People of a Different Shape
by Peter Rogerson
There seems to be a growing interest in reviving the ETH as an explanation of certain UFO experiences. This would seem to be a good time to examine this hypothesis again.
To understand the role which the ETH played - and still plays - in ufology, it is necessary first to examine some ufological history.
When, in late 1947 or early 1948, sections of the US military and media decided that certain UFO cases pointed to the existence of flying machines with unusual characteristics, the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence had received only limited intellectual treatment. The notion of life in distant solar systems had little scientific credibility. Indeed, for a generation, under the influence of the "collision theory" of planetary formation, great scepticism had been expressed about the existence of other solar systems at all. (1) This concept was only just about to be assaulted by a revived nebular hypothesis of planetary formation.
There was a potent source of cultural imagery about extraterrestrials in the vast quantities of science fiction published in the pulp magazines during the "golden age" of science fiction from 1929 to 1939. The alien participants in these stories were usually just people in a different shape, with human (often hostile) motivations. The influence of this literature on the young and technologically minded was great. There cannot have been any small town in America where there was not at least one science fiction fan: this was to provide an audience for the idea of alien visitation - though it must be borne in mind that most of science fiction fandom was hostile to ufology.
There was, however, some scientific speculation about extraterrestrials, largely speculation about Martians. Percival Lowell's ideas about Mars had wide currency. He speculated that Mars was an older planet, whose inhabitants were dying as a result of drought, and had constructed a great network of canals to delay this. These ideas gained wide currency through the writings of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others. In 1947 "aliens" meant "Martians". It should be remembered that Orson Welles's broadcast of War of the Worlds was still fresh in American minds. (2)
Civilians and the military both began wondering about Martians seeing nuclear explosions, and coming to Earth to investigate. Donald Keyhoe in his pioneering True article, (3) and subsequent books (4) expanded on the theme of Martians with a technology several hundred years in advance of the Earth's.
Though these Martians may have been super-bees, as suggested by writer and mystic Gerald Heard, (5) they were invariably ascribed human motivations. The technology granted to the ETs was similarly assumed to be just around the corner, though often based on theories about the aether, anti-gravity and the like, which were already very out of date, (6) and never bore any close correspondence with any of the concepts of mainstream physics. Throughout the 1950s speculation in the ufological literature about ETs seldom rose above the space-opera stage, and was often very deficient in imagination when compared with even the worst science fiction.
Having been given human attributes, motivations and abilities, the aliens became assimilated to other military menaces. Never once did any sense of real alienness cross the minds of most ufologists.
The general acceptance of the nebular theory of planetary origins and the development of space technology led to a growing scientific interest in the idea of extraterrestrial life and communicating with intelligences elsewhere in the universe; an interest which culminated in Project Ozma. During the 1960s a steady stream of books with titles such as We Are Not Alone, Intelligent Life in Space, etc., were published. The reader who expected a serious philosophical discussion of the nature of non-human intelligences was usually disappointed, as such books usually followed a set pattern. Chapters on the evolution of the solar system and life led to chapters on radio astronomy, the "uniquely rational" method of communicating with ETs.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the upsurge of these writings occurred at the same time as the heyday of Hermann Kahn, the Peace Corps, and the cult of the high-rise, white-hot technological revolution. An implicit faith in the ability of science and technology to overcome all problems, and a belief that the values and achievements of western civilisation were universal, permeated these books. The underlying assumption might be expressed: "We are such clever chaps, it is only natural advanced aliens must be just like us", and, as one cynic suggested, were probably educated at the Sorbonne or MIT!
Thus whilst the ufologists had seen the ETs as just another community of invaders or explorers, the saucerites had seen them as another community of gurus and missionaries, and the exobiologists had seen them as another community of scientists. All saw them as people.
At a popular level such anthropomorphic attitudes persist. A few years ago some American engineers presented a paper in which they seriously argued that information supplied by abductees under hypnotic regression could provide clues as to the design and propulsion of alien spacecraft. (7) Aircraft hangars are rumoured full of crashed flying saucers, and naive notions still persist of investigating UFOs with home-made electronic gadgets, toy telescopes and chemistry sets.
Nevertheless, it seems apparent that the ETH as an explanation of the ORIGINAL unidentifieds (ostensible high-performance flying machines) never really survived the discounting of the "Martian" hypothesis. As human space travel developed it became clearer that Ruppelt was very wrong when he predicted in 1956 that "within a few years there will be a proven answer". (8) Furthermore, ufologists believed that they had uncovered evidence that the UFO phenomenon was as old as written records, if not older, and possessed all sorts of curious sidelines. The airship stories of 1897 were the road which led many American ufologists out of the ETH. A similar role was being played in Britain by the 1904/5 Welsh Revival stories. The idea of nuts-and-bolts extraterrestrial spaceships not only could not accommodate to these new data, but also involved the none-too-plausible notion that mid-twentieth century science knew all there was to know about the universe.
Faced with these realisations many ufologists abandoned the ETH in favour of either psychological or supernatural explanations; others tried to construct a more sophisticated version. The latter correctly pointed out that a genuine alien "intelligence" was likely to be something far stranger than was commonly thought. They began to think not just in terms of "people of a different shape", but in terms of "higher level of organisation" beyond mind. This can perhaps be called the Super-ETH.
The pioneer in this line of speculation was Aime Michel, who had suggested as early as 1957 that contact with "the other" may be impossible because it represented a "higher order of mentality". (9) In a series of FSR articles (10) Michel elaborated on this point. His "superintelligence" which he called magonia was perhaps the first advanced intelligence in the galaxy, which it now permeated in much the same way that human intelligence permeates the Earth. It is now, he suggested, far beyond what we understand as mind, and human beings are in relation to magonia as domestic pets are in relation to humans - the core of magonia is inaccessible to humanity, but humankind may have access to the "human in magonia" just as a cat can appreciate the "cat in humanity".
The logical errors here are obvious. It is quite illegitimate to think of cats as being somehow stupid people - they are the highly successful product of their own evolutionary adaptation. What cats and people have in common is their mammalian nature, the product of 2 billion years of common evolution (and evolutionary divergence of only some 70 million years. No hypothetical ET has such a common ancestry or nature. Indeed people have far more in common with the aardvark, the sea slug or the geranium, than with "ET", with whom we share only the "laws" of physics and chemistry.
We should be particularly wary of treating ET in terms of extrapolation to our own future. Even in terms of our own future, thinking in terms of better and faster spacecraft is probably just as absurd as my own great-great-grandfather's vision of a future dominated by giant steam-hammers! (11) The best we can say about the future is that significant aspects of it are not predictable. (12)
It is therefore incorrect to talk about ET as "advanced" upon us. ET is likely to be wholly different, so that when I said that ET would be linked to us only by the laws of of physics and chemistry, I should add that physics, chemistry, mathematics, laws, concepts,emotions, motivation, technology, travel, etc., are human phenomena: products of the way human beings perceive the universe. We cannot be at all sure that they hold true for ETs which may perceive the universe in quite a different way to us. Even if ET does share our perception of the universe in general, there will almost certainly be aspects of physics available to them, but not to us, about which we can say nothing. (13)
Clearly, then, the idea that the ETH implies "an unguessable psychology operating a technology like magic, impelled by non-human motivations" is probably still over-anthropomorphic.
It is this situation that the post-revisionist ufologists are putting forward as an explanation for UFO experiences. The problem with this Super-ETH is not that there is evidence against it, or that there is much validity in the arguments of those who argue that "they" could not get here: the latter are clearly as naive as the proponents of spaceships.
No. The real objection to the ETH lies in the fact that in the absence of any independent evidence as to the nature, powers, or even existence of ET, there is NOTHING that the ETH could not be made to explain. Even the 90 per cent or more misinterpretations conceded by the ETH proponents could be "explained" by arguing that the ETs cause us to misidentify the moon as a spaceship by projecting N-rays at us! Not only is such a theory impervious to evidence and allows no useful predictions to be made, but a very great question exists as to whether the nature and activities of such ETs could ever be tackled by human intellectual analyses.
What the Super-ETH (and some of its more esoteric rivals) then implies is the evocation of what to all practical purposes are "arbitrary wills" in order to explain certain peculiar experiences. These "arbitrary wills" are by their nature not susceptible to intellectual analysis. Now the whole ethos of the scientific enterprise has been to eliminate such "arbitrary wills" as explanations of physical events, therefore the post-revisionists are setting themselves into a collision course with science - which can be considered as a game with its own set of rules, high amongst which is "no arbitrary wills"! It seems unlikely, to put it no stronger, that the scientific community would endorse concepts which, if taken seriously, would mean an end to the scientific enterprise itself.
Indeed, acceptance of such "arbitrary wills" would have even more drastic consequences than a regression to a pre-scientific state, for almost all traditional societies place very strict social constraints on the powers of "spirits". Many reserve certain important areas of life to creator gods which no longer intervene in the phenomenal world, and thus ensure regularity, while within the Judaeo-Christian tradition there have been repeated attempts by theologians to impose de facto limits on the activities of God - a lawful God would not break His own laws, etc.
Even if the damage could be limited to ufology (and given the readiness of ufologists to invoke mysterious agencies to explain everything from football hooliganism to the deaths of miners, one doubts it!) it is hard to see what possible practical value such people could see in continuing UFO investigations. The fact that most do suggests that few take the Super-ETH seriously, but rather treat it as an amusing intellectual sideline. For those that really do, it is difficult to believe that they could take a more intellectually honest course than to follow one former reader of this journal, who left ufology for mysticism in his attempt to comprehend the "other".
Given these rather unpleasant consequences it strikes me as most unwise to evoke the ETH except as a desperate last resort, when all else has failed. Perhaps when we get simultaneous video recordings of a landing then such speculation may have to be revived, but if we discard anthropomorphic notions about spaceships it by no means follows that evidence for unusual aerial craft would be evidence for ETs.
1. It is amusing to note that amongst the proponents of this hypothesis was Sir James Jeans, much admired by a previous generation of "anti-materialist" ufologists and psychical researchers.
2. See Cantril, H. "The Invasion from Mars", Harper and Row, 1966. It is interesting to note that Cantril's study was paid for by the US Defense Department.
3. Keyhoe, Donald. "True UFO Report".
4. Keyhoe, Donald E. "The Flying Saucers are Real", Fawcett, 1950; "Flying Saucers from Outer Space", Hutchinson, 1953
5. Heard, Gerald. "The Riddle of the Flying Saucers", Carroll & Nicholson, 1950
6. Cramp, Leonard. "Space, Gravity and the Flying Saucer", Werner Laurie, 1954, is a classic example.
7. An even more prize example comes in James McCampbell's position statement in "Encyclopedia of UFOs", where he suggests that we ask the people in the flying saucers how the machines operate.
8. Ruppelt, Edward. "The Report on UFOs", 1956
9. in "Flying Saucers and the Straight-line Mystery", Criterion, 1956
10. Michel, Aime. "Of men, cats and magonia", Flying Saucer Review (FSR), 16, 5, pp 19-20; "Project Dick", FSR, 18, 1, pp 13-19; "The mouse in the maze", FSR, 20, 3, pp 8-9; "The cat flap effect", FSR, 25, 5, pp 3-5
11. Rowlandson, Thomas Smith. "The Evolution of the Steam Hammer", Eccles, 1865. This little booklet is not, I believe available at the British Museum.
12. It is quite impossible to imagine in realistic detail, say, a society in which total mechanisation of production is coupled with total abolition of want. We simply do not have the vocabulary to articulate the values and aspirations of such a society.
13. Discussion of this point is contained in Boyce, Chris. "Extraterrestrial Encounter", 2nd ed., New English Library, 1981. For discussion which often falls into anthropomorphism see Hayakama (ed.). "Cultures Beyond the Earth". As an intellectual exercise readers may like to speculate on the life style of "intelligent" beings with six sexes, the gender of whose offspring is determined by the mathematical pattern of a mating game having affinities to three-dimensional chess, and who communicate by wavelength changes at the angstrom level in the colour of their bioluminescence!
~Peter Rogerson, 1999
Life on Earth points to intelligent aliens
As far as we know, our planet has never been visited by intelligent beings from outer space. And we have never received any messages from such creatures. But our knowledge is limited.
IN SEARCH OF THE REAL UFOS
At a very early stage in the investigation of UFO reports it became generally accepted that if a significant number of verified reports remained unexplained after exhaustive investigation then these UFOs must be interplanetary spacecraft. Some people argued that there were no really good cases and that the whole business was just a manifestation of human irrationality and gullibility. Students of the subject thus became divided into believers and sceptics. This made for lively debate, but it did little to advance scientific research on rare or unexplained phenomena.
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the use of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) by UFO enthusiasts as a blanket explanation for all unsolved UFO cases. The problem with the ETH is not that it is absurd. It is, indeed, perfectly rational. Many scientists have devoted a great deal of effort to setting up radio equipment and monitoring the output to see if they can detect signals from other civilizations which may or may not exist elsewhere in the galaxy. Why, many ufologists might ask, do they not simply study the best UFO reports, then they might learn something about the ETs?
The reason is that if they discovered signals which they could demonstrate were coming from a source umpteen light years away and that these signals were artificial, then that would be positive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. This reasoning does not apply to UFOs, as no one sees where they go to or where they come from. The ETH is not a scientific theory, as applied to UFOs, because it can account for all reports for which conventional explanations are not easily found. A theory which so easily explains everything explains nothing. If you say that such and such a UFO was an alien spacecraft then you don't have to bother investigating any further.
It is rather like a man who watches a conjuring act. He can't imagine how the effects are achieved, so he comes to the conclusion that the conjuror has amazing paranormal powers. This saves him the effort of studying the literature on magic to discover how the tricks are actually performed.
It is this sort of attitude that has resulted in the neglect of some interesting reports. The question which arises is: Are there any good UFO reports for which a convincing physical or psychological explanation has not been found? Now there are some really stunning reports but few of them can stand up to critical examination. What we need are reports with the following characteristics, and I won't spell out the reasons for them because they should be fairly obvious:
(1) Independent witnesses separated from one another;
(2) Reports made with all relevant details to a responsible person or organization shortly after the event;
(3) No significant internal inconsistencies in the reports;
(4) No obvious explanation of the phenomena reported.
The effects on witnesses of the ETH should always be considered when reading or investigating UFO reports. The ETH strongly distorts many reports of unusual phenomena, or normal objects seen in unusual conditions. Some good reports may be sightings of rare and poorly understood natural phenomena. Although it is desirable for there to be multiple independent witnesses, they are no guarantee that anything really strange or unusual has taken place.
In rejecting the ETH as a blanket explanation for all puzzling UFO reports it is important not to substitute another blanket explanation, such as mirages or ball lightning. In comparing new reports with cases described in the literature it should be realised that many of these are highly inaccurate summaries of the original reports, and some of them are totally false.
It is only by separating the ETH from the UFO that any progress is likely to be made in obtaining reliable information about the unusual natural phenomena which probably generate some of the more interesting UFO reports.
A PLEA FOR THE E.T.H.
by John Harney
In recent years there has developed a two-pronged attack on the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) as an explanation for UFO reports. These two prongs may be termed the cosmological approach and the psycho-sociological approach. We can put them together and sum them up as follows:
There are no visitors from other planets because the Earth is the only planet in this galaxy (or in the entire universe) on which intelligent life has evolved. Thus, if we want to explain the UFO reports we must study the witnesses, their psychological problems and their interactions with society.
Now it cannot seriously be doubted that the disciplines of psychology and sociology are relevant to the study of UFO reports. However, there is a danger that total commitment to this approach could lead us astray by being employed as a catch-all explanation for anything resembling a UFO report.
The psycho-sociological approach is reinforced by current theories about extraterrestrial life which generally conclude that it is so unlikely that we might as well forget about it. This set of theories, which I have termed the cosmological approach, is itself two-pronged. Various theories of biological evolution and the evolution of stars and planets are considered in an attempt to demonstrate that the evolution of life is a singular event. This is backed up by the other prong of the cosmological approach, which is a set of arguments designed to convince us that if the ETs existed they would have colonised Earth millions of years ago.
In this paper I intend to point to some apparent weaknesses in these arguments and to urge that the ETH should not hastily be abandoned.
2. THE IMPROBABILITY OF LIFE
2.1 Suitable stars and planets
Intelligent life resembling in any way that which we know here on Earth would have to have its origin on a planet which would provide an environment having certain essential properties. It seems to be generally agreed that such a planet would have to be rather similar to Earth and be orbiting a star similar to the sun.
It is estimated that there are about 200 thousand million stars in our galaxy, and Isaac Asimov (1) considers that about 75 thousand million may be considered sufficiently sun-like to nurture life on planets which may orbit them. Although there is still much uncertainty, some theoretical work suggests that planetary systems may be common. (2)
The main argument against life arising in such systems is that it is considered very unlikely that a suitable terrestrial (i.e. earth-like) planet will exist in a stable orbit which is not too near or too far away from its parent star.
2.2 Climatic stability
Life has existed continuously on Earth for about 3,000 million years. It follows from this that the Earth's climate cannot have changed drastically in all that time. If, in any period, the mean surface temperature had strayed outside the range 0-100 degrees Celsius then life would have been extinguished. Also, if the Earth cooled until it was completely covered with ice, the situation would be irreversible, as would a runaway greenhouse effect which would be caused by excessive heating.
It has been calculated that only very small changes in the Earth's orbit or in the output of energy from the sun are required to produce either of these effects. Thus it is considered unlikely that any planet would remain habitable for long enough for advanced life forms to evolve.
In the opinion of the Russian scientist M.I. Budyko: "It is believed that the maintenance on Earth of a mean temperature within the narrow zone necessary for life for billions of years seems to be a random event, the probability of which is very low. To a considerable extent the comparatively small changeability of the atmospheric chemical composition, whose variation could easily destroy all organisms was also random." (3)
2.3 Improbability of the emergence of life
It is generally believed by scientists that life on Earth arose spontaneously out of non-living matter, beginning with the formation of complex organic compounds in the primeval ocean. It has often been argued that the odds against these compounds arranging themselves in such a way as to form the first living organism are so great that the existence of life on Earth must be a singular event. For example, Jacques Monod has written that: "Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance." (4)
2.4 Is there life on Earth?
The arguments in sections 2.1-2.3 summarise very briefly the views of those scientists who believe that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is extremely unlikely. Astronomers think that there are unlikely to be suitable planets at the correct distances from sun-like stars. Climatologists believe that earth-like planets would inevitably be covered by ice, or be boiling hot (like Venus). Some biologists think that the emergence of life is so improbable that it is inconceivable that it could have happened more than once. Each group calculates enormous odds against conditions being favourable to life from the point of view of their own discipline. So if we take their views seriously we must multiply these odds together and arrive at a figure so enormous that we are forced to conclude that we are merely figments of our own fevered imaginations!
As the notion that we do not really exist but only imagine we do is incoherent, we can reasonably suppose that extraterrestrial life really does exist on other planets although it perhaps does not arise very often.
3. IF THEY EXIST WHY AREN'T THEY HERE?
3.1 The galaxy should be completely colonised
The scientific opinions mentioned in section 2 cannot lightly be brushed aside, so it is reasonable to speculate that the number of planets in the galaxy on which intelligent life develops is quite small. However, it has been calculated that any beings which achieved interstellar travel could spread throughout the entire galaxy in a period which is short compared with the age of the solar system. Eric M. Jones, for example, considers 60 million years to be a reasonable estimate. (5) Some writers have used such estimates to argue that the fact that aliens have not taken over the Earth strongly suggests that we are alone in the galaxy.
3.2 Anthropomorphic assumptions
The main weakness of this kind of argument is that it is hopelessly anthropomorphic. It is surely possible to think about extraterrestrial intelligence without having to see it in terms of the Star Wars films and similar space operas. The first race of beings to spread throughout the galaxy would doubtless be aware that they could establish themselves on every habitable planet. But they would also be aware that such a policy would pre-empt the emergence of any other intelligent life forms. Once they had spread throughout the galaxy they would also be in a position to discourage any emergent space voyagers from adopting the traditional space-opera approach to any habitable or inhabited planets which they might encounter.
4. THE ETH
4.1 Naive versions of the ETH
There are several versions of the ETH and most of them are presented in such a manner in the UFO literature as to discourage any serious enquirer from pursuing the matter any further.
There is the straight anthropomorphic version which sees the ETs as being like us mentally, if not physically. These are the kinds of beings who apparently inhabit the imaginations of writers such as Keyhoe and some of the good old-fashioned American organisations. They are so familiar, from UFO literature and science fiction, that no more need be said about them here.
Then there are the aliens of the UFO cultists, which are more difficult to deal with, as one is not sure whether they are supposed to be physical entities or purely spiritual beings, like angel
4.2 Looking at the question from the ET's point of view
It seems to me to be unreasonable to assume that beings who have travelled throughout the galaxy for millions of years would treat a newly discovered planet in the same way that we would undoubtedly be treating, say, Mars if it were found to be inhabited or habitable. They would sometimes find it necessary to control, as well as monitor, the activities of other emergent intelligences, but they would have had plenty of time to evolve methods of exquisite subtlety, so that no creature would be aware of their activities unless they decided to reveal themselves.
As a result of the persistence of UFO reports and speculation about them since 1947, a large proportion of the Earth's population is mentally prepared for the idea of alien contact. It could be argued that the UFO phenomenon has been carefully devised by the ETs in order to prepare us for possible overt contact. It should be possible, by means of a careful study of the pattern of UFO reports, to decide whether or not such an idea should be taken seriously. This possibility has already been discussed - but probably with tongue in cheek - by Vallee. (6)
4.3 A future for the ETH?
There is a clear division between those scientists who are interested in SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and those who are interested in the study of UFO reports. The SETI scientists are apparently quite happy with the alien intelligences, provided that they remain at a safe distance. Scientists interested in the study of UFO reports tend to be more committed to the idea that they are a version of modern folklore. However, folklore is generally concerned with amazing experiences which are supposed to have happened to "a friend of a friend", whereas UFO experiences generally happen to identified individuals.
A revival of the ETH would depend on the bringing together of SETI scientists and "serious" ufologists. A possible meeting point might be achieved by considering the ideas of Michael D. Papagiannis, (7) who has advanced the idea that interstellar visitors to the solar system might use the asteroid belt to obtain raw materials for refuelling and refurbishing their fleets. Such visitors, if they exist, would perhaps also be curious about what is happening on Earth. Further study of such ideas might provide the basis for a fruitful exchange of ideas between ufology and SETI.
If UFO reports have nothing to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, then there is no point in pursuing the subject popularly known as ufology. If some UFO reports, or UFO reports in general are manifestations of alien intelligence, then this fact will be obscured by an exclusively psycho-sociological approach. There is a chance that the revival of the ETH, in a more subtle and sophisticated form, might possibly yield interesting results.
1. Asimov, Isaac. "Extraterrestrial Civilizations", London, Pan Books, 1981
2. Isaacman, Richard and Sagan, Carl. "Computer simulations of planetary accretion dynamics: sensitivity to initial conditions", Icarus, Vol. 3, 1977, pp 510-533
3. Budyko, M.I. "The Earth's Climate: Past and Future", London, Academic Press, 1982
4. Monod, Jacques (trans. Austryn Wainhouse). "Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology", London, Collins
5. Jones, Eric M. "Estimates of expansion time scales", in Hart, Michael and Zuckerman, Ben (eds), "Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?", Pergamon Press, 1982
6. Vallee, Jacques. "UFOs: The Psychic Solution", St Albans, Panther Books, 1982
7. Papagiannis, Michael D. "Colonies in the asteroid belt, or a missing term in the Drake equation", in Hart and Zuckerman, op. cit.