Yesterday, I discussed Sarah Moran’s misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and doing this made me think of something that I would like to share with my readers. Moran, as you’ll recall, had claimed that no trace of evolutionary theory existed before Darwin, just as the ancient astronaut theory sprang from Erich von Däniken’s mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. In both cases, she felt succeeding generations preserved the master’s theories unchanged and sacrosanct.
Obviously this caricature is fundamentally wrong. Scientists have added enormously to our understanding of evolution since Darwin’s day. But in the history of these two ideas, we can see how science comes ever closer to the truth while pseudoscience spins farther away from it.
Evolutionary theories have been around in some form since at least Aristotle, who had suggested a form of natural selection in Physics (2.8.2). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, scholars like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin proposed theories that, while not the same as modern thought, took a close stab at the central concept of evolution. Lamarck had argued that evolution occurs through inheritance of traits gained during the life of the parent, but he had the central idea that change occurs through time. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, intuited both evolution and natural selection, though he did not have the evidence to prove them.
Then, at the very same time Charles Darwin was developing his theory of evolution and providing the theoretical and evidential foundation for it, Alfred Russel Wallace developed the exact same theory, not because he was copying Darwin but because the evidence led him to an identical conclusion. Afterward, scientists around the world worked on evolutionary theory, gradually building up a body of ideas and concepts that merged into a shared body of theory—albeit one with areas of controversy that scholars still debate. As new evidence emerged—first genetics, then DNA—the new evidence fit into the older theory and enhanced it, providing more evidence for the theory’s essential truth.
Now contrast that with the ancient astronaut theory. This theory was born of fraud when Helena Blavatsky, a fake medium, proposed that Venusians had inserted their souls in the people of Lemuria and gave humans civilization. Then, UFO theorists in Britain and the Soviet Union, developed, independently or not, fringe views that UFOs had visited earth in prehistory. Two French fantasists, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, synthesized these views into a speculative idea—with no original research—that aliens visited the ancient earth, and Erich von Däniken copied them (and Robert Charroux), and others copied him and rarely did any original research.
From there, the various ancient astronaut theories (AATs) have branched out into a plethora of mutually-exclusive ideas. In some AATs, aliens visit humans who evolved on their own; in others, the aliens have sex with pre-humans to create mankind, while in still others they genetically engineer human beings. In some AATs, the aliens are human-like; in others they are amphibious space frogs or giants or lizard-like, or stereotypical “greys.” In some AATs, aliens build monuments like the pyramids; in others they merely direct their construction, while in still others monuments are human-built “signals” to the aliens. In some AATs, the aliens fly around on a rogue planet; in others, they travel in rocket-like ships, and in still others they teleport through wormholes. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The point is that all of the scholars working across the centuries on evolution kept circling ever closer to a single idea. All the research in the field tends toward one consistent view (though, as with any data set, there are from time to time outlying data points that must be resolved) and this tendency has only grown stronger as more research is conducted.
By contrast, the ancient astronaut theory spins ever farther away from its center, its claims growing more baroque, more contradictory, and more outlandish as more voices are added. “Research” in the field tends toward no single view; every researcher develops wildly diverging ideas from no single agreed-upon data set. Don’t believe me? Compare Zecharia Sitchin to Robert Temple, or either to David Hatcher Childress. Or, better still, try looking up the concept of the “world grid” and see if you can find any two proponents who share the same world grid, or identify the same set of ancient sites that supposedly sit upon its nodes.
If there were any truth the ancient astronaut theory, then the facts of the aliens’ arrival, their deeds, and their mission should become clearer with more research, not more obscure. If there were any truth to the ancient astronaut theory, then the theorists working in the field should be gradually moving toward a single conception of the extraterrestrial visitation, one that comes ever closer to the truth. But this is not happening, which strongly suggests that the many ancient astronaut theories exist primarily in their creators’ minds, not in the facts they purport to explain.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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