How about a new rule: no idiots allowed in our parks? »« Suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable with my face

My weird weekend in St Paul

Hey, it’s Fall Break for me, which means no classes or labs, but instead, I have to buckle down and get all caught up in my grading, so that’s what I’ll be doing the next few days. I thought I’d give a quick summary of my talk at the Paradigm Symposium, though. It was an odd experience. It had been a weekend full of woo and pseudoscience; that morning, L.A. Marzulli put on the most ghastly spectacle of ignorance and nonsense I’ve ever seen, raving about how evolution was false and aliens built piezoelectric teleporters in Peru and people with funny-shaped heads were signs that the End Times were here. I had been tempted at that point to drop my entire planned talk and simply get up there and tear every single one of his lies down…but I had a few hours to cool down, and I took into account that this was probably going to be the most hostile audience I’d ever had anyway, and went back to my original plan, a talk about biology. The talk was titled “An examination of the evidence for alien intervention in the history of life on earth”. It was a bit of bait and switch, because once I was up there I told them I couldn’t say much about that.

The first thing, I put the most antagonistic comment front and center: I told them that if I was here to talk about the scientific perspective on the evidence for aliens mucking about on planet Earth, there was one big problem: there isn’t any. They may have photos of lights in the sky, or the testimony of abductees, or the amazing mythology of ancient peoples that names the alien’s home star, and sure, that’s data of a crude sort…but there are many alternative explanations for the observations, and you simply can’t pick one alternative because it’s the one you like best. Blurry photos of ambiguous phenomena, numerology, interpretations of myth or religiously motivated pictograms in rocks, are very, very bad evidence, poorly assessed and clumsily shoe-horned into pet mythologies. They are not going to get published in peer-reviewed science journals.

I know what some of them would think about that: it’s a conspiracy theory. The grand poobahs of science are acting as dogmatic gatekeepers who will not allow the bold new ideas of an open-minded generation of serious investigators to enter the temple of science!

But that’s not it at all. I know a lot of scientists; I am one. We grew up on science fiction and weird ideas — I read Fate magazine as an adolescent — we love the idea of extraterrestrial intelligences. We have the same desire they do to see strange ideas come true, and experience exotic and mysterious phenomena.

But we also have standards. Extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence. You don’t become a scientist unless you can couple imagination and curiosity to rigor and discipline.

And the current “evidence” doesn’t rise to the level it ought to — the enormous hypothesis that we have been visited by aliens is supported by the thinnest, feeblest, most bizarrely subjective nonsense.

I suggested that they imagine that I proposed that there was an elephant roaming the hall of the Union Depot, which is where the meeting was being held. That would be really cool — I love elephants. It would make me ridiculously happy to find a domesticated elephant sharing this room with us. And they might think that would be awesome, too — but looking around, there was no elephant is in sight. It was a fairly open space, and aside from a curtained area, there wasn’t anywhere where an elephant could possibly be hiding.

Just on the obvious evidence of your eyes, you would say there is no elephant there. But maybe, as an open-minded person, you might assume that I’ve got some additional information — I’d just come from behind the curtain, so maybe it was lurking back there. So you ask me to support my claim…and in reply, I say, “I found a peanut in my pocket. How else could it have gotten there other than that it was put there by a friendly elephant?”

Would the quality of my evidence and my logic reduce or strengthen my claim of an elephant? I think everyone would agree that that is extraordinarily poor reason and exceptionally weak evidence, and it would greatly reduce my credibility, and you’d be even less likely to accept the possibility of elephants lurking in train stations.

That’s how the scientific community feels about these stories of aliens. An enormous, earth-shaking reality is proposed, and the best evidence anyone can trot out is trivially dismissed blurry photos backed up by unsupportable logic. No, I’m sorry, until the alien proponents can provide better evidence, they’re not going to be taken seriously, and floundering about and flinging even more blurry photos and bizarre claims and elaborate fairy tales about ancient hieroglyphics is going to weaken your case.

Then the bulk of the talk was a discussion of why the idea that aliens hybridized with humans, or that humans are aliens who emigrated to Earth, is completely ridiculous. I tried to keep it as basic as possible. The first bits were a primer on what a gene and an allele are, a quick explanation about how we have roughly 20,000 genes, and that basically all mammals, to a first approximation, have the same suite of genes, and that differences in the forms of those genes in a mouse or a human allow us to estimate how closely related we are. I showed them a cladogram and explained how it was generated and what it meant.

I addressed some of the most common misconceptions: I explained that chromosome number isn’t that big a deal, and showed them a synteny map to illustrate that it just meant the genes were juggled about in a different arrangement…but they were still the same genes. I knew some of the more knowledgeable people might have heard that the human genome project had found some genes that were unique to humans and not shared with other mammals, so I explained what ORFans were, and how they aren’t the key to finding signs of alien tinkering. I probably spent the most time discussing an actual, known case of “alien” genes in the human genome, the analysis of human and Neandertal genomes.

That’s the kind of evidence we expect to see if their stories are true, I told them.

I had to mention one thing that had been bugging me all weekend, even if it wasn’t strictly about biology. Could aliens have offered cultural guidance, rather than tinkering with genes? And I told them flat out that the question was a bit insulting and also often a bit racist. So I showed them a photo of the pyramids (man, there had been a lot of talk about Egypt this weekend) and said that it was peculiar that alien astronaut proponents are always talking about aliens helping to build these monuments, but…and then I showed a photo of Notre Dame cathedral and asked, why don’t you think the French needed alien assistance to build that? It helped that John Ward had given a talk earlier in the conference where he described the quarries where the stones of the pyramid had come from and how they’d been built by human labor.

Finally, I touched on the peculiarity of little grey men — why are so many of the aliens described so human-like? I told them that evolution would not predict any such convergence to a remarkable degree, and that was evidence that these creatures were actually projections of human fears and desires, rather than physical visitors.

My summary slide:

  • We are children of this Earth

  • We know our kinship to other children of Earth

  • We know the history of our genes

  • We know the history of our populations

  • Humans have accomplished greatness on our own

Humanity: Alien-Free for 6 million years, and proud of it!

I suppose I could have said “Earth: Alien-Free for 4.5 billion years”, as well. I was defining humanity pretty broadly, too, to stretch it to 6 million years.

The Q&A wasn’t as bad as I feared. A couple of people were aggressive about challenging me — one wanted me to enumerate all of the alien abductees I’d talked to, and I’ve only met a few, and most of what I know comes from reading. But that’s hardly relevant: as I said at the beginning, trotting out more anecdotes from people who claim their butts were probed is only going to weaken their credibility. Most of the people wanted clarification, and there were some questions about junk DNA, nothing unmanageable.

I think I reached a few people, anyway. I have no illusions that scales fell from eyes and anyone decided that aliens are bunk on the basis of what I said, but maybe they’ll think a little harder about what constitutes good scientific evidence. I invited the conference organizer, Scotty Roberts, to join us on FtBCon in January, and maybe we could argue some more.

Comments

  1. Pteryxx says

    I second the Indiana Jones hat. A bullwhip’s not *that* different from a tentacle…

    …and then I showed a photo of Notre Dame cathedral and asked, why don’t you think the French needed alien assistance to build that?

    QFFNT.

  2. Michael says

    Lon Mandrake, science teacher and magician (son of Mandrake the Magician), once told me about how he was invited to attend a Psychic Fair and demonstrate lying on a bed of nails. He did the demonstration and tried to give the scientific explanation of the physics behind it. The crowd was totally uninterested and discussing with each other about how he was using psychic powers, or mediation, or qi, or whatever woo to explain it. Some people just don’t want to know…

  3. says

    Love the Notre Dame question. Really, the only difference between Notre Dame and the Pyramids — or the Parthenon and Stonehenge, or the Roman aqueducts and the moai of Easter Island, or the colossi at Abu Simbel and Serpent Mound, or the Forbidden City and the Great Pyramid of Cholula — is that we have records of who built one thing and how, and not the other.

    Or, to paraphrase a common meme: absence of evidence is not proof of aliens.

  4. Rey Fox says

    QFFNT

    Quoted For Fucking Necessary Truth?
    Quoted For Fidgeting Nuisance Truth?
    Quoted For Fallon, Nevada Truth?

  5. A Masked Avenger says

    PZ, thanks for this post! It was entertaining reading, but in addition I wish I could have listened to your talk. As a non-scientist, dumbed-down popularizations and scientific answers to stupid questions are like popcorn–I can’t get enough. Loved Nova as a kid, and reading Dawkins as an adult.

    Hopefully it’s not too much of a hijack to comment on this:

    Finally, I touched on the peculiarity of little grey men — why are so many of the aliens described so human-like? I told them that evolution would not predict any such convergence to a remarkable degree

    There’s something I’ve wondered about, as a non-biologist and non-scientist. As a mathematician, I have seen lots of “energy minimization” phenomena, mostly in physics, such as soap films and the like. It seems to be a ubiquitous phenomenon in the physical world. I’ve also read, in Dawkins and in comments here, about biological analogues of “energy minimization.” For example, peacock tails might be envisioned as analogous to a soap film, with peahen preferences as the wireframe (i.e., assumed invariant over short time frames), and minimizing predation as the selective pressure. In general, tradeoff problems usually seem to me, subjectively, analogous to energy minimization in physics.

    All that to raise a question: while I understand that there’s no such thing as teleology in genetics, are there things we should expect on every hypothetical world? Specifically, can we expect large-sized, intelligent terrestrial creatures to be tetrapods (either all the time, or “more often than not”)? What prompts this is the notion that some combination of the following might be true: four legs is enough to navigate any conceivable terrain; more than four legs incurs a needless cost that increases for large creatures; and even numbers of limbs are preferred because symmetries are easier to code genetically. (A corollary would be the conclusion that giant spiders should not be expected on any planet, for example. But a similar question can be asked about large arthropods based on the cost of exoskeletons.)

    I’m sure scientists have pondered such questions over beers. I also suspect that they’d conclude there’s insufficient information to make an educated guess. But I’m certainly curious.

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    About my post #9: I think it’s at least mostly on-topic. Any creature with bilateral symmetry, a tetrapod body plan, and an upright posture, is going to be perceived by humans as humanoid. Given our species-centric point of view, it wouldn’t matter much if the head were between the legs, or facing “backwards,” or atop a giraffe-like neck, etc. We would describe the creature as “humanoid with its head in the middle of its chest and its balls on its chin,” or whatever.

    Corollary questions might suggest stronger humanoid tendencies–for example, the relatively low cost of producing tubes in utero suggests that unidirectional alimentary canals are likely to be common, which implies that mouths and asses are likely to be at opposite ends.

    The counterexample being me, since at this point I’m talking out my ass. So I’ll shut up.

  7. unclefrogy says

    when confronted by intelligent people who are that profoundly ignorant about what is actually known about earth and it’s history it is difficult to know where to start.
    Sounds like a very good attempt to me I would have enjoyed listening that myself.
    hearing how actual think scientifically works to understand the world may help to plant seeds in some and foster doubt in extraordinary claims .
    As for pyramids and ancient monumental structures and aliens stupid while the way people discovered how to make those things remarkable structures using simple tools and methods and genius and ingenuity to accomplish remarkable feats. wonderful.
    uncle frogy

  8. says

    One of the things that pisses me off worst about the ancient aliens crowd is the implication that humans (usually brown humans, BTW) are somehow incapable of a) using their imaginations and making things up out of whole cloth and b) building cool things without help from beyond this planet. I can only watch the show Ancient Aliens while drunk, so my fiancee and I turned it into a drinking game. I’m not sure if I could stomach a whole weekend at a convention of people like that.

  9. says

    Uh-oh. The History Channel just sent me an email, they want to interview me for Ancient Aliens.

    I’m going to sleep on it before replying. I’ve heard bad stories about how they hack up interviews.

  10. blf says

    A random thought just occurred to…

    One of the claims of the moon landing denialists is that “computers weren’t use to design the rocket / lander / whatever so it could not have been done.” (They are probably referring to CAD and CAM techniques.) Which shows a deep ignorance of and/or disbelief in what clever thinking, a slide rule, and an Engineer’s Handbook can accomplish.

    That rather reminds me of the ancient astronauts crowd: Ignorance of and/or a disbelief in what clever thinking, simple tools using long-known mechanical principles, and what design experience plus muscle-power can accomplish. I always think it’s telling the ancient astronauts crowd tends to ignore, for instance, the earliest Egyptian pyramids (which were small-ish and stepped) and focus on the later, larger, better-known classical design; or the Amerindian mounds; or so on…

  11. Tethys says

    they want to interview me for Ancient Aliens.

    This could be a great opportunity for science education aimed at the people who need it most.
    I’m sure there is a way to retain the right to veto the final product if they edit it into somehow supporting the notion of ancient aliens.

    Since the lead voices of the congressional anti-science brigade just got their asses handed to them, now might be an excellent time.

  12. says

    Ancient Aliens? Oh, crimeny. The “History” Channel had a marathon of that show this weekend. Not sure what disturbed me more: that the series was made at all, or that the series has 59 episodes over six seasons. Worse is that the channel apparently had a representative at this woo-fest, presumably to troll for pseudoscientific “experts.”

    I say go for it, on one condition: that you are permitted to make your own video recording of the interview. Say up front that this is to guarantee that your comments will not be edited in a way to misinterpret your words and thus call your professional credibility into question. If they refuse, then you can assume that they clearly have no intention of honestly and bid them good day.

  13. says

    To me this represents the failure of knowledge of basic facts about biology, physics, chemistry, and cosmology. Just the interstellar distances and time frames involved make intelligent ET contact so unlikely. I’d love to think we’re no so alone and isolated in our corner of the galaxy, but reality tells me its all fantasy. Its easier to believe the extraordinary when you have no way of distinguishing between good observable data and imagination generated stories because you are lacking the basics of scientific knowledge. These people would have driven me crazy. Thanks PZ for going where I would fear to tread.

  14. chigau (違う) says

    PZ
    If you want opinions, I agree with Gregory in Seattle.
    If they let you make your own recording, do the interview.
    Or wear a big analog clock around your neck.

  15. Anthony K says

    Or wear a big analog clock around your neck.

    Well, PZ is considered a public enemy in some theistic and libertheistic circles.

  16. blf says

    It is believed the master masons on the great European cathedrals couldn’t read or write but they could do maths to blow your socks off — and in their heads.

    Illiterate? Very probable.

    Complex maths in their heads? Citation needed.

    Masons (presumably master masons) are commonly depicted with dividers, and it is my understanding the ratios used in medieval cathedrals are easily manipulated with such a tool. I’ve seen claims that full-sized models and/or outline drawings (in stone?) exist for some features of some cathedrals (although, of course, no cathedral has anything like a modern set of blueprints drawn prior to construction). They would be adept at straightedge-and-divider geometry, but “complex” maths or even accurate scaling is, as I understand it, not-so-clear.

  17. moarscienceplz says

    They would be adept at straightedge-and-divider geometry, but “complex” maths or even accurate scaling is, as I understand it, not-so-clear.

    I concur. If they were so good at modeling their designs, why did Beauvais Cathedral collapse only 12 years after completion? I think that through a lifetime of experience medieval architects acquired an intuitive feel for how stresses flowed through structures, but they were nowhere close to a rigorous mathematical understanding.

  18. A Masked Avenger says

    Complex maths in their heads? Citation needed.

    As a general comment, you’ll sometimes read about the “complex differential equations that baseball players solve in their heads,” or stuff like that. I know nothing about medieval masons, but I know that baseball players aren’t solving differential equations. What’s usually going on is that humans adopt heuristics that give good approximations to the solution of hard problems.

  19. says

    PZ, thank you, again for being here. Like L.A. Marzulli being the sole representative of the “alienist” perspective, you were the sole evolutionary biologist. There were many people in attendance who really enjoyed your presentation – and who, frankly, knew you were right.

    As for the entire conference being “ancient alienist” in thinking, that would be a gross misrepresentation. But, you are correct, there were a few, including the one man who stood and wanted to take you to task with his “elephant in the room” scenario. I believe this audience member was a member of MUFON.

    I would like to know your thoughts on some of the other speakers, such as:
    • Dr. Robert Schoch, a tenured PhD, geophysicist from Boston University who spoke on the theory pof water damage to the Sphinx and cosmological progression;
    • Robert Bauval, egyptologist and engineer, speaking on the mathematics and layout of the pyramids of Giza as they reflected the spirituality of the ancient Egyptians;
    • Laird Scranton who spoke on ancient cosmology and linguistics;
    • Dr. Maria Nilsson, who along with her associate John Ward, presented her archaeological/epigraphic survey work at the quarries of Gebel el Silsila;
    • Thomas Fusco, who spoke on the relationship between the mind, physics, spirituality and cosmology;
    • And, of course, John Ward and me, who spoke on two different theories of the biblical Exodus, Moses, and the archaeological data – first and second hand – that may relate to this legendary event.

    And other than Marzulli, I do not think that any of our 16 speakers support the notion that “aliens” built the pyramids. I think you may have come to the Paradigm Symposium harboring preconceived ideas.

    I, along with many others in attendance, thoroughly enjoyed your presentation, and have a deep appreciation for what you had to say.

  20. qwerty says

    Nothing makes me turn my channel faster than when the History Channel* does a program on aliens visiting the earth thousands of years ago.

    *I have noticed that the History Channel doesn’t do much in the way of good history lately. It’s very disappointing to like history and not find it there.

  21. Maureen Brian says

    Well, blf @ 21,

    There’s this – http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi942.htm – an episode from Houston University on Gothic Math. Then there’s this series – http://www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk/elibrary/search?term=durham&order=score – which I can’t access at the moment. Perhaps you have the credentials to do so. I hope you find the one about a number sequence in the window design, remembering that Durham is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic in its design.

    We know that there were no architects per se and that the work was done by master masons. We have some of their sketches but without any text on them. What little was written down about the building of the cathedrals was after the event and in Latin, so not the master masons who’d be busy at the other end of the country.

    I am, of course, taking it as read that geometry is part of mathematics and that trial-end-error is a perfectly respectable way of testing whether something will stand up. Very, very few of the medieval cathedrals fell down and the folk-lore we have always mentions bishops and deans demanding the impossible rather than masons not knowing what they were doing.

    I offer you Salisbury Cathedral – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salisbury_Cathedral – which essentially has no foundations and floats on a stone raft 4 feet thick. Somebody calculated the stresses even if we no longer understand quite how.

  22. says

    know what some of them would think about that: it’s a conspiracy theory. The grand poobahs of science are acting as dogmatic gatekeepers who will not allow the bold new ideas of an open-minded generation of serious investigators to enter the temple of science!

    And the poobahs of the History Channel and their mates are fighting the conspiracy tooth and nail. (With their poster child of the past several years, Emperor Giorgio of the Centauri Republic.)

  23. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Thank you Scotty Roberts for your vacuous and polite post. However, summing up irrationality is not a rational act.

  24. blbt5 says

    Well, one can say the earth has been alien-free for 3.5 billion years. Give ‘em a bone and say it’s more likely than not that extraterrestrial life created all of the life on earth. Bcause more likely than not, it’s true. It’s unlikely the conditions for abiogenesis have ever existed on earth, and also the time between the earth’s cooling and the appearance of advanced bacterial life is too short. Plus no evidence whatsoever of abiogenesis on earth. Just saying.

  25. prae says

    I think those people who insist that aliens are identical to ancient gods/spirits/angels/etc are actually right, just not in the way they think. Just like people used to invent stories about how angels appeared and talked to them or that they are descendants of Ra the sun god, they now invent stories about alien abductions and alien DNA in humans. They just added “aliens” as a new name for that stuff.

    It seems to be some kind of religion, with those people worshipping large-headed humanoids. Which is funny because as far as I know this image of an alien was created by TV and/or cinema. So, will we have people insisting that the pyramids were built by the Doctor and humans are Vulcan/Klingon hybrids in about 100 years?

  26. says

    No, panspermia is unlikely. There is quite a bit of evidence that the building blocks of life form spontaneously — we find amino acids and nucleotides in carbonaceous chondrites, for instance. Deep see vents represent sources of chemical energy that are freely available and almost certainly fueled early chemical evolution.

    So we’ve got known natural sources of chemical precursors and energy. We’ve got nothin’ to support the claim that life was seeded here.

  27. says

    I have noticed that the History Channel doesn’t do much in the way of good history lately. It’s very disappointing to like history and not find it there.

    I’ve never compared the schedules of the History Channel in the US and History Channel Canada but I get the feeling they overlap a lot, with lots of Ancient Aliens, Ice Road Truckers, and such. I do not have cable now but when I did the only shows I could stomach on that channel were small Canadian productions like War Story which actually had a little bit of depth and were about, surprisingly enough, historical things.

  28. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    Mammals, running on four feet, have narrow, vertical shoulders. When a bear stands up, you don’t see big, bony shoulders sticking out: even vertical, it has narrow shoulders.

    On the other hand, animals that swing through the trees have shoulders that are flattened sideways to enable arms to spread much wider. Gibbons are the most extreme example. We have wide shoulders because somewhere in the past, our ancestors brachiated: swung their body weight from their arms. However, we’re so used to that look that we equate it with intelligence and the ‘natural’ path of evolution. Any time you see a dinosauroid alien with heavy running haunches topped by wide, human-like shoulders, you are seeing an evolutionary contradiction. An alien that developed from a four-footed creature is much more likely to have narrow, cat-like shoulders. It could also have six legs and use them as alternating three-legged stools, the way insects do. Or it could crawl or twine, have three eyes equally spaced for better vision over six tentacles. Delicate little plantigrade aliens with wide, human shoulders are creatures of our imagination, drawn by our lack of imagination.

  29. says

    Scotty: You are a proponent of this nonsensical “nephilim” idea, that angels/demons have interbred with humans. When the organizer of the conference has advanced such a proposal, and when Mazulli, on the same day as my talk, goes on at length about the topic, I certainly do think my subject was appropriate.

    As for the others:

    Schoch’s idea that the Sphinx is thousands of years older than other scientists and Egyptologists accept seems…unlikely. He’s advancing a theory, that most of the erosion is from water, that leads to conclusions that contradict the historical evidence. Usually proposals that lead to contradictions are rejected.

    Bauval was ludicrous. His claim to fame seems to be noticing that three stars in Orion’s belt form a rough line, and that the three great pyramids similarly form a line. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the pyramid’s layout was consciously informed by astronomical knowledge, but it’s thin gruel to build a reputation on. His efforts to somehow link to architectural use of ellipses into some kind of similar numerological linkage between the Vatican and Egypt made me laugh.

    Scranton was awful, simply awful. Noting resemblances between glyphs in diverse cultures and then building amazing correlations between them was pathetic. As he himself noted, no Egyptologist accepts any of his interpretations of Egyptian symbols.

    I missed Nilsson’s talk. I heard about it second hand, and at that it sounded like good stuff, showing how people actually constructed the pyramids, with no magic or alien superscience required.

    I similarly missed Fusco’s talk. Sorry, I had a long drive ahead of me and had to head home.

  30. says

    Jesus. I just tuned in to Ancient Aliens to see what it was all about: tonight it was a bunch of nonsense about how Einstein had an unusual brain (no, he didn’t), and how maybe he carried ALIEN GENES that gave him superior intelligence. It’s really, really bad.

    I rather doubt that my skeptical views would be fairly expressed on the show.

  31. says

    Oh, I am so sorry PZ. I saw part of that episode a while back, not knowing what it was, and was utterly amazed. It was my first exposure to that hypothesis. Is there any situation where they will not invoke aliens?

  32. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Dismissing the notion that human behavior is governed by evolved genetic factors, and that there are sex-based differences to some degree, is radical and irrational because of the evidence suggesting that there are in fact genetic behavioral drivers and sex-based differences.

    Hypothesis requires a minimum of evidence. Sounds like they barely have an idea without evidence, just abject conjecture….

  33. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Dang borked the quote in #38. Should read:

    It was my first exposure to that hypothesis.

    Hypothesis requires a minimum of evidence. Sounds like they barely have an idea without evidence, just abject conjecture….

  34. sundiver says

    Hypothesis or “wild assed guess” based on uneducated conjecture. Sorta like YEC flapdoodle.

  35. blbt5 says

    PZ: Not panspermia, the idea that organic components seeded life – of course amino acids, nucleotides etc. are produced in trace amounts by many chemical reactions. Rather isogenesis, that the step of abiogenesis is selective and evolutionary but crucially, ontologically geochemical and thus fundamentally different than biochemically-directed biological evolution for which clearly Earth is an ideal environment. Earth is what I would call an Eden planet but not necessarily a genesis planet. I also agree that it is likely the first life was chemoautotrophic. As complex as developmental biology is, the problem of developmental microbiology is even more complex and harder to conceptualize, so why needlessly limit the possibilities – that’s not scientific. Although gravity here is ideal, perhaps a different one, as well as a different mineralogy would better accelerate the organic concentration, compartmentalization and templating required for abiogenesis. The universe is 10 billion years older than the earth, and the elements of life have been available for at least 8 billion of that time – a lot more time to develop a fully realized cellular replicating life form in all of its intricate supramolecular physicochemical complexity. Over billions of years efficient impact transfer can seed diffusion zones thousands of light years wide. A lot of the speculation about the origin of life is rootless, uncritical and shilling for the sci-fantasy crowd – don’t fall into that trap.

  36. firstapproximation says

    blbt5,

    Rather isogenesis, that the step of abiogenesis is selective and evolutionary but crucially, ontologically geochemical and thus fundamentally different than biochemically-directed biological evolution for which clearly Earth is an ideal environment.

    Huh?
    _ _ _

    PZ,

    Scotty: You are a proponent of this nonsensical “nephilim” idea, that angels/demons have interbred with humans.

    Oh, I remember this guy. I quoted his book (The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim: The Untold Story of Fallen Angels, Giants on the Earth, and Their Extraterrestrial Origins) here before. Some good passages:

    [re: Noah’s flood]

    But what if what we have here in this story goes far beyond the “wickedness of mankind,” and delves deep into the extermination of an extraterrestrially manipulated race that has corrupted humanity, bringing them wickedness through the mode of genetic corruption and alteration of DNA? What if the great flood was a means incorporated by a supreme being—or a master, superior race—to kill the experiment that had gone badly awry—a wiping out of an experiment that had gone very, very wrong?

    [The Watchers] were charged with the responsibility of watching over humanity, the children of God’s creation, but then left that responsibility behind when they looked down on humanity with desire, wanting to be one of them and experience the lustful, sensual, steamy, flesh-on-flesh experience of sexual contact. They wanted to create life that sprang forth from their own loins, experiencing what only the Creator himself had experienced

  37. blbt5 says

    firstapproximation: PZ thought I was talking about an idea called panspermia, which is that organic chemicals rained down on the Earth, then combined somehow to make life. Making life from chemicals is called abiogenesis. I agree with PZ that panspermia is unnecessary for the reasons he cited, which is why it has generated little scientific interest. But PZ’s reasoning assumes that abiogenesis is about biochemistry, which is a mistake, since before life existed there were no biochemicals, only geochemicals. That’s what I mean by ontologically. Life has to start with geochemistry. Deep-sea vents with their fascinating chemically sulfurous bacterial ecology have nothing in particular with any theory of abiogenesis but were hyped that way, notably leaving out the fact that the bacteria had already been discovered decades earlier. In fact most of the biomass on the planet is in the crust bacteria residing miles in the earth, much of these chemoautotrophic and thus as much linked to abiogenesis as the deep-sea vent types. Most chemists that have looked at the problem find that the first replicating molecular systems probably went through a mathematically selective mechanism similar to biological evolution. But whatever it was, it had nothing to do with biochemistry. So tossing together words like “amino acids”, “nucleotides”, and “deep-sea vents” is vacuous and sterile. We know that advanced photosynthetic cyanobacteria existed 3.5 billion years ago, and possibly new discoveries will push that date back further. The earth was still cooling at 4 billion years and completely sterile, so for life to arise, all 20 separate amino acid pathways, RNA, DNA, energy proton pump metabolism, etc., etc in a few hundred million years. Way more complicated than going from a bacteria to an amoeba, or from there to vertebrates, which took billions of years. If you think life started on the Earth, maybe it’s because we used to think that the sun revolved around the earth, and as PZ noted some still publish in Nature that the Universe revolves around the earth. Let’s get rid of the hubris and the arrogance and consider carefully what we know and what we don’t know. It could be that life was created on the Earth, but the evidence not only makes that unlikely but there is no evidence that it did. There is no evidence against fully formed bacterial life coming to Earth via meteors, so it is simply unscientific to dismiss the possibility given the facts of impact transfer and bacterial viability in space. PZ hasn’t raised any contrary argument in this regard. And if life originated elsewhere, the steps from nonlife to life probably progressed to cellular life on one planet. Isogenesis is a term denoting geochemical origin on one planet, then transfer elsewhere for biological evolution. The conditions for geochemical formation of life may well have been inhospitable to biochemical evolution. For example, astronauts in space didn’t evolve in space, and birds and bats didn’t evolve in the air. Isogenesis makes some predictions that might bum some people out. For example, the Earth has been spraying the solar system with life for billions of years, so the life we find will probably be from Earth, disappointing all those NASA hacks hyping arsenic-based exotic life. Also since we’re already extraterrestrial, SETI will have to change its name and as a result fade into obscurity. When we find life on the first exoplanet, it’ll be bacteria just like on Earth, having wasted 10 trillion for the thrill of looking in the mirror. And all the while our own amazing cornucopia of creatures so ironically vastly underappreciated.

  38. says

    blbt, @44,

    Yeaaaaah…

    PZ thought I was talking about an idea called panspermia, which is that organic chemicals rained down on the Earth, then combined somehow to make life

    Actually, no. What you are talking about (microbial life being transported to earth by meteors, asteroids and the like) is panspermia, as defined by… well pretty much every source on the matter I have ever encountered except you. Behold: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia
    PZ was quite correct in thinking you were talking about panspermia.

    There is no evidence against fully formed bacterial life coming to Earth via meteors,

    See the thing that actually matters is: do you have evidence for fully formed bacteria coming from another planet?

  39. says

    There is no evidence against fully formed bacterial life coming to Earth via meteors

    There is no evidence against my theory that space-clowns in a traveling space-circus from Rigel delivered life to Earth in the form of contaminated cream pies and seltzer spritzers, either.

  40. Nick Gotts says

    A lot of the speculation about the origin of life is rootless, uncritical and shilling for the sci-fantasy crowd – blbt5

    Yup. Thanks for providing a good example of such speculation. Pity you don’t know what “panspermia” means.

    Deep-sea vents with their fascinating chemically sulfurous bacterial ecology have nothing in particular with any theory of abiogenesis but were hyped that way, notably leaving out the fact that the bacteria had already been discovered decades earlier.

    Wrong type of deep-sea vents. Take a look at the work on alkaline hydrothermal vents, here, for example.

  41. Anthony K says

    Is there any evidence against meteors coming to Earth via fully formed bacterial life? Was Chicxulub, in fact, an elaborate hit orchestrated by our non-nucleated friends? I can’t say. What I can say is that La Quora Nostradoes not want me to say.

  42. ChasCPeterson says

    my theory that space-clowns in a traveling space-circus from Rigel delivered life to Earth in the form of contaminated cream pies and seltzer spritzers

    careful. This is juggalo cosmology.

  43. Anthony K says

    my theory that space-clowns in a traveling space-circus from Rigel delivered life to Earth in the form of contaminated cream pies and seltzer spritzers

    careful. This is juggalo cosmology.

    Fucking proper food handling procedures, how do they work?

  44. Tethys says

    Nick Gotts

    Wrong type of deep-sea vents. Take a look at the work on alkaline hydrothermal vents, here, for example.

    Thank you for that link. It was delicious. *burp* This bit is expecially intriguing

    From the standpoint of chemical thermodynamics, Shock et. al have calculated that under conditions corresponding to Lost City, dodecanoate (C12) would be the preferred organic acid. From the standpoint of bioenergetics, the question is, could these inorganically walled cells lined with hydrophobics really have taken advantage of the geochemically existing proton gradient, and then generated their own?

    I don’t know enough about chemistry to venture an opinion, I’m not even sure if “templating” is a real thing or just a term that kooks throw out to sound sciency.

    In any case, the carbons seem to be the key to unlocking the mystery of abiogenesis and it reminded me of this paper.
    Biogenic Carbon in Rocks of the Sudbury Impact Structure

    and this paper Sudbury Buckyballs were Born in Space, Survived Meteor Impact

    I wonder if this impact actually provided the means for life to evolve from a RNA world to a DNA world?

  45. David Marjanović says

    four legs is enough to navigate any conceivable terrain;

    So are two, if they have enough freedom of movement.

    more than four legs incurs a needless cost that increases for large creatures

    How?

    It’s unlikely the conditions for abiogenesis have ever existed on earth,

    Details, please.

    and also the time between the earth’s cooling and the appearance of advanced bacterial life is too short.

    Evidence from a few tiny sand grains that consist of zirconia with a few impurities strongly suggests that there were continental crust and oceans on Earth 4.4 billion years ago. (I forgot if the paper was in Nature or Science; it came out in the early 2000s.) The oldest circumstantial evidence of maybe possibly some kind of life was 3.85 billion years old last time I read about it.

    A lot can happen in 550 million years. Just look what has happened in the last 550 million.

    Plus no evidence whatsoever of abiogenesis on earth.

    Almost no evidence of anything that happened that long ago on Earth.

    Although gravity here is ideal, perhaps a different one, as well as a different mineralogy would better accelerate the organic concentration, compartmentalization and templating required for abiogenesis.

    It doesn’t need to be ideal, just good enough.

    Oh, I remember this guy. I quoted his book (The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim: The Untold Story of Fallen Angels, Giants on the Earth, and Their Extraterrestrial Origins) here before. Some good passages:

    Wow. That’s religion.

    We know that advanced photosynthetic cyanobacteria existed 3.5 billion years ago

    We thought we did, but we don’t. Look that up – Wikipedia is fine as a starting point.

    The earth was still cooling at 4 billion years

    Not true.

    all 20 separate amino acid pathways

    “Separate” is a massive exaggeration. Look it up.

    If you think life started on the Earth, maybe it’s because we used to think that the sun revolved around the earth,

    I hate narcissistic armchair psychology.

    and as PZ noted some still publish in Nature that the Universe revolves around the earth

    FFS, that Nature paper was a book review published in 1976. It reviewed the idea, it didn’t propose or really endorse it.

    There is no evidence against fully formed bacterial life coming to Earth via meteors, so it is simply unscientific to dismiss the possibility given the facts of impact transfer and bacterial viability in space.

    Parsimony.

    You get nothing, you lose, good day, sir. :-)

    Wrong type of deep-sea vents. Take a look at the work on alkaline hydrothermal vents, here, for example.

    Fascinating paper! I only knew a few of the basic ideas, so thanks :-)

    Thank you for that link. It was delicious. *burp*

    Thread won.

    I wonder if this impact actually provided the means for life to evolve from a RNA world to a DNA world?

    …Why? It’s way too young for that.

  46. tpfusco0 says

    Dr. Myers,

    Thomas Fusco here, one of the speakers at the Paradigm Symposium 2013. I wanted to take this opportunity to voice my appreciation for your participation in the event. A qualified skeptical view is essential to the exploration of any new idea, not only from so-called ‘alternative’ genres, but even from the scientific community. There are certainly enough examples of the latter proposing ideas that later proved to be nonsense to merit such an approach. One of my pet peeves is when those in the scientific community occasionally present ideas to the general public as established fact when they know full well such notions are hypothesis and even philosophical speculation. Skepticism is an essential ingredient in the process of forging truth regardless to the source of the ideas in question.

    As you know, I was very unhappy that a few individuals laughed at your comment from the panel onstage. Although I know it didn’t phase you in the least, it was still inappropriate and merited an apology, which I expressed in their stead.

    I enjoyed our conversation in the hotel lounge. Unlike the horror stories I had heard, it was my pleasure to find you a very reasonable and open minded individual. I believe you brought the same objectivity to your presentation (I am much relieved you stuck with your planned presentation instead of giving in to the temptation to regress as you mentioned here). I deeply regret the brevity of our encounter as my opportunities to exchange thoughts with a skeptic having substantive qualified positions are far too uncommon.

    Scientists must at times accept the role of a servant to the public over whatever personal satisfaction motivated them to have entered the field. Science is not a private exclusive club, but ultimately must serve the needs of humanity, even those who are less educated. Scientists are more than merely bearers of truth; they are also the keepers of the method by which truth is ascertained for the benefit of all humanity. With this mantle comes the responsibility to convey to others the precepts and value of this method. I endeavor in all things to keep an open mind, but also to act as a facilitator of science for those who have a new idea. To simply rebuke with “that’s not scientific” may serve the role of truth keeper, but not the role of facilitating truth seeking. Were a person to approach with a new idea for an invention, to proclaim “That will never work” is to me inappropriate; it is far more responsible to say, “That’s great. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow in order to bring this to a viable product.” It is the difference between compassionate teaching and ivory-tower pontification. You never know–one might come along with something that will surprise the heck out of you. Good for them. And if they fail because of the unworkability of the idea, they will discover it through their own efforts in following sound methodology, not because of another’s prejudicial pronouncements. We had a gentleman approach us during our conversation to discuss a concept. I believe he left with the wrong impression of prejudicial rejection because he didn’t fully understand the basis in scientific reasoning behind our comments.

    I believe you were correct in your decision concerning the Ancient Alien interview. It is difficult to see how they might use your positions to support the show in any way. I too was contacted by the producers. I fear they did not find in me what they were hoping for.

    I do have one point of contention with you. I heard you have a reputation for going after someone personally for their beliefs. While I found no evidence for that in our meeting, I do see hints of it in this blog with comments like: “Scotty: You are a proponent of this nonsensical “nephilim” idea”; “Bauval was ludicrous”; “Scranton was awful.” I understand that you said something far more degrading and condescending about Scotty Roberts at an event last year merely because of his positions (I’ve seen examples of far worse from others’ comments in this blog, some of which are shameful for anyone presenting themselves as a proponent of scientific discipline). In this, I’m disappointed in you. We need you to be more than this, not stooping to base responses but rising above them. Except in cases of ethics or morality, our critical focus must be on the message, not the messenger. I believe your comment, “Schoch’s idea that the Sphinx is thousands of years older than other scientists and Egyptologists accept…” is how these criticisms need to be prefaced and voiced. If I am being overly critical in my assessment, please accept my apologies. If I am not, I ask respectfully that you consider my words.

    Again, it was a pleasure to meet you.

    Thomas Fusco

  47. Tethys says

    tpfusco0

    Except in cases of ethics or morality, our critical focus must be on the message, not the messenger.

    Spreading false information is a serious ethical problem. There are no such things as Nephilim, gods, global floods, unicorns, or Santa Claus. Pointing that out is simply being factual. Neither are we obligated to indulge crackpots in speculating about things that do not exist. It’s not our problem that some people have such a difficult time distinguishing between science and crockpottery, but it is exceptionally silly to say we can’t laugh at them.

    Don’t want to be ridiculed? Stop saying such ridiculous things!

  48. tpfusco0 says

    Tethys, I disagree that this can be assumed to be a question of ethics, unless we can demonstrate in a convincing way that the perpetrator is speaking with the intent to deceive. In such cases, we should expect the same standard of proof from ourselves that we expect others to follow in science. If they do not, it is still no reason for us not to do so, just as we cannot justify a criminal act simply because others perform them. And what if the speaker truly believes in what he’s saying, as I believe many of them do? You can then not accuse them of behaving unethically, since they are proposing what they sincerely believe is truth.

    What I am talking about is to assume a higher standard of behavior. Why is it precisely we would argue against erroneous ideas? Are we simply on an ego trip to satisfy our own sense of superiority? Or is there the possibility that others who are listening may be swayed into believing in error? Should we not be concerned with those minds? Is it not our responsibility to advance the virtues of science amid our fellow men? Isn’t a failure in our education system, particularly in science, part of this issue? If we present ourselves as stone-throwing ruffians, aren’t we more likely to drive away minds than appeal to them?

    I feel Dr. Myers exemplified in his PS2013 presentation the very point I’m trying to make. He did not just proclaim that this guy is nuts and that idea is crazy (at least not at this event). He presented sound argument to support his positions. He represented the honorable discipline of science well. I don’t believe he held out any hope of swaying the proponents of these ideas (correct me if I’m wrong, Dr. Myers), but he was appealing to those minds in the audience that might be swayed by the power of a scientific perspective. In my opinion, those minds are worth fighting for; I can envision no other reason why Dr. Myers would have actually agreed to attend such a symposium. You’re never going to dissuade the proponents of such ideas with attacking them, but you may sway others by attacking the bad ideas. Similarly, I do not hold out much hope that you might pause to reconsider based on my argument, but still felt it important to explain my position further. But if you share my concern, then it does become ‘our problem’ to advance scientific education among people–if you don’t, then it doesn’t really matter how you behave and you’re likely not to change that for anything.

    Yes, ridicule the bad ideas with all voracity, not merely with proclamations, but by using sound scientific argument. If someone is going to say ridiculous things as you put it, then those ridiculous things should be ridiculed. But mocking these people in a public forum makes you no better than those who laughed at Dr. Myers. I support “These ideas are ridiculous,” but not “This person is ridiculous.” Attacking the proponent personally does not, in my opinion, promote the cause of science nor does it present the discipline in a favorable light. That’s all I’m saying.

  49. Tethys says

    Why don’t you explain it…

    Not clear if Scottyroberts response was directed to me or Chigau or someone else entirely, but it did impel me to check out his author bio on amazon.

    “I am a contemplative, spiritual man of consideration who values intelligence, wit, justice and touch. I do not shy away from a good fight, and have had a few brawls in my day – whether on my behalf or in defense of another – and, were times different, would most probably be known wide and abroad as an expert swordsman. However, in keeping with my paradoxical nature, I prefer employing words over weapons, wit above profanity, spirituality above religion, stalwartness above inconstancy. And as I grow older, my burgeoning jaded cynicism is wholly tempered by my desire to not become an ass.

    Offered without comment, because it’s so important not to be an ass.

  50. Nick Gotts says

    And as I grow older, my burgeoning jaded cynicism is wholly tempered by my desire to not become an ass. – Scottyroberts

    What a shame he was so completely unable to achieve his desire!

  51. says

    and, were times different, would most probably be known wide and abroad as an expert swordsman.

    :snorts: This is a bit like announcing “alas, my modesty prevents me from stating I would be a cocksman of great renown, were it another age!” Gad, sir.

    As for being an expert swordsman, are you? I am, I fenced for decades before my spine went south on me, and I *love* fencing. Great stuff, much fun, gotta think fast, move fast. Grand sport. If you don’t fence, then your statement is simply so much idiocy, sound and fury signifying nothing and all that.

  52. Nick Gotts says

    I disagree that this can be assumed to be a question of ethics, unless we can demonstrate in a convincing way that the perpetrator is speaking with the intent to deceive. – tpfusco0

    Absent telepathy, or a signed confession we can be sure was not coerced, that’s pretty near impossible. There’s a lot of ground between “speaking with an intent to deceive”, and an honest attempt to assess the evidence for and against a proposition. It’s that extensive landscape between the two that I suspect most of the “Paradigm” speakers inhabit: they think that any speculation they’ve pulled out of their arse is just as good as the consensus of experts in a scientific field. Their ethical failings are arrogance and intellectual laziness, not deliberate dishonesty.

  53. Nick Gotts says

    I of course exempt von Daniken from the last sentence of #66: I’d be astonished to find that he’s anything but a full-on liar, in it for fame and money.

  54. ChasCPeterson says

    In keeping with my paradoxical nature, I am an egotist, a floor wax, a narcissist, and a desert topping.

    it didn’t phase you

    PSA:
    this word is faze. not phase.
    [/PSA]