Little Men and Flying Saucers

by Loren Eisley

Today, as never before, the sky is menacing. Things seen indifferently last century by the wandering lamp-lighter now trouble a generation that has grown up to the wail of air-raid sirens and the ominous expectation that the roof may fall at any moment. Even in daytime, reflected light on a floating dandelion seed, or a spider riding a wisp of gossamer in the sun's eye, can bring excited questions from the novice unused to estimating the distance or nature of aerial objects.

Since we now talk, write, and dream endlessly of space rockets, it is no surprise that this thinking yields the obverse of the coin: that the rocket or its equivalent may have come first to us from somewhere "outside." As a youth, I may as well confess, I waited expectantly for it to happen. So deep is the conviction that there must be life out there beyond the dark, one thinks that if they are more advanced than ourselves they may come across space at any moment, perhaps in our generation. Later, contemplating the infinity of time, one wonders if perchance their messages came long ago, hurtling into the swamp muck of the steaming coal forests, the bright projectile clambered over by hissing reptiles, and the delicate instruments running mindlessly down with no report.

Sometimes when young, and fossil hunting in the western Badlands, I had thought it might yet be found, corroding and long dead, in the Tertiary sod that was once green under the rumbling feet of titanotheres. Surely, in the infinite wastes of time, in the lapse of suns and wane of systems, the passage, if it were possible, would have been achieved. But the bright projectile has not been found and now, in sobering middle age, I have long since ceased to look. Moreover, the present theory of the expanding universe has made time, as we know it, no longer infinite. If the entire universe was created in a single explosive instant a few billion years ago, there has not been a sufficient period for all things to occur even behind the star shoals of the outer galaxies. In the light of this fact it is now just conceivable that there may be nowhere in space a mind superior to our own.

If such a mind should exist, there are many reasons why it could not reside in the person of a little man. There is, however, a terrible human fascination about the miniature, and one little man in the hands of the spinner of folk tales can multiply with incredible rapidity. Our unexplainable passion for the small is not quenched at the borders of space, nor, as we shall see, in the spinning rings of the atom. The flying saucer and the much publicized little men from space equate neatly with our own projected dreams.

When I first heard of the little man there was no talk of flying saucers, nor did his owner ascribe to him anything more than an earthly origin. It has been almost a quarter of a century since I encountered him in a bone hunter's camp in the West. A rancher had brought him to us in a box. "I figured you'd maybe know about him," he said. "He'll cost you money, though. There's money in that little man."

"Man ?" we said.

"Man," he countered. "What you'd call a pygmy or a dwarf, but smaller than any show dwarf I ever did see. A mummy, too, a little dead mummy. I figure it was some kind of bein' like us, but little. They put him in the place I found him; maybe it was a thousand years ago. You'll likely know."

Our heads met over the box. The last paper was withdrawn. The creature emerged on the man's palm. I've seen a lot of odd things in the years since, and fakes by the score, but that little fellow gave me the creeps. He might have been two feet high in a standing posture--not more. He was mummified in a crouching position, arms folded. The face with closed eyes seemed vaguely evil. I could have  sworn I was dreaming.

I touched it. There was a peculiar, fleshy consistency about it, still. It was not a dry mummy. It was more like what you would expect a natural cave mummy to be like. It had no tail. I know because I looked. And to this day the little man sits on there, in my brain, and as plain as yesterday I can see the faint half-smirk of his mouth and the tiny black hands at his knees.

 "You can have it for two hundred bucks," said the man.  We glanced at each other, sighed, and shook our heads. "We aren't in the market," we said. "We're collecting, not buying, and we're staying with our bones."

 "Okay," said the man and gave us a straight look, closing his box. "I'm going to the carnival down below tonight. There's money in him. There's money in that little man."

I think it may have been just as well for us that we made no purchase. I have never liked the little man, nor the description of the carnival to which he and his owner were going. It may be, I used to think, that I will yet encounter him before I die, in some little colored tent on a country midway. Once, in the years since, I have heard a description that sounded like him in another guise. It involved a fantastic tale of some Paleozoic beings who hunted among the tree ferns when the world was ruled by croaking amphibians. The story did not impress me; I knew him by then for what he was: an anomalous mummified stillbirth with an undeveloped brain.

I never expected to see him emerge again in books on flying saucers, or to see the "little men" multiply and become so common that columnists would take note of them. Nor, though I should have known better, did I expect to live to hear my little man ascribed an extraplanetary origin. There is a story back of him, it is true, but it is a history of this earth, and, of all unlikely things, it involves that great man of science, Charles Darwin, though by a curious, lengthy, and involved route.

Men have been men for so long that they tend not to question the fact. All their experience tells them that their children will precisely resemble themselves; that kittens will become cats and cats will have kittens, and that even caterpillars, though the pattern seems a little odd, will become butterflies, and butterflies will produce caterpillars. It is so habitual an event that we do not stop to ask why this happens, or to consider that this amazing precision in results implies a strange ordering of life in a world we often think is chanceful and meaningless.

A few wise men since the time of the Greeks have found it a source of wonder, but they have been a minority. Most people have shrugged and spoken indifferently of the gods, or contented themselves, as the Christian world did for so long, with the idea of special creation of each species. Nevertheless, the wise ones kept on wondering.

They found, as they began their first groping attempts to classify and arrange the living world, that in spite of the assumed individual creation of every living species by the supernatural intervention of divine power, a basic similarity of structure existed among many forms of life. This was a remarkable thing to find among supposedly individual creations. Offhand one would say that a much greater degree of spontaneous novelty would have been possible. In fact, man once innocently believed himself part of such a creation. The fabulous animals of the ancient bestiaries, the mermaids, griffins, and centaurs, not to mention the men whose ears were so large that their owners slept in them, would have been the natural, spontaneous products of such uncontrolled, creative whimsy.

But there was the pattern: the ape and the man with their bone-by-bone correspondence. The very fact that one can add a plural to the word reptile and so suggest anything from a brontosaurus to a garter snake shows that a pattern exists. Birds all have feathers, wings, and claws; they are a common class in spite of their diversities. They have been pulled into many shapes, but there is still an eternal "birdliness" about them. They are built on a common plan, just as I share mammalian characters with a small mouse who inhabits my desk drawer. This is hard to account for in a disordered world, so that recently when I came upon this mouse, trapped and terrified in the wastebasket, his similarity to myself rendered me helpless, and out of sheer embarrassment I connived in his escape. 

Now so long as these remarkable patterns could be observed only in the living world around us, they occasioned no great alarm. Even after Cuvier, in 1812, made a magnificent attempt to reduce the forms of animal life to four basic blueprints or "archetypes" of divergent character, no one was particularly disturbed--least of all from the religious point of view. In the words of one great naturalist, Louis Agassiz, "This plan of creation ... has not grown out of the necessary action of physical laws, but was the free conception of the Almighty Intellect, matured in his thought before it was manifested in tangible external forms."

It was not long, however, before pattern, the divine blueprint, first recognized in the existing world, was extended by the geologist across the deeps of time. The animal world of the past was in the process of discovery. It proved to be a world without man. Curiously enough, it was soon learned that extinct animals could be fitted into the broad classifications of the existing world. They were mammals or amphibia or reptiles, as the case might be. Though no living eye had beheld them, they seemed to mark the continuation of the divine abstraction, the eternal patterns, across the enormous time gulfs of the past.

The second fact, that man had not been discovered, was a cause for dismay. In the man-centered universe of the time, one can appreciate the anguish of the Reverend, Mr. Kirby discovering the Age of Reptiles: "Who can think that a being of unbounded power, wisdom, and goodness, should create a world merely for the habitation of a race of monsters, without a single, rational being in it to serve and glorify him ?" This is the wounded outcry of the human ego as it fails to discover its dominance among the beasts of the past. Even more tragically, it learns that the world supposedly made for its enjoyment has existed for untold eons entirely indifferent to its coming. The chill vapors of time and space are beginning to filter under the closed door of the human intellect.

It was in these difficult straits, in the black night of his direst foreboding, that the doctrine of geologic prophecy was evolved by man. For fifty years it would hold time at bay, and in one last great effort its proponents, by clever analogies, would attempt to extend the human drama across the infinite worlds of space; it echoes among us still in the shape of the little men of the flying saucers. No braver mythos was ever devised under the cold eye of science.

In an old book from my shelves, Hugh Miller's The Testimony of the Rocks, I find this passage: "Higher still in one of the deposits of the Trias we are startled by what seems to be the impression of a human hand of an uncouth massive shape, but with the thumb apparently set in opposition, as in man, to the other fingers."

There is only one way to understand this literature. The biologists of the first half of the nineteenth century had recognized that the unity of animal organization descends into past ages and is observable in forms no living eye has beheld. It was, they believed, an immaterial, a supernatural line of connection. They refused to see in this unity of plan an actual physical relationship. Instead they read the past as a successive series of creations and extinctions upon a divinely modifiable but consistent plan. "Geology," said one writer, "unrolls a prophetic scroll, in which the earlier animated creation points on to the later."

In 1726, before the rise  of geological theology, Professor Scheuchzer of Zurich had discovered and described the skeleton of a long extinct amphibian as that of Homo Diluvii testis, "Man, witness of the Rood." The remains, after being piously termed "a rare relic of the accursed race of the primitive world," were found to be those of an animal, and interest in the fossil ceased. With the development of geological prophecy, however, we find this giant salamander reappearing in the writings of that eminent Scotch philosopher, James McCosh. Admitting the true nature of the relic, McCosh, undaunted, contended in 1857: "Long ages had yet to roll on before the consummation of the vertebrate type; the preparations for man's appearance were not yet completed. Nevertheless, in this fossil of Scheuchzer's there was a prefiguration of the more perfect type which man's bony framework presents." Thus the swinging pick of the geologist at work in the world's bone yards did not, at first, disturb the abstract beauty of the Platonic forms. Instead, the recognition of the past enveloped life with a strange premonitory quality, a sense of prophecy and doom as carefully ordered as the movement on some great stage,

It is in the light of this philosophy that the hand, "massive" and of "uncouth shape," must be interpreted. It foreshadows, out of that slimy concourse of sprawling amphibians and gaping lizards, the eventual emergence of man. Splayed, monstrous, and mud-smeared, it haunts the future. That it is the footprint of some wandering reptilian beast of the coal swamps may be granted, but it is also a vertebrate. Its very body forecasts the times to come.

It would be erroneous, however, to conceive of reptiles as being the major preoccupation of our geological prophets. They scanned the anatomy of fishes, birds, and salamanders, seeking in their skeletons anticipations of the more perfect structure of man. If they found footprints of fossil bipeds it was a "sign" foretelling man. All things led in his direction. Prior to his entrance the stage was merely under preparation. In this way the blow to the human ego had been softened. The past was only the prologue to the Great Play. Man was at the heart of things after all.

It was a strange half century, as one looks back upon it--that fifty years before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. It was dominated  by a generation that saw the world as a complex symbolic system pointing in the direction of man, who was foreknown and prefigured from the beginning. Man, who comes last, is the end of this strange cycle. With him, in the eyes of many of these thinkers, the process ceases and no further changes in the world of life are to be expected. Since the transcendental "evolutionists" were man-centered, questions involving divergent evolution and adaptation did not come easily to their minds. Working with an immaterial and abstract Platonic concept, it was inevitable that they should seek to extend their doctrine across the deeps of space. Because the pattern was capable of modification, the possibility of the existence of small men, large men, or men of different colors upon other planets did not trouble them, but men they ought to be. There was little comprehension of the fact that man had acquired his particular bodily structure and upright posture through a peculiar set of evolutionary circumstances, not easily to be duplicated.

The theory of the plurality of worlds is a very ancient one; that is, the notion that the lights seen elsewhere in space may be bodies like that which we inhabit. After the rise of the Copernican astronomy and the growing realization that our earth is part of a planetary system revolving around a central sun, it was often contended by philosophers that the other stars seen in space must be similar suns with similar planetary satellites.

Quarrels arose between those who believed God's power infinitely and creatively extended among the stars, and those who regarded it as heresy and dangerous to Christian belief to imply that the Infinite Mind might be concerned with more than the beings of this planet. It was a struggle heightened by an enormous extension of man's vision into the worlds of the infinitely far and the infinitely small, the telescope and the microscope having momentarily stunned the human imagination. Some clung frantically to the little tight-fenced world of the Middle Ages, refusing to acknowledge what these instruments revealed. Others, with greater willingness to accept the new tried nevertheless to equate what they saw with old beliefs and to elaborate an "astrotheology."

In the fifties of the last century [nineteenth] there was a great outburst of interest in the possibility of life on other worlds. The recently discovered life history of our own planet and improvements in astronomical apparatus had all excited great interests on the part of a public wavering in its loyalty between old religious dogmas and the new revelations of science. Speculation, in many instances, was roaming far in advance of actual observation.

"The inhabitants of Jupiter," wrote William Whewell in I854, "must ... it would seem, be cartilaginous, and glutinous masses. If life be there it does not seem in any way likely that the living things can be anything higher in the scale of being, than such boneless watery, pulpy creatures ..."

 This remark is not intended as merely innocent theorizing. In his work Plurality of Worlds, Whewell indicates his definite opposition to the idea that the other planets, or the more remote worlds in other galaxies, are inhabited. At best he is willing to grant the existence of a few gelatinous creatures such as he mentions in the above passage, but that man is to be found elsewhere, he denies;. He argues that there are superior and inferior regions of space. Man, preceded by endless eons of lower creatures in time, is yet a superior being. He calls attention to the fact that "the intelligent part of creation is thrust into the compass of a few years, in the course of myriads of ages; why not then into the compass of a few miles, in the expanse of systems ?" On this earth a "supernatural interposition" has introduced man; the planet is unique.

Whewell's essay generated a storm of discussion. His was not the popular side of the controversy. Sir David Brewster countered with a volume significantly titled More Worlds Than One, in which he  bluntly asserts: "The function of one satellite must be the function of all the rest. The function of our Moon, to give light to the earth, must be the function of the other twenty-two moons of the system; and the function of the Earth, to support inhabitants, must be the function of all other planets." He dwells on the "grand combination" of "infinity of life, with infinity of matter."

Brewster, moreover, calls attention to the invisible domain revealed by the microscope and argues from this that God has all along been attentive to forms of life of which we had no knowledge. So intriguing became the relativity of size that one author even produced a work whose subtitle bore the query Are Ultimate Atoms lnhabited Worlds? Stories like Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens," or Ray Cummings' "The Girl in the Golden Atom," stem from such thought.

Another writer, William Williams, in The Universe No Desert, the Earth No Monopoly, strikes more directly at the heart of the argument. He invokes geological prophecy and extends it directly across space: "The archetypal idea of man, revealed in the lower vertebrated animals, proves God's foreknowledge of man's existence; and it equally applies to vertebrates on Jupiter or Neptune as to those on the Earth; and still farther, to the Universe, as these animals were within its precincts."

Williams was not the first nor the last man to utter these sentiments, but he did so with a fierce singleness of purpose. The life plans were immanent, prophetic, and  immaterial. They could thus be projected across space. Why, he argues with the same horror that the Reverend Mr. Kirby had exhibited toward the Age of Reptiles, should God "banish his own image to one diminutive enclosure and surround ... the residue of His immense Person with unintelligent, half-formed, crude monsters?" If man is regarded as a good production here, he must be found in endless duplication throughout the worlds. The pattern in the rocks of this earth is the pattern of the whole.

The shattering of this scheme of geological prophecy was the work of many men, but it was Charles Darwin who brought the event to pass, and who engineered what was to be one of the most dreadful blows that the human ego has ever sustained: the demonstration of man's physical relationship to the world of the lower animals. It is quite apparent, however, that there is an aspect of Darwin's discoveries which has never penetrated to the mind of the general public. It is the fact that once undirected variation and natural selection are introduced as the mechanism controlling the development of plants and animals, the evolution of every world in space becomes a series of unique historical events. The precise accidental duplication of a complex form of life is extremely unlikely to occur in even the same environment, let alone in the different background and atmosphere of a far-off world.

In the modern literature on space travel, I have read about cabbage men and bird men; I have investigated the loves of the lizard men and the tree men, but in each case have labored under no illusion. I have been reading about a man, Homo sapiens I that common earthling, clapped into an ill-fitting coat of feathers and retaining all his basic human attributes including an eye for the pretty girl who has just emerged from the space ship. His lechery and miscegenating proclivities have an oddly human ring, and if this is all we are going to find on other planets, I, for one, am going to be content to stay at home. There is quite enough of that sort of thing down here, without encouraging it throughout the starry systems.

The truth is that man is a solitary and peculiar development. I do not mean this in any irreverent or contemptuous sense. I want merely to point out that when Charles Darwin and his colleagues established the community of descent of the living world, and observed the fact of divergent evolutionary adaptation, they destroyed forever the concept of geological prophecy. They did not eliminate the possibility of life on other worlds, but the biological principles which they established have totally removed the likelihood that our descendants, in the next few decades, will be entertaining little men from Mars. I would be much more willing to consider the possibility of sitting down to lunch with a purple polyp, but even this has anatomical comparisons with the life of this planet.

Geologic prophecy was based on two things: first, a belief, as we have seen, in the man-centered nature of the universe, and second, the assumption that since the animals of the past had no physical connection with those of the present, some kind of abstract, immaterial plan in the mind of the Creator linked the forms of the past with those of the present day. The early-nineteenth-century thinkers perceived a genuine relationship, but their attachment to the idea of special creation prevented them from recognizing that the relationship arose out of simple biological "descent with modification." 

Man could not be proved preordained or predestined from the beginning simply because he showed certain affinities to Paleozoic vertebrates. Instead, he was merely one of many descendants of the early vertebrate line. A moose or a mongoose would have had equally good reason to contend that as a modern vertebrate he had been "pre-figured from the beginning," and that the universe had been organized with him in mind.

The situation is something like that of walking through a hall of trick mirrors and being pulled out of shape. The mirror of time does that to all things living, and the distortions stay. Nevertheless, there is a pattern of sorts, so that if you have come by the mirror that makes men, and somewhere behind you there is a mirror that makes black cats, you can still see the pattern. You and the cat are related; the shreds of the original shape are in your bones and the shreds of primordial thought patterns move in the eyes of both of you and are understood by both. But somewhere there must be an original pattern; somewhere cat and man and weasel must leap into a single shape. That shape lies inconceivably remote from us now, far back along the time stream. It is historical. In that sense, and in that sense only, the archetype did indeed exist.

Darwin saw clearly that the succession of life on this planet was not a formal pattern imposed from without, or moving exclusively in one direction. Whatever else life might be, it was adjustable and not fixed. It worked its way through difficult environments. It modified and then, if necessary, it modified again, along roads which would never be retraced. Every creature alive is the product of a unique history. The statistical probability of its precise reduplication on another planet is so small as to be meaningless. Life, even cellular life, may exist out yonder in the dark. But high or low in nature, it will not wear the shape of man. That shape is the evolutionary product of a strange, long wandering through the attics of the forest roof, and so great are the chances of failure, that nothing precisely and identically human is likely ever to come that way again.

The picture of the little man of long ago rises before me as I write. As I have said, he was simply a foetal monster, long since scientifically diagnosed and dismissed. The small skull that lent the illusion of maturity to the mummified infant contained a brain which had failed to develop. The describers of two-foot men forget that a normal human brain cannot function with a capacity, at the very minimum, of less than about nine hundred cubic centimeters. A man with a hundred-cubic-centimeter brain will not be a builder of flying saucers; he will be less intelligent than an ape. In any case, he does not exist.

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet--perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe--the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning, however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and  beyond, there will be none forever.

Excerpt from Loren Eisley's book The Immense Journey (1959)