the ancient nonsense of graham hancock, now on netflix
When someone takes huge pains to tell you again and again that their argument is based on sound, mainstream, peer reviewed science before telling you exactly what it is they wanted to tell you, take the resulting argument with a hefty dollop of salt. It usually means that you’re about to hear conjecture that has no proof behind it, so its author is setting up several logical fallacies and using whatever they cherry-picked from actual science as a shield from criticism that will be richly deserved after we get to the punchline.
Ancient Apocalypse, the new Netflix show built around the writings of British journalist Graham Hancock, is a textbook example of this. Far from being the revolutionary new look at our history that it’s advertised, the series is a rehash of a now centuries old pseudoscientific theory that Plato’s myth of Atlantis was about a very real cataclysm of an advanced civilization at the dawn of human history. His only twist is matching the supposed destruction of the legendary empire with a 13,000-year-old impact of a comet fragment at the end of the last Ice Age.
Worse yet, just about every mention of historians and archeologists from Hancock’s mouth drips with contempt and derision. In case you ever wondered how a defiant toddler, told that his imaginary friend couldn’t have stolen a cookie, had a BBC English accent and a polysyllabic vocabulary, Hancock has you covered. Or, to put it more bluntly, he talks an awful lot of shit for someone whose theories’ greatest accomplishment was blowing Joe Rogan’s mind, a task that could be achieved with the good, old detachable thumb trick.
what’s the fascination with atlantis?
Countless self-proclaimed visionaries have been obsessed with the idea that Atlantis was either a real civilization far more advanced than anything else on Earth at the time, or was composed of hyper-intelligent psychics, or was even an allegory for ancient aliens who created humanity. In their version of history, our civilization are simply the descendants of wise ancients who just barely managed to survive an apocalypse, spread across the world, and taught cave dwellers how to build temples, farm, and run societies.
Why is this idea so attractive? Well, there are two reasons. First, it’s different, which makes the proponents feel smart and special, as if they have access to The Real Truth™ unlike the plebes and sheeple who populate this world. Second, it allows them to imagine a repository of hidden ancient knowledge that could provide answers to just about anything and answer big questions with which modern science still struggles. So, if Atlantean scientists figured out warp travel, for example, we don’t have to break our brains trying to re-invent it.
These ideas appeared many times in fiction and inspired the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn inspired numerous sci-fi authors, propagating them until opportunists like Immanuel Velikovsky and Erich von Däniken started to pass them off not as agreed upon nods to fellow authors, but as real history being hidden from the world by malice, ignorance, or a mix of the two. Hancock isn’t even the first to work in the cometary impact during the Younger Dryas period. He simply stole the cliches and passed them off as his own.
could atlantis have been a real place?
But hold you, you may ask, is it possible that Atlantis was based on something real? Couldn’t there have been some seed of truth to Plato’s myth, at least as a starting point? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, and if you ask archeologists who they think Atlanteans were, they will most likely point you to the Minoans who built a thriving society on the island of Crete. Based on excavations of sites like Knossos, they very much fit the bill for wealthy, powerful urbanites whose reign came to a sudden end after a massive, well documented natural disaster.
The disaster in question was the eruption of Thera, a volcano that left a crater in the island of Santorini. Its pyroclastic flows, ash fall, and tsunami obliterated key Minoan infrastructure, its global fallout is thought to have affected Egypt and inspired the stories of the Biblical plagues, and numerous other civilizations made extensive notes about the enormous blast that ranks among one of the worst volcanic disasters on record. Add a few thousand years to the dates, embellish the scale a little bit for a morality play, and boom, instant Atlantis.
Keep in mind, however, that the story of the Minoans was only pieced together recently, after many decades of excavation and research. In the meantime, adventurers and explorers who wanted their names in history books had ample time to search the world for any evidence of the myth, inspiring writers, hoaxers, and fabulists to keep the story alive in the public eye for well over a century. And Hancock is just the latest in a very long line of fame seekers, and not a very creative one at that.
how old is human civilization? we don’t really know.
Now, to be perfectly fair, finding out how old is the oldest human civilization is, and whether anything came before us, is important, interesting, and relevant. We really have no idea, but there’s plenty of evidence that it’s a lot older than the 5,000 or so years we’re often told. And ironically, this very evidence is what undermines Hancock’s either thesis. Far from lacking any precursors to prehistoric temples and monuments, we have countless examples of people in the lost past experimenting with the prerequisite techniques and materials.
While Ancient Apocalypse jumps between mysterious archeological sites, it has to take great pains to pretend that societies taking the first steps into what we’d recognize as a civilization hadn’t been at it for thousands of years and close its mind to the notion that something even more ancient than his mythical version of Atlantis could’ve been out there many times over, collapsing, vanishing, resurrecting, then dying again. Hell, there’s even a possibility that other intelligent creatures before humans were lost to the ravages of time.
And that’s really the bottom line here. In pretending to have discovered that human history may be far older, richer, and mysterious than we’re presented, and insisting that his favorite myth about it is right, Hancock fills legitimate mysteries and question scientists are actively exploring with nonsense, innuendo, and lies by omission. We will always have unanswered questions about our past. But when we try to answer them, we can’t do it with derivative bullshit sold to us as profound discoveries, as Hancock and his predecessors have been doing for the last century and a half.
cranks’ ugly caricature of real science
Perhaps the most frustrating thing in shows like Ancient Apocalypse and its cousins is seeing angry cranks disparage scientists and researchers who are painted as close-minded gray beards setting themselves up as gatekeepers of all knowledge because reasons, refusing to entertain any new ideas in their field. Not only is this a fallacy used to soothe the cranks’ bruised egos when their pet ideas are proven wrong, it’s simply not true. Scientists give each other awards and stacks of grant money for turning entire disciplines on their heads.
Yes, the process is not perfect and there are certainly cases in which visionaries were denied despite being objectively correct, with the stories of Ignaz Semmelweis and John Yudkin very quickly coming to mind. But ultimately, their facts and evidence won and were accepted as objectively correct. You can lie, cheat, and obstruct your way to the top in academia, but you will not last there for long as curious tinkerers and researchers eventually figure out the truth, encouraged to do so by grant committees, advisors, and colleagues asking the same questions.
So, to what do we chalk up Hancock’s resentment towards scientists who very much agree that human civilizations are much older than we conventionally learn in school, are even open to the idea of pre-human empires in Earth’s primeval past, and whose only crime is to dispute the idea that a comet caused the extinctions of the Younger Dryas? There is only one obstinate party in this one-sided debate, and it certainly isn’t the one obsessed with a comet that may or may not have existed and insisting that their story must be correct by pretending that a mountain of evidence to the contrary doesn’t exist.