We should colonize Mars, because it is inimical to human life, and therefore we’ll evolve super-fast!

Now this is high-quality click-bait: Near-Sighted Kids of Martian Colonists Could Find Sex With Earth-Humans Deadly. If only HG Wells had thought of that, his story would have had a more dramatic end as squinty-eyed Martian invaders dropped dead while trying to rape humans. The source for this peculiar claim isn’t that bad, but it’s still bad science. It’s about a guy who makes predictions about the future of human space colonists.

Solomon’s 2016 book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution, argues that evolution is still a force at play in modern humans. In an awe-inspiring TEDx talk in January 2018 — which inexplicably still has fewer than 1,000 views — Solomon outlined how humans would change — literally — after spending a generation or two living on Mars.

There’s the problem. These ideas are coming out of a TED talk, which is a good source for misinformation. I listened to it, and it was not awe-inspiring at all, but bad: it starts with the Elon-Muskian notion that the human race is doomed if we stay on Earth and we need to colonize other worlds. He lists a few ways we might go extinct, like a meteor strike, or erupting super-volcanoes, or using up all the resources on Earth. But he has a solution! One way to avoid such a fate would be to spread out beyond Earth, venturing out into the galaxy the way our ancestors spread from our birthplace in Africa.

I felt like raising my hand and mentioning that one and a quarter billion people still live in Africa, and that there are a lot of people who might wonder who you’re talking to with that “our ancestors” comment.

I’d also want to mention that changes occurring within two generations are going to be physiological adaptations, not evolutionary changes.

And galaxy? Seriously? He’s talking about a pie-in-the-sky effort to colonize Mars, practically our neighbor yet still almost impossible to reach. If we’ve got our pick of the entire galaxy, surely there are better choices than a cold, arid rock that is uninhabitable by humans.

It gets worse from there.

It’s a weird talk. The first half is all about how awful life on Mars would be for our species: the greatly reduced gravity is going to lead to calcium depletion and brittle bones, and much greater complications in pregnancy. The radiation is going to be a severe, even lethal problem — he points out that a native of Mars would receive 5,000 times the radiation dose of an inhabitant of Earth. Babies born on Mars will bear thousands of times more mutations than Earth babies, so miscarriages will be far more common.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a hell-hole, that the tiny population of humans who make it to Mars will be rapidly eliminated by fierce attrition, and that any colony will be far more doomed than anyone remaining on Earth. Not to this guy! He makes some very positive predictions about what will happen to this remote colony.

Far from waiting thousands of years to witness minuscule changes, Solomon instead believes that humans going to Mars could be on the verge of an evolutionary rollercoaster. He expects, among other things, that their bones will be stronger, their sight shorter, and that they’ll, at some point, have to stop having sex with Earth-humans.

But how? Solomon has an almost religious faith in the power of natural selection. Sure, there’ll be lots more mutations, but that just means evolutionary changes that might require thousands of years on Earth will occur in a few generations on Mars. He sort of sails over the fact that his hypothesis bypasses any opportunity for natural selection to work. He’s relying entirely on wishful thinking, that because brittle bones are a problem, a spontaneous mutation that counters it will arise, and rapidly spread through the colony…in a couple of generations. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the cost of selection. You’ve already got a tiny population, and you’re proposing that rare mutations will displace the majority of the individuals in a few generations? What kind of genetic load is he predicting? What is the effective population size of your colony?

“Evolution is faster or slower depending on how much of an advantage there is to having a certain mutation,” Solomon says. “If a mutation pops up for people living on Mars, and it gives them a 50-percent survival advantage, that’s a huge advantage, right? And that means that those individuals are going to be passing those genes on at a much higher rate than they otherwise would have.”

So we’re expecting an extremely rare advantageous mutation with extremely high adaptive value to “pop up” in a colony, while ignoring the greater likelihood of lethal or sterilizing mutations. We’ve got predictable increases in short-term adapations, like rising near-sightedness rates from living in close spaces, but we’ll pretend the predictable increases in cancer rates are negligible. Further, this population undergoing constant, rapid die-off with a few very rare benign mutations will, among other things, lose immune responses due to living in a sterile environment, which is how they’ll lose the ability to have sex with, or even contact with filthy Earth-humans, preventing the possibility of replacement of losses with new immigrants.

But cool, they might evolve new skin tones to cope with the radiation, because turning orange with more carotenes in your skin will be sufficiently protective to compensate for all the other damages.

He’s at least vaguely aware that they’re going to need a large, rich source of human genetic diversity to get all this “evolution” going.

It also means Musk and others will need to consider genetic diversity, to ensure a good mix throughout the population. Solomon argues for around 100,000 people migrating to Mars over the course of a few years, with the majority from Africa, as that is where humans see the greatest genetic diversity.

“If I were designing a human colony on Mars, I would want a population that would be hundreds of thousands of people, with representatives of every human population here on Earth,” Solomon says.

OK, how? At least this is a good example of a biologist telling physicists to do the impossible, rather than vice versa, but I’m just thinking this is silly. The resources required to ship hundreds of thousands of people to a place where the majority are going to die and fail might be better spent improving the sustainability of life on Earth. At least he did early on acknowledge that resource depletion might be a factor that would limit survivability, it just wasn’t clear that he wanted to engineer a situation to make his prophecy come true.

Finally, the fact that his solution relies entirely on unpredictable, chance mutations occurring so rapidly that natural selection has no time to work means that his fundamental premise, that he can make predictions about the fate of human colonies on other worlds, is absolute rubbish.

I don’t mind a little optimism, but it’s the internal contradictions and neglect of basic facts that gets to me.

Everyone knows you have to leaven your evolutionary psychology with Jung, though

Adam Rutherford thought this quiz on evolutionary psychology might cheer me up. The laugh is on him: nothing will cheer me up.*

It’s a good quiz, though, and I like the pre-emptive question at the end.

“Why does this quiz only attack strawmen? Why does it fail to address very serious claims, like (((human biodiversity))), or how young women are genetically programmed to prefer older men even though older men’s dicks don’t work? Where can I address my angry emails? Are you making fun of me? Evolutionary psychology is very serious business! I AM TALKING TO YOU. MEN ARE TALKING.”

In your angry response to the editors, choose the extinct animal you believe most encapsulates your prehistoric rage. Please provide a plausible explanation of how you would take down this animal with only a few pointy sticks and no knowledge of modern physics. Since your ancestors were naturally selected to hunt these animals, and you’ve inherited their genes, you should be fully capable of the task.

a. Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

b. Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus)

c. Sabretooth tiger (Smilodon)

d. Dire wolf (Canis dirus)

The only problem with the question is that EP proponents live a rich fantasy life in which they are the manliest of men, and their disconnection from reality means they will regard an answer like, “I will wrestle the mammoth and club it to death with my penis” as perfectly plausible.

*OK, maybe something — my daughter and granddaughter are coming to visit this weekend. But it should tell you something that it’s going to take such extreme happy stimulus to make me crack a smile.

I almost felt pity for evolutionary psychology

I detest evolutionary psychology. I consider it to be bad evolutionary biology, bad psychology, and just plain bad science. But there is something I detest even more, and that’s when evolutionary psychologists try to confidently explain why I dislike evolutionary psychology, and get everything wrong. Today I stumbled across a masterpiece of the genre, which on top of every other problem, is incredibly badly written to the point of incoherence.

It’s titled “Four Reasons why Evolutionary Psychology is Controversial”, by Bernard Crespi. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t even consider the idea that maybe it’s just wrong. He charges off with a bunch of assertions about why some people dislike it, and misses the mark most of the time.

Evolutionary psychology, like sociobiology or Marxism, has become associated with controversy. Why should it, and why has it? Yes, debates about evolution totter endlessly along, and psychology remains a discipline that sometimes seems orphaned by both humanities and the hard sciences.

So evolution is “controversial”?; but it isn’t, not among scientists. Likewise, psychology isn’t controversial. It’s a real science tackling some of the most complex phenomena we know of, human behavior. There are healthy debates about specifics and methodology and even some general principles, but this doesn’t mean they’re “controversial” as a whole.

Why should combining psychology and evolution ignite a confabulation of loathing, fear, and scientific vitriol?

This is what I mean by incoherence. He’s just said evolution is controversial, and psychology is controversial, and now asks, why should combining two controversial things be controversial? His thesis is a mess. I would say instead that the question is about why forcing two different & valid disciplines together would produce an unpopular mish-mash, but that’s not where he’s going. Among other things, he’s going to express contempt for psychology, and argue that the virtue of evolution is its extreme reductionism. Ick.

Four reasons, by my reckoning.

Yes, he’s got four bad reasons. Let’s go through them.

First, not only do we (here, a royal ‘we’ of evolutionary biologists like myself) expect very many people to not understand evolution, because it is too simple and mechanistic for our meaning-laden world;

Wait. That’s just wrong. People who do understand evolution will tell you that it’s complex, subtle, and mathematical; there are a few core ideas that Darwin came up with that you can pick up by reading a 160 year old book, but it has become rather more sophisticated since the Origin. But now he’s going to begin by giving us a cartoon version of evolution that is simple, and wrong.

we also predict that people should reject evolution because one of its core provisos is that people, you and me, should generally behave so as to maximize their relative fitness.

But…but…that’s not true. Much of human behavior is irrational. We have drives that often lead us to do stupid things that compromise our fitness. Isn’t that one of the important ideas of modern economics?

Maybe one of the reasons that people reject Crespi’s version of evolution is that it is trivially falsified.

Competition, survival, reproduction, of the fittest? Not me, you? For shame.

Someone explain to me what he’s trying to say here.

Evolutionary theory indeed predicts that we should each believe, or at least rationalize, ourselves to be mutualistic, altruistic, and moral nearly to a fault, because that is one of the best ways to get the edge on, or into, our competitors, be they individuals or other groups1.

As a counterexample…Donald Trump. While he may certainly believe that he is a saint, his behavior is not mutualistic, altruistic, or moral. I really don’t understand how Crespi expects to make an assertion without evidence, of a claim that we can trivially counter, and expect us to be persuaded.

So are you a believer now?


Evolution is controversial because its very existence seems to attack our core beliefs about our own goodness, and the biggest questions regarding human purpose.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Yes, I can accept this one sentence, because materialistic, secular ideas about human origins do undermine social and religious conventions, and strip humanity of an external source of purpose. But the statement about core beliefs about our own goodness is just weird, living in a culture where the dominant religious traditions all claim that we are inherently hellbound sinners, that our nature is evil, requiring divine intervention to save us. Also, he’s just going to abandon this point and plummet forward.

Second, psychology purports to study the brain, but can it do so scientifically, like other disciplines?

Psychology studies behavior, not the brain, although there are interdisciplinary scientists who study the physiological mechanisms underlying behavior. So ok, why is it questionable whether psychology is a science?

Will generating questionnaires, and treating humans in modern, novel environments like lab rats, illuminate the inner-workings of the most complicated known structure in our universe?

“Generating questionnaires”, which is not the only technique psychologists have at their disposal, is simply one mechanism for observing human behavior. Putting humans in novel environments is an experimental method. So psychology uses both observation and experiment, key parts of the scientific method, so what’s the complaint here?

The hard sciences are hard because they are reductionistic – they infer mechanisms, processes, parts that, combined together, explain the workings of whole systems.

Reductionism, especially the kind of naive reductionism Crespi seems to be advocating, is not the be-all and end-all of a science — not evolutionary biology and not psychology. There is a place for synthesis and emergent behavior in both disciplines.

They conduct controlled, predictive experiments.

Like psychology does?

They have conceptual frameworks built from math and data, not fashion.

Like psychology does?

Look, “hard” and “soft” sciences are colloquial buzzwords that do not reflect the actual methodology of the labeled disciplines. I know too many psychologists, so-called soft scientists, who apply more mathematical and statistical rigor to their work than I, a “hard scientist”, do. I get away with it because I work with simpler phenomena that have a higher degree of reproducibility, and fewer confounding variables. So far the only thing Crespi is saying is that he has an irrational bias against psychology.

So armed, they ratchet forward, fact by incontrovertible fact. ‘Soft’ disciplines are soft because they reject reduction, and indeed often claim post-modern relativity for all.

That’s pure nonsense. Most psychology studies are strong examples of reduction, attempts to simplify and quantify complex phenomena by reducing variables. His statement that they “claim post-modern relativity” is garbage, another common buzzword thrown about by lazy incompetents. Citation fucking needed.

Psychology is a soft science because it cannot reduce – there is no place to go except neuroscience, which would swallow it up with nary a belch, given the chance.

I come from a background in neuroscience — in biology, we do a lot of work on single cells, or small manageable networks of cells. Psychologists are looking at a whole different level of behavior. This assertion is assuming that complex, higher-level behavior is derivable from the biophysics of individual cells. It is not.

Evolutionary biology is historical but also reductionist, in that it specifies the precise set of processes whereby all phenotypes have come to be, and change, and it tells us how to discover what functions they serve.

Say what? With few exceptions, we don’t have the “precise set of processes” — we have general models with predictive power. We certainly don’t know how all phenotypes have come to be, or what functions every phenotype serves. This is kind of a charitable panglossian optimism that he refuses to apply to any other discipline, and that also plays right into the hands of creationists. But now we get into the revealing stuff.

As such, it illuminates all domains of science, from genetic sequence through to human behavior – or at least would, if allowed to by academic practitioners. Psychology is controversial because it is a soft science trying to answer the hardest of question, how the brain works. It can’t.

“If allowed to by academic practitioners” — there’s a reason that the majority of academics do not accept this smug reductionist view that you can explain behavior with genes — it’s false. We can’t.

Psychology is the study of mind and behavior. It tries to answer questions appropriate to its purview. To bring up a question not within its purview and criticize it for failing to answer it is dishonest and deceptive.

Third, evolutionary psychology was forged in a crucible of polemic, as specific schools of thought, such as the school of highly-modular fitness-increasing brain functions developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. These researchers staked out strong claims, trained talented students, and attacked intellectually-neighboring tribes.

Yes, they invited controversy by modeling the evolution of the brain in ways that they could not support with evidence, and postulating structures (“modules”) that were poorly defined and lacking in actual support. That’s the primary problem, not that their students were evangelical about it all.

Adopting one side of polarized viewpoints, and sticking to it, remains a highly-effective route to scientific notoriety, even though in almost all such fierce academic battles both sides are partially correct, and both partially wrong.

“They were just doing it for the clicks.” I’ve seen that argument before. Also this weird claim that both sides are equally wrong and the truth lies in the middle. Bleh.

We are a deeply tribal species, and we love observing, or joining in, a good scrap. In this case, though, an entire emerging, integrative field has become conflated with extreme views of how the mind thinks, which has made for inviting targets but distracted from the much more general usefulness of evolutionary thinking.

Yeah, why can’t everyone just use the methods of evolutionary biology to answer their questions? No matter what they are. Also, precisely what is this emerging field integrating? I would think it’s evolutionary biology plus psychology, but we already know Crespi despises psychology. Why would you praise a field for fusing with a discipline you detest?

Will psychology eventually be torn asunder, like anthropology has been into post-modern, anti-evolutionary ‘culturalists’ versus mainstream but human-centric and evolution-minded biologists? Will economics? One can only hope.

So. Much. Bad. Writing.

And so much right-wing buzzwording. “Post-modern” is always a good insult for people who don’t understand it, and no, I don’t see cultural anthropology as abandoning evolution. What about economics?

“One can only hope” … what? Is he saying that tearing disciplines asunder is a desirable outcome?

Fourth, ‘psyche’ indeed means ‘soul’, and for psychologists, the hostile tribes of evolutionary biology threaten to steal it away, and subsume their discipline in its mechanistic, reductionist embrace.


He’s making an argument from etymology? Because “psychology” is called “psychology” does not imply that all psychologists therefore believe in souls.

The irony here is that if there is any discipline that has no soul – that is, no unifying conceptual framework – it is psychology, which has flitted from one arbitrary, more or less imaginary construct to the next since Wilhelm Wundt began treating introspection as data.

Now we redefine “soul”. Jeez, but Crespi is annoyingly tendentious.

Of course psychology has produced deeply fascinating insights over its many years. Of course we need a top-down approach to understanding how the brain works, to meet neuroscience inexorably burrowing up from the bottom. But don’t we need a mind-set that recognizes that the brain and mind have evolved, like finches and opposable thumbs?

Yes, psychology has a niche and works well within it. However, there is nothing in psychology that implies that the brain has not evolved.

Any discipline would fight like hell to defend its very existence, or at least resist radical transformation at the hands of competitors. Controversy indeed often leads to scientific revolution, with casualties on both sides.

Where is this nonsense coming from? The existence of psychology is not imperiled by evolution, or by knowledge about the material structure of the brain, so this is a purely imaginary conflict. All the psychologists I know have been fairly materialistic and see biology of the brain as complementary to their work.

So let’s wrap all this tangled trash with Crespi’s grand conclusion.

Evolutionary psychology is like evolutionary anything: it is founded on a way of thinking about how the world works, how it has come to be, and how to understand it. It works by telling us what hypotheses to test, what data to collect, and how to interpret our results. The fires of controversy over this emerging field have generated both heat and light, but better understanding of their sources will, I think, help us to control the flames and put them to better use.

I’m trying to wade through his metaphor. He seems to be equating evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology (they aren’t the same at all), and that the controversies over evolutionary psychology are interfering with its assimilation of psychology (boo, hiss). To summarize his four incoherent arguments for why EP is controversial:

  1. Evolution is simple, reductionist, and predicts humans are altruistic, therefore it is good.
  2. Psychology isn’t synonymous with neurobiology, therefore it is soft and bad. Psychology just plain sucks.
  3. Evolutionary psychology is controversial, which makes it popular.
  4. Psychology sucks, part 2, because it has no soul, and evolutionary biology steals souls, and besides, psychology doesn’t recognize that the brain evolved.

This is simply bad logic.

I don’t think psychology should just accept the dominion of evolutionary psychology, because EP is wrong — it’s a purely adaptationist paradigm built on flawed preconceptions and lazy methodology. EP can’t possibly test assumptions about the evolution of the human mind over the last 100,000 years by facile observations of Western middle-class college students. Especially not when it’s defenders don’t understand evolution at all, and reduce everything to blind adaptationism.

But then, this article by Crespi is so awful that I can imagine all the evolutionary psychologists begging for him not to help them anymore.

Wildly exaggerating dinosaur technology as a recipe for attention

It’s happening again. I’m seeing the idea of dinosaurs being resurrected in the lab in the news again. It happens all the time. I saw it in 2009; in 2013, they were predicting it would happen within 5 years (what year is it now?). Ever since, there are these frequent outbursts of “scientists say they can recreate living dinosaurs!”,
over and over and over and over again. They always say “scientists”, plural, but if you plow through that deluge of articles, it always turns out to be one scientist, singular, and that scientist is Jack Horner. One man is constantly making this claim, usually with references to Jurassic Park so that credulous reporters will understand it.

Let’s stop, OK?

In theory, we may someday be able to genetically modify extant organisms to give them attributes associated with dinosaurs — sharp teeth, long claws, long tail, etc. — but they will not be recreating dinosaurs. They would be creating organisms of no practical utility and only the most tenuous connection to dinosaurs. They would be big ugly variations on modern birds, which could nominally be called “dinosaurs”, but we don’t need Frankenstein’s lab to do that…just go look up emus and ostriches.

Horner’s skills are in paleontology. Doing this would require expertise in genetics, molecular biology, and development. He doesn’t have that. He just keeps getting up in front of journalists and lay audiences and announcing that can do that. I think he has just enough smarts that he recognizes an eventual possibility, but not enough knowledge to appreciate how difficult what he wants is.

He’s a perfect example of the cocky ol’ white man confidently declaring that something will be done, while not knowing how to do it, and the press throws all skepticism and concern for evidence to the winds because, well, how can you doubt the credibility of a successful white man? If anyone else said this (and no one else is), they would be dismissed as a crackpot.

But hey, he’s got a reference: a 1990 science fiction novel by a Luddite whose primary point was that science was overrated and technology was evil. That’s pretty much it.

If you think Horner is prescient and wise, I’ll just remind you that, in his late 60s, he married a 19 year old undergraduate student (which did not produce so much as a reprimand from his university, surprisingly. Or not.)

I repeat: making a monster chicken might be possible with a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of molecular/genetic expertise. There is no motivation to do so, no big initiative to make it happen, no cutting edge team of biotechnologists working away in a secret lab to “recreate” dinosaurs. There is one old guy making extravagant claims to gullible audiences.

Stop treating this as news, please.

Are you thinking of trusting the internet?

Don’t. I stumbled across this on Quora, a site that seems to specialize in collecting uninformed questions from ignorant people, and allowing other ignorant people to provide misinformation.

You may notice that it has 513 views. It also had about 40 upvotes, meaning 40 people read this and came away thinking they’d learned something.

It’s very confusing. So, if I’m planning a cannibal meal, and a right-handed person eats my left-handed victim, does everything just pass through (great if you’re trying to lose weight!), or does it turn all my dinner guests left-handed?

Writing synopses of science articles is hard

Really, it’s harder than you think. Individual science papers typically build on a larger body of knowledge and don’t stand alone; it is assumed that the reader has significant amounts of training in the subject at hand so that the authors don’t bother to fill in all the background. When writing a summary of the article for a general audience, one has to provide a lot of context, without simply reiterating the contents of, for instance, a molecular biology textbook and a year’s worth of upper level biology education. And if someone writing a summary of an article lacks that knowledge altogether, the misinterpretations can be disastrously wrong.

Take this article in TechTimes, Massive Genetic Study Reveals 90 Percent Of Earth’s Animals Appeared At The Same Time. The title alone is creationist clickbait, and the author of the story clearly didn’t understand the article at all. She gets it all wrong.

Landmark new research that involves analyzing millions of DNA barcodes has debunked much about what we know today about the evolution of species.

In a massive genetic study, senior research associate at the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University Mark Stoeckle and University of Basel geneticist David Thaler discovered that virtually 90 percent of all animals on Earth appeared at right around the same time.

More specifically, they found out that 9 out of 10 animal species on the planet came to being at the same time as humans did some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

No, it didn’t. The paper says nothing of the kind.

The paper is an analysis of DNA barcodes. DNA barcoding is a process that uses a short stretch of mitochondrial DNA to map an individual organism to a species — it’s a technique that lets you look at a sample of a few cells, amplify and sequence a single gene (COI or COX1 are commonly used in animals), and then unambiguously identify the specific species those cells came from. Being able to do this relies on an interesting property of a species: there is limited variance in the barcode sequence within the species, but there has to be greater variance of that sequence from other, even closely related species. In other words, DNA barcodes form tight little clusters of similarity that correlate well with other criteria for defining a species.

That raises questions. You can read the original article, Why should mitochondria define species?, for yourself and see. The question is about why variations within a species should cluster so tightly. Stoeckle and Thaler propose a couple of hypotheses to explain that phenomenon.

Either 1) COI barcode clusters represent species-specific adaptations, OR 2) extant populations have recently passed through diversity-reducing regimes whose consequences for sequence diversity are indistinguishable from clonal bottlenecks.

It’s a meaty paper that goes through the evidence for both of those hypotheses, and I’m wishing I’d seen this paper last semester, when I was teaching evolutionary biology — there is a lot of useful evolutionary thinking going on here. Maybe I can revoke all of my students’ degrees and tell them they have to come back for one last thing? I think we can go through the paper adequately in about a week, so I’m sure they won’t mind.

Their final conclusion, after analyzing millions of barcodes, is fairly straightforward, I think.

The simple hypothesis is that the same explanation offered for the sequence variation found among modern humans applies equally to the modern populations of essentially all other animal species. Namely that the extant population, no matter what its current size or similarity to fossils of any age, has expanded from mitochondrial uniformity within the past 200,000 years.

This is not saying that there was a single instant in the last 200,000 years from which all modern species arose simultaneously. It’s a statement about the process of speciation: species arise from isolation of a limited subset of an existing population, which is why they have limited variation in their DNA barcodes, followed by an expansion of the new species’ population, during which the DNA barcodes accumulate variation slowly.

No, they did not find out “that 9 out of 10 animal species on the planet came to being at the same time as humans did some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago”. New species arise continuously, but they do so by going through a population bottleneck in geologically recent times. Homo sapiens arose as a distinct species between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, but that notorious London Underground mosquito may have evolved in the 18th century…which is still within the past 200,000 years, you may notice.

It’s a bit like reading a statement that almost all people are less than 100 years old, and then wondering, publicly and in print, about what happened in 1918 to cause every human being on Earth to have been suddenly born in that year. That must have been some orgy to celebrate the end of the Great War.


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.

Esoteric: intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest

Even a small cult can be incredibly profitable. There’s this freaky alternative medicine quack in Australia who runs a scam called Universal Medicine — his specialties are “esoteric breast massage”, “esoteric ovary massage”, and “connective tissue therapy”. My first objection has to be that he doesn’t understand what “esoteric” means.

The esoteric principle is that we are love – innately and, unchangeably. The principles of the esoteric way of life date back to the oldest forms of knowledge and wisdom. Whilst ancient in their heritage, the principles of the esoteric life in human form have not out-dated themselves in relation to what is required of mankind to live in harmony and thus arrest any wayward conduct that does not build brotherhood within and amongst our communities everywhere.

The esoteric means that which comes from our inner-most. It is the livingness of love that we all carry equally deep within and it is this livingness that restores each and every individual back into the rhythms of their inner-harmony and thus from there, the love is lived with all others.

You want to know more? Here’s a short documentary on Serge Benhayon, the guy who founded it. He’s a bankrupted ex-tennis coach with no medical degree, not even the slightest training, and he came up with the idea for his ‘therapy’ while sitting on the toilet. But he’s also the reincarnated spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, so you can trust him. Right.

He’s raking in $2 million a year, and he has 700 followers. I’ve got more followers than that! You slackers have not been sending me a sufficient fraction of your income. All you have to do is go to my donation page and type in the amount of $3000 and click send, and if 700 of you do that, I’ll have made somewhat more than Serge Benhayon. Even better, unlike Serge, I promise not to fondle your breasts and groin or stick you with acupuncture needles.

Ick. That sounds like a threat. Even if you don’t send me any money, I promise not to do that. I think I just realized why I’m not getting rich. I’m not extortionate enough.

Anyway, one of his many laughable comments in that video is this one:

I can’t be brainwashing intelligent people and educated people.

Ha. Intelligent and educated people are just as easy to fool as anyone else. You just need the right hook, and you can sucker ’em right in. (Damn, again — just realized another reason I’m not making a fortune is that I’m not tapping enough suckers with the right bait.)

Case in point: it turns out that Benhayon has followers in the University of Queensland medical school who have been pissing pro-UM stories into the scientific literature.

Mr Benhayon’s acolytes include Christoph Schnelle, a UQ faculty of medicine researcher who was the lead author of three articles on UM health practices.

He and eight co-authors are now under scrutiny for an alleged failure to declare their roles in what has been described as “a dangerous cult” by Professor Dwyer, who is now based at the University of New South Wales.

The ABC has obtained video of four of the researchers publicly advocating UM practices, including two doctors.

Two more researchers are presenters at the Benhayon-founded College of Universal Medicine.

The others are a naturopath and a psychologist who practice at UM’s Brisbane clinic, and a director of its UK-based charity.

See? You can fool educated people.

By the way, Benhayon calls the ‘esoteric’ practices of Universal Medicine the “Way of the Livingness”. More like the Way of the Banality.

That’s quite the just-so story you’re selling, Atlantic

Are your eyes in need of a little rolling exercise? Get ready to read The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction. Here’s how it begins:

Picture this: It’s 45,000 years ago and a small Pleistocene clan is gathered by a campfire. The night is bone cold and black and someone—let’s call him Ernest—begins telling a story.

Lips waxy with boar grease, Ernest boasts of his morning hunt. He details the wind in the grass, the thick clouds overhead, the long plaintive wail of the boar as his spear swiftly entered its heart.

The clan is riveted.

Among them sits a moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories. Every now and then she pipes up to praise or decimate a tale. Tonight she says, “Excellent work. Unsurpassed.” Ernest breathes a sigh of relief.

Let’s call the girl Michiko.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ridge, there’s another tribe, where John is telling his hunting story. Except he sucks, and the story falls flat, and everyone shrugs and goes to bed.

And then, later, John’s tribe goes extinct. The end.

That’s it. No evidence, no data, no actual measurements of any survival benefit to storytelling, one invented number (is there a benefit to good storytelling? “If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes”), and the author comes to the conclusion that good stories enhances survival and makes the talespinner sexy (well, an author would say that, wouldn’t they?)

It is literally a just-so story, and nothing more. Nothing. It’s someone sitting at a keyboard fantasizing about how important their writing skills are on an evolutionary scale, and inventing a series of rationalizations.

It’s terrible.

I guess I’m going to have to predict the imminent extinction of every member of the tribe who writes for the Atlantic, if this story were true.

By the way, after being named, Michiko doesn’t appear in the story any more. The first critic, and she doesn’t even make it to the next page.