Intelligent Design Origin Of Life

Rob Sheldon: ID types are unfair to panspermia (the hypothesis that life came from space)

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Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon defends panspermia in a recent note:


Having been an advocate for a version of panspermia that I call panzooia, I take criticisms seriously.

The basic complaint from ID, is that panspermia “kicks the can down the road” without ever explaining OOL.

This is unfair criticism. It is like saying to the obstetrician, “Thank you for delivering a healthy baby but you never explained where he gets his consciousness from.” Or complaining to the surgeon, “Thank you for removing the cancerous tumor, but you never explained what caused it in the first place.”

The answer to critics of panspermia, is that it is not intended as an origin of life (OOL) theory; rather, it answers the question “Where did life on Earth come from?”

Now you might argue, “We don’t care about life on Earth, we want to know about OOL of life in the universe.” Well, that’s a different question, and we have considerably less data to go on. At this point, it stops being a science question, and more of a philosophy question.

For if life arrived by a comet from another solar system, how are we to determine the conditions in that other solar system? The best answer, and the answer given by every panspermia person I know, is “I don’t know.” Which is a perfectly fine answer, and quite scientific. Demand for more precision is simply philosophical at that point. That’s why it is unfair to raise philosophical objections to a perfectly scientific position. If ID wants to be a science, it must avoid delving into speculative philosophy, because everyone will then say “It’s not a science.”

But I would argue, “I don’t know” is a hole big enough to drive a truck through. When science admits ignorance, this is a chance to (a) devise experiments, (b) construct theories, (c) debate the usefulness of potential theories, ie. philosophy. It’s a opportunity, not a show-stopper. So rather than criticize panspermia, help us out. Offer suggestions.

And in actuality, panspermia advocates have developed grand theories of OOL, but they are reluctant to explain them, perhaps because of the ridicule.

(1) One rather ancient view is that the universe is eternal, and has always had life in it. Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) was of the opinion that the Big Bang never happened. It is not a popular view today, and I can only count four or five Hoyle devotees today who hold this view, but it is not an unreasonable view, simply one that now has to explain away the evidence for the Big Bang.

I say this, because these people have received much unnecessary ridicule for doubting the scientific consensus. They should be treated respectfully, as co-belligerents in this war against scientific consensus, and not as kooks.

(2) Another view is that the life arose very early in the universe, when the Cosmic Background Radiation was between 0 C and 100 C and all the comets in the universe were balls of water. Then the matter of the universe was mostly liquid water, and the “resources” for life were at an all-time high. I have met one or two that hold this view.

(3) A third view is that radioactivity was higher in the early universe, with some elements made in the Big Bang that decayed shortly thereafter, or perhaps were formed in supernovae in the early universe and incorporated into comets. This radioactivity both melted the comets and provided a ready energy source for life to grow. So the era of comet-initiated life was extended for a few billion years. This is Chandra Wickramasinghe’’s view.

(4) My own view is perhaps a combination of all of them, that a magnetic Big Bang created abundant oxygen which led to comets which are the dark matter of the universe and some 70% of the matter in the universe. These comets carry both life and magnetite machinery for extracting energy from magnetic fields, so that life can grow even in the deep recesses of space. The same magnetite machinery enables information to be collected and concentrated. Then OOL is a transfer of concentrated information from magnetism to chemistry, and all the OOL theories starting with chemistry try to begin at the wrong step. A corollary is that the universe was created with magnetic information that provided the information needed for life.

So indeed, it is erroneous to accuse panspermia advocates of “kicking the can down the road.” Maybe ID people can listen harder and speak less brashly.


Sheldon is also the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II .

Readers, are there ID-related objections to panspermia?

See also: ID types are unfair to panspermia? Eric Anderson replies Anderson: The primary question on the table with abiogenesis/OOL research for generations has always been “How did life arise?” The location is secondary, almost to the point of being a bit player in the discussion.

3 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: ID types are unfair to panspermia (the hypothesis that life came from space)

  1. 1
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Readers, are there ID-related objections to panspermia?

    ID includes fine-tuning of the universe and tends to assume the same designer for both that and OOL. So, panspermia won’t work in that case.
    But even with seeding bacterial life – this leaves the entire Darwinian mythology in place. So we still have the blind watchmaker creating human beings out of bacteria.

    “Thank you for delivering a healthy baby but you never explained where he gets his consciousness from.”

    How humans supposedly got consciousness from mutations and selection-pressure (or why there was ever a need for the rational mind in the Darwinian world) is a question ID is looking at. The presence of consciousness and rational self-awareness is irreducible to blind, unintelligent chemistry – so it’s evidence for design by intelligence.

    Panspermia has quite a lot more to work out than merely what the levels of radiation in the universe were at the time.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    There’s one relevant data point. We know that plant seeds, spores, viruses, and some bacteria can survive long space journeys in a vacuum, because they survive on our satellites and space stations. (Some by intentional experiment, some without our intentions.) A few multi-celled critters like tardigrades also survive.

    This capability, like everything else in life, must have a purpose. The obvious guess is that the creator wanted life to spread to as many places as possible, so life could eventually regenerate when it was destroyed in one place.

    Consider how plants refill a dead area after a hard winter or a tornado or a bomb. Stolons and seeds. If one planet is bombed, the other life-sustaining planets reseed it. Comets and meteorites are the birds and bees of the large-scale reseeding.

  3. 3
    Fasteddious says:

    Hmmmm, I’m not impressed.
    Sheldon is splitting hairs when he blames ID for not accepting panspermia to possibly explain “the origin of life on Earth”. From his perspective he is, strictly speaking, correct, but from the ID perspective, that is irrelevant. OOL is one of ID’s major talking points. ID does not really care where live got started, but is more concerned with how it began, or rather, how it could not possibly have began; i.e. by undirected natural mechanisms. Indeed, to prove their point, ID analysts often consider the entire observable Universe in making their OOL calculations and arguments. So in a sense, ID implicitly allows for panspermia.
    Nevertheless, panspermia as usually presented, faces some major obstacles, a few of which are glossed over in the video:
    – OOL somewhere else (faces the same challenges as here on Earth)
    – survival of life when launched into space (notwithstanding the experiment in the video)
    – survival of said life in space (vacuum, cold, radiation, for millennia or more)
    – miniscule chance of actually coming to planet Earth as opposed to anywhere else
    – survival of life during entry onto planet Earth (heat, shock, mechanical stress)
    – reanimation and survival of life in Earth’s primordial conditions (different from its home world)
    Some of these have been analysed and probability estimates made. But like the Drake equation, the probabilities are largely speculative and all over the place. The most likely bottom line, however, is that panspermia is “possible” in some sense, but highly improbable. Even transferring live bacteria or photosynthetic organisms from Earth to Mars is improbable. A successful transfer from another solar system to Earth would be orders of magnitude less probable, given the distances and times required. But as with Darwinism, “highly improbable” = “not impossible” = “possible” = “best theory”, at least for some folks.

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