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


20.4.1  Models for Extraterrestrial Societies

While it is certainly possible that sentient ETs may also evolve from their world’s equivalent of primate stock, chances are that many if not most will not. In the absence of high technology modification, the psychological and sociological constitution of alien sentients will reflect their biological ancestry. Indeed, the time-honored science-fictional technique for generating new extraterrestrial psyches is to use various Earth animals as behavioral models.2956

While there is some scientific validity to this procedure, it must always be remembered that basic feral traits will be strongly modified by intelligence. Primitive animal drives and instincts will be "culturalized" by the sentient alien, an enormously complex process which extends from minor (redirected bare-teeth threat display becomes smile) to major (curiosity channeled into scientific research) sociocultural aspects.

For example, primates are known to be moderately aggressive animals, and all human societies retain this trait. Some societies have no institutions of mass aggression such as sports or warfare, but all display personal aggression to varying degrees. The Arapesh of New Guinea, often cited as the most striking example of culturally determined peaceability, are not without aggressive displays. The effect of culture has just been remarkably strong: Children are trained to vent their rage on objects rather than other persons, a habit that continues during adulthood.2928 Similarly, the Hopi Indians of North America suppress all physical forms of aggression and violence but still vent their feelings by trading vicious verbal insults.452

Still, employed with proper caution, the behavioral analog technique can illuminate many fascinating possibilities. Endowed with higher intellect and patterned after a variety of nonsimian ancestral forms, extraterrestrial lifeforms may have developed societies which display, articulate, or attempt to hide the ancient behavioral traits characteristic of the animal group from which the sentient race originally sprang.*

Sentient aliens derived from avian stock might exhibit behaviors more common to birds than to simians. Earth birds have response mechanisms that promote group synchronization and integration, such as call notes and visual cues, which permit flocking and body contact while in flight. There is also territoriality, pecking orders, and pair-bonding (the inclusion of the male in the role of parental care).

By contrast, mammals rarely display pair-bonding. It is generally found only among carnivores and primates. Because of the existence of mammalian milk glands and the need for prolonged care of the young, mother-child-centered societies are virtually universal among this animal order. In other words, mammalian social groups tend to be female-centered.2946 This pattern is exemplified by lions:

The core of a lion pride is a closed sisterhood of several adult females, related to one another at least as closely as cousins and associated for most or all of their lives within fixed territories passed from one generation to the next. The adult males exist as partial parasites on the females. Young males almost invariably leave the prides in which they were born, wandering either singly or in groups. When the opportunity arises these males attach themselves to a new pride, sometimes by aggressively displacing the resident males. Male bands both inside and outside the pride typically consist of brothers, or at least of individuals who have been associated through much of their lives. The pride males permit the females to lead them from one place to another, and they depend on them to hunt and kill most of the prey. Once the animal is downed, the males move in and use their superior size to push the lionesses and cubs aside and to eat their fill. Only after they have finished do the others gain full access to the prey.565

As young animals, terrestrial carnivores engage in complex play, prey-catching, and aggressive behavior. As adults many become solitary, especially those who hunt by stealth such as the cat. Aliens based on a feline model will doubtless retain a mentality and worldview characterized by solitary stealth and individual achievement. This outlook will find expression in their science, politics, warfare, and daily labors. Paul Layhausen has hinted that sentient catlike extraterrestrials who try to live together in cities may find it harder than humans do to adjust, when he writes of the effects of subjecting feline populations to unnatural conditions of crowding:

The more crowded the cage is, the less relative hierarchy there is. Eventually a despot emerges, "pariahs" appear, driven to frenzy and all kinds of neurotic behavior by continuous and pitiless attack by all others; the community turns into a spiteful mob. They all seldom relax, they never look at ease, and there is a continuous hissing, growling, and even fighting. Play stops altogether and locomotion and exercises are reduced to a minimum.2937

(Primate behavior under similar circumstances is surprisingly complacent -- in fact, the dominance hierarchies become more stable.2950)

Canids such as wolves and wild dogs hunt by cooperatively running down their prey in relatively open habitats. They live in packs of from 5-50 individuals, a social organization admirably suited to predation of larger creatures. Zoologists have found that the African wild dog exhibits a degree of cooperation and altruism unmatched in the animal kingdom save by elephants and primates. Hunters share equally in the brutal kill. Food is taken back to pups, mothers, and other adults who remained behind at the den. After the kill, juveniles are given priority in feeding, an uncommon gratuity among carnivores. Sick and crippled adults are cared for indefinitely and are rarely peremptorily abandoned.

An alien society modeled after canid behavior would be characterized by a peculiar combination of peaceful communal living and savage pack boldness. Wild dogs are generally relaxed, egalitarian, and monogamous. Litters of offspring are usually restricted to one or two females -- frequently by violent means (murder of excess pups) -- so pack females vie with one another for the privilege of nursing the pups. No individual distance is maintained, and pack members often lie together in heaps to keep warm. Just after a kill, there seems to be a competition among the hunters to see who can make the most submissive gestures. Displaying a wide, yawning grin, each individual playfully tries to burrow beneath the others in a gallant struggle to become the "underdog."565

Whiptail wallabies, Australian marsupials belonging to the same taxonomic family as the kangaroo, are strict vegetarians who inhabit grassy woodlands. One population was observed to be loosely grouped into three distinct "mobs" that remained quite stable for at least a year. Each mob had from 30-50 members, and achieved a fairly high population density -- about 0.02 km2/individual, close to the global human average -- perhaps due to the herbivorous lifestyle:

Meetings between mobs were uncommon but amicable. They resulted in a temporary fusion of the groups into single aggregations that rested and fed together. On such occasions the wallabies treated individuals belonging to other groups much as they did members of their own group. Animals of all ages mingled easily, while the adult males fought for dominance and courted females with no apparent particular reference to mob affiliation.565

Aggression is highly ritualized among these comparatively gentle animals -- even the fighting for dominance is described as "gentlemanly."

Wallaby behavior is strongly individualistic, but despite this they have produced stable aggregations ranging over fixed exclusive territories that are "owned" by a mob. Each animal is capable of personal recognition of many other individuals. Their small, 5-fingered paws are used for grasping, and, although they have no opposable thumb, it is easy to imagine a race of sentient, tool-using extraterrestrial wallabies building a mighty civilization elsewhere in our Galaxy.

The black bear provides yet another possible model for alien society.3079 These large, omnivorous mammals normally have low population densities, from 1-5 km2/individual. Society is organized around the mother. Adult females breed in feeding territories which are exclusively occupied by them. However, they also permit their daughters to share subdivisions of the maternal land, and they "bequeath" their property rights to these daughters when they move away or die. Males take no part in this system of inheritance:

They disperse from the maternal territories as subadults. During the mating season the fully mature males enter the female territories and displace one another by aggressive interactions, especially when they meet in the immediate vicinity of the females. Later, as their testosterone levels drop, they withdraw from the females and assemble in peaceful feeding aggregations wherever the richest food supplies are to be found. In the late fall they return to the female territories to den.565

Or, intelligent extraterrestrials may evolve from creatures resembling rodents. One of the more solitary of the social rodents on Earth is the beaver. This amazing mammal designs and stabilizes its own habitats with the dams and ponds it creates. Beavers are highly industrious individuals, often repairing a damaged dam overnight. They build large dome-shaped island lodges of sticks plastered with mud -- a kind of wood-reinforced earthen house bearing a striking resemblance to Navaho hogans in the American Southwest. The interior is usually a couple of meters high, large enough for a man to stand up inside. These structures are built sturdily enough to last many generations. Food caches are often stored inside.

Beavers live in pond cities of many lodges, normally with one family to a lodge. A family typically consists of a mated parental pair and two sets of offspring -- newborns and youth. The youth disperse from the parental lodges only after several years of residence there. While beavers are of placid disposition and often labor together cooperatively, their character is basically individualistic and they will defend their own lodge area against members of other families. The animal has very stable populations, since both birth and death rates are very low. Beavers today measure a meter in length and weigh 30 kilograms, but fossil forms from the Oligocene epoch exceeded 2 meters and probably weighed as much as a small adult human. With their unwebbed 5-fingered forepaws, there is no reason why evolution on another world could not have produced a sentient ET race with a behavior similar to that of the terrestrial beaver.

A lesser-known but more gregarious rodent species is the blacktail prairie dog, named for its distinctive barking voice. Living in the exposed habitats of the open plains, these small-dog-sized rodents tend to form dense local populations. It is believed that predation is the main driving force of social evolution for these creatures -- dense aggregations and a communal alarm system are substituted for the cover of rocks, foliage, and the "impregnable fortresses" such as the lodges built by beavers.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, prairie dogs live in towns consisting of as many as 1000 individuals. These townships are physically divided by natural boundaries such as ridges, streams, or bands of vegetation into neighborhoods or "wards." Each ward consists of several burrow-homes, called "coteries" by ethologists. These are the real social units of the prairie dog community. Coteries typically comprise a group of 4 adults and 6 children, and are stable family units. Members of coteries share burrows and clearly recognize each other as close associates, "kissing" each other in greeting each time they meet.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of prairie dog society is that, much like the black bear, coterie territorial limits are passed along by tradition. Burrow-homes are inherited and descend down family lineages:

The population of each coterie constantly changes over a period of a few months or years, by death, birth, and emigration. But the coterie boundary remains about the same, being learned by each prairie dog born into it. The young animals evidently acquire this information through repeated episodes of grooming from other members of the coterie along with rejection by territorial neighbors. New coteries are formed by adult males who venture into adjacent empty land and commence burrowing there. They are followed by a few adult females. The juveniles and subadults are left behind in the old burrows.565

Of course, other creatures than mammals may be conceived of as templates for social evolution. In the world of invertebrates, the societies of insects are familiar. But the social spiders are less well-known.2951 These predatory carnivores live together in "towns" numbering as many as 1000 adults. A large and elaborate central web is constructed by all the members of the community, and the giant structure is then occupied by several generations in succession.

Social spiders collaborate in capturing large prey. Both male and female attack, feeding on the catch communally. Even the young take part, swarming over the adults to seek out their own feeding place. Social information is transmitted by two-dimensional vibrations in the central webbing. While each spider lives alone, company is tolerated in close proximity during feeding. There are no caste systems. Yet intelligent ETs modeled after these creatures could hardly be considered "civilized" in the popular sense -- injured spiders, or spiders from whom the communal scent has been cleansed, are viciously attacked by their neighbors.

With a little imagination, a bewildering variety of conceivable alien behavioral patterns may be generated simply by imagining what various Earthly species would be like if only they were a bit more intelligent.


* Examples from science fiction include ETs based on insects,668 crustaceans,442 molluscs,1946 amphibians,2935,2615 reptiles,2940,3007 avians,2929 and both land2873,753 and aquatic1930 mammals.


Last updated on 6 December 2008