So, this week the New Yorker interviewed racist author Erich von Däniken, the elderly ancient astronaut theorist who once wrote that the Black race was a “failure” and who has included transphobic and Islamophobic commentary in his most recent books. Why would one of America’s premiere publications give a platform to a man whose claim to fame was arguing that nonwhite people couldn’t stack rocks without help from rapists from outer space? It’s because a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist seems to have relied on her adolescent memories of ancient astronaut rather than researching current controversies—current being anything after, say, the late 1970s.
On Tuesday, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book claiming that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial spacecraft will be released. While that claim—which Loeb has unsuccessfully pushed for the past three or four years, against the opinion of his peers—is the sexy hook to draw readers in, much of the book is devoted to Loeb’s ersatz philosophy. He argues that space aliens are “existentialists,” and he claims that like 1950s philosophical icons Sartre and Camus, aliens likely see life as an absurdity. In pushing a belief system that he calls “cosmic modesty” or “cosmic humility,” he wants humans to believe they are unimportant and should take moral lessons from space aliens.
As philosophy, it’s incoherent, as I have explained before: Existentialism, popular in midcentury but hardly an important movement now, is all about the individual and finding authenticity by creating meaning in one’s own life. (I went through all this in writing my new book—James Dean was wrapped up in it, read Camus, and one of his girlfriends knew Sartre. Funny story: It was widely reported that when that girlfriend, Ursula Andress, talked grandly of existentialism, Dean told friend that he didn’t know what it was. He was probably quoting Sartre—“Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.”—but the humor was lost on the friend.) Loeb would subsume humanity beneath “superior” space aliens. This is neither here nor there, but if humans aren’t important, then neither are the aliens. They, too, are just bits of start dust.
Loeb, in a YouTube interview earlier this month, said that he has been a huge fan of existentialism since he was a teenager, and, naturally, at his apogee he seeks to play out his adolescent interests by projecting them into the stars. Typically, the media are giving Loeb a free pass on his existentialist speculations and instead titillate readers with his claims about ‘Oumuamua.
In the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert immediately decides that the best way to think about Loeb’s claims is to relate them to her adolescent fantasy, Chariots of the Gods:
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was “Chariots of the Gods?,” by Erich von Däniken. The premise of the book, which was spun off into the TV documentary “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” narrated by Rod Serling, was that Fermi’s question had long ago been answered. “They” had already been here. […] I figured that von Däniken would be interested in the first official interstellar object, and so I got in touch with him. […] Von Däniken told me that he had, indeed, been following the controversy over ‘Oumuamua. He tended to side with Loeb, who, he thought, was very brave.
It fascinates me how these bad books cast such long shadows, but it is deeply disappointing that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist would not have done basic background research to make herself aware of von Däniken’s racist, sexist, and homophobic commentary before giving him a platform as a fun and kooky color commentator in one of America’s most respected magazines. But, like Loeb’s kooky existentialist ideas, you can hide anything in the back pages of a book as long as you don’t talk about it on TV. No one in the media will ever find out.
1/22/2021 09:58:47 am
Thanks once again Jason for being a voice of reason and sanity. It's more than disappointing that theories and wild speculations are treated as pertinent discourse. I passed by von Däniken’s shrine/museum when I was in Europe. It never fails to amaze that people buy into his nonsense that are ancestors were 'dummies' but not into his racism and bigotry that riddled his books. I wish you great success with upcoming book; look forward to reading it. Jo
1/22/2021 10:23:13 am
Have you seen where an Oklahoman lawmaker wants to create a "Bigfoot Hunting Season" and "sell huntings permits to the general public"? I thought that would be the craziest thing I'd hear today. Then I read this blog post.
1/22/2021 12:31:24 pm
Its fascinating how people can spin a whole profile about aliens based on an object in space that they believe to be a spaceship. The bigfoot nutters do something similar. Pointing out that behavioral characteristics like remaining hidden by staying in backcountry doesnt make sense since many reports have bigfoot frolicking about in small woodlots within a stones throw of suburban strip malls or living in wingnut Melba Ketchum's backyard tends to frustrate and anger them.
1/22/2021 01:18:16 pm
This sad development is a direct result of the continuous complaining by the right wing about the so called “cancel culture.” The collective conservative whining that racist and bigoted voices have been silenced has become so ubiquitous that traditional news media now feel compelled to include these narrow-minded views as part of their regular coverage as if they are just one of many legitimate perspectives. Thank conservatives for re-normalizing racist hate speech.
The author of the piece, Elizabeth Kolbert, is clearly related to the natural sciences, but not to the Humanities. This may be a reason why this aspect of Däniken's work escaped her attention. She may be in danger of scientism, not aware of the foundations and conditions and limitations under which science is correctly performed.
1/23/2021 09:09:12 am
I too read Chariots of the Gods when I was younger. I thought it was crap. I mean, what did Von Daniken think the Nasda lines where at first. He thought they were basically an airport. That made no sense, why would aliens be able to fly hundreds of light years to reach earth, but then need an airport to land?
1/25/2021 10:36:17 am
1/24/2021 10:50:51 am
I do agree that I did not buy in to most of Von Daniken's theories either (yes, I also read the book many years ago) . On the one hand, most seem too far-fetched. On the other hand, each assumption is based on a modicum of truth or fact, regardless how far the stretch of the imagination. Example in point: Jules Verne, circa mid-1860's. "Journey to the Center of the Earth", "Twenty thousand Leagues Under the Sea" -"Around the World in 80 Days"- and " Paris in the Twentieth Century" all presented possibilities that could not be imagined at the time, but are common place today (submarines, electric lights, subways, taxis, the electric chair.) Same with Von Daniken and so many others. They take a tiny modem of truth and run with it in all directions. For example, on all IQ standardized tests around the world, blacks consistently score lower than whites. It's not about 'slavery' or about economic poverty. It's just an unexplained fact of our world. So it should be no surprise that someone like Von Daniken might imagine space aliens contributing sperm on steroids, and how this affected the evolution of varied humanoid branches. After all, even the Bible backs up some of Von Daniken's premises. In the same way that blacks score lower, Asians score higher, and Ashkenazi Jews consistently score higher IQ's than anyone else on our planet. Each of us could write an entire book on theories in any direction, and be at least partially right.
1/24/2021 04:10:51 pm
Excuse me, but did Jules Vern try to pass off his works as something other than fiction ? You don't see the difference ?
1/27/2021 04:59:57 pm
Jim.....It appears that Jules Vern and VonDaniken were both trying to see imagined possibilities of the world. I admire their creative thinking. That's all.
1/24/2021 06:08:58 pm
May I add just one more comment here? Because I know my comment about IQ's will ruffle some ...it's a topic I've given a lot of thought through the years-and my conclusion is thus: Think about bears. There are eight species worldwide. They are carnivoran mammals of the family Ursidae , classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans. They include polar bears, koala bears, pandas, Grizzlys...n Now put them together and give them a standardized IQ test designed for bears. Would each pass the same test? Depends on who wrote the test. If written by a Polar bear who expected all bears to swim under the ice and dive for seals, then all other bears will fail the test. If written by a panda bear who was expert in locating and eating bamboo shoots, then the polar bear and all others will fail. OK. Nuff said. Now we can put the subject of race and IQ aside.
1/25/2021 11:42:35 am
Koalas aren't bears. Measure twice, cut once.
1/27/2021 04:57:47 pm
KENT- YOU ARE RIGHT! KOALAS ARE MARSUPIALS...I WAS RUSHING...MY BAD. THANKS FOR THE CORRECTION. I was trying to make the point that the whole concept of intelligence tests as they were first created is flawed. I believe we reflect the same biology as others in the animal world, that we specialize according to our environment..Our brains are not better or lesser, just wired differently.. Well, except for blondes like me... but that's another conversation.
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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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