that can, themselves, change stiffness according to how strongly or gently the creature needs to grip. Each limb has its own tiny nerve cluster capable of complex stimulus/response, which pass much simpler information back to a distant, central brain through a bus that coördinates the limbs together.

 

4 thoughts on “An Exercise in Speculative Biology”

  1. Here’s an idea I’ve been playing with: animals descended from aquatic ancestors that had radial symmetry, but when they became land dwelling had to modify the basic body plan to become secondarily bilateral. So you still see the radial pattern in their embryos but as they develop one side becomes the front, the opposite side the rear, and so forth.

    1. That’s a really neat idea! It reminds me of quadcopter evolution over the last few years: in general, they’re radially symmetrical, but ones that are built for POV racing have a more linear, more aerodynamic shape because they reliably have a “forward”.

      So, we might have a starfish shape where all limbs are identically endowed with sense organs, but when it emerges from the water as a nymph, one of the legs becomes more sensitive to light, while the others become legs. It might even be, whichever one gets walked on least, grows eyes.

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