Bad Assumptions Writers Make About Aliens


I've noticed that many people aiming to write science fiction make some questionable assumptions about aliens and what they might be like - most of them make very little sense when you think them out very far or compare them to what we know about the way things work. So here are some of these ideas examined and challenged.

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Bad Assumption 1: "Alien morality and culture are completely unpredictable."

I've had people practically get offended when I point out that there are good odds that aliens might be quite a bit like us in some ways. Not in the sense that they look exactly like us or celebrate a winter holiday with a tree and presents, but in the sense that there would have to be quite a few ethical and behavioral similarities between themselves and us.

First of all, we can assume that if they have civilization or live in any kind of society, anti-social behaviors are not going to be the norm for one simple reason: they're bad for the survival of the species. This means that they probably aren't going to look kindly upon individuals who indiscriminately kill others, or kill them for petty reasons. They're probably also going to value cooperation, because you can't have a civilization in the first place unless people are willing to work together. They'll probably also value things like making sure young ones have the best chance of survival they can get, whatever that might entail per how their species works.

We can also assume that they'll have some sense of curiosity and that they'll value knowledge and learning. They'll probably also value innovation to some degree. If they didn't, they couldn't have made the discoveries they'd have needed to create even a basic civilization, let alone applied them to develop tools and buildings.

What's more, if they've made it to space then it's not far-fetched to suppose that they'll care about looking after their environment and after the welfare of other species. Any species that has the ability to completely wreck its environment and drive other species to extinction while completely lacking any kind of conscience to tell it not to do so will likely destroy the very world it lives on, and by extension itself, long before it ever gets into space.

So while we don't want to assume that they'll be exactly like humans, we also have to be careful that we don't go too far in the other direction and assume that because they're aliens, means they'll be absolutely nothing like us at all. We see many behaviors similar to our own in other social species - cooperation, curiosity, etc. The fact that this keeps happening proves that this is no fluke - it happens this way over and over because this is what works.


Bad Assumption 2: "They probably have a hive mind!"

Sci-fi writers seem to have a morbid fascination with hive minds, and when people try to imagine aliens that are very different from us, this is often one of the first things they think of. The problem with this assumption is that it overlooks the fact that diverse personalities are good for the survival of the species. Bold personalities jump into risks, while timid ones avoid apparent danger. Both personalities are useful because they decrease the odds that all individuals will die out at once.

Now let's look at this from another angle. Humans have a long history of assuming that groups they don't understand well essentially operate like a hivemind, with little to no individuality or independent thought among them. This is why they've believed in absurdities like a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to control the world, or that people belonging to religious groups different from their own were secretly working together to destroy them despite the fact that these groups can barely tolerate each other, and why they so easily imagined Soviet Russia as a country of mindless drones all bent on destroying America. When we think of aliens and immediately imagine a hive mind, this is the exact faulty thinking we're applying to them, and if we're going to speculate on what aliens might be like, we need to account for where our assumptions have often been wrong before.


Bad Assumption 3: "The rules of evolution might work differently on an alien planet."

The rules of evolution only work one way, and one way alone. If you succeed in reproducing, your genes will become part of the next generation. If your genes make you better at reproducing for any reason, you're probably going to have more offspring than the others, and so eventually yours are the ones that will probably dominate and determine the course of the species. For example, if your darker fur makes you better at blending in with the environment and helps you avoid getting eaten by predators, then you're probably going to have more offspring because you're going to be alive longer to have them. If your brighter-than-usual colors coincide with having slightly toxic blood, the animal that eats you might remember your odd appearance and leave your offspring alone, and their offspring might proliferate.

What this means is that there won't be a world where evolution produces a deliciously edible creature colored in bright hues that every predator can see a mile away and has no means to defend itself or escape when they come, unless there just aren't any predators there while these traits evolve. There won't be a world where predators instinctively make ostentatious noises while they're on the hunt. There won't be a world where courtship and mating rituals kill more members of the organism than it produces.

Even if they don't have DNA (and they might not; their genes might be encoded another way), the basic principle of evolution will work the same. Sure, a world with higher gravity will probably have shorter, squatter lifeforms than you find on Earth, and a world where there are no useful amounts of light in its habitable areas won't produce animals with eyes or any form of visual communication. But this isn't because evolution is working "differently" - it's because it's working the exact same way, just with a different set of environmental variables.


Bad Assumption 4: "They'll probably have extremely different sensory methods."

Aliens might have extremely different sensory methods, but only if the environment demands it. If light is plentiful, there's likely no reason think that they won't have visual sensory organs of some kind. Sight is an incredibly efficient way to perceive one's immediate environment and pick up on important details such as whether the fruit is ripe enough to eat, whether the path ahead of you is safe to walk on, or whether the animal over there is going to attack you or leave you alone. Visual communications also can't be overheard from a distance by predators.

While there are indeed animals that rely heavily on other senses, it must be remembered that these are usually cases where being able to see wouldn't really help them. Bats use sonar to locate prey in the dark. Many predators have strong senses of smell so that they can track prey that's simply too far away to see. Raccoons have extremely sensitive senses of touch so they can feel around in places they can't see.

Hearing is also a very efficient sense. It's a good way to get a sense of one's surroundings in an absence of light, and it can pick up on important information that isn't in your line of vision. While visual communication offers you privacy, audio gives you the ability to communicate over a greater distance or where you can't clearly see. So there's no reason to think that aliens would have no sense of hearing if they developed in an environment where it would be useful.

Scent is also incredibly useful - it helps clue us in on whether something we're thinking about putting into our bodies might be bad for us, and it's another method of helping us locate things that aren't immediately visible. Taste helps us distinguish what we're putting into our bodies, and helps us figure out whether we ought to or not. Touch helps us discern more information about what we're touching (as well as whether or not it's a good idea to touch it in the first place), as well as lets us know when to stop doing something before we hurt ourselves.

If there's no reason why any of these senses wouldn't be useful, it's often hard to justify them not existing. (Though you might be able to argue that complex life developed in total darkness and so eyes never evolved.) And of course, they might not have their sense organs in exactly the same places we do, though it ought to be somewhere that's useful to them - EG, butterflies have taste organs on their feet, which helps them determine if they've landed someplace with food or on the right kind of place to lay their eggs.


Bad Assumption 5: "They'll come for our natural resources!"

Some sci-fi stories have aliens coming to Earth to make off with water, metals, whatever. The problem is, everything that exists on Earth can be found everywhere else in the universe.

Coming to Earth to take its natural resources is a little bit like digging under the sofa for spare change when you've got five billion dollars in your bank account. There's no shortage of water and metal out there.

Nor does it make sense that they'd come to kidnap us for food, because most likely our biochemical makeup wouldn't be compatible with theirs, and even if it was, humans are not very nutritious and their long maturation rates make them horrible for livestock.

Aliens don't need our living space, either. If they're advanced enough to get here, they're advanced enough to fix whatever problems their planet has and/or build their own space habitats.


Bad Assumption 6: "They'll see us like ants and vermin and won't think twice about killing us!"

For this to be true, aliens would need to be strangely apathetic toward the existence of other life. As established earlier, an alien species would most probably be curious, and it's not far-fetched to think that they'll care about species besides themselves. The ones who would be completely callous toward Earth's life would most likely be those with strong anti-social tendencies, and would most probably be in the minority, just as they are among humans. Although most of us don't think too much about the welfare of ants, most of us don't go out of our way to brutalize them, either.

Some in favor of the ant argument claim that the aliens might not even realize we're here. This argument falls apart when you realize it's clearly obvious that Earth is covered in life even from a distance. If you're looking close enough to figure out what you want to do with Earth and where you want to do it, you're close enough to see that there's life on it - and not just life, but a sapient species. You might argue that they don't know about us because they sent an AI instead and the AI is just doing what it's supposed to do, but that's a terrible argument because at the very least, an AI should be able to detect signs of intelligent life just in case it needs to protect itself from it.

Some argue that aliens will gleefully vivisect us just as Nazis gleefully vivisected Jewish and Romani people during the Holocaust. There are several problems with this. One is that the Nazis were working with relatively primitive mid-20th century technology, and any alien species advanced enough to get here would not be limited thus. Another problem is that the Nazis weren't just apathetic toward those they killed; they were malicious and planned to exterminate all of them eventually. The horrific "research" programs they were forced into were often a means to torture and ultimately dispose of them as much as anything.

You might argue that while they care about the survival of other species as a whole, they aren't too concerned with the welfare of a few individuals. After all, scientists who study animals will sometimes dissect a few to learn about the species as a whole. It's not that aliens like this would hate us, let alone want to exterminate us; it's just that they think it's justifiable to kill a few of us to learn how our species works. But even if they were more focused on humanity as a whole, we can still presume that they wouldn't just resort to messy dissections if they had any neater and tidier methods available to them for practicality's sake. We can also suppose that most of them probably aren't going to want to cause unnecessary pain to their subjects. Plus as explored in Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon, actually killing your subjects is often counterproductive to gaining scientific information.


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