Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 1: Biology

I wrote a few weeks ago about movie aliens, about which ones were scary and which ones weren’t.

Alien 2

Alien: scary.

Colonist - X-Files

A colonist from ‘X-Files’: not scary.

My thesis was that movie aliens don’t achieve scariness unless they first achieve un-humanity.  Humanoid aliens aren’t only uniformly unfrightening, they are also products of intellectual and creative laziness, and we should stop making movies about them.

Who cares?  Movies, famously, little resemble real life – that’s part of why we watch them.  Aliens, at least so far, don’t figure in real life at all, so why am I so upset about how they appear in movies?

For two reasons.  The first, let’s call ‘Biology’.  The second, about which more next week, we’ll call ‘Fear Learning’.


Put simply, the evolutionary thinking behind humanoid aliens is, well, nonexistent.

It’s a safe assumption that whatever planet aliens evolve on will be, in some way or another, different than Earth.  It may be bigger or smaller, and therefore exert greater or lesser gravitational force.  The chemical composition of the atmosphere may different.  It may be further away from or closer to a big star, which would change the amount of heat or light the surface of the planet gets.  Whatever the difference, the environmental conditions on this alien planet aren’t going to be identical to the environmental conditions here on Earth.  Therefore, the chances that an alien species would evolve to exactly resemble human are slim indeed.

Even if we hew religiously to the anthropic principle, that the universe is necessarily conducive to the evolution of life like ours (as evidenced by our life), the odds are overwhelming that extraterrestrials won’t look like us.  Even if we accept the common hand-wave, that aliens have come to to disrupt our planet because it is so like their own, it is still unlikely that they will look like us.

Look around.  All life on Earth evolved under Earth-like conditions (obviously), and very few of our fellow-earthlings look like us.  In fact, there really aren’t any animals that look as much like humans as the aliens from ‘Signs’ do.  Honestly, which do you more closely resemble, the little green men from the X-Files, or a gorilla?  Tell the truth – it’s a close call.  And if other humanoids haven’t evolved here on Earth, what are the odds that they evolved somewhere else?

The idea that interstellar aliens, even if they evolved under similar conditions, would be cephalated, binocular, bipedal, and hairless, is preposterous.  To portray them thusly is so lazy, requires so little mental effort, as to be offensive.  We probably aren’t going to guess accurately how the aliens we meet, if we ever do, will look, but we should at least try.


Hugh Welch Diamond

In the 1850s, an Englishman named Hugh Welch Diamond took a remarkable series of photographs.

Diamond was a doctor; he studied at the Royal College of Surgeons.  When he decided to become a psychiatrist, he was appointed as the Superintendent of the female department of the Surrey County Asylum.

Diamond was an enthusiastic practitioner of the new technology of photography; he would become one of the founders of the Photographic Society of London in 1853.  In his capacity as a physician, Diamond came to believe that taking photographic portraits of psychiatric patients would aid the diagnostic process.  He even published a paper on the subject (though in a photographic, and not medical, journal): ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomy and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’, The Photographic Journal (July, 1856).  He believed that the particular madness which afflicted each of his patients would show itself in their physiognomy, and that by studying their photographs, he would be able to diagnose them more accurately.

Diagnostic photography has not flourished, in all likelihood because it does not work.  However, Dr. Diamond is owed gratitude for the portraits he left us.  I was unable to find biographical information on the women in these photographs.  These may be all that remain of them.

Here are only a few.

Diamond Patient 1

Diamond Patient 2

Diamond Patient 3

Diamond Patient 4

Diamond Patient 5


Sexy Numbers

A few weeks ago, Radiolab released a podcast short, ‘For the Love of Numbers’, on the peculiar propensity of people to become attached to specific numbers.  They discussed the old Pythagorean idea that numbers are gendered, specifically that odd numbers are male and that even numbers are female, and the ways in which that thinking persists today.  They cited a study by James Wilkie and Galen Bodenhausen, ‘Are Numbers Gendered?’ (Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2011).

In that study, participants were shown pictures of very young infants, dressed in white.  For half the participants, the pictures were labeled with either three odd digits or three even digits.  Participants were told that these numbers were randomly assigned ID numbers, and to disregard them.

The study, and Radiolab in turn, reported that evenly-labeled babies were significantly more likely to be thought female, and oddly-labeled babies male, independent of the baby’s actual sex.  What the study did technically report, but what Radiolab did not, is that the effect size was miniscule.

Participants were asked to rate how likely they thought it that the baby pictured was male, with a score of 1 meaning that it was “not at all likely” to be male, and a score of 7 meaning that it was “extremely” likely that it was.

Study participants gave oddly-numbered babies a mean score of 3.79, with a standard deviation of 0.53.  Evenly-numbered babies were given a mean score of 3.47, with a standard deviation of 0.59.  Even considering the modest number of participants (36), this is a very small effect size.

In fact, Abumrad and Krulwich (the hosts of Radiolab) interviewed Wilkie, and asked him about the size of his effect.


Radiolab: By how much more likely?  By a lot, or by a teenie bit?    Wilkie: Uh, by a statistically significant amount.  Not a landslide.”


“Not a landslide.”  That is an understatement.

It is difficult to discuss statistical significance, because, while it is the gold standard of scientific research, few non-practitioners understand how manipulable data really is.  Significance alone is not enough: you also need to know the tests run, the size of the sample (or the “n”, for ‘independent subject’), and the standard deviation.  The standard deviation in the Wilkie study is larger than the effect size; that is, if you add the mean value and the standard deviation, you have no difference between the two groups.  That is a sure sign that something is amiss, significant or not.

I like Radiolab a great deal.  I even liked that podcast short.  But it is a show that purports to be about science, and its creators should be thinking critically about the scientific research they present.  A very casual scientific consumer should know that standard deviations should not completely swallow effect size, and that authorial claims of “significant” p-values do not excuse us from healthy scepticism.


Does Veganism Shrink Your Brain?

In several of the less-well-punctuated corners of the internet (and on Fox News), I have found discussions of vegetarianism which posed the question, ‘Does being a vegetarian or vegan make your brain shrink?’  These discussions usually answered in the affirmative, and referenced an Oxford study.  My interest was piqued by this for two reasons.  First, I have read the much-publicized study BMJ study that found that high IQ children were more likely to become vegetarians as adults.  Second, I am not a vegetarian or vegan, and it is always nice to feel that one’s preferences have scientific backing.

So, I went and found that Oxford study, which was published in Neurology in 2008, and which is un-excitingly titled, “Vitamin B12 status and rate of brain volume loss in community-dwelling elderly”.

Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is an essential vitamin.  Plants and animals are unable to synthesize B12 themselves, which means that they must consume it.  Herbivores accomplish this in two main ways, either by carrying around B12-producing bacteria in their rumen, or by fermenting plant material in their hindgut and then re-ingesting it (cecotropism).

Non-herbivorous animals get their B12 by eating herbivorous animals, or by eating their milk or eggs.  This presents a problem for vegetarians, and an even bigger one for vegans.  It’s been known for some time that a vitamin B12 deficiency during gestation can result in developmental delays of more or less severity in infants, and these deficiencies have been observed in vegetarian and vegan mothers (although I was unable to find evidence that it was wildly common).  Vitamin B12 deficiency has deleterious effects on adult health as well, and can result in permanent nervous system and brain damage within six months.

However, nowadays worried vegetarians and vegans can take vitamin supplements to make sure that their B12 levels are within the normal range.  The Oxford study (Vogiatzoglou, et al.) is intriguing because it looks at differences in aging in a population of elderly people all of whom had vitamin B12 levels within the normal range.  The study examines differences in outcome based on relative “healthy” levels of B12, and they found that individuals with B12 levels in the bottom third of the healthy range had three times the risk of diminished brain volume than individuals in the top third.  Put another way, low but normal B12 levels increase the risk of significant brain atrophy.

One proposed mechanism of action is that vitamin B12 deficiency causes white matter demyelination, or death of the myelin sheath on neurons.  Myelin is a material that coats the projections of brain cells and nerves, and allows signals to move along them.  That is how the cells of the nervous system communicate with one another, and without myelin they cannot do it.  Without communicative input and ability, neurons die.

It is certainly conceivable that vegans and vegetarians, who do not get B12 in their diet and so must seek out supplements, might have lower average B12 levels and so an increased risk of brain atrophy in their old age.  However, that is not that this study shows.  The authors did not examine vegetarian diets, and so could not have demonstrated a link between vegetarian diet and low B12 levels.  Even more, an increased risk of brain atrophy at the end of life is not the same as on-going cognitive impairment.  So, if being a vegan makes you stupid, this study didn’t prove it.


You Marry Who You Know

     My grandfather used to say, “You marry who you know”.  When I was young, this seemed blindingly obvious; now, it seems apt.  You do marry who you know, and most people know people like themselves, and so marry people like themselves.  Humans marry assortively, which means that they pick mates that resemble them, and they make this selection along an impressive number of traits, including intelligence, race, religion, class, beliefs, hobbies, personality traits, smoking, drinking, weight, height, even lung volume.

     In 1986, David Buss from the University of Michigan and Michael Barnes from Yale published a study, ‘Preferences in Human Mate Selection’, which examines the characteristics that human select for, and the traits that come along with those characteristics.

     Buss and Barnes interviewed 92 married couples (all heterosexual, from what I can tell), and subjected them to a battery of personality tests.  Their findings confirm many of this author’s private and ungenerous suspicions, which makes them the best kind of findings:

  • Traits that women value more than men include: honest, dependable, fond of children, well-liked by others, good earning capacity, and tall.

  • Traits that men value more than women are: physically attractive, good looking, good cook, and frugal.

  • Men and women who especially want kind-considerate partners are more likely to be emotionally reliant and to score high on the feminine end of the spectrum.

  • Women who “scored high on this preference factor [kind-considerate] tended to score in the neurotic and submissive direction”.

  • Women who value “professional status” in their husbands “tended to score low on CPI Tolerance, CPI Achievement via Independence, CPI Intellectual Efficiency, and Psychological Mindedness…IDS Emotional Reliance and Machiavellianism.”  The authors note dryly that perhaps these women “seek in mates attributes that they themselves do not possess”.

  • Women who want politically conservative husbands tend to get poor grades in college, have bad SAT scores, and to be very feminine.

  • Men who want politically conservative wives tend to be masculine, dominant, and tall.

  • Women who wanted easygoing-adaptable husbands were then surprised to learn that their mates were “unambitious”.

  • The husbands of wives who preferred kind-considerate husbands “appeared to be weak, unassertive, and socially passive”.

  • Women who wanted “socially exciting” husbands got “husbands who are somewhat undercontrolled and underachieving”.

  • Men who wanted artistic-intelligent wives married women who “scored high on…masculinity”.

  • Wives who wanted artistic-intelligent husbands got men who were “somewhat lazy, quarrelsome, emotional, feminine, and arrogant”.

  • Women who wanted husbands with high professional status tended to marry men who had small vocabularies.

  • Women who wanted politically conservative husbands married men who “appeared to be relatively tall and heavy”.

     So, to re-cap: women want tall men.  Men want women who can cook.  Women who marry conservatives are dumb.  Easy-going guys don’t get much done.  Artistic guys are needy and dickish.

     I knew it.


Monster Mothers

     When Harry Harlow completed his cloth mother experiments, he concluded that “mother love is indispensable”, and that it provides the infant a safe haven from which to explore an often dangerous world.  He also became interested in exploring the limits of that love.

“Knowing that a mother could give an infant love and security, we thought many years ago that we could produce anaclitic (dependency) depression by allowing baby monkeys to attach to cloth surrogate mothers who could become monsters.”

     Harlow built four monster mothers, all modified cloth mothers.  The first would blast the clinging baby with highly pressurized air.  “It would blow the animal’s skin practically off its body”, he wrote.

     The second mother would shake so hard that “the baby’s head and teeth would rattle”.  Neither of the first two monster mothers were able to dissuade their babies; the little monkeys “simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs.”

     The third mother had a wire frame embedded in its body; the experimenter would release the frame, which would thrust out suddenly and propel the infant off its mother.  The fourth mother Harlow called the ‘porcupine mother’: she would eject brass ‘spikes’ (which were dulled) all over her body, again compelling the infant to release her hold.

     While these second two mothers were able to literally force their babies to relinquish their hold on them, neither induced Harlow’s desired ‘psychopathology’; the babies would simply wait for the offending apparatus to recede back into its mother’s body, and then cling to her again.  Harlow was unsurprised by this result; he wrote, “the only recourse of an injured or rebuked child – monkey or human – is to make intimate contact with the mother at any cost.”

     Harlow did eventually succeed in inducing psychopathology in monkeys, through social isolation.  By taking infant female monkeys and keeping them in total isolation for the first six to nine months of their lives, he created adult female monkeys two-thirds of whom “turned out to be inadequate or evil mothers”.  Evil is not a word often applied to non-human animals; Harlow uses it repeatedly and deliberately.  These mothers might completely ignore their babies; worse, many of them displayed behaviors that were “brutal or lethal” towards their young.  They would crush the baby’s head in their teeth, or they would smash the baby’s head against the ground and drag it along the floor of the cage.

Evil Mother - Harlow

     Harlow may have caused psychopathology, but he couldn’t exterminate mother love.  The infants of these evil mothers “never gave up unless they were killed.  The babies went back and back and back to their mothers, trying forever to attach”.  If the baby survived, this often worked:

“In a manner of speaking, the infants healed the mothers.  And these mothers, who eventually became maternalized by their first babies, were, on the second, third, or fourth pregnancies, for all practical purposes, perfectly normal mothers.”

Image taken from Harlow’s 1970 paper, ‘Induced Psychopathology in Monkeys’

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

Typical Dreams

     It can be uncomfortable to realize that you are ordinary, that even your dreams (or nightmares) are typical.  It turns out that one of my frequent nightmares, during which my teeth shatter and fall out, and which feels uniquely horrible to me, is common as dirt.  More than that, it is apparently a bad personal indicator.  From ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia’:

“Research has been conducted comparing the personality traits of people with chronic teeth dreams to the traits of those who frequently experience flying dreams.  While the “flyers” were calm, confident, and generally optimistic, those who dreamed about teeth were more anxious, prone to bouts of self-criticism, and more likely to feel helpless in situations with which they were unfamiliar.”

     I never have flying dreams.

     ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia’ didn’t provide specific citations to this anti-teeth dreamer research.  I was unable to find it; however, I did stumble across a 2004 paper dealing with gender differences in dream frequency.  It was intriguing.

     The study, ‘Typical Dreams: Stability and Gender Differences’, employs something called the Typical Dream Questionnaire, which asks subjects to indicate how many of 50 ‘typical’ dreams they have experienced.  Apparently, men and women dream in roughly equal percentages of

  • “being chased or pursued” (89.1% of women; 86.8% of men)
  • “being frozen with fright” (56.7% of women; 54.4% of men)
  • “being nude” (43.1% of women; 42.7% of men)
  • “insects or spiders” (37% of women; 38.2% of men)
  • “lunatics or insane people” (17% of women; 17.7% of men)
  • “seeing an angel” (11.2% of women; 11.8% of men).

     Men are more likely than women to dream about

  • “being locked up” (37.2% of women; 47.1% of men)
  • “being killed” (34.8% of women; 44.1% of men)
  • “having superior knowledge or mental ability” (24.5% of women; 41.2% of men)
  • “killing someone” (16.2% of women; 32.4% of men)
  • “seeing a flying object crash” (10.9% of women; 17.7% of men)
  • “seeing a UFO” (3.5% of women; 10.3% of men).

     Women are more likely than men to dream about

  • “arriving too late” (70% of women; 60.3% of men),
  • “failing an examination” (63.8% of women; 44.1% of men)
  • “being unable to find, or embarrassed about using a toilet” (31.1% of women; 23.5% of men)
  • “losing control of a vehicle” (28.7% of women; 16.2% of men)
  • “being a member of the opposite sex” (17.8% of women; 5.9% of men).

     Perhaps the most interesting lesson of ‘Typical Dreams’ is how many of us have strange dreams.  Some of the items on the Typical Dream Questionnaire sound downright atypical:

  • “discovering a new room at home” (29.1% of the population)
  • “seeing a face very close to you” (26.1%)
  • “being an object” (2.5%)

And yet, significant percentages of the population are having them.  For the record, a lucky 63.5% of the general population gets to have dreams of “flying or soaring through the air”; the remaining 35.6% of us are stuck with dreams of our “teeth falling out/losing our teeth”.


Belanger and Dalley, ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia: Your Darkest Dreams Interpreted’, New Page Books, 2006

Schredl et al., “Typical Dreams: Stability and Gender Differences’, The Journal of Psychology, 2004, 138(6), 485-494