The Dawn of a new Enlightenment



by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe


The dawn of 2017 is set to usher in a suite of socio-political changes of unprecedented moment – in the US, UK, Europe and the wider world. A long overdue paradigm shift in astrobiology may overshadow them all.

We are aliens

A dark secret lies deeply buried in our DNA. We are all aliens - made up of cosmic genes, from cosmic bacteria and viruses that drifted down to us in comet dust and meteorites through the depths of space. Recent studies have shown that a single drop of ocean water contains over 10 million individual viruses. An estimated total of 1031 (1 followed by 31 zeros) viruses exist on Earth at any time, and if these are strung end to end they would span distances that are measured in millions of light years! Such viruses appear to have controlled the evolution of life on the Earth from the first microbes brought here by comets to all life – plants, animals, humans. This once controversial theory proposed by the writer and Fred Hoyle over three decades ago is slowly but surely drifting into the domain of certain knowledge. Its final acceptance as the correct world-view will usher in enormous scientific and societal changes.


Earth-like planets galore

Astronomical observations using the NASA Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009 have recently revealed that over 100 billion habitable Earth-like planets could exist in the Milky Way system, the galaxy of stars to which our planetary system belongs. And our most powerful telescopes can count well over a hundred billion similar galaxies grouped into clusters and super-clusters throughout the entire observable Universe. It is becoming increasingly difficult now to maintain that life can in any way be confined to Earth. In the cosmic context this planetary home of ours is a diminutive speck of "dust" in a universe that is simply bursting with planets, stars and galaxies. Clear and unequivocal evidence of our cosmic ancestry grows by the day, but alas we have chosen to ignore it for too long. Continuing to turn a blind eye to this evidence may be fraught with dangers that threaten the very continuity of our species.

An Earth-centred Cosmos

Some half a millennium ago Aristotle’s idea of a universe centred on the Earth (enunciated in the 4th century BC) was deeply entrenched in the West. Copernicus’ 1543 refutation of this geocentric world-view was vigorously disputed and challenged for over a century. New observations of planetary motions that contradicted this point of view were ignored, and people holding contrary views persecuted and punished in various ways. The Italian scientist Giodarno Bruno who proposed the existence of a multiplicity of inhabited worlds was burnt at the stake in 1600. Galileo Galilei was convicted of heresy in 1633 and held under house arrest in 1633. Needless to say such a strict reign of authority that persisted for over 150 years stifled the progress of science through most of the Middle Ages. Blind adherence to a doctrine ignoring all evidence is the surest recipe for cultural stagnation. Eventually through the diligent labours of Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Isaac Newton the medieval period of stagnation finally came to an end. The Earth was demoted to the status of a planet orbiting quite an ordinary star, the Sun.


Earth-centred biology

In this article I point to an extension of the Aristotelean viewpoint that is still threatening to cripple science, biology and astrobiology in particular. Whilst the ideas of an Earth-centred universe were abandoned by the dawn of the 17th century, modern ideas of life continue to remain firmly Earth-centred. Life in the form of bacteria is posited, without any evidence whatsoever, to arise de novo in a primordial ocean from organic molecules that were supposedly generated in situ on the Earth.

This point of view might have been considered tenable until recently when the earliest microbial life on Earth was believed to occur a half a billion years after the surface had cooled. It could then have been argued that a long enough period remained for an organic soup to brew and for life to somehow originate. However it has now been discovered that the oldest evidence of microbial life on Earth is contained in rocks (discovered in Western Australia) that formed 4.1 billion years ago, at a time of intense comet and asteroid bombardment. The possibility of a terrestrial primordial soup is now squeezed out of the geological record making it most unlikely that life could have originated on the Earth.


The Theory of Panspermia

It is far more probable that the impacting comets brought the first micro organisms to Earth from the external cosmos. This is precisely the theory of cometary panspermia that the present writer and the late Sir Fred Hoyle had proposed more than three decades ago. In a long series of books and articles in scientific journals we first cited astronomical data and calculations that pointed to the widespread prevalence of freeze-dried bacteria and viruses throughout the universe. We next challenged the time-hallowed thesis of life’s terrestrial origin on the grounds of its utter and hopeless improbability. A much publicised metaphor used by Fred Hoyle in this context was that the origin of life from organic chemicals on the Earth was less probable than a tornado blowing through a junk yard leading to the self-assembly of a Boing 707!


Cosmic Viruses and Evolution

We also argued that once microbial life became established on the Earth its further evolution leading to plants, animals, humans required a continuing input, albeit sporadically, of viral genes from the external cosmos. Darwinian evolution was then relegated to a less important role of sifting out best-fitting life forms (vis a vis survival in the terrestrial environment) from a range of outcomes determined by viral ingress to the Earth. On this picture major genetic shifts leading to the emergence of new species, classes and orders did not arise from the accumulations of favourable copying errors as hitherto believed but from the incorporation of whole new suites of cosmic genes. The game of dice leading to the emergence of species and gene diversity was played out not on our tiny planet Earth – a mere speck of dust in a cosmic context – but over a vast cosmological scale, over aeons of time. We argued that evidence in support of this theory existed in ample measure already in the 1980’s. We adduced evidence from genetics as well as epidemiology of certain viral pandemics in support of our claim. A lecture given by the present writer and broadcast on April 3, 1980, by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation concluded thus:

"Throughout our long history as a thinking species we have always been loathe to accept a theory of the world in which we ourselves did not occupy a central and most important pace. The view that the Earth was the centre of the solar system was held for centuries, and was abandoned only with great anguish….

Likewise, the same Copernican-style revolution must be applied to life. Life, with its extraordinary subtlety of design and its intricate complexity, could only have evolved on a scale that transcends the size of our planet, the size of the solar system, even perhaps the size of the entire galaxy………"

Scarcely two weeks later on April 15, 1980 Fred Hoyle concluded a public lecture in Cardiff thus:

"Microbiology may be said to have had its beginnings in the 1940s. A new world of the most astonishing complexity began then to be revealed. In retrospect I find it remarkable that microbiologists did not at once recognise that the world into which they had penetrated had of necessity to be of a cosmic order. I suspect that the cosmic quality of microbiology will seem as obvious to future generations as the Sun being the centre of our solar system seems obvious to the present generation."

Evidence continues to grow

These prescient comments set the stage for further exploration of our grand cosmic hypothesis in the decades that followed. After the lapse of more than a generation, progress towards fulfilling Fred Hoyle’s prediction might seem slow. This is not because supportive evidence for the theory of cosmic life has in any way been lacking, but rather due to the operation of a process of censorship of what is still a "forbidden hypothesis". Life originating outside the Earth, and evolving mainly through the agency of external inputs, continues to be fiercely resisted by practitioners of orthodox science. With the body of supportive evidence getting stronger by the day, however, this resistance cannot continue much longer.

From within astronomy itself new data concerning interstellar dust and molecules and the space exploration of comets corroborate the arguments advanced by us throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Most recently, examination of comets have yielded a vast body of data that is exceedingly difficult to reconcile without microbial activity. Last year the Rosetta Space Mission to a comet (Comet 67P/C-G, to give its technical name) discovered ample evidence of life processes releasing streams of organic molecules.

Evidence denied

Since 2001 the collection of material from the stratosphere using balloons flown to heights of 41km has shown ample evidence of microbes. The height of 41km is well-known to be far too high for clumps of micro organisms to be carried up from the ground, except possibly at times of major volcanic eruptions, and then they remain there only very briefly. We interpreted this data as evidence of a continuing ingress of comet-borne microbes, but this has been the subject of vigorous refutation and debate. Contamination is the favoured rebuttal of critics, but this is exceedingly unlikely in view of the precautions that were taken in the experiment.

Likewise the growing evidence for fossil micro organisms in meteorites (large fragments of comets and meteorites that reach the Earth) has been vigorously disputed. Recently, the Polonnaruwa meteorite that fell in 2013 was found to have unambiguous signs of microbial life – far too uncomfortable for the critics. Most recently, in a desperate effort to maintain the orthodox theory, it has been alleged that the poor subsistence farmer who discovered these stones fabricated them in a high-tech factory! No stone is left unturned when it comes to devaluing or denigrating data that point to our alien cosmic origins. One hears the constant refrain which is clearly irrelevant in the present context: an extraordinary hypothesis demands extraordinary evidence to defend it.

Medical evidence

The most relevant biomedical impact of this hypothesis related to epidemic diseases of plants and animals. When we first proposed the theory of viruses and bacteria falling to Earth from comets the possible link to pandemics came to the fore. A close study of the patterns of pandemics of viral diseases revealed that in some cases, eg. influenza, person to person spread of an endemic virus cannot be the whole story. In the classic instance of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic that claimed over 20 million lives worldwide, the first outbreaks of a lethal strain appeared on the same day in Boston and Bombay. Before the advent of air travel this was of course impossible on the basis of person-to-person transmission. In more recent outbreaks of influenza and also other diseases (eg Zika) lethal new strains appear to follow from a recombination event involving a new RNA segment being added to an already circulating virus. The new segment according to this theory comes from space.

The idea of biological evolution driven by virions from space has been amply supported by the discovery of viral sequences (retroviral sequences similar to HIV AIDS) in the genomes of humans and other primates. The evolution of humans culminating in Homo sapiens sapiens (modern Man) has according to this theory been accompanied and driven by a long series of viral pandemics that introduced new genes along the evolving line which was balanced on a razor’s edge between survival and extinction. There seems little doubt that the transfer of viral genes across the universe played a crucial role in biological evolution.

Alien genes discovered in the octopus

If a single discovery is to serve as a watershed in the journey to accepting our cosmic origins, it is a recent study of two related species the squid and the octopus. The squid has an antiquity in the geological record that goes back to the great metazoan explosion of multi-celled life 540 million years ago. The octopus apparently branches out from the squid line about 400 million years ago, presumed to evolve from an ancestral squid. Recent DNA sequencing of the squid and octopus genomes has exploded a bombshell. The squid contains a very meagre compliment of genes adequate to serve its modest survival needs. The emergent octopus, on the other hand, has over 40,000 genes (cf the human has only 25,000 genes) and many of these genes code for complex brain function. Others code for a highly sophisticated camouflage capability including rapid switches of colour. The octopus is incredibly more complex in structure and performance than its squid predecessor. Where did the suite of genes coding for complex brain function come from? They were not present in the ancestral squid or in any other living form that existed on the Earth at the time. The clear implication is that they came from outside the Earth – external to terrestrial biology.

Taking account of evidence from many disparate disciplines – astronomy and space exploration, geology, biology, genetics and epidemiology – there can be no question that alien life invaded the Earth 4.1 billion years ago and still continues to do so.

Neglecting this stark and simple fact of life could be to our peril.

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