May 7th will be the last day at The Leonardo to explore our most recent travelling exhibit, Alien Worlds & Androids. Before the exhibit moves on, I took the opportunity to leave my office and walk the floor. I stood and admired my favorite model in the exhibit: the Xenomorph from the Alien film series. This lovely guy:
The word “extraterrestrial” didn’t emerge until 1956 and only since about 1950 has the word “alien” referred to an organism from outer space or another planet. Before then, it referred to strangers and foreigners from different cultures and countries — a carryover from the shock it must have been for radically different societies to encounter each other for the first time — or to something that was very different or separate, as in something “alien to me.”
I like the Xenomorph in particular because it embodies what many felt when first considering alien life. The Xenomorph famously inspires fear because it is essentially the perfect predator — even it’s blood is dangerous! Look at that thing: it’s sharp, spiny, fast, agile and incredibly aggressive. It has a scary mouth; and it has another scary mouth inside of that mouth. It’s a fear that’s been with us since the beginning — the fear of things that will hunt us, eat us — and is in some ways anything but alien.
Our conception of aliens evolved, though. What if they were smarter than us? What if they were less like a predator and more like a cosmic genius? The characters that best symbolize this reaction are often called “Greys” — the skinny creatures with huge heads and almond eyes:
They’re super smart. They have plans, big plans. They abduct us, perform weird experiments and return us to our environment. They make us feel small, powerless. Greys basically treat us the way we treat lab rats or fruit flies — they have designs that supersede our own plans and interests. In this sense, we basically project the behavior of our species onto them.
So what gives? How come two of our most popular “alien” characters are so familiar. Sure they look different, but the idea of them is drawn directly form our experiences.
Neil deGrasse Tyson also noted that our idea of alien life is limited by the human psyche (and our egos.) He’s questioned before whether we would even be able to have meaningful interactions with an alien life form. Suppose, as Tyson argued, that our “fear of aliens is a reflection of [our] actual knowledge about how humans treat each other, not real knowledge about how actual aliens would treat us.”
Stanislaw Lem wrote a classic science fiction novel called Solaris that explores this last idea (it was also made into two great movies.) In the book, cosmonauts interact with a planet that exhibits signs of being alive, conscious and creative. It’s strange and dark book, but I’ve always considered it somewhat realistic, because it describes the most likely experience if we ever did encounter alien life: profound mystery.