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  Alien Social Systems

In his recent book On Human Nature,3198 sociobiologist E.O. Wilson suggests that human social behavior is best evaluated by comparison with the behavior of other major categories of Earthly species.3646 Human beings are proud of their intelligence and many cultural achievements, but seldom do they pause to consider how many of their social traits can be traced back to their primate (and mammalian) ancestry. Remarks Wilson: "The general traits of human nature appear limited and idiosyncratic when placed against the backdrop of all other living species."3198 Or, as Clarence Day pointed out many years ago in his lighthearted essay "This Simian World,"76 many of the strategies people use to cope with the environment are characteristic of our arboreal, visually-oriented, curious, manipulative, leadership-hungry, pair-bonding, verbally communicative simian forebears. Psychologically as well as physiologically, humans have a lot of monkey in them.

Wilson gives several examples. Intimate social groupings among humans usually contain on the order of 10-100 adults, never just two (as in most birds and marmosets) or up to thousands (as in many fishes and insects). Human males are generally larger than females, the result of a mild form of sexual competition common to primates and many other kinds of mammals. The young are psychologically molded by a lengthy period of social training, first by close associations with the mother and later by interaction with other children of the same age and sex. Another common feature is social play, a strongly developed activity involving role practice, mock aggression, sex practice, and exploration. These and many other properties together identify a constellation of social traits characteristic of the taxonomic group including the Old World monkeys, the great apes, and human beings. Notes Wilson:

It is inconceivable that human beings could be socialized into the radically different repertoires of other groups such as fishes, birds, antelopes, or rodents. Human beings might self-consciously imitate such arrangements, but it would be a fiction played out on a stage, would run counter to deep emotional responses and have no chance of persisting through as much as a single generation. To adopt with serious intent, even in broad outline, the social system of a nonprimate species would be insanity in the literal sense. Personalities would quickly dissolve, relationships disintegrate, and reproduction cease.3198

An exhaustive inventory of the elements of "human nature" has yet to be prepared. However, a few partial lists have been compiled. In 1945 the American anthropologist George P. Murdock listed the following root characteristics of man’s society which have been recorded virtually in every human culture known to Earthly ethnographers:

Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organizations, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethnobotany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hairstyles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kin ship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weaving, and weather control.3201

After citing Murdock’s work, Wilson suggests that few if any of these properties are inevitable outcomes of either high intelligence or advanced social life; "human nature is just one hodgepodge out of many conceivable."3198 An entomologist by training, Wilson has no trouble imagining a nonhuman insectlike society whose members are even more intelligent and complexly organized than people, yet which lacks many of the qualities listed in Murdock’s inventory above. The "alien" inventory might look something like this:

Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determination, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, colony organization, cleanliness training, communal nurseries, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, division of labor, drone control, education, eschatology, ethics, etiquette, euthanasia, firemaking, food taboos, gift giving, government, greetings, grooming rituals, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, language, larval care, law, medicine, metamorphosis rites, mutual regurgitation, nursing castes, nuptial flights, nutrient eggs, population policy, queen obeisance, residence rules, sex determination, soldier castes, sisterhoods, status differentiation, sterile workers, surgery, symbiont care, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weather control, . . .and still other activities so alien as to make mere description by our language difficult.3198

Civilization, says Wilson, is not intrinsically limited to hominoids. Only by an accident of evolution on this particular planet was it linked to the anatomy of bare-skinned, bipedal mammals and the peculiar qualities of human nature.


Last updated on 6 December 2008