In teaching biology, you often have to throw out a lot of really shocking statistics as your anchoring phenomena (analogous to a hook in writing) for a lesson. One number that always throws them off is that humans share somewhere around 40% of our DNA with bananas. Our genetic bases are a fascinating story for another time, and believe me, I’ll have a thing or two to say about them later, but I have another statistic that always threatens to send me into a spiral of existential thinking—of all the living things we’ve identified on planet Earth, roughly 40% of them are insects.

To preface, I was a bug kid. I loved bugs; I had a bug catching net and one of those cute dollar-store mesh cages that I’d use to keep my daily bug collections in for a few hours before releasing them. I helped my mom curate the wild milkweed that grew on the fringes of woods surrounding my childhood home. Shino Aburame was in my top five favorite Naruto characters growing up (though, my top spot would always be reserved for Hinata Hyūga). 

A bee perches on a hand

(I still let bees perch on my hand; thankfully, I’m not allergic.)

Unfortunately, the world was not as fond of bugs as child-me was, and my poor creepy crawlies are disproportionately relegated to villainous on-screen roles. Though, I appreciate Starship Troopers’ forward nature with skipping the hassle of paper-thin world building and having the characters call the alien hoard as they appear—bugs.

There seems to be a sliding scale in sci-fi (at least in live action); the more humanoid something is, the more agency they’re given. Even though our real world contains variety beyond our wildest imagination as inspiration for alien biology, we always come back to humanity as our template for sapience. I don’t think this inclination is accidental. It’s a mechanism of storytelling. We need to relate to the characters we see onscreen, and it’s easy to see yourself in Spock or Worf, beings that are aliens in only the most superficial of ways.

In live action media, it’s tempting to paint an actor’s skin green or insert colored contacts in place of costly practical effects or CGI. Animated media and books, by their nature, allow for more flexibility in design. It’s easier to describe an eight foot tall sapient praying mantis-amoeba hybrid on paper or animate one in the style of the rest of the cast than it is to underpay a team of VFX artists to add one in during post-production.

Concept drawing of a mostly human alien with gills and a life support device on their back
A concept drawing of an alien with webbed hand, webbed feet, gills, and a tail

(My own alien species, the Lacerti, got less human looking until I tried to make them quadrupedal. Then, I scaled it back to bipedal but kept features like gills.)

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with making aliens humanoid. No one is complaining about Deanna Troi (who, like Spock, is half-human, but that’s a blog post for another time), Kira Nerys, or Elim Garak looking too human. In my opinion, mimicking the appearance of humanity in sci-fi is a form of shorthand; if something appears human, it means that its intentions, whether good or bad, should be understood in human terms. Non-humanoid aliens such as the bugs in Starship Troopers aren’t given that instant benefit of humanity. We don’t mind that Deanna, Kira, and Garak look human because they fulfill the narrative promise of being something that acts human. 

Does this mean that non-humanoid aliens cannot be fully sapient characters capable of human-like emotions and audience sympathy? No, not at all, but it does mean that they’re starting at a disadvantage. The need to make your sympathetic aliens human-like and your unsympathetic aliens cold extensions of an insectoid hive-mind is tempting and something I struggle with in my own writing, but I’d like to challenge myself to think about why that is.

Why is coding something as distinctly unlike us in physicality and language shorthand for unsympathetic? For any works made during the Cold War era, I think the answer is painfully obvious, but for as much as we like to think we’ve progressed beyond looking at the subtext of what a popular trope could insinuate, I’d say there’s a lot more to be said about how we represent extraterrestrials in sci-fi and how we treat others who may not be similar to ourselves in physicality and language in real life. 

(My work-around for the amoeba- like Ceruleans, another one of my alien species, is mild shapeshifting abilities, but in my attempts to assure myself I’m not ripping off Star Trek, I made sure the closest Ceruleans got to humanoid was four limbs and eye spots)

This leads to the titular question: do aliens need to be humanoid? If we ever meet sapient life in space, I think the answer is maybe, probably, most certainly no. In fiction though, not necessarily.

It doesn’t matter if they’re Nana Visitor with nose ridges or goop in a bucket. Consumers are smart, and if you give them a character with motivations and thoughts and feelings they can either empathize or sympathize with, they will. For once, I think we can take a lesson out of the sci-fi romance handbook: no matter what something looks like, some reader somewhere is going to relate to them in one way or another.


The Gene | The Gene Explained | Is That a Banana in Your Genes? | PBS

Which animal group has the most organisms? | AMNH