Get away from her, you Naturalistic Fallacy!

I first saw Aliens in 1986, a week or so before it was released in the theaters, in a press showing for the reviewers in Chicago. Remember, this is all long before the internet and entertainment-industry shows on cable. Promotional pre-viewing audience information was unknown. No one knew a thing about a movie except via the paper-based reviews bare days before its public release, and the reviewers themselves knew nothing until they saw it just before that. Before the showing began, I was fascinated by this specific audience, whom I’d never seen before: their short shiny leather jackets, their close-pulled ponytails, their shouting across the seats at one another (“Oh hiii!“), their mutual sneering at the film they were about to see, and their striking disregard for watching a movie as an experience.

During the initial nightmare scene, all their hipster snark fell dead silent. You could hear the audience collectively inhale sharply at certain points. By halfway through, people were literally screaming with fear. I want to talk about why, for which this rapid-fire outline & terms sheet is the foundation, and then beyond that, to ask a different why.

The alien adversary in the films is a shining example of prior plausibility in science fiction, based on a couple different strategies observed in arthropods, especially insects. I’ve already posted briefly about the film Alien (1979), especially this teaching sheet. All that creepy-crawly egg and chest-ripping stuff is real biology, and what we see of the alien matches it well. Now I’m talking about how this sequel comes along and matches it some more, by filling in more information about its reproductive features.

In most insects, sex (male or female) is cued by genetic content in a system called XY (similar to ours) or XO, and in eusocial insects, the non-reproductive individuals are XX females who’ve been developmentally “switched off,” so that’s what I’m using to fill out the diagram here with the darker shading. The only real-life part that’s not shown in either movie is the male role and mating step, here unshaded.

alien life cycleThe alien species is eusocial, meaning:

  • The single female reproducer (“queen”) has multiple offspring, immensely so
  • Most adult offspring are non-reproductive and entirely committed to their mother’s further maternal reproduction – they “reproduce” by facilitating siblings to be born

The alien species is also parasitoidal, meaning:

  • Offspring gestate in a host animal’s body, feeding off it and killing it upon emergence.
  • The mother contributes relatively little energy to offpsrings’ development, in this case not even seeking hosts for them
  • The queen’s maximal sunk cost prior to any offspring’s ability to contribute to her (and their) reproductive effort is at the egg state

Then the eggs are threatened, and just as predicated with math, the non-reproductive individuals and in this fictional case, the queen, deploy to protect the nest with maximum force.

Ripley’s species, on the other hand, is ultrasocial, meaning:

  • Nearly all adults are potentially reproductive, affected primarily by conflicting kin ties and social status
  • Many behaviors typically associated with kinship are applied frequently on a community, non-related basis

Also, this species’ offspring are altricial with a long nurturing phase; a parent’s sunk cost prior to the offspring’s own reproductive activity (and hence the parent’s too) is maximum just before puberty.

In her case, she is of reproductive age with no living offspring (one dead), and she is socially marginalized. She meets Newt, who is orphaned at the precise age of maximum unmet sunk cost, i.e., the “most valuable.” When Newt is directly threatened, again, with predictable mathematical precision, Ripley responds with a highly personal, maximal nurturing protective behavior toward her.

When Ripley finds [Newt], her life means something again. [Sigourney Weaver, interview in Starburst 1987]

Really? Why? Sure, psychologically and sociobiologically, it means something to her. But “meaning” in a story or life sense? In a moral sense? Is Ripley’s internal experience to be generalized outward as part of her heroism?

Evidently, people think so. As I saw at the press showing, this film is notable for its astonishing emotional power and engaging qualities. It’s been almost thirty years since then, and Ripley is acknowledged as the first major female action hero and one of the most popular characters in cinema. The alien queen is frequently cited as an archetypal villain. To this day audiences leap to their feet, cheering, at Ripley’s line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”

Yet its most most central conflict completely lacks ethical content. Ripley’s actions are completely at odds with her personal safety, the lives of her comrades, and the assigned mission. Nor are her actions in any way different from those of the alien queen’s except insofar as they conform to our biology rather than the queen’s.

Why is what she does so overwhelming, viscerally perceived as right?

[Disclosure: I published a paper about using these concepts in the classroom in The Journal of Biological Science Teaching in 1997.]

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22 thoughts on “Get away from her, you Naturalistic Fallacy!

  1. She is our hero, in the classical sense, like David or Odysseus: Resourceful, courageous, strong, and on our side against a terrible foe, so she’s “right.” The classical heroes had a crude sense of morality: Support the home team, and to hell with everyone else (both David and Odysseus are sackers of cities, with all the theft, rape, and murder that implies).

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    • I think that’s too simplistic, to the point of being divorced from the text. There is no designated foe of that type – Ripley even tries to tell the marines that in the beginning and they pay for not listening to her. Crucially, however, the aliens are entirely defeatable halfway through the story. It’s in denying that team-spirit beat’em ethic in which Ripley is perceived as a hero, running back in there to save Newt instead of nukin’ it all from orbit, because motherhood is the issue at hand, not one team vs. another.

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      • I apologize for my lack of clarity, but the “team” I was thinking of was not the marines but the audience. We root for her and Newt against the aliens, and the marines are expendable. You are right that she sacrifices the many for the one, but the person who is being rescued is Newt, who is “most valuable” not just to her parents but to Ripley and to us as well. That judgement is biologically-based, so the answer to your question is that we base heroism and rightness, at least in this case, on biological grounds that we hardly consider. I think that part of heroism, “being on the right side,” is often biologically based.

        P.S. I don’t know what you mean you write ” There is no designated foe of that type – Ripley even tries to tell the marines that in the beginning and they pay for not listening to her.” The aliens are a terrible foe, and Ripley does try to get that across to the marines who, as you note, ignore her warnings.

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        • The first part of your post completely satisfies me that we’re making sense to one another. I don’t think we need to wrangle over the “foes” text; it’d just be “what I meant when I said that you said.” I’m working up a detailed reply to Erik (below) which I think will make fuller sense about that and other things.

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  2. Personally, i groaned at the cinema when Ripley said that line. It’s the precise moment the movie “jump the shark”.

    I loved Ripley’s as a character in the first movie: the role of the “rational one”, the one who would have saved everybody (if the others listened to her) by not allowing contaminated specimen in the ship given to a woman was a nice bit of counter-casting, and then in the last part, her irrationally risking her life to save the cat, it felt human in its incoherence (and said a lot about her character).

    AlienS, the second movie, was a thrill for much of the time, I liked it even better than the first, up to… the precise moment it become a Stallone movie. In the middle of a desperate horror/sf film, one woman armed with the values of family and motherhood (and probably an American flag in the background) wear a glorified forklift and beat the alien queen in a boxing match. (showing how stupid were all the marines who thought to use only only automatic rifles, grenades, machineguns, etc, when the most evolute fighting machine it’;s the forklift: after all you need to be able to punch with a forklift, right?)
    It was a time when Hollywood was intent to push that shit on our throat almost in every action movie, so I was probably oversensibilized over the issue (I had already seen Rambo and Rocky ruined by all that propaganda), today maybe I would not took it so bad, but at the time it made me laugh at the screen. It was so unbelievably stupid with the macho posturing, the alien queen flailing pathetically like a rubber monster from a ’60 Godzilla movie, And then it got even more silly, with Ripley being able to support the weight of both the Alien Queen and the forklift with one hand.
    This mixture of silly macho posturing and family/flag/applepie in-your-face propaganda was usually called at the time “americanata”, being then so frequent in movies from USA. It got so bad sometimes that actually reminded me of the old fascist movies of Istituto Luce, with the square-jawed patriotic italians winning wars everywhere for “Dio, Patria e Famiglia” (God, country and family)

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    • Precisely. Historical fascism would have loved Ripley. Note that the other, entirely-masculinized woman is killed – heroically to be sure, brotherhood among warriors and all that, but safely eliminated from heroism nevertheless. She’s not a mother.

      Stories are not moral. Which is to say, they work according to understandable principles of the human mind and socializing. As long as those principles are satisfied, the story has punch – whether the direction and target of the punch is moral in my eyes as an audience member, is a completely independent question.

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  3. Responding to [1]

    [1] “Many behaviors typically associated with kinship are applied frequently on a community, non-related basis”

    One theory about the application of kinship-preserving behaviour to non-related community members turns on costly and public demonstration of commitment to sacred values. By “sacred” they mean values that are not even placed on a scale of utilitarian payoffs, not just at the high end. If you have participated in a coalition in the past, continued reassurances have to be made that no matter what the payoff in prestige or resources you are offered by a competing group, you will not default from your old coalition partners.

    [Sorry I don’t have the references to hand]

    [Israeli settlers asked to react to a hypothetical land-for-cash payment deal became more indignant and less likely to accept the deal the MORE money was offered. When the offer was no cash at all and the loss of their settlement, just an assurance that it would increase Israel’s security, they were more receptive. And a parallel test with Palestinians showed similar results.]

    [IIRC sacralized cognitions and utilitarian cognitions are correlated with different parts of the brain, as are the processing wins at games of chance and the processing of losses — so much for intelligent design of our intelligence!]

    Responding to [2]

    “Why is what she does so overwhelming, viscerally perceived as right?”

    The contrasting story of the sleazy company man pits a creature of utilitarian payoffs against an unstable coalition of rag-tag-misfits. The military hierarchy isn’t valorized but the mutual commitment of the marines is. Regardless of the group cohesion necessary for any combat unit to hold together, the sacralization of the combat experience and its diffusion as an ideal on a nationwide scale is a distinctive signature of Fascism.

    Ripley has to earn the Marine’s trust. (Doesn’t Newt have to go through a period where she isn’t trusted by the Marines and they don’t trust her?)

    But why root for Ripley? Perhaps some story of heroic sacrifice will have the protagonist eschew the sentimental love of an individual for the good of the group. I am thinking of Brecht’s variations on this trope in The Measures Taken, where the comrade who repeatedly does the humane thing ends up spoiling the cadre’s mission. He must be sacrificed for the good of the mission. But Aliens is NOT a didactic piece designed to steel one’s will to sacrifice the individual for the good of the cause.

    Ripley’s choice is to save the child, not to keep the military mission safe after the commercial project has been discredited. [Side note: remember the bit in the Hobbit where Tolkein contrasts the men of gold with the feudalist and martial values embodied in men like Bard?].

    Her sacred value is NOT the good of the team. She demonstrates bodily her dedication to save her own adopted offspring. Adopted. She demonstrates that she is not motivated solely by kin ties, but will take all the risks expected to protect kin for someone who is NOT a blood relative. That may be why the film gets the theatre rooting for Ripley. Is there a little bad faith self-reassurance that “we too of course, undoubtedly, in such a circumstance, would take those risks for any human child”? No doubt. But building a story on the absurd gamble all social cohesion is based on — that our fellow humans have a reckless total commitment to intangible, non-fungible, universal values — stands a good chance of grabbing attention and staying in memory.

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    • #1 of two replies. This one is to dispose of the whole “not-her-real-daughter” distraction. Our species is ultrasocial, which means community identity, ties of commitment, and the general scope of interactions among non-related individuals is practically our environment, much more so than weather or terrain or such things. In this context, the difference between commitment to kin vs. commitment to non-kin is a non-issue unless a conflict between the two is forced by circumstances. In Aliens, it’s not. There is no “Ripley’s little girl” in the story to make Ripley feel that difference in the crunch. Therefore kin-style behavior between her and Newt can be assessed as simply what it is, and the lack of genetic relationship does not falsify the proposal that it’s maternal-protective behavior.

      [Please note that “maternal behavior” includes a wide range of things that are not nurturing, some quite brutal – I’m not committing the falsehood that “protecting young” is “natural motherhood.” It so happens in this case that maternal nurturing is what Ripley’s doing, that’s all.]

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      • “Our species is ultrasocial, which means community identity, ties of commitment, and the general scope of interactions among non-related individuals is practically our environment”: why is that idea so hard to get across? Why the insistence that a squirt from a gland determines the course of a life? Why is it so hard to get across the idea that identity construction, reputation management, self-hood are not mere blips on some interior screen? That they are not mere ideology to be wiped away by a bracing spray of reason or a few choices?

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    • #2 of two replies. It’s clear from multiple comments here and elsewhere that I did not write my point about the marines vs. Newt very well. I am saying that in this story, the group-effort vs. me/few-effort doesn’t apply. I’m not posing this as a conflict in the movie, or that Ripley struggles with any aspect of that distinction, and only raised it to dismiss it. The whole movie searches for a real conflict worthy of rising action until Ripley finds Newt and then especially, when she goes chasing after her. That’s actually pretty important to my overall argument.

      So you’re right that it’s not a team/group movie, but it’s not about abandoning the community/collective either. Instead, it’s simply and fully a mom-effort movie, and in the final stages, a nod to the parental-couple as well.

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      • My replies are talking around the film because I haven’t seen it for 10+ years.

        I can think of a few instances where mothers chose to forgo maternal behaviours for their own self preservation or to benefit a diffuse social group. I react to real world stories of those who had to abandon, sell, euthanize children differently from fictional ones. The bracketing of my real world attachments and sentiments when I immerse myself in a fiction has to be taken into account doesn’t it? Ripley, the centre of of my attention in the spectacle would disgust me if she abandoned Newt. In a historical account of a woman fleeing a massacre and leaving her own child behind, or someone who gave up all family attachments to fight for a cause … my affective response would be different. And if I ever met such a person in real life I don’t even know if I could bring myself to judge them.

        “The whole movie searches for a real conflict worthy of rising action until Ripley finds Newt and then especially, when she goes chasing after her.”

        So what’s going on when a bunch of lightly-haired primates are sitting in a movie theatre, vaguely entertained by the flashing and banging, but are suddenly gripped by the spectacle of a protagonist involved in a real conflict, a real decision to throw over the military mission and protect the child?

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  4. Well, I think I see a “right” answer here: that, despite how absurd what Ripley does is, despite the over-the-top killer-forklift, despite disturbing fascist resonance, the stakes here are reproduction/motherhood as possible for/practiced by humans vs. reproduction/motherhood as (abhorrently! obscenely!) possible for/practiced by Aliens. For any human not REALLY prepared to react otherwise, it’s no contest. Who we are at that fundamental level MUST be “better” than what they are.

    I’m not sure how well that matches my visceral experience of the movie, despite NOT being REALLY prepared to react otherwise. Like others, that climactic scene didn’t work well for me, a disappointment in a movie that had a death-grip on my attention until then. Maybe it’s the details; the questionable one-liner, the stupid inconsistencies and absurd physics. Maybe I WAS somewhat prepared – prepared to question whether attempting to rescue Newt is actually the right move.

    Did that rescue attempt endanger the lives of her comrades or jeopardize the assigned mission? I’m remembering those issues as being pretty much off the table by then. Hm – thinking now (and if memory can be trusted), I did decide back then that Ripley was making the right decision FOR RIPLEY … her “personal safety” had little value at that point. No matter how small the chance of saving Newt, it was worth a try in the face of the zero-value Ripley put on living without Newt. Some small part of me might have been hoping Ripley would reject that zero-value assessment, but the story didn’t really have room for that possibility …

    All that said – if my first paragraph is the kind of thing you’re pointing at, Ron, I’m not going to say the latter issues SIGNIFICANTLY detract from that.

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    • Your first paragraph is on-track. My point is that the actions and events feel right – and agreed, regardless of quibbles and what-abouts – and (no offense) individual deviations from the trend I’m talking about are irrelevant – and that’s all there is to it. The aliens’ biology isn’t like ours, Ripley’s biology is ours, and that’s all there is to it. In experiential terms it’s indistinguishable from “root” or “deep” or (wait for it) as people call them “human” morals, by which they mean “real.”

      And I do mean indistinguishable – in that “real human” morals are these powerful tendencies in ourselves as a taxonomic and physiological animal and have, well, fuck-all to do with metaphysics of such things. Before anyone starts jumping about and hollering refutations, those quotation marks indicate sarcasm. My views on this issue have developed very differently from the popular writings on the subject, which I think went badly awry about 20 years ago. I and only a very few writers are a sad little scattered and unheard bunch who don’t do metaphysics and don’t do the Naturalistic Fallacy either. We’re also the actual biologists in the room. I urge patience to see how I present these views bit by bit.

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      • I am just trying to find the right way to conceive of “powerful tendency” that doesn’t misappropriate terms such as “reflex or “instinct” from biology, or carelessly rely on “drive” language from psychoanalysis.

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        • I must protest your characterization of biology. Neither of those terms are what we say, not the way you’re saying them.

          “Reflex” in biology applies to no behavior that you and I are interested in. Not one. A strong, fast, unequivocal response is not the definition of a reflex. A reflex is an efferent neural signal produced without processing in the brain. Nothing social, communicative, or interactive is a reflex. When people say “act without thinking” they are simply wrong.

          “Instinct” is generally ignored by all serious students of behavior as an unhelpful historical artifact. We now talk about how much interaction with the environment or internal physiological circumstances alters the outcome of how behaviors develop. There’s an incredible range in that variable, such that two species who both do X, and for whom X is very similar, require vast differences in life-experience to produce it, from hardly any to years of trial-and-error activity.

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        • On reflexes: my target was the importation of the specific importation of reflex language from biology into other fields, not the specific use of that term in the discipline. The misapplication of bio-language into all sorts of fields is something I have come across looking into social and intellectual history. Sorry I didn’t make that clear.

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      • I’ll try to be patient but curiosity is getting the better of me.

        Can stories ever be about more than a few “prominent” or in less elitist language “paradigmatic” families?

        Aristotle recommended making such families the subject of your drama to ensure audience’s cognitive/emotional investment.

        It there no way to make history, politics, science, economics, war the subject of fictions? Frederic Jameson enjoins us to break out of the narrow horizons of the realist novel of families in crisis and take sci-fi epics like Red Mars and Stapeldon’s Last and First Men as a paradigm.

        Can stories ever help us cognize or map a social reality larger than a cluster of extended families, the social scope where we spent most of evolutionary history? [um, evolutionary history as I was taught by Nova, The Discovery Channel, Cosmos, and Anthro 101]

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        • You’ll just have to be patient. Right now you’re suffering in the grip of thinking of “biology” as not including politics and whatnot, and others (fortunately not here – for them) are cynically claiming tiny sectors of politics and whatnot as “biology.” Better to go one blog post at a time.

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  5. My layperson’s rampage through some naturalistic explanations of human pro-social, altruistic behaviour doesn’t get me out of the Naturalistic Fallacy. Merely because I have noted some of the mechanisms at work in social cohesion doesn’t give me much to go on in terms of making decisions in ethics or politics. To say that commitment to the Jacobin cause, or American Independence, or ISIS, or the Iron Guard depends on identical mechanisms of cognition, communication, and psychology, doesn’t help ME determine which ONE of them I will commit to, or which I will advise to others. Not committing to any of them marks me out as well. Instrumental liberals don’t inspire much reverence or trust.

    The axiom: contain violence and stop the spread of killing gives ME some grounds for deciding. But that principle cannot be deduced from the work of of the social scientists (Atran, Boyer, Ginges, Norenzayan) that I wantonly mashed up in my above post.

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  6. Pingback: Death: what remains | Man nor Beast

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