How Realistic Are Humanoid Aliens?

Neytiri from Avatar.

Aliens are all over science fiction, and many of them I adore. Characters such as Spock and Kira from Star Trek, Neytiri from Avatar, and most of the Mass Effect crew are some of my favorite characters from any fiction in any genre, ever. But all of these characters I’ve just mentioned are distinctly humanoid, and I wonder if that’s a problem. After all, even though the foreignness of aliens in sci-fi piques my curiosity, it’s the personalities and backgrounds that make me light up and really like them. I appreciate being able to relate to similarities — and even the physical similarities make these aliens appear easier to get to know.

Stereotypical aliens have plagued science fiction since the genre’s inception (with many notable exceptions, of course). The cause of their overrepresentation in science fiction TV and film isn’t hard to deduce: they’re the most feasible types of aliens for actors to portray, usually when covered in prosthetic makeup.

But that doesn’t explain why these familiar-looking bipedals crop up so much in video games, which don’t require human actors. A better explanation may be that we relate to the humanoid Turians, Quarians, and Asari of Mass Effect with greater empathy than we do the Elcor or the jellyfish-like Hanar, who only appear a few times for short conversations or fetch quests in the series.

Mordin from Mass Effect.
Mordin from Mass Effect.

I’m totally into out-there ideas for alien races, such as the changelings in Star Trek and Solaris’s sentient ocean. After all, those ideas aren’t based on anything we have here on Earth, and that makes them quite possibly more realistic than humanoid aliens. Yet when I think of those alien races, the characters I most love are the ones who still have human characteristics. Odo is a prime example: he’s a shapeshifter in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but on screen he primarily takes the shape of a human — and certainly whenever he’s interacting with others. In fact, he takes human form largely to thrive in a society made up of humanoid aliens. So is that way I relate to him? Is that why I like him as a character in the first place?

When it comes to well-developed aliens, Star Trek is my favorite sci-fi series. Sure, the early days saw some silly-looking creatures, but the alien cultures have such depth that I want to believe they really exist. With a few intriguing exceptions, most of Star Trek’s aliens are humanoid, but the show attempts to give an explanation for that — and an alternative theory offers another suggestion, for those who don’t buy it.

Sadly, being humanoid doesn’t really help Jar-Jar Binks appeal to viewers.

1. Seeding Theory — In The Next Generation episode “The Chase,” it appears that many of the races in the galaxy come from the seed of an ancient alien race. The elder race scattered its seed across the empty galaxy to populate it and allow evolution to take its course. Different planetary environments created slight physical differences — such as scales or different skin coloring — in the humanoid species. (Apparently this theory is in a lot of other sci-fi, too, and there’s always the possibility that aliens descended from humans but grew up in a foreign environment, or vice versa.) This theory is beautiful, but all you have to do is look at all of the non-humanoid animals on Earth to start poking holes in it. After all, as humans we share nearly 60 percent of our DNA with fruit flies and even more with dogs.

Members of two different alien species in DS9.
Members of two different alien species in DS9… who look very human.

2. Convergent Evolution — For those who don’t buy the seeding theory, an alternative theory suggests that humanoids evolved in similar environments, and those similar environments shaped their appearances. This explanation makes the most sense to me. I can imagine a galaxy with many types of planets, and those with a similar makeup to Earth have the ingredients for life that’s much like ours. And unlike the seeding theory, it’s not the ingredients that are key, it’s the environment that forces life to adapt into bipedal creatures with two eyes, for instance. Of course, all you have to do is look at all the non-humanoid animals on Earth to start poking… wait, I think we have the same problem.

Both of these theories are elegant in their simplicity, but they have so many exceptions-to-the-rule on Earth alone that it’s difficult to buy either of them. This makes me think that humanoid aliens are sadly not realistic, but I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d also love to see alien species painted with more creativity, especially as CGI busts open the possibilities for alien portrayals in films and TV.

But after all this, the biggest question I have is why science fiction is so fond of featuring blue-skinned aliens…

— Ashley

10 thoughts on “How Realistic Are Humanoid Aliens?”

  1. Oddly enough I just saw a (lamely practical) answer to this in the special features on Mass Effect: Paragon Lost: it’s an animation issue, at least for Mass Effect. It allows them to reuse and get the most mileage out of their animation work by having all moving aliens have roughly human proportions. For every other way of walking or additional limb, it’s extra work.

  2. On another note, consider hands. Seriously. Try to envision a world where technology is adapted for something other than hands, like, say, flippers. I’ve thought about it several times for several years and I always conclude that appendages like hands with agile fingers made us more apt to evolve: pick up stick; poke things with stick; use stick to reach; use stick to stab, etc. IMO having hands played an enormous roll in our evolution simply by giving us the shape necessary to most efficiently explore and shape our environement and ultimately make tools.

    1. That is a really good point! I’ve thought about that too. So maybe the intelligence of dolphins, for instance, can only get them so far while they still have flippers?

      I mean, just thinking about Mass Effect, I was initially wondering about other races and realized the only aliens who could logically be members of the squad are those with hands… to hold those weapons. Though it could be interesting to see aliens with other methods of destroying an enemy (not to make this all violent…). Still, one of my pet peeves is seeing science fiction with aliens or even people who suddenly have some kind of mind control or other supernatural power. If it’s going to be sci fi rather than fantasy, authors have got to explain it! But that could be another post…

      1. Re: the dolphin bit, yes, i do think it could actually be a limitation. Think of Space Odysee (I assume you of all people have seen it): divine intervention or not, they suggest that picking up a bone and messing around with it lead to the epiphany that, hey, it could be a weapon. Research has been done into different types of learning and has concluded that some are better suited to visual, oral, or tactile learning. Other animals can see and hear, but most lack the limbs required to experiment with objects and learn in a tactile fashion. I think that is a huge limitation: we learn through experimentation, but it’s hard to experiment when you literally can’t grasp anything. And generally speaking, we often lump using technology as a sign of intelligence in animals, such as monkeys using sticks to catch ants or cracking things open with rocks, or dolphins using shells to catch fish (a recently discovered and spreading phenomena).

        1. That’s a great point. (And yes, I love that film!) I think tools/technology and language are the keys — and the signs — of intelligence. But perhaps we wouldn’t invent complex language without a need for it, and that would imply lots of other types of development, particularly teamwork etc. I guess I’m just curious whether a species could develop language without tools or hands/opposable thumbs.

          Now I feel like I should surf some websites or forums, as my knowledge in this area is so limited! But I definitely think you’re onto something there…

          1. Technological Determinism is the name of the theory that suggests technology shapes how we evolve. Now we need a name for the exact opposite theory :P our shape determines what technology we can discover (at the very primitive level)

  3. It’s interesting how you point out in Mass Effect our tendency to relate more to the other alien races over the ones we briefly encounter in the game like the Elcor or Hanar. I never really thought about it until now. I wonder if the reason we overlook the Elcor and Hanar is due to the fact that we don’t actually spend too much time with them? That they look less human than the turians, asari, or any of the other humanoid aliens of that world?

    Maybe it’s easier to latch onto something that feels familiar. Something that taps into our human emotions. I always found the Elcor and Hanar to be a bit boring. I think it has something to do with how the developers perceived the voices of these particular alien races to sound like. There was something about them that didn’t really catch much of my attention other than to have a quick conversation and to complete a sidequest involving them before moving on. I wonder if our interest in them would have gone up if they exhibited more humanlike qualities?

    1. I agree! I found the Elcor and Hanar interesting at first glance, but their speech was really slow and tedious to listen to. I know that’s terrible to say, but it’s almost as if we either need to relate to these aliens or we need to be entertained by them. Also, aliens that are toooo different than humans are more a subject of study, the way we study other species of animals. I’d love to see an alien race very different but also able to capture the attention and imagination of humans, so we can still make a connection… even if it’s different than the way humans connect.

      1. Hearing the two of you express these thoughts is interesting to me, as I had the exact opposite feeling when encountering the Elcor and Hanar. As soon as I realized that their method of communication was different than ours, and that it was based upon their physiological and cultural development, I knew that I had truly encountered something alien, yet still intelligent and capable of communication. A species that could not just reflect my own thoughts on the universe back at me, but one that could truly introduce new ideas and perspective on life to my cultural awareness.
        When I was younger, I absolutely loved reading books by Michael Crichton, and Sphere stands out in my mind purely because of the absolute fascination of reading through the story as the scientists attempted to figure out what the Sphere’s message represented… whether it was an alien language, a visual representation of their species, or something else. Afterall, they didn’t have Star Trek’s universal translator to instantly play things out in English. This whole process intrigued me to no end, and really opened up my mind to all the possibilities that language possesses to give us insight into a culture.
        Jump back to Mass Effect, when I first encounter the Elcor, and you’d see me sitting their intently, not bored, not frustrated, just eagerly listening to their speech, excited to be encountering a language that actually requires some effort on my part, instead of being handed to me pre-cut. In essence, the communication itself became a game. My attempt to ensure I actually fully understood what was communicated to me, so that I was communicating the proper response back.
        It’s a different way of expanding your perception. Instead of seeing something as a creature and passing them off as unbearable to talk to, it’s about looking past that and seeing what you can learn from them. As far as real world application goes, it’s almost an identical feeling to having a conversation with someone who’s handicapped or has a speech impediment. At first it might be kind of grueling, but once you get used to it, you realize that they have a lot of great experiences to share.

        As a game student eager to get out there and help the industry mature in the proper direction, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the side exploring different ‘abnormal’ game concepts. One that has me thrilled to no end is a game that I could pitch as “Mass Effect meets NASA, with a degree in linguistics”. A Mass Effect-style game, heavily grounded in real-life science as much as possible (the tutorial would even be a training sequence at an Earth-based science facility, before heading out into space), where multiple species from across the galaxy are drawn to a single point in space by a beacon that is activated by an unknown party (beacons signify a safe jump trajectory). In essence the game would be Mass Effect-like in that you have a crew of humans and aliens that you grow familiar with over the course of the game. The catch is that all of the aliens are truly alien (think Wayne Barlowe aliens), and they don’t speak English. One of the major mechanics of the game would be a translation mini-game, in which words, phrases, noises, lights, vibrations, signs, etc, are translated and then added into a database. Once a meaning is translated, you have that permanently in your database to extrapolate the rest of the language from. The game would be more reflective of the player who is engaging with it because players will choose to participate in the translating to various degrees over the course of the game. In essence, you could go through the whole game shunning the aliens just because they’re unfamiliar, or with different degrees of translation attempts. The amount of effort you put in would alter the alien’s feelings towards you.
        The bigger difficulty here is creating a language that is not just a “don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine” style code, but a true reflection of the society that created it. Alien people with different histories, beliefs, and even senses than ours. For example “Good to see you” would not make any sense to a race of creatures that evolved without eyes.

        Anyways… love your blog. Since there were so few entries (compared to other blogs out there), I decided to play catch up. I’ve enjoyed reading through your past posts; there aren’t many people out there having the discussions that you bring up here, and I find it to be good food-for-thought. You’ve got some unique ideas about the gaming/nerd world that I haven’t yet found anywhere else, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts. :)

        1. Thank you! That’s lovely to hear. Regarding the Elcor and Hanar, I wonder if my interest would have been greater had we spent more time with them. I’m a bit impatient with fetch quests (or just chatty quests) in general. And replaying Mass Effect 2 right now, I listened to Thane go on about the Hanar and realized how interesting they were… yet actually speaking to a Hanar is a slightly tedious experience for me personally. I’m glad you saw things differently, as I do love the ME worldbuilding and cultures so much!

          I love your idea for a translation mini-game, and having that affect the aliens’ feelings towards you! That sounds amazing. In Mass Effect, speaking to the Hanar or Elcor was not an intriguing puzzle, it was just listening to familiar speech with a different cadence… but actually puzzling out aliens’ ways of communicating would be infinitely more interesting to me. And seeing the results of those communication attempts (or non-attempts, depending on how you play) would be very realistic and rewarding.

          On a side note, I find myself gravitating toward stories in which humans are open to alien cultures, which is part of what I love about the Mass Effect games and Doctor Who, etc.

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