Are humans aliens scary

We are them. You are us.

As much as authors and comic artists try, there are limits to the imagination when it comes to the shape of extraterrestrials.

Green males and voracious giant spiders, angelic bird creatures and warlike robots, drooling crawlers and scaly reptiles: the extraterrestrial life armed with intelligence, as it is presented to us in science fiction, forms a bizarre zoo. At first glance, the diversity seems chaotic, but if you look closely, you will soon notice: Although "alien" means foreign, the aliens as we humans imagine them are mostly a fantastic exaggeration of something familiar.

One reason for this is that their creators - comic strip artists, writers, screenwriters - want to evoke emotions in us. The extraterrestrials provoke fright reactions because they resemble monitor lizards, combat beetles or small predators (as in "Critters - they are there!" From 1986). They arouse our admiration as noble savages of humanoid appearance. They let us languish and melt, like the super-Aryan Atlan or Pucky, the cute mouse-beaver, two main actors of the Perry-Rhodan-Hefte, they too are copied from the inhabitants of the earth. Even computer graphics, which free filmmakers and makeup artists from the shackles of what is physically possible, often create beings that stay close to people and reality. The extraterrestrials move and look like ours, but have strange ears and look bluish - this slight alienation (as in “Avatar” from 2009) makes the beings eerie and attractive at the same time.

The alien world is ours in a modified form. And not just since today. In 1898 the science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" was published. With him, H.G. Wells is a genre that has meanwhile produced countless blockbusters, film series, trivial literature and video games as "Horror Sci-Fi" and with them ever new creatures, such as that by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger created Alien from the film of the same name. In his novel, H.G. Wells of Martians who look like a cross between snakes and cephalopods and whose skin “glitters like wet leather”. They want to colonize the earth with the help of gigantic, three-legged combat robots; whoever dares to oppose them will be mowed down.

Does that sound familiar to us? H.G. Wells leaves no doubt what he means. In his novel he explicitly mentions the extermination of the Tasmanians by British colonialism. In addition, his description of Martian fighting techniques can be read as a criticism of the merciless world of machines, a common motif in England, the land of the industrial revolution at the time. In other words, Wells’s Martians to whom we are at the mercy are ourselves.

We ourselves and yet very strange: this is the psychological shoot of most films and novels in which extraterrestrials appear. The aliens that have colonized our imagination reflect our fear of war, our phobias or our suppressed desires. The many films in which slippery beings grow up in people's bodies unequivocally play with sexual symbolism.

Aliens populate our world, as toys, in comics, in first-person shooters. One would think they were a phenomenon of the past century, of mass culture and popular astronomy. But this is wrong. Anyone looking for extraterrestrials in cultural history will make an astonishing discovery: the idea of ​​extraterrestrial intelligence has existed at least since ancient times, and this by no means refers to belief in gods. Rather, it is a conceptual experimental arrangement to shed light on the one big question: What is a human being?

Half a millennium before our era, Greek philosophers assumed that the cosmos was teeming with alien life, including a high level of intelligence. The universe is infinite and consists only of atoms and emptiness; the incessant combination of elementary particles brings out everything, again and again, including people or people like people in distant celestial spheres. In this way the early philosophers relativized the special position of earthly man.

The alien motif has accompanied philosophers, writers and theologians through the centuries. In the 17th and especially in the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, the assumption that extraterrestrial intelligence existed almost became mainstream. Even among theologians who cheerfully debate the consequences: Do Christians have to assume that aliens are free from original sin? If not, do you have a Jesus too? Or are they redeemed through "our" Jesus?

The aliens made popular in educated Europe by the French enlightener Fontenelle, who landed a bestseller in 1686 with his delightful and elegantly written “Conversations about the plurality of worlds” (which the Catholic Church put on the index several times and for a long time). It is a conversation between a scientist and a young marquise, in which he describes the possibilities: extraterrestrials who speak and those who do not or use sign language; some are only concerned with the future, others preferentially with the past; Moreover, there are those who do not care about either, and they may not be the most unfortunate, writes Fontenelle. The inhabitants of some heavenly bodies may not know war, but neither do they know love, and they are bored; all that a graceful reflection on man.

In 1755, not long after Fontenelle's «Conversations», Immanuel Kant's «General Natural History and Theory of Heaven» appeared. Your third part is an alien-theoretical all-round blow. Kant admits that statements about aliens "can neither be proven nor disproved". But there are a few things that are known, such as the different distances between the planets and the sun. Light, warmth and gravity would "influence the various properties of thinking natures". Kant imagines it this way: On Jupiter the aliens are lighter and finer than humans, so that the more distant sun can move them nonetheless. On Venus, on the other hand, it is the other way around, which is why its inhabitants are coarser.

In comparison to these two extremes, the human being is a middle being, writes Kant. Perhaps some are too stupid for sin, others too wise for it. Only the earth and perhaps Mars - "so that we do not lose the miserable consolation of having companions of misfortune" - would be on "the dangerous middle street" where temptations lurked. Again this motif: Aliens as an instrument to explore people mentally.

Even if the extraterrestrial intelligence is described as if it were completely different from Homo sapiens, the latter ultimately peeps out again. In the novel "The Black Cloud", published by the great astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in 1957, the earth is threatened by a gaseous intelligence from space. It emerged from a collective of individuals who communicate with one another by means of electromagnetic radiation - something like the way our brain cells influence one another chemoelectrically. One of the few cases in which extraterrestrial intelligence does not appear in the form of individuals for once. And yet, Hoyle's cloud is also based on an earthly model: our brain.

No alien image could yet completely detach itself from humans; and when the Polish author Stanisław Lem presented us with an intelligent ocean in his novel “Solaris” in 1961, then it in turn forms copies of people with whom the alien creature drives the astronauts from Earth crazy.

Aliens, that's us again and again. But maybe there is no other way. Every fantasy is linked to something familiar, it is its material that changes and deforms it. We must therefore think of extraterrestrial intelligences that are equal to or superior to humans as more or less extreme modifications of ours.

This also applies to their social life. There is, for example, one direction in alien literature (beginning with Percy Greg's "Across the Zodiac" from 1880) which attests that the inhabitants of alien worlds are in a degenerate state. Greg's Martians live in luxury, hardly have to work thanks to fully automated production, but have also lost all feeling for their fellow beings, there is calculating egoism. But who is really meant? Man, of course. “Across the Zodiac” is a conservative social criticism that sounds astonishingly topical.

Almost all stories about extraterrestrial civilizations are based on the assumption that, due to a law of nature, they must constantly spread and colonize the cosmos. The 1700-page Trisolaris trilogy by the Chinese Cixin Liu is based on it and begins with the volume “Die Drei Sonnen” published in German in 2016. In it, Liu unfolds a strategic game of colonization, deterrence and preventive strikes, the logic of which, although fantastic, is very earthly and reminiscent of that of the so-called atomic age - a pure sky projection. Once again our own story is told.

But let's assume that aliens have no intention of colonizing the earth and subjugating humans. Even then, it is possible that they are our natural enemies, out of indifference. This motif already appears in Fred Hoyle's “Cloud” and is particularly depressing in a novel by the Russian Strugazki brothers from 1971. “A picnic by the wayside” depicts an earth that was unintentionally changed by aliens and now has eerie places, the “Zones " to be named. In this case the aliens behave towards humans as we do towards the ground animals. Who doesn't that remind us of our indifference to nature?

People are simply ignored in “Picnic by the wayside”. Why also? Authors as diverse as John Locke, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonathan Swift or Voltaire and later Fred Hoyle portray Homo sapiens as an insignificant, low-level being that does not necessarily have to attract extraterrestrial visitors.

Interestingly, the humanist Leibniz, the great reconciler of all contradictions, did not find such disregard for man at all disturbing. There are countless other earths in space with a claim to "reasonable inhabitants", he wrote in 1710 in his "Theodicy". The earth may be bad, but it is "an almost nothing", just a tiny part of the glorious, God-created universe, and that as a whole is the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz had thus returned to the early philosophers of antiquity. Who is man Just one of many.

And when he thinks about the others out there, he always only encounters himself. They are us. It will stay that way until we find them - or they find us.

Gero von Randow is a book author and editor for the Hamburg weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”.

This article comes from the NZZ Folio magazine from July 2019 on the subject of "extraterrestrials". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.