Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Kirk Effect or why aliens won't be sexy

Hi folks. I'm slowly getting back to blogging here after a break, so I have more substantial posts in the pipeline. But while I'm working on those, I thought I'd point you to an interesting talk given by P.Z. Myers at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this week.

The talk was "A Skeptical Look At Aliens" and takes a look at what scientifically plausible extraterrestrial evolution might look like. He points out that even here on earth we see a number of different body plans that are solutions to evolutionary "problems" like hunting prey in an aquatic environment. And that intelligence is rare and comes in different forms as well.

Myer' sums of what must be considered when thinking about the evolution of aliens as follows:
Evolution doesn't just make finely tuned functional organisms, but is also built on a foundation of chance, so it spawns endless diversity. Every advance carries along the baggage of its ancestry, so we see echoes of our past in every feature. And the more specific and complex a feature is, and intelligence is both of those, the less likely it is to emerge in the same form in different lineages.
If we do find a planet with intelligent life, it is unlikely to be a humanoid or at all shaped like us. And we are unlikely to be able to easily find a way to communicate.

Myers has posted the slides from his talk with commentary on his blog. None of this is really surprising if you have a decent understanding of evolutionary biology, but I recommend reading his post. The slides have pictures with examples from earthly evolution, and are both pretty and nicely illustrate his points.

Myers apparently didn't have time to include everything he prepared, so he's followed up with a post about "the Lost Slides" of his TAM talk that take a look at sex with aliens - or likely lack thereof.

If you watch science fiction TV, you will already be familiar with what he calls "the Kirk effect": which is "to boldly go and explore strange new worlds, and to hump all the women on them."

The Star Trek franchise is of course one of the best examples of this phenomenon, since every week the Enterprise's multi-species crew interacts with each other and with the inhabitants of the planet they are visiting. Inevitably there are romantic entanglements and one night stands. It's not just Captain Kirk that found love with other species.
An unlikely inter-species romance: Kirk x Spock by ~Edithy on DeviantArt.

And sexy-in-human-terms aliens are the rule, rather than the exception in the movies, from the 1966 B-movie Mars Needs Women to the more recent blockbuster Avatar. As director James Cameron has been famously quoted as saying the female Na'vi had "got to have tits".

But as Myers points out, it's not just that non-mammalian female aliens are unlikely to have boobs and male aliens are unlikely to have tight buns.
It's deep and subtle changes to the shape of the face, the eyes, the whole of the body -- cues that we all unconsciously recognize. You don't even need to see a person face-on to recognize sex.
If you want to see an example of "sexiness" that you aren't likely to find arousing at all if your human, check out his example.

I think some people find it easy to dismiss this as over-thinking the details of what is meant to be light entertainment. But I would argue that our assumptions about how the universe works are influenced by what we see on TV and in the movies, even knowing that it's purely fiction.

And while I'd expect that most people who have thought seriously about aliens wouldn't think that alien romance is likely, I do suspect that many harbor the hope that there are indeed extraterrestrials with whom we would be able to communicate,  form trading partnerships with and maybe even explore the galaxy together with us.

But we humans rely heavily on non-verbal communication. Sexual attraction is just one aspect of this. We decide whether another individual is trustworthy or kind or intelligent not only by what they say, but by their facial expressions, posture, gestures and tone of voice.

Considering that misinterpretation of such cues can lead to miscommunication even between different human cultures, it's hard to imagine how we might overcome the hurdle with communicating with aliens who neither share our shape, nor any of our evolutionary or cultural history. I don't think an alien would have to have the demonic form of Clarke's Overlords to inspire mistrust and cause confusion  - it would just have to be different enough that we humans would not be able to read their body language properly.

A very unlikely alien
(source: Project Gutenburg)
It also makes me think of Lisa Tuttle's short story "Wives". It's about a planet taken over by humans - all male - where the native inhabitants have chosen to reshape themselves into "ideal" human females in both form and behavior so that they can be perfect "wives" to their conquerors. I've always understood the story to be an allegory for the way women are expected to perform femininity and not upset the status quo to be accepted in our patriarchal society.

But I think the story can also read on a more literal level too, as an example of human folly in assuming that aliens (and other "foreigners") will mold themselves to meet our cultural expectations and an example of ability to fool ourselves about how well we actually understand Others. In "Wives", the alien called "Susie" rebels and is destroyed by her sisters for trying to destroy their tenuous peace by ending her charade. She is replaced by another and the men apparently never notice the change. I've always imagined that the men have chosen to not  to try to understand the true nature of the situation, and that along that path potentially lies great danger.

If humanity someday does meet intelligent aliens would we truly be able to understand their desires and point of view, or would we simply assume that they think like us and their behavior can be understood in human terms? I hope not, since that could be a disaster too great for even inter-species romance to repair.