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Take me to your Lizard

A running theme in science fiction is the idea that alien races are willing and eager to talk to us - that humanity has an intrinsic interest to others. Implicit in this assumption is the traditional positioning of humans as the apex of intelligent life on planet Earth. But this is not an assumption that has gone unchallenged in science fiction, or indeed in our wider culture.

Take me to your Leader

Image of alien addressing petrol pump - original origin unknownA recurrent meme which appears in comic panels is an image of aliens landing on Earth, declaring “Take me to your leader”. When shared by lovers of felines, the leader in question is almost certainly a cat, which recognises no authority above it. However another recurrent feature of such cartoons is that the aliens address themselves to machines or animals which are more similar to their own appearance than human beings. This raises a valid point - how certain are we that aliens would share our sense of our own self-importance? Might they not seek to contact some other form of life on our planet?

Front cover of the UK first edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

This question was used for comic effect in several ways by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. In So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (novel, 1984) a spaceship arrives on Earth and a giant robot steps out, declaring “We come in peace… take me to your lizard!”. As character Ford Prefect explains, the rulers of the planet from which the robot came were indeed lizards, and its programmers naturally assumed that the same would be true on other worlds. The juxtaposition between the expectations of the robot and the expectations of the humans facing it is extended into a satire of modern democracy, but this wasn’t the only time Adams explored this idea.

In the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series (BBC radio 1978) and its novelisation (Adams 1979) he described our system as “an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet” orbiting “a small, unregarded yellow sun”, and notes that the escape of a pair of mice would have attracted more attention “...had it been generally realised that human beings were only the third most intelligent life form present on planet Earth, instead of (as was generally thought by most independent observers) the second.”

Again, Adams is playing against the expectations of the audience, who would anticipate most observers to place them in first place and identify their sun and planet as important. In fact, Adams’ mice are “vast, hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings”, although they take care to hide the fact. However it’s worth noting the Earth-native species that Adams considers the second most intelligent:

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man… for precisely the same reasons.

The Cetacean Question 

Adams’ identification of dolphins as humanity’s intellectual superior in fact fits in to a surprisingly large corpus of science fiction that focuses on the intelligence of whales and dolphins - the cetaceans. As others have discussed [1], this arose to a large extent from the well-publicised work of scientist John C. Lilly and others in the 1950s and 60s. This established scientific evidence for the complex behavioural patterns and relationships of cetaceans, as well as the complexity and information content of their communications. Such studies, together with experimental Cold War military applications for trained dolphins, raised the profile of cetacean intelligence, and led to a large volume of science fiction in which humans communicate with dolphins, or - occasionally - even take them along while settling other planets. Such was the prevalence of this idea that it is often assigned to a throwaway line, as is the case in Larry Niven's 1966 short story "At the Bottom of a Hole" which questions why humanity ever tried to settle Mars, after all "If they wanted someone to talk to, someone not human, there were dolphins and killer whales right in their own oceans". However in most of these cases, humans are still undeniably the superior race - the characters driving the communication and exploration, and the ones responsible for any first contact.

Nonetheless as the cynicism of the 1970s and 1980s took hold, and more serious questions began to be asked about the morality of confining cetaceans for human entertainment, a few stories do take an additional step and hypothesise that alien races may actually recognise cetaceans above and beyond humanity itself.

Amongst the shortest and most striking of these is “Judgement Day” - a 1982 short story by John Haldeman. Here aliens arrive on Earth and seek to find the best two individuals on the planet before passing judgement on its peoples.

Humpback whales George and Gracie in Star Trek IV - the voyage homeA longer exploration of a similar theme can be found in a near-contemporary to this story, the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, dir. Nimoy). Here the Galactic Federation of the twenty-third century is threatened when a powerful alien probe comes in search of the race of Earth humpback whales which became extinct in the twenty-first century. Kirk, Spock and their crew must travel in time and retrieve whale individuals which can communicate with the probe. While the origin of the probe is never explored in detail, the strong implication is that its originators had had contact with cetaceans in the past, and were not interested in communicating with the humans who shared - and dominated - their planet. In both stories, the fate of the Earth (and its engagement with the wider Galactic community) depends critically on a single pair of cetaceans, leaving humans humbled and impotent as they face their own insignificance.

Book cover of The Ophiuchi Hotline by John VarleyAltogether more epic is the premise in the Eight Worlds stories of John Varley (novels and short stories, 1974-2018). In this universe, Earth has been invaded and humanity barred from returning to it, forcing them to expand through the Solar System and beyond.

As The Ophiuchi Hotline (Varley 1977) explains, the invaders are gas giant residents who recognise cetacean life as sentient, and all other life forms besides themselves as mere vermin. Their actions against humanity are not undertaken out of malice, but merely to protect Earth’s cetacean species. While this premise perhaps takes the idea to extremes, it is by no means the only science fiction to people gas giant planets with large, whale-like sentient beings [2], also likely inspired by human interest in cetacean intelligence.

It’s worth noting that research on cetacean intelligence continues, and recent studies have advocated further work on communicating with dolphins as a training exercise for the ultimate challenge of communicating with alien intelligences in the future - an echo of a suggestion made by dolphin researcher Lilly and others in discussions of SETI in 1961.

The Insect Other

Cetaceans are mammals, and their lives and forms are attractive or fascinating to most humans. Their communications are to some extent audible to us, and their use of their natural environment is seldom in direct conflict with our own. The idea of aliens trying to contact them is surprising, but not beyond our understanding. By contrast, the potential for sentience of other life on Earth is less intuitively apparent.

Illustration of Lunarites by Claude Shepperson from the British first editionIn particular, insects seem to both fascinate and repel humans in a manner which makes them particularly well suited for science fiction. Swarming insects such as bees, wasps and particularly ants have shown an ability to communicate with one another, cooperate and construct collectively, and even in some cases to use tools or farm other organisms for their own benefit. These are traits typically associated with intelligence, although in a form that seems distinct from the self-awareness that characterises humanity. As a result, insect exemplars have frequently been used to inspire alien species, whether in terms of their social structures or physical traits. This usage of insects (or more technically the broader categories of insects, beetles, bugs and arachnids) to invoke the “Other” can be traced back all the way to H G Wells' The First Men in the Moon (1901) and extends, through examples such as Starship Troopers (Heinlein, 1959) and Ender’s Game (Card, 1977), to recent works such as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time (2015).

[Image: H G Well's Lunarities illustrated by Claude Shepperson in the British first edition of The First Men in the Moon. Source:]

However while Earth’s insect and arachnid life has inspired a great deal of science fiction, it’s relatively rare for Earth’s ants themselves to take a prominent role in a story. Exceptions include the 1954 movie Them! (a story of ants rendered both giant and intelligent by radioactive fallout), the short story “Empire of the Ants” by H G Wells (1905, in which Amazonian ants prove intelligent and overwhelm human settlements), and the novel of the same name by Bernard Werber (1991, which features a complex ant society living in parallel with but unaware of human society).

It is likely that neither insects nor cetaceans truly exceed human intelligence by any criterion we would recognise. The repeated failure of scientists to establish meaningful complex communication with cetaceans on Earth has somewhat sapped the flow of science fiction exploring dolphin intelligence. However the science fiction examples discussed here nonetheless raise issues which are seriously discussed in the conceptualisation of extraterrestrial life and the potential for communicating with it. They challenge us to ask whether we would truly recognise intelligence were we to encounter it... or whether they would recognise us in return.


“Take me to your Lizard”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 29th May 2022.


[1] I recommend this 2018 three part article by Michael Grasso in the “We are Mutants” blog which studies the history of cetaceans in cold war fiction, science fiction and science in great detail. [Return to text]

[2] Other examples include the intelligences of Saturn in Dan Dare (2002) and the interstellar colonisers of gas giants in the Hyperion Cantos (Simmons 1989). [Return to text]

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