In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
When I was eleven, we lived in an English Tudor on Bluff Road in Glencoe, Illinois. One day, three strange men (two young, one old) knocked on the door. Their last name was Frank. They said they’d lived in this house before us, not for weeks but decades. For twenty years, this had been their house. They’d grown up here. Though I knew the house was old, it never occurred to me until then that someone else had lived in these rooms, that even my own room was not entirely my own. The youngest of the men, whose room would become mine, showed me the place on a brick wall hidden by ivy where he’d carved his name. “Bobby Frank, 1972.” It had been there all along. And I never even knew it.
That is the condition of the human race: we have woken to life with no idea how we got here, where that is or what happened before. Nor do we think much about it. Not because we are incurious, but because we do not know how much we don’t know.
What is a conspiracy?
It’s a truth that’s been kept from us. It can be a secret but it can also be the answer to a question we’ve not yet asked.
Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, but life has existed on this planet for 3.5 billion. That leaves 3,495,888,000 pre-human years unaccounted for—more than enough time for the rise and fall of not one but several pre-human industrial civilizations. Same screen, different show. Same field, different team. An alien race with alien technology, alien vehicles, alien folklore, and alien fears, beneath the familiar sky. There’d be no evidence of such bygone civilizations, built objects and industry lasting no more than a few hundred thousand years. After a few million, with plate tectonics at work, what is on the surface, including the earth itself, will be at the bottom of the sea and the bottom will have become the mountain peaks. The oldest place on the earth’s surface—a stretch of Israel’s Negev Desert—is just over a million years old, nothing on a geological clock.
The result of this is one of my favorite conspiracy theories, though it’s not a conspiracy in the conventional sense, a conspiracy usually being a secret kept by a nefarious elite. In this case, the secret, which belongs to the earth itself, has been kept from all of humanity, which believes it has done the only real thinking and the only real building on this planet, as it once believed the earth was at the center of the universe.
Called the Silurian Hypothesis, the theory was written in 2018 by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute, and Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. Schmidt had been studying distant planets for hints of climate change, “hyperthermals,” the sort of quick temperature rises that might indicate the moment a civilization industrialized. It would suggest the presence of a species advanced enough to turn on the lights. Such a jump, perhaps resulting from a release of carbon, might be the only evidence that any race, including our own, will leave behind. Not the pyramids, not the skyscrapers, not Styrofoam, not Shakespeare—in the end, we will be known only by a change in the rock that marked the start of the Anthropocene.