In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part seven.
As the interview heads toward its conclusion, Ferris asks Erich von Däniken (EVD) about yet another unsupportable claim, this time that the book of Genesis reports the creation of earth “with absolute geological accuracy.” Ferris points out that the Genesis account does not conform to modern scientific understanding, including absurdities such as the formation of oceans prior to the stars. EVD replies that Genesis is accurate in so far as it places water, land, plants, and humans in the right order of progression and that no one making up the story from whole cloth could guess that order correctly. This is also false. Genesis incorrectly places plants before fish, and birds before terrestrial animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 20-21). This is not what the fossil record shows.
Ferris next asks EVD to explain which scientists, exactly, he meant when he said scientists believe in the existence of tachyons, undiscovered particles that would travel faster than light. EVD had written that scientists say they “must” exist, but when questioned he backed off and admitted he could name no names supporting his assertion.
Ferris then challenges EVD’s assertion in Chariots that Carl Sagan and I. V. Shklovski “accept” the moon of Mars called Phobos is artificial. EVD demurs (“That’s utterly wrong.”), claiming that this is an error of translation. Oddly enough, EVD is here admitting to a lie that isn’t an out-and-out error. The authors do in fact state that the idea “merits serious consideration” because any hypothetical Martian civilization would be capable of launching large satellites and need them for space travel (Intelligent Life in the Universe, p. 373). This is not the same as acceptance, of course, but it is not as big a fraud as the Ecuadoran cave fiasco.
Ferris contacted Sagan to ask him for his opinion on EVD’s use of his work, and Sagan emphasized that a hypothetical suggestion is not the same as acceptance as fact, adding: “Every time he [EVD] sees something he can’t understand, he attributes it to extraterrestrial intelligence, and since he understands almost nothing, he sees evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence all over” (p. 151). EVD replies that Sagan is just another egomaniac scientists who thinks the whole world should listen to him, even though he and other scientists are close-minded and refuse to entertain evidence of aliens. This would seem to contradict Sagan’s own entertaining of the idea that a Martian civilization launched artificial moons.
EVD then discusses his fan mail, including 20 letters from the United States that claim to be written by extraterrestrials (“they must be especially silly there,” he muses). He explains that the Yeti is “not my field of research,” and that Fortean reports of a rain of fish or people turning into frogs have “natural explanations.” He also insists that Jesus was not an ancient astronaut: “I am asked questions by people who say Jesus was an astronaut. That makes me laugh. I’m definitely sure Jesus had nothing to do with astronauts, and I want to say so once and for all” (p. 151). Ferris presses him as to what differentiates Jesus from the other sky gods that EVD claimed were really aliens. “But it’s silly,” EVD says. “There’s no reason to say Jesus came from space.” A real alien, he says, wouldn’t have died on the cross for human salvation. Someone should have let the other ancient astronaut theorists know this was too silly.
Ferris asks EVD about his criminal convictions, but EVD is right that these are irrelevant to his theory—though not to an evaluation of whether to believe his evidence when the only evidence is his word. Nevertheless, as we close out the interview, we have one more bit of ridiculousness to review. Ferris asks EVD about a claim in The Gold of the Gods that bananas are an extraterrestrial invention. First, to understand the reply, take a look at what EVD actually wrote:
When asked if he was seriously implying bananas come from another world, he replied: “No, and not many people realize that.” Of course they don’t realize this is a joke; it is presented exactly like all of his other claims, and there is nothing in the context of the description, passage, or chapter to suggest it is a joke. It sounds, frankly, like EVD got caught in another lie and weaseled his way out after realizing that bananas were actually artificially cultivated after domestication in the East Indies c. 5000 BCE. (Yes, this means that Kirk Cameron is also wrong about God designing bananas to fit human hands; human farmers did that.)
So is this all a put-on, Ferris asks. EVD replies: “In some part, absolutely not; I mean what I say seriously. In other ways, I mean to make people laugh.”
“Well, you’ve succeeded in both aims,” Ferris says, closing the interview.
And there we have it. Over the course of three days, Timothy Ferris got EVD to concede enormous amounts of ground, exposed his slipshod scholarship, and made clear that EVD’s theories were little more than assertions piled upon speculations built atop guesswork. EVD would forever be remembered for admitting to faking evidence. It is quite likely no coincidence that after this EVD would no longer regularly submit to questions from skeptical interviewers. Ancient astronaut theorists learned an important lesson, and unlike their creationist counterparts, they largely retreated into a self-contained world of alternative scholarship where their claims—no matter how absurd—were validated and never challenged.
EVD perhaps summed up his entire theory best when he tried to debunk its application to his readers’ favored religion, Christianity: “But it’s silly.” Very silly indeed.
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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