Varicose Brains: Part 1: Entering a Grey Area

Martin Kottmeyer
Magonia 62, February 1998.

The image of the alien in UFO culture has generally been dominated by an entity with a large, bald head. Usually the being is small compared to humans. Often the limbs are described as thinner or more slender, but the more closely universal rule is that such aliens are never fat or obese. Current convention labels approximations to this stereotypical ufonaut with the term Greys.

 Ostensibly this is because of grayish skin tones usually being associated with this body type. In practice, absence of this defining trait does not inhibit use of the label so long as a big bald head appears somewhere in the description.

The project of assembling a history of this alien stereotype with a view to understanding its origins and rise to dominance is a daunting one because there are special hazards. There are no maps to guide us. As an undrawn and untested area of history, there will inevitably be missteps, overlooked treasures, and uncertainties. My concern is basically one of getting a good outline sketched. This should be regarded as a pioneering effort, not as the final word. Better funded research would surely net much additional material.

We will start this history by offering the proposition, watch the wording, that the idea underlying the Greys was constructed in the 19th century. The emphasis here is on the word idea. Images that fit loosely the definition of Greys can be found here and there in art and myths long pre-dating the modern era. Finding them is an easy and pleasant diversion. Take the Greco-Egyptian painting of mortuary house 21 at Tuna-Gebel. It has an entity with a large smooth head and very slender build that includes a pencil-neck. Few would quarrel that the look matches that of the Greys. The fact that the being is the shadow of the deceased represented symbolically as a black emaciated corpse makes it questionable that the look carries the modern idea. [1]

 An entity with a large smooth head and very slender build that includes a pencil-neck. Few would quarrel that the look matches that of the Greys

Gregory Little has found a description of the watchman at the gates of Sheol in the Hebrew Book of Enoch as gray in colour, short like children, and taking on a somewhat human appearance that he says left him stunned. [2] I’ve described elsewhere items from ancient Denmark and the Congo whose facial features mimic the exotic facets of Strieber’s Visitor. [3] Such images are quite scattered and seem random outcomes of the immense creativity of artists exploring hundreds of permutations. There is no evidence of deeper linkages between them and current UFO beliefs and no hint of historical connections. As a parallel example, ponder how some short bald fairies ended up in Star Trek, Next Generation Starfleet uniforms even though the painting was done 1880 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father. [4] One may not be able to rule out some swirly space-time anomaly causing such things, but coincidence has to be the favoured judgement.

The trait of big-headedness can be found associated with aliens inhabiting the sun in Pierre Boitard’s Mussée des familles (1838), but the beings possess hair and otherwise seem completely human. This seems a simple way of representing higher intelligence in such beings. I consider it slightly outside the definition of a Gray. [5]

The idea underlying the Greys did not and could not exist before the idea of evolution. Christian theology held that god created life in the first week of creation. Each species was designed optimally for its niche in the hierarchy of Nature and, presumably, given all the fuss over the Ark, would never be re-created. Transformation of form or future improvement on present design held no place in such a worldview. Evolution was heretical and rarely considered at length prior to the 19th century. It is to one of the proponents of an early version of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that we will turn to for an important element of our history.

Lamarck was an early opponent of the ideas of special creation and catastrophism. Nature did everything little by little and successively. Where earlier thinkers spoke of a great chain of being with each species created specifically for its place, Lamarck felt that varying environmental pressures created new needs and increased the use of certain organs to make them more perfect while adding to the organism’s complexity. Conversely the permanent disuse of an organ, arising from a change of habits, causes a gradual shrinkage and ultimately the disappearance and even extinction of that organ.[6]

Lamarck regarded man as a probable product of evolution. The process, he felt, reached the limits of complexity and perfection and, while noting individual instances of the perfecting or degradation of reason, will, and morality, was not compelled to speculate on the future of the human form. Since man’s intelligence and powers protect him from the voracity of any animal, man could potentially multiply indefinitely, but he believed the Sublime author installed a safety feature; “But nature has given him numerous passions which unfortunately develop with his intelligence, and thus set up a great obstacle to the extreme multiplication of individuals of his species. It seems that man is responsible for keeping down the numbers of his kind; for I have hesitation in saying the earth will never be covered by the population that it might support; several of its habitable regions will always be sparsely populated in turns, although the periods of these fluctuations are, so far as we are concerned, immeasurable.” [7] Man “assuredly presents the type of highest perfection that nature will attain to…” [8]

Towards 1866, a Lamarckian named Alpheus Hyatt indicated his studies of fossils were providing a less optimistic understanding of the process of evolution. Just as individuals slip into senility and decrepitude at the end of life, groups like races and species display a senile phase before going extinct. This theory of racial senescence later becomes an indispensable feature of the doctrine of orthogenesis. It held that the organism was not shaped by natural selection, but by processes internal to the germ plasm that caused modification along trend-lines that ran on until they became over-developed and detrimental to survival. Examples of this process could be found in the huge antlers of the Irish elk, the demise of the sabre-toothed tiger, and the massiveness of dinosaurs. Hyatt himself believed man was already showing senile and regressive features. The tendency of females to be increasingly similar to males seemed especially ominous. [9]

The writings of Herbert Spencer, another Lamarckian, provide us with the next step in the development of the idea underlying the Greys. In his work The Principles of Biology (1875), he speculates at length on the human future. He feels there will be “Larger-brained descendents” and the brain will have more convolutions, a more developed structure. Spencer believed the brain would also put a heavier tax upon the organism. Asserting the existence of “an apparent connection between higher cerebral development and prolonged sexual maturity,” evidence that excessive expenditure of mental activity during education causes complete or partial infertility, and conversely that “where exceptional fertility exists there is a sluggishness of mind;” Spencer concluded further evolution may be expected to cause a decline in his power of reproduction. [10]

There most likely would be greater delicacy of manipulation, better co-ordination of complex movements, and a “corresponding development of perceptive and executive faculties.” There would also be greater power of self-regulation and higher emotional development. He would be more moral. Crimes and cruelties would cease. Of strength and agility, Spencer doubted there would be further improvement. He does not explicitly articulate that a general degeneration of the rest of the body would follow, but that is now only a couple of steps away. [11]

We should digress to point out that Darwin does not belong to this line of development. His theory of evolution by natural selection builds in part on Lamarck’s arguments against special creation and catastrophism while stripping animal evolution of its central mechanism of use-inheritance. The issue of Darwin’s views on progress is a notoriously thorny subject and on the future form of man he was silent. He seemed to think some ongoing natural selection existed in the destruction of more primitive peoples. However, he was also concerned that natural selection no longer operated to scythe down the sickly and degenerate. Any slow evolution of mankind, however, paled next to his pet-horror, the eventual and inevitable ice-death of the earth under the aegis of a cooling sun. “To think of the progress of millions of years with every continent swarming with good and enlightened men all ending in this…Sic transit gloria mundi with a vengeance.” [12]

Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, believed the human physique was no longer subject to natural forces. War killed off the strongest and bravest. Skin colour and hair perhaps still evolved, but the body remained an upright ape. The human species was still capable of spectacular advance with women’s rights giving females free choice in marriage and allowing them to reject males who were chronically diseased, intellectually weak, idle, or utterly selfish. These matters, however, belonged to the moral and spiritual realms, not the realm of man’s physical being.

Thomas Henry Huxley, the era’s most prominent Darwinian, also lies outside this line of development, but bears special attention and caution. Scholars have caricatured him alternately as a naïve advocate of progress and a purveyor of cosmic pessimism. These extreme interpretations derive from selective focus on separate facets of a carefully balanced view blending the lessons of natural history and social history.

Early writings indicate he “had no confidence in the doctrine of ultimate happiness,” but it was impossible for him to be blind to the improvements in life that science was making manifest around him in his personal sphere. [14] Huxley often walked with Spencer arguing over the nature of evolutionary and social progress. [15] Huxley soon developed the metaphor of society advancing, insect-like, from grub to butterfly. There are periods of repressive restraint, Dark Ages, that are broken in dramatic moults like the French Revolution. The old constraints break open and the grub puffs up in the rationalist air. Each moult moves us closer to a butterfly state of man, albeit that may prove to be terribly distant.[16]

In 1894 he offered his mature statement on these matters in Evolution and Ethics and we see the same balancing. He rejects the prospect of utopia, “the prospect of attaining untroubled happiness, or a state which can, even remotely, deserve the title of perfection, appears to me as misleading an illusion as ever dangled before the eyes of poor humanity.” [17] Yet, “that which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve.” [18]

The theory of evolution encourages no millennial expectations, he writes. [19] More, “There is no hope that mere human beings will ever possess enough intelligence to select the fittest.” [20] He sees “no limit to the extent to which intelligence and will, guided by sound principles of investigation and organised in common effort, may modify the conditions for a period than that now covered by history. And much may be done to change the nature of man himself…(we) ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilised men (thus permitting) a larger hope of abatement of the essential evil of the world…” [21]

Evolution, however, permits both progressive and retrogressive development. [22] “The most daring imagination will hardly venture upon the suggestion that the power and the intelligence of man can ever arrest the procession of the great year.” [23] Eventually, “the evolution of our globe shall have entered upon so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway; and, once more, the State of Nature prevails over the surface of our planet.” [24] This is an allusion to the thermodynamic heat death of the Earth.

To point to these latter quotes and label it cosmic pessimism has the perverse air of saying that someone who expects to achieve some measure of happiness and success and die at 120 is being depressing. Huxley dialectically balanced optimism and pessimism in a manner he felt most people did. [25] Huxley nowhere comments on the future biological shape of man as Spencer did, nor does he dwell on the implications of the possibility of his retrogressive modification.

The final steps in the development of the idea underlying the Greys were made by one of Huxley’s students. The student thought Huxley was the greatest man he ever knew and when he published his first book he sent his teacher a note that read:
May 1895 — I am sending you a little book that I fancy may be of interest to you. The central idea – of degeneration following security – was the outcome of a certain amount of biological study. I daresay your position subjects you to a good many such displays of the range of authors but I have this excuse – I was one of your students at the Royal College of Science and finally (?): The book is a very little one.” [26]

It was a work of fiction that describes a traveller’s encounter with a delicate little people of the far future. The first person is described as “a slight creature – perhaps 4 feet high – clad in a purple tunic, girdled at the waist with a leather belt. Sandals or huskins were on his feet; his legs were bare to the knees and his head was bare…He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive – that hectic beauty of which you used to hear so much about.” As he observes more of them he notes their Dresden china prettiness had peculiarities. They had some curly hair that did not go past the neck and cheek. There was no trace of beard or other facial hair. The lips were thin. The ears were singularly minute. Chins were small and ran to a point. The eyes were large, but mild and indifferent.

There is nothing said about the size of the head and the intelligence of these people is slight. Their behaviour is child-like and playful and they show a lack of interest in the traveller. There was little to distinguish the sexes. The traveller eventually learns the name of this beautiful race – Eloi. He also learns of a second race – the Morlocks – which are described as a white, ape-like human spider. They tend the underworld of machines that make the utopia of the aristocratic Eloi possible.

The concept of degeneration was not new and the Victorian era’s concerns over the permanent underclass bred in urban areas like London had spawned a theory of urban degeneration

The title of the story was The Time Machine. [27] The student was H.G. Wells. His boast to Huxley that it was based on an amount of biological study is easily proven. Four years earlier he had written a non-fiction essay titled Zoological Retrogression that displayed his familiarity with the biological literature involving degeneration. In it he describes a popular and poetic formulation of evolution as a steadily rising mountain slope that he terms Excelsior biology. Proclaiming it lacking any satisfactory confirmation in geological biology or embryology, he argues degeneration has entire parity with progressive trends. He points to ascidians, cirripeds, copepods, corals, sea-mats, oysters, mussels and mites as examples. Advance has been fitful and uncertain. There is no guarantee in scientific knowledge of man’s permanence or permanent ascendancy. Huxley’s teachings are apparent except for one point of divergence. Wells concludes, The Coming Beast must certainly be reckoned in any anticipatory calculations in the Coming Man. [28]

Though Wells affects to be swimming against the stream of mass opinion in this essay, some historians would argue he was being swept along by the currents of his time. The concept of degeneration was not new and the Victorian era’s concerns over the permanent underclass bred in urban areas like London had spawned a theory of urban degeneration that held powerful appeal to the British after 1885 no matter what their politics. [29] This degeneration scare, as it has been termed, was part of a yet larger trend of cultural pessimism spreading among western intellectuals. Peter Bowler, an expert on evolutionary theories of the era speculates that E. Ray Lankester’s book Degeneration is a likely source of the ideas behind The Time Machine. [30] The unavoidable caveat to this attribution is that the concept of degeneration was present in so many forums from medical journals like The Lancet to much popular fiction. Wells could have been influenced by a variety of sources. [31]

The eleventh chapter of The Time Machine takes the reader beyond the time of the Eloi and Morlocks to a yet farther future where the Earth approaches its end. Life had grown sparse and was in obvious regression. The dominant form was an ungainly monster crab smeared in slime. He goes another thirty million years into the future and only lichen and liverworts remained. That and a black, round, flopping thing with tentacles trailing from it. It seems like Alpheus Hyatt writ large; life as a whole falls into senescence before all Earth goes extinct.

The Eloi come half way to our image of the Grey in short and fragile bodies being indicative of a degenerate evolutionary history. What is missing is the big bald head. Wells began playing with that part of the image maybe as early as 1885 for an address before a student debating society. It was written out for publication in a facetious book review for the Pall Mall Budget, 9 November 1893. “Of a Book Unwritten, The Man of the Year Million” is a short piece with no ambitions of wanting to be taken seriously. Wells imagines a book titled The Necessary Characters of Man of the Remote Future deduced from the Existing Stream of Tendency. Though easily missed, Wells is telegraphing his intent to play upon the ideas of orthogenesis which as its name implies dealt with straight-line trends in the fossil record. Just as a fish is moulded to swimming and a bird is moulded to flight, man’s form will be determined by the trait of intelligence. We already see the decay of much of the animal part of man: the loss of hair, the loss of teeth, the diminution of jaw, slighter mouth and ears. Athleticism yields to a subtle mind in real-world competition. The coming man, then, will clearly have a larger brain and a slighter body than the present. [32]

Behold the dim strange vision of the latter day face suggested by loss of unused features: Eyes large, lustrous, beautiful soulful; above them, no longer separated by rugged brow ridges, is the top of the head, a glistening hairless dome, terete and beautiful; no craggy nose rises to disturb by its unmeaning shadows the symmetry of that calm face, no vestigial ears project; the mouth is a small perfectly round aperture, toothless and gumless, unanimal, no futile emotions disturbing its roundness as it lies, like the harvest moon or the evening star, in the wide firmament of the face. [33]

Potentially, man’s knowledge of organic chemistry will supplant the use of a stomach and alimentary canal and the brain will swim in a nutritive bath – some clear, mobile and amber liquid. In still deeper time the cooling earth will force a retreat to galleries and laboratories deep inside the bowels of the planet following the diminishing supply of heat with boring machinery and glaring artificial lighting. Wells takes pleasure in noting the whole of this imaginary book may vanish in the smoke of a pipe with no great bother – one of the great advantages of unwritten literature.

But of course it did not vanish and did become a great bother. It ended up in a book that would guarantee a very enduring life. The book was War of the Worlds (1898). Mars in an ancient world and evolution has proceeded farther than on Earth, thus is the logical setting for Man of the Year Million. The Martians were 4-foot diameter round heads. They had very large dark-coloured eyes, no nostrils, and no ears per se. They had a fleshy beak for a mouth. The internal anatomy was, in a word, simple. They had no entrails and did not eat. Rather they injected blood from other creatures, most notably a type of biped with flimsy skeletons and feeble musculature, and a round head with large eyes set in flinty sockets.

The Martians were absolutely without sex and allied tumultuous emotions. They budded off the parent. Wells’s fictional narrator explicitly credits the author of the Pall Mall Budget book review with forecasting such a creature, albeit in a foolish, facetious tone. Noting that many a truth is said in jest, the idea seemed likely that Martians had once been like us but with a brain evolved at the expense of the rest of the body. They turn out to also be telepathic. The Martians die off at the end of the war because of their vulnerability to earth’s micro-organisms. There were none on Mars, probably because their science eliminated them ages before. We would say nowadays that their immune systems had degenerated from disuse. [34]

The mental giantism and diminished sexuality clearly echo Spencer. It has a Lamarckian sensibility in the early part of the argument of man’s form being moulded by the trait of intelligence, but Wells does include Darwinian competition in suggesting a subtle mind wins over athleticism in the real world. One can fairly wonder how many people would accept that premise these days. The basic thrust that evolution would trend to a grossly overspecialized super-tick, however, is decisively orthogenetic. Admittedly extinction in a foreign environment rich in micro-organisms is not strictly a proof of maladaptation or orthogenesis, but nobody is meant to think this type of monstrosity is a good thing.

The critical literature on War of the Worlds generally agrees that the Martians are nightmare extensions of ourselves and our machine civilisation. It is a warning that an over-reliance on cold intellect and technology need not lead to better and better. Basically it is a moral it shares with The Time Machine. Where the atrophy from over-reliance on technology and the brain is played for comic effect in the Pall Mall Budget, here it is played for horror. That a story with such an anti-intellectual moral should come from the pen of a person as intellectual as Wells is slightly ironic, but not amazing. Science fiction writers are a brainy bunch, but are perennially worried over the social consequences of science and technology. The early pulp writers of science fiction would use and re-use the images and ideas constructed by wells in these two revered stories, until they became a shorthand stereotype of what a future man and advanced alien would look like. [35]

Wells himself never regarded his atrophied aliens as a realistic speculation. Though he granted life on Mars might exist and even speculated on what interesting differences might be expected because of the harsh environment, his non-fiction writings did not advance the probability that big, bald-headed aliens with degenerate bodies existed. [36] The idea that gave us the Greys was born as a jest that never was intended by its author to be taken as a serious scientific speculation.


  1. Baines, John and Jaromir Malek. The Cultural Atlas of the World: Ancient Egypt. Andromeda, Oxford, 1990, p. 128.
  2. Little, Gregory. Grand Illusion. White Buffalo, 1994, p. 243.
  3. Kottmeyer, Martin “Ishtar Descendant” The Skeptic, 9, #3, 1995, pp. 12-15.
  4. Philpotts, Beatrice. The Book of Fairies. Ballantine, 1978, illustration 37.
  5. Pinvidic, Thierry. OVNI: vers une Anthopologie d’un Mythe Contemporain. Editions Heimdal, 1993, p. 475.
  6. Lamarck, Jean-Baptist. Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition With Regard to the Natural History of Animals (1809), Hafner Publishing, 1963, p. 115.
  7. Ibid., pp. 54-5
  8. Ibid., p. 71
  9. Bowler, Peter. The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around 1900  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, pp. 128-30, 169-70, 180-1.
  10. Spencer, Herbert, The Principles of Biology D. Appleton, 1875, pp. 494-508.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin – The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Warner, 1991, p. 529.
  13. Brackman, Arnold C. A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace Times Books, 1980, pp. 273-4.
  14. Desmond, Adrian. Huxley – The Devil’s Disciple Michael Joseph, 1994, p. 210.
  15. Ibid., p. 233.
  16. Ibid., 293.
  17. Paradis, James and Williams, George C. T.H. Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’ with New essays on its Victorian and Sociobiological Context Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 102.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., p. 85.
  20. Ibid., p. 92.
  21. Ibid., p. 143.
  22. Ibid., p. 62.
  23. Ibid., p. 143.
  24. Ibid., p. 103.
  25. Ibid., p. 136. Hillegas, Mark R. The Future as Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 18-19.
  26. Smith, David C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal Yale University Press, 1986, p. 48.
  27. Bova, Ben. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 2A, Avon, 1974, pp. 542-6.
  28. Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1891, reprinted in Philmus, Robert M. and Hughes, David Y. H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction California University Press, 1975, pp. 158-68.,
  29. Nye, Robert A. “Sociology: The Irony of Progress” in in Chamberlin, J. Edwar and Gilman, Sander L. Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress. Columbia University Press, pp. 64-5
  30. Herman, Arthur. The Idea of Decline in Human History, Free Press, 1997.
  31. Bowler, Peter. The Invention of Progress. Basil Blackwell, 1989, pp. 196-7.
  32. Eisenstein, Alex “The Time Machine and the End of Man” Science Fiction Studies 3, #2 July 1976, pp. 161-5.
  33. Hughes, David Y. A Critical Edition of The War of the Worlds, Indiana University Press, 1993, Appendix 3.
  34. Ibid., p. 292.
  35. Ibid., p. 151.
  36. “The Things That Live on Mars” reprinted in Hughes, op. cit.., Appendix 5, pp. 298-305