What If We Met Aliens Who Had Accepted Death?

Illustration for article titled What If We Met Aliens Who Had Accepted Death?

One defining feature of humans is our inability to accept our own mortality. Our culture, our religions, our big buildings and our fancy toys, are all designed to distract us from catching a glimpse of the fact that we'll all, individually and collectively, turn into poop. But what if we met an alien race that didn't share our neurosis about dying? What would their society look like?


The idea I mention above, about all human cultures being a defense mechanism against recognizing our own mortality, is the theory of Freudian psychologist Ernest Becker, in his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial Of Death. Becker believes humans create "hero systems," including religion and science, to try and compensate for, or cover up, our mortality. All mental illness stems from the failure of our heroic death-defying projects, and the ensuing awareness of our doom.

So how would an alien culture look if it had come to terms with the inevitable? My first impulse is to say that they'd be more emotionally healthy, totally zen and Yoda-like. They've gotten over their fear of death! So they would have fewer taboos — Becker claims our neuroses around human excrement stem from the fact that they remind us our bodies are going to decay — and they would be less crazed in their attempt to create something "heroic" to help them pretend they won't flop over and turn into fossils any time now. Maybe they'd have some nice ritual for marking the transition to the next plane of existence, or maybe they'd just throw out their dead with the trash?

But on second thought, maybe aliens who weren't neurotic about their own mortality would be total assholes? No fear of death might make them into crazy warriors. Plus, if it's true that even glimpsing or beginning to comprehend our own mortality makes humans psychotic or depressive, it's possible that aliens who had fully comprehended their deaths would just be total psychos? The awareness of death would overshadow everything and make them into maniacs? Plus if they had no taboos around excrement, they might be living in their own filth? Also, who knows what other taboos they might lack? (This is assuming they actually excrete, or even have recognizable states of being "dead" or "alive," as we know them. And that they recognize single creatures as unique individuals, that can be either alive or dead.)

I guess it all boils down to the extreme difficulty of imagining a truly alien culture, one with a biology and a social structure so different from our own that it probably would seem insane to us. It takes so little to push a human's consciousness into a state that most of us consider insane, it's hard to imagine that aliens might not naturally occupy one of those states of mind. The main limiting factor, of course, is that any species has to be able to survive in its environment — and have the drive to stay alive and reproduce, or it won't be around for long. So even if our putative aliens did have an easier time reconciling themselves to death, they would have to take reasonable steps to avoid it, or they wouldn't be around to meet us in the first place.

Okay, that's enough weird Friday afternoon ramblings from me. What do you guys think? Alien skeleton image from The Dig.


Charlie Jane Anders

@codydog: Yeah, that Aldiss book sort of baffled me... I'd heard people go on and on about how great it was, and it just sort of left me cold. Plus I was told it featured "coprophilia," which I don't really think it does. But I read it like 8 years ago, so the memory is hazy.