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.


  1. There's a great section in King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Lorenz where he discusses his observations of animals miscommunicating with one another. Say the way a donkey and a dog have different interpretations of what a cocked ear means. It got me thinking...

    I've got a character lurking in the stacks who's a flower that mimics humans the way some orchids mimic wasps.

  2. Then again, there's that contention that human males will hump 'just about anything' given half a chance.

    I do0n't think PZ ended the debate - merely shifted it more towards the 'kinky' side.

  3. I remember a story -- was it in one of the Spectrum anthologies? -- where the action was centered around the enthusiastic relationship between male humans and a group of alien walruses. The bland assumption that of course men found alien walruses appealing was kind of awesome.

  4. Welcome back, Peggy!

    Well, we biologists have been saying this ever since such discussions started. I talked about it in my book, the Making Alien series, my review of Avatar... you have touched upon it several times in this blog... but clearly it bears repeating.

  5. Sean: an alien that appears superficially human but turns out to be something totally other sounds pretty creepy

    COF: no matter whether something is animal, vegetable or mineral, there's probably someone out there who would find it arousing. But they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

  6. Athena: you are right that it's not a new notion to you or me, but aliens straight out of heterosexual male fantasies are still the rule out there.

  7. I think it's interesting/tragic that humans dream about one day meeting an intelligent life form that will be able to communicate with us, while all the while grossly mistreating or enslaving the intelligent life forms we already have on this planet. Why aren't we already communicating with whales and dolphins? It's known that they have languages of their own. Scientists have been listening to their clicks and whistles for ages. How much do they understand of them? If we can't even manage a conversation with an earth animal without enslaving it and forcing it to learn one of our languages (Koko), how can we hope to communicate with animals from other planets? I would like to see all those alien buffs pay a little less attention to broadcasting radio signals out into space, and a little more attention to learning to speak dolphin. It can only be good preparation for the first contact they're so ardently looking forward to.

  8. The fact that humans and bees see the same flowers as visually attractive, and that humans and parrots find the same fruits look and taste good derives from our common lineages and that plants coevolved their attractiveness. Michael Pollan has a bit on this in Botany of Desire.

    Now if you approach an alien with no common lineage, they are as likely to see red as disgusting as appealing. Expand that to many traits and you have little chance of overlap, even in matching evolutionary circumstances.

    And to jump off from what Vivian said, if we don't find a naked mole rat or a bluefin tuna sexy, why would we find a random extraterrestrial physically attractive.

    Though as a caveat, I should say that attractiveness is not limited to physical appearance, and also some people seem to be attracted to otherness more than sameness.

  9. Octavia Butler's Xenogensis has an interesting take on this. The alien Oankali have the same size and general shape as humans, but are covered with tendrils. A big part of human assimilation into Oankali society involves them getting over their physical aversion to their alien hosts/captors.

    Later, the story reveals that those Oankali are actually a subgroup who have been modified to resemble humans. Their real form is even harder for humans to handle.

  10. MFP: If I remember correctly, many of the remaining humans never get over their distaste for the Oankali.

    Vivian: one of the points PZ Myers made in his presentation was that our inability to communicate with other Earthly species - even with other closely related primates, let alone dolphins - is another sign that communicating with aliens wouldn't nearly be as easy as the movies would suggest. A Universal Translator should be able speak chimp if we want it to be able to speak Alpha Centaurian.

    VLR: That's a good point about co-evolution here on Earth. Also, the animals that humans often feel they can communicate with, like dogs and horses, are usually domesticated. That means that thousands of years of selection by humans have bred species that have a high affinity for us.

  11. Great post...Speaking from a social science perspective, intelligent species who have reached our technological level, however divergent from one another in terms of morphology, would have to possess some commensurate personality traits, which are necessary to constructing complex societies. They would also face some of the same challenges in building advanced infrastructures, technologies, economies, philosophies, etc.

    In other words, we might have a lot in common with alien intelligences (assuming they exist)...

  12. Some recent discoveries concerning symbiotic relations between humans and microbes (genetics, brain growth) are subjects that were once wild science fiction. But no longer so.

  13. As a PhD level in Clinical Psychology (ABD) I feel the nonverbal aspect has been given too large a role. True, aliens might have different ways of communicating, such as light flashes, smells, even tastes in a liquid medium. True, they might change skin colors, wave tails or even shoot streamers of fire into the air. But I am communicating with you all through my keyboard, and you don't know if I'm smiling, crying, or sitting naked in a chair scratching myself. Surely communication can be worked out between different evolutionary lines. Also, if we meet them in space, aliens will have had to work out some interfaces with the Universe that will be Universal. Radar or Lidar can be used to track objects in space. Olfactory sensors are not really of much use in that vacuum. Now they might have devices that change the interpretation of reflected radiation into puffs of smell. But the detection of that radiation has to come first.
    As far as convergent evolution goes, yeah, I believe a lot of aliens will be like nothing we have ever seen. I also believe there will be many that will be quite similar. I don't believe sexual parts will fit, or DNA (or its equivalent) will meld to produce a viable offspring. I do beleive in the law of simplicity. Two eyes work well to give depth perception. Three or more is not really an improvement, and complicates the neural pathways. Certain limb arrangements make the most sense as far as range of movement and lever action are concerned. Again, more limbs increase the complexity of neural pathways. Not to say it won’t happen. But there is also a strong evolutionary pull for things that work well without overly complicating the system. And there is the outside chance that some species will be discovered in which a sexual, but non-reproductive, relationship is possible.
    Aliens that are too alien may only be of academic interest, and may not lead to the strengthening of the Empire or whatever through assimilation of their strengths. Crab creatures living in a Methane Sea with no science or industry may be of no practical use to us.
    Agree with the criticism of Avatar, even though as a science fiction writer I loved the movie. But I noted that all of the animals but the humanoids had six limbs, so it looked to me like two different Phylums had evolved. Didn't see any reference at all in the movie to the sophonts not being placental mammalians.

    Doug Dandridge


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