Michael Oman-Reagan is an anthropology student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and runs a column on sapiens.org called Wanderers, dedicated to exploring “anthropological insights from our encounters with outer space as we study the origins of life in the universe, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, prepare to send humans to Mars, and imagine travelling to distant stars.” In an article from February last year (2017), Oman-Reagan discusses many possible differences that alien species could have compared to the human race. He goes into detail about specific things that we find hospitable, and many things that we subconsciously do that might be perceived as amusing or hostile (or beautiful or ugly).
Oman-Reagan concludes his article by saying that any hosting of aliens would require interdisciplinary tools as well as “anthropological insights about intercultural contact and our human tendency to naturalize and then universalize culturally specific behavior and beliefs.”
Although anyone who thinks about it will come to the conclusion that alien species will probably be unlike human, many people don’t bother to consider *how* unlike us the species could be. I think this is an excellent point! Even books/shows/films known for their variety of species keep alien cultures to be fairly mild and still akin to our own. I’ll list some examples of species below that are, at first glance, quite unlike our own. These species end up having one or two things different from us, but it is possible there exists a species that is completely opposite from us; not only would they look different, communicate differently, sense things differently, but they might enjoy everything we despise and be offended by the things we enjoy. Oman-Reagan points out that certain habits of ours are (in our culture) subconscious, that we do not do them intentionally to be proper or rude or kind or curious, and that many would not even think these things *could* have an impact on anyone. A good example is that we blink. We need to blink, in fact it is so hard *not* to blink that we have contests to see who can go the longest without giving in. If blinking is not required for a species as it is for ours, then maybe such an action could be seen as “beautiful, hilarious, offensive, or threatening.”
I personally had never thought of this! I have read and watched sci-fi for nearly all of my life, and yet when I think of aliens, I think of creatures that are actually quite similar to us (now that Oman-Reagan has pointed out how completely different they could be). Were I to interact with or host an alien species, I would not think about possibly offending them, and certainly not through actions we consider hospitable or through our anatomy or through subconscious actions. In my mind, anything that we dismiss as “only human” would also be dismissed by other species, but that isn’t necessarily true at all!
It seems to me that we cannot think of cultures that are far from our own (all of the below species blink!). We can create species in science fiction that look and act differently from our own, but we never stray too far from humankind. Given the lack of diversity in science-fiction species, it makes complete sense that Oman-Reagan would publish this article! If we do ever interact with alien species, and are able to communicate with and understand them within reasonable time periods, it will be quite important to keep in mind how vastly different from us they could be. Although it is possible, it is not guaranteed that they will be similar to the species in our sci-fi.
As promised, here are some examples of humanoid*** alien species from popular literature (I feel this is alright since Oman-Reagon included an alien species image in his article.) Buckle up, because things are about to get nerdy in here!
The Borg are a species of cyborgs from Star Trek. Although they technically are many species since they steal infants from other planets, give them implants, and make them part of the Hive, I’m going to consider them their own species for now. The Borg operate as one, linked by a hive mind. They aim to achieve “perfection” by assimilating species, technology, and knowledge. Their only requirement is energy, which they receive on their ships in small, personal alcoves. As portrayed in the show, the Borg are considered dangerous and ruthless. They are technologically advanced and seek out knowledge and species to assimilate. Although they seem quite different from humans, they aren’t super different. I would argue they are similar, just lacking culture. There’s no way to amuse or offend one of the Borg drones, as they value only knowledge and perfection. Without culture, they are simply beings following a single ambition.
More Star Trek! A reoccurring race in New Generation and Voyager is the Q. The Q are immortal, intelligent, and have the ability to control space, time, matter, and energy. They evolved over centuries to what they consider to be the “state of ultimate purity.” They are apparently absurdly intelligent. This trait, matched with they abilities, makes them quite apathetic to basically everything. One specific Q, named Q, spends episodes messing with the crew as a form of entertainment since the species had already accomplished everything that could be accomplished. Although god-like, Q himself is quite similar to humans. He can be entertained and annoyed, in ways similar to humans. He can also be petty and annoying himself.
The Silurians are a reptile-humanoid species in Doctor Who. While they look quite different from humans, they still have the general humanoid shape, size, and mannerisms. Although they are telepathically linked to one another, they are capable of speech and use it when communicating with other species out of kindness. They are generally peaceful, and in fact are forbidden from warfare except in defense. They believe in keeping their species pure, and follow a religion similar in kind to many religions we have. They value art, sports, and games, but at what level is not really discussed. They even have poetry composed of optical illusions! The Silurians are, in fact, quite similar in culture and anatomy to humans.
The Trees of Cheem are an intelligent race of humanoid trees. They do not understand technology and give clippings of their relatives as gifts. They all have retractable vines on their arms, but showing these vines is considered highly inappropriate. The species, although wealthy, is wise and compassionate. The Trees can feel any pain from vegetation on their planet, and usually keep it quite protected. Although they don’t have technology and say they do not understand it, they are able to use it. They are also quite clever and able to successfully judge the character of people. This species, an evolved form of tree from Earth, is also quite similar to humans! Their mannerisms are similar, and aside from giving away body parts and being flammable, they seem near identical in culture and personality to many humans.
The Ood are another species from Doctor Who. They are unable to speak vocally, communicating telepathically. They are humanoid with tentacles on their face (for eating) and the color of their eyes indicates the level of telepathy currently used. They have very long lifespans. They technically have three brains, one in their head, one they hold in their hands that is connected to their face, and a large communal brain that hosts the hive mind. They are a gentle and harmless species, and are generally considered less advanced than humans. They have a leader, and they sing to portray their emotions. When they are enslaved, they are in pain and quite sad. When they are freed, they are filled with joy.
Again, I would argue that these alien species, although seemingly different from each other and from humans themselves, are quite like us! They have communication, wealth, ambitions. Many of them can be pleased, offended, angered, and amused. In making alien species, it seems that levels of intelligence, technological dependence, and emotional range are simply plucked out of a hat and put into something (usually humanoid) and proclaimed alien. However, all of the technologies and intelligence and emotions are those imagined (or used) by humans, in ways that humans would or do use them, so even the species in science-fiction are quite similar to humans. Since most (maybe all?) of us are exposed to the idea of alien species through sci-fi, my guess is that we all have a similar idea to what aliens will be like, and although we will consider them to be different, we would not consider the possibility that they could be as vastly different as suggested in Oman-Reagan’s article.
***I only included humanoid species in this list because, in popular culture, non-humanoid species are 80% of the time just evil and trying to kill humans, 15% of the time pets or pests, 5% of the time alien-looking with exact human personalities and/or cultures.