A Trope, a Dope, and a Pope: Or, How Ancient Alien Theory Helps Me Think about the Death of Cecil the Lion

by Dusty Katzenmiller

I.

My guilty pleasure is watching Ancient Aliens, the show on the History Channel family of networks that has made popular the theory that Earth was visited by extraterrestrials in the distant past and was given knowledge, guidance, and even life by them. I find it interesting because it displays the innate human desire to believe something. Whether thinking about our species’ origins or our species’ futures, Ancient Aliens asserts that our story is more than meets the eye.

However, I have two big issues with ancient alien theory. First, it creates a Supreme Being that is wholly a projection of ourselves—an idealized self, yes, but, in the end, only a projection of ourselves. A hypothetical alien visitation in the distant past does not require anything from us, nor does it create any ethical imperatives. It only demands that we know about it and carry on living whatever life that we want to project on that alien visitation.

Second, ancient alien theory both demeans past generations of human ingenuity while exulting contemporary humanity as the pinnacle of what’s possible. It demeans past humans by claiming that it would be impossible for them to achieve great architectural feats—for example, the Great Pyramid in Giza or the civilization of Pumapunku. Ancient Aliens suggests that both were built with alien technology simply because our ancestors were not capable of complex thought. (However, in regards to the Great Pyramid, French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin et al. have recently hypothesized that an internal ramp structure and a system of counterweights could have been used to build the pyramid rather efficiently.) Additionally, ancient alien theory assumes that twenty-first-century humans have reached the pinnacle of understanding and are thus able to comprehend alien life. But recent events should give us reason to doubt our having reached the summit.

II.

I rarely watch “the news;” my knowledge of what’s going on “out there” is more or less limited to my Facebook News Feed. Thanks to a cadre of friends who are hard at work seeking justice in Middle Tennessee (and elsewhere), I am usually well informed about the bills that would further criminalize homelessness, the often-unjust policies that are being instituted at local prisons, and the injuries that are wrought at the hands of police officers, for example. One wonders how advanced our ancestors might think we are in light of our proclivity to enslave, oppress, and generally dehumanize our neighbors. Yet we are all-too-often able to notice these injustices, look the other way, and move on.

But there are news stories that can grab our attention and keep it.

They often involve animals.

This week, our News Feeds have been inundated with the news that a beloved Zimbabwean lion was killed at the hands of an alleged poacher from Minnesota. The lion’s name, of course, was Cecil, and he was, of course, beautiful.

I myself love African wildlife. The highlight of any trip to the Nashville Zoo was always getting to see the giraffes walk around, gliding along as they take gracefully long steps. I have never seen a lion in person, but I have a profound admiration for them—perhaps because of the popular imagery of lions and lambs lying down together in peace as a representation of the coming reign of God. At any rate, giraffes, lions, elephants, zebras, they are all beautifully made creatures, but, at least since the Victorians arrived in Africa, they have all been considered as potential trophies roaming around waiting to be stuffed.

Now, I do not want to come across as anti-hunting. As Lee once pointed out in a Tokens Show monologue, the hunter often treats prey with more respect than the technocrats who force livestock to live in near-torturous conditions. In that respect, hunting for respectfully harvested food is a good thing. However, hunting merely for a trophy seems deeply perverse as well as a profound expression of “the throwaway culture.”

Cecil was beautiful. Cecil was lured into the crosshairs of a trophy-seeker. And Cecil, in death, was beheaded and his carcass left in the countryside to be eaten by vultures. Cecil was used and thrown away. Hardly the end this beautiful creature deserved.

III.

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, recalls how “Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He continues, saying, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (1–2). The Pope then goes on to attribute, at least in part, the “use and abuse” of our planet to what he time and again calls “the throwaway culture.” He describes the throwaway culture in paragraph 22 of his encyclical in the following way.

“[Problems like pollution] are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.”

The throwaway culture, in addition to destroying nature, “affects the excluded.” Throughout the encyclical Francis argues for creation-care on the grounds that pollution and consumerism wreak havoc on the poorest persons among us. For example, the Pope writes that “[e]xposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (20); “changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children” (25); and “[o]ur world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30).

Of course, dignity is an important notion for this Pope. All creation has dignity that should be respected, whether human, plant, or animal. Surely the Pope falls within the tradition of Scripture in this way, because Scripture—for example, the Deuteronomic food and jubilee laws—demands that all creation be free from exploitation. The notion of giving a field a jubilee year reminds us that the field is a gift from God, and we are not lords over it. Nor are we to be lords over animals. Nor are we to be lords over our neighbors.

IV.

Yesterday, during lunch, I browsed through Netflix’s library of programming, and it suggested, because I had watched Ancient Aliens, I might like to watch a show called The Inexplicable Universe hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. For those of you who don’t know, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a genius astrophysicist who, crucially, is able to make incredibly complex ideas accessible to the non-scientist. He is also hugely entertaining to listen to. So I selected the show and started watching an episode about the possibility of alien life in the universe. I have remained haunted by the question he closed that episode with, but it requires some set up.

Genetically, according to Tyson, humans and certain species of monkeys share 99% of the same DNA. As far as intelligence goes, we are able to communicate with them through very rudimentary sign language, for example. (Whereas conversation with a dog is one-way conversation.) His point was that we can communicate with beings who share 99% of our DNA at a level of an adult with a small child. That is, the most mature monkey can only communicate at the level of a very young human child. Thus, he suggested, imagine that there are extraterrestrial beings who are only 1% more intelligent than us, drawing on the 1% difference between us and monkeys. Tyson suggested that communication with such beings could be difficult. Our most brilliant might only be at the level of an alien toddler. Such extraterrestrials might assume, as we tend to assume about monkeys, that the beings that share 99% of our stuff are really not intelligent.

And so Tyson ends the episode with the following question, which I paraphrase: suppose aliens have been to Earth and have explored it and have determined that there is no intelligent life on the planet.

An intriguing question. Especially when juxtaposed against the ancient alien theorists' tendency both to project ourselves onto the notion of aliens and to assume that we as a species have reached the pinnacle of intelligence.

Perhaps, in light of Cecil’s death, we might sympathize with an extraterrestrial who assumes us to be unintelligent.

V.

But I want to suggest that Tyson’s words must not be the last words on this subject. When I despair humanity’s tendency to be so habitually inhumane—to fellow humans, to sister Earth, to plants and animals—I remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville revelation.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers....Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

He continues,

“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. ‘There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’”

We are much more than meets the eye—this the ancient alien theorists get right. But we are not more because some ancient advanced human (which is to say a projection of contemporary humanity) flew around to different ancient societies. We are more because we are created in the image of the God who is Trinity. We know God because of the Incarnate Son. We have the “immense joy” of being human, “a race in which God Himself became incarnate.” And we are able to behold the Incarnate Son today though the Eucharist. The Eucharistic feast then can be thought of as the pinnacle of human experience. It is at the Eucharist that we learn to commune with neighbors who have been reconciled to us and to understand that there is no scarcity with God. All come to the table and are fed. There are no trophies, only lives shining like the sun.

Cecil-the-Lion

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.

The views expressed in this alien-inspired essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Tokens Show.