Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars: The Deepest Questions
Where have we come from? Where are we going? What are we here for? Is life unique to this rocky planet we call Earth? These are the deepest of philosophical questions and perhaps the very first that were asked as soon as Homo sapiens acquired the intellectual capacity to do so. The first answers, as far as we can glean from surviving fragmentary evidence—folklore and cave art—invariably turned to the skies. The spectacle of the Milky Way must surely have overwhelmed our ancestors, as, indeed, it overwhelms us today. This sense of awe may have led directly to the concept of the sun god and other gods, all of whom were placed in the skies. The humans— Homo sapiens—were still helpless creatures beholden and subservient to the inexorable power of the universe. The harsh vicissitudes of nature—droughts, floods, storms at sea, earthquakes—all contributed to enslave and humiliate them. They needed the gods of the heavens to provide psychological comfort, solace, and safe passage through the journey of life.
Humankind’s Subservience to Nature
Humankind’s subservience to nature has found expression in art from the earliest cave paintings to modern times. Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting with the title Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? says it all. These are the same questions we continue to ask even in the present day.
Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting ‘ Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ (Public Domain)
With advances in technology some of the cruelest forces of nature were tamed. Civilization marched forward, and our ancestors began to feel they were more and more in control of their destiny. Control appeared to shift from the universe, with its capricious ever-changing patterns, to the fixed Earth, which was deemed constant, eternal, and largely under human control.
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We realize now, or at least we should have realized, that our entire genetic heritage (except for minor tweaking) came from the vast external universe. Earth was just an insignificant building site on which the blueprint of all life came to be assembled into a great multitude of different forms. Throughout the universe there are countless other building sites, more or less like Earth, on which the same process must have occurred. So the humbling realization is that we humans, and indeed all other life on Earth, are utterly unimportant in the wider cosmic context.
Searching For Life in the Cosmos
One of the most exciting areas of modern astronomy is the search for planets orbiting distant stars—planets that are habitable and more or less similar to Earth. As we have noted earlier, many studies directed at such searches are presently underway, deploying telescopes that are in orbit around Earth. The currently estimated tally of Earth-like planets runs to over a hundred billion in our galaxy alone—averaging about one “Earth” for every sunlike star. The implication is that the average separation between two Earth-like planets is a mere four light years. This incredibly short distance in cosmic terms clearly implies that exchanges of bacteria and viruses between such planets are not only possible, but inevitable. Very recently astronomers have detected evidence for a rocky planet like Earth orbiting our nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. This star is only 3.1 light years away from Earth—a spitting distance in cosmic terms. Living material in the form of bacteria and viruses that reached Earth over the past four billion years must surely have reached the planet around Proxima Centauri as well. Life very similar to Earth life may well have flourished there, built from cosmic genetic building blocks.
A vision of Proxima Centauri b. (Kevin Gill/CC BY 2.0)
Telescopes looking at sky
Evidence for the most ancient bacterial life on Earth has recently been discovered in the form of carbon globules trapped within crystals of the mineral zircon and deposited in rocks that formed 4.1 to 4.2 billion years ago during the so-called Hadean epoch. At that time Earth was being relentlessly bombarded by comets, the same comets that also brought water to form Earth’s oceans. It is reasonable to infer that the same impacting comets also delivered the first life to our planet in the form of bacteria and viruses. Thereafter the addition of viruses from comets expanded the genomes of evolving life on Earth in the manner we have already discussed. One dramatic event 540 million years ago, the Cambrian explosion of multicelled life, is now known to have brought essentially all the genes that were needed to generate the entire range of evolutionary development witnessed in the record of life on Earth.
We have noted earlier that the information content of life at the molecular level is of a superastronomical magnitude. The logical conclusion is that this crucial information for life’s origin and evolution is always present in the universe and that genes carrying such information are continually amplified and distributed through the agency of comets. Bacterial and viral genes delivered to Earth are continually being added to genomes of evolving life-forms. Major evolutionary traits in the development of complex life are all externally derived, and evolution itself is a process that is essentially driven from outside. If this is the case, the overall impression will be of a preprogramming leading to the higher levels of development in biology. The evolution of the eye may be cited as one example of this type. Even some less definable manifestations of gene expression in our own hominid line of descent, for example, the emergence of genes for higher levels of cognition, bear the signs of “preprogramming” or pre-evolution.
Bacterial and viral genes delivered to Earth are continually being added to genomes of evolving life-forms. (BillionPhotos.com /Adobe Stock)
We now know that impacts of asteroids and comets on planets laden with life can not only cause extinctions of species (e.g., the extinction of the dinosaurs on Earth sixty-five million years ago) but can also splash back into space life-laden material (dust and meteorites) that can reach neighboring planets. We can argue that Darwinian-style evolution occurred not on any one planet such as Earth but was spread over innumerable habitats in the grandest possible cosmic setting. Whatever happened, it is clear that life cannot be regarded as unique or confined to Earth. Life on Earth implies life everywhere. The entire galaxy, our Milky Way system, can therefore be regarded as one single gigantic connected biosphere. It follows that life of all the types and forms known on Earth, ranging from bacteria to plants, animals, and even intelligent life, must, to a high degree of probability, be all-pervasive. This is now not just a theory but an inescapable fact.
3D rendering of the extinction of the dinosaurs. (Herschel Hoffmeyer /Adobe Stock)
Proving Our Cosmic Origins
If a single discovery is to serve as a watershed in the journey to proving our cosmic origins, it is a recent study of two related species: the squid and the octopus (Steele et al. 2018). The squid has an antiquity in the geological record that goes back to the great metazoan explosion of multicelled life-forms 540 million years ago. The octopus apparently branches out from the squid line about 400 million years ago, presumed to have evolved from an ancestral squid. Recent DNA sequencing of the squid and octopus genomes has exploded a bombshell. The squid contains a very meager complement of genes adequate to serve its modest survival needs. The emergent octopus, on the other hand, has over 40,000 genes (we the humans have 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 color. 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 Earth at the time. The clear implication is that they came from outside Earth—external to terrestrial biology, part of the cosmic heritage of life.
Coconut octopus underwater macro portrait on sand. (Andrea Izzotti /Adobe Stock)
Who or What Could have Put All This Together?
The million-dollar questions that remain: Who or what could have put all this together? What kind of agent or agencies conceived this grand scheme of things? One thing is beyond dispute: Life in its totality is the most complex informational system imaginable. How the information of life was put together remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of science, one that touches on cosmological ideas as well as religious beliefs.
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The Aristotelean view that life started on Earth spontaneously in the primordial soup implicitly invokes a deus ex machina, essentially a miracle or an act of God. This is, of course, not openly admitted in our modern scientific culture, a culture that is turning increasingly to the rejection of God and to atheism as an intellectual choice. In our view the obstinate insistence of an Earth-based origin of life is a clear indication of a religious and cultural preference that dominates today, particularly in the Western world. The same preference holds also when it comes to the origin of the universe itself; the standard form of big bang cosmology is uncannily similar to a scientific rendering of the first page of Genesis.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. (Public Domain)
The clear implication of the ideas we discussed is that the essential blueprint for all life, the information for every gene in every life-form that could ever arise, is always present in the form of viruses and viral genes and distributed over a vast cosmological volume. It is possible that life at its genetic level never arose as such but was always present in an eternal and unchanging cosmos. This point of view is more in consonance with Eastern philosophies that predate Greek as well as Judeo-Christian ideas by millennia.
Top Image: Man looking out to the cosmos. Credit: Kevin Carden / Adobe Stock
Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars by Chandra Wickramasinghe, Ph.D., Kamala Wickramasinghe, MA, and Gensuke Tokoro © 2019 Bear & Company. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com