Friday, 20 April 2012

Ancient aliens and clockwork magic

Ancient paintings from Val Camonica, Italy depicting forgotten deities; ancient astronaut proponents claim they resemble modern day astronauts [wikipedia]Conspiracy theories, of various degrees of implausibility, come and go, but one which recently caught my attention was the ancient aliens hypothesis: which basically postulates that many of the mysterious and impressive feats of humanity's past were created by, or wth the help of, an advanced alien race (it does without saying that there is no actual evidence for this). It's been the subject of recent discussion since the History channel aired a disgracefully credulous documentary series about it, in which aliens are advanced as the explanation for pretty much anything.  I didn't actually see it, but am familiar with the basic idea (Jen McCreight has a nice blog post about it here).

It's easy to dismiss such ramblings as nonsense, a product of over-eager imagination and confirmation bias and under-active skepticism. Moreover, some people are just prone to believe in consipracy theories, whatever the subject: some interesting research (featured on the SGU) shows that people's belief in one bizarre theory tends to correlate with beliefs in other bizarre theories, even when they may be mutually incompatible.

However, at around the same time that everyone was having a good chuckle at this aliens-built-the-pyramids nonsense, I came across this SMBC comic:
SMBC comic 2542

Which got me thinking about the whole ancient aliens thing in a slighly different way. Much like the child in the lower panel, belief in supernatural or extra-terrestrial intervention in human affairs seems to be because we don't understand how things can be achieved without modern technology. There's a big difference in scale but I think both hint at the same underlying theme: we see the world through our technologically advanced eyes, we know the impressive things we are now capable of, and assume that anything in the past was incomparably primitive. Clever technology or impressive architecture doesn't fit this idea: be it intricate clockwork mecha nisms, stone circles, or immense drawings; since we can't see how anything as complex as this could have been done pre internet, let alone pre-industriaisation, we jump to assuming it can't have been possible, and must have had help.
Antikythera Mechanism []
This is a pretty unflattering idea, and seems to undermine our faith in ourselves as a species, by assuming that we are inherantly incapable of immense or complex undertakings. It's as if we credit "technology" with our prowess and achievements, imagining that we rely on clever machines or handy gadgets for our every need, while forgetting the path that led us to such things. Thus, when we hear of impressive things humans of the past have done, we wonder how could they, in their primitive ways, have done this - and may come to odd and improbable conclusions that it must have been aliens, gods or time travellers. The most likely answer - that this was done with great effort and difficulty - is simply less glamorous and romantic.  Similarly, in the comic, we can't see how "ancient" people could have come up with something so clever from such basic principles and materials, doubting our species ability to be inventive in favour of a more magical interpretation.

This tendency to be incredulous at old technology was illustrated to me recently, when showing off my newly obtained record player to my sister.  We marvelled at the fact that they managed to record sound as physical analogues of the waveforms, in incredibly tiny grooves, even back before electronic amplification was possible. And as I excitedly explained how a stereo signal is encoded (basically, left and right are in grooves perpendicular to each other and at 45 degrees to the surface, so each channel has a separate spatial dimension - wow!) we both expressed amazement that something so elegant and intricate could have been conceived and implemented so long ago, before the modern age of precision etching and microchips.

That level of awe at old - yet perfectly working - technology, the incredulity that the brutish barbarians of a century ago could come up with such a thing, sums up my point quite well. We are not jumping to the conclusion that aliens invented vinyl (although they did invent the transistor); but it's the same sentiment.  We are amazed at what humans could have done in the recent past, and are similarly incredulous that ancient people could ever have built enourmous structures and sophisticated machinery - so I can to some extent sympathise with people who fall for fantastical and far-fetched alternatives. But if our history shows us anything, it's that we should have a little more faith in what we are capable of, and be proud of what our species can do before invoking some otherworldy helpers or magic powers.  Humanity has done great things, and crediting aliens, gods, or magic powers is to sell ourselves short.


  1. Did you see the movie "Prometheus"?

    1. No, I have not - though I've heard about the alien origin of humans idea that it's based on (there's a long segment on the SGU about it: Sounds like interesting sci-fi, but scientifically nonsensical.


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