According to Hollywood, there’s no shortage of alien life in the universe. Unfortunately, these aliens are usually presented as hostile to humanity. In fact, flicks like War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Independence Day depict cosmic creatures that threaten humanity’s very existence.
On the other hand, throughout history some thinkers, philosophers, and even scientists have taken a completely different spin on the question of the relationship between life on Earth and life in outer space. Instead of imagining aliens as hostile, even seeking to wipe out humanity, they believe that alien life could have been what seeded life here to begin with. Thus, far from being hostile, alien life would be quite friendly to us.
What’s behind this theory, and is there anything to it?
Seeds from space
The idea that life on Earth originated from outer space is called panspermia—from the Greek words pan, which means “all,” and spermia, which means “seed.” It’s basically the theory that not only does alien life exist, but it can spread throughout the cosmos and seed other worlds. This seeding can happen through microbes in asteroids or other cosmic debris that lands on planets and fortuitously gets life going there. Or, as some have argued, perhaps aliens came to our planet purposely and started life here— and who knows on how many other worlds as well.
One of the twentieth century’s most famous scientists, Francis Crick (who with James Watson discovered the DNA double helix molecule), proposed just such an idea, which he called directed panspermia. Though a militant atheist, Crick argued that life on Earth was just too complicated to have formed by mere chance. “An honest man,” he said, “armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going.”
Hence, he proposed a solution: life itself was first brought to Earth in spaceships billions of years ago by more highly evolved creatures. “As an alternative to these nineteenth-century mechanisms,” he wrote, “we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet.”
Thus, one of the last century’s greatest scientific minds argues that, perhaps, aliens in spaceships first brought life to Earth, and that explains how we all got here.
Cosmic solution to a very earthly problem
Others, who think there could be something to the panspermia idea but reject the directed part, believe that alien life could have been transported through space by comets or asteroids or meteorites—but by accident. After some sort of interplanetary collision or explosion, microbes hitchhiked rides on the debris left over from the collision. This is called ballistic panspermia. Then, managing to survive the rigors of space, these microbes were hurled across the cosmos until they landed on other planets, including ours.
Hence, they were the seeds that by chance happened to take root, survive, multiply, and evolve into what we see today. Therefore, according to this theory, everything from fungus to turnips to the Boston Symphony Orchestra had their origins in microbes from other planets.
Even proponents of panspermia will admit that their theory is highly speculative. But it would solve what many evolutionary biologists still consider the most troublesome problem of their theory: the explanation of the origin of life on Earth. How could the first life-form on our planet have arisen from nonliving material, as the evolutionary theory teaches? This question remains unanswered. The panspermia idea (whether directed or ballistic or any other version), if true, would in one fell swoop give a cosmic solution to what has been a very earthly problem.
Allan Hills 84001
Some scientists have claimed that we already have evidence for alien microbes reaching Earth. In 1996, headlines were splashed around the world that a meteorite found in Antarctica a decade earlier, called the Allan Hills 84001, had shown evidence of life from Mars. The theory stated that the rock was blown off the Martian surface by a meteorite impact 4.5 billion years ago and landed on our world billions of years later. The announcement of the possible discovery of what would have been extraterrestrial life caused quite an international stir, even prompting then United States President Bill Clinton to make a televised announcement to mark the event.
However, critics quickly pointed to many problems with that specific interpretation of the evidence found in the meteorite. Before long, papers had been written arguing that the strange features on the rock were mere leftovers of unique geochemistry and that nothing on the meteorite showed microbiological features. To this day scientists debate the question, even if the consensus is that Allan Hills 84001, however interesting, didn’t carry evidence of extraterrestrial life from Mars.
Hence, what might have been deemed a powerful example of how panspermia could have happened doesn’t seem to present any evidence for it at all.
Begging the question
The idea of panspermia is not a twentieth or twenty-first century notion. A Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras, who lived more than 400 years before Christ, believed that life could have started elsewhere in the cosmos before coming here. In 1743, the idea of panspermia appeared in the writings of a French natural historian named Benoît de Maillet, who claimed that life on Earth was seeded by germs from space that fell into the ocean. Others promoted the idea as well, including the famous Lord Kelvin, who wrote in 1871 that “we must regard it as probable in the highest degree that there are countless seed-bearing meteoric stones moving about through space. If at the present instance no life existed upon this Earth, one such stone falling upon it might, by what we blindly call natural causes, lead to its becoming covered with vegetation.”
Of course, besides being highly speculative, the panspermia theory simply begs the question about life’s origins. Even if humans had found evidence that life on Earth was started by life originating somewhere else in the cosmos, how did that cosmic life itself get started? Whether ET or some microbe riding in the belly of a comet, life is very complex and thus needs an explanation for its own existence. The panspermia theory only pushes the question of life’s origins further back. It doesn’t come close to answering it.
Or maybe it’s right?
On the other hand, maybe there’s something to panspermia after all. Francis Crick might have been closer to the truth than he realized. According to the Bible (and Crick), life did not originate here on Earth in and of itself. Instead, it was purposely formed (as Crick argued) by a nonearthly power (again, à la Crick).
Instead of aliens in spaceships, though, or microbes in comets, the Bible teaches that God Himself was the One who created life on Earth. The first chapter of Genesis depicts our “extraterrestrial” origins: “Then God said, ‘Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.’ . . . Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image’ ” (Genesis 1:20, 26, NKJV).*
This idea is then repeated all through the Bible. “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7–9).
And here’s what the psalmist wrote: “Know that the Lord, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:3, NKJV).
In fact, the Creator Himself came to Earth and, in a special and intimate act, created human beings. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NKJV). However this special act took place, and whatever the grand mysteries involved in it, this account shows clearly the “extraterrestrial” origin of human life on Earth.
Thus, in ways that they couldn’t imagine, and many would be loath to admit, proponents of the panspermia theory, including Francis Crick, are right after all. Life didn’t originate here on Earth. Instead, as the theory teaches, life on Earth began by life from somewhere else in the cosmos.
The good news, however, is that this original life was not mere microbes in asteroids or even aliens who seeded Earth and then took off into the depths of outer space. Instead, the biblical version of panspermia puts our origins in the work of a loving God who not only created us but, as the Cross shows, redeemed us as well.