November 29, 2009

Of Ancient Astronauts and Crossbills

If you've watched the Planet Earth Series on either BBC or The Discovery Channel (and I recommend you do), you may have seen the episode on seasonal forests. Early in the episode, the narrator describes how the trees in the northern forests have leaves that are filled with resin to minimize water loss and to also make them distasteful to animals. Many of these trees also have seeds that are in plated cones to protect them. However, birds such as crossbills have evolved special beaks to pry apart the scales and extract the seeds. When the scenery changes to the southernmost forests, lo and behold, the trees have developed very similar ways of protecting their leaves and seeds. And, as you may have guessed, birds in these forests, such as parakeets, have evolved bills that allow them to extract seeds from the protected cones. It seems intuitive, if not obvious, that similar conditions would engender similar evolutionary paths.

Ancient astronaut theory is the idea that extra-terrestrial beings came to earth and imparted knowledge to the ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and Egyptians, among others. Much of the evidence for this falls, in my mind at least, into two broad categories: that the technology/engineering skills were far too advanced for the ancient peoples to develop on their own, and that very similar patterns/styles are exhibited by ancient cultures all over the world. As to the former, human beings are extremely intelligent and creative. To suggest that humans could not solve a problem without outside help is to ignore the depth of that human intelligence. Especially given the long time frames involved, I find it difficult to question the skills and knowledge of any culture that was able to form a lasting civilization. Add to that the difficulty of translating the writings and drawings that those civilizations left behind, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many things we don’t know about them.

It seems to me that the only evidence that could be said to suggest ancient astronaut theory is the similarities between the various ancient civilizations. However, why is it so much easier to believe that the trees and birds mentioned above also developed in similar ways on opposite ends of the Earth? Why should it be that humans are the only animals on the planet that are not allowed to evolve in similar ways in different places? And when I think about the similarities that are said to be the evidence, I have difficulty thinking of any other way that those civilizations could have developed.

Take pyramids for instance. I won't dwell on why you'd want to build something that large, but I'm inclined to believe that egos have been with humans at least as long as culture itself, probably longer. If you're going to build something large, the easiest way is to simply build a pile of something. At another level, how can you pile things to any great height without any kind of crane or similar device? You build a ramp that slopes up to the top of the heap. Ok, so building in a shape that has sides that slope up seems to be kind of necessary to build a large ancient structure. Curved lines are much more difficult to build and cut along than straight lines. Squares and triangles also have relatively simple math to calculate properties like height and volume. I'm not saying a pyramid is the only way to build a great structure in the ancient world, but it seems to me to be one of the easiest ways using what was available to the people of the time. In my limited experience, a good rule of thumb for nature is that things travel along the path of least resistance, be it electricity, water, or evolution. My question would be why any culture would purposely engineer buildings along different, much more difficult lines, especially with other complications such as the necessity of using stone, since it was the only material available that would last any length of time. Similarly, what better or easier way for a bird to eat conifer seeds than to develop bills that can pry apart the scales?

As far as the obsession with the stars and planets, what else would ancient peoples have been able to study extensively? The sky was one of the few things that was permanent enough to do things such as navigate or plan by. If one was trying to devise a system with which to plan long term endeavors such as farming, what else could have been there to go by? If one was trying to navigate in a strange territory without gps or a compass or detailed maps, what beside the stars could be used? I should think it would be obvious that any relatively advanced ancient culture would use the sun, the moon, and the stars as a way to plan their farming and navigation. And at a less practical, yet still powerful level, what beside the sky is universal in its ability to make us stand in awe and wonder? I have a hard time imagining that ancient peoples didn't also look up at the sky to marvel at its immensity and beauty and to wonder what was up there.

There will always be things we cannot easily explain, and a very convenient and attractive option is to explain unexplainable things with outside forces, be they gods or magic or aliens. Natural phenomena that we explain easily today were explained in ancient times by those same outside forces, and as it turns out, the ancients were wrong. In fact, of all the things that have been explained as caused by non-natural entities or forces, none have been conclusively proven to be so caused. And that’s the point. In the absence of scientific proof, it’s impossible to prove that something is not caused by magic or the gods. Which is why until we find conclusive scientific proof, if and when that may be, there will be no way to prove ancient astronaut theory correct. Nor will there be any way to disprove it. Thus, there will always be a temptation to use such things to explain what we don't fully understand. Perhaps the need to explain the unexplainable with the unknowable is something else that has developed in all of us, no matter when or where we may live.