Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


20.2.3  Universal Emotions

Emotions play an extremely important role in human psychology. These powerful reactions to external stimuli often help to motivate or activate aggression, sexual activity, learning and perception, and a wide variety of other behaviors. These simple facts suggest many questions to xenopsychologists. Will ETs be more or less emotionally motivated than humans? Will their reactions differ markedly from our own? Will they have emotions foreign to us, and vice versa? Are there any "universal emotions" that must be common to most, if not all, sentient races in the universe?

But first we must decide exactly what we mean by "emotion." There is widespread disagreement on the definition, but one of the more useful versions by Magda Arnold draws a careful distinction between emotional states and emotional behaviors. According to Arnold’s theory, emotional experience proceeds in several sequential stages:

1. Perception and Appraisal -- External stimulus is perceived, then judged to be good, bad, useful, harmful, etc. (mostly based on learned associations).

2. Emotion -- An internal state of arousal or "feeling" arises, involving physiological effects.

3. Action -- The organism, motivated by emotion, engages in some specific behavior (approach, avoidance, attack, feeding) depending on the intensity of the response, learned behavior patterns, and the countervailing or reinforcing nature of other motives that may simultaneously be present.

We see that emotion is an internal state, not a behavior or a perception of external reality.

While there may exist a few "universally frightening" stimuli involving sensory overloads (loud noises, bright lights), research on mammal emotionality has demonstrated that the perception and appraisal of potentially emotional stimuli is mostly learned rather than preprogrammed by evolution. Similarly, humans are taught to express their emotions in behaviors that are socially and culturally acceptable. The strong cognitive element in both appraisal and action argue against universality, especially in view of the widespread divergence in human perception and behavior.

We can say little about Arnold’s stages (1) and (3) regarding alien sentients because of the tremendous malleability of these two factors. Without knowledge of the environment, physiology, or culture, it is difficult to understand ET behavior.* For all we know, an extraterrestrial may be aroused by the wink of an eye or a loud cough; its response thereto may include violent physical attack, knotting of the tentacles, or a well-aimed emesis of the stomach contents in the direction of the disturbance -- whatever is considered appropriate in its culture.

What about the phenomenon of emotion itself? Recent sociobiological and neurological evidence strongly supports the notion that the seat of emotion is the limbic portion of the brain. On Earth, emotion appears only among vertebrates possessing emergent or developed limbic brain systems.2542,56 (See Chapter 14.) But why should it have evolved at all?

Modern sociobiologists believe that to understand emotion it is necessary to focus on genes rather than individuals or species. In other words, the basic process of natural selection is not survival of the fittest person or species, but rather the survival of the fittest genes. Both emotionality and behavior thus evolve as strategies to maximize the spread of genes.565,3176 In the sociobiological view, species always evolve behaviors which best serve to propagate their genes in succeeding generations.

Emotions may perhaps be regarded as "instinctual" behavior transducers, taking information (on maximizing gene survival) accumulated by the species through selection and adaptation, and dumping it into the current response structure of the individual. Says sociobiologist Wilson:

The hypothalamic-limbic complex of a highly social species such as man, "knows," or more precisely it has been programmed to perform as if it knows, that its underlying genes will be proliferated maximally only if it orchestrates behavioral responses that bring into play an efficient mixture of personal survival, reproduction, and altruism. Consequently, the centers of the complex tax the conscious mind with ambivalences whenever the organism encounters stressful situations. Love joins hate; aggression, fear; expansiveness, withdrawal; and so on; in blends designed not to promote the happiness and survival of the individual, but to favor the maximum transmission of the controlling genes.565

Dr. Irven DeVore, another Harvard sociobiologist, in a recent interview put it this way:

Millennia of evolution have equipped you with a whole complex of motivations, inclinations, propensities, emotions -- what we call proximate mechanisms -- that guide your behavior appropriately. The fact that love, friendship, anger, or jealousy usually occur when they have adaptive consequences is not to belittle these emotions. The individual might even be aware of the ultimate causes that underlie his behavior, but the whole point is that while these emotions are authentic, they also serve the interests of one’s genes. Various aspects of these systems might be quite conscious, for example, the mother scheming to arrange the best marriage for her daughter. But in most instances, the sources of these emotions are beyond the limits of our ordinary awareness. What counts is that we are left with emotions -- love, friendship, gratitude -- that are expressions of our deepest biological nature, entirely natural and adaptive... . Each will occur in conditions that are adaptive from the point of view of the genes someone bears.2946

Emotion, in other words, permits every individual to display an instinctual wisdom accumulated by the species over millions of years of evolution.

Of course, extraterrestrial sentients may possess physiological states corresponding to limbic-like emotions that have no direct analog in human experience. Alien species, having evolved under a different set of environmental constraints than we, should also have a different but equally adaptive emotional repertoire. Countless recipes may be cooked up using just a dash of imagination.

For example, assume that human observers land on an alien planet and discover an intelligent animal with an acute sense of absolute humidity and absolute air pressure. For this creature, there may exist an emotional state corresponding to an unfavorable change in the weather. Physiologically, this emotion could be mediated by the ET equivalent of the human limbic system; it might arise following the secretion of certain strength-enhancing and libido-arousing hormones into the alien’s bloodstream in response to the perceived change in weather. Immediately our creature begins to engage in a variety of learned and socially-approved, behaviors, including furious burrowing and building, smearing tree sap over its pelt, several different territorial defense ceremonies, and vigorous polygamous copulations with nearby females -- apparently (to humans) for no reason at all. Would we interpret this as madness? Or love? Lust? Fear? Anger? None of these is correct, of course.

The alien is feeling badweather.

While xenopsychologists suspect that even emotional sentients may not share similar emotions, they are far more certain that no "universal emotions" exist among all extraterrestrial sentients generally -- because intelligence simply does not require it. Intelligent aliens, in other words, may be emotionless.

Probably the smartest nonemotional creature on Earth today is the octopus. The animal sports eight suckered but dexterous tentacles, color-and texture-variable skin, and a highly educable intelligence.2899,2908 An invertebrate mollusc, the octopus has an advanced ganglionic nervous system. Of the total 500 million nerve cells (5% as many as a human brain), 300 million are distributed in the arms and 200 million are collected in the central ganglic brain. (As usual for invertebrates on Earth, the brain has managed to wrap itself nooselike around the creature’s throat during the course of evolution.)2901

The octopus does have a few minor endocrine systems. For instance the optic gland, which apparently activates according to daylength, controls the maturation of sexual organs and the onset of sexual behavior. At least seven other glandular structures have been tentatively identified which control body fluids, maternal behavior, etc. Even so, compulsory hormonal and physiological emotional responses appear to be absent in the octopus. The animal is, from the strict mammalian viewpoint, utterly without emotion.

Xenopsychologists find octopus behavior both fascinating and instructive. It is a solitary animal with no social inclinations whatsoever. Worse, it is also a carnivore, so it’s even more difficult to imagine a large society of the creatures. Each individual is fiercely independent; when crowded into a small tank, they will fight and establish a dominance hierarchy.2901

Octopuses have no fear of fire and are insensitive to burns.2900 The animal knows sex, but doesn’t get very excited about it. The heartbeat of a male octopus in the midst of copulation is as steady as in a resting animal. The sexual displays of males during courtship appear to serve only for identification, never for stimulation, of the female.2911

Broods are enormous impersonal affairs -- up to 250,000 eggs in a batch. No maternal love is lavished on offspring after birth; the young must fight for their own lives. Females often fast themselves to death guarding their own unhatched eggs. An octopus has no "childhood."

The creature may not know what it means to feel hungry. Mammals long deprived of food become excited and venture out in an agitated search for food. The response of the octopus to food deprivation is totally different and utterly alien. When crabs become scarce, octopuses resign themselves to long watchful inactivity until the day the supply improves. They become less likely to emerge from their houses attack possible prey passing by.2911 Motivation is not as adjustable as in mammals, yet octopus behavior under stress is considerably more "cool and calculating." After hundreds of hours of direct observation, undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau had this to say:

The octopus is a timid animal. Far from attacking a diver, its first reaction is to flee, to hide. But its timidity is a reasoned reaction, one that is based primarily on prudence and caution. It is not an instinctive and groundless fear that persists regardless of circumstances.2900

Octopus mentality seems to be oriented toward calculated prudence, more plastic than reptiles and more aloof than mammals. Is this, perhaps, a clue to the possible behavior of intelligent emotionless extraterrestrials?


* Science fiction writers have had a field day imagining strange behaviors in strange environments. In Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, we expect the aliens to exhibit rather pronounced fears of heights, walls, ceilings and falls, since the maximum planetary surface gravity is 700 gees and even short drops could be fatal.2069 A world which enjoys 2000 years of continuous daylight before it is plunged into a brief nightfall could be expected to engender panic reactions during the unaccustomed darkness.2920 Wasting water on a barren arid world may cause an angry response from the natives.2919


Last updated on 6 July 2013