ET versus Alien
There are two main views of nature which one finds in philosophy, culture, and science fiction. In one view, nature is a benevolent, nurturing mother. In the other she is a vicious and destructive bitch. You see both views play out in science fiction, in how we imagine beings from other planets.
One view of nature says that She is wise, intelligent, benevolent and good. She must be - She created human consciousness, and humans are incredibly wise, benevolent and good. One only has to look at the wondrous creations of nature - a spider's web, a rainbow, the setting sun - to see the glorious and benevolent intelligence that must be behind it.
This is a view of nature that one finds in, for example, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, and later in the Deists of the 18th century. It re-appeared among some of the Romantics, and is now often found in the New Age scene. In this view, nature is the medium through which God communicates to man. Everything in nature is a hidden sign of God's perfection and His or Her love for man.
And we see this view of nature play out in some science fiction films, like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact. The aliens in these films are like us, but more conscious, more benevolent, more peaceful and groovy. The alien spaceship in Close Encounters descends like a big mother - a mothership, in fact - and plays humanity a consoling tune, and we gaze up in wonder, like babies gurgling at the mobile revolving over our crib.
The alternate view looks at nature and sees not some transcendent and moral harmony, but instead a blind, murderous and amoral struggle for survival. This, for example, is the 18th century philosopher David Hume, who mocked the Deist theory that the perfection of nature obviously suggested an intelligent and benevolent creator. He replied:
Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!
Schopenhauer, one of the great philosophers of the 19th century, agreed that Nature was a blind ‘will to life’, which had no concern at all for the happiness or well-being of its creations. That’s why human existence is so miserable, why “nine tenths of mankind live in constant conflict with want, always balancing themselves with difficulty and effort on the brink of destruction”.
Nature doesn’t care anything about us! Look on the works of nature, and all one sees is rape and murder, endlessly repeated. Joseph Conrad, the Polish novelist writing at the beginning of the 20th century, likewise attacked the idea that nature was in any way ‘moral’ or ‘benevolent’. In works like Heart of Darkness, he juxtaposed western civilization’s moral pretensions with the amoral savagery of the jungle, to show that, beneath our masks of hypocrisy, we in the West are still just brutal animals, exploiting, dominating and murdering each other. We’re no better than the rest of nature. We're just as savage.
Perhaps the best proponent of this pessimistic view of nature is the film director Werner Herzog, whose films have typically portrayed nature as an amoral, hostile, and brutal force - which man, in his idiocy, continually tries to tame, or civilize, or moralize. We must accept, Herzog insists, that the universe is a vicious place. He says: “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”
And this view of nature as murderous and amoral also plays out in science fiction. There’s a school of science fiction in which aliens are just as brutal, vicious and murderous as humans can be. Outer space is an extension of the jungle, and we end up in a cosmic struggle for survival with other species. Examples of this school are Predator, Species, Starship Troopers and, of course, the Alien films, in which the alien is a brutal mother, or a ‘bitch’, as Ripley calls her. We note that the mining vessel in the first Alien film is called Nostromo, the name of one of Joseph Conrad’s books: Ridley Scott’s film took Joseph Conrad’s amoral vision of nature, and projected it into space.
Some artists are capable of seeing nature from both perspectives - sometimes seeing it as wise and benevolent, at other times seeing it as vicious and amoral. Tennyson, for example, in his eulogy In Memoriam, is capable both of seeing nature as “red in tooth and claw”, and also of imagining that man is one rung up a ladder of consciousness which will ascend to a “crowning race” of super-intelligent beings. Steven Spielberg managed to imagine the benevolent nature of ET and Close Encounters, but also saw nature in its most brutal and murderous, in Jaws and Jurassic Park (and, one might add, Schindler’s List).
When we imagine creatures from another planet, we are really expressing and extending our feelings about nature, and human nature, here on Earth.