With 11 of 13 total episodes of Cosmos now having aired, the overall arc of the series is becoming clear. The first few episodes bashed religion and promoted materialism, while of course advocating that life developed by a process of “unguided” or “mindless” evolution. Then, for a few episodes, the anti-religious rhetoric was toned down a little, and Cosmos focused more on simply presenting good, uncontroversial science. But the final few episodes in coming weeks seem poised to ramp up the propaganda to levels not seen before.
This past Sunday night’s episode pushed a naturalistic origin of life and the Copernican principle (the idea that Earth is insignificant in the cosmic scheme) — which is perhaps to be expected. But the episode got surprisingly ideological as well, promoting panspermia, the Gaia hypothesis, and a propagandistic, Star Trek-like picture of the future. According to Cosmos, this last can only be achieved if we embrace an alarmist environmental vision. Our host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, compares skeptics of the current “consensus” on climate change to Nazis.
Tyson’s Explanation for the Origin of Life: “Somehow”
In the second episode of Cosmos, Tyson admitted, “Nobody knows how life got started.” In this episode he re-tackled this topic. Tyson again says “nobody knows” how life arose, yet all of the ideas he is willing to entertain are entirely naturalistic. He very briefly suggests that “perhaps it [life] began in a shallow sunlit pool,” or maybe “life could have started in the searing heat of a volcanic vent on the deep sea floor.” And just how did this happen? Here’s what Tyson tells us:
Somehow, carbon-rich molecules began using energy to make copies of themselves.
That’s right: the explanation is “somehow.” It reminded me of the scene from the film Expelled where the explanation given by materialists for the chemical origin of life was “whatever it was.”
All this comes just after Tyson has explained how living organisms contain a “language that all life on Earth can read” complete with a “code” that is “written in an alphabet” with “letters” where “each word is three letters long,” and carries a “message” that is “copied.” Lest viewers suspect any of this points to intelligent design, Tyson immediately reassures us that “everything is a masterpiece written by nature and edited by evolution.” But when he asks “Where did that message come from?” he’s forced to answer: “Nobody knows.” For a guy who says he doesn’t know how life arose, he seems strangely confident that it happened naturalistically.
But the message conveyed by this episode really isn’t that “nobody knows” how life arose. In fact, Tyson spends a lot of time promoting his own pet hypothesis for the origin of life.
Tyson Defies the Consensus by Pushing Panspermia
After some passing references to Earth-based models of the origin of life (which of course omit any mention of intelligent design as a possibility), Tyson devotes two lengthy segments of the episode to panspermia — the idea that life arrived on Earth from space — and the existence of alien life. He speculates that “life came to Earth as a hitchhiker” on meteorites, and even asserts, “There’s a good bet that our microbial ancestors spent some time in space.”
Yes, there are a few people out there in the scientific community who agree with Tyson’s viewpoint. Ideas about panspermia are periodically batted about — with varying degrees of seriousness and plausibility. Some support a “soft panspermia” hypothesis, where life might be transferred between planets within our solar system. Fewer advocate a “hard” version of the idea, where life can cross interstellar space, spreading from star system to star system. Under this scenario, life from a single planet might ultimately seed an entire galaxy.
Tyson unequivocally promotes the strong version of panspermia. In his view, life arose somewhere in the galaxy, and then was passed from solar system to solar system via supernova explosions which eject microbe-carrying meteorites through vast regions of interstellar space. Eventually, he explains, due to the orbit of star systems around the galaxy, some of these chunks of life-bearing matter land on a planet, and life gets started in a new location.
This is definitely not the mainstream scientific view. Tyson is welcome to think what he wants, but he never mentions that his opinion isn’t widely shared. Indeed, there are good scientific reasons why it isn’t.
The main problem with panspermia comes in explaining how life arose in the first place. Generally, advocates of the notion treat this as a problem that doesn’t really need to be addressed. Why? Because the whole idea behind panspermia is that if life exists throughout the entire galaxy, then tracing its origin might be next to impossible. Thus we can defer the question indefinitely. Life might have arisen under rare, ideal conditions on some long-lost planet whose sun went supernova billions of years ago. But you could never know for sure what happened, so advocates of panspermia find it convenient to focus elsewhere. An article in Scientific American makes this point:
Enthusiasts for panspermia go further, and have been known to invoke these mechanisms for galaxy-wide dispersal of life — taking one rare occurrence of life and spreading it across the stars. In some ways the motivation for proposing this kind of cosmic panspermia is a little dated. It comes from a time when we felt that the origin of life of on Earth was such a mystery, and such an unlikely event, that it was convenient to outsource it. Although this didn’t actually solve the real question of life’s origins, it meant that a specific origin “event” could be extremely rare among the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way yet life would still show up in other places.
This was basically Francis Crick’s view. He advocated not just panspermia but “directed panspermia” — where the seeding of solar systems was directed by intelligent aliens. Just as the Scientific American article suggests, Crick adopted this view after he realized the great difficulties faced in explaining the origin of life on Earth. As Crick famously wrote, “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” (Crick, Life Itself (Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 88.)
But even in the questions that panspermia purports to answer — like how life spread from planet to planet, or star system to star system — the model has major problems. Panspermia must address (at least) the following three problems: (1) How could life survive ejection events, and impact events?, (2) How could life survive in the harsh environment of space?, and (3) What vehicle could successfully transport life to new planets or star systems?
Tyson spends only a little time dealing with these issues. As I mentioned already, he never admits how skeptical many scientists are that the difficulties can be solved.
For example, regarding the first problem, Edward Anders wrote in Nature that “organic matter cannot survive the extremely high temperatures (>104 K) reached on impact, which atomize the projectile and break all chemical bonds.” Tyson doesn’t mention this.
As to the second problem, Tyson proposes that life might spread not just within our solar system, but from star system to star system, traveling across the entire galaxy. But Paul S. Wesson of the University of Waterloo observes that most scientists think life couldn’t survive such a trip:
The majority opinion is that while organisms may be ejected from an Earthlike planet by the collision of an asteroid or comet, the DNA and RNA is so degraded in space that the probability of seeding life in the Galaxy is low. … The only feasible way to avoid this conclusion [that radiation would kill organisms in space] is to step away from the ‘standard’ version of panspermia, and argue that organisms are transported not in dust grains but in large boulders. This is possible in principle, and can work in practice inside the solar system (see below); but is disfavored for transport over larger distances by statistical arguments. (emphasis added)
In other words, panspermia faces a catch-22. Space is vast, and the odds of life finding its way to another planet in another star system are extremely low. If life was carried on small dust particles, this might allow a great enough dispersal to increase the odds. But dust particles don’t provide the necessary protection to prevent interstellar radiation from killing life.
Now life might be protected from radiation if it’s hidden inside larger boulders (i.e., meteorites). But these chunks of rock are too big to be accelerated by solar wind, and (as we’ll discuss below) are so rare that the chances of one of them finding its way to another planetary home outside a solar system like ours are essentially nil. Wesson writes:
The probability of life being carried to other clusters, or across the Milky Way, is accordingly very small indeed. Thus while the transport of living organisms inside boulders may be viable within a solar system like ours, it is unlikely in a Galactic context, and is disfavored compared to the traditional version of panspermia with radiation-driven dust grains.
Wesson concludes: “On a statistical basis, panspermia with living organisms must therefore be regarded as somewhat unlikely.” Similarly, as Nature News explains, panspermia is only “possible, provided that the bugs don’t have to travel too far: they would probably be sterilized by cosmic rays and UV radiation during a journey from another solar system.” Likewise, a Nature blogger explains that “mainstream science” is highly skeptical of this hypothesis:
Does this mean that panspermia could have seeded life across the galaxy? Not quite. There’s the enormous distance between stars, and a timescale in the tens of millions of years for a trip. The longer the period of time, the less likely life is to survive a trip to another world. In the mind of mainstream science, this makes interstellar panspermia an unlikely occurrence. (emphasis added)
As for the third problem — how life could be transported from one star system to another — this is probably where panspermia faces its biggest obstacles. In a famous paper in the journal Astrobiology, Professor H. Jay Melosh explains why it’s extremely unlikely that a life-bearing meteorite ejected from a solar system like ours would ever find its way to another planet:
The overall conclusion is that it is very unlikely that even a single meteorite originating on a terrestrial planet in our solar system has fallen onto a terrestrial planet in another stellar system, over the entire period of our Solar System’s existence. Although viable microorganisms may be readily exchanged between planets in our Solar System through the interplanetary transfer of meteoritic material, it seems that the origin of life on Earth must be sought within the confines of the Solar System, not abroad in the galaxy.
He ran Monte Carlo simulations and performed calculations to determine the likelihood that an ejected meteorite would be captured by another star system, and then once in the star system would strike a terrestrial planet. He concludes:
[W]hen the probability of 1 in 10,000 that the captured meteorite actually strikes a terrestrial planet is factored in, it seems unlikely that any rock ejected from a terrestrial planet in our Solar System has ever reached a terrestrial planet in another solar system. This conclusion validates the quote from Carl Sagan that opened this paper. It is also in good agreement with the fact that no hyperbolic meteorites or comets have ever been observed. The spaces between the stars are immense, and the probability of exchanging material with another stellar system is correspondingly tiny.
And what was that conclusion of the great Carl Sagan? It was this: “It is unlikely that a single meteorite of extrasolar origin has ever reached the surface of the Earth.” Melosh writes:
When the long transit times from one star to another are added in, the prospect that life hopped from star to star by any natural agency becomes vanishingly small. The bottom line is that the origin of life on Earth must be sought within the confines of the Solar System itself, not abroad in the galaxy.
Though Tyson heavily promotes panspermia, he acknowledges none of these objections. Instead, he triumphantly touts en experiment where bacteria that lived on a satellite that orbited the Earth for a few years were “still alive and kicking when they were brought back to Earth.” That’s interesting, but it’s a far cry from spending millions of years in interstellar space, unprotected from the harsh radiation outside our solar system.
Tyson simply asserts: “After thousands of years, fragments of the rocks ejected from Earth can fall as meteorites into the atmospheres of newborn planets.” He says we might “imagine this process repeated from world to world, each one bringing life to others. Life would then propagate like a slow chain reaction through the entire galaxy. This could be how life came to Earth.” Tyson adds, “We do not know for sure,” but the consensus thinks it does know, and it has concluded that it didn’t happen like this. Tyson is entitled to disagree with the majority of scientists, but he should be candid about the challenges to his view.
In the end, we must ask Does Tyson’s hypothesis really solve the mystery of life’s origin? Of course it doesn’t. It just pushes the question back into a mysterious, as-yet unexplored region of space where we can only hope that the conditions were more favorable for generating life than on Earth. In an article in Nature, Philip Ball explains that panspermia is rejected by “most scientists” because it’s probably untestable:
Some scientists have speculated that these molecules are not home-grown at all — that life was seeded from space, by spores carried deep-frozen through the interstellar emptiness from a living world elsewhere. This idea, called “panspermia,” was first mooted in 1907 by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, and was revitalized in the 1960s by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
But ultimately this is not only unsatisfactory as a hypothesis, off-loading the central question to another place, but unscientific — because it’s not obvious how it could ever be tested. Most scientists prefer to assume that the molecules that constituted the earliest organisms arose from simpler, small molecules formed by non-biological processes on the young Earth.
Simon Conway Morris also summarizes the consensus view:
The idea that we might represent marooned colonists — perhaps from a long-dead planet engulfed in some stellar catastrophe — has a romantic appeal that taps a recurrent root in humans of displacement and longing. Not, of course, that these hypothetical colonists would be anything more than bacteria or some such equivalent. In any event, the history of life provides no evidence (although perhaps it should) of any subsequent visitation, let alone intervention, by extraterrestrials. Of course, getting even bacteria across interstellar wastes, those cubic parsecs of hard vacuum drenched in radiation, is in itself so problematic that it may be reasonable to suppose that if panspermia (that is, transport from one star system to another) occurs at all it can only be by a directed, that is, an intelligent activity. And this is what Crick and Orgel suggested… (Life’s Solution (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 26)
In other words, if panspermia is going to work, it will require intelligent design. Isn’t that ironic.
Amplifying the Ideology
After finishing his discussion of panspermia, Tyson then ramps up the ideology big time. He proposes that there are “thousands of planets of other stars” gifted with life, and due to our radio signals sent into space, “they could already know that we’re here.” In what comes next, he:
- Shows factories spewing pollutants into the atmosphere, disaster zones, oil rigs apparently exploding in the ocean, and dead oil-covered birds.
- Promotes a pseudo-socialistic view, claiming (wrongly) of our economic system that it assumes resources are “infinite,” and lamenting that it is “profit driven” and thus only focused on “short term gain.”
- Alludes to the Gaia hypothesis, calling Earth a “tiny organism,” and later stating, “The planet is now a self-sustaining intercommunicating organism.”
- Promotes the Copernican principle, envisioning a future where “we take the vision of the ‘pale blue dot’ to heart and learn how to share this tiny world with each other,” and na�vely assuming that wide acceptance of the notion would unite humanity, meanwhile ignoring the fact that in truth we live on a privileged planet.
- Strongly promotes a form of environmental alarmism, pointing to the “scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate,” and claiming that those who disagree with him are “in the grip of denial” and in a “kind of paralysis.”
Notice the irony. Tyson rejects the consensus on panspermia (while failing to disclose that fact). Yet he uses the “consensus” on global warming as a club to bully dissenters. After claiming that climate dissenters are “in the grip of denial,” Tyson says: “Being able to adapt our behavior to challenges is as good a definition of intelligence as I know.” So if you don’t agree with Tyson’s views about global warming and the policies that are necessary to fix it, then you’re either not intelligent, or you’re not using your intelligence. Instead, you’re in “denial.”
For myself, I’m very open to the possibility that the “consensus” on climate change is correct. But I can’t condone the use of propagandistic labels, Nazi-comparisons, and epithets like “science denial” to shut down discussion on an important topic.
What happens next in Cosmos is thus both sickening and immensely hypocritical. Tyson shows scenes of crowds cheering for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He says, “Human intelligence is imperfect, surely, and newly arisen. The ease with which it can be sweet-talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by other hard-wired tendencies sometimes themselves disguised as the light of reason is worrisome.” Again, the not-so-subtle message is that if you are a skeptic of what he calls the “scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate,” then you are like a Nazi-follower, or perhaps a Holocaust denier.
Tyson is correct to warn against the use of propaganda, and the misuse of scientific authority, to mislead the public. Indeed, recall the falsehoods that this series has advanced — in the form of both untrue claims and conspicuous omissions about the role of religion in the history of science. Neil deGrasse Tyson laments that the truth can be twisted by those driven by an agenda. He thinks he’s innocent of that charge himself. He certainly is not.