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20 December 1999updated 09 Sep 2021 8:32am

They still go bump in the night

New Statesman Millennium - Humans once believed in gods with multiple arms, fairies, goblin

By Brian Aldiss

A remarkable tide in public opinion has so far gone unremarked. Until, let’s say, the sixties, the belief that life might exist elsewhere in the galaxy or even in the solar system was held only by a few forward-looking eccentrics. Then a change in public opinion took place. Now, at the end of the century, it appears that almost everyone believes in alien life. Governments investigate UFO phenomena, scientists set up a systematic search for extraterrestrial life, major movies depict visits between planets, where exist strange bipeds, either harmless or, more likely, well-armed. A consensus has been reached – with no referenda – that at some stage in the next millennium, perhaps the next century, we shall make contact with extraterrestrial life.

Non-human life is the irregular verb of the human mind. We are drawn in love and fear – and always have been – towards something living but not quite like us. There is a phylogenetic reason for this trait: deep in the brain is buried a memory of when we as a species were hardly apart from the animal, and dressed ourselves in their skins; before the invention of the gun, the relationship was closer than city-dwellers ever imagine. Palaeoanthropologists also remind us that men once lived in a world populated by very similar but alien species – and this was only 700,000 to 125,000 years ago. Did, I wonder, H.sapiens ever talk to H.erectus? Was it only a matter of clubbing each other, or was there conversation, maybe copulation?

As we know, there remains much of the ape in us. I regret I am now too old to climb trees. That early pleasure was undoubtedly a part of phylogeny, just as it passes as cute when parents dress their babies in hoods with ears, turning them into mice, rabbits, or bears – or other mammals that have accompanied us along the evolutionary ladder. Our constant invention of the unknown, the other, has deep roots.

Those roots tap into the mental soil, presumably before the dawning of human consciousness. The subject of consciousness is now under scrutiny. One might ask if the human species has yet achieved full consciousness; using the analogy of a light, we can wonder if it has yet reached full wattage. For many of us, it is easier to fantasise than to think constructively.

One of the overriding fantasies we all share is this persistent vision of the alien, of something that lives, but not as we do. Let’s run over a partial list of beings patently without existence, in which nevertheless humanity has believed at one time or another, often for decades, even centuries. We find ourselves at once standing bewildered in a population explosion of persons with goat feet, persons half-human, half-bull, persons with snakes growing out of their heads, fairies, elves, goblins, gnomes, trolls, leprechauns, skeletons, the walking dead, werewolves, ghosts of various sorts, demons, devils, angels, spirits, sprites, doppelgangers, dragons and vampires. Like Jesus Christ, vampires have a life after death.

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Every nation, every tribe, has its own particular spook. In our house when I was a boy hung a wooden plaque, on which was inscribed:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord deliver us

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This strange apotropaic device, executed in pokerwork, might be found in almost every house two generations ago – before, let’s say, the wholesale introduction of electricity and central heating into every home after the second world war.

A list of such uncomfortable beings is almost endless. The phantoms came out of the sky, the sea, the woodwork. But these were only minor-league conjurations of alien life. Ranking above them, and above humanity, came a more troublesome cast of imaginary non-humans: the gods and goddesses that have plagued people throughout the ages: old Silenus with his satyrs and attendant woodland deities; Bacchus, god of wine; the Scandinavian gods such as Ymin, god of numbing cold, and Thor, whose name lives on in our weekdays and Marvel comics; Mithras, the stony-faced soldiers’ god; Ishtar, the terrifying goddess of fertility for the Babylonians; Hindu gods aplenty, such as Shiva, the destroyer, and his icing-pink wife, Parvati, dancing on her lotus leaf; and countless more swarming deities, the law-givers, the punishers, the handsome, the horrendous. Some of these deities come adorned with skulls and serpents, or armed with lightning bolts and swords. Some have an elephant’s head, or the head of an ibis. Some spout long white beards, some change shape and form, some are blue in the face, some black of body. Some take the form of bulls, or are presided over by cobras. Some consort with smartly dressed hyenas. Almost commonplace are extra arms, breasts, heads, lingams. And people much like us worshipped them, even fought wars over them. Where do we suppose they came from?

Like many of my generation, I was brought up within the whole rigmarole of heaven and hell. Like Graham Greene, I developed a serious belief in hell. Damnation was taught every Sunday from the pulpit and every evening at family prayers. Things certainly went bump in my nightmares. But we must rid our minds of cant, as Samuel Johnson advised, when we are adult.

We can take comfort from the words of a Buddhist priest in Kyoto, who puts the whole matter in a nutshell: “God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.”

If we and electricity and the Internet have rid ourselves of all these categories of anoetic monstrosities, why do we talk to our cats and dogs as if they were just a weird variant of the human shape? Why dress our kids to look like animals? Why, for that matter, do our kids behave like animals? Why are our favourite cartoon characters all talking animals?

Perhaps the secret lies in the amygdala. The amygdala is that undiscovered country from whose bourne many memories, including the old and painful, come. It sits like a witch on top of the brain stem. The weapons of science have revealed it and some of its workings, but perhaps the amygdala is mightier than the sword.

For the latest gang of imaginary unthinkables to be visited upon us are undoubtedly aliens. We see them on our various-sized screens. They may come from special effects, but their true home is the brain.

Many sensible people would claim that there is scientific reason for aliens. Well, a few years ago there were supposedly “scientific reasons” for believing in little green men from Mars. But the science was false, the reasoning was wrong and the little green men were terminated.

When flying saucers came into fashion in the 1950s, they were at first believed to be piloted by little green men. It “seemed reasonable”. My contention – reasonable enough – is that UFOs are simply the latest version of those imaginary unthinkables we have been looking at; the elder gods and godlets have been brought up to date and clad in the benefits of modern technology. In 1951, Fox Studios brought out The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction movie in which a flying saucer lands in Washington, and the aliens who crew it order Earth to cease her development of nuclear weapons or else. Jehovah redivivus!

Since the saucers have not yet blasted any of our major cities – though they are reported to have destroyed a caravan in Alabama – a general consensus regards them as benevolent.

Carl Jung spoke of UFOs as a cargo cult, implying an erroneous belief in a superior power. This verdict seems to apply to the welter of aliens that has descended on us ever since, some for reasons of morality, some just for entertainment (ie, bloodletting and destruction).

So it is that (pace Pooh) aliens and dinosaurs have become the kiddie favourites. However, the scientific standing of aliens and dinosaurs is by no means equal.

Dr Gideon Mantell’s young wife took a walk in 1822 and found a fossil tooth, later identified by her husband as belonging to an iguanodon. The painstaking investigations of experts over the past two centuries have firmly established the existence of the giant reptiles of the Jurassic within the context of Earth’s history.

But aliens? The scientific argument for the existence of aliens is a statistical one. Our galaxy contains 1,000,000,000,000 stars. Many or most of them must support planetary systems, as does our sun. Most or some of those planets must support life of some kind. Some at least of that life must have acquired consciousness and intelligence. Therefore, even by a strict accounting, the galaxy must be teeming with intelligent life.

It is a popular line of argument. However, as yet, no other planet has been sighted which is at all likely to support life, certainly not life comparable to ours. This includes Mars and the other planets of our own system of ten planets (ten, that is, if we include the mystery object, newly indicated, orbiting the sun at a distance of 0.5 light years).

When we start looking at our own chequered evolutionary path, other reservations emerge. It is chance that we are here, in our present shape, reading the New Statesman. A whole number of chances. The Earth just happens to move in a zone of comfort at a fortunate distance from the sun – Venus is too near, Mars too far. There’s the curious factor that the solid state of water – ice – is lighter than its liquid state, contradicting what seems to be natural law; were it otherwise, the oceans would be covered by ice. There’s the curious accident whereby the eukaryotic cell was formed, of which most plants and animals are built.

Among external factors, the development of grass may be mentioned. Grass grows from under ground, not from the tip of the blade. So it can be cropped and still grow; sheep may safely graze – until they get eaten by mankind.

Then there’s that long painful pause between single-celled and multi-celled life. Those cells had to conspire into bones and organs – and brains. Consciousness had to dawn.

Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens, distinguishes between core consciousness and extended consciousness. We share core consciousness with some other animals, whose intelligence is imprisoned in the here and now. Only extended consciousness grants us the ability to travel mentally into the past and future. Have the findings of the 19th and 20th centuries given us a kind of intoxication?

It may be this intoxication which has unleashed the multiplicity of aliens upon us. They’re great as fiction. But as reality? The truth is that there is no proof of any other life anywhere in the galaxy as yet.

So what if we are alone? We seem, in that case, to have got ourselves elected as the consciousness of the galaxy, maybe of the universe. It is a devastating honour. It is an infinitely more challenging prospect than its opposite, a galaxy already bubbling over with alien species. It certainly means that we have to improve our behaviour before we start to move into outer space. Or even set foot on Mars. For a start, we could clear our minds of cant.

The author’s latest novel, “White Mars, or the Mind Set Free”, in collaboration with Roger Penrose (Little, Brown), was published on 26 November