Velikovsky vs. Sagan

Velikovsky vs. Sagan

Recently -- I speak here of the spring of 1995 --I passed a very pleasant afternoon visiting the varied book merchants that are found in your fine city of Palo Alto (You may be delighted to know that in my day, the the price of $200)

Among the items that I was seeking were the works of the late Immanuel Velikovsky, futurist, prophet, mythologist, historian, scientific renegade. At the venerable Bell's Bookstore I was told that there was nothing by that author in stock and that indeed in recent times it was rare for any of that controversial seer's works to remain on the shelf for more than a few days on account of the persistent demand for his writings. Mrs. Bell, proprietress of the establishment, said that in fact she was advertising for Velikovsky's works, so assured was she of quick and profitable sale of any used volumes that might come her way.

Needless to say, more orthodox local bookstores, notably that establishment operated by the university, carried nothing at all of Velikovsky, an omission which is as close to a book ban as the academic conscience allows. Thus the sorry fate of the controversial Worlds in Collision, now almost fifty years after its publication.

More than a decade has now passed since Velikovsky's death, and there may be some among you who do not know of his work. Velikovsky was a Russian emigrant to Palestine, a medical doctor, practitioner of psychoanalysis, who had practiced for some years in Jerusalem before emigrating to the U.S. in 1939. Once in America he developed a middle-aged enthusiasm for science (understandable to me, of course!). His studies led him to conclude that the biblical exodus commonly dated about 3500 years ago was marked by great catastrophes, caused by a major series of interplanetary events that originated with the planet Venus.

Now it happens that one of Velikovsky's earliest admirers and reviewers was a New York Herald Tribune reporter named John O'Neil. O'Neil was science editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and it was he who introduced Velikovsky's proposals in their as-yet unpublished form in a newspaper article written in 1946, four years before the publication of the famous Worlds in Collision.

It would be peevish of me to press a case against Velikovsky, now deceased, for his failure in that book to give due credit to my Ragnorak, a work from which it must be said in truth that he borrowed many of his ideas. The fact that he made only the most dismissive comments on my work ("arbitrary and wrong" was his summary judgement on my assertions on the impact origin of till deposits; geology was not a subject in which the doctor excelled), while borrowing heavily from my work, has been amply recognized by his many critics. The fact is that by the 1880s I myself was impressed by and discussed exactly the biblical quotation in Joshua (falling of stones from heaven, etc.) that is the centerpiece of Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision.

Even Velikovsky's early admirer O'Neil apostatically bridled his enthusiasm when he read my Ragnorak and saw the obvious borrowings; O'Neil even wrote angrily to the publishers of Worlds in Collision of Velikovsky's failure to acknowledge his debt to my work.

But having vented myself on that aspect of the work, let me now return to the public reaction to Worlds in Collision. It would be not an exaggeration to say that it infuriated orthodox scientists, who lashed out at the author's nonconformity in accord with the spirit of intolerance that prevailed in those sorry times -- keep in mind that the year of the nefarious publication of Worlds was 1950, that same year of dangerous triumph for another Irish American midwestern politician, Senator Joseph McCarthy (whose message to the world was, I hasten to point out, quite the opposite in spirit from my own, notwithstanding our common heritage and midwestern upbringing.) It is ironic nonetheless that it was a cadre of Harvard professors, much beleaguered themselves by the witch-hunting McCarthy, who mounted a nefarious campaign against Velikovsky.

I hope I will offend no one here if I suggest that many orthodox academic scientists, several of them from Harvard, made fools of themselves by viciously attacking Velikovsky's intriguing claims, which perhaps were intended more to inspire reverence and thoughtful action than meet the pedantic criteria for scientific acceptability that prevailed in those narrowminded times. I leave it to your contemporary feminists to demolish those outdated narrow positivism! It is nonetheless a remarkable milestone of American intellectual history that MacMillan, the original publisher of Worlds in Collision, felt compelled to abandon publication of this wildly successful best-seller on account of threats of boycott from angry scientists.

Among Velikovsky's principal Harvard critics was the young Carl Sagan, who proceeded to dissect Velikovsky's astronomical arguments with all the painstaking and humorless diligence of a Richard Nixon. Sagan was then in his early twenties; since that time, he has made his excessive critique of Velikovsky an ongoing theme in his writings. Interestingly, Sagan's pronouncements grow ever softer over the years as he re-examines his role as the precocious Harvard boy scorning the writings of a patriarchal sage. This is not the first time such things have happened; didn't meteorologist Alfred Wegener's theories of continental drift draw the scorn of geologists in earlier times? I shall not go on to discuss Galileo and other examples. Of the intolerance of those in power.

Later, Sagan and other establishmentarian scientists congratulated themselves on holding an "open forum" on Velikovsky's work The principal report on this kangaroo court (Scientists Confront Velikovsky, 1977) omits Velikovsky's participation and discussion in the proceedings altogether!

As for Velikovsky's invocation of Venus as the principal villain in his catastrophes -- and this is the point that has drawn so much heated criticism -- it may be easily dropped from his argument leaving a remaining body of work, principally of an interpretive nature, standing. Let is be said further, though few scientists have dared make the obvious connection, that evidence of the most striking kind had recently emerged to support Velikovsky's main conclusion, that the biblical events of the mid-second millennium BC were accompanied by a great physical disaster. The evidence comes from (of all places ) Northern Ireland were dendrochronological studies of buried oaks show that a great coldness occurred in the years 1652 BC

We may find even in the more recent work of Sagan certain echoes of his old nemesis. Here, for example, is a swastika exhumed by Leonard Woolley in his excavations at Ur in the late 1920's. It dates to about 2600 BC. According to Carl Sagan the swastika did not exist before 3000 BC, but appeared more or less simultaneously throughout the world shortly thereafter. Sagan claims that the appearance was too widespread to have resulted from cultural diffusion and suggests that a dramatic appearance of a swastika-shaped meteor may have been the cause, showing examples of illustrations of various celestial bodies that characteristically take on this shape. It is ironic that Sagan invokes a distinctively catastrophic explanation considering his rejections of Velikovsky's theories; perhaps the middle aged Sagan in came to admire Velikovsky's talent for dramatic mythologizing. It often happens that men learn best from those that they criticize in their youth. Certainly the poetic and even moralizing television style ("billions and billions") for which Sagan became later famous was a departure from the cloistered and anonymous clericism of science.

We may now see a distinctive movement toward neocatastrophism. Consider only the writings of British astronomers Victor Clube, and William Napier who describe the growing contrarian view of catastrophism:

We seem to have found, then, the vital element missing from the works of the early Biblical catastrophists - Whiston, Radlof, Donnelly, Velikovsky and the rest - namely, a scientific rationale, a relatively secure astronomical framework. Biblical and geological catastrophism are, after all, inextricably linked. While this clearly justifies an urgent reappraisal of the ancient tales of celestial catastrophe, the new information is extremely awkward for a generation of astronomers who insisted that Velikovsky was no more than an erudite charlatan. Astronomers, indeed scientists generally, like to think of themselves as tolerant judges and very adaptable to fresh discoveries. The evidence in this instance is however mostly the other way. One may therefore expect that in some circles the data now emerging from the Taurid meteor stream will be ignored in the hope that something reassuring will turn up. While this is a time-honoured scholarly ploy for the handling of discordant new facts, there is a moral dimension in this instance: the swarm has teeth. As to how sharp these teeth can be, we shall now see by looking at two impacts which have taken place during the present millennium.

The illustration of the comet Enke is taken from Donnelly's Ragnorak which warns of the potential dangers of this asteroid complex nearly a century ago.

xxx Footnotes

[1] The price of real estate was a matter of continuing interest to Mr. Donnelly, who had staked his early success on the founding of a new city that he called Nininger, Minnesota. Many of these speculative ventures of the nineteenth century were of course spectacular busts; the bayside suburb of San Jose, California known as Alviso, was once billed as the "New Chicago" of California. Leland Stanford's Palo Alto has fared better; the lots selling for $200 in Donnelly's time now cost $400,000, an appreciation factor of 2000, equivalent of an annual appreciation rate of 7.8 percent.

[2] Here I might note that we have one of many instances of Irish-Jewish collaboration that appears in diverse fields; architecture (Louis Sullivan and Alfred Adler) entertainment (Jack Benny and Fred Allen), sociology (Charles Murray and Robert Hernstein), even demagoguery (Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn). These symbiotic relations are often attributed to the culture and politics of New York in the early part of the century (Irish politicians, Jewish gangsters, etc) but I should point out that the collaborative relationship is far more ancient having been mentioned as a founding myth in the Irish Lebor Gabala.

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