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


20.2.4  Xenophobia

The sight of a stranger can provoke some of the strongest aggressive responses among Earthly animals. Wilson claims that the xenophobic reaction has been documented in almost every species showing a high form of social organization, vertebrates and invertebrates alike:

Male lions, normally the more lethargic adults of the prides, are jerked to attention and commence savage rounds of roaring when strange males come into view. And nothing in the day-to-day social life of an ant colony, no matter how stressful, activates the group like the introduction of a few alien workers.565

Competition and aggression are generally more intense within a species than between different species. Still, forced into close proximity, grossly different animals become nervous and uneasy -- especially if the one bears a reasonable resemblance to an established fear-object (say, a predator) of the other. Zoologists sometimes attribute this to a kind of universal wariness between creatures differing substantially in physical appearance. Wilson admits: "In the primitive lexicon of the emotive centers, strange means dangerous."565 Adds another writer:

Interacting with a creature that is unfamiliar is anxiety-provoking. Its reactions, motivations, and desires cannot be assumed to be the same as one’s own, and therefore its behavior cannot be predicted. A movement that would not provoke anxiety when made by a friend or even a casual acquaintance can provoke an extreme response when made by a stranger. Given that situations involving unknown quantities are inherently anxiety provoking, it is relatively easy to understand how actions can be interpreted to mean something quite different from what the person who performed the act intended.222

Or, as yet another expresses it:

The mind of man is stocked to the gunwales with emotional parochialisms. Very few men would be self-controlled enough to extend courtesy to a horse-sized scorpion who was the master of another world, even if it were prudent to do so, even if the scorpion were venomless and exhibited the manners of a Spanish duke."1550

Such gross physical differences may give rise to more subtle difficulties as well. Consider a meeting between a human being and an intelligent crablike creature. Among humans, the open-fisted handwave is an almost universal sign of greeting.2552 The handshake, perhaps a display of cultural origin intended to demonstrate a lack of offensive weapons, is similarly universal among human societies. So when a man sees the crab, he gives his favorite greeting.

But consider the crab’s point of view. To it, claws are the main weapons of offense. The raising and lowering of claws, as well as any similar vertical or arclike waving motions, are characteristic threat gestures among many terrestrial crustacean species.2926 To the intelligent crab, the human handwave may be interpreted as an invitation to attack, a sign that the man is of hostile intent and is asking for a fight. The creature may oblige by attacking. Conversely, what if the crab is angry at us? Its clawwaving threat display might be interpreted by untutored humans as a friendly handwaving gesture of greeting. When the alien is approached peaceably, the ensuing attack by the mad crab may be regarded as treachery or slyness rather than a simple cultural difference between the two species (Figure 20.3).


Figure 20.3 Claw-Waving Threat Displays In Crabs

Among crabs, claws arc the main weapons of defense and offense. Claw motions have been ritualized as characteristic threat displays. At left are the clawwaves of a variety of fiddler crabs, including Uca rhizophorae (vertical waving), (b) Uca annulipes (lateral waving), (c) Uca pugilator (circular wave with outstretched claw), (d) Dotilla blanford (double clawwave), and (e) Goniopsis cruentata, or the mangrove crab (complex double clawwave)2827 Below are a few more examples of fiddler crab waving. The lateral-waving Fuji Island crab pulls its claw in initially (a), stretches it out in a sideways move ment (b), raises it high above the head (c), then returns it along an arc to the original position (d). Variations on vertical waving are shown in the sequences of the Malayan fiddler crab (e & f) and of the Philippine fiddler crab (g & h).2926


Besides displays, a wide variety of behavioral "releasers" may render more difficult all attempts at cross-species communication and understanding, and make xenophobia more likely.2578,2442 Again, one example will serve to make the point. According to Konrad Lorenz, human beings have a rather strong set of instinctual "brood care releasers" (Figure 20.4). Depending upon a variety of physical characteristics a lifeform possesses -- large head, rounded body shape, short thick extremities, and so forth -- people will find it to be "cute" and experience a strong desire to pick it up, cuddle and fondle it. This particular human releaser has been demonstrated repeatedly in various experimental situations.2923,2924 Such feeling on our part toward the sentient aliens with whom we are dealing could result in behavior which is at best inappropriate and, at worst, fatal.


Figure 20.4 Releasers in Human Beings

Konrad Lorenz has suggested that behavior patterns of caring for young are released in humans by a number of cues which characterize infants. These "brood care releasers" include:

  1. Head large in proportion to the body.
  2. Protruding forehead large in proportion to rest of face.
  3. Large eyes below the midline of the total head.
  4. Short, thick extremities.
  5. Rounded body shape.
  6. Soft, elastic body surfaces,
  7. Round, protruding cheeks.
  8. Specific behavioral cues such as clumsiness.
The figures at LEFT illustrate the "baby schema" of human brood care behavior. In the leftmost drawings are head proportions of animal forms generally considered to be "cute"; the rightmost drawings are the adult forms of the same animals, which do not release the drive to care for young.2922

BELOW Lorenz also believes that humans have other releasers which affect attitudes towards other creatures. Below are shown the head of a camel (left) and an eagle (right). Lorenz claims that man has an innate releasing mechanism that responds to the relative position of the camel’s eyes and its nose. In man, this particular combination means "an arrogant turning away," so we consider the camel to be an aloof and arrogant animal. In the eagle the bony ridge above the eyes is viewed as a wrinkling of the forehead; together with the pulled-back corners of the mouth, the eagle’s expression is seen as "proud decisiveness" and daring. Unfortunately, these interpretations of the psychology of our fellow lifeforms have little or nothing to do with the actual mood of the particular animal involved.2925


Xenopsychologists believe that xenophobic reactions cut across species, genus, and even phylum lines. Wariness of strangers is extremely common among the animals of Earth. So while we may be repulsed by the physical appearance of intelligent snakes, lobsters, and squid from other worlds, of one thing we may be almost certain: We will appear just as ugly to them.


Last updated on 6 December 2008