UFOs, Ghosts, Revolution, Evolution

J. Allen Danelek. UFOs, the Great Debate: An Objective Look at Extraterrestrials, Government Cover-ups and the Prospect of First Contact. Llewellyn Publications, 2008.

For about three quarters of this book, it looked as though, while rather naive in places, it wasn't going to be at all bad. Danelek decides not to regale readers with endless supplies of UFO stories but to try and objectively assess the possibility of the ETH. His main problem here is the non-Darwinian starting point of all such arguments, based on Lamarkian notions of an escalator of life, with some species ‘more advanced’ than others, and the idea that human beings, particularly westerners represent the, at least provisional, summit of evolution on earth. Darwinian evolution sees life not as a tree growing towards some sunlit upland, but as an ever spreading and branching bush. Asking whether a hypothetical ET is ‘more or less advanced’ than humans is like asking whether a giraffe is more or less ‘advanced’ than a ferret, only a good deal sillier.

That being said, Danelek makes some really cogent points about the possible problems that any ETs would face visiting earth, such as the need to have breathing apparatus, and two way protection from pathogens (he might be over cautious here, it is unlikely that truly alien micro-organisms, adapted to their own biosphere and habitat would pose that much of a threat). He also manages to make some really strong arguments against the reality of the Roswell flying saucer crash story, pointing out the retrieval of a genuine ET craft would be a hugely complex and time consuming task, involving detailed site archaeology, and the chances of back-engineering such a device next to zero. He also throws cold water on the idea of a giant cover-up, pointing out how improbable it would be that no senior figure would ever break ranks, or that ETs with the power to travel between the stars would just leave their wreckage to lie behind.

Then suddenly, like falling off a cliff edge, we enter the ufological madhouse again, with the last section of the book arguing that crop circles (yes crop circles folks), cattle mutilations and the Men in Black are all part of some obscure attempt by the ETs to communicate with us as part of the preparation for contact. The general idea of the ‘educational process’ goes back more than forty years, and appears in the writings of such as Frank Edwards. The last part of the book is the author's attempt to guess what ETs think about us. He simply assumes that they share his beliefs, which means they would be rather idealistic American New Agers and not aliens at all.
Definitely a game of two halves!

Mary Bowmaker. Is Anybody There: Ordinary People and True Paranormal Experiences. Counterbede, 2008.

I have remarked that much of the UFO, paranormal and Fortean literature exhibit many of the traits of the old tradition of religious ‘evidences‘, whereby anecdotes were assembled of wondrous experiences, providential rescues, signs and omens, etc. testifying to God's presence in the world.
This book is in the centre of such a tradition. It assembles a range of stories of anomalous personal experiences, providences, coincidences etc., many assembled from the files of the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales, to provide such testimony, and there is material here which would not have been out of place in any seventeenth century work such as those of Glanville and Baxter.

What separates this material from that is not so much what is included, but what is excluded: tales of witchcraft, fairies, ominous spectres, supernatural punishment of sinners and sceptics, and no friends coming back from hell to warn folks off strong beer and loose women.

The naive mixture of ‘Christianity-lite‘, Spiritualism, ‘metaphysical religion‘, New Ageism, Universalism, and old fashioned folk magic presented here has all the hallmarks of a folk religion, adapting to modern multicultural and non-judgmental values as it once adapted to Christianity. By folk religion I do not, of course mean anything at all like any coherent ‘Pagan’ theology, but sets of beliefs and practices centred around the domestic supernatural, the realm of the ancestors, lares daemons and the household gods. It now functions as a kind of prettified, Disneyworld comfort blanket religion, (to modernise Karl Marx), the Prozac of the masses.

Marcus LiBrizzi. Dark Woods, Chill Waters: Ghost Tales from Down East Maine. Down East Books, 2007.

LiBrizzi is a folklorist who teaches English and Cultural Studies at The University of Maine at Machias, and were it not for his youthful appearance on the back cover photo, one might take him for a professor at the Miskatonic University. For this is the folklore of Lovecraft country, and as far away from the psychically-correct ghost stories as one can image. These are ghosts of fogs, ghosts that kill and leave indelible bloodstains on the floor.

Some of the stories might represent traditions which could turn into new Fortean phenomena, such as the tales of the man in black who comes to take away the souls of hospital patients. There are also tales of BOLS, and the strange story of the secular Marian apparition of Nelly Butler. LaBrizzi is apparently writing two books on that apparition, and it would be good to see him invited to speak on it at the next Fortean UnConvention.

LaBrizzi sees the ghost stories as products of the particular landscape and history of the area, and as symbols of the 'tyranny of history', where things refuse to be dead and buried and won't lie down.

Bernard Capp. The Fifth Monarchy Men: a study in Seventeenth Century English Millenarianism. Faber and Faber, 2008.

A welcome reissue of this classic study, first published in 1972, of the radical millenarian, Fifth Monarchist movement at the time of the English Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate. The title came from the Biblical list of the four Monarchies: Babylon, Assyria or Persia, Greece and Rome, and dreams of the coming Fifth Monarchy, the reign of Jesus Christ and his saints. The Fifth Monarchists, members of various Independent churches saw themselves as the above mentioned saints, and destined to rule the rest as Christ's deputies on earth. When this book was first published they were seen as very much as archaic and curious cranks, having no relevance to the modern world, unlike the Levellers who were seen as forerunners to constitutional liberal democrats or the Diggers who were seen as forerunners of socialists.

Today that has changed and we can see the many connections between the theocratic Fifth Monarchists, with their disdain for representative government and popular sovereignty, with latter day Islamic theocracies such as Iran or Afghanistan, and much of the wider Islamicist movement. There are especial parallels with Iran: whereas the Fifth Monarchists saw themselves as holding the fort until the coming of King Jesus, the Iranian clerical regime sees itself holding the fort until the coming of the hidden 12th Imam.

Mark Pallen. The Rough Guide to Evolution. Rough Guides, 2009.

I recommend this excellent introduction to Darwin and evolution to arts graduates who have difficulty understanding the subjects and write damn-fool articles exposing their knowledge base as being way below that of many a 10-year-old dinosaur enthusiast. Giving the background to Darwin's life, his key ideas, subsequent developments and current understanding, this should help their navigation through the field.

There is a curious belief that notions of common descent somehow debase humanity, Darwin saw common descent however as not debasing humanity but elevating animals from being dumb brutes put on earth to serve human needs, but as fellow creatures sharing many of our emotions and sensibilities. The evolutionary vision, confirmed by modern genetic studies, of the close family relationships of all human beings and the kindred of all life on earth is a truly inspiring one.

A rather less emphasised consequence of Darwin's vision of human beings as fully part of the natural world is that all of human culture and products, including the great cities, the cars, aircraft, computers, iPods, the plays of Shakespeare or even the poems of Sylvia Plath are as much a part of the natural world as the birds nest, beehive or beaver's dam, and that absolutely everything is part of the Total Whole (whatever that might turn out to be).

Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, transferred from Magonia Review of Books, 15/1/11

No comments: