Immanuel Velikovsky and “Pseudoscience”

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Immanuel Velikovsky had a best-seller with Worlds in Collision in 1950, made even more popular because a number of scientists denounced it, even before it had been published, and often without reading it. That seems like a strange way for scientists to behave. In most cases, if a theory is obviously foolish, scientists merely ignore it. In this case, Velikovsky’s theory was at least superficially plausible, and was based on a fascinating idea: that Venus had originally been explosively emitted from Jupiter, becoming a comet, had wandered the solar system, and had come close to earth, causing the plagues associated with the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. People still find the Bible fascinating and mysterious, and something that will explain its mysteries can sell.

So why did scientists object? One reason, according to the author, Michael Gortin in Pseudoscience Wars, was because of the example of Lysenko, in Soviet Russia. Lysenko was a biologist who believed that plants could be induced to reproduce acquired characteristics, which went against the genetic theory of Gregor Mendel. This was, however, before the discovery of DNA and its structure, and now it might be possible, through transplantation of genes, to produce vegetables, animals or humans with characteristics they might not otherwise have. But such manipulation of species as could be done then had been done strictly through breeding: reinforcing the desired characteristics while discouraging the undesired. Adding characteristics not previously even potential was impossible.

What American and British scientists worried about was that Stalin liked Lysenko’s ideas, and made him a powerful man, at least potentially steering biological research into a blind alley. These scientist were just beginning to realize the extent to which politics had entered into science, which could produce unprecendentedly powerful weapons, among other things, and feared that politics would prevent them from doing the kind of research they wanted, though at the same time they needed governmental support to do ever more expensive experiments.

That seems plausible, as far as it goes, though I’m not sure it entirely explains the horror with which Velikovsky’s theories were greeted. In any case, Velikovsky had his best-seller (though his publisher, which published a lot of scientific textbooks) found it necessary to transfer his book to another publisher. What he didn’t have was scientific acceptance of his theory, to which he had become very attached. He spent the rest of his life fighting for scientific respect, unsuccessfully.

The rest of the book chronicles that struggle, along with Velikovsky’s relationship with his followers. He had the common experience of the charismatic leader who attracts followers, but then has to protect his message from heretics. Here he ironically recapitulated the behavior of scientists to his own work: to keep his message on the track he wanted he had to “excommunicate” followers who wanted to take it somewhere else. That part of the whole process is familiar and boring, so I didn’t finish reading the book. Much more interesting to me was where Velikovsky’s theory came from.

It seems that Velikovsky’s theory had an agenda. He was Jewish, and was deeply attached to the Old Testament, whether or not he was religiously observant (I don’t recall). Despite having become a psychiatrist (though he was also quite well educated in history, languages and science as well), he was greatly disturbed by Freud’s book, Moses and Monotheism. Freud’s theory was that Moses was Egyptian, and a follower of Aton, the God publicized by the Pharaoh Akhenaton, as far as we know the first person to declare monotheism. According to Freud, Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, but was so strict that the Israelites rebelled and killed him. Thus the whole structure of Judaism was a kind of coverup of this crime.

This theory, of course, was Freud’s Oedipus Complex writ large, and while he was not wrong in his perception of the reality of the complex, it’s questionable that it’s practically the only driving force in the human experience, as Freud seemed to believe. It’s also true that Moses was an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one, so his being Egyptian is plausible, if unproven. The rest, since I haven’t read Freud’s book, seems speculative to me.

The same is true of Velikovsky’s first book (he wrote others, which I’ll address further on). One of the incidents he believed had actually happened was the sun apparently standing still, as related in the Book of Joshua. He looked through other mythologies of the world to see if they recorded such a thing at that time, and felt he’d found confirmation in them. But the only way the sun could appear to stand still is if the earth’s  rotation were drastically slowed, and such is the force of that rotation that it seems very likely that anything that could so slow it would also cause widespread destruction, like earthquakes, volcanoes and storms. A body as big as Venus could, I suppose, potentially do it, but if it got too close, probably both it and the earth would be split into pieces from tidal strains. So that incident seems unlikely.

Venus being ejected from Jupiter recapitulates the story of the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head. This, according to Robert Graves, was in fact a propaganda story, attributing the birth of a goddess from a Father instead of a Mother. There were, of course, many other goddesses (though they all had the same basic identity) with many other names, and many other accounts of their birth. Venus being ejected from Jupiter seems too pat.

Velikovsky wanted to disassociate Moses from Akhenaton, so he tried a different strategy as well. He claimed that ancient history had been mistakenly dated, that the period when the Hyksos had taken over Egypt (some had suggested the Hebrews might have been part of the Hyksos) had been much longer than usually thought, and that the Hyksos had been the Amalekites, who were entering Egypt just as the Israelites were leaving, so that the two groups fought before going on in their separate directions. Velikovsky has King Saul of Israel later fighting to help expel the Hyksos, which also seems unlikely, as Israel was hardly a powerful kingdom at the time, but one that was trying to establish itself.

As a corollary of that theory, Velikovsky thinks Akhnaton lived much later than he is usually dated, in the 8th or 9th centuries BC, and was the original for the legend of Oedipus. Thus he discredits Akhenaton and distances him from Moses. His reconstruction is certainly interesting, and has its poignant moments, but Velikovsky was never able to complete a timeline that could be reconciled with the timeline that had been established over the previous two centuries, more or less, as it became harder and harder to reconcile the closer he got to more recent periods for which we have more reliable data.

He was on more solid ground with Earth in Upheaval. Here he lets the data speak for itself. There’s a cave in England with many remains of hippopotami, for instance. Unless the climate  was much different when they came to rest there (I believe they’re dated to about the end of the last ice age), which doesn’t seem to be the case, there’s the question of how they got there. Charles Lyell, who promoted the idea of uniformity of the earth’s development in the 19th century (and influenced Charles Darwin) suggested that hippos used to go vacationing in England, though nobody seems to have noticed them doing so since.

There’s much other such evidence, whether presented by Velikovsky or others. Velikovsky notes a number of sites in which the remains of both arctic and tropical animals are mixed. It’s hard to see how this could happen, except through an immense flood, unless someone went to the trouble of deliberately faking such a site. Velikovsky also mentions boulders sitting in areas completely unrelated to them. There have also been fossils of sea life found high in the Himalayas, indicating where that part of the land once lay. And on an island off the northern coast of Siberia has been found the remains of a fruit tree that grew to be about 80 feet tall. Vegetable life there now grows only an inch or so high.

Science has come around to accepting that this planet has endured many catastrophes. It’s now frequently accepted that the dinosaurs died because an asteroid landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mexican coast. This caused a gigantic explosion, and put so much dust into the air that the climate changed drastically. So catastrophic it seems to have been that you wonder how ANY plant or animal life could have survived.

Whether Velikovsky was right or not, his work has led to some interesting speculations. One observation possibly providing evidence for the planets having previously been closer together is that the planet Mars has been identified with war by most mythologies of the past. Mars has an immense canyon in its northern hemisphere, which would look like the kind of scar a warrior might have. We can’t see that with our naked eyes, but maybe our remote ancestors could.

Jupiter has usually been identified with the king of the gods, and lightning has always been said to be his weapon. Perhaps immense lightning bolts once flashed between the planets. One observer says that the vast canyon on Mars, mentioned above, looks to have been caused by electrical phenomena on a vast scale.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that our distant ancestors had more acute perceptions than we have, that they could see further, and even see the stars and planets in the daytime sky. We don’t know which of these theories is true, but both are interesting.

Velikovsky’s theories never were accepted by scientists in general, and while a lot of work went into them, they don’t seem to have enough rigorous knowledge about how the solar system works to be considered accurate.

I wish, though, that Gortin had written more about Wilhelm Reich, whose work was also proclaimed pseudoscience at about the same time. Reich was another psychiatrist turned to other sciences. He was at least as brilliant as Velikovsky was, but since his work involved sexuality it was also more threatening to more people than that of Velikovsky. I can’t say if Reich’s theories are more accurate than Velikovsky’s, but I remember reading a memoir by Reich’s son in which a lot of strange phenomena happened. One of my friends knew Peter Reich somewhat, and talked to him about his book, commenting on how many strange occurrences there were in it. As I recall, Peter Reich responded that he’d left out some of the strangest. That seems to me to suggest that Wilhelm Reich had been on to something.

And that suggests that not all “pseudoscience” is nonsense.

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