Squids from SPAAAAAAAAACE!


I was reading this article with a provocative title: Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It set my alarm bells ringing from the title onward.

Look at those authors! So many, yet the paper itself is so empty of data. Most I don’t know. Steele I’ve heard of — he was promoting neo-Lamarckism in the 1980s, and thinks the Cambrian explosion was caused by retroviruses squirting new complex genes into the ancestors of all animals. Brig Klyce I’ve bumped into a few times on the internet…he’s a panspermia fanatic. Milton Wainwright is the guy who used an EM to look for odd blobs and declared they are evidence of alien life. The Wallis’s were part of a time that announced that diatoms came from outer space. Oh, and Chandra Wickramasinghe…yes, we have crossed paths multiple times. He published a lot in the Journal of Cosmology, with an editor, Rhawn Joseph, who really, really doesn’t like me.

Wickramasinghe has been making bank on this nonsensical idea that genes for complex intelligent life have periodically rained down on the Earth from outer space. There is no evidence for it, and no reason to invoke this random phenomenon to explain biology — we have random phenomena enough, thank you very much, and none of them have the extreme weirdness of the space virus explanation.

I guess I have heard of quite a few of the authors! And it’s a most unsavory stew of notorious crackpots.

Let’s take a look at the abstract for this gem of a paper, shall we?

We review the salient evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Much of this physical and biological evidence is multifactorial. One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ~500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space. In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion — life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.

It’s a moderately long paper, because it’s really easy to layer on thick coats of bullshit when you don’t care about the quality of the evidence. So I’m just going to look at — can you guess? — his second focus, “the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus”.

It’s garbage.

There are novelties in cephalopod evolution, and I’ve written about them before. In particular, cephalopods carry out a significant amount of gene editing, that is, they use enzymes to modify a few of the bases in RNA before it is translated into protein. This is not a shocking surprise — it’s not a universal modification of every RNA, but it has been observed in phyla all across the animal kingdom — although some gullible sources claim it is a violation of the central dogma (they’re wrong). But the key thing is that it’s not unique to cephalopods, lots of organisms have the enzymes, so you can’t use it as evidence for the claim that gene editing came from outer space.

In particular, there is no reasonable justification for this claim:

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6. Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12e13). Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research e discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years e typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.

We’ve gone from a few viral genes raining down on Earth and getting incorporated into life, to frozen squid eggs drifting from Alpha Centauri to Earth in icy meteors and somehow crashing into our oceans and surviving to populate the seas. I don’t think the authors understand the word “parsimonious”. If this were true, cephalopods would represent an entirely novel lineage, and more than having a few molecular novelties, they would be completely unrelated to any other animal lineage on the planet. They would not be related to other molluscs. They would not be protostomes. They would not be eukaryotes. They would be totally alien.

The authors even seem to be superficially conscious of this problem. Here is the “conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6”.

This diagram is what you get when you pretend that lineages are made solely of apomorphies, or the derived traits that distinguish each species from other organisms, and close your eyes to the plesiomorphies, or shared similarities. A phylogenetic tree is not “forced”, it is produced by identifying shared traits. The octopus has molecular similarities to snails, and the two together have similarities to other invertebrates, and all of them have shared attributes with all animals. You don’t get to just ignore all that! This is equivalent to saying that octopuses have tentacles, therefore octopuses are from outer space, completely neglecting the fact that octopuses have homologous genes linking them to insects and sea cucumbers and people.

To back up the remarkable assertion that cephalopods fell from space, they present no evidence, other than a flurry of citations of … N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s an embarrassingly masturbatory display. Wickramasinghe and his associates have been churning out these useless, garbage papers for decades, and now they use the volume of shit he has produced as evidence that his shit is valid. He occasionally sprinkles in references to other authors, which he gets wrong: Stephen J. Gould would not recognize figure 6 as an accurate representation of punctuated equilibrium. This is not how science is supposed to work. It’s simply fraudulent.

Wickramasinghe used to be associated with Cardiff University — they fired him and closed his astrobiology ‘department’, which turns out to have been a bit of a Potemkin village anyway. It was run entirely by Wickramasinghe as a part-time employee, and the entirety of the staff were “honorary”, unpaid volunteers.

“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.

“All the other staff, totaling about 12, is honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology. “What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally. “We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial. “I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”

Cardiff claims the closure was entirely due to budgetary reasons, but I rather suspect that, contrary to Wickramasinghe’s claim, his slack work and low standards of evidence have frequently brought discredit to the university.

Don’t cry for Chandra, though. He was snapped up by the University of Buckingham to form a “centre for astrobiology”. I think that might mean he was allowed to host a webpage on their site, because he’s never had a real research unit, and I doubt that he’s been given the funds for one now.

But yeah, if you see his name on anything, or apparently any of the names in that long list of articles, you’ve found a treasure trove of pseudoscience.

Comments

  1. says

    There is definitive evidence for panspermia. Otherwise how can you explain the Starship Enterprise encountering humanoid species throughout the delta quadrant of the galaxy?

  2. cartomancer says

    The University of Buckingham is one of the UK’s only private universities. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this has some bearing on the shadiness of the people they keep company with.

  3. jazzlet says

    You can explain panspermia entirely by reference to The Doctor and other Timelord’s travels, you don’t need to resort to comets. With all of it’s external crannies the TARDIS is bound to transfer all sorts of biological material, never mind the contamination from The Doctor and his companions tramping in and out on planets all over the universe with absolutely no decontamination procedures.

  4. KG says

    cervantes@1,

    Duh! Time travel of course. All these humanoid species are the descendants of factions of the crew of the Enterprise, who werewill be marooned on various planets in yet-to-be-written series.

  5. blf says

    the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago.

    Unlikely. Whilst the earliest known octopus fossil is c.300m years old, it apparently looks very very much like a modern-day octopus, suggesting the lineage is much older:

    The oldest fossil octopus at 300 million years old is Pohlsepia mazonensis from Carboniferous Mazon Creek fossil beds in Illinois. Frustratingly, the only known specimen resembles modern octopuses with the exception of possessing eight arms and two tentacles (Kluessendorf and Doyle 2000). Until the discovery of this specimen, the oldest octopus fossils were from the Jurassic period. The discovery of a much older octopus with many features of modern octopuses indicates that they have an even longer history, albeit one that is fossil poor.

    (From I, for one, welcome our new cephalopod overlords … but what are they?: “Cephalopods are a weird group of molluscs with an extensive fossil record — except when it comes to octopuses, which remain a bit of a mystery”.)

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    As an aside, two other good Grauniad articles on our cephalopod overlords:

    ● Argonauts: the Astronauts of the Sea: “How argonaut cephalopods evolved their own architecture to return to the open ocean”.

    ● Artist resurrects obscure fossils in gorgeous living colour: “Normally depicted as lunch for other animals, illustrator Franz Anthony brings a diverse range of fossil cephalopods to life”.

    Another aside: Don’t confuse the highly dubious University of Buckingham’s Centre for Astrobiology (mentioned in the OP) with the UK Centre for Astrobiology (UKCA at the University of Edinbourgh), which seems to be a respectable outfit.

  6. blf says

    You can explain panspermia entirely by reference to The Doctor and other Timelord’s travels…

    Indeed. This is what makes the Dalek’s job — exterminating all other life — so hard: It’s not so much The Doctor keeps interfering with their specific decontamination events, but that The Doctor and TARDIS engage in panspermia throughout all of space and time, albeit not always deliberately. The Daleks cleanse one area / time, and then The Doctor contaminates it again.

  7. call me mark says

    What Wickramasinghe repeatedly fails to address… well, one thing Wickramasinghe repeatedly fails to address… is how these viruses (or octopus eggs, or whatever other magic pixie dust) survive their supposed cometary home’s entry into the atmosphere.

  8. bcwebb says

    We see the evidence of cryopreserved squid (obviously from frozen bolides) scattered about the seafood section of my supermarket every week. The markets a bit dodgy so they might indeed be millions of years old.

  9. madtom1999 says

    #7 call me mark.
    Its also the astronomical difficulties involved in accelerating things away from the ‘original’ host planet, and once you have somehow achieved that, the astronomical chance of travelling through space intact, and the astronomical chance of landing on another planet in a spot that allows you to reproduce:
    If all life on earth was pure dna and you sent it into space in all directions then by the time you get to our nearest star then you would have 1 dna molecule* per 40 square km.
    * that’s an average dna molecule so contains only a small part of what an organism in its perfect environment needs to survive if it was somehow so lucky to land in a pool of primaeval goop that was just about to spontaneously form life anyway.
    When you consider the acceleration require to launch some life from the surface of a planet say at the edge of a meteorite strike, say being accelerated 100m just to reach escape velocity of earth would shatter quart let alone dna. To achieve the velocity required to travel to the nearest star would probably ionise it even without an atmosphere!
    Panspermia requires the laws of physics to be re-written.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    One particular focus are…

    Grammar error right there in the abstract – the entire paper is invalid.

  11. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Its also the astronomical difficulties involved in accelerating things away from the ‘original’ host planet, and once you have somehow achieved that, the astronomical chance of travelling through space intact, and the astronomical chance of landing on another planet in a spot that allows you to reproduce:

    Well if the chances are astronomical that proves they HAD to have come from space!

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    richardelguru @12: Hoyle deserves a couple of major props at least; nucleosynthesis theory, and criticizing the exclusion of Jocelyn Bell from the 1974 Physics Nobel. The latter may have caused his exclusion from the 1983 prize for the former.

  13. blf says

    Owlmirror@11, Thanks! Both cartoons are hilarious.

    But, as the mildly deranged penguin points out, if you change “Transmogrification event caused by incorporation of alien viruses” to “Transmogrification event caused by incorporation of alien cheeses”, then everything works. Or at least doesn’t all taste like chicken.

  14. garnetstar says

    I thought that space was full of x-rays? Don’t know of any protective mutations to those.

    I think that octopuses first appeared on earth by springing fully formed from PZ’s head, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

  15. blf says

    I thought that space was full of x-rays? Don’t know of any protective mutations to those.

    They™ didn’t start Their™ interstellar voyage as octopodes…

  16. leerudolph says

    he’s a panspermia fanatic.

    Speaking of panspermia, Dan Graur featured a neat bit of scholarly detection on his blog earlier this week.

    I always wondered who was the first to raise this type of objection to Panspermia theories. I recently found out. It was Karl Marx. Yes, that Karl Marx.

    (Actually, he doesn’t prove that the letter he quotes was the first to “raise this type of objection”, to wit, the Objection From Indefinite Regress. But at least he’s apparently pushed the appearance of the objection back a ways. … Hey! Maybe it reached Marx from outer space!)

  17. unclefrogy says

    I also was under the impression that there was a lot of radiation in space which we were protected from by earths magnetic field. If life came from outer space wouldn’t that life be resistant to radiation?
    so how come we are rather vulnerable to radiation?
    uncle frogy

  18. Reginald Selkirk says

    unclefrogy #20: … so how come we are rather vulnerable to radiation?

    Every Christian knows that one: The Fall.

  19. microraptor says

    unclefrogy @20: Because after life fell to Earth, the protective lead exoskeleton was no longer needed.

  20. nomdeplume says

    Oh lordy, Squids from Space? Seems like fake news has erupted in academia (though it has long been there, on the fringes). When I originally read the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe idea it seemed ludicrous. Then gradually came the discoveries of more and more organic molecules in space, and water, and I thought this information provided a useful addition to our ideas about abiogenesis. That is we needn’t begin from the raw ingredients of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Calcium etc, and start from scratch to form organic molecules, which has always been a big ask, but we migh be able to start with organic molecules and assemble them, a much less daunting proposal.

    But now we come to this nonsense. How can so many “scientists” put their names to something which is essentially the old idea that flies and mice could be generated in rotting straw?

  21. komarov says

    Re: bcwebb (#8):

    We see the evidence of cryopreserved squid (obviously from frozen bolides) scattered about the seafood section of my supermarket every week. The markets a bit dodgy so they might indeed be millions of years old.

    Marvellous! I suggest you obtain a sample, date it and embed it in a suitable type of rock. Then you just have to bombard it with a slew of cosmic radiation (ideally for a billion years but maybe you can find shortcuts by fiddling with the dosage), periodically heat and cool the surface (a difference of couple hundred degrees Kelvin should suffice ot emulate a rotating body close to a star) and finally simulate reentry and splashdown before hatching the eggs. That should clear up any doubts the commentariat has put forward.

    Just be sure to have your hand ready on the “Terminate” button. What emerges from the eggs might be a super-intelligent alien invader bent on world domination. Whatever you do, don’t try to hold them captive to learn their secrets. Whenever someone tries that they inevitably get away and take over.

  22. zetopan says

    Chandra Wickramasinghe is the same buffoon who testified for the creationist side at the Dover trial, and also insisted that insects are smarter than people but they are hiding that from us. In his specific case, he might be correct.

  23. nomuse says

    Well, they start with “Cambrian EXPLOSION.” Right there in the title. It’s not quite the same dog whistle as “Darwinism” but I believe it is deprecated — and for a reason — with preference to “Cambrian Radiation.”

  24. blf says

    In Ozland, Octopuses from space, and other definitely accurate stories:

    A report by the Australian’s environment editor raised eyebrows among scientists […]

    The Australian’s environment editor, Graham Lloyd, has attracted attention this week for something other than stories about the scourge of windfarms.

    “Octopuses are from space, scientists say” was the catchy headline on Lloyd’s report about a scientific paper that claimed comets dropped the frozen eggs of octopuses from space.

    Michael Brown, an associate professor in the school of physics and astronomy at Monash University, told Weekly Beast many of the claims in the paper had been thoroughly debunked. In 2016 Snopes reported on a flurry of news stories inaccurately reporting similar octopus claims, derived from a different academic paper.

    Brown used language unsuitable for a family publication to describe some of the claims in the paper. “I suspect a professional biologist could kick even more holes in the journal article,” he said.

    Some snippets from that dreadful Australian article (link embedded in above excerpt):

    Lead authored by Australian molecular immunologist and evolutionist Edward J Steele, the international paper, Cause of the Cambrian Explosion — Terrestrial or Cosmic?, brings the pioneering work of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe on cosmic evolution firmly into the biomedical literature.

    […]

    Professor Steele’s findings challenge the conventional view that evolution of life on Earth was wholly terrestrial. The bottom line, says the new paper, is current evidence suggests we came from space, we are made of viral genes, and eventually our evolutionary legacy would in full measure return to space.

    The co-authors said: In our considered opinion in confronting the wide range of scientific data, all the scientific and ­societal evidence seemingly points in one direction, an all-pervasive cosmic biology, mediated mainly by cometary transfers, being a driver for life on Earth. We believe the signs of this change are now so apparent that one of the biggest backflips in the history of science is now on our doorstep.

    As Dr Darren Saunders observed: “I see your space octopus and raise you Ockham’s Razor.”

  25. call me mark says

    #9 @madtom1999

    Its also the astronomical difficulties involved in accelerating things away from the ‘original’ host planet

    As I understand it, Wickramasinghe has posited that the original abiogenesis event may actually happened in a comet, rather than on a planet.

    I wish I was joking.

  26. demonax says

    “University of Buckingham”-says it all.
    Thatcherian “think” tank.

  27. aziraphale says

    #29 @call me mark

    I think that was actually one of his less crazy ideas. Comets can contain large amounsts of organic molecules, and the interior of a comet is a place where chemistry can continue undisturbed by solar radiation or a hostile atmosphere.

  28. nomdeplume says

    @blf A Murdoch paper of course whose environment pages are dedicated to climate change denial. I guess if Lloyd is happy to believe in that then octopi from space seems a breeze.

  29. call me mark says

    #32 @aziraphale

    hmmm yeah but there’s not going to be a whole lot of chemistry going on at temperatures only a few degrees above absolute zero.

  30. keinsignal says

    OK correct me if I’m wrong but I was under the impression that “Cambrian Explosion” was a bit of a misnomer. It’s not so much that there was a sudden increase in the variety of lifeforms, it’s that there is an increase in the lifeforms that are represented in the fossil record, as the Cambrian is roughly the period where animals with hard body-parts are starting to take over. Obviously, a creature with an exoskeleton, shell, or other rigid bits has a much higher likelihood of leaving behind recognizable fossil traces than some squishy flatworm or amoeba.

    In other words, it seems to me like there’s no mystery here that requires explaining, unless you believe that none of the life forms on earth prior to the Cambrian would ever have developed the ability to produce hard body-parts without outside help.

  31. Tethys says

    The Cambrian Explosion refers to the observed derth of fossils in sediments older than the Cambrian. Other than the Ediacaran biotas, there are very few fossils in older strata. This may be due to the evolution of hard body parts, or might be a preservational bias due to age or environmental factors. The sun was a deadly laser until the Ordovician, and solar radiation tends to break down organic molecules rapidly. We have fossil stromatolites, and sediment fossil chemical metabolites of life that are billions of years old, but the evolution of modern oxygenated oceans probably drove the rapid proliferation of sea life that is observed beginning with the Cambrian explosion. All groups are present in the Cambrian, so clearly life had already been evolving long enough to have diverse mollusks, arthropods, echinoderms, worms, and basal vertebrates.

  32. keinsignal says

    Thanks for the follow-up, Tethys! Sounds like I was pretty close to the mark, but missed a number of factors that may have contributed to the relative scarcity of pre-Cambrian fossils. (Your “the sun was a deadly laser until the Ordovician” comment is making me want to do some research – I’m going to assume the Earth’s atmosphere lacked a well-developed ozone layer prior to that period, or something along those lines?)