Archives For ancient astronauts

egyptian wall

Sometimes, you have to go out of your way to look for post material. Sometimes, ideas brew in the back of your head until you have a complete thought that works. And sometimes, the exact blog fodder you didn’t even know you sought until you saw it arrives in your inbox on its own. In the years this blog has been up and running, the number and the frequency of posts while I am actively writing, gave plenty of journalists and PR agents the idea that this is my full time job. It’s not, as should be clear from my short bio, but nevertheless, unsolicited press releases, offers to do interviews, and review copies of books get sent to me on a regular basis. Most of the books in question won’t be blockbusters flying off the shelves at your local bookstore, or on back order from your favorite online retailer, i.e. Amazon, so I seldom mention them. But this one, while not destined for the bestseller list as well, is actually noteworthy in its own, very bizarre way.

Across the ufology and ancient alien theory community, there’s a pervasive idea of human-alien hybrids either living among us, or being with us in the past. When the whole idea was just being distilled into von Daniken’s books, the most popular alternative history of humanity held that we were all of alien origin, engineered to be slaves to an extraterrestrial civilization known to us as the Anunnaki. Compared to other species on this planet, the theorists argued, we were way too smart for our own good and biology alone can’t explain the sudden leap in intelligence. Until the alien part would’ve come up, you could’ve sworn you were reading a creationist tract. But as of late, there’s been a bit of a refinement along the lines of David Icke’s ideas. Humans evolved on their own, just as we were taught in a proper science class. It’s just that some humans had very unconventional families in which mom or dad was an alien from the otherwordly ruling caste. I’d like to think of it as a classic fairy tale but the prince or princess is a lizard from Tau Ceti.

Problem is that the original theory makes more sense than the emerging one because we can’t possibly hybridize with an alien life form, even if we consider the implications of panspermia for some sort of common origin for our species. No matter how closely the organic compounds that gave rise to human and any hypothetical alien life would match, the entire hereditary machinery would depend on the chemistry of their home star system. Even something as basic as DNA on another world could look familiar, but have radically different fundamental elements. Usually, an evolutionary path which took place on the same planet, forking fewer than a million years ago is a requirement for even the idea of successful hybridization, though the degree of success could vary wildly, and most offspring would end up sterile a few thousand generations into it. Should a spacecraft in our far future ever land on a planet around another star where other humans with whom we’d successfully procreate live, a lot of very interesting questions will need answers, but that’s pretty much the only way we could reproduce with any functionally alien species.

But you see, the theorists have thought of that. No matter how radical the differences in DNA or underlying physiology are, a sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate it to produce the desired effect. We’re already starting to get a good handle on genetic engineering, so shouldn’t star-traversing aliens be even more adept at the technology? And that’s pretty much the vein in which ufologist and cryptozoologist Nick Redfern argues in the aforementioned book, that rare, complex human blood types called Rh negative are the result of Annunaki genetic engineering, and that pregnancies in which the mother is Rh+ and the fetus is Rh- are a telltale sign that the incompatibility isn’t a quirk of biology, but of alien tinkering. He goes even further to attribute the blood group to Rhesus monkeys and posit that by the theory of evolution, an Rh- human would have had to deviate from our normal evolutionary past. After all, how would you possibly argue with the forces of evolution and genetics without denying a century of scientific progress?

Well, you do it by pointing out that pretty much everything underpinning Redfern’s idea is a very drastic oversimplification strapped to the Hyperbole Rocket™, and blasted into space, fueled by a pseudoscientific word salad on its way into orbit. There is nothing so terribly mysterious about the Rh blood group that any deviation from norm could only be alien in origin, the Rh+ and Rh- designation is actually just a flag as to whether the blood cell proteins have something typically known as the D antigen, one of some 50 other antigens in the Rh group. The group was named after the Rhesus monkey because chemical reactions with its blood were used to help scientists study the group and find out how to treat Rh factor incompatibilities during pregnancy. It’s really kind of a misnomer to bring up these monkeys, according to the NIH. To say that about 10% of humanity lacking a single antigen in about 50 during a single test can only come about through alien intervention sounds somewhat absurd in this light. While we’re at it, what about the CCR5 mutation which renders less than 1% of us immune to HIV? Is this proof of aliens as well?

Rather than only being logical that every human should share the same evolved traits, that can only happen through cloning. Should you look hard enough at the 0.5% of the genes making us unique individuals created by sexual reproduction rather than budding or self-fertilization, and a whole lot of differences emerge. For example, those living in the Andes and Himalayas evolved completely different ways to cope with living at extreme altitudes. Native Africans seem to have less in common with each other than with Eurasians, genetically speaking. And one in as many as 8 million children may suffer from progeria, a genetic mutation that accelerates aging. Using the same logic as Redfern, we could point to any rare or peculiar fact in human genes and then claim them to be a side-effect of alien genetic engineering because they’re rare or peculiar. But that would make just as little sense. So should you ever find out that you’re Rh-, don’t worry, an investigation into your genetic lineage won’t uncover a great-to-the-500th-degree-grandma who came to Earth in a flying saucer. Chances are that every ancestor you had was very human.

ancient aliens

Now, I’ve written a great deal about the ancient astronaut hypothesis, the idea that alien beings had profound influence on our evolution and civilization. Usually, when I did, I talked about a lack of a smoking gun for extraterrestrial meddling in our genome or our politics, and pointed out just how rare it would be for an advanced alien species with a passion for exploration to evolve close to the same time period as us, detect our planet, cross light years to get here, and have interest in doing anything on Earth to cover the scientific basics. But what about another line of evidence from ancient astronaut believers? According to them pictures of weird beings and stories of all sorts of bizarre creatures, monsters, and mysterious chariots in the sky must point to visitations, an assertion countered by skeptics with alternative explanations that usually have to do with the religious art commonly produced by the civilizations in question or pointing out the believers’ all too tenuous grasp of the historical facts and games of confirmation bias.

However, there’s another idea that seems to be missing. Our ancestors wrote fiction and were every bit as creative as we are. In fact, we have records of jokes that date to nearly 4,000 years ago and epic sagas that are more than a thousand years old. Fun fact, the oldest known joke in human history is a fart joke. The second? A joke about women wearing nothing but fishnets for the visual benefit of a pharaoh. The oldest European joke? A bait and switch riddle that seemed to be describing a penis. Yes, humanity hasn’t changed all that much when it comes to humor, I know. And that’s precisely the point. We shouldn’t take everything we see from the past literally like ancient astronaut believers, although we sometimes do. The legend of King Arthur written in Perceval has inspired many true believers today to argue that there’s a real Holy Grail, just see the book on which the DaVinci Code was based: Holy Blood, Hold Grail. Despite being written as an epic fictional tale with colorful characters and fictional creatures, people take parts of it to be factual or based on fact simply because they mention other mostly or semi-fictional works.

So when an ancient astronaut theorist invokes ancient texts, why not ask how he or she knows if the text was meant to be taken seriously? Were the flying creatures on flaming chariots part of a religious tract meant to guide worshipers of ancient gods or was it entertaining fiction for those who ruled our first empires? How many of the soap operas meant to describe the life of the gods in ancient mythology was canon and how much were creative add-ons? When we read ancient texts on religious matters, are we confusing their versions of Bibles with their versions of the Left Behind books? We know our ancestors were creative enough to dream up gods and monsters, and mastermind engineering projects that would take decades to complete. We know there were great epics with highly fictionalized tales of past wars and natural disasters, and we know there were countless books lost as ancient libraries were burnt down by illiterate conquerors or rabid zealots. So why do ancient astronaut theorists insist on treating every artifact from the past as a record of a historical fact rather than even pretend to allow for works for art and fiction?

According to the proponents of the ancient astronaut theory, not only are we not alone out there, but we are an indirect result of their experiments on our ancestors, experiments designed to create smarter workers to help them mine gold. Now, if you’ve been reading for a while, you probably recall that the idea of aliens conquering a world to mine its natural resources would be rather unproductive at best, and completely unnecessary at worst, since they could simply mine trillions of asteroids without worrying about invading another planet. Why expend all those resources and all that energy to get whatever it is they want when it’s floating around in deep space, there for the taking? When we run out of recoverable gold or rare metals, our plan is not to suit up and head for Proxima Centauri to conquer Pandora and mine our unobtanium there, it’s to set up asteroid mining operations and build a supply network to keep the flow of resources steadily flowing in. Clever aliens are very likely to try the same thing, which is why one recent SETI idea involved looking for their asteroid mines, and another posited that we’re most likely to detect not aliens themselves, but signals from their mining bots.

So imagine an advanced alien species deciding that instead of just mining asteroids in their solar system, it would be more exciting to come to another planet, colonize it, and have its natives mine the gold for you. How do they know to come to Earth? After all, it’s one of billions of planets out there and hardly the only one with an adequate supply of gold to around interest. In fact, there’s so much gold out there in space, you will practically have to avoid the stuff in your search to end up anywhere near Earth. Clouds of comets and asteroids should be present in every solar system unless our model of planetary formation is wrong, which would be kind of a stretch to assume since our telescopes seem to back up our models quite well, and in all those bodies, the concentrations of precious metals is much higher than on planets since these heavy elements will sink into the molten rock during a planet’s formation. How exactly can you have the technology to find gold on your own world, but lack the capacity to detect it floating all around you? And if you’re a sufficiently advanced species in possession of technology to traverse the stars, why have another species mine your gold for you, especially a species which is still more or less living in caves and uses sharp bits of rock as its primary tools?

For example, in the horse opera/sci-fi mashup that is Cowboys and Aliens, which starred James Bond and an even crankier and more jaded Han Solo taking on a vicious aliens who look like the steroid-abusing offspring of ET and the creatures from Independence Day, the extraterrestrial thieves can just melt gold with some sort of mobile microwave generator and beam it back to their vessels with powerful magnets. They don’t need any help from us, which is why they simply dissect humans in longitudinal studies instead of trying to genetically engineer them into good workers or teach them how to use their machinery. If anything, using humans would slow them down since their equipment seems to do a very efficient job of extracting gold from the ground with no need for shovels, pickaxes, bulldozers, or millions of gallons of water to separate gold nuggets from rocks, sediment, and other metals. Real aliens interested in mining gold would probably follow the same pattern, or if we’re lucky, just ignore us and go about their business. And this raises the question of why aliens may even need gold in the first place. Yes, there are industrial uses for it, but they’re somewhat limited, especially when we’re talking about very sophisticated technology which would require things like carbon nanotube-reinforced alloys. If anything, they would be mining for something they could use as building materials or fuel.

One might imagine vast antimatter collectors cast out to catch the few grams of the stuff floating around, or a network of machines mining lithium, deuterium, and tritium to fuel fusion reactors. After all, when you’re out in the vacuum of space, what really matters is survival a having enough fuel and food will be more important and useful than gold or platinum trinkets. What good is a cargo hold filled with precious metals when you’re so far away from home that you can’t actually use it for anything but decoration or patching up a circuit or two? On top of that, we’re assuming that an alien species would have our ideas of trade and economics, in which we use currencies as proxies for things the value of which is set by a market. Why would we expect entities living on a distant planet to adopt the same idea? Maybe they use something far more practical as money and have very sophisticated barter systems, having never even considered a monetary proxy setup? Maybe, just maybe we were indeed visited by intelligent creatures from another world and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, aka the Aliens Guy, really is the visionary scholar that The History Channel presents him to be. But they wouldn’t have come here for gold, and they didn’t need us to serve as their genetically engineered pliant workforce.

Seems like I can’t resist from pointing out some really bad commentary from readers this week, maybe since the comments in question are almost textbook examples of bad logic for a particular argument in dire need of some skepticism. Last time, we had a creationist troll just asking questions, and now, we have a very angry ancient astronaut theorist trying to take me to task for pointing out that even if humans and aliens shared an extremely distant ancestor via the process of panspermia billions of years ago, our genomes would be way too different for any cross-breeding or hybridization experiments by virtue of evolution. But apparently, just by looking into the mechanisms of genetic mutations and simple astrobiology, and taking a skeptical stance on the issue based on the evidence, I’m a close-minded arrogant jackass who just needs to think outside the box, damn it! Or in his own words, excerpted and slightly cleaned up for readability…

How moronic are you, really? Yes we evolved by evolution, I’m not disputing that, but to go on and say that a species of Neanderthals that were probably eating their own feces, virtually overnight, became more intelligent, and had the advanced knowledge to know how to construct all the great monuments of the world. And even we, the “human race,” can’t even accomplish these things in today’s modern world.

One of the two mistakes adherents of ancient astronaut theories make is losing a sense of timescales when talking about the ancient world. Modern humans evolved just over 100,000 years ago as several different and competing species, some of which consolidated through hybridization while the others went extinct. The very foundations of civilization as we know it were being laid down around 6000 BC and the kind of big monument building we consider some of the greatest achievements of the ancient world were being raised some 3,000 years after that. The notion of humans going to sleep in caves while using primitive grunting to communicate with each other, then waking up, singing an ode to the wonders of the universe and going out to build a brand new pyramid and Stonehenge before supper, simply won’t apply here. We had thousands of years to learn, to experiment, and to build societies to a point where we actually were interested in building monuments or city states to protect our resources and commercial interests. And in the archeological record, there are plenty of little experiments which seem to set the stage for more and more monument building in the future, such as a whole number of small but growing wood and stone circles around sites sacred to Neolithic Britons.

It’s also perplexing that we couldn’t replicate the ancients’ efforts today. Have you ever been to Las Vegas and seen the Luxor casino? It’s about thirty stories tall, houses an entire hotel and entertainment complex inside, and shines a piercing beam of light visible from over a hundred miles away. We just used it for entertainment and business rather than as a religious monument to house a small maze of rooms and built out of slabs of rock, so it’s easy to overlook that we’ve created our own Great Pyramid as a cheap tourist attraction. Also, can someone point me to any ancient civilization able to build something on par with Taipei 101, or the Petronas Towers, or the Burj Khalifa? Some of today’s most ambitious architectural projects would be impossible in a world without robots or factories, and we build in years, not over decades, if not generations, which were the typical timelines for many ancient monuments. During the popularization of a number of ancient sites during the 19th century, arrogant Victorians could not help but keep repeating how amazed they were that "primitive savages" of the feral past ever built something impressive, blithely ignoring the fact that the ancients and we share the same kind of brainpower. I suppose their arrogance is now imprinted in our pop culture.

Look, if we can genetically alter sheep’s DNA, and a make a fucking clone of it, and if we can take an egg out of a woman, and take the sperm out of a man, and genetically splice the two together and replace it back into the woman’s womb, so she can have a child, then what makes you think it’s so impossible that ancient aliens didn’t do the exact same thing?

And here’s the second mistake ancient astronaut believers tend to make all the time. Just because it may be plausible doesn’t mean that it happened or that it has a high probability of happening. When it comes to alien visits to our little planet, I’ve consistently said the same thing. There is a nonzero probability of life arising on other worlds orbiting other stars, and in some cases the star might not even be required for long. There is a nonzero chance that by sheer number of times life arises, at least some aliens will evolve intelligence, build spacecraft, and start exploring the cosmos. But the odds of us and another intelligent species which has the craft able to reach our world, nearly magical gene splicing technology, and an interest in meddling with us as a growing species in the primeval past are astronomically small, small enough to all but disregard. Show me actual proof of alien meddling with our genomes and present me with a flying saucer or an alien mummy our ancestors buried at a sacred site thousands of years ago, and I’ll shake your hand and without the slightest hint of sarcasm or jest ask if I could get a preview of your Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Until then, I will be filing the ideas of ancient astronauts in a bin labeled "plausible but really, really, really unlikely."

As anyone able to pass a college level biology course can tell you, the chances of humans interbreeding with any alien species are quite literally astronomical. Even if we embrace the notion of panspermia and assume that life on multiple planets has a common origin, the window for hybridization is under two million years and by the time the colonizing microbes start to evolve, creating a branch of their evolutionary tree endowed with a certain intelligence, if this would even happen at all, the gulf between them would be measured in billions of years. And if we were to assume the more standard approach, that life arises on a planet where the chemistry can sustain the necessary biochemical reactions, then there’s pretty much no way alien life forms can ever be similar enough to even genetically engineer themselves to be remotely compatible with each others’ biology.

And yet, not only do we have people who believe that aliens could’ve interbred with humans, they think there is actual, tangible proof for the idea, with some going as far as dismissing evolution as an inadequate way to explain the rise of our species. And if you think that ancient astronaut proponents make some strange or specious arguments from their very liberal interpretation of astrobiology, it gets even more bizarre when they start using religious scriptures to justify a scientific investigation into the notion…

The Bible says the daughters of man had relations with fallen angels, and that their offspring were giants. Scoff if you want, but why don’t they (scientist etc.) do DNA samples of all the known giant fossils? Maybe something shows up.

Sure, scientists can test fossils for alien DNA until the cows come home, but what exactly are they supposed to find? Are they just going to do some magical sciencey stuff and cough up a string of extraterrestrial genes? Of course not. We have no idea what real alien hereditary material would be like, much less what four or five, or six billion years of evolution could do to it. Aliens could use quadruplet codons, have ten nucleobases, and cells with no nuclei. Without having an example of an intelligent extraterrestrial’s genome to study its evolution and biochemistry, looking for an alien genetic code in human fossils would basically be an exercise in blindly stabbing in the dark, hoping to find something on the off chance it’s there. And there are much better uses for the very limited amount of money scientists get than trying to prove fanciful tales from holy books or fulfill an emotional need to spice up our lives with an alien conspiracy theory. If and when we get a hold of some old, wise alien’s genome, we could certainly run a few tests. But until then, it’s just not going to happen.

It’s an article that has all the trappings of a creationist strawman collection. Filled with random proclamations about the complexity of life, the mysteries of genetics, obscure references to unnamed experiments and filled with random quotes while heavily borrowing from Behe’s incompetent screed used by the Discovery Institute, funded by Templeton, and shown to be wrong again and again, you might think that its author is a lackey for the modern creationist movement. Just to drive that image home, his credentials state that he was enlisted in the Army as an intelligence agent, and after his military career ended, began to conduct “independent studies on human evolution” discovering that everything modern biology knows is just flat out wrong. And yet, he has no affiliation with the Discovery Institute and the modern creationist movement. Long time readers might even remember his name mentioned in a number of my popular posts. About the ancient astronaut theory.

You see, this article was penned in 1998 by UFOlogist and conspiracy radio celebrity Lloyd Pye, whose claim to fame these days rests in an odd, misshapen human skull which he says is proof of alien/human hybrids from the ancient past. He’s never had anything to do with the Seattle think tank, which was founded to cram a religious mythology into classrooms across the nation at the request of wealthy evangelicals who believe that scientists are immoral, evil liars whose only goal in life is to indoctrinate children into atheism. Instead, Lloyd has a keen interest in alien life and converted to the science fiction gospel advanced by van Daniken. So why was he borrowing from Behe and unleashing a logorrheic Gish Gallop of creationist word salad science and obscure mentions to some sort of designer? Was this a flirt with creationism before he substituted designers of the supernatural kind with those which are actually scientifically plausible, even if remotely so? And could we use this as a peek into the mind of an ancient astronaut theorist arguing against evolution to bolster a very personal belief in an alien creator?

Considering the similarities between them, I would actually argue that the fervent believers in the notion of a God acting as a scientist setting up the universe as an experiment in a very deist way which sees the deities working on a quantum level, and ancient astronaut theorists, are ideological siblings. The only difference is the entity in which they believe. Amusingly though, creationists actually apply critical thinking skills to tales of mysterious alien species engineering humans in their labs, H.P. Lovecraft-style and often dismiss the idea for its lack of concrete evidence, yet suspend all criticism when it comes to divine magic. Likewise, many ancient astronaut theorists rely on the same I-don’t-know-therefore-my-deity-of-choice arguments so favored by the creationists whose beliefs they dismiss as entirely baseless. And this is why this essay by Pye is quite interesting. It shows how easily high-minded creationists and passionate ancient astronaut theorists can be mistaken when you don’t know to what they say they ascribe loud and clear. And really, I could take intelligent design proponents as a tad more than transparent apologists for magic if they were to include aliens in some of their ruminations. At least then they’d say something at least tangentially related to real science.

[ illustration by Aaron Sims ]

There’s a very popular expression in Russia about trying to present well known and thoroughly explored ideas as some groundbreaking novelty that will usher in a new are of understanding between two opposing groups with very different theories about the world. It’s called “discovering America,” and considering that today is the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to include this expression in today’s post, especially since we’re going to talk about a science writer who decided to fit this expression to a tee in the depths of that collection of feel- good, New Age pseudoscience and quasi-philosophical navel-gazing known as the Huffington Post with his very heartfelt attempt to play into the creationist canard of God creating evolution to accomplish his goals. As one of Jerry Coyne’s readers pointed out, the deity in Clay Farris Naff’s column seems a lot like this one…

But it’s not just in quoting much parodied, satirized and debunked creationist notions where Naff tries to make a discovery. While penning a little purple prose intended to compel creationists and scientists to get along by only slightly overlapping their magesteria, he smacks right dab into an idea which should be very, very familiar to most readers of this blog since it’s one of my absolute favorite speculative topics for posts.

If the Creator wanted to bring about a result like us — life capable of contemplating, appreciating, and sustaining life — he, she, or they surely might have done worse than to create a Universe with just enough scope and variation to let evolution do all the labor of design. And what sort of Creator might do that? One in our own image, of course: An intelligent life seeking to pass the torch of life across the cosmos to a new generation. There is more to ponder, here, of course, and I’m the first to admit that there is no evidence to tip the balance. But let me stake my claim here: the just-good-enough Universe we inhabit is more consistent with my view than any other rationally acceptable explanation proffered so far. If I’m right, we are the children of loving cosmic parents, and we are charged with becoming what they once were. How cool is that?

Now why does that sound so hauntingly familiar? Oh right, because Naff just re-invented the famous ancient astronaut theory which inspired Erich von Daniken and his disciples to create a new quasi-religion around a belief that sometime in the distant past, aliens interfered in human life on Earth, or, for some fans, modified living things as we know them today by manipulating their genomes, or controlling their evolution. And just like Neff’s claim, these proposals require substantial evidence to be taken seriously, evidence outlined once upon a time in a post trying to explore the requirements for a traveling alien designer. So far, neither the ancient astronaut theorists, or ID proponents have been able to come up with even one of the items on the list, so it’s rather hard to imagine Naff’s claim being taken any more seriously than as just another example of the poorly thought out opinion columns that seem to make up the vast majority of HuffPo’s attempts at science.

When watching the last episode of NatGeo’s Known Universe, an episode focused on ancient astronomy and the discoveries made by our ancestors, I came across the last thing I’d expect from a popular science show of this caliber. Today, the ancient astronaut theory is so widespread, pretty much every recounting of astronomy in the ancient world has to at least mention our desire to connect classical folklore with our ideas about aliens and their potential intervention in our history. And that’s all well and good when put into its proper context as a critical thinking exercise. However, recounting the offered evidence for this notion without offering any rebuttals which tackle specific points and give viewers a scientifically backed evaluation of what they just heard, playing up the mysteries and the unknowns for the sake of dramatic effect is simply unsound. But that’s the approach taken by the editors at NatGeo who gave an ancient astronaut theorist a virtually uninterrupted monologue

Now, to be as fair as possible, we have to note that the notion of ancient astronauts often gets categorized as the kind of New Age mythology we’d expect from crazed conspiracy theorists who believe that alien lizards rule our world from the shadows, and often unfairly so. There is no law of nature which would forbid an alien species to evolve intelligence, start building large and powerful spacecraft, and eventually make their way to a world orbiting around another star. Sure, it might take a very long time for all these things to happen and there is a very real chance that an intelligent alien species won’t exist long enough to do it, but it’s not completely out of the question. Just look at us. We could be less than a century away from technologies that let us slowly make our way to our nearest stars. So while creationists may misrepresent Dawkins as a believer in ancient alien visitors who helped our ancestors build civilization, then hypocritically make fun of him as they preach that an invisible, incomprehensible, omnipotent being designed the universe by magic, the ancient astronaut theorists actually do have some legitimate science on their side, even if the odds of an alien civilization with a fleet of interstellar vehciles visiting Earth at just the right time in a 100,000 light year wide galaxy with roughly a trillion planets require coincidences of, quite literally, astronomical orders of magnitude.

However, the mistake made by many of the idea’s proponents is in assuming that since alien life is possible and our ancestors have fanciful tales of gods coming from the skies in bizarre contraptions, it means that the gods in question are best explained by alien visitors from another world who inspired us to build monuments like the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. These are the claims made by the publisher of Legendary Times, an ancient astronaut theorist magazine in the tradition of Erich von Daniken, claims that went unchallenged by the experts featured in the same episode of Known Universe. Even stranger is that Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of von Daniken’s disciples and the publisher in question, has already been featured by a few skeptical shows on NatGeo and his arguments were often shot down by anthropologists and archeologists. So why not now? Why did the editors choose to highlight numerology done with the Great Pyramid, tales of Hindi gods cast as aliens flying around India in strange spacecraft, and the novel notion of Stonehenge being a model of a solar system as well as the legend of the dark companion of Sirius?

We’ve encountered numerology applied to ancient myths and legends before, specifically in the stories of the supposed discovery of ancient navigation systems and the so-called God equation of Stonehenge. With a big enough repository of simple math tricks, you can derive pretty much anything you want from any object you can find. There are no rules in numerology so you can turn any angle into a significant correlation, drop a few decimal points here and there until you put together some sort of pattern, and call whatever you get a from all your measuring, dividing and substituting a momentous discovery. Likewise, interpreting ancient gods of very old civilizations with our modern, space age sensibilities is just an exercise in connecting random dots until a picture you want to see starts to emerge. The Hindi gods roaming around the skies on chariots of fire should not be taken as a description of literal history. It’s not like our ancestors didn’t have imaginations and couldn’t create some very bizarre and fanciful tales, and it’s not like we can’t contaminate a retelling of their legends if we think we discovered something important as is the case with the Sirius myth of the Dogon. While it’s often cited by ancient astronaut theorists as one of the best cases of extraterrestrial contact, it’s far more likely to be a product of highly selective retellings of Dogon folklore in the 1960s instead.

And here is where we come to the main problem with the ancient astronaut theory. It relies very heavily on the personal opinions and subjective evaluations of the investigators. A set of concentric circles, or a big pyramid complex suddenly turn into models of the solar system. Statues of demons, imps and gods become accurate depictions of alien astronauts, and the highly inconsistent figures across societies are chalked up simply to a cultural bias in representations of otherworldly beings. Paintings and carvings of mythological stories, or very simple corrections in rock carvings turn into strange alien craft and modern tools forgotten by time. Just like a lot of faithful tend to see faces of religious figures in fields, clouds and on toast, ancient astronaut theorists are often victims of wishful pareidolia. Unless we can turn up a fossilized spacecraft filled with stone relics crafted by humans and clearly once occupied by an intelligent, extraterrestrial species, it’s impossible to offer any real proof that we’ve been visited by aliens in the ancient past. Of course, proponents like von Daniken, Tsoukalos, and Pye, who claims to have the skull of a human/alien hybrid in his possession, know this full well. And this is why they like to frame their claims as questions, using ambiguity and uncertainty as their shields, and why popular science shows that choose to feature them have to take issue with their claims to make sure that the audience is given accurate, realistic and scientifically sound facts at the end of the program.

One would think that as popular science publications overflow with serious musings about what actual aliens might look like and what their bio-chemical compositions might be, the modern myth of human/alien hybrids walking among us would be discarded even by the most ardent ufologists. And one would be wrong. At least one follower of the ancient astronaut theory, Lloyd Pye, is determined to prove that aliens and humans knew each other in a very intimate way and he thinks he has the direct, physical evidence to convince scientists.

alien girl

That evidence is a 900 year old skull of a young boy he calls the Starchild. Found in Mexico during the 1930s, it’s an odd artifact with an abnormally large space for a brain, shallow eye sockets with oval orbits, and canals for the optic nerves situated in the wrong place. According to Pye, it looks like the result of a Gray alien and a human creating a hybrid and he’s submitted the skull for DNA testing several times to prove that there may be some traces of an extraterrestrial lineage somewhere in its genome. So far, the scientists who’ve tested the sample confirmed that the child’s mother was definitely human. From the father’s side, things are rather fuzzy at best so Pye is using that ambiguity to argue that the child’s dad could very well be an alien.

Of course just because we haven’t been able to determine a genetic profile of the father doesn’t mean that we need to set our sights on Zeta Riticuli. But as most skeptics know, when it comes to pseudoscience, negative evidence carries the same weight to believers as any tangible proof. This is why rather than provide a serious explanation for any of the mysteries of the skull, Pye simply exaggerates them and keeps reminding us that it looks an awful lot like the head of a Gray if you squint hard enough. He also dodges the question of how alien genomes would resemble our own closely enough for producion of viable offspring and how we could detect some trace of genetic manipulation by an advanced extraterrestrial species. In other words, Pye doesn’t even know what he’s trying to find other than validation for his ideas.

You see, some proponents of the ancient astronaut theory need a little something extra to their science to get that feeling of uniqueness, significance and companionship that most religious beliefs try to offer. They’re too skeptical about a traditional deity and so they embrace the idea of alien overlords because alien life is at least scientifically plausible. When something in human history gives them pause, they use alien influence to craft an answer for themselves. How did apes mutate into intelligent humans? Genetic “upgrade” from aliens who were experimenting with our biosphere at the time. How did we go from cave dwellers to residents of vast city states that were the seeds of empires? Extraterrestrial guidance. For every mystery or gap in their knowledge, there’s a wide variety of alien tales to choose from, many of which combine ancient fiction or New Age beliefs into complex mythologies. For them, it makes being human a lot more exciting.

This is why a strange skull which can be a handy Rorschach test for skeptics and believers alike isn’t just an interesting way to make money and gain publicity for Pye and his fans. It’s something to hold on to almost like a religious relic. And because it’s seems like the proof they’ve been seeking all these years, they insist that its abnormalities aren’t abnormalities at all and that no doctor can classify them as human disorders, even if the tentative expert conclusion is that the skull represents a rare and severe case of brachycephaly. It’s just one of those beliefs that’s too spectacular to let go without a fight.

While Barbara Cargill and the rest of the Texas Board of Education are busy dismantling science in the state’s public schools in favor of debate, I was wondering if they had any plans to include the ancient astronaut theory in their discussions about human evolution. Why? Because lots of people out there are busy debating whether humans arose as a result of alien intervention and if you’re going to debate observable and documented facts like mutations, genetic drift, the age of the universe and CMBR and put them on equal footing with magic and ancient tomes of metaphor heavy religious punditry, you may as well include other popular ideas. After all, isn’t that Cargill’s stated mission? To question all dogmas and expand the students’ minds in science classes?

teach the ufo controversy

The idea of ancient astronauts doesn’t violate any law of physics or biology. In fact, there’s nothing we know of that prevents an alien species from evolving intelligence and building a civilization. There are restrictions on how fast they could get to Earth of course, and they’d have to be somewhere in our stellar neighborhood to get here in less than a few thousand years. But if they were able to find our planet and decided to invest the time, the resources and the energy to travel here in a generational ship or by some advanced warp drive they built or discovered by serendipity, there’s nothing in nature that would stop them. Then, if they decided to play with the genomes of early hominids and make the crucial break in our MYH16 gene that gave us our modern brains, there was also nothing to stop them from doing so provided they had the right technology.

This is why so many people believe the ancient astronaut mythology. It doesn’t violate any laws of nature and while the odds of something like this happening are one in whatever astronomical number you’d like to use, it’s actually scientifically plausible. Funny enough, in Discovery Institute’s/Ben Stein’s sham of a documentary Expelled, Richard Dawkins is presented as believing in this legend after replying that it was the only way he’d imagine a plausible version of intelligent design and was ridiculed for it by creationists. Who’s theory needs a magical, eternal, hyper-intellect able to magically manipulate space, time and genes and who’s existence can only be perceived philosophically rather than empirically… Ironic, isn’t it?

So why aren’t scientists scouring the Earth for fossilized flying saucers? Because we don’t have any physical evidence that we’ve been visited by extraterrestrial intelligence. All the pretty pictures of what we think must’ve been ancient astronauts aren’t anywhere as convincing as an alien computer impregnated with isotopes we would expect an extraterrestrial artifact to carry. While this hypothesis (to call it what it really is from a scientific method) is conceivable, it’s so highly unlikely and there’s so little physical proof for it, we don’t teach it as an alternative to evolution in science class. And creationists agree for the same reasons! Then, they turn around to insert magic into some grossly misunderstood version of science to which they’ve latched on and say that we have to teach it in order to promote debate and “teach the controversy” while 99% of experts in the subject matter say the there’s nothing to debate.

So I say that if we’re going to insist on giving a view based on philosophical leanings equal time with serious, evidence-backed science because a lot of people believe it, we should teach the ancient astronaut theory and let students make up their minds. I mean we do want to challenge conventional dogmas, don’t we?