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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 3
Velikovsky And The Cosmic Serpent
Velikovsky Becomes RespectableD. C. STOVE
Who is the most important thinker of the present century? Einstein, many would say. I am too ignorant, unfortunately, to judge whether that is true. Change the question a little: which thinker is the most important for the light he has thrown on human and terrestrial affairs? Freud? Wittgenstein? Konrad Lorenz? These answers I can judge, and I do not agree with any of them. My answer is, Immanuel Velikovsky.
This opinion is considered eccentric to the point of being disgraceful, even by some of my own friends. Certainly, most scientists and historians still regard Velikovsky as they regarded him at first: that is, as a crank or a charlatan. He is grouped, in many minds, with Erich von Daniken or with Carlos Castaneda. But this is mere ignorance, or else blindness.
There may, though, be readers of this article who have not heard of Velikovsky; so I will take a paragraph off to brief them. He was the author of a number of books, beginning with Worlds in Collision (1950), of which the fundamental thesis was that the Earth has encountered extra-terrestrial objects with catastrophic effects in historical times. These books sold well, but were greeted with ridicule and contempt by most astronomers, geologists, archeologists, and historians. An account of the theory and its early reception can be found in an article of mine "Velikovsky in Collision" in Quadrant, October/November 1964.* The best way into Velikovsky's own statement of his theory is, not by his big popular books, but by some of his articles, such as "Venus-A Youthful Planet", in Yale Scientific, 1967.** A still better approach would be to start with a book that is not part of his theory at all: his Oedipus and Akhnaton ( 1960, now an Abacus paperback). (After you have finished this, you will say of yourself what Huxley said after reading The Origin of Species: "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"
Right. Now from the start, Velikovsky's books, though officially despised by scientists, provided a rich source for some of them, especially younger ones, to borrow from. Many a decent list of publications, in respectable journals, has been built up in this way; but almost always, of course, without a word of acknowledgement to Velikovsky, since to mention him would be virtually to ensure the rejection of your article. In this anonymous and back-door way, Velikovsky's ideas, and ideas like his, have been steadily gaining in respectability for over thirty years.
This process has reached an unprecedented height in a book recently published. It is The Cosmic Serpent, by V. Clube and B. Napier, Faber and Faber, 1982. The authors are professional astronomers connected with the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. Their book, considered strictly in itself, is by no means a bad one. But the theory it puts forward happens to be essentially Velikovsky's. Not only that, but most of the historical evidence that the authors offer for their theory is simply some warmed-over parts of Velikovsky's evidence.
Of course, their theory is not exactly the same as Velikovsky's. The main extra-terrestrial agent of destruction, according to Velikovsky, was Venus in a pre-planetary state; according to Clube and Napier, it was a certain asteroid-stream. Again, this book contains a lot of the authors' own theories about how and where, in the galaxy, asteroids and/or comets ultimately originate: a subject on which Velikovsky, of course, except in the case of the origin of his comet-Venus, did not touch at all. (Nor do I understand why Clube and Napier bring it in. The question was about recent Earth-history, and the ultimate origin of comets, etc. is not going to help us with that.) But notwithstanding these and other differences, it is absolutely impossible, for any reader of this book who has also read Velikovsky, not to notice the massive debt which it owes to him.
If that was so, these authors must have faced a dire problem: what to do in the way of acknowledging this indebtedness? And if you put yourself in that position, you will soon see that there were only three possible solutions to this problem.
Solution (1): not to mention Velikovsky at all. This is, of course, the maximum-dishonesty solution; though it is only what has been done, in the case of articles, often enough before. True, the authors, if they were to choose this solution, would have had to 'tough it out' when the Velikovsky-ites reacted, as they certainly would, with charges of plagiarism. But then, how many divisions (to paraphrase a famous man) have the Velikovsky-ites got?
Solution (2): to give a footnote reference to Velikovsky every time one was due. This is the maximum-honesty solution, but the drawback with it is obvious. For this way, the pages of the book would be black with expressions of indebtedness to Velikovsky, with the result that the book would probably never be accepted by a respectable publisher; and even if it were, the authors would forfeit their professional respectability by publishing it in this form.
Solution (3): to give just a brief, inconspicuous, once-for-all acknowledgement, conceding as little as possible; indeed, as far as possible, belittling Velikovsky at the same time as it thanks him. This solution has the attractions, of course, of a middle way. The drawback is that it is scarcely possible, on this solution, to avoid inconsistency. You cannot consistently say, in effect, 'We got 90% of the stuff we want you to believe from a source which is tripe.' And in trying to steer the middle course, you are almost certain to get yourself into uncontrollable oscillations.
Clube and Napier were too prudent, I suppose, to choose solution (2); and too honest, or too prudent, to choose solution (1). Anyway, from whatever motives, they in fact chose solution (3).
So what happens is this. Velikovsky gets just a meagre page and a half, and even those of the most grudging and unsatisfactory kind (as we will see in a moment), on pages 256-7 of a book which contains only 275 pages of text altogether, and in which his influence is detectable almost everywhere. This is, apparently, the authors' idea of fair dealing.
The three paragraphs which they do devote to Velikovsky exhibit precisely those oscillations which were to be expected on the solution which the authors chose to the acknowledgement-problem. Let us come to particulars.
They begin (p. 256): "No authors can justifiably make reference to proposals of this kind without mention also of the investigations of Velikovsky." There: that is conceding the indebtedness clearly enough, isn't it? Well, yes; though it is certainly 'putting it mild'.
But indebtedness is then immediately, by implication, denied. For the authors now actually have the nerve to insinuate (twice) that a certain resemblance between their theory and Velikovsky's is merely coincidental! The shortening of Egyptian chronology which Velikovsky's theory requires, is, they say, "not unlike", and is "similar to", the shortening of it which their own theory requires. 'Not unlike'! Why, no, it is not at all unlike. You could even truly say that it is very like. In fact you could truly say as much of the authors' theory as a whole, not just this detail of it. Is this a record, I wonder? Talk about nerves of steel!
Here is another oscillation. The authors concede some merit in Velikovsky: ". . . his work, sound and reasonable though some of it is" (p. 257), etc. But then, his astronomical hypothesis was "quite impossible", and "Velikovsky himself was quite unable to conduct rational and scientific arguments in support of his case."
Now hang on: that statement is surely more than a little surprising. For Velikovsky, as is obvious from the mere existence of this book, was able to conduct rational and scientific arguments well enough to convince these authors themselves of the truth of a theory which, if not exactly his own, was at least (to coin a phrase) 'not unlike' it. How could he possibly be able to do so much, and yet be so completely unable to do even one bit more? Was Velikovsky then, when it came to his Venus-theory though not elsewhere, suddenly an infant or an idiot, quite unable to conduct rational and scientific argument in support of his case? The statement bears falsity on its very face.
But why am I so 'meek and gentle with these butchers'? As the law apparently allows them to publish such language as this about Velikovsky, it will perhaps allow me to say that this statement of theirs is a shameful untruth.
More oscillation. Velikovsky's astronomical theory, you will remember, was "quite impossible" (p. 257, first paragraph). Yet in the very next paragraph we find that the theory has declined into being only "wildly improbable"!
Among Edinburgh lawyers in the 18th century there was a fearsome bore who once, after occupying the court for three days with argument to prove that the charge against his client was impossible, then announced that he would go on to prove that the charge was improbable. An ancestor, perhaps, of one of our Edinburgh astronomers?
But the sad declension does not stop even there. For at the very end of their three paragraphs, the worst that the authors find to say is the following: "The Velikovsky thesis was therefore not so much wrong as hopelessly misguided" (p. 257).
What, not even wildly improbable now? Only 'hopelessly misguided'? In fact, not even 'so much wrong' . . .! This sentence is clearly a further retreat of some kind; but of what kind? What on earth does it mean? The context, despite what the "therefore" suggests, does absolutely nothing to make the sentence any more understandable than it is as it stands here now. Your guess is as good as mine as to what it means.
Of course in a psychological sense I know well enough what it means. It means something like this: 'About Velikovsky, our thoughts are as clear as mud, because our consciences are likewise; but we have got to get this wretched acknowledgement-business finished somehow! '
This book, then, considered as a landmark in the process of getting a rational hearing for Velikovsky, is very much to be welcomed. Considered just in itself, it is (as I said) quite a good book. Considered in relation to the ethics of intellectual life, it is a disgrace to its authors. Clube and Napier, if they had freely and knowingly contracted a debt of a million dollars and were able to repay it, would be ashamed to offer to repay ten cents on the dollar, or to insinuate that their creditor never had the money, or had it only illicitly, in the first place. But they are not ashamed to do the intellectual equivalent.
Velikovskians In CollisionS. V. M. CLUBE AND W. M. NAPIER The Authors' Rejoinder to D. C. Stove
"It should be stated that The Cosmic Serpent is not a straight rewrite of Velikovsky's works. Not by a long way! The whole emphasis and the catastrophic scenario are sufficiently different for the authors to be able to call it their own theory and to present it as novel." It would seem appropriate to mention this assessment by one Bernard Newgrosh in a recent none-too-friendly review of our book on behalf of the pro-Velikovskian journal KRONOS. For, here in the columns of Quadrant (October 1983) in another review, another pro-Velikovskian, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, one D.C. Stove, has ferociously branded us as "butchers" and plagiarisers, apparently because "the theory The Cosmic Serpent (sic) puts forward happens to be essentially Velikovsky's". What is one to make of reports by like-thinking gentlemen who, with equal venom, seek to condemn us, one because our theory is the same as Velikovsky's and the other because it is not? Is The Cosmic Serpent perhaps causing a little confusion in pro-Velikovskian circles?
The issue at stake here is the age-old evidence for comets bombarding the Earth in historical times and its incompatibility with received scientific theory throughout the last 200 years, which happens not to require such events to have taken place. Something of a controversy developed in the 1950s over this issue when the historian Immanuel Velikovsky publicly clashed with the astronomer Harlow Shapley. Both agreed on the incompatibility, so either the evidence or the theory had to go, but neither was willing to budge in the face of the other's argument. The controversy was then fuelled by ignorance of science on the part of historians and by ignorance of history on the part of scientists, but eventually there emerged in the United States what appears to be a cult bent on replacing the scientific establishment and setting up Velikovsky as the fount of all wisdom. Signs of this cult have spread to all quarters of the globe, and from the general tenor of his remarks, it is clear that Professor Stove is one of the faithful.
After so many years, one might have expected some movement towards a settlement of the argument, but the irrational idea that the planets Venus and Mars were errant comets a few thousand years ago has remained peculiarly attractive to the cult, thus apparently keeping the argument alive. All of this is good clean fun but it does mean that any who now enter the field hoping to resolve the issue must expect to meet flak coming from all directions. Stove's unseemly attack on our integrity would appear to be an example of such flak. We have never claimed The Cosmic Serpent solved all the problems of course, but it does present a new and quite revolutionary theme allowing history and science to advance in concert rather than conflict; and it would be a surprise if the issue at stake was now to be obscured by the smoke and sparks emerging from this particular Stove.
At the heart of the matter is the astronomy. Traditionally, the Earth science and historical communities have supposed that affairs on Earth take place on a detached and solitary ball. On this view the Solar System has wandered through the huge galactic wilderness undisturbed, while life has evolved and continents have drifted in isolation. At the other end of the scale it has been assumed that primitive religions with their attendant sky gods have arisen, and pyramids and megaliths have been built, under a neolithic sky no different from our own. The essence of our thesis is that new [sic]* astronomical discoveries make these isolationist and uniformitarian viewpoints impossible to maintain. Almost without exception, these discoveries are the product of very sophisticated technology and have been made only within the past few years: radio telescopes have shown that there is a huge population of massive, dark nebulae which the Sun must run through from time to time as it orbits the Galaxy; wide angle telescopes have revealed that the environment of the Earth is far from empty, and that a substantial collision hazard exists in the form of probably over a thousand kilometre-sized bodies, the so-called Apollo asteroids: on Earth, many ancient and eroded impact craters are being discovered by LANDSAT and other satellites (some of these craters are very large: the Hudson's Bay arc, 180 kilometres across, may be one); and so on.
In 1979, in the pages of Nature, we pointed out that these seemingly unconnected discoveries lead to a coherent and unified theory of terrestrial catastrophism. What happens is that the Solar System, crossing the spiral arms of the Galaxy every 100 million years or so, has a close encounter with one or more of the dark nebulae. Large tidal forces are generated around the Sun. Comets, most of which orbit out to almost interstellar distance, are stripped out of the Solar System and thrown into deep interstellar space. Others are captured into the planetary system from the nebulae themselves, which are comet factories. The effects of such disturbance are felt even on Earth as an episode of bombardment by comets and their degassed remnants, the Apollo asteroids. The consequences of such a bombardment is nothing if not spectacular. In each episode there will be one or two missiles more than 10 kilometres across, coming in at about 25 kilometres a second. A body this size would generate a crater the size of Hudson's Bay arc; send a blast wave round the world sufficient to destroy life over a hemisphere; flatten forests worldwide; throw hot dust and ash into the stratosphere, cutting out sunlight for months in temperate and polar regions; generate earthquakes of huge intensity around the globe; and so on. An ocean impact would create waves five to ten kilometres high with drastic consequences for marine and lowland life. It is such expectations from the astronomy which led us to propose our catastrophist framework for many terrestrial phenomena. Mass extinctions of species, worldwide vulcanisms, magnetically disturbed epochs, probably ice ages and so on, are modulated or caused by these periodic bombardments. Our theory, then, is that the Galaxy controls the Earth, and Earth's history is in large measure a record of that control.
If we look at the rate of impacts and extend it down to small energies, say 100 to 10,000 megatons, some 10 to 100 thousand take place in each 100 million year period and we reach the extraordinary conclusion that several such must have occurred within historical timescales, say within the last 5000 years (a megaton is a convenient unit of energy here: a hydrogen bomb will have an explosion energy typically in the range 1-20 megatons). A close look reveals that many such impacts were probably associated with an exceptionally large disintegrating comet, as brilliant as any planet, in a short-period orbit which frequently took it close to the Earth. It appears that, around 1000 B.C. and earlier, the night sky was indeed far different from that we know now. Each year, possibly twice a year, the Earth would run into the debris strung out along the orbit of the comet and there would be a brief meteor storm of ferocious intensity, the sky being filled with shooting stars and fireballs. Even now seismometers placed on the Moon annually detect a peak in the rate at which boulders crash on to the satellite as the Earth-Moon system runs into the path of the now almost dead Encke's comet. Apparently there was a hierarchy of disintegrations of this remarkable comet, detectable now as a whole complex of debris in the Earth's neighbourhood. All this took place when men in ancient civilisations were building pyramids and megaliths, evolving religions preoccupied with cosmic cycles culminating in catastrophe, and telling stories of gods battling in the skies. It is impossible to believe that such earthbound activities took place without regard to the spectacular celestial fireworks continuing overhead; and we argue that these activities were responses to the fireworks. No small perturbation of existing knowledge is possible: we must re-think our ancient history.
Our theory therefore has profound implications for many disciplines, from galactic astronomy to recent Earth history; and it warns of immediate hazards Out There which mankind has yet to come to terms with. Now the reader may wonder, as do we, what all this has to do with the idea that Venus was a giant comet flung out of Jupiter. Indeed Professor Stove concedes that our theory "is not exactly the same as Velikovsky's" (his italics). Not exactly! Why no, it is not exactly the same. In fact, you could even say that there is very little resemblance at all. Stove has missed the point. For example of our interstellar connection, which is central to the thesis, he writes: "Nor do I understand why Clube and Napier bring it in. The question was one about recent Earthhistory . . ." We can only suggest that he repeats that remark to a comet astronomer, or a geologist trying to come to terms with catastrophism !
Where, of course, we overlap with Velikovsky is in the proposition that a catastrophist interpretation should be put on aspects of early history (we say so, fairly. Incidentally Stove has conveniently overlooked a further favourable discussion by us on pp. 269, 271, and see p.285). Now there is nothing new about catastrophist interpretations of early history and a continuity can be traced back into the mists of time. Velikovsky certainly, who in the 1950s saw in myth stories of Mars and Venus as giant comets flying past the Earth; Bellamy in the 1930s who saw in myth a second Moon spiralling to destruction; Donnelly in the 1880s who saw fire and gravel descend from the skies; Radlof in the 1820s who, 130 years before Velikovsky, saw Venus thrown towards the Earth from a planetary catastrophe, followed by fire and flood on Earth; and there have been others. All due credit to these early writers who saw, however dimly, a record of astronomical catastrophe preserved in ancient legends. But they lacked the astronomical picture and at the end of the day their ideas were absurd.
Our approach has been the reverse: we now have the astronomy; we make broad predictions and look for their fulfilment in the records on Earth. In this light Velikovsky is not so much the first of the new catastrophists, as Stove would like us to believe; he is the last in a line of traditional catastrophists going back to mediaeval times and probably earlier. However, part of the folklore of the cult is that the scientific community pores over Velikovsky's works looking for juicy bits to steal (the 'creeping respectability' tenet). It would therefore be futile to point out to Stove that our historical study has been based on modern analysts, who are quoted throughout; that myth has been documented and analyzed in hundreds of books and journals; that until recently Hesiod was someone every schoolboy knew about; and that the Bible is freely available in the city of John Knox.
Evaluation of Velikovsky's place in the present century can only be delayed by the nonsense many of his students promulgate. Meantime, a great deal of interdisciplinary work will be required to unravel the connections between the complex history of Encke's comet and the rich tapestry of ancient catastrophist stories (for example there has probably been wholesale mistranslatiori of words like Jupiter and Venus in cuneiform texts). A scientific and rational discussion of the issues has become possible for the first time. Nor is such discussion a matter of purely academic interest: we need think only of the effects of a thousand megaton impact on a modern society. We need all the information we can get and can no longer responsibly sit in departments of philosophy weaving dreams which ignore a large body of very hard astronomical evidence.
Professor Stove, a door has been opened. Dare you enter it?
D. C. Stove: A Rejoinder
What I complained of was this: while Clube and Napier's book owes an immense debt to Velikovsky, it does not make anything like an adequate acknowledgement of this debt.
In their response there is hardly anything which is even relevant to this complaint. I can therefore be brief in reply. (Most of their response is in fact just a precis of their book, and consequently is impertinent in both senses of the word.)
I said that Velikovsky got from them "just a meagre page and a half, and even those of the most grudging and unsatisfactory kind . . . on pages 256-7 of a book which contains only 275 pages of text altogether, and in which his influence is detectable almost everywhere". Clube and Napier object that I "conveniently overlooked a further favourable discussion by us on pp. 269, 271 and see p.285".
I overlooked none of these pages. The favourable reference to Velikovsky on p.269 is so brief and slight that it simply was not, and is not, worth mentioning as an additional acknowledgement. As to p.285, the only reference to Velikovsky there happens to be an unfavourable one! And p. 271 contains no reference at all to Velikovsky!! (Perhaps they meant p.273, although that is not a favourable reference either.) These authors, evidently, cannot even keep track of their own - admittedly somewhat serpentine - business.
Clube and Napier mention here, as they did in their book, various catastrophists before Velikovsky: their object being to suggest that they could have got their main ideas from someone else. But they do not mention any earlier writer whose theory is anywhere near as like their theory as Velikovsky's is. They do not, because they cannot: for there is no such person.
But even allowing that they might have got their main ideas from someone else, there would still be the question, did they? And I cannot emphasise too strongly that there is no need for detailed scholarship of any kind, or even for any argument, in order to answer this question. No one can have the slightest doubt about the answer to it, once he has read both Velikovsky and The Cosmic Serpent: especially, as I implied before, the historical chapters of the latter. The case is about as recherche, in fact, as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
* * *
In their rejoinder to Stove, Clube and Napier have now added insult to injury. Among other things, their lack of candor is most blatant when, for example, they quote Bernard Newgrosh. If one turns to the pages of KRONOS VIII:4, we find in the section immediately preceding the one they quoted from - the following: " . . . the ingredients of this 'most extraordinary' book [The Cosmic Serpent] contain most (but not all) of the major themes of Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, and Earth in Upheaval. However, the reader will be disappointed if he looks for the tribute that is due Velikovsky. Instead, Velikovsky's credit is limited to his having drawn attention to the parallels between the Exodus and the 'Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage' (to give it its correct title) and 'their implications so far as a catastrophic extra-terrestrial missile and ancient chronology were concerned'. Parts of the Ages in Chaos theses are also accepted, in particular the parallel Velikovsky drew between Hatshepsut and the Queen of Sheba. Beyond this they are niggardly in acknowledging their debt to Velikovsky" (pp. 62-63, emphasis added).
Thus, in response to their question-"Is The Cosmic Serpent perhaps causing a little confusion in pro-Velikovskian circles?"-the answer is a resounding "NO!".
To the knowledgeable reader, acquainted with both Velikovsky's work and The Cosmic Serpent, the derivative nature of the latter is embarrassingly obvious. Indeed, this may be a key reason for its being ignored by "Orthodoxy" and "Velikovskians" alike. The authors of The Cosmic Serpent are like a pair of travelers who wish to take credit for clearing a pathway - painstakingly opened by another - just by virtue of the fact that they have decided to tread that selfsame path themselves while decrying various potholes they imagine to be there and attribute to the shortcomings of its pioneer's toil. The laughable endorsement by Patrick Moore on the jacket cover of The Cosmic Serpent only serves to emphasize the "schizophrenic" attitude of the scientific community towards catastrophism in general and Velikovsky in particular.
Finally, as an aside, it should be noted that Clube and Napier's familiarity with Worlds in Collision has nothing to do with accuracy. In fact, in the above exchange with Stove, they twice referred to Velikovsky's "irrational idea that the planets Venus and Mars were errant [or giant] comets", thereby putting themselves in the same company as J. Derral Mulholland for non-precision.
One might also conclude by asking: Where in The Cosmic Serpent is credit given to Donnelly or Radlof? - additional names now paraded forth by Clube and Napier.
A door has indeed been opened. But Clube and Napier are far behind those who have already entered it.