How cats and dogs teach us about aliens

There’s an old story about the difference between cats and dogs.

“We are from ZONTAR. Give us your women and your water!” Public domain.

Feed a dog, and it thinks ‘wow, I’ve been fed. Humans must be gods’. Feed a cat and it thinks ‘Yawn. My staff are passable, but as I am a god, perhaps I should find better?’

Actually I suspect what dogs (especially Labradors) think is: ‘Food – MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s walkies – MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s chase-the-ball -MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s time to roll in mud -MY FAVOURITE THING! (etc , etc).’ But I digress.

Of course we don’t actually know what animals think, we simply project on to them what we imagine ourselves. Which is fine, except we’re human and they’re not.

Which brings me to sci-fi aliens, which inevitably also end up as projections of ourselves. Sometimes with lobsters glued to their foreheads, as in the Klingons, but recognisably human nonetheless. Even ‘alien’ aliens such as Larry Niven’s Kzin and Puppeteers were actually only aspects of the human condition.

I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth looking at again. Why do we portray aliens this way? Part of it is the ‘strange but not too strange’ principle in story telling – which applies visually in film and TV – where a completely alien ‘alien’ would be unrecognisable and likely an audience turn-off.

But the other part is the fact that humans are inevitably anthropocentric. For a long time we saw ourselves as a unique pinnacle of life, something separate from and above the animals. Even when that began to change in the nineteenth century the idea that humans were somehow special or different infused itself into science.

As late as the 1950s and 1960s, anthropologists were presenting versions of human evolution that portrayed human evolutionary paths, alone, as operating in ways not shared by animals – the idea that there was but one single branch, for example.

This thinking was enormously powerful, taking decades to undo. Arguably it was not until the discoveries of this century put modern humans in a very different place in the human family that the old ideas were finally set aside in the science community. Even then, they were still often popularly upheld.

This concept also infused itself into science fiction where alien worlds, inevitably, were portrayed as having complex biospheres of flora and fauna, but where there was – just as inevitably – but one intelligent species per planet, usually bipedal.

The actual answer is ‘nobody knows’. In all probability, whatever’s ‘out there’ will be very different from what we imagine. But when it comes to sci-fi, these days, I can’t help thinking that the balance of ‘strange but not too strange’ has erred too much towards the comfortable. This logic is what drove my picture of alien life in my novella ‘Missionary’, published in the Endless Worlds Vol. 1 compilation.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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6 thoughts on “How cats and dogs teach us about aliens

  1. I sometimes wonder if all this searching for human origins, stems from curiosity, or, a desperate need to justify our perceived status as top of the food chain (which we definitely are NOT – we are food for a lot of things, from sharks, to lions, etc; including practically every insectile bite-um / no see-um that creeps, crawls or flies) 😎

    1. Bit of both I suspect. It’s taken centuries to dislodge the idea that humans are not part of the animal kingdom, and the idea that our particular species (as opposed to Neanderthals or Denisovans, etc) was somehow special is still beating a fighting retreat. Mosquitoes (etc) never care… they just dine out on us…

  2. You raise an interesting philosophical point here Matthew. We tend to anthropomorphize our pets, probably because we love them and to a certain degree, we want to elevate them to a status similar to that of our own. Cats and Dogs do have different traits. One suspects a cat merely tolerates us at times and that a dog genuinely enjoys our company, But as with most things this open to debate,

    The question of most Sci-fi aliens being human-like with a large prosthesis glued to their heads has been a popular way to portray them for a long time. I suspect, that because Star Trek was the first believable Sci-fi series and used this concept fairly early on (even though, curiously in The Original Series, Klingons had smooth heads and were only distinguishable from us by virtue of a dodgy moustache), that the idea became a recognisable way of distinguishing humans and aliens without stretching the budget too much.

    Some series have attempted to make more of an effort. The ‘Replicators’ in the Stargate series were spider-like mechanical drones with an alarming tendency to multiply at a rapid rate and assimilate their foe.

    There is of course no-reason why aliens will be human-like. Some scientists have theorised that given the right environmental conditions that giant whale-like aliens may fly in the upper-reaches of gas giants and communicate using telekinesis. Or perhaps aliens may not be carbon-based life-forms at all but instead be silicone-based lifeforms.

    I used to be a diving instructor, and often wondered at the rich variety of sea-life that we have right here on earth that is as alien to us as any we may see on a Sci-fi tv show.

    It’s a fascinating concept to ponder, thanks for a great post!

    1. Good points – got me thinking. The variety of life under our own oceans underscores just how widely varied ‘life’ actually is, even here on Earth. I wonder if an alien planet would have a similar variety… and would we be able to pick which ones are the ‘smart’ ones? Or maybe they’d all be smart. And if aliens happened to build a starship and flew here, would it be one species with their pets – or would it be a whole menagerie of life, working together in ways we don’t on Earth? Until we actually find hard evidence I suspect we won’t ever know.

      1. One thing puzzles me. Even with our limited ability to explore extra-terrestrial planets, we are still able to do so with technology such as the Mars Rover. Suppose how advanced that ability will be for us in just 100 years time? Why hasn’t an alien species used similar technology to visit us? Is it that they are so different to us that such technologies are unique to human beings? Or perhaps we really are the first ‘sentient’ race. Someone has to be.

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