The genetic “proof” for ancient aliens

I have a new, horrible obsession – the History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens.

On Saturday I found myself drinking with a group of my boyfriend Sean’s friends, when one of them announced that we must play an Ancient Aliens drinking game. I had no idea what the show was, but became intrigued when they started discussing the rules of when to take a drink:

  • Whenever someone being interviewed has no relevant credentials like a PhD
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “Some scientists say”
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “ancient astronaut theorists”
  • Whenever an ancient manuscript is displayed
  • Whenever there’s a terrible CGI reenactment
  • Whenever Giorgio starts talking

Me: Who’s Giorgio?
Them: Oh, you’ll know who Giorgio is soon enough.

This is Giorgio, by the way:

…That’s all I’m going to say.

They decided to reduce the list so we would wouldn’t get alcohol poisoning. But I found myself following my own rule of “drink whenever someone says something that blatantly defies logic or is a total non sequitur.” Which meant I was pretty much constantly drinking for an hour and a half. Especially when you’re jumping from pyramids, dragon drawings, Tesla coils, and the Bible all being proof of aliens (just to name a few).

For those of you who’ve never seen the show…I’m not quite sure how to summarize it. The footage looks professionally done since it’s on the History Channel, and some of the shots of the ancient artifacts are cool to see. But if I had to summarize the major theme, it would either be “Brown people never could have done <insert amazing feat here> because they were too lazy and/or stupid, therefore aliens had to help them.” I think my favorite mindblowing moment was when Giorgio explained that:

  • People worship “Gods”
  • But people only believe in things they have evidence for
  • They had written/drawn evidence for these “Gods”
  • Written/drawn evidence is always realistic and never abstract, imaginative, or metaphorical
  • But “Gods” don’t actually exist
  • Therefore they were actually aliens

Oh, Giorgio. How I wish point #2 was true.

Something about the show hooked me in its terribleness. My emotional reaction was actually very similar to the time when I visited the Creation Museum. Yes, I was mad at how they were twisting science, using terrible logic, and spreading blatant lies. But the absurdity of it all was oddly amusing. By the end you find yourself playing along, like you’re watching a fantasy novel… and not something people actually believe.

Also, being heavily inebriated helps.

So Sean and I plowed forward to episode two, since the first two seasons are conveniently available on Netflix. Our “game” was to guess what sort of bizzaro conspiracy theory the show would provide to explain a phenomena they were hyping before the show made the reveal. Sean was a little too excited when he correctly guessed the “Humans and aliens had sex and interbred” plotline. To which I replied, “But they’re an alien. Humans can’t even breed with chimps. Humans would have to actually be aliens seeded here or something for interbreeding to be possible.”

And then that’s exactly what the show said, and I nearly peed my pants laughing.

But the real kicker came when the show brought up the human genome. Sean and I both study genomics and evolution, so we exchanged a wary look. I’ll let you see it for yourself. The clip begins at 7:34 in the first video, and continues until 3:03 in the next.

In case you can’t watch the video or had trouble following that pristine argument, let me summarize:

  • Geneticists discovered the gene HAR1, which is unique to humans and plays a critical role in the development of the human brain.
  • Did it develop through evolution? Francis Crick says human genes couldn’t have evolved because there’s not enough time for DNA to evolve by accident. He said it would be as improbable as a hurricane going through a junkyard making a Boeing 747.
  • Since it couldn’t have evolved, the aliens performed a targeted mutation in HAR1 to make us “human.”
  • We only understand 5% of the genome. If you wanted to record an eternal message that could be decoded by a creature that eventually evolved enough intelligence to decode it, you shouldn’t put it in a monument or text that can be destroyed…put it in the DNA! OMFG THAT’S WHAT JUNK DNA IS! SECRET MESSAGES!

And now, for a quick debunking:

  • HAR1 is present in all mammals and birds, not just humans. But in all non-human species, the sequence is effectively the same, or conserved. The human copy in particular has a number of differences compared to other species, so we consider the human copy of HAR1 divergent. This is not at all the only human gene to be divergent. And all species have uniquely divergent genes – that’s precisely what makes things different species. But no one is arguing that marmosets or fig trees or syphilis are actually aliens with special alien genes inserted into them. Well, maybe people are arguing that. There’s four seasons of this crap, and I’m only on episode 3 of season one. Maybe the syphilis aliens are right after the episode titled Aliens and the Third Reich (I shit you not).
  • Francis Crick has always been a strong supporter of evolution and has spoken passionately about how evolution shaped his scientific investigation. He was one of the Noble laureates who advised US courts bogged down by creationists that “Creation-science’ simply has no place in the public-school science classroom.” He also was an advocate for making Darwin Day a British national holiday. While he was initially doubtful of the origin of the genetic code and wondered if panspermia could be the answer, he later published a retrospective article where he and his colleague “noted that they had been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth when they had assumed that some kind of self-replicating protein system was the molecular origin of life.” So, um, no.
  • Francis Crick did not come up with that 747 argument – Fred Hoyle did. That’s why it’s called Hoyle’s fallacy. It’s already debunked a bajillion times by biologists – Dawkins wrote two books about it – so I won’t waste time trouncing it here.
  • Whatever alien thought junk DNA would be a great place for an eternal message is a dumbass. Because junk DNA doesn’t code for a protein or have some sort of regulatory role, it’s what geneticists refer to as “neutrally evolving.” It means it’s at liberty to gather mutations because they don’t have any major effect that would weed them out via natural selection. This is especially true when the show’s premise is that the message was placed there eons ago, and had tons of time to accumulate changes. It also doesn’t explain why chimps share a lot of junk DNA with us, or why a huge proportion of junk DNA are remnants of ancient viruses. I’m sure Giorgio would say that those aliens were trying to throw us off the scent by making it seem like our genomes had evolved through natural processes.
  • They never address the fact that the hypotheses they present throughout the show aren’t even internally consistent. At one point they say all life on earth was put there by aliens, and it evolved naturally. Then they say we ARE the aliens. So what, were the aliens unicellular organisms? How can we interbreed – like they say we do – if we’re that distantly related?! But then they say the proof that we’re aliens is that we look like the aliens…so how about those billions of years of evolution?

In poking around the internet about this show, I discovered that Giorgio had a twitter account, which included this gem:

Lizard people? Total nonsense. Aliens? Of course, duhhhhh.

Oh, History Channel. How the mighty have fallen. I remember when I was little and I’d watch you with my history-buff dad, and learn all sorts of cool things about Egypt and Rome and WWII. But now I watch you to point and laugh.

Come see me for Darwin Day!

I’ll be a part of Darwin on the Palouse, a Darwin Day celebration in Pullman, WA and Moscow, ID:

  • Daniel Dennett and PZ Myers will speak in the Cub Senior Ballroom at Washington State University in Pullman on February 9, starting at 7:00 PM.
  • Fred Edwords and Jennifer McCreight will speak in the Clearwater Room at the University of Idaho in Moscow on February 10, starting at 6:00 PM. I’ll be giving my talk about Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, which is always a blast.

I find it kind of odd that I’m in fact returning to Moscow, ID. I was there when they hosted the Evolution conference a couple of years ago.

Not gonna lie, I’m kind of giddy to be part of the same event as Daniel Dennett. Thanks to the organizers for including me. Sadly I’ll miss his and PZ‘s talk, since I fly in Friday afternoon. PZ has already guilted me into buying him a beer as penance.

And I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I have to point out a pet peeve. Whoever wrote the speaker bios writes that Dennett is an author and philosopher, that PZ is a biologist and has won many secular awards, that Edwords is an editor and director of secular organizations…and that I’m the blogger that did boobquake. I know that’s what I’m most famous for, but that’s all you come up with? You don’t think it’s relevant to mention that I’m the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance, that I’ve published in the Atheist Guide to Christmas, that…you know, I’m an evolutionary biologist working on my PhD? For Darwin Day?

Nope, boob joke. I will never escape it, will I?

Creationism bill passes Indiana Senate

Newflash! 28 out of 50 Indiana state Senators are still complete morons (emphasis mine):

On January 31, 2012, the Indiana Senate voted 28-22 in favor of Senate Bill 89. As originally submitted, SB 89 provided, “The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.” On January 30, 2012, however, it was amended in the Senate to provide instead, “The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.”

The Senate spent less than twenty minutes considering the bill, with its sponsor Dennis Kruse (R-District 14) defending it. Kruse acknowledged that the bill would be constitutionally problematic but, he told the education blogger at the Indianapolis Star (January 31, 2012), “This is a different Supreme Court,” adding, “This Supreme Court could rule differently.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana’s legal director Ken Falk was previously quoted in a story from the Associated Press (January 26, 2012) as saying that the bill is clearly unconstitutional and invites lawsuits: moreover, he added, “when lawmakers propose legislation they clearly know will end up in the courts, it wastes time and resources.”

[...] The bill now proceeds to the Indiana House of Representatives, where its sponsors are Jeff Thompson (R-District 28) and Eric Turner (R-District 32), who is also the house speaker pro tem. Thompson, interestingly, is also a cosponsor, along with Cindy Noe (R-District 87), of House Bill 1140, which would require teachers to discuss “commonly held competing views” on topics “that cannot be verified by scientific empirical evidence.” While evolution is not mentioned in the bill, Noe cohosted a controversial dinner at the Creation Evidence Expo in Indianapolis in 2009according to the Fort Wayne Reader (August 23, 2010). In any case, HB 1140 seems to have died in committee.

…You know, I got nothing. I dealt with this idiotic crap for the 22 years I lived in Indiana, and I’m running out of new material. Now it’s just time to get the popcorn and watch the stupidity play out.

The only reason I wish I still lived in Indiana is so I could be the one to petition for Pastafarianism.

Indiana Senate committee approves creationist legislation

My dad emailed me this news report with the quote “Another reason to be glad you’re not living in Indiana.” From NWI Times (our local newspaper!):

An Indiana Senate committee on Wednesday endorsed teaching creationism in public schools, despite pleas from scientists and religious leaders to keep religion out of science classrooms.

Senate Bill 89 allows school corporations to authorize “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life” and specifically mentions “creation science” as one such theory.

State Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, who voted for the measure, said if there are many theories about life’s origins, students should be taught all of them.

But John Staver, professor of chemistry and science education at Purdue University, said evolution is the only theory of life that relies on empirical evidence from scientific investigations.

“Creation science is not science,” Staver said. “It is unquestionably a statement of a specific religion.”

The Rev. Charles Allen, head of Grace Unlimited, an Indianapolis campus ministry, said students would be served better by teaching religion comparatively, rather than trying to “smuggle it in” to a science course.

The Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee nevertheless voted 8-2 to send the legislation to the full Senate.

What? Indiana is being backwards and ignorant? I am shocked – shocked, I say!

Dear Indiana legislators,

What you are doing is unconstitutional. That is not an opinion of mine – the Supreme court decided this in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). Your attempt to weasel Christianity into public science classrooms is going to fail. You can either choose to vote it down now, or you can waste years of time and money in a pointless legal battle. Not to mention your continued efforts to destroy science make intelligent young people like me dying to evacuate the state and never come back. You wonder why you have a brain drain? This is it.

Indiana voters – figure out your Senate district here and send your state Senator a reminder about why creationism has no place in a science classroom.

Kentucky’s priorities

Governor Steve Beshear (D) of Kentucky has just approved the state’s new budget for 2012-2013: millions of dollars cut from education, while the Creation Museum’s $43 million dollar Ark Park still stands. The $11 million going toward highway development for the amusement park was also untouched.

I can see Beshear’s airtight logic now. If we keep Kentuckians uneducated, they’re more likely to visit that intellectual black hole, thus increasing money spent on tourism! Budget problem solved!

And to think states like Kentucky wonder why they experience a “brain drain.”

Indiana DEFINITELY isn’t perfect

At least Seattle limits its scientific ignorance to a piece of bad journalism. Indiana has anti-evolution legislation bubbling up:

Senate Bill 89, prefiled in the Indiana Senate and referred to the Committee on Education and Career Development, would, if enacted, amend the Indiana Code to provide that “[t]he governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.” The sponsor of the bill is Dennis Kruse (R-District 14), who chairs the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development. In 1999, while serving in the Indiana House of Representatives, Kruse pledged to introduce a law to remove evolution from the state’s science standards, according to the South Bend Tribune (August 27, 1999). Instead, however, he introduced bills with the same wording as Senate Bill 89, House Bill 1356 in 2000 and House Bill 1323 in 2001. Both died in committee.

It’s irritating enough that people want to legislate their religion into science classrooms. But this is obviously unconstitutional and has no chance of surviving a legal battle. Stop wasting the time and money of Hoosiers and focus on issues that actually matter.

…One day, one day I will receive positive news from my home state.

Seattle isn’t perfect

As much as I agree with the hilarious post about how “Seattle is objectively superior to the place you grew up,” I have to admit it’s not perfect. Like our main news station running a terrible piece on how Arizona sandstones prove Noah’s flood. Thanks for the uncritical support of young earth creationists, KOMO! I understand you’re busy and couldn’t get around to interviewing any legitimate researcher at the University of Washington. It’s hard picking up the phone or riding a bus for ten minutes.

Of course, Seattle is home to the Discovery Institute, so maybe it shouldn’t be so shocking when biased journalism like this springs up.

INJUSTICE

I was playing Cranium with my family, and as luck would have it, my team got an evolutionary question. My dad and grandma turned to me, since, you know, I’m an evolutionary biologist and stuff. This was the question:

“True or False: Dogs are more closely related to cats than they are to bears.”

I knew it was false. I don’t have an evolutionary tree of every species in my head, but I had heard of this comparison before. People intuitively think dogs and cats are more closely related because they’ve both been domesticated – but that has nothing to do with evolution. I also knew this was an example of an evolutionary tree that had been tweaked as we gained more knowledge. Very preliminary, simple genetic studies shows dogs more closely related to cats. But as we expanded the comparison to the whole genome, we found that dogs were more related to bears.

I was very annoyed when I flipped the card to find this answer:

“True – The three species are all distantly related, but genetic evidence has established that bears split off from a common ancestor well before cats and dogs had their big split.”

My family immediately started giggling. “Good job, Miss PhD.” This would not stand. I flipped out the iPhone and searched for a modern phylogenetic tree of carnivores. I immediately found one in Nature Reviews Genetics based on karyotype data, indeed showing that dogs were more closely related to bears than cats.

I pointed at the image on my screen.

“Too bad” my family said, as they continued on with the next question.

It may no longer matter for the game (though my team did win – neener neener), but in case you’re interested… yes, dogs are more closely related to bears than cats. They’re all carnivores. Dogs and bears both belong to the suborder Caniformia, while cats are in suborder Feliformia.

So why was Cranium wrong, if it’s claiming its answer is based on genetic information? The answer lies in the date. I checked the box, and this edition of Cranium was made in 1998. In the rapidly expanding field of evolutionary genetics, that’s ancient. We can now compare whole genomes, while before we were limited to a single gene (at best). Different parts of the genome can evolve at different rates if they’re under selection (or not), so it’s important to look at the big picture instead of a tiny snippet. Our methods and technologies are improving, so our results get more and more accurate.

Hooray for science!

Still looking for Christmas cards?

Don’t forget I have some evolution themed Christmas cards for sale!

Christmas Tree of Life:

Evolution of Christmas:

Have no idea what to actually write in your godless Christmas cards? Digital Cuttlefish has oodles of atheist Christmas poems.

And if you still need to buy a gift for PZ, you can bid on this awesomely blasphemous piece of art by Joshua Bennett:

He’s auctioning off the piece, and all proceeds go to the American Humanist Association.