Thursday, March 3, 2016

Ancient Astronauts (Off Topic Post)

NOTE: I found five more old posts that caught my fancy, and so I am reproducing them here.

I know I have been writing a lot of off topic posts of late, but please bear with me through one more. You see, I have been something of a science fiction fan since I was very young, and there is a topic that has been on my mind for quite some time, that being: When, oh when will we be rid of the ancient astronauts plot?

I know it is a popular theme, maybe even taken seriously, probably by more people than I would like to believe, but the "ancient astronaut" plot is second only to the "it was all a dream" ending as the ultimate cop out. When you watch or read science fiction, and the main characters end up as refugees, it is guaranteed, 9 out of 10 times or more, that they will end up being the first settlers on ancient Earth. It ruined films and television from the otherwise incredible Planet of the Vampires* all the way to the new Battlestar Galactica (which cribbed its ending entirely from Von Dankien's Gold of the Gods). And not only is it an easy cop out for scifi writers stuck for a resolution, but it is a disappointing one. More often than not, it simply makes no sense, not to mention almost never resolving any plot threads which precede it.

I can think of one exception, one place where it worked, and that was in Douglas Adams' Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and then only because it was played as a parody of itself, used for laughs. (Though I have to admit that I am of two minds about Adams' tendency to buy into the "mankind is stupid" trope, but since it is satire/comedy, I don't mind it nearly as much as I do when the same foolishness is used in supposedly serious science fiction.) When taken seriously, the whole "Ancient Astronauts" thing is just, well, laughable.

What makes the whole ancient astronaut theory so laughable is that it is religion on the sly, and without G-d, an atheistic theology. Traditional religions, at least many of them, said man was special as he was on a unique level, somewhere between the animal and the divine. With the coming of nominally rationalist theories many came to the conclusion that man was but another part of nature, no better than the animals. Some protested that his ability to reason still distinguished him, but by and large most "rationalists" accepted the theory that man was just a hairless ape. 

And so we get "ancient astronauts". Unable to accept ancient religious arguments, but unwilling to accept the belief that man was nothing but a beast, the ancient astronaut believers decided that man was unique, because he was not part of nature, at least not nature on Earth. No, he was not special because he was G-d's best creation, nor was he special because of his rationality, in their eyes he was special because he came from space. In a strange recreation of the Great Chain of Being, man is no longer midway between beasts and angels, instead he stands entirely apart. Animals and man are not divided by reason or a soul, but by his extraterrestrial origins.

It is a silly theory, but then again it is a response to a silly theory as well, so what do you expect? With or without G-d, it is clear that man stands apart from animals, be it because of his rationality, his tool use, his ability to transmit knowledge through language, his ability to change his environment or what have you. Something there is that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. So, whether he is G-d's creation or nature's, he is clearly apart from the rest of the animals. But that in no way requires an extraterrestrial origin. In fact, positing aliens just pushes the problem back a little. If man's evolution is problematic on Earth, then why not on another world? If you remove a creator from the equation, you are left with  a natural origin for mankind**, and if you find that difficult to explain on Earth, why would it be easier to explain elsewhere?

But that is the topic for another post. I am not here to debate the difficulties of ancient astronaut theories, just to ask that future scifi writers place a moratorium on their use. 

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* To be fair, Planet of the Vampires doesn't follow the strict ancient astronauts script, not like the episode of either the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits (I can't recall which) that has Adam and Eve come from space, but it is enough of a disappointment to end on an image of Earth that I have to include it among the films that were ruined by a variation on the ancient astronauts theme.

** I am not saying that there is any problem with accepting an evolutionary origin for mankind. In my mind, G-d would obviously use the tools he created, and so an evolutionary origin is obviously possible. After all, it is a poor craftsman who establishes rules and then has to break them. So in my mind, G-d would work within the rules he created, including evolution. However, the ancient astronaut theorists often DO seem to have a problem accepting that man evolved naturally. But their theories really do little to resolve that problem. If man could not evolve on Earth, why would it be easier for him to have evolved elsewhere? If aliens gave us our intellect, where did they get theirs? The same problem exists for the panspermia theories of life originating via extraterrestrial seeds. Even if life came from space, we still have the problem of explaining how life evolved, it is just moved to another venue.

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POSTSCRIPT


Apologies for all the typos in the first draft of this post. Even among my typo-laden posts it stood out as remarkably error prone.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/08/17.

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