Saturday, December 15, 2007

BOOK: J. W. Spencer, "No Earthly Explanation"

John Wallace Spencer: No Earthly Explanation. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. (First ed.: Phillips Publishing Co., 1974.) x + 179 pp.


A few weeks ago I read Spencer's Limbo of the Lost, a book about the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (see my post about it). I thought it was a fairly good book, as far as pro-Triangle books go; Spencer wrote quite soberly, always emphasized the facts and didn't waste much time on discussing silly paranormal theories (unlike e.g. Berlitz in his Bermuda Triangle).

However, Spencer also left no doubt of the fact that he believed that the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle are connected to UFOs. His main idea was that aliens must be regarding humankind as a kind of subject of a scientific study, one that they want to observe but otherwise leave it unaffected. This is why they make no clear and official contact with governments, but on the other hand they do occassionally kidnap a few people and a ship or an airplane for their research purposes.

Of course all of this is perfectly bizarre, but in Limbo of the Lost Spencer mentions it just briefly and very matter-of-factly, as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Anyway, I saw that he later wrote another book, No Earthly Explanation, in which he discusses these UFO theories of his at greater length. After the good experience with Limbo of the Lost, I didn't hesitate to give this other book a try as well.

Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing what sort of yarn he would spin to justify his claims about UFOs and the alien activity, but in this book I found nothing of the kind. It's little more than a mixture of dogma, unsubstantiated claims and irrelevant scientific facts.

One of the strengths of Limbo of the Lost was its emphasis on facts and details about the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle; I was hoping that here he would present notable UFO-related incidents in a similar way, but in fact only the first chapter (pp. 1–38) focuses on these things. And even here I found that the bare relation of facts was just barely enough to keep me interested.

Touched by His Noodly Appendage...

Things take a turn for the worse in the next chapter, where Spencer turns out to be a staunch creationist. He bluntly rejects the theory of evolution in just a few sentences (pp. 40–1), using the sort of half-baked ‘arguments’ that were undoubtedly already laughed at during Darwin's lifetime, let alone now. He describes his position as ‘divine evolution’: “through special creation each species or organism was originally created independently by God. Through the process of evolution, at a specific, proper moment in time, every basic life-form was specially created.” (P. 40.)

“The entire theory [of evolution] is composed mainly of gaps loosely woven by broken sequences. Most scientists are aware [i.e. Spencer is implying that most scientists disagree with the theory of evolution!] that new species of life and nearly all new categories suddenly appear without any lead-up by known gradual evolution.” (P. 40.) “Changes to certain life forms do occur but they never produce new structures such as feathers or horns. Mutations like color, length, and shape have been noted but extra legs, wings, or other structural changes have never been observed. To the best of my knowledge, not one scientist has come forward with fish eggs about to hatch into amphibians; a reptile growing even one feather; an ape or monkey that gave birth to a primitive-type man.” (Pp. 40–1.)

Really, this is so silly, so unsophisticated; I don't really care much for the creationism-vs-evolution debates, but I don't doubt that these things have progressed considerably since e.g. Darwin's time. A kind of evolution works in the sphere of ideas too, after all; under the pressure of the defenders of evolutionary theory, the creationists have been obliged to resort to ever more intricate and subtle (though undoubtedly still just as wrong as ever) arguments. But anyway, what I'm trying to stress is that in Spencer's book there is none of that sophistication; his creationism is just creationism 101, and I do not see how it can hold any interest whatsoever for a present-day reader. But this is not the main reason why this part of the book disappointed me; if I wanted to read good evolution-vs-creationism debates, I would pick up some other book anyway, or maybe I should have gone and read the newsgroup; the big disappointment for me here was the fact that Spencer was a creationist at all. In Limbo of the Lost, as well as in many parts of No Earthly Explanation, he gives the impression of being a reasonable, science-minded person, but here in this chapter he writes like a dogmatic with a downright medievally closed mind.

Hilarity ensues

Unlike some creationists, however, Spencer is not of the ‘young Earth’ type. He agrees that the Earth is approx. five billion years old, and includes a perfectly decent section about “dating techniques” (in geology, not in romance :); pp. 46–47) and an overview of the geological history of the Earth (pp. 48–54, interspersed with passages from the Genesis, selected and arranged so that they seem to agree with the findings of geological science) and the evolution of hominids (pp. 55–60). These last two things contain a few real gems, such as: “Some people believe an absurd story about birds evolving from reptiles, that the earliest type of primitive birds were really flying dinosaurs which throughout the centuries developed feathers./ The major flaw in that theory is that following the appearance of the first birds, the next forty-five million years in the bird's evolutionary process are lost.” (P. 52.)

And: “The highest order of life to develop so far in the animal kingdom is a different tpye of mamal, ‘primates’ that live in trees. Prior to this creature all mammals gave birth to their young through an egg-laying process. Primates are born alive through a structure called the ‘placenta’ and are cared for by the mother until the offspring are strong and wise enough to take care of themselves.” (Pp. 53–4.) In the immortal words of a famous webcomic artist: dear sweet mother of god, noooooo! *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

He cites two anthropologists who say that they have no idea where the Cro-Magnon man came from, and merrily concludes that “with the foregoing factual information provided it is quite obvious that man, alone and unaided, could not have undergone such a transformation, that is, to jump the evolutionary span from late Homo erectus and Neanderthal man to Homo sapiens sapiens. Therefore, the only logical explanation is that beings from some other advanced civilization outside of this world, who had much earlier evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, came to this planet with the sole intent to assist Earth man in compressing the evolutionary scale by millions of years, probably through interbreeding.” (P. 59.)

Oh, yeah. The super-advanced aliens popped into their saucers and travelled billions of miles just to help us lonely benighted earthlings get it on in some hot interplanetary man-on-alien action. Yup. Quite obvious. It doesn't get much more logical as that. “Honey, this is not what it looks like — this lady in my bed is an alien who's come all the way from Planet X495Z27, and we were just compressing the evolutionary scale — why are you getting so worked up over a little thing like that?”

(P.S. Diagonal copulation comes to mind... :])

Yet another ancient astronaut theory

In chapter 3 he suggests that the aliens also influenced the next big step in the progress of humankind, namely the rise of the first civilizations (p. 62). He describes the early history of Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilizations, and falls into the familiar trap of claiming that the Egyptian civilization mysteriously sprung into life fully-formed and advanced (p. 64). How little has changed since the days of Donnelly! Except that he blamed it on Atlantis, and Spencer blames it on the aliens.

Another fine example of the rigorous style of argumentation that is such a strong point of this book: “How could the ancient Chinese discover and develop a medical procedure as complex as Acupuncture without the benefit of a higher education and the research facilities of a medical university. The answer is — they could not; but we know they did... but how?” (P. 70.)

And, on the Indus valley civilization: “They communicated by writing as indicated by a small amount of written material that was found. The strange part is that twentieth century scholars are still unable to decipher their writings.” (P. 70.) Holy fucking shit! How much more obtuse can he pretend to be? He admitted in the previous sentence that the amount of material is small; besides, we know next to nothing about the language, and the closest probably related language that we do know is a distant cousin 2500 years later than the Indus valley culture. It would be strange if the Indus valley writing had been deciphered; that it hasn't been is normal. See the interesting book Lost Languages for more about the decipherment of ancient writing systems.

And the grand finale on p. 71: “Twentieth-century scholars continually uncover evidence that certain people of pre-historic times were taught a high degree of scientific information. This is the only way it could have happened because the people of the day were not capable of the kind of accurate examining and separating of ideas that educated men and women of today possess./ The instructors may have been an inter-stellar team of scientists whose assignment was to provide the necessary information so that civilization on Earth would get underway. The evidence that such information suddenly existed is very impressive and the aliens had to have exercised prehistoric man's intellectual powers beyond his natural abilities.”

It is hard to resist picturing an alien babe from planet X495Z27, curling up with Spencer's book to get a sense of how far humankind has progressed intellectually since the days when they helped us skip a few steps on the evolutionary ladder. On seeing the quality of his arguments, she would probably slap her forehead and think “I slept with Zog the caveman 10000 years ago for *this*?”

Chapter 3 ends with a table of the world's most populous countries, some projections of future population (assuming 2% growth per year: 6,4 billion in 2000, 12 billion in 2073 — IIRC it was a very popular topic in the 1970s), and some Spengleresque remarks about the rise and fall of civilizations.

To bolster his claims that aliens have been involved with humankind since ancient times, Spencer describes some of the usual ancient sites for which it is often claimed that they cannot have been built by ‘primitive’ people: Stonehenge, the Easter Island, Tiahuanaco (p. 78: “High on a plateau, 30,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains of Bolivia” — ROFLMAO!!!!), Silbury Hill.

And on p. 75: “The evidence is very strong that Earth has been visited over many centuries by at least one, technically superior civilization. Engraved marks on bones, designs found in caves, paintings and prehistoric space junk tell us part of the story.” I cannot help being impressed by this casual reference to prehistoric space junk, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world :)

He claims that in a few instances, bones of anatomically modern people have been found in layers more than two million years old. “A logical theory expressed by many scientists is that the remains could be those of extraterrestrial scientific observers, some in family groups, who were stationed on Earth millions of years ago.” (P. 83.) You really can't make this shit up. However, I personally prefer the theory that they were really all just a bunch of hobbits who reached southeast Africa on the run from the witch-king of Angmar...

The Bermuda Triangle

Chapter 5 connects his UFO theories to the Bermuda Triangle, saying that the alien scientists are “sampling” people and their equipment (ships, airplanes) on an occassional basis. Well, at least he took the trouble to explicitly reject the other commonly suggested Bermuda Triangle ‘explanations’ (Cayce-style radiation from the sunken Atlantis; magnetic aberrations; space-time warps; giant waves; giant squid; etc.).

On pp. 98–9 there's an interesting description of a possible UFO sighting by Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II expedition (a bright light on the horizon, acting unusually). I read Heyerdahl's book The Ra Expeditions quite some time ago, and I don't remember whether this sighting is mentioned there or not.

Space Exploration

Much of the second half of the book (chapters 6 through 8) contains information about the universe (especially the Solar system) and about space exploration. In stark contrast to the creationist and UFO bullshit I've mentioned above, these things are quite sober and reality-based. (There are still a few weird passages here; he's quite sure that faster-than-light travel will eventually become possible, p. 114; and he promises to prove that “life on Earth is part of a tremendous universal plan and not just simply the result of a rare disease that attacked only Earth”, p. 127; as far as I can tell, he doesn't prove anything of the sort. On p. 144 he talks of a quasar “some 10-trillion light years away”, but surely if the universe is 13 billion years old, nothing can be more than 26 billion light-years away from us...)

I'm not exactly a space-exploration buff, but these chapters were nevertheless not uninteresting to read. Spencer talks about the various space missions that have been done until then (the Pioneer 10, for example, had just recently passed by Jupiter), and even discusses some of the plans for the near future; for example, the Space Shuttle was just on the drawing boards at the time when he was writing his book (p. 164). It's always interesting to see how people in the past saw the future, especially those parts of the future that have already happened by now. “Man is expected to land on the surface of Mars by 1980. However, a trip of this kind is based on the development of a reusable Space Shuttle [. . .] Between 1980 and 1990 NASA is planning over seven hundred test flights with the Orbiter.” (P. 165. Alas! as we know, the Shuttle program didn't go quite so well as it was originally planned...) Anyway, much of this part of the book is a perfectly decent example of popular-science writing about space exploration, and Spencer doesn't even plug his UFO-related theories all the time.

His sections about the Solar system are also in the same vein; the only exception perhaps is that he devotes an unusual amount of attention to discussions about whether this or that planet or satellite could support life or not. In some instances he seems unreasonably optimistic about the possibilities of life, but I'm not sure if this is because of his pro-UFO bias or because of the fact that much less was known about those planets in 1974 (when he was writing that book) than known now. See esp. p. 131 on Mars.

Still, although these chapters about the Solar system and space exploration are interesting, it isn't particularly clear whether they say anything in support of his idea that technologically advanced aliens are visiting Earth and kidnapping people and their machinery. These latter things he simply asserts (as we saw earlier) and pretends as if there was no need to prove them or even provide some additional arguments in their favour. This was really a disappointment; it's as if he was satisfied with just preaching to the already-converted, and as if he was hoping that, as long as he simply brazens it out, people won't be bothered by the lack of arguments supporting his views.

There's a crazy paragraph on p. 150: “Most all creatures on Earth, with the exception of certain insects, aquatic, amphibian, and microscopic life, are basically the same with respect to anatomy.” [Excellent, he just discarded like 90% of all species in one fell swoop, pretending that it's nothing :))] “To prove my point, allow me to select a cross section from the animal world. On one end of the spectrum take the elephant and giraffe and on the other, man and a Mexican Hairless dog.” [Great, now he implicitly discarded birds and reptiles, and even within the mammalian order he didn't exactly kill himself trying to get a maximally diverse sample...] “With the obvious exceptions all four creatures are basically the same; one head, two eyes, [etc., etc.]” [Hardly surprising after he limited himself to mammals.] “Despite the fact that the various species of earth life evolved independent of each other, the similarity apparently holds true and yet there is no logical scientific earthly explanation.” [Ah, no *earthly* explanation. Uncle Darwin must have been an alien! And Spencer gets bonus points for blithely ignoring the fact that the species he listed very much did *not* evolve independent of each other...] “There is no evidence or logical reason to believe that the inhabitants of any other planet would not resemble earth life. The only difference would be their position in the scientific and technological evolutionary scale.”

Now, don't get me wrong — I think that exobiology is a perfectly worthwhile pursuit, although it belongs perhaps more to speculation than to science; but anyway, to go about it in such a ham-fisted way is simply ridiculous. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if alien life forms did indeed resemble those on the Earth in some ways. The eye, for example, is something that has evolved on Earth several times independently, so it's clearly a very useful thing that could very well evolve elsewhere as well. I'm guessing that a nerve system would be another good candidate.


The book doesn't have any very clear conclusion. The UFO sightings continue, space exploration will also continue, and Spencer clearly hopes that, after all his hand-waving throughout the book, he has managed to get the reader to somehow believe that these two things have got something to do with one another and that the book has managed to prove some sort of point. (But it hasn't.)

What to say at the end? I'm fairly new to the UFO genre, so I can't really judge how this book compares to others in the same genre, but I very much hope that the others are better rather than worse :) Regardless of whether you are a UFO believer or, like me, just read these things for entertainment (and as an alternative kind of science fiction), I can't really recommend you to read this book, except if you don't mind the risk of being disappointed, just like I was.


  • We see that Spencer's theory in this book is a close relative of the ancient astronaut theory. I intend to eventually read a few books by the grand master of the AAT, von Däniken — I hope that they aren't quite as bad as this one. I know, I know — you can't prove a mistaken theory; but at least you could try to put up a decent fight...
  • Spencer mentions Ralph and Judy Blum's book Beyond Earth — Man's Contact with UFOs, which also sounds potentially interesting (p. 107). Apparently it was published by the same company that also published Spencer's books, and of which he was the owner.

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