Science fiction has a problem: everyone looks the same. I know there are a few series that have aliens that look unimaginably different from human beings. But those are the exception, not the rule. Most major sci-fi series – Star Wars, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate – have alien species that are hominid.
Consider the above image. Of the twenty visible species, only five are visibly not hominid. That’s right, I count the prawn, xenomorph, predator, Cthulhu and A.L.F. as being hominid. I grant that it’s a bit of a stretch. A more conservative evaluation would be that only two of the twenty are truly hominid. The others, which we’ll call pseudo-hominids, still share the following with humans: bipedal locomotion; bilateral symmetry; a morphology of head, trunk, two arms, and two legs; upright posture; and forward-facing, stereoscopic eyes. I grant they don’t look precisely human, but the similarities are too striking to be swept into the nearest black hole.
Even the most strident supporter of parallel evolution would laugh in the face of anyone who claimed that the most intelligent species on nearly every planet in the universe just happened to evolve the exact same physiology. In series like Star Trek and Mass Effect, where interspecies relationships are possible, this cross-species compatibility is made even more preposterous. We all suspend our scientific disbelief to enjoy the story and the characters. No one believes for a second that the first species we meet in the cosmos is going to look just like us save for some pointy ears and a bowl haircut.
But what if many species in the universe do look like humans? How in Carl Sagan’s cosmos could we explain parallel evolution of that magnitude? Star Trek: The Next Generation, manages to give a scientifically plausible answer to the question of hominid and biologically compatible alien species in an episode entitled “The Chase.” Which lead me to develop the Hominid Panspermia Theory of Science Fiction Aliens.
Lately I’ve noticed lots of articles with titles that are variations of “Ten Things You Should Know About X.” I became so convinced this was not just a figment of my paranoid imagination that I did a search for “10 things” OR “ten things” in Google News (with quotes) and was immediately rewarded with more than 676 hits. This is impressive, since Google News searches over a limited time horizon. The top hits Du Nanosecond were: “Mitt Romney’s the frontrunner: 10 things the first big Republican debate showed”, “10 Things Not to Do When Going Back on Gold”, “10 Things We Learned at UFC 131”, “Top 10 things to do in your backyard”, “Steve Jobs: ten things you didn’t know about the Apple founder”, and my personal favorite, “Ten things you need to know today”.
What accounts for this ten-centrism? My first thought is an old joke. You’ve probably heard it: There are ten 10 kinds of people, those who get binary numbers, and those who don’t. Part of what I like about this joke is that it captures a bit of the arbitrariness of our penchant for counting in tens rather than twos. There is, on the other hand, the non-arbitrariness of how many bony appendages jut out of our pentadactyl palms. But, a list of the “Two things you need to know today” doesn’t seem to do justice to the complexity of modern life. So herewith is my list of the Ten Reasons We Are Seeing An Excess of Lists of Ten Things We Should Know:
1. We don’t have time to read anymore. Knowing we are going to get just ten things to process is comforting in its promise not to drain our attention from facebook and twitter.
2. Ten is close to the approximate size of our working memory. The size of our working memory, the amount of stuff we can recall from lists of things to which we’ve been recently exposed, is about seven (at least for numbers). I seem to recall there being a “plus or minus 2” factor here, in which case the upper limit for most of us mortals is nine items.
3. Since writers can’t make a living any more, we are sliding into an era of bullet point-ism. Anyone who has had a teacher who cares about writing has been warned by this teacher that making lists of bullet points in our essays is no substitute for actual writing in which thoughts are carefully connected to one another with transition sentences. This takes far too much time to work in any feasible business model for writers today (I’m trying not to use the word “nowadays” because the very same teacher who warned me not to write in bullet points also told me that this word was to be avoided). For one thing, they have to compete with bloggers like me who write for basically nothing. Ergo, the era of the articles of “ten things you should know,” which are typically not much more than bullet points.
4. In many cases, there’s more than ten things that you should know, or fewer than ten things that you should know. But, like “decades,” “centuries,” and other arbitrary anchors in the otherwise continuous flux of events and time, the writer doesn’t have to justify ten, because that’s what every other writer is chunking things we should know into.
5. It’s a way for pentadactyl animals to feel superior to unidactyl animals. No doubt if the planet were run by one-fingered/toed creatures, we would live in a George-Bush-like world of black and white. Downside: it takes longer to read “Top Ten” lists than “Top Two” lists. Over evolutionary timescales, this problem could result in unidactylism eventually reigning supreme.
6. At this point in the list, with four more to go, we enter the fat and boring midsection of the list of top ten things you should know about lists of ten things. It’s basically not remembered, so there’s really no point in putting anything here. Ditto for 7, and 8.
9. Because of the well documented recency effect, it’s time to start having content in our list of ten things again. I recall reading an apropos adage in a publication like Business Week that was like a pina colada to my information overloaded brain: “the value added is the information removed.” When it comes to digits, it seems that “the functionality added is the digits removed” – at least if our evolutionary history is any kind of guide. Our Devonian (350 million years ago) ancestors had 6-8 digits. In going down to five, and therefore lists of ten points, we’ve gone from fairly low achieving vertebrates to the spectacular successes of most subsequent animals by reducing our digits to what’s really needed.
10. If we’ve maintained our concentration to this point in the list, we will be rewarded with a bit of humorous fluff that helps bind some of our anxiety about the essential meaninglessness of our lives, and — especially — our time spent on reading yet another list of ten things we should know.
Image: Logo of a home and garden show in Australia. Correction: “didactylism” in #5 changed to unidactylism – thanks to @Matt for pointing out the miscount!
A couple in Toronto has decided to keep the gender of their baby, named Storm, private. Good for them! Way too many people can guess what gender I am, it takes the fun out of everything. Guessing my sexuality is quite a bit more difficult, but I digress. People are upset about Storm the genderless baby! Why? How we portray friendly and scary aliens in science fiction may help explain why people are worried about a person’s gender being indeterminate.
Let’s clear some things up first. Storm has a biological sex. I have no idea what it is, but chances are that Storm is biologically male or female, as those are pretty common ways for people to be. Of course, intersex – that is, ambiguous genitalia and/or blended sexual maturation – is a real, though minor, possibility. And that’d be just fine too.
But you and I don’t know for sure. Storm’s parents feel that our society’s obsession with the need to know what sex a person is biologically (and how that jives with that person’s gender presentation) is an invasion of privacy. Second, gender is, almost by definition, impossible to keep secret. Gender is what we present to the world. Thus, if I can’t tell what gender a person is, that doesn’t mean that person’s gender is secret, it just means I don’t have a mental category for what I’m seeing. Gender presentation can be obvious, ambiguous, over-the-top, cliché or mundane, but it’s never hidden.
So it’s not that Storm doesn’t have a sex or gender that is getting attention, but that Storm’s parents don’t seem eager to make Storm’s gender presentation obvious, nor to confirm that their baby’s gender presentation matches their baby’s biological sex. Ok, so where do aliens come into play? Read More
Science fiction knows how to play around with sex and gender. The free-lovin’ of A Stranger in A Strange Land, Commander Shepard’s bisexual proclivities, and William T. Riker’s seemingly universal interspecies compatibility are constant sources of entertainment.
And the fun doesn’t stop with organic entities. Androids, cyborgs, and robots make gender all the stranger. Why is Data fully functional? Isn’t it curious that, of all the characters in Ghost in the Shell the two most heavily cyberized characters, Motoko and Batou, are hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine respectively? And, my favorite: as a robot Bender has no gender, so if Bender bends his gender, what gender does Bender bend?
Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us. Read More
A couple days ago, Fox News broke a story with the unbelievable headline, “Exclusive: NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite.” The claims are obvious bunk, but if you don’t believe me, here is PZ Myers with an entertaining demolition of the paper and its credibility. Myers’ main argument is that if the paper was real, it would probably have shown up in Nature or Science, been better written and argued, and received more than a blurb on Fox News’ website. Discover’s own Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a wonderful summary of other opinions, and gives an excellent conclusion of how a real scientist thinks about an astounding announcement in a field that isn’t his own. Myers’ and Plait’s respective posts are exemplary demonstrations of scientific skepticism.
True to form, Plait ends with this interesting little notation:
As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct.
Though the announcement that alien bacteria was found on a meteor is almost certainly false, eventually a scientist may in fact discover real evidence of alien life. I grant Myers’ point about a prestigious journal publishing the direct evidence would probably be the first place we would hear about such a discovery.
But then that evidence would be challenged by every reputable scientist breathing. There is a simple rule in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I thank Bill Nye for teaching me that little tidbit when I was a youngster. It has done me well. But if the evidence is legit, other scientists will analyze, test, and, ultimately, verify the evidence. There would be proof that Earth wasn’t the only place in the universe where life came to be. Which begs the question: How would the evidence of extraterrestrial life be broken to the public? How would the President react? The pope? How would you react? Read More
Humans and dolphins are inventing a common language together. This is big news!
In all the hoopla over the world ending due to being asteroid-smashed, man becoming immortal thanks to the singularity in 2045, and Watson the trivia-machine winning Jeopardy! the story of budding interspecies communication got under-reported. Denise Herzing and her team with the Wild Dolphin project has begun developing a language to allow humans and dolphins to communicate. If successful, the ability to communicate with dolphins would fundamentally change animal intelligence research, animal rights arguments, and our ability to talk to aliens.
Herzing and her team faced two huge problems when it came to talking to dolphins. The first problem is that the current state of animal language research creates an asymmetrical relationship between humans and the animals with whom they wish to communicate. The second problem is that (save for parrots) animal vocal cords cannot replicate human speech, and visa versa.
Most, if not nearly all, animal language research involves either studying how animals communicate with one another, or teaching them a human language to see if they can communicate with us. There is a problem with both methods–humans don’t learn much (if any) animal language in the process. Think of it this way: how many commands does the smartest dog you’ve met know? Some border collies, like Chaser, can learn upwards of 1000 words. Now how many words do you know in dog? Or parrot? How about gorilla or whale? Know any corvid? I bet you can at least read cuttlefish patterns, right? No? Of course, I’m being facetious, but with a purpose: up to this point, humans have always attempted to understand animal language by teaching animals how to talk to humans. The glaring flaw in this process of teaching animals to use human language is that it is nary impossible to prove the animal is using language, not merely playing a very complex game of repeater.
There is a second, equally interesting problem. Think about your favorite science fiction series populated by aliens (for me, that’s a toss up between Star Trek and Mass Effect). At some point in that series, an alien has introduced itself as having a very un-alien name, like “Grunt.” The reason? “My real name is unpronounceable by humans.” That is rarely an actual problem, because as it always works out the other alien species (why do we refer to aliens as “races” btw?) can pronounce our human words. One of the only films I can think of that doesn’t have this common sci-fi fallacy is District 9. Humans and prawn seem to be able to understand the other’s language in a rudimentary way, despite neither species being even remotely able to reproduce the other’s sounds. Cetaceans pose the same problem: humans cannot whistle, squeak, chortle, or pop the way a beluga or bottle-nose can. Further, the higher squeals of some dolphins and the low rumbles of some whales are beyond the human auditory spectrum. Dolphins can’t say a word in human languages and we certainly can’t do more than parody the spectrum of cetacean sounds.
Which presents quite a question: How in the heck did Herzing figure out a way to both not teach the dolphins an anthropocentric language and ensure the language was speakable by both species?
Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).
Independence Day has one of my most favorite hero duos of all time: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Brawn and brains, flyboy and nerd, working together to take out the baddies. It all comes down to one flash of insight on behalf of a drunk Goldblum after being chastised by his father. Cliché eureka! moments like Goldblum’s realization that he can give the mothership a “cold” are great until you realize one thing: if Goldblum hadn’t been as smart as he was, the movie would have ended much differently. No one in the film was even close to figuring out how to defeat the aliens. Will Smith was in a distant second place and he had only discovered that they are vulnerable to face punches. The hillbilly who flew his jet fighter into the alien destruct-o-beam doesn’t count, because he needed a force-field-free spaceship for his trick to work. If Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been a super-genius, humanity would have been annihilated.
Every apocalyptic film seems to trade on the idea that there will be some lone super-genius to figure out the problem. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (both versions) Professor Barnhardt manages to convince Klaatu to give humanity a second look. Cleese’s version of the character had a particularly moving “this is our moment” speech. Though it’s eventually the love between a mother and child that triggers Klaatu’s mercy, Barnhardt is the one who opens Klaatu to the possibility. Over and over we see the lone super-genius helping to save the world.
Shouldn’t we want, oh, I don’t know, at least more than one super-genius per global catastrophe? I’d like to think so. And where might we get some more geniuses? you may ask. We make them.
WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio, recently gathered together several of my fellow science and engineering researchers at Northwestern University to talk about the science of science fiction films. The panel, and just short of 500 people from the community and university, watched clips from Star Wars, Gattaca, Minority Report, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Matrix. I was the robot/AI guy commenting on the robot spiders of Minority Report; Todd Kuiken, a designer of neuroprosthetic limbs, commented on Luke getting a new arm in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; Tom Meade, a developer of medical biosensors and new medical imaging techniques, commented on Gattaca; and Catherine Wooley, who studies memory, commented on Eternal Sunshine.
The full audio of the event can be streamed or downloaded from here.
Remember in E.T. where the government finds E.T. and decides they should do all sorts of crazy awful experiments on him? Or how about in District 9 where an entire alien race is subjected to squalor, neglect, and vivisection? Or maybe in The Day the Earth Stood Still when Klaatu takes a round in the shoulder from some nervous infantrymen? What all of these movies have in common is that on present-day Earth, aliens have no rights. Despite a demonstration of equal or superior intelligence, a capacity for moral reasoning, complex culture, and peaceful intentions, aliens are regularly mistreated.
“Why should I care?” you might ask, gesturing with your cigarette holder and adjusting your pashmina scarf. You should care because either we are going to find aliens on an earth-like planet, like Gliese 581g, or they’ll find us first—and soon. We’ve got time, but not much, before we’ll be looking at some living something from another world.
Well why should aliens have rights? Because, as I’ve argued before, they have personhood. (Quick refresher: personhood is the idea that rights stem from aspects of an entity’s mind. For example, a sentient creature has the right not to suffer, and a self-aware creature has the right to self-determine. It doesn’t matter if the mind is in a robo-power suit, an ethereal protoplasm, distributed among a living swarm, or at the center of a writhing mass of tentacles. If a sentient, rational, and moral mind is present, it has personhood.)
If an alien can suffer, can reason, and can tell right from wrong, then it has rights and responsibilities. But what are they?