Mon
Aug 27 2012 11:00am

We Came From Outer Space: When Human Origin is Extraterrestrial

We Came From Outer Space: When Human Origin is Extraterrestrial

There was a time when Patrick Macnee made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the words “There are those who believe that life here...began out there. Far across the universe with tribes of humans...” This snippet of the opening narration to the 1978 Battlestar Galactica mini-series establishes right off the bat that the humans you’re seeing on the show are also aliens. Some of the earliest promotional material for Star Wars also presented extraterrestrial humans by challenging the viewers to imagine that “somewhere in space this may all be happening right now.”

Recently, with this summer’s much derided Alien prequel—Prometheus—we’re once again faced with the notion that not only are we not alone in the universe, but that we all came from outer space. What about this notion is so appealing? And just how feasible is it?

As a teenager, the first science fiction story I ever wrote (on the pages of a spiral notebook) dealt with a mad scientist going back in time to create human life on Earth by making sure the dinosaurs died and outer space proto-humans landed and started evolving. When a manager at the bookstore I worked at read the story he promptly informed me how unoriginal the concept was. The idea of human life coming from outer space might not be as old as outer space, but it’s close.

The current edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction roughly defines this phenomenon as panspermia, which, despite how it sounds, is not an unreleased Nirvana album. Instead, the definition of panspermia is:

“…the speculative notion that life may spread around the universe via drifting seeds or spore that provide the starting-point for evolution on planets. The concept is ancient, dating back to Anaxagoras (circa 500 BC-428 BC) but was revived by such scientists as Hermann von Helmholtz…” (From the SFE)

Now, floating spores or extraterrestrials actually specifically causing our existence on Earth is somewhat different. But it is notable that the idea of non-terrestrial evolution (not just human evolution) crops up in actual science and myth as a well as science fiction. For SF writers, the idea of a universal humanoid code is a fairly straightforward mechanism for explaining why the majority of the aliens encountered have arms, legs, and a head.

Star Trek has gone to this well a couple of times. In “Return to Tomorrow” Sargon’s ancient species claims to have colonized several planets some 600,000 years prior to the episode. Sargon even claims to have inspired the Adam and Eve myth on Earth (even if the math doesn’t really add up.) Then, classic Trek gave us the Preservers in “The Paradise Syndrome,” who weren’t necessarily responsible for humanoid life, but rescued certain aspects of it. Later on, in The Next Generation episode  “The Chase” a message from an ancient humanoid species is discovered which reveals that nearly all the “alien” races in Star Trek share the same basic genetic code with this original “humanoid.” Whether this humanoid, Sargon, and the Preservers were all the same race, it’s very clear that in Star Trek the idea of indigenous evolution is pretty much thrown out the airlock.

While old school Battlestar Galactica was vague-ish about connections between the 12 Colonies and Earth, contemporary BSG outright claims Earth human beings are actually descended from a combination of Kobol-descended humans and organic Cylons. Helo and Sharon’s human/cylon baby Hera was supposedly Mitochondrial Eve. In October of 2010, Wired ran a great excerpt from a book called The Science of Battlestar Galactica that addresses the differences between our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) and Mitochondrial Eve. From the text by Patrick Di Justo:

It’s important to emphasize that Mitochondrial Eve and her contemporaries had offspring, and those offspring had other offspring. But throughout the subsequent generations, for one reason or another, the lineages of Eve’s contemporaries all died out. Of all the women alive then (and in our case, that means the entire female population of Galactica and the fleet), only one has offspring alive today. We know her as Hera Agathon.

This does not necessarily mean that Hera is our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA). Hera populated today’s Earth solely through her daughters and daughters’ daughters. The MRCA is the person who, while no doubt descended from Hera, populated today’s Earth via their daughters and/or sons. By adding males to the mix, the MRCA almost certainly cannot be the same as Mitochondrial Eve. In fact, most researchers today feel that the MRCA lived only about five thousand years ago, 145,000 years after Hera.

So, like Sargon’s math on when he and his race of humanoids inspired the Adam and Eve myth on Earth, it seems Six and Baltar’s assessment of who or what Hera was in the evolutionary chain is a little muddled. Further, Di Justo goes on to say that at some point earlier on the show, President Roslin’s cancer cells go into remission because of blood transfusions from a Cylon. If that Cylon DNA got incorporated into our humans then why did cancer pop back up again? Did Roslin have a form of space cancer? None of this renders what BSG did with the concept of human evolution coming from space totally impossible (new cancer strains could have developed, Baltar and Six were confused about the differences between MRCA and Mitochondrial Eve) but it’s not exactly airtight.

Now, science fiction isn't required to be perfect in terms of scientific accuracy or possibility—that's why there's the “fiction” half of the term. Prometheus drew similar complaints about DNA compatibility between humans and the alien Engineers who supposedly created all life on Earth. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently pointed out the problems with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s smoking gun “proving” that the Engineers and humans are totally related. From Plait’s article:

“In a key scene, scientist Elizabeth Shaw compares a sample of Engineer tissue to human DNA, exclaiming that it's a 100 percent match. The thing is, if you compared two humans' DNA you wouldn't get a 100 percent match! That only happens with identical twins. There are lots of DNA variations between humans, so a 100 percent match is literally impossible. And last I looked, we're not 8-foot-tall bald translucent bodybuilders with anger management issues.

It's possible that she wasn't checking the whole genome, just key gene sequences. Even then it's hard to buy; chimps match our DNA to roughly 98 percent (depending on what you're measuring), so a 100 percent match even on genetic ”landmarks“ is a big stretch with aliens so different from us.”

Now, again, is the point of Prometheus to make us believe that the Engineers are real, that “out there in space this may all be happening right now?”—or as old school BSG put it, “there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight for survival”? Does it matter if it makes sense?

In Again, Dangerous Visions, Kurt Vonnegut published a story called “The Big Space Fuck” in which the population of Earth is totally aware of its impending demise, and as a result constructs a rocket full of human semen, which they plan on shooting at the galaxy of Andromeda in an attempt to repopulate the species. The battle cry for this insane plot is “Fuck you, Andromeda!” Now, I don’t need a scientist to tell me how it's absurd to think a rocket filled with human semen could actually cause humans to be born in another galaxy. From a realistic standpoint it's silly, but is it all that different conceptually to Prometheus or Battlestar Galactica? In a sense weren’t the Engineers saying “Fuck you, Earth!” and the people from Kobol saying “Fuck you, Caprica!” and the Capricans saying…well, you get it.

The idea that aliens could be our ancestors (instead of gods or supernatural deities) opens up new avenues of faith for skeptics with a science-based worldview. Instead of being made from mud, or springing from the head of Zeus, we can look up to the stars and say, “well, it probably was on one of those things, where everything else came from.” The jury seems to still be out on the scientific plausibility of all of this, but the staggering idea that it could be true continues to feel original despite its age. If actual aliens were to show up and give all of the planet unequivocal scientific proof that we are not originally from Earth, it would be beyond huge. Would the world unite like in Star Trek? Be torn apart? Would all faiths be questioned?

Those are the big questions, but regardless of the answers, I find this idea to be a source of comfort, when all is said is done, and the value of this enduring sci-fi notion that aliens made us all lies in the fact that it is comforting, in a Big Picture way. As BSG told us “this will all happen before and will all happen again.”

And if that means humans will pop up on other planets after this one is long gone, well, it’s a nice thought.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

24 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Oh wait; I was coming over here to discuss the merits of panspermia on a scientific level. Short version: I find the arguments less than convincing, & on a logical level I think it is unlikely. Earth has all the building blocks required for spontaneous evolution. Putting the "spark" in outer space just pushes back the question as to what started THAT, & also, it requires somewhere ELSE having all the cocktail elements required for life...so I don't think, scientifically, it has a lot of weight.

For fiction though, I think it is cool, but then you have to wrestle with...you know, the fossil record. & chaos theory. Personally, I like the Stargate-style (the movie, not the show) reverse panspermia...where there are humans & humanoids in outerspace because they came from EARTH. Earth has like, monkeys & apes & it would be hard to look at it & NOT see evolution as a fact.
joelfinkle
2. joelfinkle
Right -- I could have swallowed Prometheus' premise much better if Shaw had said that, for instance, the Ribosomal structure was a 100% match accounting for genetic drift. Anything to make me not go, "oh, you forgot to get a science checker on your script, didn't you?"

The problem with the usual "settled by aliens" is accounting for the 99.9999% of life on earth that isn't (alien) humans.
joelfinkle
3. James Davis Nicoll
A completely disconnected from Earth evolution of humans would have to explain how it is we look exactly like you'd expect something from the terrestrial tetrapod lineage to look. Well, in practice it wouldn't because doing terrible things to biology is a core SFnal activity but in theory it should.

I think the real test of panspermia will be what we find when we look at actual examples of life on other planets. If, say, Martian and Terrestrial life share various aspects where a wide assortment was possible, previous contact may be indicated. If on the other hand the chemistries are fundamentally different, probably there was none.
joelfinkle
4. James Davis Nicoll
There's always the Quatermass alternative, where aliens attempted in the past to remake hominids in their image (since the aliens in question were genocidal insects, this didn't go all that well): the raw material is entirely terrestrial but the traits selected for are chosen according to the whim of the aliens.
joelfinkle
5. Your Mom
As a child, my mother would always tell me to wish upon a star as did Walt Disney. Funny how they both knew there was life out there somewhere. As a teacher, when students would ask me if I believed there was life on other planets or galaxies, my answer was always, I hope so. I agree with you Ryan, it is a comforting feeling to believe life goes on somewhere else too. Good job.
Paul Howard
6. DrakBibliophile
James Hogan's _Inherit The Stars_ and _The Gentle Giants Of Ganymede_ has an interesting take on this idea. Humans are descendants of Earth animals taken to the Lost Fifth planet of the Solar System by the inhabitants of the Fifth planet. After the Inhabitants (the Gentle Giants) left their world for the stars, mankind became intelligent and later destroyed the Fifth planet. A few survivors managed to reach Earth to become us.
j. grant
7. sonteeg
My question is, Why would it be comforting to think this? Is it because of a need to believe in something higher than ourselves? Or is it because of a pessimism about the human species' future? It almost feels as if it is a substitute for religion, a desire for a mother and father outside this sphere. I'm not trying to be trollish. This is simply what I tend to think about when I read articles on panspermia and how much value, even desire, some tend to place into the idea/hypothesis.
Having said that, it is in general an excellent topic for a scifi blog.
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt
@7
I'd say, for me, the asseration that we're pessimistic about our future is the one that works for me. And yeah, I think "higher" isn't the word I'd use, but something beyond our own Earth-bound experience is comforting. For me!
j. grant
10. sonteeg
Thanks for the reply, ryancbritt. It's something I genuinely am curious about.
reply # 8 made me smile...couldn't help myself :)
Alan Brown
11. AlanBrown
I think that the attraction of the idea of humans, or life itself, coming from beyond is tied to the human desire to find meaning in life, to be part of something larger than ourselves, to find trancendence. Kind of a Jungian archetype kind of collective concienceness kind of a thing that draws folks toward religion, toward myths of gods that live in the skies, toward the idea that our souls will outlive our bodies.
joelfinkle
12. Kadere
I am shocked to see no reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Mission to Mars in this article. I like the idea, I think it's fascinating to think about. I don't however think it bares any real wait in the argument of evolution, but it doesn't have to. It's just something fun to ponder.
joelfinkle
13. WOL
We are stardust, we are golden,
Michael Maxwell
14. pike747
@8 JMO
I love that guys hair!

One way or another we did get here from somewhere else. All of the material in our solar system is recycled from the deaths of at least two previous solar systems. They say that Sol is a third generation star.

Were we planted by an off-world race? To me it seems entirely plausible.

Imagine dwelling here in approximately four billion years. We would be searching the universe for a new planet to migrate to or die. Necessity is the mother of invention. There is a pretty good chance that civilizations of advanced beings have existed in one of the billions of recycled solar systems and faced this challenge.
joelfinkle
15. Captain Starlight
Well, as a matter of course, she did come from Planet Claire ...
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
12. Kadere

Well, the monoliths from 2001 are really only tweaking & testing for sentience, yeah? They don't care if the end result is furry or has chiten or if it is endothermic or ectothermic; they just care if it can figure out science & get to the Moon. Which counts; I am not saying it doesn't! I'm just saying that it is almost its own category; pushing for intelligent life, no matter the particulars.
Michael Maxwell
17. pike747
On Planet Claire,
They have pink hair!
Ryan Britt
18. ryancbritt
@12
You know, I thought about including 2001, and didn't because the gravity of its influence is so great, that I was worried it would overwhelm certain points. But, perhaps I should have. We'll talk about this again, I'm sure.

I actually like Mordicai's distinction between them "testing" versus "seeding." This gives me ideas...
NICKOLAS POLISKEY
19. jlpsquared
@7 Sonteeg. I completely agree with your sentiment. I see that with alot of science fiction fans. I think it is because we have been to space and there wasn't someone there "to meet us". I think we desire someone out there to talk to, to meet. Even if they went extinct, it would still mean someone was once there.

But you are probably right. Whether religious or science minded, many humans want that feeling of someone to look up to, and have created us. I feel as you do, that evidence is completely against either god or alien seeding, that doesn't help people that want more.
NICKOLAS POLISKEY
20. jlpsquared
@12 in 2001 a space oddyssey, the aliens did not seed earth, they assisted what was already here, but using the genetic material alrady existing on earth.

@14, although you are technically correct that the material existed previously to our solar system, but to assume that life on earth is descended from the life on those previous systems is analagous saying that if a chicken eats chicken feed, it's children are descended from my feces!
André Rangel
21. Sinistron
@1 Mordicai & @4 James Davis Nicoll: I believe 4 kinda answered 1. Assuming this theory of an Alien guided evolution, The Aliens could ony have desingned whatever they've found here to look like them, letting the rest of the species be whatever they'd destined to be.
Like the theory of the Evolutionary Cretionism but using Aliens instead of God, and those aliens wouldn't have created anything, just modeled it.

@12 Kadere: I'm more shocked with the absence of references to 'Mission to Mars', then to '2001...'. But the absence wich shocked me most was the Outer Gods, Elder Gods and Great old Ones, from Lovecraft. He States that those beings desingned what life on Earth would be. And the came from Outer Space

@18 Ryan Britt: I also agree with Mordicai distinction!

@Ryan Britt, again: this text is awesome!
I was thinking of this theme it since sunday!
I also have an story i'm writing with Gods from the Outer Space, and things like that! I know it's not original, but I believe it mix a lot of influences, should be a nice story when it ends.

@8 JMO: LOL
joelfinkle
22. Drongolord
Actually, if truth be told, the aliens left their pithecanthropi servitors on the Moon following an accident that caused severe damage to their starship. The pithecanthropi were told it was only going to be a little while before their masters would be back to pick them up; but since it took much longer for the damaged starship to return than it had to arrive - badly dented - on the Moon in the first place, the pithecanthropi began to worry.

So they threw a line from the Earth to the Moon and climbed down when it was dark.

With a few evolutionary dead-ends along the way - Homo dawsoni aka Piltdown Man - they evolved into Homo Sapiens. Unfortunately this constitutes IP piracy; so the real reason why us humans are (secretly) in dread of aliens turning up, is the inevitable IP lawsuits against this species - us - that dared evolve without permission.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
21. Sinistron

I have to say, I find the idea of aliens being able to guide cosmetic evolution to be...well, rather tricky. Evolution is just too sloppy a mechanism to really be guided towards a specific outcome...without massive intervention, that is. More than just godlike power, we're talking nearly omnipotent here. Of course, you don't have to be so Hard SF about things-- I can suspend my disbelief-- but when you start being more specific I start being more...suspicious.
joelfinkle
26. Kwame Nicol
I think you already know, I believe you are already awear. We are in my opinion definitely not alone. I take annual leave every year to Sicily and I have definitely seen objects in the sky moving at speeds which I categorically know we cannot match. I,ve always wanted to talk to someone on a serious basis about what I have seen and the implications of it,.

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