Sunday, March 6, 2011

Alien Bacteria and God

This falls in the category of “Potentially a Really Big Deal.”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, a NASA astrobiologist, announced on Friday, March 4th that he had discovered evidence of alien bacterial life, locked inside a rare type of meteorite. (The Yahoo! News online article may be found here, and the FoxNews online article may be found here.) The scientific article announcing his discovery appears in the current issue of the online Journal of Cosmology, which is edited by Dr. Rudy Schild of the Center for Astrophysics, an institute that is administered by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution; in plain words, this is not some kind of pseudoscientific or schlock journal.

The essence of Dr. Hoover’s discovery is that several meteorites of a rare type, found in France and Tanzania, contained fossilized filaments, some of which strongly resemble bacteria found on earth, others of which seem to represent bacteria of a previously unknown type (see photo above). These fossils were found immediately after breaking open the rocks in sterile conditions, so they are highly unlikely to represent contamination from the Earth. Several of the meterorites in Dr. Hoover’s sample were observed falling to Earth and were immediately recovered after their fall. The Journal of Cosmology has taken the unusual step of asking 100 scientists to respond to this paper online, making it the most heavily peer-reviewed article in the history of scientific literature.

People will be debating the evidence given in this article, possibly for years. For the sake of discussion, let us assume for the moment that Dr. Hoover’s findings are solid. So what does this all mean?

First of all, as Dr. Hoover indicates, a valid discovery like this would indicate that bacteria somehow exist, at least in fossilized form, in comets and/or meteors, some of which are presumably the debris of life-bearing planets that broke up or were destroyed, say, by collisions with asteroids (á lá the threats depicted in the 1998 fictional disaster films “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”). The implication here, as Dr. Hoover states, is that “life is everywhere”; that is, life—at least of the microbial sort—is widely distributed on planets outside of our solar system. Of course, if microbial life exists, there is every reason to think that intelligent life has also evolved on other worlds, as well.

Second, as Dr. Hoover also indicates, a valid discovery like this suggests that life on earth may descend from microbial life that was brought to the earth by comets or meteorites.

So, for whom does this all make a difference? My opinion on this might surprise you.

Sure, a valid discovery like this would have implications for those who engage in the study of the universe (cosmology) and the study of life (biology). However, in my opinion, a discovery like this would have some very important implications for vast numbers of people, because of its impact in another field altogether:


What does it mean for beliefs about the nature of humankind to think that life exists on other planets? What does it mean for belief in God and the Bible to think that life came to Earth aboard rocks falling from the sky in the distant past?

There are some, I am sure, who will proclaim Dr. Hoover’s discovery as “yet another step in the displacement of humanity from the center of the universe,” or some such. Some have interpreted the discovery of Nicholas Copernicus (that the Earth revolves with the other planets around the Sun, rather than the Sun revolving around the Earth) and the discoveries of Charles Darwin (to the effect that humanity evolved from other animal species) as being earlier such steps. Beyond this, there are many, I am also sure, who will look to Dr. Hoover’s discovery as suggesting yet another way that the Supreme Being is supposedly “unnecessary” to explain the universe and life within it, and yet another way that the Bible supposedly “fails” to explain scientific realities.

All of that is so much stuff and nonsense.

Let’s take that last point first: the idea that the Bible supposedly has failed to explain the origin of life. It is a principle accepted in many spiritual traditions that the Supreme Being—call that Being “God(s),” “Goddess(es),” “The Ground of All Being,” “The Force,” or whatever works for you—the Supreme Being communicates with people in a language that those people can understand. The holy writings of the spiritual traditions of the world were largely written thousands of years ago; these people could no more have understood the biology of bacteria than our great-great-grandparents could have programmed a digital video recorder. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it is simply a matter of the science and technology that people are familiar with at any point in time.

Given that, it is perfectly understandable that explanations of the beginnings of life on Earth would be given in imprecise, simplified language, rather than in scientifically sophisticated language, in our ancient sacred writings. Taking the book of Genesis in the Bible as an example, sure, it says that the first human was created “of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Well, what else would it say? Of course people are composed of the elements of the earth. The calcium in my bones comes from plants that I have eaten, plants that themselves absorbed the calcium from the soil. The iron in my blood I have taken from plants and the meat of animals, who themselves obtained that iron from the land. Ultimately, the calcium, the iron, and all the other elements of our bodies were created in the heart of stars, which, when dying as novas or supernovas, ejected the heavier elements into the depths of space, where they collected into the planets we know today. Yes: you really are stardust. And we all have indeed been created from that stardust, a small part of which now comprises “the dust of the ground” of planet Earth.

Earlier, in the account of Genesis chapter 1, we read of the sequence in which life emerged: plants, marine life, non-human mammals, and humans (Gen. 1: 11, 20-26). There is nothing here that precludes the earliest step in the chain being bacteria from space, bacteria that came crashing onto our planet within the meteorites at the heart of water-bearing comets. (For that matter, I have always found it interesting that this is the sequence given in Darwinian theory for the emergence of life.)

I have addressed some concerns of some anti-religious skeptics. Now let’s consider the other side of this coin: people who might be inclined to reject Dr. Hoover’s evidence on religious grounds.

Some people think that belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life (especially intelligent life) is somehow wrong because such life is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Yet, so often, the Bible speaks of things known only to God: “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). We read of at least one “mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25). Those who believe the Bible are fooling themselves if they think that all that God has to show humanity is in the Bible as we have it today; that very doctrine is unBiblical.

Several religions—some from ancient times—have taught that extraterrestrial life may exist. The Padma Purana, a Hindu religious text over a thousand years old, discusses extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan summarized evidence from Jewish Talmudic writings to the effect that extraterrestrial life may exist, within a Jewish conception of the universe. Buddhist cosmology teaches of other worlds; some of these represent mental states, but some represent worlds inhabited by non-humans. Within Islam, the 11th-century scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi taught that, in principle, God may have created multiple inhabited worlds.

Within Christianity, the Vatican’s chief astronomer in 2008 considered the religious implications of extraterrestrial life, and the Roman Catholic church sponsored a conference in 2009 to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The Latter-day Saint Church (disclosure: my own church) has within its scriptures an account of an ancient prophet who “beheld many lands, and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants upon the face thereof” (Moses 1:29).

My point: the discovery of extraterrestrial life—either bacterial life, or, at some future time, intelligent life—poses no threat to religious belief, and does not contradict the major religious traditions of the world. For the believer, finding out more about the wonders of the universe and the life within it is only a greater testimony of the power of the Creator.

Knowing that faith has nothing to fear from scientific truth is On The Mark.

(Readers are welcome to comment using the “Comment” link below. Anyone may comment. Readers are also invited to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner, in order to be alerted to future posts.)

[The photo reproduces Figure 3b of Dr. Hoover’s article. The image was created with a Hitachi Secondary Electron Detector using 6000X magnification. It shows one of the objects that Dr. Hoover identifies as fossilized bacteria, “showing hook and calyptra or conical apical shell,” as he puts it. It was obtained from the webpage of the article at the Journal of Cosmology website. It is the belief of this author that, because this article was created by a U.S. federal employee in the course of his official duties, the photo is in the public domain.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

{Shout-out to Technorati: This really is my blog. Confirmation code: CGAGUMUJ6U3R .)

1 comment:

  1. Great insight my friend! It's funny people consider anything outside our atmosphere as alien, but since we are all stardust, are we not all One?? Any life out there is as much us as are we them.


Do remember the rules: No profanity, and no personal attacks, particularly on another person leaving a Comment.