Abstract: We review the salient evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Much of this physical and biological evidence is multifactorial. One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ∼500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space. In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion – life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind. (open access) – Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?, Edward J. Steele, ShirwanAl-Mufti, Kenneth A. Augustyn, Rohan Chandrajith, John P.Coghlan, S.G.Coulson, Sudipto Ghosh, Mark Gillman, Reginald M.Gorczynski, Brig Klyce, Godfrey Louis, Kithsir Mahanama, Keith R.Oliver, Julio Padron, Jiangmen Qu, John A.Schuster, W.E.Smith, Duane P.Snyder,…Dongsheng Liu, March 13, 2018 More.
Note that both Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick both considered an extraterrestrial origin for life (panspermia) seriously, if only in despair over the conundrum of life’s origin of Earth. Origin of life researchers routinely describe a variety of accidentally favorable Earth origin sites. The finds are interesting but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture: Earth was not nearly as favorable to the origin of life in general as we sometimes assume it to be (simply because we have not found life anywhere else).
The advantage of panspermia, in general, is that it does not require exotic, once-in-a-quintillion scenarios to have happened on Earth, where we can assess the chances. Panspermia postulates the existence of a more favorable location somewhere, without locating it.
But now, not only do the present authors wish to explain the origin of biological information, life, new genes, and humans via panspermia, they also want to explain the abrupt appearance of complex life on earth, that way:
Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6. (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981)
They go further:
Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12–13). Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research – discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years – typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.
They appear to want to replace ID with panspermia and (this is where accusations of heresy might surface) they do not seem to regard Darwinian evolution as a creative force that can turn cows into whales all by itself. The fact that so many people signed off on the paper (who are “…”? One source reports33 authors altogether) suggests that many would like to discuss these problems with more options on the table than inventing implausible scenarios whose main virtue is that they dutiful defend Darwinism.
The transformation of an ensemble of appropriately chosen biological monomers (e.g. amino acids, nucleotides) into a primitive living cell capable of further evolution appears to require overcoming an information hurdle of superastronomical proportions (Appendix A), an event that could not have happened within the time frame of the Earth except, we believe, as a miracle (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981, 1982, 2000). All laboratory experiments attempting to simulate such an event have so far led to dismal failure (Deamer, 2011; Walker and Wickramasinghe, 2015). It would thus seem reasonable to go to the biggest available “venue” in relation to space and time.
In short, they are looking for a powerhouse of information, just as one might be looking for a powerhouse of energy. Where is it?
They suggest looking at viruses:
“We should then plausibly view viruses as among the most information-rich natural systems in the known Universe (Fig. 4). Their size dictates they are very small targets minimizing the probability of destruction by flash heating or ionizing radiation, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1979) e.g. Chapter 1. Their nanometer dimensions plausibly allow easy transport and dispersal by micrometer sized dust grains and other protective physical matrices of similar size. They are then nanoparticle-sized genetic vectors which contain all the essential information to take over and drive the physiology of any given target cell within which they mesh. Their replicative growth means they are produced, and exist, in huge numbers on cosmic scales; so that they (and to a lesser quantitative extent their cellular reservoirs) can suffer huge losses by inactivation while still leaving a residue of millions of surviving particles potentially still infective. A virus then is a type of compressed module in touch with the whole of the cell’s very ability to grow and divide to produce progeny cells and thus to evolve.”
Like ID, this is an “information first” approach that features “information-rich visions,” even with respect to humans:
The most crucial genes relevant to evolution of hominids, as indeed all species of plants and animals, seems likely in many instances to be of external origin, being transferred across the galaxy largely as information rich virions. In some cases it is possible to imagine – fanciful as it might seem – multicellular life-forms that were established on an icy cometary or planetary body to be transferred as frozen eggs, embryos or seeds (Tepfer and Leach, 2017) in large icy bolides that have been transported to the Earth in soft landings (Frank and Sigwarth, 2001; Snyder, 2015); certainly the terrestrial evidence for Earth’s own pervasive Icy Biosphere is compelling and consistent with such a picture (Priscu and Christner, 2004; Fox, 2014; Christner et al., 2014). It is plausible that in the warmed and liquid subsurface interiors of the comets, or planetary moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus (Hoover, 2011; Snyder, 2015) cellular reservoirs for viral replication would, by necessity, need to exist. More.
If you are tempted to simply dismiss the authors’ thesis, keep in mind that they are not trying to minimize the difficulty of the OOL problem. They are asking for their ideas to be considered in the light of the admitted difficulty.
An obvious objection is, what resources elsewhere than Earth enabled all that information to be assembled and coordinated, never mind transported? How likely are we to find out?
There’s been some pushback:
Stedman added that, for a virus, such as the RNA-based ones known as retroviruses, to somehow turn a squid into an octopus, that virus would have to evolve on a world where squid were already plentiful.
Modern retroviruses have evolved to be extremely specific about which hosts they infect, Stedman said. But a retrovirus from outer space wouldn’t have evolved to be specific for Earth-based creatures, and “certainly not specific enough for something like a squid — unless you have massive amounts of squids on some planet incredibly close to us that is spitting off all of these meteors. But I think that kind of assumption is highly unlikely,” Stedman said. – Brandon Spektor at LiveScience More.
Yes. “Is compatible with,” as in Fig 5.1 copied above, is not a form of evidence. So far we are still in the land of Darwin’s heirs
But it’s good to be allowed to have the discussion.
See also: Exoplanets break apparent rules for planet formation
SETI seeks to rebrand its goals, in pursuit of funding from the U.S. Congress
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life