Why is the idea of alien contact so strong among humans? It’s hardwired into us.
It’s the most popular theme in science fiction, and becoming more and more popular even in more traditional adventure stories. It’s an idea that goes back as far as the notion that there might be other planets, like ours, somewhere among the stars. It’s the concept of meeting intelligent aliens, either here on Earth or in our anticipated travels through space.
The prospect of humans coming into contact with alien life has been covered in many ways, from many points of view, in literature, movies and even official discussions in organizations like NASA that are actively sending vehicles into space. It’s a concept that literally everyone can understand, and that most have some opinion on, even if they have no understanding or interest in any other themes in sci-fi.
But why is that? What is it about alien contact that has enthralled humans so much and for so long? Why, among all the themes in science fiction, is the prospect of humans meeting aliens so powerful and popular?
In fact, the concept of the alien is not strange to humanity. It has been cooked into our history, and is literally part of our DNA. Our preoccupation with aliens is no less than our preoccupation with a significant part of ourselves.
From its beginnings, Mankind has been a social race, living as groups of people as opposed to solitary individuals. It starts with the nuclear family unit: The parents; the children who depend on the parents in infancy, then later help support each other; and finally adults who support their parents into their old age, have children and restart the cycle. This family dynamic is hardwired into our DNA; it is effectively instinctual. That social grouping is only one of Mankind’s defining traits, but it is arguably the strongest. And Mankind has made it an even stronger dynamic by extending beyond the nuclear family, encompassing others, turning small families into larger groups that still obey the family dynamic.
Mankind has always functioned most effectively when they have banded together, using their collective strength, intelligence and support to help the group survive and thrive. That effort and payoff has helped to create the idea of the formalized Group, or Tribe, Nation, etc, with a greater dynamic than the sum of its individual parts. And because of that powerful dynamic, so many of Mankind’s histories and practices necessarily revolve around the dynamic of the Group.
Historically, as Mankind settled in one area or moved into other areas, they would encounter Strangers: Individuals or groups from outside of their known and established Group. Strangers are, in a way, the flip-side of Groups… you need one to define the other. And with resources usually being tight, the Group would have to deal with how that new Stranger would impact their livelihood; whether they would be welcomed, tolerated, repelled or conquered. Our shared history and stories of communication, discovery, understanding, war, compromise, integration and genocide all have their basis in the underlying concept of the Stranger coming in contact with the Group, and the results of that contact.
As we’ve evolved and learned about other worlds and the possibility of life on them, we could have developed an assumption that, yes, there are possibly other intelligent beings on other planets… and left it at that. But because it’s built into the Group dynamic, supported by our genetics and instincts, to consider, anticipate and deal with the introduction of Strangers to our Group, it’s perfectly natural (and probably inevitable) for humans to actively consider that, sooner or later, Strangers will come from outside our world, triggering exactly the same issues that Strangers have always triggered in the Group.
Since it’s harder for people to comprehend extreme differences in their environment, when it comes to aliens they tend to default to the “humanoid alien” analogue, as it would be similar to the expected human Stranger concept and therefore easier to understand, anticipate and deal with. Alien characters in popular fiction, like Star Trek’s Klingons, Vulcans, Ferengi, Romulans, etc, are popular specifically because they are so much like us, and therefore we can more easily relate to them as analogues of the Strangers of our own past stories and histories. And in fiction, we tend to deal with those aliens as we would human Strangers… either welcoming and cooperating with them, setting boundaries between us and them, or fighting to drive off or destroy them.
In reality, we should expect the first aliens we meet to be very different than us… possibly very different from any life form we’ve ever imagined. If we’re very, very lucky, maybe they will be vaguely recognizable life forms like the Heptapod aliens in the movie Arrival, and we’ll be able to eventually find a way to communicate with them. But our first aliens may be like code-name Andromeda, the life forms encountered in The Andromeda Strain, a virus with which we have no hope of being able to communicate. Or we may meet a life form like the fictional planet of Solaris, and find it’s as far beyond noticing us as we are of noticing the bacteria living on our scalps.
Such a contact with that different of a Stranger should trigger brand new considerations, dynamics and responses, since the issues of discovery, communication, resource sharing and cooperation will change according to the alien visitors’ capabilities and needs, which may be nothing like ours.
The real question will be how we’ll deal with alien life that is so outside of our concept of Strangers and Groups that we have no frame of reference or precedent for how to proceed. Will we close our doors and hope the alien Strangers go away? Will we try to nurture and support them? Will we raise our guns and try to fight them off? Or will we seek other ways to deal with their arrival?
At its base, humans will always tend to think of aliens as the Strangers, different in some ways but probably familiar in others, and therefore within our Group dynamic skillset to deal with as required. Surely the first evidence of alien life will be approached in exactly this way: “Well, this, this and that are different… but that, this and that are pretty much just like us, so we know what to do about that.” But however we may or may not deal with them, we’ll never stop thinking about them. We’re biologically programmed to expect that Aliens, the ultimate Strangers, are out there… and that we need to be prepared for when we eventually meet.
“The hallmark of science — and, indeed, science fiction — must always be intelligence.” — Steven Lyle Jordan
Steven Lyle Jordan is a blogger and longtime advocate of science, technology, environmentalism and social development. He has authored over a dozen science fiction novels and related content, including the Kestral Voyages series, the Verdant novels and others. His commentary and science fiction can be found via StevenLyleJordan.blog.