Attitudes to change are important to the mass appeal of ancient alien theory. Aliens, ancient and modern, often appear in the context of social, cultural, and technological innovation. The contactees of the 1950s received dire warnings from our friendly Space Brothers about the mortal danger to our species of newly acquired atomic power. By the late 50s, people like George Adamski and George Van Tassel, many of them congregating annually at the Giant Rock Space Craft Convention, were telling us about coming destruction, whether through nuclear war, or the ravages of industrial pollution.

Ancient aliens, for their part, feature heavily as givers and managers of innovation. At key points in the development of human societies, they were involved, according to ancient alien theorists, in every major change to our species, from construction techniques, to systems of government, to belief systems. According to some contactee groups, such as the Raelians, ancient aliens even created our species through genetic manipulation of more primitive primates which populated earth.

Some very elaborate ancient alien ideologies, such as the Book of Urantia, present humans as junior members of an extensive and highly bureaucratic galactic community, shepherded at every stage of our social integration, by older, wiser, and more benevolent alien groups.

The common thread between modern alien contactee movements and the ancient alien incarnation of pseudoarchaeology, is the careful management of dangerous innovations and transitions by benevolent, older, more experienced siblings, visitors, or wardens.

Innovation as threat

The strong dominance of the idea that innovation is good and helpful is fairly recent and concentrated in a narrow segment of the Western intellectual community. Modern progressivism, recently expressed most strongly in the work of people like Steven Pinker, has its roots in the revolutionary, materialist, often anti-clerical movements of the eighteenth century. It is an ideology of emancipation from revealed wisdom, infused by boldness and optimism.

Up to that time, the position of the Church and State in the West, was that change is bad. From Adam and Eve, to The Flood, to the Tower of Babel and beyond, every significant instance of change was demonstrably a worsening of conditions for humans. Even the more classically inclined could point, in their self-important humanistic superiority, to our fall from a golden classical age. Change, it seemed, was at every turn degeneration rather than progress.

Even today, progressivism is far from a universally accepted view of change in Western societies. The current longing to Make America, and various other places, Great Again, for instance, points to significant degenerationist leanings among the voting public. Skepticism of the wisdom claimed by others, not as revealed, but as acquired through study, has become a populist trait, wielded by those who criticize academics and the progressivist elite in general. They harken back to days of quiet, ordered simplicity, regulated by unquestioned revelation. To days before disasters, brought on by the embracing of change, overtook us.

Even among those who aren’t outright degenerationists, change, these days, can be viewed with a certain degree of apprehension. It requires care, management, even caution.

Aliens, ancient and modern, as shepherds and managers of change

It isn’t surprising then, that an ideology which provides otherworldly, infallible, mysteriously motivated change managers, would be attractive to many who have rejected theism, but who still view change with a healthy skepticism. The flock’s question is often not who watches it, but whether it is tended at all.

If change is dangerous and suspicious now, it must have been so in the past as well. If change is dangerous now, it stands to reason that past instances of successful change could have been helped along by benevolent agents experienced in change. Catching up to others, especially under their guidance, after all, isn’t quite as risky as innovating from scratch.

When we accept that ancient aliens could willfully have created humans out or earthly raw materials, we accept that humans could have a purpose and a future. We accept that they were made the way they are supposed to be. When we accept that ancient aliens could have been the law-givers of our earliest complex societies and the teachers of their innovative building techniques, we accept that there is a chance that our societies make sense, that they are structured as they are and not otherwise, for good reasons.

Some accept these possibilities because they make sense. Some elevate these possibilities into probabilities, and sometimes, with the relentless, usually self-interested help of pseudoarchaeologists, into near certainties. If change is bad and dangerous, or at least very risky, and if at least some instances of fundamental change in the past worked out for the better, it makes sense that they might have been competently managed by experienced, knowledgeable agents. Ancient aliens are prime candidates for the kind of special intervention needed.

When we accept that UFOs might be monitoring our nuclear tests, power stations, and our military activities in general, as suggested by the recent New York Times coverage of the US Navy pilot sightings of Tic Tac craft, we accept that perhaps some external agency is busy saving us from our own worst tendencies. When we accept that von Braun may have had alien helpers, and that transistors may have been given to us at Roswell, we glimpse the possibility that all the dizzying change, technological and social, of the past couple of centuries, and of the past couple of decades, might not, after all, destroy us. Not because we are equipped to manage it, but because others, more experienced and wiser, are here to help us, or at the very least to warn us.

These wiser, more experienced beings have been tending the flock for thousands of years. Unlike the elite rulers, bureaucrats, academics, intellectuals, and other powerful parasites who demand obeisance, these shepherds seem to ask nothing in return.

Instead of claiming their wisdom, they demonstrate it. Instead of demanding to be believed and obeyed, they hide and reveal themselves in distant glimpses, speaking in riddles, to be interpreted by each of us according to our own sense.

Instead of telling us to live through the pain of change which they have brought about for our own good, they nudge and watch as we flourish from age to age, as we prepare to join the broader galactic community, where catching up, not speculative innovation, will finally make our lives better. No wonder these aliens, ancient and modern, are more attractive to many than professors of archaeology.

How can archaeologists respond?

This particular strand of pseudoarchaeology is difficult for me to tackle when discussing it with the public. I am very far from being a progressivist, but I am an evolutionary theorist, and I am a fairly materialist archaeologist. I am interested in all claims, no matter where they come from or how apparently counter-intuitive they are, but I look for tests against evidence.

In the final paragraph of the Origin of Species, Darwin, who was an odd sort of progressivist himself, attempted to bridge the gap between the degenerationist intuition of his contemporary critics on the one hand, and a progressivist, mostly materialist belief in the provident nature of evolution on the other, by contrasting the cost of selection, his “war of nature”, his “famine and death”, with the wonder of the ultimate outcome, “the production of the higher animal”.

Personally, I haven’t been able to use that kind of cost benefit analysis when discussing evolution or ancient aliens with the public or with students. For better or worse, I inherited from my more Lovecraftian upbringing a view of change as cosmically impersonal and uninterested. It just is. I was raised on the Old Ones, rather than on Space Brothers. There are no shepherds, whether gods, aliens, or provident selection.

The pain really is real. The Destruction, which Darwin names a full 20 times in The Origin, really is merciless. The goal, unlike Darwin’s higher animal and his Moral Faculty of Man, is not noble and inevitable. It is uncertain, undetermined, probably illusory. It isn’t worth the cost, because there is only cost. The goal is most likely no better or worse than the starting point, or the present, or any point in the future or past. This, it turns out, is not something that most people are excited to think about, and doesn’t form a great basis for helping them evaluate the claims of ancient alien theorists.

I feel that as long as those who accept ancient alien intervention as a possibility are also aware that there are other explanations of the past, and that the archaeological evidence we have so far is more consistent with those other ones, I have done my job.  I don’t worry if they keep my explanations alongside those of pseudoarchaeologists.

I was initially going to write: “…that there are simpler explanations”, but after reflection, I limited myself to writing “other explanations”.The absence of a guiding hand in the history of humans is only a simple explanation if one doesn’t think that change is fundamentally destructive, and therefore incompatible with long-term success and survival of the species. By making the unstated assumption that change is not an existential threat, and that ancient aliens are necessarily excess baggage in the explanation of the human adventure, I automatically lose a significant part of my audience to our pseudoarchaeological rivals, because of a combination of their attitude to change and their attitude to those who claim higher wisdom.

Better to acknowledge the difference in perspective, and use it as a basis for dialogue, not with the ancient alien theorists themselves, who are not our target audience, but rather with the audience we have in common. Like all of us, they are looking for good answers to interesting questions, and for some degree of comfort in an uncertain world full of the pain of destruction.

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