Silicon-based life

Silicon-based life forms: very conservative compared to some other kinds of exotic life, really.

First of, I have written this post partially to try to create a place to settle down the recent controversy over "Alternative Forms of Life", so we no longer have to jump over between several user talk pages and category talk pages, and I also think putting it in blog form might help bringing in more opinions on the whole matter.

Thing is: I have recently brought back Category:Alternative Forms of Life (because it had dozens of pages and I saw it as a nice, useful category), which had been previously deleted. I never thought there would be so much controversy about it, but it ended up spawning some. Points against it have been raised: specifically, that it's impractical, highly anthropocentric, hard-to-define, highly anthropocentric, incorrectly named... let's see, did I mention highly anthropocentric already?

Well anyway, the general opinion seems to be that the existence of the category itself may not be a problem as much as its name is. Therefore, other name options have been raised, specifically "Nonstandard Life" or "Irregular Life", on the grounds that these would be less anthropocentric. Others opined that they would be still improper to refer to the current selection of species which make up (or should ideally make up) the category in question, which is specifically reserved to the most unusual, hard-to-classify life forms.

I personally don't see much difference between "alternative", "nonstandard" or "irregular": they're all highly anthropocentric because they all presume there is such thing as "standard" or "regular" life, that being basically Earth-like life. But as I said before: when classifying things imagined by men it is virtually impossible to avoid some level of anthropocentrism. The only way to keep it as non-anthropocentric as possible is to get objective: find something that all these lifeforms have in common.

Problem is, the category is too generic. Some creatures are material, but not chemical (like the Cheela, which are basically neutronium life), others are completely physical but not material because they are made of some other arrangement of particles (antimatter; or whatever is stable atomic-analogues in their native realms when they're extra-dimensional). And as User:Insurgence reminds us, some are not even physical. The most ideal way of dealing with that diversity would be to give each of these types its own category. There are just two downsides: this is a bit impractical... and absolutely impossible.

The reason it is impractical is because these life forms are rare in fiction, so we would have a large number of categories with less than ten pages each. Don't get me wrong: alternative life is extremely common in fiction... but each specific kind of alternative life becomes sort of rare. How many fictional species are made of antimatter? Maybe a dozen or two. And how many are quasi-energy microbes? Exactly one. Indeed I tried to classify our (more conventional) species by biochemistry recently and that was the exact result: several small and impractical categories, as you can see here. I'm ready to admit that this method of classification was a mistake of mine. Of all these subcategories, "Silicon-based Species" is the only one with a decent number of pages to it (and I really don't know what we should do with the others).

If you still find this better than clumping all alternative biochemistries into a single (totally anthropocentric) category, I'll remind you of the second downside: creating specific categories for each type of alternative life is completely impossible too, because there are many life forms out there in fiction that are obviously not Earth-like life... but that we have no idea what exactly they really are. Out of dozens of possible examples, I give you the Flying Polyps: Lovecraft is very clear in stating that they are not made of ordinary matter (and it shows). But he also doesn't give a clue on what exactly they are made of.

Therefore we end with a dilemma. If we classify them under "Unknown Biochemistry", it presumes they even have a biochemistry and we don't know that (chemistry is basically the study of electronic interaction between atoms and molecules; something made of particles other than electrons/atoms cannot be described as chemical). If we classify them as "Alternative" or "Nonstandard" life, it becomes anthropocentric. If we don't classify them as anything, we lose an opportunity to list together life forms which might be of interest for readers searching for unconventional life.

As you see, we are dealing with a scenario in which none of the options is truly 100% satisfactory. Ultimately, a decision will be made here (I hope) and it's likely not everyone will be 100% comfortable with it. My opinion is: that we should definitely have one or more categories for nonstandard life, and that there's no way to avoid some level of anthropocentrism, so we'll try to choose the name which sounds most professional. As I also said before: we are editing a site called Alien Species Wiki, and the very word alien is anthropocentric. It is impossible to avoid it altogether, but we can try to lessen it up as much as we can, if we use our creativity. So, I'm going to throw in some ideas for your consideration.

I personally like "Non-Chemical Species" as a term equally generic, but still more objective than "Alternative Forms of Life". It makes the difference clear enough: some species have different biochemistries, but these are the ones that fall outside of biochemistry itself because they are made of things other than electrons and protons. This name is completely non-anthropocentric at least. It is extremely vague though, and I can't find an excuse to prevent the category being filled in with robots (who have, or at least should have, their own category), as most casual readers are likely to equate chemical with organic and non-chemical with robotic, regardless that in strictly technical terms our machines usually work on chemical principles.

I also came up with "Species with Supernatural Abilities" as an (admittedly strange) option. At first it may sound too mystical and contrary to science fiction itself. But in the technical sense, "supernatural" means phenomena which aren't explainable by our current science. Creatures which can create dimensional gates using words and acoustics; creatures which are invisible to the naked eye but visible to cameras; or creatures which can control the gravity field of a planet and create neutrino avatars; all would probably qualify. This idea wouldn't cover everything currently in the "Alternative Life" category; it has a different focus and is arguably a bit anthropocentric too (the part about "our current science"...) but it remains a potentially interesting option to have in place of, or in addition to, "Alternative Life".

My third idea is about the biochemical species. It has been proposed that "Species with Unknown Biochemistry" be renamed "Indeterminate Biochemistry". To me, "unknown" and "indeterminate" are practically the same thing, but I do have another possible option: "Species with Exotic Biochemistry". It raises the anthropocentric factor a little, but at least it makes clear that it's intended for life unlike that on Earth, rather than anything we're not sure if it's supposed to be carbon-based or not. I also think all those minuscule subcategories I tentatively created under "Species by Biochemistry" should be deleted maybe (with the possible exception of "Silicon-based Species" which has a decent number of pages) and the contents merged under "Exotic Biochemistry".

Anyway, this is the best I can think of right now. I hope to hear your thoughts on all of this and hope that you will have better ideas! :)

UPDATE (05/13/2013) – Following the agreement that has been reached, the non-biochemical species of the wiki from now on shall be classified under Category:Nonconventional Lifeforms. The biochemical species will go either to their specific categories or to Category:Species with Indeterminate Biochemistry