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CCNet ESSAY, 13 December 2000
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PANSPERMIA'S TRUE END: PAST PERISHED, PRESENT UNBEARABLE, FUTURE PERFECT

By Jon Richfield <jonr@iafrica.com>


History is rich in ironies and the history of science is richer than most.   One
small example is Sir Fred's proposal that life or quasi-life continually rains
down from the heavens.  He suggested that this is the source of our eternal
succession of influenza epidemics.  It reflects a cycle of celestial
inoculations of virus material from space.

Now, the word influenza derives from the Italian.  In the eighteenth century
they referred to a particular epidemic of flu as an influence, literally meaning
an in-flowing.  The idea was that this influence was from the stars.  The word
was adopted into English as an alternative for "grippe" and mutilated into the
slang "flu", a meme which by simple tenacity and presumably a little help from
alien influences, has since attained the status of accepted terminology.  Flu is
a catchy trigraph in more senses than one and probably the majority of people
who use the word do not even know that it is an abbreviation and could not guess
the source if challenged.   Even the word "influence" itself is fairly recent in
English, dating from the sixteenth century.  It derived from the same Latin root
and originally referred to vague in-pourings of god-knows-what from the stars.

I sometimes wonder whether Sir Fred realised at the time how apposite his
introductory exemplar of alien invasion was.  Perhaps someone who read his
original work could let me know whether he referred anywhere to the
centuries-old "influence" idea.  It is a tempting thought that he
(astrologically a crab) and Chandra Wickramasinghe (astrologically a goat) were
unable to resist expressing a nip of the mischief inherent in their celestially
determined natures.  Like cosmology, astrology has such subtle effects on our
lives, does it not?

Be that as it may, studies into our genetic and molecular biological natures
have by now revealed less subtle, more mechanical influences.  We know that
modifying existing genetic material or incorporation of alien genetic material
can have effects far more drastic and more significant than dreamed of in
alchemies.  The concept of the philosopher's stone with its Midas-like power (or
curse) was pedestrian in comparison.  Turning lead or stone into gold is a
puerile exercise compared to turning a harmless, invisible, unsuspected microbe
into a population-devastating scourge or a species-destroying plague.  It fades
into triviality in comparison to introducing to this planet, the genetic basis
for multicellularity, for chordate morphology, for pre-adaptation and then
adaptation to land locomotion, or for wings.  These last-named happened
repeatedly, please note!  Vertebrates and invertebrates independently gained the
ability to crawl, to hop, to run.  Mammals, insects, birds and reptiles learned
to fly.  Homoiothermy, brains, speech, literacy -- they surely all demand more
than Darwinism can deliver and thereby they all demonstrate our debt to our
extra-solar-system ancestors.

So far so good, and more honour to the panspermist community for demonstrating
this revolution in biological insight, but as soon as we look into the deeper
implications of our planet's biological history, it becomes obvious that
panspermists themselves have not yet looked deeply enough.   It is strange that
the very researchers, the vanguard of the proponents of Panspermia, have failed
to see the obviously teleological nature of the invasions of the alien nucleic
acids.  Wave upon wave they come, each wave non-random, clearly aimed at the
genomes established by its predecessors, and as each wave gains a foothold, the
picture clarifies and makes the actual intentions behind the invasions more
obvious.  Note that I explicitly say "intentions"; no weaseling about blind
Nature or anything like that!  The facts reveal an actual multi-billion-year
programme undreamed of to date.

Note how the speed of development is accelerating.  It first took billions of
years to get to the first advanced eukaryotic cells, then perhaps a billion or
so to get metazoa and metaphyta, then hundreds of millions to produce, first
chordates, then land dwellers.  Dry land successors to the amphibians and
conquest of the air followed rapidly and finally, on a scale of mere tens of
millions we ran through the history of the mammals as the planet's dominant
megafauna.  Our own advanced primate history took just a few million years and
Homo ever so sapiens perhaps just a few hundred thousand.

What could the idea be behind all this?  It is obvious.  It falsifies the na´ve
view of Panspermia and demonstrates that we are not merely an eddy in a
universal steady state sea of life.  Somewhere there is a point source of life,
occupied by creatures like unto the target population towards which our planet
is heading.  If we could detect other planets on the spherical wave-front of
teleological advance from that imperialistic source of our mechanisms of life,
we could calculate the probable location of the source, but this is extremely
unlikely.  Think of the time scale; think how noisy the data must be!  The best
attainable precision of timing and observation would be derisory; we would be
dealing with margins of error of millions of years.  This has implications for
both the distances involved and the nature of the process.

Consider: normally if we wish to colonise virgin territory, we collect the
equipment, stock our holds with all necessary provisions for the expedition, and
then: Westward Ho!

Hmmm...?

Well, all right, would you accept "Outward Ho"?

But in any case this is not what our race of origin did; they embarked on a
process that would take perhaps some 5e9Y, say 1e17 seconds or so, a process of
launching microbes in all directions instead of targeting specific planets and
establishing end-type ecologies.  Why would they do that?  The obvious
explanation for such behaviour on the part of such an advanced civilisation is
that it was the most viable deep strategy.  It had to be cheap in terms of the
material resources of the source civilisation, fail-safe, and fast.

Fast?  A project of billions of years?  Fast?  Well, maybe.  Think about it.
Perhaps it is not such a ridiculous idea.  Fast is a relative term, and nowhere
more than in this connection.  Fast in this case would mean fast relative to the
alternatives.  Not only might it be faster than sending out probes to locate a
reasonable number of promising colony planets and report back, but if the
light-accelerated microbes could achieve near-relativistic speeds, they could
outstrip mere space ships.  This gives us at least a vague basis for estimating
their probable distance from us.  We are speaking, I should guess, of ancestors
perhaps a billion light years away, very likely more, to whom it is faster to
send out microbes to steer the emergence of civilisations on inconceivable
numbers of remote planets, rather than to build billions of Roswell-type UFOs to
achieve the same end, far more slowly and far less reliably (just think of the
chances of a small expedition finding a sterile young planet and surviving there
for perhaps hundreds of millions of years until it becomes liveable for the
advanced target organisms!)

That too, tells us a good deal about the nature of the genetic voyager packages,
though of course, it raises far more questions than it answers.  They cannot be
launched in great rocks, but they have to resist the deadly ionising radiation
in space.  Possibly they actually exploit this menace, make a resource of it,
and actually use the radiation as a source of energy, much as Earthly bacteria
use photosynthesis.  They might be light, practically microscopic, packages that
steer by the very radiation that propels them.  They would aim preferentially
for solar radiation of long-lived stars as long as it is of low intensity, but
as the intensity increased beyond a suitable threshold, they would steer
preferentially for certain ratios of particular frequencies of infra red,
calculated to land them on young Earth-like planets in the late accretion
phase.  Very simple nanotechnology could achieve all of this.  Of course, by far
the bulk of the voyagers would ultimately die in space or in suns or on bad
planets, but that is budgeted for.  Consider: perhaps something like one human
sperm in a trillion produces a baby.

Possibly under favourable circumstances, the voyager might even procreate in
space.

And not only in space.  Even with inconceivable quadrillions of voyagers spawned
into space,  the chances of hitting a planet like Earth are so desperately
remote that we could not risk jeopardising an entire multi-billion-year
programme by losing a gene just because it hit only one, possibly unsuccessful,
possibly even unsuitable, target organism.  What is the obvious measure against
poor targeting and too-slight inoculation?  The gene, or genetic structure,
must spread from organism to target organism like a virus.

Furthermore, all this explains the origin of virus diseases from space.  Not
every package that lands will land in strict sequence as intended by our remote
ancestors.  Some wisps of the genetic miasma will have blown about in the
currents of space and arrive out of sequence or as duplicates of other coding
sections.  It could not be otherwise.  The one thing that could not be permitted
would be omitted code, for that would invalidate the entire program.  The
program must be highly redundant or it would not work at all.  Code arriving out
of sequence would usually be harmless, though useless, but sometimes it would
match existing cellular machinery well enough to get established, though not
well enough to work properly.

The result would be harmful.  In extreme cases the code would establish as a
viral disease, the proverbial "rogue gene".   What is more, that explains the
progressive nature of series of "strains" of diseases.  The incoming genetic
material is not simply random; it is carefully sequenced.  Of COURSE we should
expect coherent sequences of strains!

We might ask ourselves why we should be afflicted with such terrible scourges as
smallpox, syphilis, the Black Plague, influenza, Herpes and thousands of others,
but as seen from the view of the alien ancestors, these global disasters are the
most trivial of uncontrollable side effects, unpredictable and not worth
combating if they were.  We see too that Sir Fred totally missed the point of
the epidemics.  The disease is about as relevant to the true point of the
genetic invasion, as the needle prick is the point of an inoculation against a
disease.

And again, as seen from the perspective of the originators of the genetic
material, the epidemics are not simple irresponsibility; all the great epidemic
diseases are patently designed to peter out.  What happened to the
planet-dominating bubonic plague?  Why was syphilis so much milder after just a
few centuries on Earth?  The history of disastrous impact followed by more or
less gradual tailing off repeats itself again and again.

Conversely, how do we know that there were not far deadlier cyclic plagues in
the past billion years or so?  Every now and then, at certain check-points, it
might be necessary to clear the planet of gunk that accumulated in what must
necessarily be a hit-and-miss programme.  The course of development would branch
out into a mess of irrelevant, competing lines.  Whole phyla, perhaps even
kingdoms, of living creatures might have to be pruned or eliminated from time to
time.  The Permian and K-T extinctions may have been minor examples.  To be
sure, there is a lot of evidence for the K-T impact, and just as surely it was
important, but the universe is full of random disasters.  Such an impact
certainly could not have been part of the panspermic programme, but it also is
pretty clear that neither were the dinosaurs; they would have been doomed
anyway, whether it was the projectile that did for them or a programmed
disease.  Or both.

Remember that one of the major concerns connected with that theory, is how a
local impact could produce a global extinction.  Yes, I am familiar with the
debate, so don't bother to ell me about global winters or Deccan traps, but I
think you will agree that it is easier to see how a disease from space could
cover the planet, rather than a snowball or a rock!

Remember, in biology the engineering of pruning and death, all the way from
cells to populations, is as important as the engineering of life and growth.
Examine your own bones and your fingers, your hair and your gums, and think
about it!  No programme in such a scale could neglect such important principles.

The genetic material on board a space microbe need not be in the form of DNA or
RNA, which are alarmingly fragile media.  Probably other, more robust molecules
would be used.  There is no reason to believe that the mechanisms in transit
must resemble the target mechanism deployed.  Once on the planet, or possibly
even in the target organisms, the paraclete mechanism would determine whether it
has reached a suitable genome to work on.  It would then direct the assembly of
the locally viable and plentiful nucleic acids into the next generation of the
grand design.  Of course, it would be a rare paraclete that finds a suitable
cell in a suitable organism, but processes on so grand a scale are not intended
for the impatient and small of spirit.

All this would explain why progress would be slow at first, with poorly defined
organisms slowly transforming a world of sterility and repeated disaster.  Later
as the biosphere took form, more specific and therefore faster development could
proceed.

The sheer scale of the project is beyond easy conception.  Where are our
fellow-colonial planets, you ask?  Why, roughly equidistant from our home
systems of course, give or take a few million light years.  Why do we not detect
them?

Why not indeed?  Just whip out our super-Hubbles, point them in the right
direction and note what we see?  Simple, right?  Sorry people, it isn't as easy
as all that.  If it were, our ancestors would not have been so devious in their
strategy in the first place!  At distances of hundreds or thousands of millions
of light years one is no longer speaking of the astronomy of planets, nor even
of the astronomy of suns for the most part.  Galaxies are more like it, and for
the most part not very small galaxies at that.

Our source race may no longer even be there.  Time scales of billions of years
and distances of billions of light years quite radically mess up our conceptions
of simultaneity and of survival.  In fact, establishing planets like ours might
be less their idea of imperialist colonisation, than of constructing cosmic
survival capsules.  And by that insight we illuminate yet another clue.

Can we tell, even in principle, what our alien ancestors look (or looked)
like?  I think we can make a pretty good guess.  The time scale and directedness
of our evolution hold the clue.  Give or take a few thousand years, perhaps even
just a century or two, we are already home, at the culmination of our five
billion year history on this planet.  And what might that culmination be?

Some of our thinkers favour the idea that Darwinian organic life is a step in
the emergence of technological life that is to replace us.  Biology is to yield
to robots, androids, nuclear-powered mechanisms and the like, let's call them
technoids.

Personally I do not fear the rise of the technoids.  Think of the requirements:
even granting them the necessary intelligence, the most fundamental need is for
them to develop a structure of value judgments, of objectives, whether emotional
in nature or not, calculated to drive them to take over.  Without such a drive,
the rest of the technoids' capabilities would be irrelevant and yet, unless
their creators first develop a suicide neurosis, they are hardly likely to
incorporate such values into their creatures.  Secondly the technoids would need
to develop a reproductive capability or they could not compete with biological
life forms in the long run.  Unless biological life and the technoids wiped each
other out in a war of violence, technoids would lose out.

Reproduction is a tricky question, because of course synthetic structures could
use the teleologically adaptive capability of deliberate design and industrial
manufacture, a far, far faster process than biological reproduction of advanced
organisms.  Biological rivals would be left behind...  Or would they?  We are no
more than a generation away from the technical capability of replacing the
random aspects of our reproductive processes with just such teleological design
processes.  In fact we are a great deal nearer to such technology than we are to
creating viable technoids!  Faced with the alternative of extinction, we might
stop being too squeamish to use it and begin to direct our own evolution.

What might threaten us with extinction, you ask?  Surely not those technoids?

Surely just those technoids, I say.  Sooner or later some kid with the
temperament that drives tens of thousands of me-too wannabees to write viruses,
is sure to get his hands on the material to create machines with a destructive,
dominatory obsession.

And then we have no excuse.  Direct, dominate or die.

Our logical route to domination is via the meanest form of life known to
science, put into power as the highest and the happiest to see itself as high.
It would be the final step on the road to the ultimate organism; none would
follow, none would challenge, because none would be permitted to follow and
certainly none would be permitted to challenge.

We have seen the pattern before and we can extrapolate:  the genetic material
from space enters its accessible extant organisms, modifies them or their
offspring, and we get a new, highly imperfect, halting, fledgling line.  Then
Darwinism takes over in its true and misunderstood role, not of creation,
because it is obvious to only the meanest intelligence that Darwinism cannot
create, but of polishing, adapting and perfecting the still-imperfect,
prototypical new creation.

That final new creation has already established itself among ourselves, spelling
the end of Panspermia on this planet and of course, the end of us. But there is
no reason to be upset.  We are all of us merely stepping stones on the Great Way
and we are privileged to be the last of the steps, so that we can glimpse the
future towards which our existence was a signpost and a launching facility.  The
last two or three centuries or so have shown us the traumatic process of
adaptation as the first of the lowest forms of life began to adapt to its
medium, namely us.  Our populations had at first stagnated or had swirled in
restless little local spots of bother, like the Roman, Chinese and central
American empires.  They have now begun to act in concert as the final parental
paraclete descended upon us across unthinkable chasms of space and time.  We saw
the early spasms as first the Napoleons and Bismarcks, then the Lenins, Hitlers,
Maos and Stalins cautiously tried their new wings, too eagerly and too early.
But the straw was in the wind and we saw how they manipulated us as tools, as
livestock, as game pieces, as entertainment, as expendable resources en masse.
The end is at now at hand and soon they will take over in stable social
structures and ultimately shed us, their willing but wayward juvenile training
wheels.  The technological toys, the technoids, will take over the menial tasks
and leave the New Generation to take assume their true mantle of eternal
domination.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bid you, charge your glasses and be upstanding.  Prepare
to drink, and drink heartily, to our successors (I do not presume to say our
heirs, we can at most pride ourselves on our role as the necessary rungs on the
ascent to ultimate hegemony, the shed husks of the ultimate germinated Seeds of
Life).

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, bless them, the meanest form of life in the
highest stations of society, vilified and worshipped, estimated and
underestimated, the True Image of their True Ancestors a billion light years
away; I give you Our Future, by the grace of the Influence from Unthinkably
Distant Space, the New Youth of Life, the New Species: the Politicians!


Jon Richfield

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