Alien Iconography

by Michael Shermer

illustrator Zoe Taylor

Issue V

Alien Iconography 1

Asleep in your bed in the early morning hours you are awakened by the sound of a distinct voice. Your eyes are now open but you are unable to move, frozen in fear and paralyzed to defend yourself. Before you at the foot of the bed is a tiny human-like creature with an emaciated body, thin arms and legs, a bald bulbous head featuring tiny ears and nose and large almond-shaped eyes. Suddenly you feel yourself rising from the bed as you are whisked away to a flying saucer-shaped ship hovering above your home. You have just had a close encounter of the third kind, contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Or have you?
    Scientists now recognize this scenario as a dream aberration known as sleep paralysis, a type of lucid dream in which the dreamer, aware of the dream, feels unable to move as if paralyzed, experiences a pressure on the chest, the presence of a being in the room, and often senses floating, flying, or falling. Brain scans during sleep show that these experiences are associated with the temporal lobes located just above your ears, which are associated with how the brain orients the body in space and stimulation of which often produces deep religious, spiritual, and otherworldly feelings. Several centuries ago, the English referred to nighttime sensations of chest pressure from witches or other supernatural beings as the “mare,” from Anglo-Saxon merran, or “to crush.” So a nightmare was literally a crusher who comes in the night. Since they lived in a demon-haunted world, they called these crushers demons. Since we live in an alien-haunted world we call them aliens. Your culture dictates what labels to assign these anomalous brain experiences.
    In fact, the image of aliens described above is relatively new, a product of television shows, films, books, and magazine articles in the 1980s and 1990s that homogenized ET into one iconographic image from the multifarious forms that aliens took earlier in the century in the burgeoning science fiction genre. Aliens who landed in Northern Europe tended to be tall white blue-eyed creatures, whereas ETs who visited African countries were dark-skinned black-eyed beings. Geography determined alien iconography. But in the Internet-connected one-world culture in which we live today, even our aliens are united into one species. 
    Alien abductees, of course, believe that they were actually in contact with extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs), and this has led to a fascinating debate among scientists about what ETIs will look like if we ever do make contact. That is, what are the odds that ET will turn out to be a bipedal primate with such human-like characteristics? Of the hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of species that evolved here on our planet, only one lineage evolved into bipedal primates, and only one subspecies of that lineage has survived to this day (us). What is the likelihood that this evolutionary trajectory could play itself out in almost perfect parallel fashion on some other planet? Not good, I contend.
    Nevertheless, I could be wrong, and no less a scientific luminary than Richard Dawkins has challenged me on this very point, noting the conjectures by some scientists that had dinosaurs not gone extinct primates would never have succeeded as they did and instead something like the bipedal dinosaur depicted below, based on an evolutionary projection by the paleontologist Dale Russell, would have evolved instead. 
    I concede the point that evolutionary convergences lead creatures to evolve limbs for moving around on land (arms and legs), fingers and toes for controlled walking, running, and grasping food, a central body containing vital organs of digestion and circulation, a head on one end of the body housing sensory organs such as eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and a waste disposal system on the other end of the body. But the problem we all have in such alien speculations is our chauvinism. As the late Carl Sagan liked to say, “we are carbon chauvinists” (meaning that life could be based on something other than the carbon of which we are made). But we are also oxygen chauvinists, temperature chauvinists, vertebrate chauvinists, mammal chauvinists, primate chauvinists, and many others. When you think of the myriad ways that intelligence has evolved on this planet in very non-bipedal primate ways—octopi, dolphins, whales, parrots, wolves, and the like—it is exceedingly hubristic of us to think that aliens will be just like us only smarter. We cannot even communicate with terrestrial intelligences such as apes and dolphins, so what hubris of us to think that we will be able to decode the communiqués of an ETI millions of years our superior. When we project ourselves into the alien Other I suggest that we are subject to what I call Protagoras’ bias—“Man is the measure of all things.” 

Alien Iconography 2

And this brings me to one final parallel between aliens and gods. The belief in the superiority of celestial beings is as old as religious thought itself and may derive from the same impulse to believe in invisible powerful agents. Judaism and Christianity, for example, feature in their pantheon of beings not just the God Yahweh, but also the devil Satan along with their angel and demon charges who oversee the eternal souls of dead humans residing in either heaven or hell. In 2001, I conducted a study on the pioneers of the famous SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), most of whom were once religious but became either atheists or agnostics as adults. Radio astronomer Frank Drake—creator of the canonical “Drake Equation” that predicts the probability of alien life in the universe—was raised “Very strong Baptist. Sunday school every Sunday,” and made this observation: “A strong influence on me, and I think on a lot of SETI people, was the extensive exposure to fundamentalist religion. You find when you talk to people who have been active in SETI that there seems to be that thread. They were either exposed or bombarded with fundamentalist religion. So to some extent it is a reaction to firm religious upbringing.” Contact with ETIs would amount to a type of second coming for many people. SETI pioneer Melvin Calvin noted: “It would have a marked effect. It’s such a broad, major subject of concern to everyone, no matter where they are, that I think people would listen. It’s like introducing a new religion, I suppose, and having it picked up by a lot of people.”
    Many other scientists and science fiction visionaries agree. The scientist and science fiction writer David Brin suggested that SETI combines “serious and far-reaching science with a kind of gosh-wow zeal that seems (at times) to border on the mystical—perhaps as much religious as a product of science or science fiction. Indeed, to some, contact with advanced alien civilizations may carry much the same transcendental or hopeful significance as any more traditional notion of ‘salvation from above’.” As the astrobiologist Paul Davies wondered in his 1995 book, Are We Alone?, “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Fifteen years later, with the skies still quiet, Davies noted in The Eerie Silence that “A project with the scope and profundity of SETI cannot be divorced from this wider cultural context, for it too offers us the vision of a world transformed, and holds the compelling promise that this could happen any day soon.” 
    Even Carl Sagan, the scientist more equated with aliens than anyone before or since, and who was equally notorious for his religious skepticism, nevertheless said of SETI’s importance: “It touches deeply into myth, folklore, religion, mythology; and every human culture in some way or another has wondered about that type of question.” He even seemingly wrote the deity back into the cosmos through the extraterrestrial intelligences in Contact, when his heroine Ellie (played by Jodi Foster in the film version) discovers that pi (π)—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter—is numerically encoded in the cosmos and this is proof that a superior intelligence designed the universe:

The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.

Why should so many people—theists and atheists, theologians and scientists—believe in the existence of superior celestial beings? I contend that it is in the nature of our brains to believe in gods. Why? God is the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens, from the beginning of the universe to the end of time and everything in between, including and especially the fates of human lives. God is the ultimate intentional agent who gives the universe meaning and our lives purpose. In my new book, The Believing Brain, I demonstrate how patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse those patterns with intentional agents) form the basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all other forms of theisms and spiritualisms devised by humans. 
    Aliens are secular Gods—deities for atheists.

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