“In prehistoric times, Homo sapiens were deeply endangered. Early humans were less fleet of foot, with fewer natural weapons and less well-honed senses than all the predators that threatened them. Moreover, they were hampered in their movements by the need to protect their uniquely immature young – juicy meals for any hungry beast” – Robert Winston
These days, we spend a lot less time running for our lives. This was not the case for most of human history. When you live in a world where in your natural, uncivilized state most everything bigger than a bread box can kill or eat you, fear of the apex predator dies hard, even when your copious cranium assures you that fire, Clovis points, and strategic thinking confer a distinct advantage over things with sharp teeth and claws. Ingenuity helped us skip to the front of the line, handily establishing our primacy in the ecosystem where once we were more likely to be chewed by sabertooth tigers, gored by mammoth, mauled by bears, and rent limb from limb by dire wolves. Good times. That’s why we have monsters. We remind ourselves that our position at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being is a hard won and fleeting status, simply awaiting the next apex predator to wrangle its way to the top of the heap.
Deep in our monkey brains, we remember that there was a time when an encounter with wild beasts was invariably fatal. Thus, our greatest fear is the beastly thing with the mind of a man, combining the intellect which has served us so well with the predatory proclivities of the animal which we narrowly managed to sidestep on our climb up the evolutionary ladder. Unless you want to go with a strict biological interpretation, this is likely why the zoanthrope (were-animal) has always been the traditional apex predator recognized by a particular culture. This is why “Gaul has been the favourite haunt of the man-wolf, Scandinavia has been preferred by the man-bear, and Hindustan by the man-tiger” (Fiske, 1890, p74).
This begs the question, in our world of high technology and relatively predator free existence, of what the modern zoanthrope looks like. Not a lot of people reporting werewolves. Bigfoot runs from us. The modern vampire is nearly adorable. But in the back of our minds, we know the next apex predator is just around the corner. Just ask Steve Irwin. It makes evolutionary sense that despite our relative comfort, we are acutely sensitive to the possibility that our days are numbered. Certainly, our rational minds recognize that the greatest danger to man is man himself, but that is not an especially comforting thought. Can’t fight the evil in your own heart, after all. I mean, I try, but being bad just feels so good. Ladies? I digress.
So here we are with our automatic weapons, tanks, smart bombs, nuclear ordinance, and wildlife preserves, with no natural predators save ourselves to fear, but in that little segment of hindbrain we are continuously reminded of how we got here in the first place. We outcompeted the apex predators. And if it can be done once, it can be done again. Thus, in the interest of identifying existential threats, I would like to hypothesize that the new werewolf is the Gray Alien. No, I haven’t been drinking. Okay, well I have, but not enough to impede my deconstructive sensibilities. Then again, I just used the phrase “deconstructive sensibilities”.
When you’re king of the hill in the evolutionary sense, and you got there through your keen fashion sense and ability to use science and technology to even the odds with those pesky critters who otherwise consider you a tasty treat, the thought that’s got to be percolating in the back of your head is who could possibly unseat you from your lofty position. What manner of creature could best you? Since we can snipe your average beast from distances up to a mile, that is, if we don’t just saturation bomb the entire area where nefarious critters are suspected to live, we would seem nearly invulnerable. Until of course, we imagine an entity with a bigger brain and better technology.
Enter the Gray Aliens, the common trope for our encounter with extraterrestrials. Bulbous headed nasties (presumably with big brains) with nearly magical technological powers, flitting about our skies, abducting humans, performing bizarre and inexplicable experiments on cattle, leaving indecipherable patterns in wheat fields, and generally making themselves an insurmountable nuisance. We can’t catch them and we can’t fight them. They trump us on our intellect and our cool toys. In short, if we became apex predators through our brains and technology, how can we envision anything but a bigger brained, more technologically advanced zoanthrope? Lions, and tigers, and bears are something that you can adequately prepare for. You can’t fight against something that is better than, smarter than, and gosh darn it, just better looking than you. You and your small head and lack of flying saucers.
So, the gray alien is just the next obvious apex predator. Personally, I don’t want to suffer the same fate as the Neanderthals did at our hands. Sadly, the replacement of Homo sapiens with something else is virtually assured. Just in case, I need to find a cave and start painting. Wouldn’t want to be completely forgotten.
Fiske, John, 1842-1901. Myths and Myth-makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology. 13th ed. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890.