Micah Hanks Tries and Fails to Explain the History of the Ancient Astronaut Theory
I have it on good authority that conspiracy researcher and self-described open-minded skeptic Micah Hanks thinks I have serious issues that are driving me to attack fringe researchers rather than collaborate with them on exploring the truth. This is of a piece with his earlier statements from October in which Hanks said that my “hubris of this sort is actually worthy of study.” It’s reflective of the ethos of the relentlessly positive that offering criticism, no matter how constructive, is considered pathological. Why are you so negative? Why can’t everyone get a trophy? After all, fringe researchers are really trying even if they don’t know what they’re talking about.
On Thursday Hanks published an article about ancient astronauts that managed to get a good number of facts wrong, and to misrepresent chunks of ancient astronaut history. But he tried, so I guess that’s what counts, even if the results ended up misinforming Mysterious Universe readers.
Here’s the paragraph that contains the greatest number of errors and misinterpretations:
While the concept of “ancient aliens” has been entertained by some of the brightest minds, the concept is generally attributed to–of all people–Carl Sagan, who posited as early as 1966 that what he called paleo-contact might account for knowledge brought to Earth by extraterrestrials, in a book he coauthored with astrophysicist I.S. Shklovski called Intelligent Life in the Universe. Earlier roots predating Sagan and Shklovski’s writing have been linked to H. P. Lovecraft and his mythos of “Elder Gods” who could fling themselves about the stars, and occasionally land here on Earth to wreak havoc.
Let’s take them from the top.
No one attributes the invention of the ancient astronaut theory to Carl Sagan. He did not invent the hypothesis in its modern form, which had previously been popularized by Robert Charroux in One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History (1963), building on Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels popularization of the same hypothesis in Morning of the Magicians (1960), in turn derived from Soviet claims of ancient astronauts from the 1950s. While Sagan did suggest that the myth of Oannes could be read as evidence for ancient aliens in 1966, Hanks neglects to note that after conducting more research into ancient myths and legends Sagan rejected the ancient astronaut theory in 1973 in Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective.
In his next sentence, Hanks uses the passive voice to avoid acknowledging my research linking the ancient astronaut theory to the influence of H. P. Lovecraft. He also appears to know my research only from summary or caricature since he fails to note that Lovecraft didn’t invent the ancient astronaut theory either (nor did he typically refer to the Old Ones as the “Elder Gods,” a term more frequently used by August Derleth). Lovecraft wasn’t even the first science fiction writer to do so; back in 1898 Garrett P. Serviss wrote that Martians built the Sphinx! Lovecraft got the idea from Charles Fort and the Theosophists. Fort, writing in chapter 12 of the Book of the Damned (1919), was fairly clear (for him) on the point: “If other worlds have ever in the past had relations with this earth, they were attempted positivizations: to extend themselves, by colonies, upon this earth; to convert, or assimilate, indigenous inhabitants of this earth.” The nineteenth century Thesosophists were less clear, but no less important, when they described humanity as the result of interventions by beings who came from Venus in an armada of ships—the direct inspiration for the wave of Venusian UFO “contact” claims in the 1950s.
A little later in the article, Hanks uses more indirect language to sort of, but not quite, say that “some believe that legends prevalent among some modern cultures, including the Dogon of Africa, indicate that these very sorts of interactions did occur.” He fails to acknowledge that Robert Temple’s belief that the Dogon legends reflect alien knowledge was undercut by the revelation that the sources he used for The Sirius Mystery, particularly French anthropological research on the Dogon by Marcel Griaule, didn’t hold up to restudy. No subsequent anthropologist has found any trace of the supposed Sirius knowledge among the Dogon.
Hanks did, however, get one thing right when he wrote that the ancient astronaut theory provides “minute quantities of intellectual fodder.”
So here’s the bottom line: If Micah Hanks wants to be an expert, he needs to step up his game and demonstrate expertise in the subjects he discusses. If he just wants to be a gadfly “exploring” issues without really understanding them, what is the point of listening to him at all? Or is saying that too negative and full of hubris?
1/31/2015 02:31:57 am
Jason, I believe that the "Old Ones" and the "Elder Gods" are actually distinct (and opposing) groups of entities in Derleth. (This just makes Hanks's confusion all the worse.)
1/31/2015 03:54:45 am
Yes, they are opposed to the Old Ones in Derleth, but in other writers the distinction is less clear, particularly when conflated with the Elder Things (which are also called the Old Ones). Worse, in "Call of Cthulhu," Lovecraft actually uses the term "elder gods" (lower case) one time. It wasn't worth the trouble of sorting out the differences for one sentence.
1/31/2015 03:44:52 am
Well...to answer the very last question, Jason, I DO find it to be somewhat touching on the "negative and full of hubris" to imply as you did that there's no "point to listening" to someone who's "not an expert," because you have flat-out stated on your own blog that you are not an expert in everything you write about. Perhaps it would be better to say that if he wants to be KNOWLEGEABLE, he needs to do his research? I mean, yes, absolutely, the man needs to do his research. That's not the question. But there's that middle ground between "expert" and "ignorant" that's important, and by ignoring it in your statements, you imply that you're either "expert" or "completely ignorant" when you yourself fall into the "knowledgeable" category on many subjects about which you blog.
1/31/2015 03:50:15 am
There's a difference, V, between being formally credentialed and having expertise. There are people with advanced degrees who lack genuine expertise, and many people who are experts on subjects without ever having taken a college course. (And how would one be a credentialed expert in the history of ancient astronauts, anyway?) I'm not formally credentialed, but I've done the research to have the knowledge and expertise to know what I'm talking about in the subjects I write about. As you say, Hanks needs to actually know what he's talking about before writing about it.
1/31/2015 06:05:11 am
Ken Feder: the origin of the ancient astronaut theory is traced to Carl Sagan (2010). Hanks is referring to Feder's textbook, so it seems here we are being told that Feder is full of crap.
1/31/2015 06:16:51 am
Feder is wrong about this. While he cites an earlier work by Sagan than that to which Jason's referring, it is still predated by (and is based on) the work of Soviet authors.
1/31/2015 06:26:34 am
Feder's inaccurate claim is particularly puzzling because Sagan himself cites Soviet research in his 1963 article.
1/31/2015 06:39:07 am
You're referring to Feder's discussion of the ancient astronaut hypothesis in the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology (2010). At face value, Feder is wrong since there is clearly precedent for the ancient astronaut hypothesis for decades before him, but as I read it I think he meant that Sagan was the origin point for the ancient astronaut hypothesis as a serious scientific hypothesis rather than sci-fi speculation. It may be splitting hairs, but most of the Soviet research had proposed aliens as a potential explanation for one or another ancient mystery, while Sagan reversed the order and proposed ancient astronauts as a program for research in 1963. To that end, he is different from the earlier speculators who did not propose a program of research but rather assumed the existence of said aliens.
1/31/2015 06:50:29 am
That's not what Feder says. He thinks von Daniken stole the idea from Sagan. He says the origin of the idea was Sagan.
1/31/2015 06:53:53 am
On the contrary, Feder actually says: "It is unclear whether or not the Swiss author Erich von Daniken was aware of Sagan’s striking proposal."
1/31/2015 06:58:45 am
Jason, I'm not sure your "hair-splitting" proposal works. After all, Sagan says in his 1963 article: "The statistics presented... in this paper suggest that the Earth has been visited by various galactic civilizations many times (possibly ~10^4) during geological time."
1/31/2015 02:42:24 pm
I checked my copy Intelligent Life in the Universe it appears that Carl Sagan referred to the story of Oannes and the Apkallu as being memories of actual extraterrestrials as a possibility. Further on p. 461 it is written:
1/31/2015 02:49:24 pm
Sadly I miffed typing in my comment here is the corrected version. Jason would you please remove the original.
2/1/2015 05:07:45 am
"I suspect one reason why Sagan treated this whole idea with any amount of seriousness was because of the notion that one of Moons of Mars, Phobos was hollow."
1/31/2015 02:51:34 pm
Carl Sagan specifically debunked the claim that the Dogon learned any facts about Sirius from aliens by pointing out that everything they reportedly said about Sirius was something they could have picked up from other soldiers while serving in the French Army during World War I.
2/1/2015 08:27:33 am
Actually, it was professional anthropologists who debunked the Dogon claims (or, to be more precise, found them completely unsupported by any independent evidence). Sagan is either echoing their research or making a conjecture (neither of which would be at all unusual for him).
2/1/2015 11:20:15 am
Someone should tell Laird Scranton. He's still talking the Dogon trash.
2/18/2015 04:51:37 am
So, Why not just stop listening to him? Why do you find it necessary to attack him? Very odd. Kind of like my Dad. He used to bitch and bitch about some tv show, when all he had to do was turn the channel or turn it off.
8/22/2016 01:12:17 pm
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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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