A new article released in preprint and set for publication in the journal Earth and Planetary Astrophysics is garnering attention from the British press for suggesting that the ancient astronaut theory might be true. However, “Prior Indigenous Technological Species” by Jason T. Wright is more sound and fury than a real and significant contribution to the ancient astronaut literature. At heart, it’s simply an elaborate game of “what if,” played without consequence since no actual evidence is provided. It’s admittedly a few shades more rigorous than Erich von Däniken’s speculative nonsense, but at heart it’s little more than speculation masquerading as science.
Let me start with a disclaimer: There is nothing wrong, per se, with Wright’s article. It is, for the most part, factually accurate, if occasionally incomplete. It offers seemingly correct conclusions from the stated premises. It just seems to be a pointless exercise in “duh” that gets the media worked up despite the utter lack of evidence to warrant taking any conclusions from what is, at heart, a thought experiment.
Wright, a professor at Penn State affiliated with the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, made headlines a year ago when he supported the idea that anomalous data implied that ancient space aliens had built a megastructure around a distant and dimming star, a suggestion not confirmed by later analysis. A 2016 study concluded, for example, that the more likely explanation was that the star had consumed a planet, accounting for its changes in brightness.
Anyway, in his new article Wright suggests that SETI has it all wrong by looking for evidence of aliens beyond our own solar system. He suggests that because Earth is the only planet known to have supported life, we should be looking for advanced technological civilizations on Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars, the places most likely to have had the conditions necessary for life billions of years ago. While this make a certain degree of logical sense if you believe that an advanced technological civilization could develop—and an intelligent species could evolve—very early in a planet’s history, it also strikes uncomfortably close to Theosophy, which also posited advanced civilizations in the deep past on those very planetary bodies.
It's bothersome that Wright begins his article by piling on different levels of speculation, if only because each layer imposes more cultural assumptions and potential areas for bias. After beginning with the assumption that an ancient spacefaring civilization once existed, he then speculates on the reasons that it no longer exists. While this is certainly a reasonable list, it struck me that it was also a pretty good list of sci-fi space opera disaster tropes:
The most obvious answer is a cataclysm, whether a natural event, such as an extinction-level asteroid impact, or self-inﬂicted, such as a global climate catastrophe. In the case of a prior spacefaring species that had settled the Solar System, such an event would only permanently extinguish the species if there were many cataclysms across the Solar System closely spaced in time (a swarm of comets, or interplanetary warfare perhaps), or if the settlements were not completely self-suﬃcient. Alternatively, an unexpected nearby gamma ray burst or supernova might produce a Solar-System-wide cataclysm (Ćirković & Vukotić, 2016). Even without a cataclysm, the species may have simply died out, or become permanently non-technological at some point, or (at the risk of committing a “monocultural fallacy” Wright et al., 2014) abandoned the Solar System permanently for some reason.
SPACE WAR! The only sci-fi trope he left out was the question of whether the aliens loaded themselves into volcanoes to become operating thetans and engrams. I kid, of course, but it’s hard to separate the science fiction underpinning of such speculations from the scientific content of the article. It’s an interesting case where it almost seems as though science fiction is the cart placed before the scientific horse.
And don’t think that I imposing my prejudices on the piece: Wright himself devotes an all-too-skimpy section to science fiction in which he alleges, falsely, that science fiction is too rare in its depiction of extinct former alien races whose ruins might be studied: “It is even rare in science ﬁction, though it does appear there occasionally. While the applications of this idea in science ﬁction are usually fanciful, it is unclear to what degree the existence of such species in reality is allowed or disallowed by evidence.”
Despite the opportunity for H. P. Lovecraft to actually be useful in an honest to goodness article about real space aliens, Wright seems unaware of the important stories At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, which both use his exact trope in a very serious way and provide fictional precedent for the thought experiment he hopes that scientists will undertake. Heck, he didn’t even think about the dead space jockey from Alien (1979), or the extinct race of giant aliens in Planet of the Vampires (1965), on which Alien modeled some of its scenes. His touchstone was instead Star Trek Voyager, a much less influential and consequential echo of the trope.
Frankly, the connection between science fiction and a potential program of study in search of ancient astronauts is the only really interesting thing in the article. It ought to have been more fully developed, because if it were, then Wright might have seen how much of his proposed program of study had been anticipated by science fiction, horror literature, and of course ancient astronaut theorists going back to the Theosophists. To wit: Wright suggests that (a) evidence of ancient astronauts would only have survived in the oldest geological layers of the Earth, if at all, and (b) is more likely to be found on dry, rocky bodies that lack strong erosional forces, like the Moon. I’m sure most of us reading this can name a few ancient astronaut authors who have made similar claims, and I know that all of us thought immediately of the four-million-year-old Monolith found on the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Wright weirdly declines to note (except in one brief passing reference) despite referencing Lucian’s True History and its much less realistic moon men.
The remainder of the article’s content is familiar even to those casually interesting in prehistoric alien encounters: Geological forces tend to erase evidence of habitation, so there are relatively few signatures we can expect to find on Earth, or even Venus and Mars, a billion or more years after the fact. Consequently, he says, more work needs to be done to identify how aliens might have impacted the geology of other worlds and our own in order to confirm or refute the idea that they were here. Ultimately, the argument is really a stealthy way of looking at the human impact on the Earth and how our presence is altering it and for how long. By framing it as the study of alien intervention, it neatly sidelines the political arguments about climate change and human ecological impact while still using the same data and gathering the same evidence for a putatively different goal. I found it odd—just as an aside—that Wright bothered to mention Percival Lowell’s claims about Mars but didn’t think to discuss the fact that Lowell actually made a geological argument about evidence for civilization on Mars, involving the remnants of ancient canals, and so forth. It seems to be a clear precursor to Wright’s own evaluation of ancient extraterrestrial life.
It's weird that Wright’s article ended up discussed in The Sun because there is so little to it, and not a lick of evidence for space aliens or lost civilizations. It’s more of a wonder that a journal published it at all considering that it offers no specific program of research, no evidence for (or against) aliens, and pretty much nothing original that hasn’t been part of the conversation about space aliens and science fiction for more than a century.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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