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Mistook the Dominant Lifeform

"Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms, one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?"
Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld

So let's say that the aliens land tomorrow. It's not an Alien Invasion (not even a well-meaning one); this group of aliens geniunely comes in peace. After recovering from the initial shock of realizing that, yes, other lifeforms do exist out there, the governments of the world decide to allow them to land — which they decide to do in your back yard.

Everyone important shows up — the President, the news crews, foreign ambassadors, UFOlogists, the mayor, and the local high school marching band. You're there, of course — it's your yard, after all, and no one's going to evict you just because some aliens are coming to town. Your pet rottweiler is there, too, chained up beside its doghouse and its water dish.

As the aliens' Flying Saucer lands, the crowd "ooh"s and "ah"s just like crowds do. The hatch opens, and the aliens step out, repeating their message of goodwill — to your rottweiler.

What happened here? The aliens Mistook the Dominant Lifeform of Earth, that's what.

This is a common subversion of the typical First Contact scenario. The aliens, in their studies of Earth, conclude that someone other than humanity are the real masters of Earth. Maybe they assume that we're the servants of our pets rather than mere caretakers. Maybe they're mechanical beings who aren't used to dealing with carbon-based life and assume that any intelligent beings will be machines like themselves. Maybe they assume that the bigger animals have bigger brains, and therefore more intelligence. Maybe they do possess all the facts, but simply have a different definition of "dominant". Either way, the results are usually quite amusing.

Granted, the same thing can happen to humans as well. The parrot-like thing riding on that humanoid's shoulder may actually be the master, with the humanoid being its mount. Or it might be that the spaceship itself is in charge, and the aliens disembarking are merely messengers.

Many parodies or humorous examples of the trope may include the revelation or implication that the lower animal actually is the dominant or superior species (at least in their own eyes).

See also Mistaken for Servant, which is a more mundane trope which sometimes overlaps.

Examples:

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     Comics  

  • In Marvel's Transformers comics, the Autobots, having never encountered organic life before, initially believe vehicles to be the dominant lifeform on earth, which is why they use vehicles as alt modes. When Buster first meets Bumblebee, he's trying to communicate with the "locals" at a drive-through theatre.
  • In one Mickey Mouse comic some aliens attempt to find if there is intelligent life on Earth and abduct Mickey and Pluto to perform tests on them. Pluto ends up scoring higher than Mickey, mostly because the tests are actually very simple and Mickey keeps overcompensating; for example, when the aliens attempt to translate their speech he speaks really slowly, causing the aliens to think he's stupid (while Pluto's barking confounds their Translator Microbes, making the aliens think Dog language is simply too complex for them to understand). The aliens end up concluding that dogs are the dominant species on Earth.

     Film  

  • In the film version of Battlefield Earth, the Psychlos interpret surveillance photos of humans with dogs in car passenger seats as evidence of the dogs being the superior species, since the humans "chauffeur them around".
    • They also mention that the dogs have proven themselves much more willing to cooperate with the alien masters than the man-animals. Unfortunately, dogs have proven ill-adapted for manual labor (which, once again, proves that they are a superior species, as they don't need to work). They can fetch, though.
  • Good Boy! ultimately subverts this trope: The aliens in question are dogs, and they had sent some of their number to earth to colonize it and subjugate humanity in the first place, so the inevitable listing of the ways dogs are "really in charge" does occur. But Hubble, the dog sent to check up on their progress, is ultimately not impressed. And neither is his superior, who apparently had something more like total enslavement in mind.
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture. V'Ger thinks that humans (including those on Earth) are "units" under the control of its Creator. The movie was based on the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Changeling" where the robot Nomad believed the same thing.
  • Basically the plot of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - the aliens think whales are/were the intelligent life on the Earth. Whether they even notice the humans swarming around on the dry parts is not clear.
    • The novelization makes clear that the probe did notice the humans...and considered us so barbaric (for killing all the whales) that exterminating us would be for the planet's benefit.
  • The Mystery of the Third Planet has this dialog in an interstellar animal-trading hub (neither species is native to that world):
    Professor Seleznyov: Excuse me, how much is this bird?
    The bird (pecks him): Br-r-razen! That's me selling him.

     Jokes  

  • There is a joke about two aliens who land on Earth, and try to address a "local" - actually a fuel dispenser on a gas station. Annoyed at him ignoring them, one of the aliens pulls out a blaster, and, despite all the warning from his partner not to mess with the guy, shoots the device. After barely surviving thanks to their personal Deflector Shields, the shooter asks "how did you know he was so powerful"? The answer is "Once you've traveled as much as I have, you learn not to mess with a guy who can wrap his dick around himself twice".

     Literature  

  • Carl Sagan gives an example in his book Pale Blue Dot, where aliens at first assume that cars are the main inhabitants of cities (the idea being that aliens would be taking closer and closer views of the earth while trying to find life, and cars are the first visible moving things they would see in city areas).
  • Two human survivors in George Zebrowski's The Killing Star wind up getting captured by the alien invaders and have an audience with them. One wall of the room faces a water-filled chamber which contains an octopus-like creature being preened and taken care of by dozens of little robots. The captives assume that the creature is the brains behind the invasion when it begins speaking to them. It soon reveals, though, that the robots are in charge. They had been built by the octopi long ago and eventually surpassed them in intelligence. The octopi are considered by the masters to be more like a zoo exhibit of a curious precursor animal than anything else. And our two humans will ultimately share the same fate.
  • Animorphs: During the What If? Megamorphs 4, Back To Before, Ax briefly mentions mistaking cows for the dominant species, in this case because they're numerous and superficially similar to Andalites (who resemble centaurs).
  • Harry Bates' story "Farewell to the Master" (which was later adapted into the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)) includes a viewpoint-reversed example that was not included in the film adaptation. The short story ends with the robot (named "Gnut" in the original) stating, "You misunderstand, I am the master."
  • The story Hiding Place from Poul Anderson's Trader to the Stars is about finding sentient aliens, who hid themselves in a zoo spaceship among animals from many different planets. The task is complicated by the aliens' rather unusual biology: they are parasites/symbionts riding gorilla-like animals, who provide them strong manipulative limbs.
  • In the short story "Dog Star" by Mack Reynolds, the dog-like inhabitants of Sirius II mistake the ship's dog Gimmick for the captain and the human crew for draft animals. The crew decides not to correct them in order to negotiate a trade agreement and has to arrange for all the ships carrying humans through the area to also have dogs.
  • In The Mystery of the Third Planet, as well as the book it is based upon, it happens to Professor Selesnyov on an interstellar market. He approaches a humanoid alien to ask him how much the bird he is asking costs... only for the bird to state that she is the one selling him.

     Radio  

  • Ford Prefect of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy uses his name because he believed that cars were the dominant species. To explain the joke to foreign audiences (because the Ford Prefect was only sold in England), the film adaptation shows that Arthur first met Ford when Ford stepped into the street to shake hands with an oncoming car (an actual Ford Prefect to boot) and Arthur saved his life by tackling him out of the way. note 

     Live Action Television  

  • Star Trek: Enterprise: Ferengis believe Porthos, Archer's dog, captains the Enterprise. They finally realize their mistake when their Universal Translator fails to work.
    • Part of the reason they think that is because of the Beagle's big ears. The Ferengi consider big ears to be a sign of a keen business mind.
  • Sesame Street martians tried to talk with a telephone. On the "bright" side, they repeated attempts with more than one Terran dictionary.
  • Controlnote  from Hard Time On Planet Earth keeps mistaking inanimate devices (like a traffic light) for sentient, tries to talk to them and gets offended when ignored. Usually several times per episode.

     Video Games  

  • In Destroy All Humans!, Crypto and Pox assume the first creatures they see - cows - are the dominant life form on Earth. An unsuccessful interview and some telekinetic stress relief later teaches them otherwise.
  • In the first Space Rangers the main enemy - the klisans - are a race of biological starships. To be more precise, each member is a moon-size mothership, and all the smaller ships are its organs. They initially assume that the dominant species is the spaceships we fly in, and the humans in them are just a virus that makes them go insane. Thus, they seek to eliminate us in the same fashion we would try to kill an influenza, to prevent further infection and "cure" the infected vessels.
  • In the final scenario of Hyperspeed, you make contact with two different aliens sitting in a tree and are prompted which to communicate with. No matter which you choose, it's the tree that talks back.
    "What are you talking to my pet, [petname], for?"

     Web Comics  

     Western Animation  

  • What on Earth, an old Canadian cartoon by Kaj Pindal which purports to be an educational film by Martians, who looked down on the earth and naturally assumed that cars were the dominant life-form, and humans some kind of parasite they hadn't gotten around to ridding themselves of.
  • In South Park the aliens have fully researched the planet and decided that cows were the most intelligent species. If they were only looking at the adults, they are probably right.
    • When asked by the cows about all the cattle mutilations, the aliens apologize and explain that it was all "Carl's fault. He's new."
  • War Planets features an example. A race of humanoids apparently uses a race of furry, wookiee-like creatures as draft animals. The main characters assume the smaller humanoids are the dominant species, when in fact it is the "draft animals" who are both smarter, and telepathic.
  • On Garfield and Friends an alien crash lands near Garfield's house. He believes that Jon is Garfield's servant and that Garfield is the planet's superior intelligence.
  • An episode of Dennis the Menace featured an alien race of shape shifters who thought that telvisions ruled the world and thus came to Earth in the form of televisions. Upon realising their mistake they tried to take on human form but found it too difficult so remained as televisions. At the end, they revealed their true forms (each one different from the rest) and concluded they were just like humans in that regard.
  • In Transformers Animated, when the Autobots first arrive they disguise themselves as "the dominant life forms." Bulkhead attempts to chat up a robot dog while the Autobots help fight a monster, only to find out that the organic creatures running around aren't "pets"; robots and vehicles aren't sentient, and humans are the dominant life.
    • The Decepticons don't fare much better. When Blitzwing and Lugnut arrive on Earth they initially mistake vehicles for lifeforms, to the point of getting into a fight with (and flirting with) a crane.


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