Please consider supporting Clarkesworld via Patreon or with a digital subscription.

Science Fiction & Fantasy






Another Word:
Will Aliens be Alien?

It’s a common complaint against science fiction: the aliens aren’t really alien. They’re humans in disguise.

Often enough it’s a fair observation, especially in film. No one finds the motives of Klingons or Yoda or ET inscrutable. But in our novels too, extraterrestrial intelligences often appear very human-like—indeed, they’re even often humanoid in form. We typically encounter them not as beings with motives that are completely new to us, but rather as demonstrating extremes on familiar means (for example, being more war-like, or more intelligent, or more peaceful than your average human).

This familiarity is often a product of the demands of telling a tale. If an extraterrestrial intelligence is going to be a character in your novel, then the reader must understand it for the narrative to be compelling. If your alien is incomprehensible, then its mysteriousness will come to be a theme, which may not serve your narrative goals. It is for this reason that our best SF stories about inscrutable aliens are specifically about this inscrutability: it stands out as an impediment to action, demanding attention.

But set aside the demands of story telling, and implicit in the humans-in-disguise criticism is the claim that extraterrestrial intelligences would be very—perhaps incomprehensibly—strange to us. Which begs the question: is this right? Should we expect that the distance between our home worlds were a kind of distance between our conceptions of the universe? Will we have so little in common that we cannot find shared semantic ground?

Perhaps not. For all (or nearly all) the organisms of the universe will share this common history: they will have evolved. Evolution results in boundless complexity, expressed in wild varieties of forms and behaviors, but its basic principles are simple and universal. A population has variation in it, augmented periodically by mutation. Populations grow to carrying capacity, and the result is fierce competition for survival. Some individuals succeed better than others in this competition, and have more offspring. These offspring will live to carry on some of the beneficial traits of their progenitors.

Consider: few of us expect that unintelligent extraterrestrial organisms will be incomprehensible. We arrive on planet X, and certain organisms are building hives, others are eating the hive makers, others are rapidly moving away from the organisms that eat the hive makers.

We interpret these organisms readily, without hesitation: that organism is cooperating with kin; that organism is hunting; that organism is fleeing. But such an expectation is no small matter, because intelligent aliens will be organisms too. They will have an evolutionary history shared with the other organisms of their planet. And this will provide the foundation for their skills, their motivations, and ultimately their intelligence.

For all the complexity that arises in the details, the universals of evolution mean that all organisms will share certain features. They will have evolved in competition.

Helping kin will increase the likelihood of the helpful trait being spread in the population. Since intelligence is likely to result in control of the environment, it is likely to result in the adoption of a K-strategy, in which the organisms have fewer offspring and invest more time and resources into the survival of those offspring; and if the organisms adopt a K-strategy, then they will have a deep interest in the success of their offspring. These constraints, and thousands of others, will lead naturally to certain dispositions and motivations—including what we call emotions.

These include a readiness to cooperate but an eagerness to find and punish cheaters; a love for kin; and a host of motives to protect one’s own offspring. Surely, these could provide a foundation for mutual understanding.

There is an interesting parallel here with a debate in paleontology. The question concerns what Steven J. Gould called “running the tape over.” He argued that if we could repeat the history of Earth over and over, allowing variations where they naturally occur, we would see wildly different outcomes across these different histories.

The alternative theory, championed most notably by Simon Conway Morris, is that evolution is more rigorously optimizing than this. On Conway Morris’s account, history of life on Earth would have to produce bipedal, bilaterally symmetric intelligent beings after about as much time as it took for us to show up (accounting for events like asteroids falling on us, and re-setting the clock). Evolution, on this view, is highly constrained. It will reliably result in similar outcomes for similar conditions.

This debate about “running the tape over again” may represent two extremes to how difficult it will be to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence. I suspect Gould would have thought that extraterrestrial intelligences would be quite understandable, if we could just know something about their evolutionary history. But for him, the greater disparity of possible evolutionary outcomes would mean that extra work will be required to discern the evolutionary constraints that are relevant to a species.

On the other hand, the more optimal evolution turns out to be, the more readily identifiable we can expect the foundation for mutual understanding to be. If an organism’s strategy is best for its environment, and any old starting place will get its lineage there, then this should hold true for an extraterrestrial in a similar environment.

We might expect the alien to have eyes, recognizable as like our eyes, because we expect that eyes like our own are a relatively effective way to seize the benefits of visual perception. We might expect the alien to have an analog of fear, since a general motivation to avoid predators and other dangers, and remember them as threatening, appears to be a very effective. And so on.

The heritage of a single organism is one thing. Cultures are another. We are well familiar with failures of human beings to understand each other. Surely the situation will be worse with respect to an extraterrestrial culture. Culture adds something new, something that changes quickly and varies widely across individuals of a single genotype. Won’t this make our extraterrestrials incomprehensible?

The case of human cultural variation is easily exaggerated. We tend to focus upon differences, but the fact remains that no matter how alien a human culture, it remains possible to understand much of it. We read the Illiad or the Mahabarata or the Popul Vuh, and though the writers of those works are far from some of us in time and space, we find nothing incomprehensible in the motives and actions of their protagonists.

Culture builds upon what evolution provides. In language and customs we find explosive variety. But these varieties are less successful, and more difficult to maintain, precisely to the degree that they oppose what evolution has instilled in the species.

Culture adds complexity, but it cannot (at first, anyway) extinguish the goals and motives we inherit. You can ask that your warriors not fear death, but we can predict that they normally will.

This allows us to make a modest prediction. Extraterrestrial intelligences will resist understanding to the degree that their culture is complex. Nothing about their evolutionary history would be incomprehensibly strange to us, and thus nothing about the motives and abilities that they inherit would be incomprehensibly strange to us. Rather, what will allow for strangeness is the ways in which intelligence and culture take those basic motives and combine and reformulate them into surprising new forms. Aliens will have an evolutionary history like those we find here on Earth, and surprising cultural complexity to alter and reinterpret and redirect the abilities and motives that this history gave them. That means a biological understanding can serve as the basis for cultural understanding. We have a Rosetta Stone: it’s called Darwinism.

So extraterrestrial intelligences won’t be humans in disguise. But they’ll be something quite similar to that: they’ll be an evolutionary history, dressed up in culture.

Now, if only they’d call us.

Tell a friend, share this on:

ISSUE 88, January 2014

galactic empires


Best Science Fiction of the Year


Craig DeLancey

Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. His novels include Gods of Earth, available from 47North Press. His short stories include "Julie is Three," which won the Anlab reader's choice award and which has been reprinted, in translation, in Russia and China. He also writes plays, and his plays have had performances and staged readings in New York, Sydney, Melbourne, and in other cities. He has been a finalist for the Heideman Award. He teaches philosophy at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Also by this Author



Amazon Kindle

Amazon Print Edition

Apple iBookstore



Weightless EPUB/MOBI