I find myself both a writer of science fiction and a questioner of science fact. When I find a question which intrigues me, I am compelled to try and answer. Today’s questions deal with the issues of ugly aliens in modern media and the question of alien languages. To start this off, let’s watch a video of some of the Earth’s ugliest animals. Believe me, it is relevant.
To be fair, some of these animals are pets and chosen because they were ugly, a couple were damaged due to car accidents or surgery, and at least one was premature in its development. The point of the video is for all of those who were NOT unnatural in their representation, they are as varied and diverse as could be. Yet they all share the same root DNA. And with that let’s ask:
Why are aliens in media so ugly?
Earth has been home to millions of different species in the time that it has existed in the known universe (an estimated 4 billion years, give or take). As far as we know, all life exists due to the existence of DNA/RNA interactions. Yes, there are some exceptions but for the most part, life as we know it, and almost as we define it, utilizes DNA as part of its makeup. Bear with me.
We as humans, have no idea what other potential forms of life can exist in the universe, because we have no information regarding the basis for that life. Does it use DNA? Does it use carbon chains? Is it even based in carbon at all? Look at all of the potential forms of life which Earth has spawned. Almost all of the ones considered common to most people reside in only three or four of these phyla listed below: plants, animals, algae and fungi. Within those four phyla are millions of potential aliens waiting to visit the Earth.
Writers take the liberty of creating aliens partially as metaphor, partially as mirror, partially as allegory, of the idea of the Other. That which is outside of us (Humanity). Since Earth has been host to millions of lifeforms it is safe to say that Aliens will be different than us, and depending on where they hail, will certainly NOT resemble us, television not withstanding.
Remember television has production issues and one of them is costuming, so our aliens must resemble us or their production costs become prohibitive. In writing Aliens, we have the liberty of making them different. Indeed, we have a responsibility as writers to make them different from us, because they WILL be.
They have been born of another star, another planet’s life-giving chemicals in combination with billions of years of their own evolutionary, environmental, and potentially cultural information creating a creatures as unique, potentially fascinating and if they can cross space to get to us, as complex as we are.
We will probably find them difficult to look at, think about all the life on Earth we are not thrilled to see, snakes, frogs, bears, spiders, insects in general, because they are so different from what we consider the norm, our upright, bipedal, bilaterally-symmetric form with our endo-skeleton, squishy organs and folded brain inside of our cranium, our jelly-filled eyes, our fragile and easily punctured skin which contains our miles of nervous tissue, many yards of intestines and sponge-like oxygen capture system; not to mention our mechanically pumping cardiovascular system and electrically charged neural activity.
I don’t believe aliens will look like us. We share our genetic heritage with every living thing on Earth and yet there are millions upon millions of different forms of life on the planet. We share 94% of our genetic material with an octopus. That 6% difference has created a vastly dissimilar life-form. A 2% difference gives us chimpanzees or other simians. A 1% difference gave us the now extinct Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and most of the modern football players of today. What will a creature from another world, that may or may not use DNA look like to human eyes? It may be more terrible than we an even imagine.
Our concepts of beauty are written into our DNA (our acceptance of the golden ratio, a natural evolutionary pattern of development used by plants and animals for leaf and branch development, nervous system density, and even the distance between our eyes, nose and mouth that we find pleasing to look upon,) so we may be repulsed by their appearance without even understanding why because their “golden ratio” may be different than our own.
In my opinion, if First Contact is a physical one, visible to the general public, and the aliens are not anthropomorphic (resembling humans in a bilateral symmetry, bipedal with a similar physical appearance), the human reaction will be directly related to what the human mind will associate the appearance of the aliens to creatures in our own environment. Humanity’s innate fears and revulsion will likely prejudice their responses if the aliens appear too non-human. If they appear to resemble insects or some extremely divergent form of life, for example (as the aliens in District 9 appear to) humans may not be able to even consider them as intelligent or sentient. On Earth, natural selection seemed to favor insects; there are physically more insects on Earth than any other kind of animal combined. (Don’t think about it, you will only want to go out and buy more Raid.) It is not too hard to see insectoid intelligences being a possibility as an alien visitor. If they resembled terrestrial insects, they may also have a completely different outlook on life or individualism as a whole, since insects have more of a collective intelligence than an intelligence based on individual thought or action. Each acts as part of a greater whole. Would such a society value individualism? Would they consider us intelligent at all?
To us, anything that isn’t us, isn’t normal. How traumatic it will be for us as a species to find other sentience out there that did not evolve into what we consider to be the ultimate expression of intelligent life on Earth. Of course we would consider it ugly. It isn’t us. It mocks us, likely by resembling some other member of our planetary phyla and reminding us that we aren’t all that special. Some other creature might have made it to the top of the food chain; and on their world, it wasn’t us.
What would an advanced alien language look like?
If anyone were being honest, the answer would be: We have almost no idea of what an alien language would look like either in appearance, structure, delivery, interpretation or nuances.
But we are not honest so we presume to have an opinion about what aliens might use for language. But the only creatures we could use as a reference point would be aliens whose physical characteristics, biome limitations, and species similarities would make them in most ways like us. They might communicate using written variations similar to languages used on Earth with written and vocal components. But reference the Kung! people for a variation outside of the norm of most people. (See Click consonant:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_consonant)
As humans we can barely conceive of a language which is encoded in flashes of light, potentially dependent on frequencies we cannot see, or on positions of the lights on the body of the alien, which could convey any number of concepts or notions, or depending on the medium of the light being emitted or the delay between entities giving subtleties and nuances about how the message should be received or what to do with the message after it has been interpreted.
We would be hard pressed to imagine a language from a creature with a four lobed brain (potentially capable of thinking or processing information in ways we have yet to conceive of) with multiple arms/tentacles who might use the position of their tentacles the same way a Chinese cuneiform might embed a particular meaning within the structure of the position of those tentacles, and the movement of the tentacles, and the positions between each character could convey a series of information about how the second character should be interpreted and implying what the next character may portend.
If the creature in question embodied information delivery the same way cephalopods on Earth change color, it could be another layered conversation taking place in the color transitions as well as the arm placements.
If the species in question lives in water, it may also take advantage of the medium’s enhance propensity for sending vibration to encoded sub-aural information as infra-sound, either as a completely separate information stream, or as a data supplement to arm position, and skin color information. Such a creature could conceivably attempt to communicate with us in three different formats and we would still have NO idea we were even being spoken to!
Humanity must admit when considering conversation with alien species, we will and should throw out all of our preconceived notions about what form or appearance such communication will take place in. It may simply be more fantastic than we can begin to imagine.
My answer to: Why are aliens so ugly? first appeared on Quora.com. © Thaddeus Howze 2013. All Rights Reserved [ @ebonstorm]