15 Mar 2014

Specious Evolution: The Horror of Darwin in Alien & Prometheus

By Emma Bell

“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then 
shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket” 
- attr. W.H. Auden, cit. Alien Script, 1978

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. 
Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor 
unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality” -  'Ash', Alien

Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

The Auden-attributed quote above was an epithet to the shooting script to Alien, written by Walter Hill and David Giler, based on a story by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and directed by Ridley Scott. The quote invites us to question the intentionality of the creators of this masterpiece of sci-fi horror: which of our deep ‘fears and hopes’ does the film extract from and 'show' us? Is it, as Auden suggested, our fear of the Other - monsters, predators, alien invasions - and our hopes for technology and exploration? I’d like to suggest that it is something even deeper - the fear of life itself, and the hope that humanity can overcome any threat to our ‘species supremacy’.

In On Film Stephen Mulhall set out his reservations about film studies approaches to philosophical ideas in films, asserting that films can not only reflect or engage with pre-existing philosophical ideas but can ‘do’ philosophy. That is, that some films should be seen as 'philosophy in action - film as philosophizing' (Mullhall, On Film, London: Routledge, 2008, p.2). Mulhall used the Alien series to exemplify his thesis, drawing out the ways in which the series engages the viewer in philosophic reflection about the nature of identity, personhood, and sexuality. Mullhall also commented on how the films engage with Darwinism in terms of competition between mutually ‘alien’ species. I want to expand on this and look at the ways in which Alien portrays a lived reality of evolution.

If we accept three premises: 1) species evolution is the consequence of survival, 2) there is probably extra-terrestrial life in the universe, and 3) variation and entropy are conditions of the universe, then we can accept that species evolution and extinction are inexorable. This would mean that all life forms across the entire universe are both conditional and transitory. To be superseded by a bluntly existing creature, not a ‘perfected’ human, runs counter to what might be thought of as human ‘evolution’. It may be horrific to think of oneself - a human - not as a grand being to be transcended by something even ‘greater’, some Nietzschean Übermensch, but as a comestible adaptation of the circumstances of life. This – not the horrible behaviour of the aliens – is the power of the sci-fi classic Alien and its prequel, Prometheus.

A brief summation of the theory of evolution is useful here to emphasise that evolution does not equate to either ‘survival’ or ‘perfection’. Regardless of one’s superstitious or spiritual beliefs, organisms change over time and new species of organisms develop. This happens as adaptive selection in relation to factors such as environment, predators, disease, and competition for resources. Evolution – often parsed as ‘survival of the fittest’ - is defined as genetic changes in a population of like organisms over a discernable period, which afford selective advantages for reproductive success and propagation. Natural selection – the reproduction of those specimens best adapted to reproduce in a given time and place - is not the only force driving evolution, nor is evolution a teleological process of species perfection or environmental homeostasis.Other mechanisms of evolution include genetic mutation, migration, environmental changes, and genetic drift. While evolutionary change is not an innate ‘force’ and has no ‘aim’, it nonetheless functions to encourage survival - a paradox I will address later. 

It is crucial to grasp that an evolutionary change does not make an organism “better” in the sense of the surviving generation necessarily being faster, stronger, larger, or more intelligent. Species that evolve to flourish in a cool climate, for example, will perish if that climate warms, or they are forced to migrate to a warmer environment; as larger and faster animals need more food, they are more vulnerable when resources are scarce or when they have to rest. Evolutionary changes are neither linear nor purposive: animals probably first evolved feathers, for example, to regulate body temperature - feathers only later became an advantage predisposing creatures for the adaptive advantage of flight (‘Archaeopteryx’ - the famous ‘feathered dinosaur’ fossil first discovered in 1861, just after Darwin published his provocative theory of evolution - demonstrates this point, being a creature in a stage of evolutionary transformation between lizard and bird). In summation, evolution is neither perfect nor progressive – it is a mindless process of gradual transformation of temporarily preferential variants unguided by romantic notions of benign forces or organic homeostasis.

Fossilised Archaeopteryx

The immediate horror of Alien is, of course, humans encountering an unknown creature that has not evolved on Earth, and that preys on humans for its reproductive and resource needs. That humans are at risk from being wiped out by predators is not in itself the horror of Alien – after all, we are prey for creatures on Earth. The horror is that, taken out of its terrestrial context, the human species is shown to be insignificant and non-superior. Any speciesist ideas we may have of the markers of species supremacy – intelligence, ethics, adaptableness, and technology – are not only contingent but dangerously speciesist and possibly even specious. The film, then, struggles to reassert human species superiority by addressing the existential reality of evolution. 

'Speciesism' is a concept in ethics that asserts that human animals assume supremacy over other species and thus privilege themselves with more moral rights than non-human animals. In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer defined it as ‘a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species’ (Singer, Animal Liberation: 2nd Ed, New York: Ecco, 2001, p.6.) Speciesism – or 'homocentricity' - describes not only the behaviour of humans towards non-human animals (that would run the risk of claiming bigotry when dealing aggressively with predators) but also the ideology that humans are ‘superior’ in terms of intelligence, technology, adaptability, culture, biology etc. Darwinism has, in some ways, contributed to speciesism in that his 'common ancestor' theory can be used by some to reinforce a homocentric organisation of species superiority such as the Aristotelian or Christian 'Great Chain of Being' hierarchies (scala naturae) as well as Social Darwinism. Instead of God at the apex of creation it is homo-sapiens - specifically white, western, male, socially elevated ones. The existence in sci-fi of beings or animals not of the Earth adds a new element to the debates on humanity’s moral obligation to non-human animals.

The Chain of Being, from Charles Bonnet's Œuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie,1779-83

The very notion of an ‘alien’ is homocentric in that it implies that, even off-world, humans exclude themselves from notions of Otherness. How different might our way of being 'emplaneted beings' be if we understood ourselves as 'alien'? The idea that it is morally right to favour humans over animals when making ethical choices breaks down when brought to the level of pure survival or of the threat to the planet by, for example, human caused climate change. To include beings or animals not of the Earth adds another community of interest to the potential sphere of moral obligation. For example, are aliens ‘animals’ in that they are non-human life forms? If so, do they have 'rights'? In the human imagination aliens have been constructed as having intelligence, culture, technology, and will, as well as having none of those attributes at all. They can be vaguely 'humanoid' as well as/at the same time as being 'creatures'. Including an alien in the sphere of any moral category seems depend on its potential threat to human existence, rather than its capacity for rational thought (contemporary sci-fi films such as District 9 and Monsters play with screen stereotypes by portraying non-predatory, animal-aliens that threaten only when attacked).

Yet, it is not animal rights debates around speciesism that are most interesting in Alien (although that could be explored and, perhaps, brought to dialogue with Phil Hutchinson’s thinkingfilm piece on Monsters and Rupert Read's on Avatar). Rather it is the desperate and tenuous speciesist ideology of human supremacy that drives it. In other words, the ideas explored in Alien that human evolution might involve not a ‘perfected’ humanoid creature, but a human/alien hybrid, or possibly extinction, suggests that a) evolution operates across the universe in diverse environments that demand different ‘superior’ adaptations, and b) human survival ultimately plays out not on Earth, but in space. This is an recurring issue in sci-fi, as inferred in Peter Krämer's thinkingfilm piece on 2001: a Space Odyssey. The work of resolving fears of evolutionary change and extinction in Alien is of finding some means of reasserting human species superiority.

It is fruitless to insist upon philosophical or ‘scientific’ continuity in the discourse on evolution across the Alien franchise, as there are a few anomalies in the description and behaviour of the Alien species. Rather, one can look at the ways in which the original film provokes anxieties about the force and trajectory of evolution by emphasising the life cycle of the creature and destabilising assumptions of humanity’s species supremacy. One can then consider the ways in which those fears are explicated in the film’s ‘prequel’, Prometheus. It is also significant that Ridley Scott directed both films because other Alien film directors modified the species described in the original film.


Man touched by Other, in Alien dir. Ridley Scott, 1979
The two main threats to human survival in Alien are the alien itself and the actions of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that seeks to sacrifice its crew and exploit it. The specific, visceral horror is the creature’s symbiotic relationship to its prey – it hunts prey not only for its own sustenance but its existence. The creature is a manifestation of the fearful reality of life mutely exerting itself regardless of any need for ‘human’ qualities such as intelligence, self-awareness, language, or culture. As such, it embodies a fear of the supersession of humanity by a seemingly non-superior species. The other epithet to the Alien screenplay is 'We live as we dream: alone', a famous quote from Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s existentialist novel about capitalism and exploitation. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s mining spaceship in the film is named after Conrad’s book, foregrounding the Corporation’s appalling exploitation of workers as well as Conradian fears of colonialism and voyaging to a ‘dark’ continent. These anxieties are surely manifest throughout the film’s franchise, yet Alien speaks more directly to Auden’s fear of monsters in that its narrative is dictated by the consequences of an 'alien' process of inception, gestation, parturition, survival and, ultimately, of evolution.

A synopsis is warranted to briefly underscore that the alien process of the 'creature's' lifecycle is central to the narrative. In 2122, the Weyland-Yutani commercial spaceship Nostromo is returning to Earth with its load of mineral ore and 7 crew members held in stasis for the duration of the voyage home. When the ship intercepts an alien transmission, the pilot computer, Mother, awakens the crew. Being obligated to investigate any systematized transmission indicating possible intelligent extra terrestrial life, a party descends to the origin of the transmission on moon LV-426, where they discover the wreckage of a vast alien spacecraft. Inside they find the fossilised remains of an alien crewmember ('spacejockey') and a large cluster of eggs, or pods. One bursts open and an organism ('facehugger') attaches itself to Kane, paralysing him.

Finding the eggs in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979
'Face Hugger' in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

Ripley refuses to let the infected crewmembers back on board, insisting they follow the Science Division's quarantine law, but Science Officer Ash defies her orders. He wants to extract the creature, dissect it and study it for scientific advancement. Eventually the 'facehugger releases Kane and dies. The ship continues its journey but Kane goes into convulsions and an alien bursts from his chest, killing him. 

'Chest-burster' in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

When the 'chest-burster' escapes, the crew must find and kill it. It rapidly grows into a huge, ferocious adult 'Xenomorph' (lit. 'alien-form') When Ash tries to kill Ripley for interfering with his 'specimin' she destroys him - revealing him to be an android. The Weyland-Yutani corporation deployed Ash to intentionally infect the crew of the Nostromo, thus capturing an alien sample and bringing it home to develop and possibly weaponise. The crew was expendable in his mission. One by one the alien picks off crewmembers, storing some in cocoons, until only Ripley is left. She initiates the ship’s self-destruct sequence and escapes in a tiny shuttle. The alien follows her into the shuttle where she forces it out of the hatch, blasting it into space. She sets course to Earth putting herself and Jones, the ship’s cat, into stasis.

Xenomorph vs. Human in Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

Themes of extinction, parasitism, and metamorphosis are integral to the narrative and the focus for generating horror. Metamorphosis is a necessity of the alien species survival, and an advantage for species dispersal. It maximises the possibility of propagation by ensuring diversity of hosts, temporary as opposed to fixed habitats, opportunity to maximise food supply, and widespread dispersal of animals – in short: it ensures the advantage of adaptation and flexibility. 

The alien Xenomorph also has the advantage of being parasitic and something approaching holometabolous. It has a similar lifecycle to some endoparasitoid insects, including some species of flies, cockroaches, and wasps. The Xenomorph lifecycle can be compared to that of Ampulex Compressa - an entomophageous tropical wasp that stings and zombifies a cockroach host with neurotoxins, then lays an egg on its leg and buries it alive. The larva that emerges from the egg then devours the cockroach host, ultimately killing it. In Alienthe creature's life cycle is similar yet it consists of four distinct phases involving two separate obligate parasitic ‘creatures’, the metamorphoses of which are dependent up on a dispensable host.

Ampulex Compressa approaching its prey

As android science officer Ash admires, the alien is a ‘perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility’. The initial phase consists of egg fertilisation and laying by a Queen Alien. The eggs are diapause and, when disturbed, release a sessile larval parasite  (‘face hugger’) that attacks a host and deposit a pupa (embryonic Xenomorph) in the host's internal organs, rendering the host docile. Facehuggers have a hard protective coating, acid blood, and genetic material that reforms in response to atmospheric conditions. The facehugger supplies the embryo rather like a placenta, and the pupa feeds on the host. It destroys its host when it emerges as an infant (‘chest-burster’) before growing into an imago (adult Xenomorph) within days.

The Xenomorph is capable of instantaneous 'evolution' – its form varies depending on its host as it has the ability to appropriate genetic material from its host and it is physiologically capable of rapidly adapting to the atmosphere it finds itself born into. It uses host DNA to ‘evolve’ during gestation, becoming comparable with its prey and adapting to its environment. The human phenotype is a bipedal, insectoid vertebrate with acidic blood, a hard exoskeleton of 'protein polysaccharides', and both external mandibles and a retractable inner pharyngeal jaw of venomous teeth. As well as using them as hosts, Xenomorph capture creatures, storing them in cocoons for feeding or impregnation at a later point. In later Alien films, we learn that the alien species function as hives - super organisms generated by a formidable Queen. This is nonetheless inferred in Alien by showing the field of eggs as well as the practice of nest building and encasing live victims as food storage. Queens, which are much larger, more developed and more intelligent than ‘drone’ Xenomorph, control the actions of the lower creatures.

The admiration the android Ash has for the un-self-aware alien is based on a shared lack of empathy or ‘purpose’; ‘I can't lie to you about your chances’ he tells the crew, ‘but you have my sympathies’. The alien has no discernible purpose other than its own existence and no moral compunction. A more sentient life form would be a more purposeful predator, but Ash venerates as 'perfect' precisely it because it has so few ‘human’ characteristics, being ‘a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality'. Unlike humans, the alien has no ‘reason’, and its practices of colonization and exploitation are extramoral.

As a Darwinian nightmare, Alien is deeply problematic and yet it reaffirms the idea of a 'monstrous' space at the very fount of existence, showing the subtle or dramatic changes inherent in the non-inear, non-progressive evolutionary process. In the documentary Alien Evolution writer Dan O’Bannon was very clear about ‘sexual’ procreative contact and the alien’s evolutionary power being central to the film's horror: "This is a movie about alien interspecies rape, that's it. That's scary. That's scary because it pushes all our buttons, all of our unresolved feelings about sexuality". He went on to clarify that the symbolism of "oral rape" by the impregnating facehugger was an intentional means of discomforting male viewersIn this nightmarish primordial wrestle males can play host to the next generation of life, but in so doing they are destroyed. This is procreation without man - a Darwinian psychohorror of reproduction (and not in that sense is it in any way a 'feminist' film in that it points horrifically to the literal place of evolutionary change as the 'feminized', parastitized body). 

Critics might define Ripley by her moral stance towards her female biological capacity as a vessel for evolving creatures: she can make ‘people’, hence she can make 'creatures' - an act of biological warfare. Yet the 'creature' that threatens to supersede humanity is in fact amorphous - there is no 'Alien' and, horrifically, no individual entity to will its own survival (the self-aware Queen Alien in the later films being an attempt to continue the franchise beyond its natural demise). To survive, the Alien species, like some insects, separates its developmental stages into discrete beings the purpose of each being to secure the next, more evolved stage in its genesis. These discrete creatures nonetheless exert their roles and are prepared - unlike humans - to die in order to complete their purpose and ensure the perpetuation of the species.

The fears being played out here are that we are not the sine qua non of the universe's evolutionary exertion and that, like the Alien, we exist only to exist: this exerting life in one biological form as opposed to another demonstrates a paradox of Darwinism being in that a creature exists, adapts or dies in futile and self-defeating defence of its NOT changing and to PREVENT its supersession. Human beings are particularly guilty of this in our fantasies of both a distinct human essence that transcends our brutish past, as well as some distinction - biological, cultural, or cognitive - between our ancestors and ourselves.

What we see, then, is a reassertion of human species superiority over a parasitoid predator defeated, in the end, like any other animal, by human intelligence and technology. It took only one alien to wipe out Ripley's entire crew, so what if Earth were to be invaded by that species? Scott intended the ending to be the Alien biting Ripley's head off and answering the distress call response from Earth in 'her' voice. That ending would have more clearly spoken to the film's Darwinian anxieties and it is a great disappointment that he was not able to end the film like that. That ending would have made the film a much more powerful existential horror about evolution with no reassuring ideology about human species superiority. Had Scott done that, however, there could have been no sequels and, possibly, no prequel... 

Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012

In Prometheus, Scott was able to more directly focus the film’s theme of evolution, and in that film we see human species superiority more shakily defended, and the question of the origin of the species - human and Xenomorph - uncompromisingly addressed. In Prometheus the evolutionary horrors of the original Alien concept are brought to the fore of a narrative that also speaks loudly to contemporary debates around creationism, intelligent design, and evolution.The premise of Prometheus is that the Weyland Corporation’s search for extra terrestrial life has been on going for decades. Before the Nostromo ever set on its voyage, Peter Weyland commissioned a search for not just aliens but the origins of life itself, believing that non-supernatural intelligent designers (the ‘Engineers’, or ‘Mala'kak’) created the human race. An alien is not so much ‘humanoid’ as humans are ‘alienoid’.

Prometheus opens with an alien being sacrificing itself on an ancient Earth. The being drinks a black toxin whereupon its body disintegrates, falling onto the water where its DNA becomes corrupted and reconstituted, seeding Earth with alien life. Human life, then, is directly shown to be the result of a conscious process of exogenesis

Seeding Earth in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012

On Earth, two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, find evidence in ancient wall murals of beings who came to Earth and seeded it with humans. Funded by the Weyland Corporation they travel to LV-223, a distant planet, where they find evidence of a civilisation as well as the severed head of an alien creature they take to be one of the 'engineers'. Back on the ship, the head is analysed and the Engineer’s DNA is discovered to be identical to that of the human race. The android David intentionally infects Holloway with the black substance to see if it will change him and/or cause him to impregnate Shaw with an alien.

On LV-223 abandoned crewmembers are attacked by serpent-like creatures and infected with the black fluid. When the rescue crew arrives, David discovers a live Engineer in stasis and a star map highlighting Earth. Holloway's infection is causing him to violently change and when Weyland Corporation supervisor Vickers refuses to let him aboard, he bids her kill him. Shaw is indeed ‘pregnant’ with an alien creature and, rather than return to Earth in stasis, as David wants, she escapes into a surgery machine and ‘aborts’ the creature. Peter Weyland is found in stasis on the ship, having contrived the mission solely to beg the Engineers for more life. The crew theorize that LV-223 was a military base for Engineers who were using the black DNA toxin as a biological weapon. When David awakens the dormant Engineer and tries to communicate with it, it decapitates him and kills Weyland. 

Speaking to the 'Engineer' in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012

David’s severed android head is able to tell the horrified crew that the ampoules of black toxin are destined for Earth: our creators have for some reason decided to destroy their creation. When the Engineer tries to take off for Earth, Shaw convinces the remaining crew to crash Prometheus into its ship, but the Engineer survives. Shaw’s aborted alien foetus has also survived and grown to gigantic size. When the Engineer attacks Shaw in the escape pod, she releases ‘her’ offspring upon him. Shaw and what is left of David take off in an alien ship to the Engineers' home planet to discover why they created, then tried to destroy, humanity. An alien bursts out the dying Engineer's chest (cue: Prometheus 2). 

Prometheus modifies the Darwinian premise of the first Alien film, as well as acting as a rebuff to the metaphysical yearnings and ‘species supremacism’ of creationist or intelligent design theorists. The search for the origins of the species has shifted in Prometheus from the evolutionary development of life involuntarily exerting itself as varied forms, to fixed-point intentional interventions in the development of life in the universe. There have been scientific theories of extra-terrestrial processes of evolution, such as Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe, and that planet Earth was inseminated by genetic material (usually bacteria) on space debris such as meteoroids and asteroids. The theory does not yet explain how life initially began in the universe, only how might have been propagated.

Prometheus explores the idea that what some see as premeditated features of life on Earth are indeed the result of intelligent design, but adds a twist to the God/science debate by positing that the ‘designers’ are neither supernatural nor benevolent. What is more, their design (us) is not at the axis of their existence. Their ‘superiority’ is their creation of humans as a kind of technology; what little the voyagers learn about their creators leaves them as baffled about reasons for life on Earth as they were before.

The alien that hunted down Ripley through the universe is shown to be only one species in a much larger narrative in which human life is actually a synthetic supplement to a larger process of evolution taking place across galaxies. It is added that metamorphosis is a designed feature of the alien species - the alien genus is released via a vector - an organism that spreads pathogens between hosts. The black virus is used to intentionally re-engineer genetic material. When a DNA helix comes into contact with the black fluid it is corrupted, broken down, and reformed.  Thus life - human life - was seeded on Earth by a superior intelligence that has designed other worlds and other creatures, and it has no benign intentions for us. In fact, they seem to have decided to shut down the human 'experiment'. Were we a rogue mutation? A crop to be harvested? Or - most chillingly - a biological weapon that has now evolved to the stage that it is a significant threat to the supremacy of other life forms in the universe - perhaps even to the Engineers?

Alien vector in Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, 2012

The idea of the Xenomorph as also being created in this obscure programme of interventionist evolution is exploited in the Aliens vs. Predator franchise of films and videogames in which it is posited that Xenomorph are also used as ‘game’ bred on Earth and other planets by Yautja (Predators) for use in hunts. It is also suggested that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is again in some way aware of this activity. The darker side of evolution and creation in the universe is aligned with anti-humanist corporate exploitation, by which the ability to monetise and weaponise extra-terrestrial life forms supersedes any claim to scientific knowledge or human advancement. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is integral to the narrative in that they – like the Engineers – are using Xenomorph for their own advancement but also, as their corporate mission states, Weyland are  ‘BUILDING BETTER WORLDS’ - in other words, Weyland is a corporation intent on colonising planets by building artificial environments that support human life - ‘terraforming’ (this spoof 2023 Ted Talk explains Weyland's paradigm shift in cybernetics and world building) 


What is there to cling to after exploration and science so radically alter our understanding of ourselves? We can see in Alien and Prometheus the fundamental insignificance of our own evolutionary existence. We can see ourselves as merely one among many evolving things - evolving without moral restraint, adapting or dying in an ultimately indifferent universe. This is a horror of Nietzschean amoral and extra human striving for life with no afterworld and no supremacy in a universe of parallel evolutions. The 'horror' of the films is that we are merely life exerting itself and that, in order to survive, we must change. 

[Thanks to Phil Hutchinson, Rupert Read, Vincent Gaine, and Peter Krämer for the discussions that helped shape this piece.]