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


22.2  Alien Ritual

Ritual may be defined as the performance of specific rites as a means of social control and communication.3022,3023 Rites are formal or informal procedures and acts conducted in accordance with prescribed rules and established custom. The effect on society appears adaptive, ensuring social cohesion in community, educational, economic, scientific, political, religious and other groups.872

Will aliens have ritual? Nonhuman primates on Earth exhibit tradition and "protocultural behavior";2950,452 dogs, cats, bears, and other mammals3045 exhibit strong ritual-like instinctual behaviors, and so do birds and the higher reptiles to a certain degree. Sociobiologists today believe that the seat of ritual lies in the R-brain of the triune system (see Chapter 14), and that its prevalence throughout vertebrate species implies strong selective value in evolution. If this is a correct conclusion, then the implication in xenology is that ritual observances may be commonplace though not universal among extraterrestrial communities comprised of beings qualitatively mentally similar to Earthly vertebrates.

In virtually all human societies, important life events with major social significance are usually tagged with elaborate ritual and ceremony. As E.O. Wilson points out, "human beings have a strong tendency to manufacture thresholds across which they step ritualistically from one existence to another."3198 Rites are performed during betrothal and marriage to enhance commitment and conformity; they occur during pregnancy and child birth, to lend social support to mothers and to enhance the status of motherhood; they appear frequently at the time of puberty, perhaps to encourage proper identification with same-sex peer groups or adults; death is commonly accompanied by elaborate funeral ceremonies to promote social cohesion and to test individual commitment to the community. Each rite is adaptive as an alternative mode of socialization. Aliens with poly sexuality or monosexuality, or having annual estrus cycles, or ETs gifted with optional sex, ephemeral lives, cannibalistic urges, or strikingly divergent sex-related death rates may have an astounding richness of ritual tradition.

How do rites work? Consider the rite of passage known as the initiation ceremony. All initiations, according to anthropologist A. Van Gennep, involve the movement of individuals or groups from one social position to another. That is, rites of passage involve changing one’s status. Van Gennep discovered that initiations in most human societies may be characterized by three distinct ordered stages which highlight the change of status: (1) separation, (2) transition, and (3) incorporation.3236 To move from one status to another, a person is first separated from his present position in the community, either physically or symbolically. Then he must pass through a transitional state, usually involving specific ceremonial procedures, tests of courage, and so forth. Finally, the individual is readmitted back into the community as an active member at the new status level. All this ensures that social mobility is not easy. By formalizing the division of labor by surrounding each specialty with ritual initiation barriers, group solidarity within each specialty is maintained. Hierarchy is made more concrete, social structure more durable, and the community less subject to disharmony and dissipation.

A moment’s reflection will produce many examples in contemporary society: Entering college, athletic competition, fraternities, seminaries, lodges and secret clubs, occupational role groups, etc. To Van Gennep, the following description of a typical military rite of passage into the United States Marines would have sounded familiar:

The initiate (recruit) is torn away from his family and familiar surroundings; is forced to undergo exhausting, intensive (and often humiliating) experiences, during which he must demonstrate his courage and stamina; and generally learns a new esoteric vocabulary and mythology as well as ways of behaving which will be appropriate to his new status. When he successfully completes the initiation, he returns to society as a new kind of person, a real "man," or perhaps a Marine.3009


Last updated on 6 December 2008