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.

http://youtu.be/aK687ZHtijY

http://youtu.be/_ncym6es7x0

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.

The sacrificial atheist?

Spoiler warning: This post contains discussion about the season finale of True Blood and the movie The Ledge.
Atheists are popping up more and more in the television and movies. And like any minority group engaging in a civil rights movement – which, admit it or not, is what we’re doing – portrayals of atheists are becoming less and less stereotypical. We’re no longer nothing more than communist villains.

There are certainly stereotypical tropes about us being overly rational, cynical, heartless, selfish hedonists. Dexter, anyone? As much as I love House, he’s not exactly the poster child of atheism. But even within that show, you see another atheist (Cameron) who is un-House-like in every way. And the number of human-like atheist characters is rising – Ellie in Contact, Kurt in Glee, Malcolm in Firefly, Bones.

But I’ve been noticing something recently. I hesitate to call it a trend, since I only have two data points so far. But this came up during a panel discussion I was on at the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference after we had watched The Ledge. The Ledge is a thriller revolving around the romance between an atheist, Gavin, and a woman, Shana, who is married to an emotional abusive religious zealot, Joe.

I really enjoyed the movie and highly recommend it. So if you haven’t seen it, read forward at your own risk – because I’m about to give away the ending.

Joe eventually discovers the affair and puts Gavin in a situation were either he can die, or Shana dies. And surprisingly, the film doesn’t have a predictable happy ending. The police don’t find Shana at just the right time. Gavin doesn’t have some quirky trick that makes it looks like he jumped from a 30 story building. Nope, he sacrifices himself for this woman.

And during this Sunday’s season finale of True Blood, we see the same sacrificial atheist. Tara, who apparently everyone hates except me, is asked by her best friend Sookie if she thinks Gran is in heaven. Tara replies that she’s always considered herself an atheist, but if there is a heaven, Gran would be president of it. Sookie then says that she wants to grow old together with her best friend, which let me know that Tara was almost certainly dying by the end of the episode.

And would you know it, in the last minute of the show, Tara jumps in front of Sookie to save her from a point blank range shotgun blast from a crazed werewolf lady. (You know, I never realized how dumb this show sounds until I have to type out what happened). People are discussing how she’s probably going to be saved in the first 30 seconds of the new season, or turned into a vampire, or be a ghost for Lafayette to channel, or whatever…but you can’t deny she sacrificed herself for her friend when half of her head was blown clean off.

When we were discussing the Ledge, we couldn’t agree if portrayals like this were heroic or tragic. Is this showing atheists in a good light – that even though we don’t believe in heavenly rewards or the afterlife, we’re willing to give up the thing most dear to us for people we love? Or is it showing atheists as these tragic individuals who never have a happy ending?

I lean toward the former. As much as I don’t want all of my atheist characters meeting untimely fates, I think it means something to give up your life when you’re certain no afterlife is soon to follow. It shows that we do care about other people and have greater value and purpose in our lives, even if it’s not handed down from a supernatural being. And I think it’s the first step to portraying atheists as real people – and soon enough we won’t have to keep dying to prove that point.

But again, not everyone agreed. What do you think? Do you know of any other atheist characters that fit or fight this trend?

Skepticism in supernatural universes

Spoiler Alert: This post talks about last night’s episode of True Blood. Read at your own risk if you haven’t watched it yet.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a bit of a True Blood fanatic. It’s a guilty pleasure. I love the campiness, the puns, the one liners, the cliff hangers, and all of gratuitous sex and beautiful people (Mmmm Eric, Alcide, and Jessica). All of this entertainment is enough to outweigh the sometimes frustratingly bad plot, Sookie’s dues ex machina lightning fingers, and, well, Sookie herself.

But sometimes I overanalyze things, because that’s what I do. Like when, in the last season, the hospital claimed Sookie didn’t have a blood type. …You can’t not have a blood type! Blood type is determined by antigens on the surface of red blood cells. If you lacked all antigens, you’d just be type O and negative for every other type, like Rh factor. Extremely rare, but not “no blood type.” Hell, even if Sookie didn’t have any red blood cells, she’d still come up negative on all of the tests.

The thing that stuck out for me during last night’s episode was something that I think of more and more when I watch the show. Andy Bellefleur, the town’s sheriff, was walking through the woods alone at night. He had been dumped there by his cousin and told to walk home alone because he was sobering up from V – vampire blood – which is a powerful drug in the series. In a poof of light, a beautiful fairy pops in front of him and seduces him in return for him pledging to protect her. And they do it right there in the woods. …Which thankfully we don’t see, because it’s Andy.

Me: Come on, would you have sex with some random hot person who just popped up in front of you in the woods?!
Male Friend #1:
Male Friend #2: …Probably
Me: This is so goddamn stereotypical.

That wasn’t really my issue, though. When Andy finally gets home, his cousin’s wife Arlene asks what took him so long. He recounts the story of how a beautiful woman appeared out of a ball of light and they had sex. Arlene thinks he must be hallucinating because he’s coming down from V.

This is the same Arlene who just saw a spirit exorcised from her possessed friend who stole her baby. The same Arlene who was possessed by a maenad into having crazy orgies. The same Arlene who went to a witch to abort her potentially evil baby. The same Arlene who knowingly serves vampires synthetic blood in the bar she works at. The same Arlene who knows her coworker Sookie can read minds.

How can you live in a universe where it’s common knowledge that vampires, werewolves, werepanthers, shape shifters, ghosts, telepaths, and witches exist, but a beautiful woman appearing out of a ball of light is obviously a hallucination? If someone recounted that story to me in that universe, my reaction would be “Holy shit! You obviously just banged some new supernatural being we personally don’t have any knowledge about, since we keep discovering new supernatural beings all the time! Let’s do some investigation on what it could possibly be!”

Because really, skepticism is based on the scientific method, rationality, and logic. If we lived in a universe where we know magic is real and that numerous types of supernatural beings roam the world…well, it wouldn’t be “super”natural anymore. It would be natural, and we’d need to figure out where we went wrong with the laws of physics. I’d love to research the biology behind vampires never dying by feeding on other’s blood!

But if we lived in such a universe, where would we draw the line? Was Arlene right to still be skeptical about the fairy, even though we, the viewers, know what it is? If we lived in a universe where physics and biology didn’t work as we expected, how would we establish between “real” supernatural things and “fake” ones? For example, many characters on the show are very skeptical about religion or God – but what makes angels and deities unbelievable when you have vampires and shifters running around?

…I guess you have physical evidence of the vampires and shifters.

Anyway, what do you think? Is Arlene being a good skeptic, or is she being a little dimwitted? If you lived in a supernatural universe, how would you react to a situation that described a new supernatural creature or event that you personally aren’t familiar with?

Ricky Gervais to make atheism themed TV show

From Entertainment Weekly:

Ricky Gervais, the creator of The Office and Extras is teaming up with former Dexter showrunner, Clyde Phillips, for a new show called Afterlife, about an atheist who dies and goes to heaven. They are writing the pilot episode now and plan to film in early 2012. Gervais will take a cameo role.


I’m excited about this. I like Gervais’s work, and it’s great to get stuff like atheism portrayed in the popular media. Well, positive portrayals, at least. And knowing Gervais is running the show makes me pretty confident I’ll be happy with the show.

Brides + Plastic Surgery = New reality TV show

What the fuck?

The network is set to announce “Bridalplasty,” where brides-to-be compete in wedding-themed challenges to win extensive surgical procedures.

Each week, a group of women competes head-to-head in such challenges as writing wedding vows and planning honeymoons. The winner receives the chance to choose a plastic surgery procedure from her “wish list.” She’s given the procedure immediately, and results are shown at the start of the following week’s episode.

One by one, the women are voted out by their competitors and, according to the show’s description, “possibly walking away with nothing and losing [their] chance to be the perfect bride.”

The last bride standing will receive a “dream wedding,” where she will reveal her new appearance to friends, family and the groom. “Viewers will witness his emotional and possibly shocked reaction as they stand at the altar and he lifts her veil to see her for the first time following her extreme plastic surgery,” E! said.

Just when you thought American television couldn’t sink any lower. My addiction with America’s Next Top Model seems positively cerebral in comparison.

This is so stupid I’m not even going to grace it with serious feminist commentary. Feel free to have a real discussion in the comments – I’m going to be over in the corner weeping.

OMFG True Blood

I know some of you are fans like me. Discuss in comments. I’ll put my thoughts down there as to not accidentally spoil the episode for those of you who haven’t watched it yet. But beware, the comments will include spoilers!