Humanity is searching for meaning. We binge tv shows. We get lost in fiction. We make up amazing stories about super heroes. We hunt for something deeper than what’s on the surface. We seek conspiracies or... aliens.
I finally got around to reading a book that had been on my list for a long time, recently. Not because I thought I would agree with its assertions - but because it came up from time to time in my research.
Chariots of the Gods? is a book written in 1968 by German Erich Von Daniken. He goes through a few examples to, in his mind, prove that aliens not only had been to Earth but that they destroyed Sodom with fire and brimstone which he said was a nuclear explosion. He also says the Ark of the Covenant was actually a really big walkie-talkie for calling space.
Ultimately, the thesis centers around the idea than humans could not possibly have made the technological leaps we did and so must have been given to us from the gods. I find this to be a perfectly satisfactory science fiction plot. In fact, various alien conspiracy theories seemed to begin soon after Orson Welles 1938 live adaption of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and like a virus, they mutated. But did this alien virus start in a bat in Wuhan or in Roman Syria.
The ancient Greeks and then Romans had a lot of gods. Lucian of Samosata thought they should have a couple more. He wove together a story, which he called “A True Story.” In it, he says it’s all make-believe. Because they believed in multiple pantheons of gods in modern day Syria in the second century AD. In the satire, Lucian and crew get taken to the Moon where they get involved in a war between the Moon and the Sun kings for the rights to colonize the Morning Star. They then get eaten by a whale and escape and travel meeting great Greeks through time including Pythagoras, Homer, and Odysseus. And they find the new world. Think of how many modern plots are wrapped up in that book from the second century, made to effectively make fun of storytellers like Homer?
The 1800s was one of the first centuries where humanity began to inherit a rapid merger and explosion of scientific understanding and Edgar Allan Poe again took us to the moon in "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" in 1835. Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, and then H.G. Welles with that War of the Worlds in 1898. By then we’d mapped the surface of the moon with telescopes, so they wrote of Mars and further. H.P. Lovecraft gave us the Call of Cthulhu. These authors predicted the future - but science fiction became a genre that did more. It helped us create satire or allegory or just comparisons to these rapid global changes in ways that called out the social impact to consider before or after we invent. And to just cope with evolving social norms. The magazine Amazing Stories came in 1926 and the greatest work of science fiction premiered in 1942 with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Science fiction was opening our eyes to what was possible and opened the minds of scientists to study what we might create in the future. But it wasn’t real.
Von Daniken and French author Robert Charroux seemed to influence one another in taking history and science and turning them into pseudohistory and pseudoscience. And both got many of their initial ideas from the 1960 book, The Morning of the Magicians. But Chariots of the Gods? was a massive success and a best seller. And rather than be dismissed it has now spread to include conspiracy and other theories. Which is fine as fiction, not as non-fiction.
Let’s look at some other specific examples from Chariots of the Gods? Von Daniken claims that Japanese Dogu figures were carvings of aliens. He claims there were alien helicopter carvings in an Egyptian temple. He claims the Nazca lines in Peru were a way to call aliens and that a map from 1513 actually showed the earth from space rather than thinking it possible that cartography was capable of showing a somewhat accurate representation of the world in the Age of Discovery. He claimed stories in the Bible were often inspired by alien visits much as some First Nation peoples and cargo cults thought people in ships visiting their lands for the first time might be gods.
The one thing I’ve learned researching these episodes is that technology has been a constant evolution. Many of our initial discoveries like fire, agriculture, and using the six simple machines could be observed in nature. From the time we learned to make fire, it was only a matter of time before humanity discovered that stones placed in or around fire might melt in certain ways - and so metallurgy was born. We went through population booms as we discovered each of these.
We used the myths and legends that became religions to hand down knowledge, as I was taught to use mnemonics to memorize the seven layers of the OSI model. That helped us preserve knowledge of astronomy across generations so we could explore further and better maintain our crops.
The ancient Sumerians then Babylonians gave us writing. But we had been drawing on caves for thousands of years. Which seems more likely, that we were gifted this advance or that as we began to settle in more dense urban centers that we out of a need to scale operations tracked the number of widgets we had with markings that, over time evolved into a written language? First through pictures and then through words that evolved into sentences and then epics? We could pass down information more reliably across generation.
Trade and commerce and then ziggurats and pyramids help hone our understanding of mathematics. The study of logic and automata allowed us to build bigger and faster and process more raw materials. Knowledge of all of these discoveries spread across trade routes.
So ask yourself this. Which is more likely, the idea that humans maintained a constant, ever-evolving stream of learned ingenuity that was passed down for tens of thousands of years until it accelerated when we learned to write, or do you think aliens from outer space instead gave us technology?
I find it revokes our very agency to assert anything but the idea that humans are capable of the fantastic feats we have reached and believe it insulting to take away from the great philosophers, discoverers, scientists, and thinkers that got us where we are today.
Our species has long made up stories to explain that which the science of the day cannot. Before we understand the why, we make up stories about the how. This allowed us to pass knowledge down between generations. We see this in ancient explanations of the movements of stars before we had astrolabes. We see humans want to leave something behind that helps the next generations, or burial sites like with Stonehenge - not summon Thor from an alien planet as Marvel has rewritten their own epics to indicate. In part based on rethinking these mythos in the context of Chariots of the Gods?
Ultimately the greater our gaps in understanding, the more disconnected with ourselves I find that most people are. We listen to talking heads rather than think for ourselves. We get lost in theories of cabals. We seek a deeper, missing knowledge because we can’t understand everything in front of us.
Today, if we know where to look, and can decipher the scientific jargon, all the known knowledge of science and history are at our fingertips. But it can take a lifetime to master one of thousands of fields of scientific research. If we don’t have that specialty then we can perceive it as unreachable and think maybe this pseudohistorical account of humanity is true and maybe aliens gave us
If we feel left behind then it becomes easier to blame others when we can’t get below the surface of complicated concepts. Getting left behind might mean that jobs don’t pay what they paid our parents. We may perceive others as getting attention or resources we feel we deserve. We may feel isolated and alone. And all of those are valid feelings. When they’re heard then maybe we can look to the future instead of accepting pseudoscience and pseudohistory and conspiracies. Because while they make for fun romps on the big screen, they’re dangerous when taken as fact.