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Promethian panspermia

One of my Creationist friends recently questioned my enthusiasm for Ridley Scott's new film "Prometheus." He tweeted:

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I tweeted in return:


He replied:

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Intelligent Design is the disguise by which Creationists are attempting to infiltrate American schoolrooms and textbooks with their theology. I have no problem at all that they believe God created the heavens, earth and Man, and on the seventh day, he rested. They can even believe that this happened around 10,000 years ago, as about 46% of Americans do.

What I object to is the fraudulent "science" by which they attempt to smuggle this religious belief into classrooms. A Biblical explanation for creation no more belongs in a textbook than any other creation myth, such as the Native American belief than we were all given birth by an Earth Mother, with a Spider Women acting as midwife. Now that ID has been thoroughly debunked, the tactic has shifted to: "Teach the controversy." In science, there is no controversy.

My friend Randy argues, "Purpose is the core of ID. If you can detect design, infer a designer. Or, an 'engineer' in Prometheus. Design is scientific." This is often followed by the parable of a man finding a stopwatch and inferring that it had to have been designed, because it could hardly have assembled itself. From there it is but a short step to assume that the complexities of the human body must have been designed, and that the Designer must have been God.

"This is science," he assures us. Actually, no, it is a religious belief. There is a scientific hypothesis called the Theory of Evolution that suggests how life might have evolved over an immensity of time into the countless varieties we find on Earth. This hypothesis has been described as the most proven and valuable of all scientific theories, and holds up to the rigor of the Scientific Method. Intelligent Design fails that test.

But Evolution has been discussed before on this blog, and perhaps we need not return to it today. What I want to discuss is "Prometheus." Yes, I think it's terrific science fiction, in the golden age tradition curated by John W. Campbell Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later renamed Analog). In his pages sci-fi might be wildly imaginative, but he had no room for fantasy. Evolution is science. Creationism is fantasy.

"Prometheus" begins with a provocative sequence on a planet I take to be Earth. A spaceship hovers, and a humanoid emerges from it. This being stands on a ledge next to rushing waters. Ingesting an unidentified substance, it doubles in pain, vomits, and fragments. Its pieces fall into the water, where we see them multiplying into cells? And from these cells presumably human life comes to earth.

In theory a planet containing water could evolve life on its own. What we see of Presumed Earth has no vegetation, but maybe there are trees and grasses elsewhere. There can be no doubt, however, that this incident was the beginning of Man. Spoiler! That is proven by the most startling discovery by the crew of the Prometheus--that the beings they discover on the distant planet-sized moon called LV-423 have DNA that is identical to ours. That two races in far-separate parts of the galaxy would develop identical DNA is, we can agree, highly unlikely. That one race would leave behind cave drawings pointing the way to LV-423 closes the case.

Randy is tickled that a secularist like me might be okay with Panspermia as an "origin of life." He's missing a footnote here. Panspermia has nothing to say about the origin of life. It is a theory, promoted by Sir Fred Hoyle and others, that primitive life forms might be able to survive traveling long distances through space, embedded for example in asteroids or meteoroids, and that if such a life-bearing object collided with Earth a long time ago, it might have brought life here for the first time. Some scientists suggest chunks of Mars or Earth may have ended up on the other planet after being torn off by a vast collision, and that Mars may have "seeded" Earth. I don't much hold with these theories.

Every now and again there is great excitement when molecular evidence of life is allegedly found in a meteorite. (Wikipedia: "In August 2009, NASA scientists identified one of the fundamental chemical building-blocks of life (the amino acid glycine) in a comet for the first time.") New discoveries continue ("On August 8, 2011, a report, based on NASA studies with meteorites found on Earth, was published suggesting building blocks of DNA (adenine, guanine and related organic molecules) may have been formed extraterrestrially in outer space.")

So Randy is right that I have no problem with the possibility that life could survive a journey from one place in the universe to another. What we know from research on earth is that life is resilient and ingenious, and found from the boiling plumes of the ocean deeps to the arid tops of South American volcanoes. There is no reason for a secularist or anyone else to doubt this.

What happens in "Prometheus" doesn't seem to fall under the definition of Panspermia, however, and seems more related to various creation myths. One of the most common myths suggests "life generating from the corpse or dismembered parts of an originator deity." That the alien at the beginning of "Prometheus" died so that we might live seems almost Christ-like.

Some problems arise with the timeline. Physical evidence suggests that very primitive life may have appeared on Earth within a billion years after our planet's formation about 4.5 billion years ago. That would suggest that the advanced humanoid who appears at the beginning of the movie had a very long head start on us. Yet these same beings have colonized LV-423 much more recently, within the past tens of thousands of years, as suggested by the film's cave drawings seeming to point the way to LV-423. For a race to survive over billions of years tests the imagination. For it to evolve such adaptations as deadly detachable parts paints a grim picture of its home planet.

Remember that the Prometheus crew concludes that the alien race did not originate on LV-423. Its planet of origin remains unknown. LV-423 represents some kind of outpost, and the atmosphere inside the pyramid has been "terraformed" so that it's breathable for humans. What is this way-station for? It's a puzzlement that the aliens, once awakened, immediately go into attack mode, trying to kill their human visitors in all manner of unpleasant ways. Did they have a meeting on their home planet and agree, "Once we seed Earth, let's build an outpost on LV-423, and if the Earthlings ever get that far, let's wipe them out."

I wish the scientists on board "Prometheus" had discussed such questions. Or maybe I don't. The questions are there to be asked, but while they're under attack there's no time. The film simply winks in passing at the difference in opinion between Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace)--who wears a cross around her neck and believes life had a divine origin--and a crew member who accuses her, a scientist, of dismissing centuries of Darwinism.

So she is. Hardly any legitimate scientists dismiss the Theory of Evolution, although some of them also believe God was the first cause. You don't need to be an atheist to be a Darwinian. If this alien race "engineered" life on earth, that leaves its own origin completely open, and doesn't remotely require that they are gods.

I suppose I would be a cockeyed optimist to expect the sequel to confront such questions. Given the majesty of Ridley Scott's art direction, CGI and production design, however, I'd love to get a look at the home planet of the aliens. Maybe they're not all stuffed with wormy things to slither down our throats.


 Correction, 11:10 a.m. 6/12: It is LV-423, not LV-422.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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