What Other Species Can Tell Us
Our Cousins the Apes
A comparison of our psyches with those of, say, the chimpanzee provides us with a fairly good basis for determining what needs to be there in order for a believable psyche to be presented to the reader.
Notice I’m not saying anything about what might actually be present in the psyches of alien races. It’s possible, indeed likely, that the psyches of truly alien species will present us with unknowns/unknowables. Until we are actually presented with these aliens, though, we won’t have anything to call ‘realistic’ (or ‘unrealistic’, for that matter.)
For now, realism will have to consist of a comparison between what is presented in the story and what we know.
Getting back to the chimpanzees; there are two outstanding similarities between ourselves and the apes. Both of these, it turns out, are byproducts of intelligence.
By ‘intelligence’ I mean the Encephalization Quotient, or EQ. Aside from providing a rough guide to intelligence itself, this ratio can be used to predict many things, from the size of the family group, to the aggression displayed to other members of the same species, to sexual appetite.
It is the latter two that seem to form the commonality between humans and chimpanzees and I think must form a commonality among all species encountered in speculative fiction if they are to be both realistic and identifiable to the reader. A type of aggression which leads to war and interpersonal violence—including sexual assault and murder—is common to humans and chimpanzees.
Chimpanzee beta males from one family group have been observed raiding other family groups assaulting and killing any males that they find grabbing any females that they find as well as any food and leaving to form their own group. Fights between males can result not only in death but in violent dismemberment. Similar situations and behaviors have been observed in dolphins.
It’s not the cheeriest thing, is it? Our intelligence is what makes us violent idiots sometimes. But that’s neither here nor there.
Giving Octopi a Look
Octopi present a rare opportunity to investigate possible alien intelligence for several reason.
First, they are aliens. Not literally, in the sense of ‘from another world’, but in the sense that they are so far away from us on the evolutionary tree of life that, when combined with the drastic differences in environment between us, they might as well be.
Second, because of their distance from us genetically, their brains are also quite different in structure. This means their psyches are quite different from ours. Despite this, we have gained a good measure of how their minds work and how smart they really are.
For example, did you know that Octopi live in small cities off the coast of Australia? Such familiarity in the midst of such differences make for fertile ground for alien psyche information.