People of a Different Shape

Peter Rogerson
Magonia, 17, October 1984.

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.
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!

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 two billion years of common evolution (and evolutionary divergence of only some seventy 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 Library.
  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 added the following comments for the first on-line publication of this article in 1999:

After 15 years I am still trying to get supporters of the ETH to address some of the points made in this article. The silence has been deafening. If anything I am now more sceptical of the ETH than I was then. I don’t think I had fully taken on board the role of evolution.
Contrary to what ETH/ SETI enthusiasts seem to believe, there is no directional force in evolution pushing towards us. Evolution occurs in response to short term events, changes in environment, random mutation and the affects of natural selection on slight variations in population. It is a huge bush, not an escalator. The moment you try to really think about it, just how likely is it that entities which would be vastly more genetically different from us than sea slugs, slime mold, bananas and yeast would share our hopes, dreams, concerns and technological visions. Get real folks.