Parallelomania, Bad Scholarship, and Fake History

There are pyramids in Egypt.  Indeed if we know anything about Egypt, we know it has pyramids.  Almost as well-known are the massive pyramids of Mexico.  This tells a certain sort of person that the two are connected!  Either the Mexicans travelled to Egypt, or the Egyptians sailed to Mexico, or … inevitably … a now vanished continent in mid-Atlantic held a civilisation notable for its pyramids.  This Atlantis would, of course, have a high technology.  Inevitably spacefaring aliens must be involved.  It is easy to find examples online.[1]

All of this is twaddle, based on nothing more than a vague perception of similarity.  If we look at the details, the two sorts of pyramids are different in almost every way beyond the general shape.  The Mexican pyramids are temples, while those of Egypt are tombs, and so on.  But our friend is not influenced by this.  “They’re both pyramids,” he will cry, and no amount of information will shake his conviction that the two “must” be connected.  The lack of any evidence will be met with reiteration, elaboration and rhetoric.

In a way he is right.  There is a connection.  But the connection is human nature plus gravity.  Human beings find it convenient to build stuff out of square blocks.  They also find it convenient to pile up building materials.  Because of gravity these piles will always tend to a pyramidal shape.  There is no need for any more complex explanation.

This type of mad argument from a “parallel” has been named “parallelomania”.  Broadly it states that if this looks like that, then this IS that, and that this, if later, is copied from that, or otherwise connected directly to it.

Obviously this is bunk.  The similarities are often trivial.  Often they are very selectively chosen!  Two things may have certain similarities, arising quite independently, because of human nature. And even if two things are indeed similar, this is no evidence of connection or derivation, unless the parallel is nearly unique.  It’s a false way to argue.

For instance, some parallelomaniacs like to claim that the Christian communion meal “must” be the same as pagan ritual meals. A few days ago one of them kindly informed me that Christmas “must” be borrowed from paganism because Christmas involves a big meal and ancient events like Saturnalia – they thought – did also.

The parallelomaniac will never reflect that human beings will naturally come together for a meal while doing something else, without any need to copy the idea from others.  I wonder if they could be convinced that the modern business breakfast is copied from communion?  Or the other way around?  But of course these “parallels” are deployed only selectively, and for convenience.

Indeed nothing is funnier than watching a parallelomaniac trying to force the facts into a parallel in which they will not fit.  He may start with “Christmas is a stolen pagan holiday.  Jesus was not born on 25 Dec.”  If you call his attention to the fact that in 336, when Christmas is first recorded, there is no record of any Roman holiday, he will merely respond with “around the time of the solstice”; for thereby he can introduce Saturnalia!  If you point out that Saturnalia was not a solstice festival, because it was originally one day, on December 17, he will engage in further slipperiness.  Christmas must be “stolen” from Saturnalia.  And from “Yule”.  If you a little cynical, and ask our friend to tell us whether Yule is stolen from Saturnalia, or the other way around, on the same grounds, then you will get no answer.  That isn’t the point, you see.

It is easy to laugh at such antics.  Most parallelomaniacs are lacking in education, and not a few are lacking in good faith either.  But many are perfectly sincere, especially on things like pyramids, and simply lacking the education that we are lucky enough to possess.  We need not always presume bad faith.

As a method, parallelomania is a subset of the general way in which fake history deals with historical data.  This is:

  1. Selection.  Only those bits of data that fit the argument will be used.
  2. Omission.  Those bits that don’t will be discarded.  Arguments will be found to ignore them.
  3. Misrepresentation.  Of course the pyramids in Mexico are like those in Egypt.

These failures will be found in very many older academic works.  Again, these are not always undertaken in bad faith.  But they are a failure of methodology.

This is one reason why arguments based on a claim that a literary text is interpolated are made less often today.  In the 19th century the claim was very often made, based on subjective grounds, as a way to dispose of evidence.  But it was always made selectively.  The same arguments were not made about text that the writer found convenient.  Thus in Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy, which created a fantastical picture of early Christianity in the near east, the testimony of Eusebius was against him.  So Bauer calmly claimed that the relevant passage was interpolated.  In fact it was not, as can be shown from 5th century Syriac witnesses that he knew about but conveniently neglected to consult.  We have reached the more sensible position of never asserting interpolation without compelling evidence.

It is the same with any case of parallels.  A parallel must be very limited, very striking, and clearly non-trivial.  Even then, I find, today we usually comment that it is “interesting”, rather than a basis for argument.  Otherwise we introduce parallelomania.

  1. [1]Jon Rogers, “SHOCK CLAIM: Ancient Egyptians did NOT build the pyramids,” Daily Express, Oct 2 2017. Online here: “HISTORIANS has thrown doubt on the Ancient Egyptians ever having built the Great Pyramids of Giza instead claiming the monuments could have been built by a lost civilisation.”

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