“Why is it that they can only come up with one model of spaceship? You would assume such intelligent creatures could, once in a while, put out something in a nice powder blue and shaped like a footstool or maybe like France.” ― Cuthbert Soup

Obviously an alien...
Obviously an alien…

Angels?  Aliens.  Monsters?  Aliens.  Weird stuff in the sky?  Aliens.  Monumental architecture on a grand scale?  Aliens.  Holes in my socks?  Aliens.  As an aficionado of the deep weird, I’ve been trying to put a finger on what bothers me most about “Ancient Alien” theories, from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods to the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.  As infotainment for the conspiracy-minded, it’s a rip-roarin’ good time and snootily disingenuous to dismiss it as Smithsonian science writer Brian Switek did, calling it “some of the most noxious sludge in television’s bottomless chum bucket.”  I mean, let’s face facts, there is a lot of chum in competition on the History Channel alone, from Pawn Stars to Bible Secrets Revealed.  And given that the History Channel might have at one time more properly called itself, “The Hitler Channel”, since they seemed to think human history consisted entirely of World War II (although, in their practical defense, if you want free film footage of stuff exploding to put a serious baritone voice-over on, World War II is where it’s at), it’s refreshing to see that over the past few years they’ve expanded their horizons into folklore, mythology, and anomalistics.  I sometimes feel like I should be supportive of the Ancient Alien yahoos, precisely because they are so enthusiastically engaged with adhering to the notion that the direction of human history results from the skillful puppetry of extraterrestrials, and they spend an awful lot of time mining the literature of history, mythology, theology, anthropology, and archaeology for telling hints that the truth is out there.  In fact, I applaud their efforts to connect the dots, but I still find myself deeply unsatisfied by their hypothesis.  I’ve been wracking my brains as to what I find so off-putting about the ongoing “Ancient Aliens” craze.  It’s neither the determinism of the idea that we are the easily manipulated toys of advanced aliens experimenting with social engineering, nor even Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’ wacky earnestness, crazy hair and former career as a wrestling promoter.  As the old trope goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, or its corollary that just because someone is a loon or financially motivated, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.  Wacked out theory with compelling, but dubious historical evidence and making good money?  I should be so lucky!  So when I read an article on ancient aliens or watch a TV marathon of interviews with the luminaries of the field, and feel vaguely unsettled, I actually feel guilty as if I’ve been caught reading soft-core monster porn.  This is of course, why God made bourbon and philosophers.  Philosophers think seriously about these things.  The rest of us drink bourbon so we can take the philosophers seriously.  Having mentally prepared myself (you can probably guess the more important component of my research methodology – I take my philosophy “on the rocks”), and after perusing the latest article over at UFO Iconoclast (“Those 1561/1566 Woodcuttings are “Editorial Cartoons” – not UFO depictions”), I realized that the entire corpus of ancient alien theory is an exercise in the epistemological fallacy of historical presentism.

Presentism in historical and sociological analysis is loosely defined as the anachronistic introduction of current perspectives into interpretations of the past, or rather more loosely, interpreting history in such a way as to validate one’s own modern belief system.  “Making sense of the past in the vocabulary of the present involves serious risks. From the standpoint of a historicist or anti-presentist history of science, historians proceed properly only if they observe the availability (or accessibility) principle, which is seen as the guarantor of sound scholarship. The availability principle disallows the use of knowledge, descriptive terms or classification schemes in interpretations which were unavailable or inaccessible to the contemporaries of the object of interpretation. Current knowledge, descriptive terms or classification schemes unavailable to those studied by the historian are prejudicial for the historian’s inquiry” (Spoerhase, 2008, p49).  American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (the bright guy who popularized the now ubiquitous notion of “paradigm shifts”) in warning about the dangers of presentism in the history of science, worried more precisely that in describing the intellectual progression of mankind we were retroactively constructing traditions that never existed.

Scientist-historians and those who followed their lead characteristically imposed contemporary scientific categories, concepts, and standards on the past. Sometimes a speciality which they traced from antiquity had not existed as a recognized subject for study until a generation before they wrote. Nevertheless, knowing what belonged to it, they retrieved the current contents of the speciality from past texts of a variety of heterogeneous fields, not noticing that the tradition they constructed in the process had never existed. In addition, they usually treated concepts and theories of the past as imperfect approximations to those in current use, thus disguising both the structure and integrity of past scientific traditions (Kuhn, 1971, p149).

The idea was that it was misleading to reconstruct our predecessors’ understandings of the universe, utilizing our own conceptual vocabulary to reclassify and characterize the cognitions of our ancestors teleologically (that is, our own understandings are the final result of and refinement of those who came before us, they simply lacked our modern sensibilities and failed to use our accepted terms), as an inevitable bastardization, but nonetheless formative precursor of our own ideas. In short, our ancestors lacked our concepts of unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrials, so they talked about flying chariots and vimana, gods and devils, heroes and monsters.  This leads us down the path of assuming we are the pinnacle of human intellectual development and that our ancestors were well-intentioned and curious, but nonetheless morons.  We then begin to comfortably assume that any strange phenomena or anomaly reported throughout history has an analog in modernity, every piece of art depicting masked figures can be an astronaut, every field of gigantic geoglyphs is a landing pad, every pyramid is a power plant, and every miraculous or unexplained occurrence is a misunderstanding of advanced technology, and every mythical beast is an alien.  Ancient alien theorists are the “Scooby Gang” of anomalistics.  One need only garner enough clues, set the trap, and unmask the perpetrator who would have gotten away with it if it just weren’t for those meddling kids.  Perhaps we should understand ourselves before we attempt to understand our history in terms of alien influence, or as science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem observed, “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”  The again, our Reptilian overlords could be making me say this.

Kuhn, T. S. 1971. “The Relations between History and the History of Science”. In Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 127–61.
Spoerhase, Carlos. “Presentism and Precursorship in Intellectual History”.  Culture, Theory, and Critique 49:1, p49-72.