One of the loonier and more wonderful conspiracy theories floating around the Internet is it many of the world’s elite are shapeshifting lizardoid extraterrestrials. This explainer seems to sum it up pretty well.
When I first encountered this idea I was gobsmacked. How could anyone actually believe such a thing? And yet, apparently, many people do – millions of them, if polls on the topic are to be believed.
How humans form and maintain insane beliefs when there are plenty of objective reasons to know better is, I fear, a topic of continuing fascination to me. If only because when contagious and totalizing forms of insanity like Marxism or supernaturalist religions motivate the behavior of mobs they pose a significant threat to my survival.
The lizard-people theory isn’t in that class of danger, but I think cases like it and (for example) flat-Earthism are worth analysis precisely because they’re so implausible and still manage to attract adherents. Extremes like this can be revealing about mechanisms that are harder to see closer to the ordinary.
And indeed when I was mulling over lizard-people theory a few years ago I think I really did get a significant insight about the psychology of belief and what lizard-people conspiracy theory actually means.
Many years ago I read a penetrating analysis of UFOlogy arguing that the reports of people who believed themselves UFO contactees or witnesses were expressing the same sorts of psychological drama that in past centuries would gave been coded as religious experiences – eruptions of nigh-incomprehensible powers into the mundane world.
In this telling, to understand UFO reports and the weird little subculture that has grown up around their believers, you need to understand that for those people the imagery of the cheesiest sort of B-movie science fiction has taken up the same receptors in their minds that religious mythology does for the conventionally devout. What they are really grappling with is mystical experience – altered states of consciousness, mindstorms that are very real phenomena in themselves but one which they lack any context to understand in a rational and generative way.
When I remembered this, I found a fruitful question to ask. That is, what is it about their experience of reality that believers in lizard people are coding in this cheesy SFnal imagery? What are they actually trying to talk about?
The answer came to me almost immediately once I managed to formulate the question. That was the moment at which I realized that, barring one unimportant detail, lizard-people theory is actually true.
The unimportant detail is the part about the lizard people being actual extraterrestrials. But let’s look at the rest of it. The believer says: Our elites behave as though they are heavily infiltrated by beings hostile to the interests of ordinary humans. They hide behind a mask of humanity but they have alien minds. They are predators and exploiters, cunning at hiding their nature – but sometimes the mask slips.
Nothing about this is in any way wrong, once you realize that “lizard” is code for “sociopath”. Sociopaths do, differentially, seek power over others, and are rather good at getting it. The few studies that have dared to look have found they are concentrated in political and business elites where drive and ruthlessness are rewarded.
“Lizard” is actually a rather clever code, if you happen to know your evolutionary neuroanatomy. Oversimplifying a little, humans have an exceptionally elaborate neocortex wrapped around a monkey brain wrapped around a lizard brain. The neocortex does what we are pleased to consider higher cognitive functions, the monkey brain does emotions and social behavior, and the lizard brain does territoriality/aggression/dominance.
What is wrong with sociopaths (and psychopaths – these categories are not clearly distinguished) is not entirely clear, but it is certain that their ability to experience emotions is damaged. The monkey brain is compromised; sociopaths live more in their lizard brain and display a lizard-like ability to go from flat affect to aggressive violence and back again in two blinks of an eye.
So, yeah, aliens. We have a live conspiracy theory because a lot of people can sense the alienness in their sociopathic/psychopathic bosses and politicians – and sometimes the mask slips. Not having any grasp of the language of abnormal psychology, they reach for the nearest metaphor handy. There’s a close relative of lizard-people theory in which which many of our elites are held to be members of an ancient Satanic conspiracy and have become demon-ridden; this is different language carrying the same freight.
It’s not really clear that knowing the language of abnormal psychology would help much. Yes, it might enable people to shed their incidentally nutty beliefs about actual extraterrestrials or demons, but it wouldn’t solve the actual problem that either kind of nutty language is pointing at.
Actually, “lizardoid alien” has useful connotative freight that “sociopath” lacks. Sociopaths are good at manipulating the rest of us precisely because they have an outside view of human emotion – it’s mostly just mechanism to them, knobs and levers they’re not involved in. The SFnal mythology encodes knowledge that the sterile psychological term does not.
Still, neither term solves the actual problem. Which is that we don’t keep the sociopaths, the hostile aliens, away from the levers of power. Indeed, human power hierarchies often reward sociopathic behavior with competitive success.
Maybe we can make a start on that exclusions by understanding the sociopaths to be hostile aliens who need to be identified, othered, and thwarted. So, since explaining this to some of my friends, I’ve taken to using the term “lizard people” when I mean sociopaths, the uncaring predatory monsters who reveal themselves by seeking domination over others.
It’s a start, anyway.