Fossil ETs on meteorites?
Why should we believe the hype this time?
Published: 15 March 2011 (GMT+10)
How would life survive for billions of years and fossilize on a comet? (Image iStockPhoto)
The media has been buzzing over the last week or so over the latest claims of microfossils found in meteorites.1
Claims that “we’re not alone” have spread like wildfire, and there has been a firestorm of controversy. They originate from a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology by Richard Hoover, a NASA microscopist, which claimed that filamentous structures on rare carbonaceous chondritic meteorites were actually extraterrestrial microfossils.2
Reports have ranged from supportive to scathing, though the general tendency since the announcement has been towards skepticism.1 So what are we to make of all this?
Extraterrestrial life and the Bible: possibilities and constraints
Firstly, it’s important to understand the effects of finding ET life would have on the biblical worldview before we investigate Hoover’s claims, because it’s easy to get caught up in the hype or offer simplistic answers.
One of God’s major purposes for creation is inescapably tied to the Fall and the glorification of the redeemed descendants of Adam (Romans 5:12–21, 8:18–30). Their names were written in the Lamb’s book of life from the foundation of the world, (Ephesians 1:4, Revelation 13:8, 17:8). Moreover, Christ died for sins once, never to die again (Romans 6:9–10), therefore Christ, the “last Adam”, purchased for himself only one Bride: the redeemed sons of Adam (1 Corinthians 15:21–22)—relatives of the “Kinsman-Redeemer” (Isaiah 59:2, Luke 3). He would not be a polygamist with a Vulcan bride or a Klingon bride, for example. Therefore, the most natural expectation from the Scriptures is that we wouldn’t find any life anywhere else in the universe other than on Earth. We may find remnants of earth-based life elsewhere in the solar system, e.g. on comets, from ejecta from the earth that happened during the Flood, but such life still had a terrestrial origin. For more on this please see Did God create life on other planets?
There is also solid evidence mounting that suggests that microbial life acts as a ‘substrate’ on which to support larger life, providing a buffer between the abiotic world and multicellular life.3 For example, the whole biosphere of life on Earth seems to be interconnected and interdependent. If this is the case, why would God create even ET microbes? There is no recognizable purpose to it.
Nevertheless, this really puts theological constraints only on the existence of intelligent, moral life like or superior to us. Such beings would have been unjustly affected by the Fall, which was cosmic in scope (Romans 8:18–23).4 God doesn’t submit sinless creatures of the intelligence and will of humans and angels to a Curse because it would be unjust.5 Therefore, God did not create sentient ETs because it would go against his character against the backdrop of biblical history.6
For life not created in God’s image, there are no such biblical/theological constraints. The Bible is silent on the matter, and nobody doubts that an omnipotent God could create life anywhere he wanted. And since life requires intelligence, he would be the only real candidate for the creator of extraterrestrial life. Nevertheless, one may still ask why they were created if they don’t interact with those who subjected them to futility. Therefore, while the existence of non-sentient ET life is possible, it’s not very plausible.
Hoover and the peer review process
Hoover and his paper have also been criticized on other grounds. His paper was published in the Journal of Cosmology, which is a new journal that has generally not been well-received by the scientific community, and will be finishing its run after only two years of publication. The editors of the journal have blamed the demise of the Journal of Cosmology on a concerted conspiracy run by the high profile journals such as Nature.7 Conspiracy theories from senior editors do not help the credibility of the journal. This doesn’t determine the truth or falsity of the claims, especially from a creationist perspective,8 but it nevertheless creates cause for concern.
The editors of Journal of Cosmology say they invited 100 experts to review Hoover’s work:
“Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover’s paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented.”9
Of the 24 reviews so far published on the Journal of Cosmology website,10 many are positive, many are off-topic, and a few are cautious. There is one so far, however, that would perhaps count as ‘scathing’: that of Martin Brasier, a world expert on identifying true microfossils from abiogenic pseudofossils.11 Unsurprisingly, he is the most qualified of all the reviewers thus far to comment on the paper, and his review is the most thorough, on-topic, and convincing. It is unfortunate that he appears as one review among many, because more can be gleaned from it than pretty much every other review offered on the website.
Another problem is that NASA, Hoover’s employer, has officially distanced itself from Hoover’s claims.12 Why would NASA do that unless there was good reason to doubt the claims? NASA has backed both the ‘Mars meteorite’ and ‘arsenic-eating bacteria’ fiascos, so one would assume NASA would promote this if they thought it was worth something. But they are not promoting it. This raises the question: why should skeptics of such ET claims accept Hoover’s conclusions when NASA, which has a track record of credulity for such claims, does not?
Image Richard B. Hoover
Figure 1. Backscatter Electron Detector image along with 2-D x-ray maps showing distribution of elements O, C, Si, N, Mg, S, F, and Ca. Relative abundances can be inferred from atom density scans—the lighter the shade, the higher the concentration of a particular element. After Hoover, ref. 2.
This is not the first time Hoover has claimed that carbonaceous chondritic meteorites have microfossils in them.13 His previous claims have never been widely accepted, and there is little difference in this paper to previous ones.
Hoover first outlined the elemental abundances of the areas in his images to rule out terrestrial contamination. But Brasier points out:
“In terms of syngenicity, these samples have been sitting around in laboratories for between 205 and 73 years. It is well known that microbial contaminants can penetrate deep into such rocks, even during storage. The null hypothesis, therefore, is that many of these objects (e.g., Hoover 2011 [SD—ref. 2 of this article], figs 1, 3) may be prokaryotic contaminants.”11
Hoover then spent much of his time detailing the morphological similarities between the meteoritic filaments and microbes. However, morphology is not a strong evidential indicator of microfossil biogenicity unless it can be unequivocally shown that the morphology is unlike any known abiotic formation. Therefore, morphological comparisons are not worth much, as Redfield points out:
“Filamentous bacteria are very morphologically diverse, and additional variations in appearance are likely to result from inconsistent preparation for electron microscopy. It’s probably pretty easy to find a bacterial image that resembles any fibrous structure. In the absence of any statistical evidence to the contrary, it’s prudent to assume that such similarities are purely coincidental.”14
Moreover, Brasier has also pointed out that these filamentous structures can form abiotically, and that Hoover has been caught out before on this very point:
“In terms of morphology, several (for example Hoover 2011 [SD—ref. 2 of this article], figs 2–5) could be said to resemble abiogenic ambient inclusion trails (AITs), commonly mistaken for cyanobacterial microfossils, including by Hoover and his colleagues (see Zhegallo et al. 2000). Such AITs are formed by the forward projection of minerals under gaseous pressure through a solid or liquid medium. Such trails can be recognised by their distinctive infillings with secondary minerals; by longitudinal striations along their edges; by their irregular or polygonal cross sections; by their curved and twisted patterns; and by a tendency for some of them to cross cut or branch; Terminal mineral grains may even mimic ‘heterocysts’ … . Many AITs have a similar composition to those described from the meteorites by Hoover (filaments with margins enriched in carbon and infilled with sulphur and silica rich minerals). Such abiogenic scenarios require rigorous investigation [emphasis added].”11
Hoover claims that the relative elemental abundances of filaments in some of the meteorites show an enrichment of C in the filaments. One filament in the Ivuna meteorite showed a 2.5 fold enrichment of carbon when measured against the background, and Hoover claimed that the filamentous structures he imaged from the Orgueil meteorite also showed carbon enrichment.2 However, a brief scan of the spectra reported for different elements in the Orgueil filaments only shows significant enrichment of Mg and S, and possibly O (Figure 1). These are all components of epsomite (MgSO4·7H2 O)—a major component of all the meteorites Hoover studied. As positive evidence for life goes, this is not very convincing because so little has been studied, and so much of what has been studied is wide open to abiotic interpretations. As Redfield noted:
“As evidence for life this is pathetic, no better than that presented by McKay’s group for the ALH84001 Martian meteorite in 1996.”14
For a more thorough critique of the Hoover’s methodology and evidence, see Brasier’s review. He outlines many more problems with the paper that point to the fact that Hoover failed to consider all the alternatives.
This claim appears to be on shaky ground, both biblically and scientifically. Hoover’s only supporters appear to be his own ideologues, and NASA has distanced itself from these claims, despite the fact Hoover is an award-winning microscopist in their employ. The elemental abundance data is equivocal—the filaments appear to have similar chemical composition to the rest of the surrounding rock, but provide no positive evidence for ET life. The morphological data was the main positive evidence, but relying on morphological data alone for microfossil identification is problematic even for terrestrial ‘microfossils’, so why should we do so for places that have presented no evidence of extant life? There appears to be little reason to move from the simplest biblical position on the existence of ET life: skepticism.
- See e.g. NASA scientist find alien life fossils, PhysOrg.com, 6 March 2011; and Borenstein, S., NASA disavows its scientist’s claim of alien life (Update 3), PhysOrg.com, 7 March 2011. Return to text.
- Hoover, R.B, Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites, Journal of Cosmology 13, March 2011. Return to text.
- Francis, J.W., TheOrganosubstrate of Life: A Creationist Perspective of Microbes and Viruses, Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, pp. 433–444, 2003. Return to text.
- Smith, H.B. Jr., Cosmic and universal death from Adam’s Fall: an exegesis of Romans 8:19–23a, Journal of Creation 21(1):75–85, 2007. Return to text.
- Doyle, S., Extrasolar planet 100% likely to have life? 14 October 2010. Return to text.
- Bates, G., Did God create life on other planets? Creation 29(2):12–15, 2007. Return to text.
- Dobbs, D., Journal of Cosmology going out with big bang, online as of 9 March 2011. Return to text.
- See Kulikovsky, A., Creationism, science, and peer-review, 2 February 2008. Return to text.
- Hoover, ref. 2, under heading “Official Statement from Dr. Rudy Schild, Center for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Cosmology.” Return to text.
- Various, Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites: Commentaries, Journal of Cosmology 13, March 2011. Return to text.
- Brasier, M.D., Life in CI1 Carbonaceous Chondrites? Journal of Cosmology 13, March 2011. Return to text.
- NASA, NASA Statement on Astrobiology Paper by Richard Hoover, 7 March 2011 Return to text.
- Hoover’s claims go as far back as 1997: Hoover, R.B., Meteorites, microfossils and exobiology. in: Hoover, R.B.(ed.), Instruments, Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, SPIE, 3111, pp. 115–136, 1997. Return to text.
- Redfield, R., Is this claim of bacteria in a meteorite any better than the 1996 one? 6 March 2011. Return to text.