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Dinosaurs in outer space?

by Donald Prothero, Apr 25 2012

As someone who has frequently had his scientific research featured in the popular media, I’m painfully aware of the constant struggle between conveying science accurately and trying to make it sexy and newsworthy. Scientists are perpetually frustrated because reporters are often scientifically illiterate, and reduce the story to a level they can understand—which totally misrepresents what the science is about. The science reporters I know are equally frustrated at scientists who don’t know how to communicate the essence of what they are doing, or who are aloof and uninterested in making the public more aware of the reasons why their tax dollars should support pure scientific research. I’ve had my work oversimplified or misrepresented many times, and I’ve seen the work of others completely butchered by incompetent science reporters. I’ve also seen scientists who make outrageous claims and trust gullible science reporters to buy it, hook, line and sinker—and this happens FAR too often (see my April 4 post about the coverage of a ridiculous claim by an amateur that dinosaurs were aquatic, or my Nov.2 post about gigantic Triassic squids arranging ichthyosaur bones).

One of the problems both scientists and reporters face is how to make the research sound interesting to a lay public that knows almost nothing about science—and much of what the public thinks they know is wrong. Much of chemistry and physics is incomprehensible and uninteresting to people that never took a single class in high school on physics or chemistry, and even something more immediate like biology is full of subjects that are obscure to the lay audience. Geologists usually have it slightly better, since topics like earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, climate change, etc., are easier to relate to.

We paleontologists usually have it even easier, because a few of us work on something immensely popular—dinosaurs—although I’m really a Cenozoic fossil mammal specialist and only rarely has my research ventured back to the Mesozoic. Just add dinosaurs and the research goes to the front page of most science news websites or The New York Times, or gets published in high-profile journals like Nature, Science, or PNAS. But when I make an important discovery on a group such as rhinos or peccaries or camels, I’m lucky to get it published in a third-tier journal, and I typically get no reporters calling at all. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs generated huge interest when the asteroid impact theory first emerged in 1980, with thousands of papers published and dozens of books on the topic. But it’s only the third or fourth largest extinction in earth history. The great Permian extinction 250 m.y. ago, which wiped out 95% of species on earth, is lucky to get ANY press attention. Who cares about productid brachiopods, or fusulinids, or tabulate or rugose corals, among the many victims of this event?

So I guess it’s not surprising when scientists who don’t work with dinosaurs try to find any connection,no matter how ridiculous, with them. Consider, for example, this recent article, which speculates about whether advanced dinosaurs could rule other planets. My first reaction is astonishment—how could there possibly be a legitimate scientist claiming that we have evidence of dinosaurs on other planets? We don’t even have the simplest forms of life on any other planet yet! The breathless reporting by Science Daily buys into the whole argument without any challenges.

But if you read it a little closer, the absurdity becomes apparent. It’s an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society discussing the fact that all asymmetric biochemicals on earth have the same chirality or “handedness”; only “left-handed” amino acids  exist on earth (except for a few odd bacteria). Only “right-handed” sugars exist on our planet. Yet meteorites show that both left- and right-handed amino acids are found around the solar system. Scientists have long speculated on why this might be, but the simplest answer is that the amino acids that were found in the earliest life (whether generated on earth or carried from space) happened to be left-handed, and once they establish this template, all subsequent life must follow it.

So far, so good. But the author of this research, Ronald Breslow, goes on to speculate that if other planets had life, they could just as easily have right-handed amino acids or left-handed sugars. Sheer speculation, since no life has been found yet, but possible nonetheless. But then the paper goes off the deep end:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

This guy may be a good at chemistry, but at biology and paleontology he is abysmally incompetent. At best, speculating about the existence of life with different handedness predicts only that the life forms on other planets might be simple things like bacteria. As Stephen Jay Gould and others have pointed out many times, life is full of chance, contingent, unpredictable events. There is absolutely no reason to expect that if we started the history of life on earth all over from the beginning, or “rerun the tape from the beginning”, we’d get anything like what actually happened over the past 3.5 billion years, much less such advanced and improbable creatures such as dinosaurs—or humans, for that matter. Life has so many unpredictable possibilities, and there too many chance events (like mass extinctions caused by changes in the environment) that gave us completely different outcomes to expect that we would repeat any of the events of the past beyond evolving bacteria and cyanobacteria—and even that is a  stretch. P.Z. Myers made the same point, and argued that the author should be embarrassed at this silly last paragraph thrown in to make the story sexier for reporters. Since the article was “just accepted” for the journal (which means it passed review of several other chemists—shame on them!), it was still possible for him to delete the nonsensical paragraph at the end, and P.Z. wishes that he would do so.

I’m not so optimistic. I think Breslow knows full well that putting anything about dinosaurs in an otherwise yawner of a paper (not even that original, since the chirality debate goes back decades) is a sure trick to get reporters’ attention. Shame on him for a cheesy gimmick like this—and once again, shame on the scientifically illiterate reporters who didn’t ask any paleontologists to see if this conclusion made any sense. Just like the two previous examples I blogged about and cited above, we have a scientist speaking out of his level of expertise and bringing up a ridiculous notion that would never survive full peer review—and a reporter looking for a flashy story and not bothering to track down other scientists with the relevant expertise to comment on it.


20 Responses to “Dinosaurs in outer space?”

  1. Paul Braterman says:

    Yes, Ronald Breslow IS very good at chemistry; and yes, shame on the reviewers. Or perhaps they regard it as a huge in-crowd joke (must try it myself, some time).

  2. highnumber says:

    On some level I appreciate Breslow’s chutzpah for putting that in. But I am not a scientist nor would I expect anyone to take his paper seriously after reading that.

  3. Jim Shaver says:

    Dr. Prothero:

    You wrote, “There is absolutely no reason to expect that if we started the history of life on earth all over from the beginning, [...] we’d get anything like what actually happened over the past 3.5 billion years, much less such advanced and improbable creatures such as dinosaurs—or humans, for that matter.”

    Respectfully, this statement and its corresponding paragraph seem to imply a claim that complex life on another planet would be highly improbable. Maybe you really meant to imply that creatures that evolved on another planet and that look anything like dinosaurs or humans would be highly improbable, since evolution on that planet might have more likely taken a completely different direction with regard to the basic animal body plan, etc.

    But how much do we know about why animals developed the way they did on Earth? I’m refering to the things that most large animals have in common — left-right symmetry, one head, two eyes, two ears, four limbs, etc. Maybe this basic body plan is so beneficial to survival that it is likely to emerge on any planet with a similar environment. And if that’s true, alien animals (and even alien people) might be quite recognizable to us. Is it unreasonable to speculate that aliens might look similar to us?

    I agree that Breslow’s use of dinosaurs to illustrate his point was superficial and possibly sensationalistic. But I’m curious about the broader question of how much we know about whether alien life might look similar to Earth life, at least fundamentally.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Most paleontologists and biologists (with the exception of deterministic Christians like SImon Conway-Morris) agree that complex multicellular life on other planets is still extremely improbable given the long history of nothing by single-celled life on this planets, and the unusual events that final triggered multicellularity after 3 billion years of nothing but “pond scum”. Even if you consider multicellularity more likely, the point is that something like dinosaurs or humans is NOT expected to occur elsewhere. At best, they may follow a few rules of basic architecture of animals and plants, but not specific end products.

      • Jim Shaver says:

        Thanks, that position is interesting — a little disappointing from a secular, cosmological dreamer’s perspective, but interesting.

      • Michael says:

        I have to admit I’m not completely convinced by this argument. A cursory reading of the the wikipedia entries for the Timeline of the Evolutionary History of Life and Multicellular Organism brings up little mention of ‘unusual events that triggered multicellularity’. On the other hand, it is noted that multicellularity has evolved independently dozens of times, and has obvious benefits such as increased size and complexity. Maybe the difficulty lies in getting to multicellularity which is complex?

        Things like wings and eyes have evolved many times and have obvious selection benefits. Are they really so unlikely? Are vertebrates really so unimaginable?

        One thing for sure, the scientists at SETI (and there are some really smart people there) are gonna be really unhappy to hear this. It certainly messes with the Drake equation.

        Personally I consider the idea of dinosaur aliens pretty farfetched but not impossibly absurd.

      • Loren Petrich says:

        I remember trying to research that question, and it was hard for me to find estimates of how many times multicellularity evolved. Part of the problem is various ambiguous cases like one-celled organisms that live in large masses without differentiating, like bacteria in biofilms.

        But I discovered that multicellularity has emerged several times, not only among eukaryotes, but also in prokaryotes. So I think that multicellularity is likely to emerge on other planets.

        But all but one case of multicellularity is either plantlike or funguslike, and thus is unlikely to result in sentient organisms.

        That exception is Metazoa, the animal kingdom. There is no other case of animallike multicellularity on this planet, as far as I know. This is evident from a wide range of evidence, like “evo-devo” work on development mechanisms and molecular-phylogeny work.

        If there was some separate origin of animallike multicellularity, it would have become very apparent from molecular phylogeny. To see what might happen, consider the oomycetes (“egg fungi” or water molds). They were for a long time classified within the Fungi, but molecular-phylogeny work showed that they are in the Stramenopiles, alongside lots of other one-celled and multicellular organisms. Including some notable plantlike multicellular ones: kelp (Laminariales).

        So there might be lots of plantlike and funguslike organisms on other planets, but no animallike ones.

  4. Nyar says:

    Dinosaurs! In space! Oh hell yeah!

  5. Scott says:

    I agree that the intelligent dinosaur statement was thrown in as an attention-grabber. Shame on him for that. Though it doesn’t make the notion any less awesome.

  6. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Keep the dinosaurs. Personally, I’m hoping more for mammalian megafauna. How cool would mastodons, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, sabre-toothed cats and the like be? Who wouldn’t want our brave astronauts to bring home a breeding population of Eohippus so we could all have tiny horses as pets?

  7. Lacey Sutton says:

    Thank you author. Thank you for being the first to say that this is the most retarded hollywood worthy theory, along with the dinosaurs in water one.
    Lacey Sutton

  8. MadScientist says:

    The chirality of sugars, amino acids, and so on is an interesting thing. I wonder if some group would be able to assemble sections of DNA using D- amino acids and L- sugars and demonstrate function homologous to what similar normal sections of DNA do. Is it even possible to have a system where the opposite chirality amino acids and sugars dominate – would proteins be different and would they be able to propagate and function much the same way as the stuff we’re familiar with? It’s fine to hypothesize that life could have been different and the other chirality preferred – but let’s see some evidence to support such assertions. As for the space dinosaurs – bleh.

    As far as abiogenesis goes, I’d like to live to see people demonstrate self-organization and replication of possible precursors to life, then demonstrate variability and increasing complexity. At that stage we should also be able to look a bit at the chirality issue. Where things go from there is a problem which I suspect is intractable. There may be no other tetrapods in the universe for billions of years. There may never be another group of tetrapods ever.

  9. Kenn says:

    A bit off topic . . .

    Noah’s ark found (again) in Turkey.

    1. It’s made of wood
    2. It’s really, really old
    3. Looks like it housed critters
    4. It must be the ark

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Add it to the endless list of false claims, hoaxes, and plain old incompetence–and note that the story is dated 2010, so it must be another false alarm that the media is only too happy to publicize. I’m always amazed that they are willing to accept radiocarbon dating for this example, yet spend most of their time trying to debunk radiocarbon dating. The sad part is that lots of faithful believers give their hard-earned dollars to these incompetents for their wild goose chases…

    • MadScientist says:

      Everyone knows the True Ark(tm) is on a canal in Rotterdam.

  10. Scott the Aussie says:

    Don give me a planet with a Burgess Shale type fauna any day to study ahead of ye dinos, or I if I cant have that a planet of therapsids and other proto-mammals would be fine!

    When I am asked why it isn’t likely there are a lot of planets with advanced civilised races on them, I usually say its much more likely there are millions of planets with algal scum, or if we are lucky maybe some Ediacran type matresses flolloping and gallopping in shallow seas……

  11. Canman says:

    I’ve read about a meteorite found in Antarctica being thought to come from Mars, because of the composition of gas bubbles trapped in it or something. Apparently, it got blown into space by an asteroid strike and made it to Earth. What I wonder, is if the Chicxulub impact at the end of the Cretaceous period could have blown bits of dinosaurs into space. If so, would they be cryogenically preserved in the vacuum of space, or would they be fried by cosmic radiation? Will some aspiring “Michael Crichton” write a bestselling novel about this?

    • Artor says:

      Arrgh! I can’t remember the title, but I read a story involving miners on an eccentric Oort Cloud object infested with super-rapidly evolving life forms feeding off the heat leaching from the mine. Eventually, the core of the comet is reached and is found to be a pre-Solar fossil.

  12. SLC says:

    The notion of intelligent dinosaurs is not new. Paleontologist Dale Russell has speculated that the Troodons might have evolved in to intelligent bird like creatures had they not been wiped out by the asteroid collision 65 million years ago.