One of the great joys of social media is people getting in touch to share things they think you might like, or know about or have a hot take on. This week a few people got in touch asking about alien octopuses from space. Without paying it too much attention I’d assumed that this news story from August 2015 had got reposted somewhere where scientist Clifton Ragdale made a perfectly innocuous statement quoting Martin Wells who compared the octopus to an alien (in some senses). Sadly, this juicy quote was just too good to pass up which lead to the story in the science and geek media cropping up again and again under various headlines pertaining to octopuses from space.
I was wrong, however, to assume this old story had popped back up again. This time around there’s a ‘serious’ paper “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?” (Steele et al. 2018) in what appears to be a serious journal, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology making some frankly ridiculous and unscientific claims about octopuses and an extraterrestrial origin. I know I should leave it alone, to not even point more eyes in the direction of it but the fact that people are talking about it and at least a couple of serious-looking media outlets are fairly uncritically running the story Cosmos, the Express, means taking an in-depth look might be worthwhile.
In short, the paper comes from a strange assemblage of academics and other authors from the controversial field of Astrobiology (a genuine branch of earth sciences at one end and tinfoil hat brigade at the other) and attempts to resurrect the idea of Panspermia, the multifaceted hypothesis that an extraterrestrial or cosmic influence has affected the evolution of life on Earth. This can include Celestials traversing the cosmos seeding life on different planets, through to the arrival of essential biotic precursor compounds or bioactive micro organisms from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
In this new paper from the end of April, the team of authors review the ‘salient’ (read hodge-podge) evidence consistent with the scientific sounding Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Sounds proper don’t it? Three main strands of evidence are reviewed and here’s where even without a knowledge of biology you can see that things start to fall apart: 1) The emergence of retroviruses in the Cambrian..? 2) Clever Octopuses and 3) Micro fossils on meteorites.
I’ve been marking student essays recently and as you can see this paper isn’t exactly ticking checkboxes for clarity of argument. I’m not going to touch on the first and third strands of discussions as these aren’t my areas of ever-so-slight-expertise but the second one, “the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus”. We need to talk about this. Specifically the holes in the logic, the misrepresentation of evolutionary ideas, fossil record, relationships within Cephalopoda, dodgy plausibility and general awfulness of the science. Starting with the quote above in the abstract, intelligent complexity doesn’t mean very much (are they referring to intelligence of cephalopods?) and perceived complexity as compared to what? Lastly, there’s a red flag right there in thinking that cephalopod evolution has ‘culminated’ in “the Octopus”. Evolution doesn’t culminate in anything, ram’s horn squid, nautiluses, vampire squid, cuttlefish, bobtail squid and ‘teuthoids’ aren’t just hanging around as evolutionary byproducts on the route to “the Octopus”. The ambiguity around “the Octopus” is also interesting as this has different biological meanings, which aren’t defined or cleared up here at all it turns out. It could refer to all octopods, just the genus Octopus (why not Abdopus, Wunderpus or any of the other octopus genera I wunder) or, a specific individual octopus for all I know. Off the bat this suggests a lack of familiarity with conventions in describing organisms as well as a lack of technical detail. This is just the abstract.
The next mention of Octopuses is in a bizarre Purpose of Article section, calling out what seems like a sensible reviewer comment:
Further, if some readers are hoping to read a disquisition based on Population Genetics-type analyses, as one reviewer has put it, ” … analyses of evolutionary rates, examples of appearance of new genes with no homology to old ones, etc” they will mostly be disappointed; although some genetic features from recent data in the Octopus and other Cephalopods provide challenging examples to conventional evolutionary thinking. But that is not the main thrust of this review.
Can you believe it? The testicular fortitude of these authors. As a general rule in science, the bigger the claim, the more work you got to put into backing it up. This paper on extra terrestrial origins of complex life seeded on Earth has barely begun and they’re over, you know, relying on compelling evidence staples in this field of enquiry. WE’RE IN FOR A RIDE. As you’ll see from the quote above, I’m not pulling up every strange bit of formatting, random capitalisation or bizarre fourth wall sections like this but suffice to say, the question of how this got published and who (finally) reviewed and edited it is a pretty pertinent one.
We next come back to cephalopods in section 13 on Evolution of Intelligent Complexity and no, dear reader, intelligent complexity is not defined anywhere in this paper. Complexity is mentioned with reference to “the Octopus” genome because there are 33,000 protein-coding genes more than is present in Homo sapiens. A remarkably simplistic and somewhat arbitrary comparison. Given the somewhat pedestrian insights throughout this paper we might be left to conclude that Intelligent Complexity (Cephalopods) just means “the Octopus” is intelligent and the genome errr complex. To put this into context, to date there has only been one complete-ish cephalopod genome sequenced and assembled, that of Octopus bimaculoides in 2015 (Albertin et al. 2015). This is worth bearing in mind when we contemplate the ‘weirdness’ of the genome given that, as yet, there’s very little in the way of comparators in this whole group.
Next there’s a summary of cephalopods which puts even the shittiest of 1970s popular science books to shame and again, just the copy editing here is abysmal for example:
Octopus belongs to the coleoid sub-class of molluscs (Cephalopods) that have an evolutionary history that stretches back over 500 million years, although Cephalopod phylogenetics is highly inconsistent and confusing.
Where to start? Our old friend Octopus is back, not Octopus or octopods or Octopoda or octopuses or octopi or octopussies or octopodes, just Octopus. Sub-class rather than subclass is just lazy and not consistent with the random capitalisation of ranks throughout. Cephalopods just floats there in brackets and as a stand-alone sentence it’s a bit shit. Given the pretty big claims made later on, having a detailed grasp of evolutionary relationships needs a little bit more than “highly inconsistent and confusing”. What are highly inconsistent and confusing? The results? The trees? The methods? We’re told that “Cephalopods are very diverse” without any qualification as to what that means and that “…behaviourally complex coleoids (Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopus) presumably arising under a pure terrestrial evolutionary model from the more primitive nautiloids”. This is just very lazy writing. Why pick those groups? Why is squid capitalised and what groups does it refer to? The presume in that sentence is working extremely hard given that we ‘presume’ all life on Earth arose under a purely terrestrial evolutionary model, terrestrial meaning of Earth here, not ‘on land’. The genetic divergence of “Octopus” from other coleoids is “very great” we’re told. Citation very much, needed.
Then the ducks are put in a very strange row, indicating the authors didn’t bother to look up a single reference on the relationships in this group, which are problematic.
The transformative genes leading from the consensus ancestral Nautilus (e.g. Nautilus pompilius) to the common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) to Squid (Loligo vulgaris) to the common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris, Fig. 5) are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form – it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large. Such an extraterrestrial origin as an explanation of emergence of course runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm.
This means nothing reader. Absolutely nothing. Nautilus, especially the one living species referred to, is absolutely not ancestral, definitely not consensus ancestral to common cuttlefish etc. They’re modern representatives of a long-lived-more-diverse-in-the-past group but ain’t nothing primitive or ancestral about them. The broader group, Nautiloidea, maybe, but there is a lot that needs resolving about stem coleoid relationships. The simplification here is misleading. The transformative genes mentioned here means nothing. What genes? Theoretical genes? Okay fine but then you cannot then later point to these as ‘not easily found in any pre-existing life form’. We don’t even know what we’d be looking for. We have a single complete genome and a bunch of other genes but far from a complete picture. The other genetic work on this group has barely begun. Remember that earlier statement about appearance of genes and homologies not appearing in this paper(tm)? Here is where this empirical evidence would give the central tenet of this awful section on intelligent complexity a shred of legitimacy. This sweeping statement without even a citation is then used to support a statement about the plausibility of an extraterrestrial origin. The whole argument can be summarised here as: One species of Octopus has more protein-coding genes than Homo sapiens, therefore must be extra terrestrial origin. There isn’t a cogent argument here. The ‘missing genes’ have not been proved missing. You might as well compare the number of leaves in the Oregano to leaves in the Frogfish and draw the same conclusion.
Another issue with this paper is internal consistency too. Figure 5, cited above with relation to Octopus vulgaris is perhaps the single greatest figure in a scientific paper ever. I don’t know why they cite it here. But here it is in all it’s glory:
WHY IS “SQUID” + VIRUS = OCTOPUS? That’s not even what they’re arguing here and nobody thinks that modern ‘squid’ evolved into octopuses. It seems like this is a figure from another, different but still awful paper that got mixed in. In any case, if you’re going to produce figures like this you might as well go all in with the razmataz. Illustrate a squid getting hit in the face with a meteorite then turning into an octopus or something.
The next section actually dips into some references, huzzah! Although again it’s a bit schizophrenic and technically very poor. Reference is made to RNA editing transcriptome wide data for cephalopods with no citations to this data then the said uncited data are used to suppose an extra terrestrial influence as they aren’t found in modern day nautiluses (italicised in the paper for emphasis). Again, going to the reference they eventually cite here, Liscovitch-Brauer, et al. (2017), this study looked at five groups of cephalopods, two species of Octopus, ‘Nautilus’, Sepia and ‘squid’. Nowhere near a systematic review across the group, or even the major divisions or across species but here supposedly the smoking gun for influence from the cosmos.
There’s frequent reference to punctuated equilibrium despite no discussion of the cephalopod fossil record or timescaled phylogenies at all and in the last section on cephalopods we build to a crescendo of non-sequiturs and poor science. Because squid and or “Octopus” (they literally say, “Squid and/or Octopus”) have comparatively higher number and percentage of RNA editing sites in that one paper which sampled 12 organisms, well take it away Steele et al:
One plausible explanation, in our view, is that the new genes are likely new extraterrestrial imports to Earth – most plausibly as an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized Octopus eggs.
Lost the thread here? Because I had to go over this a few times to make sure I hadn’t accidentally missed an entire other paper that actually build a convincing body of evidence to lead to this dramatic hypothesis. I think I’ve got it. Because in the only study using one small sample of cephalopods there are some differences between RNA modification sites when compared to distantly related other groups, there must have been an influx of (SAY) EXTRATERRESTRIAL FERTILISED “”””OCTOPUS”””” EGGS FROM OUTER SPACE.
I have so many questions. 1) How did fertilised “Octopus” eggs get into space and does this mean they are coming back? 2) There are a handful of cephalopod species that can be bred in captivity and raised to adulthood, I think extra terrestrial bolides etc. are kind of a harsher environment than that so how that work? 3) If these “Octopuses and/or Squid” are laying eggs on bolides are they living in space or are they living on bolides or are they living on other planets and laying eggs like terrestrial cephalopods which are then somehow getting transported to space? 4) What about the octopuses evolving from squid plus viruses? Did we forget about that? 5) Are you defining likely and plausible as it could happen but extremely extremely remotely and with much better evidence than given here? 6) If we can go back to viruses again, isn’t it ever so slightly more plausible that viruses are living on bollides in cryostasis rather than actual fertilised eggs? 7) Why on fairly arbitrary grounds are cephalopods chosen? There are likely other better candidates you could weave a way more convincing story around if that’s the intention.
I could go on. Forever reader. For some reason they ignore the octopod fossil record and start going on about how “Octopus” appeared on Earth suddenly 270 million years ago whatever “Octopus” is. CITATION NEEDED. I don’t know why they start talking about cryopreserved eggs on icy bollides and not just viruses and I don’t know how they propose to resolve the fact that cephalopods have a number of shared characteristics and genes with other molluscs. Or are bolides covered in molluscs and their eggs just flying all over the cosmos?
This paper makes a lot of cephalopod science sound like it is all sown up but as a point of comparative reference, two questions that came flying around an expert cephalopod mailing list recently were “what colour are cuttlefish eggs” and “has anyone identified sex genes in cuttlefish?” (no being the answer to the latter). We’re still resolving some of the basics when it comes to this group so it’s a bit of a leap to likely and plausible conclusions here. There are big questions currently without an answer out there without resorting to this nonsense. Paradigms can and have been over-turned with some out of the box thinking in the past but again the burden of proof is on those significantly shaking things up.
This paper is firmly pseudoscience and nonsense. I’m not 100% convinced it isn’t a hoax, it’s that deliberately bad. When it comes to cephalopods, at best it’s the flimsiest of hypotheses propped up by a misreading of a handful of references with little in the way of justification for why these hypotheses are important. So why spend any time writing about this paper at all you may ask? One approach to gumpf like this is not to point to it or to give it a platform at all but as I mentioned above, it’s been picked up in a few places and run as a genuine science story. We’ll see if it goes any further. If you weren’t familiar with some of the over-dressed-up-with-jargon-like-terms organisms and concepts here it’s almost convincingly written and certainly looks like science with some fancy words. What’s really heart-breaking is that it’s almost been published (in press) at all when, if you follow any scientists on social media, colleagues struggle to get their real science published and ‘publish or perish’ is sadly a mantra for many.
Papers like this are rare but every now and then one squeezes through. Fortunately, not enough to significantly erode the public trust in science and scientists but we should call out these travesties when we see them as learning how to spot one is essential training for anyone developing their critical thinking skills. It may sound like science and look like science under a very big publisher and in an allegedly peer-reviewed journal with a sensible enough sounding title but it’s far from it. There are interesting areas to be potentially explored by Astrobiology but papers like this suggest there’s little scientific or serious about or the Dunning–Kruger effect permeates the discipline.
“Octopuses and/or Squid” could be from outer or inner space but this paper completely fails to evidence, show any serious consideration of the topic or convince that this may be the case.
UPDATE 18/05/2018 Oh boy. All the typos. Some of which have been kept in for posterity. My tweets from initial reactions ended up being used by, love-em-or-hate-em-but-popular, IFL Science: Bizarre New Study Suggests Octopuses Came From Outer Space
UPDATE 22/05/2018 Never doubt the power of social media. Tweets were also picked up by the Independent Are Octopuses Aliens From Outer Space That Were Brought to Earth by a Meteor? Picking up on the “no zoologists were involved” angle which is perhaps the least of the complaints but hey ho.
Albertin, C. B. et al. 2015. The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties.
Nature, 524, pp. 220-224. Weblink here.
Liscovitch-Brauer, N. et al. 2017. Trade-off between transcriptome plasticity and genome evolution in cephalopods.
Cell, 169 (2017), pp. 191-202
Steele, J.E. 2018. Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Weblink.