Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: The Ancient Alien Question by Philip Coppens

The Ancient Alien Question by Philip Coppens provides a broad overview of the field of ancient alien theory (the idea that extraterrestrials were involved in the origins of humanity). The subject first came to prominence with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods in the late 1960s, and has recently received a boost with the popular History Channel series Ancient Aliens.

The Ancient Alien Question begins with a fairly straightforward and high level overview of many current ancient alien topics. The author goes for breadth over depth, which means the material is probably best approached as an introduction to the subject at large. I found the brevity somewhat disappointing. Although the author touches on some fascinating material, he quickly moves on to the next subject area and I was frequently left wanting to go deeper. If you’ve seen the television series, or read other studies in the ancient alien arena, it’s debatable how much new and interesting subject matter you will find here. On the positive side, the author does debunk several arguments from older sources, showing at least a measurable degree of skepticism and fact checking while providing an updated text.

The latter half of the book moves on to documenting the author’s “best evidence,” and he eventually attempts to make a direct argument for the reality of alien intervention. The lack of objectivity in these sections posed something of a problem for me. Although the text continues presenting various topics of historical relevance throughout, the more the author tried to push the agenda, the less comfortable I found it. A few examples follow.

The author makes a statement to the effect that the large cycles of time employed by some ancient civilizations (Mayans, Egyptians, etc) were influenced by alien contact. “Whatever these cycles represent, it is clear that our ancestors held these calendars to be important. It is equally clear that it had to have been a nonhuman intelligence that told our ancestors that a cycle of 90 million years was somehow important…” I don’t follow the logic here at all. Different human civilizations have developed a wide variety of creation stories they tell their people, and just because the ones popular today chose brief and easily disproved histories of Earth, it doesn’t make them any more or less valid than what the Egyptians came up with. Anybody can pick a random celestial event, or series of events, tack on some artificial meaning, and invent/extrapolate a calendar or creation myth from there. A time system using big numbers is no more inherently extraterrestrial than one with small numbers.

Coppens dedicates one chapter to evidence suggesting physical contact with aliens. There are a number of arguments made around various ancient cultures having had myths suggesting that gods came to earth and brought civilization to humanity. Many of these stories had striking similarities. It’s interesting stuff, and the author seems to put a lot of stock in the tales as being fairly literal documentation. Then in the next chapter he goes on to present evidence of possible non-physical contact (rituals, the use of psychedelics, etc). Here the author states that the ancient aliens may not have been physical beings as such, but otherworldly entities contacted via the mind. Again this is interesting, but it strikes me as also in direct conflict with his earlier claims around physical visitation by the gods. He at one moment suggests that creation myths regarding higher beings coming to earth and civilizing man should be taken at face value, documenting alien visitations, then immediately performs an about-face and says aliens may not have ever physically come here, but instead reached out to us through ritual practice. Which is it?

One of the big stumbling blocks for ancient alien theory in general is trying to determine which historical texts are to be taken as literal versus just being popular fictions. I’m not sure this can ever be resolved one way or another, but the tact of one minute saying “the myths were fact and gods were aliens on earth” and then the next saying “the gods were never really here, but we contacted them” seems to flip-flop over the entire matter of how trustworthy the sources are to begin with. If they weren’t here, as the myths claim, then your whole argument that these creation stories are of value is for naught. You can’t take two competing viewpoints and say they somehow both contribute to the overall body of evidence in favor of alien intervention if they aren’t actually complimentary theories.

I also don’t understand the inclusion of Edward Leedskalnin’s Coral Castle in this book. I love this mystery, but I don’t recall ever coming across any alien connection to the story whatsoever. It’s part of the “Evidence of Non-physical Contact” chapter, which is completely inappropriate, as the author doesn’t even explain why it should constitute such.

Finally, Coppens dedicates some time to railing against scientific dogma and closed-mindedness. I extend some sympathy here, as there is almost certainly an element of truth to the situation in reality, and especially as it pertains to our own cultural history. Egyptology seems particularly strongly affected. The fact that humans still argue over evolution is proof that we have trouble revising our past, even in the clear view of evidence. But where I’m forced to draw the line is the point at which the author makes claims that ancient alien theory should be accepted as true based on some assumed preponderance of circumstantial “evidence,” or by consensus of the masses. Science, whether it’s in your favor or against you, does not work that way. No amount of circumstantial data is substitute for verifiable, observable, and repeatable fact.

The truth of the matter is that science is ill equipped to rule on matters of antiquity. History is not repeatable, and therefore is not scientifically testable. The best we can hope for is a bit of radio-carbon dating here and some DNA or molecular analysis there. The rest is always going to involve some degree of speculation. (Incidentally, the segment on Egyptian concrete was one of the most interesting in the book, possibly because it does fall within the realm of scientific analysis.) Even if the Egyptians left us huge books with the exact names, life stories, and home planet coordinates of every god-alien in their mythology, it would amount to little in the eyes of science… at least until we had the means to visit said coordinates in person. Just because someone wrote words on a papyrus or drew pictures on a wall does not solidify those statements as fact. Other historical peoples have left us with copious texts which we now know to be largely fabrication or unsuccessful guesswork; even some that were wholly believed as accurate in their time. Just because the really ancient civilizations are even older and less well documented doesn’t imply that they were any more well informed. Maybe they were. But even if you had volumes of their mythology and “knowledge” readily available for study, words on paper don’t constitute proofs of reality.

It’s somewhat ironic that in the Introduction, Coppens discusses von Däniken’s presentation of many questions throughout his seminal Chariots of the Gods. The point is essentially that the ancient alien question revolves around numerous unresolved mysteries that should be revisited with modern knowledge and technology, in search of explanations. Yet before long, the author is directly claiming not just questions but answers, by taking a firm pro position on the issue of alien intervention. This seems to undermine his entire premise that we should focus on investigating the mysteries, rather than jumping to conclusions in either direction.

In the end, The Ancient Alien Question is a fairly lengthy and relatively current overview of the field of ancient alien theory. It favors a broad and high level approach to the material, and will probably be best suited to those without much prior initiation into the subject. Some of the contents are indeed as interesting and thought provoking as ever, but the text is ultimately hampered by author’s taking what feels at best like a poorly supported position on the matter.

Rating: 3/5

Review: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, & Stanley Schachter

When Prophecy Fails is “a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world.” The authors, three professors with the University of Minnesota, are working around the hypothesis that following the unequivocal disconfirmation of a firmly held belief, the group having held said belief will react in a predictable fashion, assuming certain conditions have been met. Specifically, rather than divesting of their errant beliefs, core members of the group may counter-intuitively begin to pursue their agenda even more aggressively and publicly than ever.

This is an interesting theory, and the book opens by providing a series of brief historical examples of cults and religious movements which appear to have followed just such a trend. But as the authors quickly point out, the data available from the historical record lacks the necessary depth to allow for any rigorous scientific conclusions to be drawn. And with that, we move on to the bulk of the text: a direct study of a small group of individuals, at one time convinced that the world was imminently doomed… except for those who would be saved by spacemen riding flying saucers.

The authors initially discovered the group in question through a newspaper article. After some quick research determined that the believers met the necessary criteria to test the authors’ behavioral hypothesis, they commenced direct and organized observation of the group’s activities. And thus, the majority of the 250 pages of the text is dedicated to recounting their entire experience following this little doomsday cult for a period of about two months.

The book does eventually make a decent case in support of the original theory, however I found getting there a bit of a chore. The cult, if you can even call them that, might be of the most pathetic little groups of people with silly beliefs ever recorded. They don’t amount to much more than a small handful of individuals, one or two of whom are delusional enough to think they can actually communicate with spacemen, and a (very) few others who are misguided enough to follow them. The company are often so completely lacking in direction for their cause that the leaders even begin taking blatantly obvious prank phone calls as communications from outer space. We aren’t exactly talking Heaven’s Gate here.

The group was so small that the authors and their hired observers seem to have made up a sizable fraction of the entire body of participants. This raises a number of problems, including the very real and direct involvement of these observers in the events that unfolded. The authors, to their credit, admit in the final chapter on methodology that they were unable to remain impartial in such a small group, and note the areas where they feel they wound up having the most direct influence. (I actually found the methodology chapter to be one of the most interesting in the whole book.) Still one almost wonders if, had the authors and their team not shown up to participate, the movement doesn’t just fizzle out entirely.

Conclusions and validity aside, my biggest complaint may just come down to how dull the majority of the proceedings were. The characters were more delusional than interesting, they were a complete failure as a movement, and the bulk of their story just came across as sad and rather tedious. I understand why the authors jumped at the opportunity to observe a group that met their criteria, but the one they were given just doesn’t make for very fascinating reading. The historical entries in the opening chapter, and the discussion of methodology at the very end, outperformed the entire central story for my money. And while I understand that thorough documentation was at the heart of their methodology for this case study, the entire affair feels, based on substance alone, over-documented.

In conclusion, I’ll give credit for the hypothesis itself being interesting, and for being something of a unique and hard-won study. I’ll also allow room for acceptance that the authors could scarcely conduct such a difficult sociological experiment with perfect scientific rigor. And it’s not really their fault the movement was such a dud. But unless this type of material falls within the realm of your personal scholarly interests, the protracted central story may fail to appeal to the more casual reader.

Rating: 4/5