Alien Evolution

Jack Cohen and lan Stewart. Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life. Ebury Press, 2002.

Cohen, a biologist and Stewart, a mathematician, are science fiction fans who have made a hobby of doing the science for a number of leading SF writers. In this book they combine science and science fiction to challenge the view, expressed in Ward and Brownlees Rare Earth, that complex life will be a very scarce phenomena They argue that Ward and Brownlee's arguments arc too parochial and have been in part falsified by the discovery of life in extreme environments here on earth.

They think the same goes for much standard astrobiology, which presumes that life must be like life on earth, or rather what we imagine life on earth to be like in oversimplified accounts. They propose a much more radical approach of xenoscience and xenobiology. This 'life' may be much more alien than anything we can imagine (nuclear life on neutron stars, or plasma life in the Sun's photosphere).

One thing we can be certain of is that no real aliens will be bipedal humanoids or anything else related to terrestrial organisms. They suggest some features which have evolved many times over on earth might be more universal (flight of some kind for example) This doesn't mean this will be the only kind of life out there, . merely that it might reoccur in quite a number of different places.

What most writers call intelligence Cohen and Stewart call extelligence, a shorthand for . cultural intelligence mediated by complex 'language' capable of transmitting highly abstract 'ideas' and information, and of preserving this outside the bodies of particular individuals. They seem to be willing to entertain the idea that this extelligence may be widespread and perhaps a universal development, but have to concede that of all the millions (or perhaps billions) of species that have evolved on earth, only one, ours has produced this extelligence. It has to be faced that only one terrestrial culture went through an industrial revolution and developed heavy industry of the sort needed to build radio telescopes and spaceships.

Even without this argument Cohen and Stewart reject ufologists images of the ETH. If ETs are present in our environment it will not be as biological entities, but as some form of 'technology' so subtle that we could never detect. The aliens of ufology, like those of Star Trek, etc. are essentially cultural icons, secularised forms of the creatures of folklore and myth.

As to whether Cohen and Stewart, or Ward and Brownlee are right, who knows at this juncture. If we encounter the truly alien in the oceans of Europa then put your bets on Cohen and Stewart, if all we find is nothing or just terrestrial type organisms courtesy of some passing meteorite. then go for Ward and Brownlee. But forget the Greys and their breeding programme (of course if we are wrong and the Greys actually exist then we know that they aren't ETs at all, but some other terrestrial creature we have somehow overlooked perhaps descended from some as yet undiscovered branch of the hominid bush) -- Peter Rogerson

The Blame Game

Leslie G Howarth. If in Doubt, Blame the Aliens: A New Scientific Analysis of UFO Sightings, Alleged Alien Abductions, Animal Mutations and Crop Circles. Writer's Showcase, 2000.

In this self published book, Howarth, an industrial chemist with a Ph.D. in dental ceramics etc, tries what he imagines is a scientific approach to ufology. This involves a statistical treatment of a mass of reports dredged up from a data base, in this case a ufological CD-ROM. This is not new, it was very much the fashion in the 1960s and early 70s, but with much more sophistication than is shown here. The technique used is something called Kepner-Tregoe analysis; and either Howarth is totally misusing it, or the whole technique is just another piece of management pseudoscience. Needless to say all the judgments used are purely subjective.

He compares various 'explanations' of UFO reports with what he believes the evidence shows. As the evidence consists of a biased database, and the versions of UFO stories found in popular literature, it is flawed from the start. Explanations such as aircraft, astronomical objects etc are taken in isolation, as if anyone thought that each individual explanation accounted for all UFO reports. UFO reports are generated by very many different stimuli.

The result, surprise surprise, is that UFO reports are likely to be generated by alien activity. This is achieved by purely subjective reasoning. For example Howarth claims UFO events don't take place in the rain (not true actually), but on this premise he rules out aircraft and stars and planets as not fitting. Excuse me, but isn't it obvious that people will see more things in the sky (whether stars, meteors, aircraft, or alien UFOs for that matter) in clear weather rather than when it's wet and overcast?

One genuine thing of interest that he notes is the great scarcity of UFO reports from the Indian subcontinent, which is quite puzzling given the vigorous English language press, and extensive family contacts with the West. This points to a psychosocial explanation, in which the sort of experiences which give rise to UFO reports in the West do not exist, or are interpreted differently Hindu or Islamic culture. -- Peter Rogerson. From Magonia 80, March 2003

Voices of the Rocks

Robert M. Schoch and Robert Aquinas McNally. Voices of the Rocks: Lost Civilisations and the Catastrophes which Destroyed Them, Thorsons, 2000.

This book seems to be on a winner in that it links two very lucrative contemporary themes, apocalyptic speculation surrounding "killer asteroids" and heterodox archaeology, centred around our old friend Egypt.
Schoch's main thesis, that the Sphinx is much older than conventional archaeologists believe, is an example of what might be called a medium-rank anomaly. If true it would not challenge any fundamental scientific principle. After all, the people of 10,000 years ago were just as intelligent as ourselves, and Schoch is not evoking any paranormal magical technology, ancient astronauts and the like; on the other hand it is just about surprising enough for the scholarly community to demand really good evidence before they would so drastically revise their chronologies, and it is not at all clear that he has assembled such overwhelming evidence as yet.

At times, I got the feeling that Schoch, a geologist, doesn't quite grasp the passions and furies which drive history. At one point he argues that the conventional view that the mass burnings of many ancient Mediterranean cities were the result of war, invasion and rebellion, must be wrong, because why would rational invaders burn cities that they would want to use and exploit? Well, because invaders and revolutionaries are not usually rational; cities were burned and their inhabitants massacred out of pure ethnic or class hatred, and certainly many peasants did not want to live in the cities; they saw them as sinks of iniquity and vampiric tax gatherers, to be wiped off the face of the earth, not occupied.

The belief that destruction comes from the skies, and not from ourselves is a comforting one, but the other thesis, which challenges the notion of sustained, fast, single-track progress is less so. The notion that many times in, say, the last 30,000 years cultures have risen and fallen, most usually to peasant Jacqueries, of which Kampuchea and Rwanda were but the most recent, is pretty scary, evoking the possibility that ours might just go the same way, and the future might not be the Universal Denmark, but the Universal Somalia. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 31, September 2000.

Seeing Things

Donald D. Hoffman. Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. W. W. Norton, 1998.

When sceptical writers in the fields covered by Magonia suggest that some ostensible anomalous personal experiences are generated by radical misperceptions, the response is often hostile, with the implication that the sceptics are making vicious personal attacks on the witnesses. One of the main reasons for this attitude is that many investigators have a naïve view of perception as a sort of passive video recording of the external world.

They would be well advised to read this book, in which Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, philosophy and computer science argues persuasively that far from passively recording the visual world, the eye and brain actively construct every element of our visual experience. Hoffman builds up his case using as evidence both optical illusions and the often strange distortions introduced by brain damage. He suggests various rules which underlie the construction of perception and how these produce various optical illusions. These rules allow the brain the order the patterns of light and shade falling onto the retina into discrete objects, and compose them into a real world.

As a philosopher Hoffman doesn't stop there, more controversially he argues we do not know if the 'real' world, which he calls the relational world is at all like the phenomenal world, It may well be so, but. it is equally possible, he argues, using computer generated virtual reality, that this relational world is very different from the phenomenal world of our perceptions. Fascinating and not too technical, recommended to all field investigators. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 68, September 1999.

Raising the Dead

Bart Simon. Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion. Rutgers University Press, 2002.

In March 1989, two University of Utah-based chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, claimed to have discovered an extraordinary anomaly: an electrochemical process which produced more energy than was put into it. They argued that this was caused by cold (i.e. room temperature) nuclear fusion, which opened up vistas of cheap energy. However by the end of 1990 cold fusion was effectively dead and buried, attempts at replication having largely failed.

But as Simon shows, research continues into cold fusion in a kind of scientific half-life. Cold fusion is an undead science, a thing which won't lie down, and which continues to haunt the liminal fringes of academe. He argues that this cold fusion research cannot be thought of as really live science, for after all it was dead and buried back in 1990 and Simon is not disputing that fact at all. But nor is it really dead, people are still performing experiments.

While, if they are like me, Magonia readers are probably not likely to want to wade through pages of often excruciatingly technical detail in this book, the broad argument is one which should be of interest, and the analogies with psychical research should be apparent. Here too we have a topic officially pronounced dead by the scientific establishment, where people on the fringes continue to do research. Ufology on the other hand is perhaps more like an aborted foetus of a science but one still capable of doing some quite good haunting.

This of course leads to the question as to how such ghostly sciences fit into the general theory of ghosts and haunting which involves the fragmentation of the narrative of personal experience under the impact of unassimilable fragments of 'history', which can only be contained within the contours of a pastiche of folk drama which contains the resulting breach within a cell of metaphors. If this applies to cold fusion, then cold fusion and its research is a metaphor for something else which cannot be spoken of, a breach in the edifice of capitalist economics perhaps, or the dangerous notion of liberation from living by the sweat of the brow as symbolized by "free energy". -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 84, March 2004.