Written for Vox Critica
A few months ago I was out with some friends for drinks at TBD in Greenpoint (see my Get Drunk Tonight on the place) because our friend Michelle was in town to go off to a wedding the next day in Connecticut. Everything was friendly and boisterous and the drinks were flowing and life was great on a beautiful night in Brooklyn. During a lull in the conversation, Michelle pops in and asks in her finest Texan, “Have you all seen the show Ancient Aliens?” The very title inspired rounds of amazed faces and disbelieving stares, so she started to tell us about it. What she said was so insane that it spurred two hours of conversation. She told us that the show claimed that essentially all human achievements were due to aliens, that Jesus was an alien, that Thomas Jefferson was an alien, that everything that ever happened ever was because of aliens.
I put it on my Netflix queue as soon as I got home.
Now, having watched nine or ten episodes—including all the 90 minute long first season episodes—I must to say that Michelle was close but not entirely right about what Ancient Aliens has to say and offer. But before I jump into individual theories about ancient astronauts, let’s discuss what makes the show so infuriating but so intriguing at the same time.
Ancient Aliens knows what it is. It knows that it is presenting some crackpot, bullshit theories as if they were fact. It knows how insane a lot of what they present sounds. It understands that people are going to have a hard time taking it seriously. As such, they present the show as earnestly as possible. I wouldn’t call it dry, exactly, but it’s no more silly than anything else The History Channel has ever produced and it is certainly not tongue-in-cheek about anything.
The basic premise for the show is to explain the ancient astronaut theory: throughout human history aliens have visited the Earth and intervened in human events. They look to all sorts of things—Stonehenge, myth and religion, crop circles, ancient art, so many many things—and explain every single one of them as having been due to alien interference. An overwhelming majority of the alien claims are made by four ancient astronaut “researchers” who’ve written multitudes of books on the ancient astronaut theories: Giorgio Tsoukalos, David Childress, Bill Birnes, and Erich Von Däniken.
The show even goes so far as to get real scientists to lend a sense of legitimacy to the crackpots making the frankly enormous logical leaps about the course of human history. They have geologists, archaeologists, astrophysicists, all sorts of scientists with all sort of degrees talking about all sorts of stuff that is actually pretty solid, respectable science. If you pay attention, though, they’ve carefully cut around any time a real scientist might discount the alien theories. You’ll never hear a proper scientist say, “It was aliens!!!” but they almost always provide the information leading to the alien claim.
Scientist: “I am convinced that this particular underwater formation was indeed man-made based on the tools we found there, the neat right angles in the carving, and some inscriptions. Our tests indicate that the site is 14,000 years old.”
Ancient Astronaut Guy: “That’s not possible! The logical conclusion is that it was aliens!”
Scientist: “Ancient Sumerian writings describe creatures that came from the sky and bestowed knowledge upon humanity.”
Ancient Astronaut Guy: “Beings from the sky obviously means aliens!”
Scientist: “There’s a rock formation in Peru that resembles a door of sorts.”
Ancient Astronaut Guy: “That is a stargate to travel to distant worlds!”
And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. The ancient astronaut guys never get tired of performing this sort of logical slight of hand, jumping between a piece of information and some conclusion without any structure between. Worse is that some of the claims they make are so outlandish that it detracts from other material in the show which is actually fascinating. No one on this planet will ever tell me and have me believe that human beings were genetically engineered by aliens from another planet to be slave labor to mine gold so the aliens could take said gold and replenish the atmosphere of their home planet. I don’t care what the Sumerian cuneiform tablets say. I don’t care how literally Giorgio Tsoukalos wants to equate every mythic image with something in real life. I don’t care that David Childress thinks everything ever was the doing of aliens. You cannot make that sort of claim without anything but poorly interpreted mythological evidence and have me believe it. I’m sorry, but it’s not convincing.
I am not convinced that Jesus was half alien. I am not convinced that Mount Olympus was actually an alien spaceship. I am not convinced that the Mahabharata in an ancient account of war between groups of aliens.
Furthermore, so many of their “obvious alien interventions” fall apart under the scrutiny of Occam’s Razor when you understand the theory of pareidolia, which is defined as “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.” Pareidolia is the reason that people see the Virgin Mary in toast or animals in clouds or Jesus on the ass of a dog. It is a basic function of the human brain used to help us identify friends from strangers or people under less than optimal circumstances or predators hiding under cover. It’s part of our deepest animal brain and meant to keep us alive. Yet these ancient astronaut researchers love to declare that rock formations that look like faces or a hole in a wall that looks something like a door or anything that looks like something else actually is what it looks like. Well, as much as you think the rock formations that look like a western face on one side and an eastern face on another side were carved by aliens, I’m willing to bet that this is a case of pareidolia. That is, they are recognizing faces where there are in fact none and we can be reasonably sure I am correct since, though we have equal hypotheses, mine makes fewer assumptions. The idea of natural rock formations playing tricks on our utterly imperfect animal brains assumes only that are brains are at fault, whereas the idea that these rocks were carved by aliens assumes a whole host of other, illogical ideas. Sorry guys, that face on the underwater rock formation off the coast of Japan isn’t a face; it’s just some chunks out of the rocks.
Then you have much better documented UFO sightings and video tape and what looks like legitimate evidence—which I find fascinating—being overshadowed by the craziness of the previous claims. I am willing to give credibility to the Battle of Los Angeles, to Roswell, to foofighters in World War II, to Columbus’ documented UFO sighting, to the 1561 Swiss alien sightings. I can’t be positive about any of those events, but the evidence does seem to suggest that what the people report could in fact be the result of ET visitation. The evidence is more direct; the data are clearer. There are photographs, eye witness accounts, film, video, written accounts. I trust those things.
Their discussion of SETI is frank and well presented. Even when it is, at times, tainted by the stink of the ancient astronaut nuts, the show sticks quite closely to the real science and history of the project. It is a deeply important thing for humanity to be searching the skies for any signs that we might not be alone. SETI’s methods are solid: they search for regular, repeating signals amidst the noise of the night sky. That is awesome and it makes sense. They are using science to search for something new. I respect the hell out of that. Even beloved Carl Sagan is well presented and respected on the show as a premier astronomer and scientist. His desire to communicate with alien intelligence made it out of the solar system first as symbols on a gold plaque and then as a golden record with images and music and information about mankind. Tell us more about that.
Therein lies the true tragedy of Ancient Aliens. It actually presents a lot of interesting, well thought out, credible material, but it is sandwiched between lunatic claims with no real evidence that follow structureless logic. The crazies do damage to the respectable claims by their foul proximity. If I were given the opportunity I would cut out all the ancient astronaut crap. The show would be much stronger.
Indeed, I take issue with the whole ancient astronaut theory that nearly every great human achievement ever was in fact the work of what they call celestial beings. As if never in all our history have human beings been crafty enough, been smart enough, been capable enough of ever creating anything lasting. Foolish and insulting. Why must everything great and lasting have been the handiwork of aliens? Because you can’t understand how they did it? How narrow-minded. As if Bill Birnes can accurately judge the mindset of an Egyptian engineer six thousand years ago. I’ve never even been able to judge the mindset of a girlfriend, much less someone cut off from me by millennia and an uncrossable cultural chasm. And then to start making assumptions about the impulses and mindset of alien cultures a hundred thousand years ago? Ridiculous! Why would spacefaring aliens communicate with something as primitive as circle of rocks? We’re not spacefaring and we wouldn’t; we’d use some sort of modern equipment. Why assume just because you don’t understand the reasoning behind why ancient man built elaborate structures that they must be communicating with aliens? Why give stone age man so little credit? We’ve put men on the moon; I don’t find it hard to believe that a group of tenacious stone age fellows would be able to erect gigantic stone structures. Why not? Why must everything be aliens? The logic doesn’t follow. Where is your faith in humanity?
I believe in extra terrestrial life. The math supports it. It is too illogical to assume that amongst the billions and billions of stars there isn’t some other planet that has also figured out how to make an apple pie. There are too many opportunities for life to spring up on one of the countless balls of rocks floating through space. But I don’t believe that aliens have played a role in every significant human endeavor throughout history. I don’t believe that aliens have been monkeying around with us. If they’ve been so ever present, where are they know? Where are the new star children? Where are the new battles in the sky?
I am a skeptic. I believe in evidence. Where there is evidence in Ancient Aliens, I am totally on board. Where they make absurd leaps of “logic” they lose me. To say that I hate Ancient Aliens would be wrong, yet to say that I love Ancient Aliens would also be wrong. In fact, neither statement quite describes how I feel about the show; I love AND hate Ancient Aliens equally and passionately. The show is a bastion of insane crackpot theories and solid science. It is abhorrent and fascinating. It is illogic and logic. It is stupid and it is brilliant.
Editor’s note: the meme is spot on.