‘Alien’ Disclosure and Critical Animal Studies

by Dr Richard Twine, 03/01/2024.

Did you manage to go through 2023 without hearing the name David Grusch? Just in case you missed it Grusch rose to prominence first via a June 5th interview with Australian investigative journalist Ross Coulthart and then during a US congressional hearing on July 26th. David Grusch is a former high ranking US intelligence official who during his career became privy to knowledge regarding UAPs (Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, though sometimes also referred to as the more limiting Unidentified Aerial Phenomena).

His claims and then testimony under oath are startling. Grusch asserts, from information garnered via interviews with 40 other respected intelligence sources, that the United States is involved in a secretive decades long UAP crash retrieval and reverse-engineering program. Furthermore, this program has involved not only the discovery and retention of spacecraft but also alien bodies or ‘non-human biologics’ to use Grusch’s terminology. What was interesting about these claims compared to similar past allegations is that they were being made by someone who had worked on the inside of the US intelligence apparatus.

David Grusch
David Grusch pictured at the congressional hearing – July 26th, 2023.

In spite of the enormous significance of these claims they struggled to register, at least initially, in mainstream media. Given the wider cultural meanings around the subject shaped by decades of science fiction and conspiracy theories around cover ups, reluctance to engage on the topic is undoubtedly related to fear of ridicule. The trope of the UFO enthusiast as the gullible or unhinged male nerd probably doesn’t help. However, this is hardly a minoritarian subject. Many people have some level of interest in fundamental questions around the existence of life beyond this planet.

The media coverage of this subject is worthy of analysis in its own right. It has elevated the importance of various podcasts and brought new media to the fore, notably US television network, NewsNation, who originally featured the Coulthart interview with Grusch. British television did not seem to register the claims. Print media were better with The Guardian, for example, covering the story since July. By November Newsweek were featuring developments in the story.

Being generous to Grusch his claims could be deemed at least a very significant pre-disclosure moment. Yet as many have pointed out, in spite of his respectability and experience, his claims for the time being, lack direct evidence or the so-called ‘smoking gun’ necessary to be convincing. With an emerging loose coalition of US politicians, journalists and ufology veterans pushing for more revelations we await what 2024 throws up and the extent to which the story maintains or even amplifies its media presence.

In the meantime, Grusch and others have been active in creating the Sol Foundation. This seeks to add academic and scientific credibility to the UAP issue and essentially constitutes an emerging group of expertise from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering, information science, and other technology-focused disciplines. The aim of SOL is to undertake research and to ‘set the agenda for UAP Studies’. Even NASA have introduced initiatives to add scientific rigour to the UAP topic.

Close encounters of the sociological kind

As a sociologist it is interesting to see the recognition for the social sciences and humanities as being important to this issue. A noteworthy aspect of the issue has been the rise to prominence and use of the distinctly sociological and philosophical language of ‘ontological shock’, to describe the potential upheaval to people’s sense of reality that actual disclosure could bring. This is reminiscent of Anthony Giddens’ idea of ‘ontological security’ to refer to the sense of order and continuity in our lives. If these revelations, incredible as they seem, turn out, in some sense, to be true, then it seems likely that reasons for historical secrecy will be partly related to paternalistic perceptions that ‘the masses’ would be unable to cope with such a shock to how they socially construct reality.

Whilst this may be a convenient crutch for gatekeeping, the term ‘ontological shock’ is fair in the sense that disclosure could contest religiosity or undermine personal life projects and other sources of meaning. It could disrupt routines that are integral to the current contemporary social order.  Whether that is inherently to the detriment of societies is an open question especially because we know that the current order is both productive of inequality and crisis. It does clearly depend on what type of disclosure could happen and what exactly might be the nature of the – to use another interesting acronym that has surfaced within this issue – non-human intelligence (NHI) in question. Either way it seems prescient to bring some sociologists, philosophers, and theologians to the table.

One academic development of recent decades that has been very much located in these and other disciplines has been the ‘animal turn’ and the emergence of human-animal studies, animal studies, and/or critical animal studies. If this is new to you here is a very brief outline. The animal turn refers to way in which traditional academic disciplines (like sociology, history, english, philosophy, geography etc.) have contested their own human-centredness and reimagined their research foci to be inclusive of other animal species. Once you get it it’s obvious.

To conceive of society and social interaction as only involving humans now seems very ontologically naïve. Say for example, you’re a sociologist aloof to how companion animals are often seen as family members, or you’re a military historian and haven’t reflected upon the role and agency of horses, your analysis is going to be lacking. Similarly, if you’re an ethicist and you exclude a consideration of the ethics of human-animal relations you’re a rather limited ethicist. Or, if you’re a biologist or ecologist who hasn’t got to grips with the species impurity of the human body, or the permeability of bodies and environments then this is going to shape your effectiveness in these disciplines.

This animal turn overlaps with the emergence of posthumanism: the critical questioning of the taken for granted centering of the human. For those of us researching in this area it raises very personal and political questions. Recognising overlaps and entanglements between the human and other species is one rather basic move, but the more critical questioning of anthropocentrism seen in some iterations of posthumanism and all of critical animal studies takes research into a more fundamental and transformative space. From this perspective the sharp hierarchical dualism made between humans and other animals in anthropocentric thinking is not justifiable.

Not only does it falsely and deeply underestimate the abilities and agency of nonhuman animals, it enables a breathtaking scale of violence and exploitation that underpins both the climate and biodiversity crises. Indeed, in critical animal studies (CAS) we embed our understanding of the exploitation of other animals in the long-intertwined histories of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy because all four forms of power relations have been mutually co-constitutive. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the academic community of CAS scholars identify as ethical vegans. Overall, what you might call the true antithesis of the Trump mindset.  

Posthumanism as ontological shock

Disclosure, if it comes, would fit well into the history of posthumanist decenterings. Whether we are noting the Copernican revolution, the Freudian undermining of the rational self, the Marxist challenge to free will, or Darwin’s relocation of the human within the animal world we are talking about progressive challenges to an exalted and arrogant human sense of self. Even if disclosure came in the form of discovering bacterial extremophiles on Enceladus or a bio-signature on planet K2-18b, rather than the more dramatic and unpredictable form of Grusch’s assertions, it would still constitute a further undermining of earth-bound creation myths.

Perhaps a Grusch like revelation that might construct the human as either technologically, intellectually, or morally primitive would be necessary to directly further decentre the human as such. Yet even within such possibilities there are many questions to be asked about what constitutes ‘technological’, ‘intellectual’, ‘moral’, or ‘progress’ and to underline that ‘the human’ is hardly in homogenous agreement on these matters.

This is where some of the contemporary discourse on UAPs and non-human intelligence collides uncomfortably with critical animal studies. Ufology, or UAP studies if you prefer, tends to make quite anthropocentric assumptions about intelligence which are inadvertently revealed by its new discourse of non-human intelligence (NHI). The shift is well-intentioned because it seeks to keep possibilities open around what UAPs are. For example, UAPs and NHI may deviate quite widely from our cultural repertoire of possibilities bequeathed to us from science fiction.

However, it seems to preclude the possibility that NHI is already found here on Earth either in familiar, known or, yet to be discovered (animal) species. Recall that CAS asserts that the exploitation of other animals is partly predicated on a now wilful underestimation of their emotional and psychological lives. It is of note that the search for extraterrestrial life runs parallel temporally with the search for new terrestrial (or oceanic) life.

Earth bound nonhuman intelligence

Confirmed new species in 2023 included the electric blue tarantula, two new pygmy squids and six new species of pygmy chameleon in Tanzania. Scientists also estimate that less than 20% of animal and plant species have been identified by Western science. We know so little about the very ecologies that are being commodified and destroyed. We are in danger of over hyping the potential of extraterrestrial nonhuman intelligence whilst terrestrial and aquatic nonhuman intelligences vanish before they get to be disclosed. Learning more about nonhuman animals (and plants) equates to disclosure of the weird and wonderful on an almost weekly basis.

In a review of Ed Yong’s bestselling 2022 book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, which examines the magical diversity of how other animal species may perceive the world (itself another move of posthumanist decentring), Yong quotes a scientist as telling him “We don’t have to look to aliens from other planets, we have animals that have a completely different interpretation of what the world is right next to us.”

That may be true, but even in lieu of any Grusch scale disclosure, biological curiosity has already left this planet. Perhaps all ufologists should be conservation biologists. The emergence of astrobiology hints at the reverse even if the search for extremophiles constitutes a respectable face whilst a concern with extraterrestrials remains somewhat scandalous for the image of ‘serious science’. Whilst it is unfair to label all ufology speculative pseudoscience the different moves and deployments at play across all these areas to try and set out ‘robust science’ and ‘evidence’ are fascinating for any sociologist of science.

Preceding the emergence of astrobiology, the broader SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) movement has worked to demarcate this ‘serious science’ focus. As recently as December 2023 SETI scientists reported on research with a non-human (aquatic) intelligence which was presented as a significant moment in human-whale communication. As was reported, “The Whale-SETI team has been studying humpback whale communication systems in an effort to develop intelligence filters for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence”. Confirmation then of an overlap between human-animal studies and the search for extra-terrestrial life.

Where the shift to the NHI acronym is useful is in its implicit critique of the notion of ‘aliens’. The etymology of alien as ‘strange’, ‘other’, ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ long precedes its association with extra-terrestrials. It is a term bound up in the historical intersections of capitalism and colonialism including the deterritorialization of species which that has involved. Yet all meanings of the word evoke fear and fascination. The NHI concept arguably helps to bring the extraterrestrial ‘back down to earth’. For what else might an alien be but a nonhuman animal that has evolved in some other place? Unless of course evolution is a parochial Earthian process.

It is striking that other animals are sometimes deemed so ‘alien’ that it is theorised that they have an extraterrestrial origin, as has been the case with the octopus. A discourse of NHI and the attempts to construct respectable scientific infrastructure around UAPs holds the promise – IF disclosure comes – of the ‘de-otherisation’ and normalisation of extraterrestrial nonhuman forms of life. My focus here on potential extra-terrestrial nonhuman intelligence alongside terrestrial NHI speaks to a common theme in ufology that the former may have inhabited planet Earth for a long time, hiding in plain sight and even consider it their home. Such theories constitute but a small part of the imaginative creativity to be found within ufology social media.

‘Aliens’ are good to think with

Sociologically and philosophically ‘aliens’ are useful to think with which is surely part of their appeal. Those sympathetic to the politics of critical animal studies and humane education (e.g. Weil 2004) have used the ploy of ‘taking the alien perspective’ to say something about animal ethics. Hypothetical extraterrestrials are employed as a mirror to human behaviour to point out hypocrisy in our inconsistent treatment of other animals. This might make us wonder the following – is there a fear that we could become ashamed of ourselves in the presence of an alien gaze?

The human farming of and violence against other animals would be enough to offer extraterrestrials big pause for thought about making contact, or worse still, be used as justification for similarly exploiting humans. It is not a surprise that the ‘alien’ farming of humans is a recurring trope in science fiction, perhaps most memorably in the 1980s series, V. Science fiction has a tradition of reflecting upon human/animal relations – for example in the problematic notion of animal uplift (e.g., modifying them to make them ‘more intelligent’), in drawing upon pre-existing human/animal relations to scenario scope possible human/extraterrestrial relations and in generally calling into question human conceit. It is clear that any self-respecting science fiction scriptwriter should be immersed in UFO/UAP social media on the lookout for new ideas.

Both science fiction and present-day UFO/UAP social media delve deeply into the moral possibilities of extraterrestrials – would they be malevolent, indifferent, or morally sophisticated? Some of this is likely projection over deep contemporary anxieties around the moral and political failures we are living through. This can translate into narratives of salvation where the ‘good alien’ will usher in some form of utopia by putting an end to wars, genocide, capitalism and so on. Moral and technological uplift will save the day, and everything will be ok. This narrative would partly explain why so many really want UAPs and extra-terrestrials to be real. Yet we cannot just will them into reality, ignoring that sad yet significant gap between desire and reality.

David Grusch’s claims are so intriguing because they promise a possible narrowing of that gap, offering a tantalising and unusually credible assertion about the reality of UAPs and extra-terrestrial nonhuman intelligence. Of course, he could be deluded, or he could be being lied to, but neither of these possibilities have much evidence around them either. Even if you find this all too outlandish and ‘ontologically shocking’ this remains a story worth following in 2024 and beyond. As an advocate of human reflection and humility regarding our relations with other animals, I am hoping, via my own projection no doubt, for an acutely posthuman disclosure event in which not only are extra-terrestrials verified but it turns out that their primary interest in Earth is for some other species than the human.

Whilst keeping an eye on Grusch related events I will also be hoping that the sort of interconnections outlined here between all types of nonhumans remind people, first, to keep an open mind and, second, that it is more incumbent on us than ever to contest our own disinterest in pre-existing forms of nonhuman intelligence and to do everything we can to both disclose their wonder and arrest the overlapping climate and biodiversity crises that so threatens them.

Richard Twine is Reader in Sociology and Co-Director of the Centre for Human-Animal Studies (CfHAS), Edge Hill University, UK. His next book, The Climate Crisis and Other Animals (Sydney University Press) is published March 1st 2024.