The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Symptom or Pathology?

David Clarke in his How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth refers to the “UFO Syndrome”, “the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be” (12), what I have called “ufophilia” (and am tempted to term, sometimes, “ufomania”). Even before George Adamski published his story of meeting a man from Venus, a latter-day Lord of the Flame, in 1953, and even before Project Sign’s famous Estimate of the Situation, desperate to explain the recalcitrant mystery of high-performing aeroforms intruding on American airspace, the public imagination had already ventured that Flying Saucers might be spaceships from another planet populated by Extraterrestrial Intelligences (ETIs), an explanation for UFO and close encounter reports that later came to be called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Though the notion of ETI was already in the air, the most notorious example being Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the idea as such runs much deeper, and, in its ufological guise as an element of the UFO Syndrome, possesses graver implications.

flying_saucers_are_real_cover_keyhoeAn important ufological popularizer of the ETH is Donald Keyhoe. In his first book, The Flying Saucers are Real (1950), he wrestles with the question of the origin of the flying discs. Having been pushed to the ETH by a process of elimination, he tries “to imagine how they [ETIs] might look” (136). Having read what he could of what we today call exobiology, he understands that there are “all kinds of possibilities.” Then, he makes a telling confession:

It was possible, I knew, that the spacemen might look grotesque to us. But I clung to the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form.

Keyhoe, here, is either ignorant (which he certainly seems to be concerning evolution) or disingenuous. The “stubborn feeling” that the ET pilots of the flying saucers “would resemble man” is hardly “inborn”. A longstanding thesis among thinkers concerned with the ecological crisis is that the thoughtless abuse of the natural world by, especially, Western industrial society is aided and abetted by its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Famously, in Genesis, man is made in God’s own image (I.26) and given dominion over creation (I.27) (an idea mocked with a theosophical flavour in Yeats’ early poem “The Indian Upon God”!). This (what a philosopher might term ontotheological) anthropocentrism is the source of Keyhoe’s feeling and more importantly it serves to reinforce capitalism’s assumption that anything and everything on (and off!) the earth is a potential resource to be exploited for profit.

There’s a strikingly illustrative scene in the film Clearcut (1991). The manager of a logging company is abducted by an ambivalent character, who is either a Native militant or, more interestingly, a nature spirit come to revenge the ruthless clearcutting of the forest. The manager is tortured in ways that mirror the loggers’ treatment of trees and, at one point, the militant holds the manager over a cliff overlooking a breathtaking natural vista, asking him, “What do you see? What do you see?” to which the manager answers, desperately mystified by the question, “Nothing!”. The fateful confluence of the Judaeo-Christian ontotheological anthropomorphism and the rapaciousness of capitalism blind humankind to both nonhuman intelligence and the innate value of nonhuman life. I have argued at length elsewhere that any unprejudiced reflection on and consequent non-anthropocentric conception of intelligence radically dethrones and decenters whatever human intelligence might believe itself to be. It might appear ironic, then, that The Anomalist can share links to UFOs and Contactees in the same space as others to new discoveries in the realm of plant and animal intelligence.

orthon
Orthon (l) and George Adamski (r)

Another irony is discernible in the concerns expressed by both the Space Brothers and other ETs. If the ETH is underwritten by a religiously-inspired anthropocentrism that in turn supports the economic system whose activity has in a matter of hardly two centuries resulted in the latest mass extinction, then the striking anthropomorphism of ETs might be said to be an imagination at the very least consistent with this catastrophically destructive social order. However, as is well-known, the Space Brothers of the Contactees landed to warn us of the dangers of atomic weapons, while abductees or Experiencers report being shown distressing images of nuclear war and environmental destruction; there has been from the start an environmental/ecological dimension to ET encounters, consistent with the view that the reports are inspired by the anxieties engendered by technoscientific development in so-called advanced societies.

As compelling is the case that the ETH is a symptom of a deeper, mortal malaise in Western society, the matter is, of course, more complex. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Turtle Island (1974), Gary Snyder writes (47):

…Japan quibbles for words on

what kinds of whales they can kill?

 

A once-great Buddhist nation

dribbles methyl mercury

like gonorrhea

in the sea.

Here, Snyder reminds us that the relation between religion and economy is a complicated question; however much the Judaeo-Christian idolization of the “human form divine” is harmonious with the profit-driven and otherwise mindless exploitation of the natural world, religious views that, in this case, are overtly concerned with non-human life exist, however uneasily, alongside such insensitive destructiveness. There is, moreover, an analogous paradox in certain aboriginal worldviews, which, on the one hand, speak of “the flying people” (birds) and “the crawling people” (snakes) and that have been the inspiration for radical ecological initiatives, such as the push to give rivers and ecosystems rights under the law, while on the other, their understanding of the UFO phenomenon invokes stories of Star People, who, at first glance, seem to be as humanoid as any Venusian. These paradoxes pose new questions and open curious avenues of investigation regarding the globality of the UFO phenomenon and the equally global extent of the society whose technoscientific character the ETH might be said to reflect and affirm.

The theme, as poet Walt Whitman would say, has vista. The belief in ETI is itself paradoxical in character:  it is both widely-held (by more than half the population in the US, UK, and Germany) but thought unserious, fit only to inspire light entertainments or crackpot obsessions. Yet, as the psychoanalytic study of the trivial shows, the margin reflects the deepest concerns of the centre; indeed, that these concerns are exiled as flaky is precisely a sign of their gravity. The ETH symptomatically expresses profound aspects of human self-regard that have equally grave consequences for social behaviour.

 

Space/Time: a temporally entangled addendum to “…our Descent to Eaarth”

I was reminded that just a year ago I had read this opinion piece by William B. Gail, a founder of the Global Weather Corporation, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, and the author of Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us.

In it, Gail proposes that the ways the climate has and will continue to change from the patterns that nurtured civilization during the Holocene render the earth unrecognizable, requiring that our descendants along with those of all the other plant and animal species must learn to inhabit a radically different planet whose climactic patterns have not only changed but become chaotic and unpredictable. Gail’s speculations here are one might say “temporally entangled” with those I set out in “The Anthropocene as the Beginning of our Descent to Eaarth”.

I share them here for those for whom the more poetic logic of my own recent post might be too wild and who might find Gail’s more down-to-earth musings more grounded.

On the Narcissism of Anthropos

Neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García, from the University of Cádiz, in an article recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, set out to “explain how our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness… play a major role in [the] search [for] non-terrestrial civilizations … and how they have been neglected up to this date.” (How the researchers managed to neglect the not irrelevant work of Jacques Vallee (from 1990!) or that of Susan Palmer and myself (from nearly twenty years ago) is itself an interesting case of the phenomenon they are investigating….).

Their research concerns inattention blindness, like that demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla Experiment of Chabris and Simons. Following their example, de la Torre and García had 137 subjects distinguish artificial structures from natural features in aerial photographs, one of which contained a tiny gorilla. The complement to attention blindness, the mind’s tendency to perceive pattern in chaos (pareidolia), was addressed as well. The implication of their research is that the SETI focus on electromagnetic signals, in either the visible or invisible spectrums, primes it to miss those evidential “gorillas” that would indicate non-terrestrial civilizations. The pair goes on to propose a tripartite classification of such civilizations, all of which, in general, are characterized by their varying degrees of mastery over forms of matter and energy, whether quantum, gravitational, or dark.

What is ironic is that de la Torre and García have fallen prey to the same prejudices that keep SETI researchers and proponents of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs from perceiving the intelligent life that swarms around us. As I’ve written elsewhere these prejudices are that intelligent life is intelligent in the way we ourselves conceive ourselves to be, cultural, tool-using creatures capable of mathematical thought and cognizing natural laws that are then exploited technologically, and that such civilizations follow universal paths of linear development toward increasing sophistication, knowledge, and mastery over nature. These prejudices are, arguably, the reification and projection of the history of one culture on earth, namely the one that calls itself the developed world, a culture resulting hardly from a natural, cultural evolution (the pairing of which adjectives should be illuminating enough) but from a highly contingent history that could have as easily followed countless other paths.

In terms of “civilization”, the founder of ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg, makes a pertinent observation in the Pre-face to the first edition of his epochal assemblage Technicians of the Sacred (1967):  “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.” When one considers that the oldest, continuous society on earth is not China but that of the Australian Aborigines, whose oral poetry sings of a ground sloth extinct 60, 000 years, the variability if not relativity of technical ingenuity becomes apparent.

Intelligence, as well, is neither a simple, nor exclusively technical, nor even human attribute. Some human beings are breath-taking coders, but their smarts are outwitted by the ability of a chickadee to remember where it’s stashed its seeds. Indeed, the attempt to imagine nonhuman intelligence, like the one Denise L. Herzing undertakes in her 2013 paperProfiling nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for describing other ‘types’ of intelligence on earth” expands intelligent life to include dolphins, octopus, insects, and even some bacteria. Even fruit flies can be shown to make decisions.

If we extend our curiosity to sentience, self-awareness, then the standard mirror test shows that Asian elephants, all the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, Eurasian magpies, and even ants possess self-consciousness. And as thought-provoking as it is controversial is the contention of plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso that plants possess intelligence and sentience, albeit in a radically nonhuman way. Little wonder then that on 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals” drafted and signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, that, based on four “unequivocal observations”

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I leave it to interested parties to google “panpsychism”….

An aspect of the tale of Narcissus often forgotten or missed is that Narcissus failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. Like Narcissus, SETI researchers and their critics de la Torre and García and the proponents of the ETH fail to recognize that their speculations concerning intelligence and civilization are merely projections of humankind. Despite Darwin and the libraries of research conducted on nonhuman and even plant sentience and intelligence, the reigning prejudice still seems to be what philosophers would call that “ontotheological” one, that Man is made in God’s own image. Once we disabuse ourselves of this mere speciesism, then we see that SETI is merely (“mirrorly”) a search for ourselves and that this prejudice blinds us to the mind-boggling richness of nonhuman life, sentience, and intelligence already sharing this planet with us, at the same time it perhaps mercifully spares us realizing the heart-breaking suffering we impose on innumerable other forms of life. Perhaps it is precisely because of the latter realization we refuse to recognize a sentience like our own in other living beings and turn our gaze from the earth to the stars at our own and increasingly the biosphere’s peril.

 

The Anthropocene as the Beginning of our Descent to Eaarth

The myriad, variegated narratives inspired by UFOs—from sighting reports to the wildest, baseless fantasies to more sobre, scholarly research and reflection, as well as fiction, films, documentaries, and even poems—taken in toto can be grasped, as Jung proposed, as a “visionary rumour” or “myth of things seen in the sky”, the manifest content of a collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of a technological civilization that can imagine its own species suicide as readily as relocating to another planet. It makes perfect sense then that the Contactees of the Cold War era were warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons or that in the 1980s Abductees were shown by their captors depictions of environmental devastation.

The UFO mythos in this way takes up in its vortex both our aspirations nazi-ufosto interplanetary travel and the Anthropocene. That is to say, humankind can be imagined to be already on an interplanetary journey, from Earth to Eaarth, propelled by the same man-made forces that have driven the world from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

Regardless of when the Anthropocene might be said to have started (as if geological epochs are so finely demarcated) and to a lesser extent of whether we term this new age the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Cthulhucene, the earth is no longer the relatively temperate place that nurtured homo sapiens’ recent cultural development, the civilization we live in. It is undeniable rising levels of atmospheric carbon, ocean acidification, and ubiquitous “plastification” have markedly modified the earth, along with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the extinction and pressurized evolution of plant and animal species, and human transformations of the landscape and sprawling, artificial constructions all have changed the earth in unnerving, unrecognizable ways. Given a description of the chemical composition of the environments of two planets, we wouldn’t be too far amiss to believe we were observing two different worlds, rather than one in two different epochs. Humankind has transported itself en masse from Earth to Eaarth by an unconscious and unintentional “exoforming” (rather than terraforming) and now faces the challenge of having to colonize a planet unpredictably different from its homeworld.

What propelled human beings to this new planet itself gets caught up by the myth, which points to a Promethean intervention that created the sapience that underwrites the cultural explosion and rapid technological development within the matrix of the Holocene that results in the exoforming of the earth as a by-product of industrialization. The laughably perverse hermeneutic of the Ancient Astronaut Theorists like dreams, slips of the tongue, and other psychopathologies of everyday life, unconsciously discerns a truth, that our present predicament seems destined and out of our control. Whether the cultural heroes and gods of antiquity were Extra-terrestrial teachers, or if they interbred with proto-humans or genetically modified them, the Ancient Astronaut Theorists intuit that human beings are not quite at home on the earth (an insight they share with, among others, certain strains of Gnosticism), that there is something uncanny and “alien” about us, whether we call it sapience, intelligence, science, or technology, or, as I do here, technoscience.

It is just at this point that for all its way-outness the myth harmonizes with those concepts and values that make the accidents and historically and socially contingent forces that led us to this cultural point seem natural, universal and necessary. The assumptions that orient the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), for example, posit that intelligent life is intelligent in the way humans conceive themselves to be, that ET civilizations will follow the same tool-using vector as our own, that technological civilizations follow a linear path such that they can be judged more or less advanced than each other, and that our and their histories will be sufficiently analogous in these regards that once we make contact and learn to understand each other then perhaps we can learn from them how they negotiated their way through the impasses that seem to threaten the existence of the very civilization that led to these crises. In more mundane terms, we tend to have faith that scientific ingenuity will be what will get us through precisely the grave dangers that ingenuity has wrought. This faith in science or “being-scientific”, this assumption that the radically contingent and social history of our civilization’s history as we write it from this moment is somehow more assured than that equally chance-ridden story of our or any species’ evolution and that it is moreover universal to all beings like us is the ideology that underwrites and guides both the speculations that UFOs are spaceships from other planets and that our stories of the gods who descend from the sky in chariots of fire (or more elaborate mechanisms, like that witnessed by Ezekiel) to remake if not make human beings in their own image are actually ancient astronauts.spaceships-ezekiel-1

And it is just here that a darker, more paranoid thread of the myth can be picked out. If we bring together the proposal that ETs have genetically engineered homo sapiens from the beginning with the stories about alien abduction and human-alien hybridization (a most extreme version being perhaps the more recent work of David Jacobs) then it becomes imaginable that the earth and human beings have been undergoing a process of colonization from the inside-out. The genetic and cultural interventions or intrusions simultaneously culture a technological intelligence and behaviour that exoforms the earth while the human species is transformed into an alien species fit for the planet the earth is becoming. I am unsure if any Gnostic in their most pessimistic speculation has outlined such a destiny and fate for humankind. In this view, the technoscientic knowledge outlined above and science-fictionally projected here is an alien technology whose end is at the same time the repression of the recognition of all non-human intelligence on the earth (the matter for another note, surely) and the extinction of homo sapiens and the earth as we knew it.

N.b. Let me be clear:  I hardly believe the contents of the myth I sketch here. I merely set out to constellate and cast the horoscope as it were of patterns I find in the UFO mythos and its implications and suggestions. It is therefore not a question of the truth of the Ancient Astronaut Hypothesis or the views of David Jacobs but of what meaning can be gleaned from them, reading them as if they were just what I suppose they are here, aspects of a myth for our time.