Back when I was a kid, the latest woo-de-jour involved ‘ancient’ aliens who’d apparently arrived in the ‘ancient’ world to help humanity build pyramids and become civilised. Stupid humans!
The idea wasn’t original – Arthur C. Clarke had been toying with it for decades in his science fiction. But as he well knew, it was fiction.
The ‘ancient astronaut’ brigade had no such conceits. The first to gain wide public attention was a Swiss hotelier named Erich von Daniken, who began re-interpreting history along the lines that ‘ancient astronauts’ had built the Egyptian pyramids, along with what he thought were anomalous ‘technological’ relics. He could prove the aliens existed because ‘ancient’ drawings showed humans with what he interpreted as space helmets.
Yup, the aliens were human. Later, von Daniken claimed they had bred with ape-men to produce modern humans. I still remember seeing Carl Sagan pointing out, quite rightly, that the chances of an alien being inter-fertile with us was somewhat less than the chances of a human being inter-fertile with a petunia. Such niceties didn’t stop the woo-brigade, of course.
Von Daniken’s anthropocentrism can perhaps be excused: even the scientific community was very human-centric in the mid-twentieth century. However, his other logic flaws can’t be ignored. Von Daniken inspired a large number of imitators, all following the same idea – Scientists had Got It Wrong and aliens had been among us long ago. As always, the evidence (Evidence) was logically disconnected from the conclusions.
The reality? There is no evidence whatsoever of alien visits – now or in the past. And as for ‘ancient’? Well, I suppose against a human lifetime of years and decades, hundreds or thousands of years becomes a vast span. Actually it isn’t. Paleo-anthropologists – like physicists – keep buckets full of zeroes to add to numbers. The time since humanity emerged from the ice ages, 10,000-odd years ago, is the merest eye-blink against the span of human existence. One of the (many) cognitive flaws humans suffer from is the ‘recency phenomenon’, in which whatever just happened looms vastly larger. We view time, in our own minds, as a logarithmic scale – not linear.
But it is linear. Try this fun exercise – this is one I demoed with my (under 10 yo) nephew and niece a couple of years back. We walked down the footpath pretending we were walking back in time, while their Grandma (my Mum) stood where we’d started and waved at us from the present.
It’s a great technique. Every step is equal to a million years. Take two paces. That’s the whole known span of genus Homo existence, from the day that the first hominin that looked anything like us appeared on the African veldt. Take 63 more paces. That’s the whole of the quaternary period. You’re at the K-T boundary. Now take another 75 paces. That’s the Cretaceous period. And another 75 paces after that, which takes you to the beginning of the Jurassic. Take a look back at your start point – half a block back. When I walked back in time with my relatives, Grandma was still waiting and waving back in ‘the present’ – and that was the point where my young relatives decided they were being chased by a T-Rex and that if they ran back to the K-T boundary it would be extinguished by the meteor and they’d be saved.
The point of the exercise is that it shows us the actual linear spans of time, as linear space that we can see. And why should aliens turn up, conveniently, just at the precise moment when humanity happened to have not only survived the ice ages (just as you lift your foot to take the first step)? Why didn’t they arrive (say) in the middle of the Cretaceous, or Jurassic? Much bigger target, isn’t it – and we have to suppose that alien civilisations will have appeared and disappeared across such a span, and more.
The other conceit is the idea that ‘ancient’ humans were incapable of achieving anything for themselves. Actually, the pyramid builders and the rest weren’t stupid – they were just as smart and creative as we are. Among many, many other logic and cognitive flaws, Von Daniken and his imitators were confusing ‘technology’ with ‘smart’. The fact is that our modern technology isn’t just a product of our own smartness – it’s the product of a lot of smart people in past generations, too. Right back to those ‘ancient’ pyramid builders, on whose shoulders we stand.
I could go on, but probably I don’t need to.
What are your thoughts on ‘ancient astronaut’ woo?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016