Panspermia Redux

Scientists Look to Sky-gods to Explain the Origin of Life

Some ideas are as old as the hills. Take panspermia for example, a Greek word meaning “seeds everywhere.” Originally proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in the fifth century BC, the idea posits that life did not originate on Earth but was delivered here from somewhere else in space. And while panspermia enjoyed a resurgence at the beginning of the 20th century in the writings of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, it was put on much more prominent footing in the 1960s when it was championed by the late British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle and the Sri Lankan-born mathematician Chandra Wickramasinghe. But while many of the ideas about panspermia have been sidelined by the mainstream scientific community, they have never really gone away.

That’s because advances in our understanding of the development of life on earth have identified many intractable problems for the evolutionary paradigm, such as the origin of life; the Cambrian explosion, with its explosive emergence of 80 percent of all known animal body plans; and even the origin of human intelligence. These problems have forced some scientists to come up with alternative explanations to explain away these events: Life on Earth came from outer space!

What Are the Chances?

In a fascinating peer-reviewed article published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology titled Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic?,” a team of 33 researchers across many disciplines in the biological, physical, and social sciences produced a 21-page review of the literature on panspermia. It turns out some extraordinary claims were made. Starting with the origin of life, the authors write:

The transformation of an ensemble of appropriately chosen biological monomers (e.g., amino acids, nucleotides) into a primitive living cell capable of further evolution appears to require overcoming an information hurdle of super-astronomical proportions, an event that could not have happened within the timeframe of the earth itself, except we believe, as a miracle. All laboratory experiments to simulate such an event have thus far led to dismal failure.

So, since the odds of life spontaneously arising on earth present a hurdle of “super-astronomical proportions,” the 33 authors conclude that life must have arisen somewhere else, rather than on earth. They suggest that some of the estimated 100 billion comets in our solar system must have seeded life on our planet. They cite additional evidence in support of their claim, such as the presence of microbial life on the planet dating back nearly 4 billion years.

Appealing to the estimated 1022 “habitable” planets likely to exist in the Universe as a much grander “cosmic biosphere,” they say we should not look at earth as an isolated example of a life-bearing world. By habitable, they simply mean those planets located close enough to their host stars to allow liquid water to exist on the surface.

But in his book Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity's Home, Christian astronomer, Dr. Hugh Ross, has pointed out that thirteen habitability factors must be met for a planet to sustain life. Having liquid water on the surface is only one of them. This makes the odds of finding a planetary system beyond the solar system where all the necessary factors overlap essentially indistinguishable from zero, according to Ross.

Worse still, some 90 percent of stars can be ruled out because they are either too small and unstable or too large to allow life to flourish. The likely reality is that the vast majority of the estimated 1022 “habitable” worlds in the Universe can effectively be ruled out as life-permitting sites.

Octopus Eggs from the Sky?!

The review article also takes issue with the standard ideas biologists have provided to try to explain away the Cambrian explosion (the sudden appearance of a whole raft of complex animal species with no credible evolutionary antecedents). The authors propose instead that the seeding of earth with retroviruses carried along on comets or meteorites could have provided the necessary genetic information to kick-start the novel and highly complex gene regulatory networks necessary for these complex animals to flourish.

They suggest that the integration of endogenous retroviral DNA into the genomes of pre-Cambrian organisms resulted in a radical re-wiring of their embryonic development, thus leading to entirely novel animal forms.

They even suggest that evolutionary anomalies, such as the octopus, came about when their eggs literally fell to earth from outer space! Unfortunately, the authors were unable to describe exactly how such novel genomic rearrangement could have occurred in this way, and the careful reader is left entirely in the dark regarding a plausible mechanism.

Panspermia, Dodgy Science & a Better Source of Knowledge

One of the lead authors in this review paper, Chandra Wickramasinghe, was also one of the champions of the now entirely discredited steady state theory of cosmogenesis, in which the Universe did not have a beginning but instead is taken to have existed eternally. The steady state theory was an attempt to circumvent the problem that Big Bang cosmology posed to materialism, in that it implied a non-eternal Universe, thus indicating that the universe had a beginning.

If the Universe really is teeming with the spores of life, it ought to be reflected in the ensemble of organic molecules making up giant molecular clouds. Unfortunately, not even a single amino acid – the building blocks of the building blocks - has been found in such surveys. The “Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic?” review demonstrates the desperation of modern science to adequately explain the origin and diversification of life on Earth. While the authors readily concede our utter ignorance of how the first cells came into existence and the failure of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis to account for the remarkable radiations of life as unveiled by the fossil record, they resort to kicking the can down the road (or up to the sky, as it were) by shifting the emphasis to a cosmic explanation.

The Christian can take considerable solace from God’s revelation to humankind. The Scriptures declare that we are created beings made in the image of God and that human life is fearfully and wonderfully made. If these proclamations are true, then materialistic explanations to explain away the miracle of life will continue to be mired with problems.

The Christian need not look to the stars for answers to origin of life questions. We can find our answers by engaging with Holy Scripture and by continuing to seek our Creator in prayer.


is that author of eight books on amateur and professional astronomy. His latest book is Choosing & Using Binoculars, a Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts (Springer Publishing, 2023).

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