Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars: The Panspermia Revolution and the Origins of Humanity
Chandra Wickramasinghe, Kamala Wickramasinghe, and Gensuke Tokoro | May 2019 | Bear & Company | 144 pages | ISBN: 978-1591433286 | $14.00
The idea that life on Earth originated in the stars is an old one, dating back in some sense to the Greeks, and pursued in earnest by a number of twentieth century scientists. It is a distinct possibility, although one for which evidence is currently lacking. In recent years, Chandra Wickramasinghe has pursued this line of thought in extreme and absurd directions, writing a number of books making very broad claims that panspermia isn’t just real but that viruses from space continue to infect and direct the development of Earth life even today. He has taken these claims to Ancient Aliens, where he recently appeared. In reading the new book he cowrote with Kamala Wickramasinghe and Gensuke Tokoro, Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars, I expected to read about these things, but I did not expect to read what was basically a New Age manifesto about how capitalism is the fault of evil demon viruses from space or a call to adopt a Buddhist-inflected form of communism as the one true scientific lifestyle.
Our authors offer a number of possible, but unlikely claims. They review several instances of historical plagues, such as the sixth-century Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, and the Spanish Influenza of 1918, and they allege that these diseases came from outer space. They argue that the Spanish Flu must have come from space because it broke out in Boston and Bombay at the same time in an era before air travel. But the Spanish Flu was an H1N1 flu virus, which means that it is of a piece with other earthly viruses, and the authors don’t explain how an extraterrestrial virus coincidentally matched its earthly counterparts, nor did they consider the fact that the virus likely incubated in pigs (which carry H1N1) before jumping to humans, perhaps at more than one location.
They also allege that the bacteria in the human digestive tract are not the result of coevolution over long period of time, but rained down from outer space. They offer no explanation other than to protest that the variety of bacteria present is too complex to have arisen organically.
Similarly, the authors grasp at a recent study that alleged that octopuses’ genetic complexity indicated an extraterrestrial origin to proclaim them products of space. This is a dubious claim at best given their well-documented affinity with other members of the mollusk family, not to mention the fact that their biology is decidedly earthly, and operates with the same internal systems as other Earth creatures. What are the chances that space aliens would be identical to Earth creatures? Are octopuses weird? Sure. Does that make them aliens? Only Cthulhu knows for sure.
The authors have an answer for this, albeit an unsatisfactory one: An unknown intelligence, they believe, programmed the blueprints of life into space viruses and set them loose across the universe. Of course, this leads to a problem: If every creature derives from one of these viruses’ plans, then the octopus is no more an alien than any other creature, thus negating the preceding discussion.
They also bring up, credulously, dubious claims about the existence of psychic powers and argue that Buddhism produces scientifically confirmable benefits to human health and well-being.
In the second chapter, the authors essentially give away the game, admitting that their quest for panspermia is less about science than it is about cosmology. They frame their search in terms of the eternal human desire to understand our place in the universe, and they see the hunt for humanity’s alleged space origins as an effort to reconnect with the universe and the divine, by, essentially, reversing H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic indifference and casting the smallness of humanity as humility before the eternal: “We realize now, or at least should have realized, that our entire genetic heritage (except for minor tweaking) came from the vast external universe. […] So the humbling realization is that we humans, and, indeed, all other life on Earth, are utterly unimportant in the broader cosmic context.”
Do we really need panspermia for that? Would we not be just as unimportant as autochthonous products of the Earth? Surely an indifferent if majestic cosmos would care as little either way.
Ah, but there’s the rub! The authors don’t really think the universe is indifferent. They see a harmonious mirror between the divine creation in Genesis and the Big Bang theory and hint that they expect science to reveal the fingerprints of God—a God they identify as being “in consonance with Eastern philosophies,” that by sheer coincidence happen to be the ones that the authors grew up with. In short, they believe that the universe is itself God and conscious, and they mistakenly believe that this article of faith is the dispassionate conclusion of logical proofs more commonly associated with Christian creationism.
This leads to a bizarre discussion in which the authors ask why human beings are unable to consider the consequences of their destructive lifestyles on future generations. Rather than accept the obvious—that for most people, future problems aren’t “real” if they can’t be immediately felt and directly experienced—the authors allege that this is evidence of a “cosmic imperative” to consume nonrenewable resources born of a virus from space. They believe that viruses alter human behavior and therefore space viruses bombard the Earth in order to direct our behavior, which they see as akin to the predestination of religious mythologies. This raises an insoluble problem, of course, for if the superintelligence that planned all life could predestine human beings, why does it need viruses to tweak the formula? Was the creation incomplete? Is it like a computer that constantly needs updates even though I already have the latest version of the goddamn software so why does it need another update just six hours after the last one?
No, the authors claim—without evidence—that space viruses come in two flavors, “Life-economical” or Le and “Life-uneconomical” or Lu. Le are energy-efficient peaceful hippies who live in harmony with nature, while Lu are energy-inefficient consumers maximizing their short-term lifestyles in order to replicate as fast as possible. Amazing, isn’t it, that space viruses neatly fall along modern political and ideological lines? The Lu, like the demons of religion, corrupted our holy and pure bloodlines in a manner akin to the Sons of God mating with the daughters of men, turning peaceful pre-humans into greedy capitalists. Indeed, they specifically cite the transformation of money from “a convenient medium of exchange to the highest status as the most suitable medium to reserve our greed” as evidence of evil demon space viruses corrupting “the natural order,” which in their mind would be a kind of primitive communism. The deliver a critique of capitalism going back to the fall of the Roman Empire (when they see “greed” as beginning—despite all historical evidence to the contrary) and arguing that individual wealth and success only becomes prioritized over the collective social wellbeing when individuals are under the control of demonic alien space viruses. As you might imagine, this is not a scientific claim as much as it is Eastern mysticism and collectivism dressed up in pseudoscientific garb.
The authors set up a battle between Lu-people and Le-people that is both embarrassingly naïve and also a fairly clear projection of traditional arguments between collectivism and individualism, alongside the traditional demonization of the Other. They claim that understanding their theory of panspermia will serve as a panacea, a fourth Age of Man (after, traditional hunter-gatherer, imperial-command, and lasses-faire capitalism) defined by overcoming the corruption in our DNA that compels us to ignore climate change and environmental degradation. To that end, they propose a new science of “astro-economics” in which capitalist principles are revised to counter the effects of evil virus DNA. It revolves around the principle that money is inherently evil because it represents energy (presumably the authors mean fuel, since they describe it as “finite”) stolen from Le-beings. Not surprisingly, it bears a resemblance to traditional Eastern approaches to social organization.
Having made their case for a sort of Buddhist-inspired Eastern traditionalism as the “scientifically” correct way to live, the authors more or less give up the main through-line of the book and deliver a series of five disconnected chapters to close out of the volume. One chapter discusses the differences between Eastern and Western religions and suggests that Eastern faiths are more in line with science, while Western faiths spark more scientific discoveries because scientists are forced into an adversarial relationship with manifestly wrong doctrines.
Another chapter speculates about whether a comet will hit the Earth in the near future (by 2040) and alleges that every major event in human history is the result of comet fragments hitting the planet, including the end of the Ice Age, the Agricultural Revolution, the collapse of ancient empires, etc. That this is manifestly absurd can be seen in the fact that the Roman Empire had been collapsing for a more than a century before the supposed “collisions” of 535-546 CE he credits for its collapse—the time of Justinian’s Plague, but also when the Eastern Roman Empire was at its height and the Western Empire had already vanished into history. The authors’ hypothesis also fails to account for the collapse of the European empires from 1918-c. 1965, or the collapse of the communist bloc in the 1980s, and surely any hypothesis that claims every cultural “bad period” can be explained by a comet without accounting for the devastation of the West from 1914 to 1945 is prima facie a failure.
A further chapter delivers an incoherent rant about the glory of ancient Greece, Western scientific chauvinism, and whether Egypt invented the panspermia hypothesis in ancient times. It represents the authors’ anti-Western biases more than it has anything to do with the rest of the book. The next chapter claims that embracing panspermia will help humans to feel united and overcome their cultural differences. How this would be different than the theory of evolution or the religious doctrine of Noachian descent offering the same sense of connection to a primal original, the authors do not say, except to claim once again that their demon-virus hypothesis proves the existence of a supreme intelligence which will allow everyone to become pantheists and see the divine in everything, for all conscious beings are simply a part of the Universe, which is God.
A final chapter offers predictions for the scientific advancements of the year 2100 and calling for “social cohesion” by uniting the world’s peoples. They literally call their vision of 2100 “utopia.” The chapter is connected to the rest of the book only in the sense that the authors are writing a religious text, full of jeremiads, theology, and prophecy, not a scientific tome in any real sense.
The epilogue calls on humans—by which they largely mean Western elites—to stop thinking of themselves as masters of the universe and to embrace humility and to humble themselves before the infinite universe. It basically repeats the preceding chapter and seems to exist, along with the five preceding chapters, only to (barely) bring what was otherwise a New Yorker-length essay to book length.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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