The trouble with aliens

I love aliens. I love imagining everything that human beings will learn about themselves when they first encounter another intelligent species.

We haven’t met aliens yet, but we can imagine how we would react when we do. Right here on Earth, we live with an abundance of other species, most of which, to be frank, seem very alien. But regardless of how different other species are from us, human beings have a limited number of ways that we respond.
We ignore the vast majority of species. If they don’t attack us, we can’t eat them, and there is no competition for resources, there is no reason to pay any attention to them. They may be of interest to scientists or enthusiasts, but the average person ignores them.
Next are competitors. Those we kill off. In North America, bison were competition for farm land and range land for cattle, and interfered with the operations of the railroad. Bison were hunted almost to extinction. Beavers built dams that flooded potential farmland. Their numbers, too, were drastically reduced.
In urban areas, rats and mice compete with humans for food. They are hunted mercilessly by humans. They only reason that they have not been killed off is that they can hide successfully in small spaces and reproduce rapidly.
The third category are predators, either of humans or of human pets or livestock. Wolves and foxes, who prey occasionally on livestock, have been hunted almost to the point of extinction. As the human population grows on all continents, lions, tigers, and other big cats have also shrunk in numbers.
The next category are game animals, that is, animals that are not domesticated, but are hunted for food or other resources, or for recreation. If a community is wise, it will manage game animals as a resource to be preserved for future generations. This includes wild caught fish, ducks, deer, and other species. If there is no management, game animals may very well be hunted to extinction. Whales that were hunted for their oil in the 1800’s were almost wiped out. Passenger pigeons and dodos were food sources that were hunted to extinction in the 1800’s.
Finally, there are a small number of domesticated species that we actively care for to provide food and clothing, to work, or to meet emotional needs. Cows, pigs, sheep, goats, reindeer and llamas provide food and clothing. Horses, oxen, and elephants provide labor. Dogs and cats have dual functions. Dogs traditionally performed a variety of jobs – catching rats, guarding, hunting, herding, pulling carts, and performing rescues – as well as meeting emotional needs. Cats have always been useful for controlling rodents, as well as meeting emotional needs.
We tend to prefer domesticated animals that are not aggressive and are not very intelligent. The most intelligent animals that we know – elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and ravens – are not popular pets.

Science fiction stories tend to portray aliens in a few ways. The most popular is to make them “humanoid”, that is, funny looking people, with the same thoughts, feelings, and values that a human would make. As such, we relate to them as we do to other humans.
Aliens can be predators who want to eat us. In reality, it is highly unlikely that aliens would share enough of our biology that they could derive nutrition from human flesh.
Another reason that aliens might be hostile to humans is to gain access to territory. The unspoken assumption is that humans block access of the aliens to the resources that they want. Otherwise, the aliens would simply collect the resources without bothering to kill off humans.
Occasionally, aliens are portrayed as pathological killers who want to exterminate us for no reason at all. This is projecting human psychology onto aliens.
Another model for relationship with aliens is the way that humans interact with other humans who are not from their own group. Throughout history, most humans have classified outsiders as “non human”. In an extreme example, the Spanish tried to convince the Pope to classify the native inhabitants of the Americas as having no souls, and therefore being animals. They did this to throw of the last vestiges of restraint in their treatment of the indigenous people. Fortunately, the Pope refused, whether his decision was based on reason, or the desire to add more souls to the Roman Catholic Church.
How do humans treat outsiders? On the positive side, there is mutual forbearance, trade, employment, alliances, intermarriage, and friendship.
On the negative side, there is mass murder, enslavement, injustice, and abuse of all kinds. Since we prefer to think well of ourselves, these qualities are usually attributed to the aliens.

Science fiction romances and alien visitation stories suggest that aliens want to have sex with humans (or humans are sexually attracted to the aliens). This is extremely unlikely in real life. Humans share 99% of their genes with chimpanzees, but sexual attraction between humans and chimpanzees is extremely improbable. Evolutionarily speaking, it would be a dead end, since such a union would produce no viable offspring.

Most science fiction writers assume that intelligent life forms are humanoid, if not actually human. There is the presumption that an upright posture and the ability to manipulate the environment are necessary for evolution of intelligence.
However, there is another possibility. Like other extravagant and apparently useless traits, intelligence may be a sexually selected trait. Or as a friend of mine said, “Intelligence is so sexy!” In addition to physical fitness, people are attracted to good communicators, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and emotionally intelligent people – all of which are different aspects of intelligence.
If this is true, then body shape would have no bearing on whether a species acquires intelligence.
The one facilitating factor would be that body shape allows for creative manipulation of the environment. This ability is critical to produce the outward artifacts of intelligence. Even if a dog was as intelligent as a human, its body shape would not allow it to manipulate objects easily. Similarly, a whale could be highly intelligent in a way that could allow attractive social behavior, but would not allow it to modify the physical environment.

Orson Scott Card has written some of the most interesting and plausible recent stories about aliens. In Ender in Exile, Ender researches the aliens that he wiped out, in order to understand them. Here the aliens are treated as an object of scientific or archeological interest.
In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is asked to find out why a different set of aliens have killed a human being with barbaric cruelty. He discovers that the aliens attach another meaning entirely to the act. This story combined science fiction with detective, or even ethnographic, fiction.

Who are your favorite aliens, and why?

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