Friday, March 10, 2006

Aliens, Community Myth Building, and Our Evolutionary Past

A few days ago I posted a piece (Pancake Races and Community Myth Building) that discussed in part how small communities can make use of unique histories, legends, festivals, etc., to help bind the community together and promote it to the rest of the world (or at least along the closest interstate). The International UFO Museum and Research Center and associated annual UFO Festival of Roswell, NM is another great example of this.

The piece I wrote below, a version of which appeared in the August 19, 2004 issue of the Albuquerque Tribune under the title of "An Alien Concept" showcases the festival in part.


“It's life, Captain, but not life as we know it.”

This observation of Mr. Spock’s slowly rose from the depths of my subconscious as I stared at the sight before me. In the hands of my almost three-year-old son was the torso of an olive green alien mounted on the end of a pencil. As he gleefully twirled the pencil in his hands, the alien’s abnormally long arms whirled about, periodically sticking to its body.

My family and I were in the gift shop of the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, during the town’s annual UFO Festival (the first week of July). Though Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, NM) was our final destination, curiosity compelled us to stop on our way through, and we were now in the famed museum, housed in a converted movie theater.

We ventured through a variety of exhibits – the renowned Roswell UFO Incident, actual archaeological excavations of UFO “crash sites,” and many more, all under the watchful “eye” of a saucer shaped UFO suspended from the ceiling, complete with flashing lights. And then we came upon an exhibit whose topic vexes all archaeologists – “Ancient Cultures and their Connections to Extraterrestrial Life Forms.” Sigh.

An immense wall hanging of a famous Mayan image dominates this exhibit, catching one’s eye from across the room. The original image, dating from A.D. 683, was beautifully carved onto a stone slab covering a Mayan king’s sarcophagus. Various ET enthusiasts have colorfully interpreted this image as depicting an early astronaut at the controls of a spaceship. But more, shall we say, conventional archaeological explanations interpret it as showing the king at the moment of his death descending into the Underworld[i], [ii].

Though I’m disappointed by the prominence such misguided interpretations have in popular culture, the museum still manages to reach the eleven-year old within me. That boy who use to love watching the documentary series “In Search Of…” narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and reading the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Maybe I was just feeling nostalgic; or was it more than that?

Modern society is fascinated by the potential for alien life. “Little green men” permeate the modern world, from literature (Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), television (“The X-Files,” The Star Trek franchise), and movies (“Men in Black,” “Signs”), to pseudo-science (Ancient Astronauts hypotheses, UFO abductions), to actual scientific searches for ET (SETI, NASA Astrobiology Institute). But why? Why do we care whether or not we’re alone in this vast Universe?

I suggest that this fascination has its roots in our species’ deep evolutionary past, most of which our ancestors spent roaming the landscape in small bands of hunter-gatherers. According to anthropologist Pascal Boyer[iii], during this time our brains’ mental systems became specialized in performing the different tasks required to survive and interact with others in social groups.

Such tasks would have included detecting the presence of animate agents (predators or prey), detecting what others are looking at, figuring out their goals, etc. In other words our brains incorporate a high degree of agency in how we perceive and process information.

Hearing the snapping of a branch, a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would have increased his chances for survival by immediately assigning the noise to the action of a potential predator, and then taking the appropriate precautions. Similarly, a modern office worker assigns the sound of typing keystrokes in the next cubicle to that of his office mate.

On one level gods, ghosts, and religions are by-products of how our brains are wired. This imperative need to assign agency to the world around us occurs in our “cerebral cellar,” below our conscious understanding. As a result, our actions and perceptions of the world often appear to be the result of intuitions. Religious and supernatural beliefs are a way to explain and justify our intuitions about events and human behaviors whose cause we can’t directly observe or understand.

Modern astronomy’s understanding of the cosmos (as well as science in general) is only a relatively recent addition to human thought. But, as astronomer E. C. Krupp[iv] has pointed out, the cosmos has been an important part of humanity’s past, helping our ancestors mark the changing seasons and orientate themselves on the landscape, critical for their survival.

As a result of our brain’s agency component, the cosmos became associated with the supernatural as a way to explain the actions of celestial bodies. Modern pseudo-scientific views of UFOs and ETs are the latest “by-products” of the way our brains are wired, melding elements of science and the supernatural to explain the cosmic unknown.

This coexistence of religion, science, and pseudo-science in our modern world may even represent a turning point in the evolution of our species. Because scientific thought tends to run counter to our natural intuitions, it is as foreign to our brains as religion is familiar. This in part explains why science is much more recent and has less of a foothold than religion does. But perhaps sometime in the distant future evolution will have rewired the human brain giving science the advantage, leaving pseudo-science and religion as sidebars of history.

A more romantic explanation for our ET fascination centers on our ancestor’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Whether traversing their local environments or moving to new areas as the human race enveloped the planet, they probably often wondered what or who was over the next rise. We became accustomed to exploring and encountering the unknown. Wondering whom or what lies beyond our planet is just another version of finding out what lies over the next ridge.

In fact, our ancestors were probably much closer to encountering an “alien” than any modern UFO abductee. And I’m not talking about ancient astronauts here. Prior to 30,000 years ago, there is evidence that anatomically modern humans lived near Neanderthals in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Staring face-to-face into the eyes of an intelligent, though not quite human life form, our ancestors experienced the next best thing to meeting those little green men, or large mauve hermaphrodites, or whatever ETs are.

Back in the gift shop my son opts for a toy space shuttle with operable wheels instead of the alien pencil. Later I smugly tell my wife that our son represents an important link in the evolutionary chain of our species, where science is gradually gaining on religion and pseudo-science in our grasp to understand that which we can’t explicitly perceive.

My wife slowly turns her head to me, rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t be such a dork. You know he has an obsession for anything with wheels.” Well, yes, I can be a dork, but that doesn’t mean we can’t both be right on this one.


[i] Michael D. Coe 1999. The Maya, Sixth Edition. Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 134-138.

[ii] Linda Schele and David Freidel 1990. A Forest of Kings. Quill William Morrow, New York, p. 220.

[iii] Pascal Boyer 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[iv] E. C. Krupp 1983 Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Plume Book, New American Library, New York.

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