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Common octopus in large sea water aquarium
Common octopus in large sea water aquarium

Science Paper: Could Octopuses Be Aliens From Outer Space?

It’s the octopus’s intelligence that causes such usual theses to float in the science literature

A 2018 science paper that suggests that the brainy cephalopod might have originated off the planet has been receiving new attention. The basic thesis is that the Cambrian Explosion, which produced most of the basic animal life forms we see today, was the outcome of extraterrestrial viruses carried on a meteor that crashed onto Earth 540 million years ago. The underlying theory is panspermia, a hypothesis espoused by Francis Crick, that some viruses and bacteria travel on the tails of comets or meteors and may take root on planets:

These comets could have introduced Earth to novel life-forms that evolved on other planets, including viruses, durable microorganisms like unearthly tardigrades or, as the new study suggests, even fertilized animal eggs from other worlds.

Brandon Spektor, “No, Octopuses Don’t Come From Outer Space” at Live Science (May 17, 2018)
coconut octopus underwater macro portrait on sand

Tardigrades (water bears) famously survive space conditions so an extraterrestrial origin cannot be ruled out in principle. But octopuses? Bear with us. From 2018:

Now, a group of 33 scientists from respected institutions around the world have suggested these bizarre creatures descend from organic alien material. Their research, published in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, ties the “remarkable” rise of octopuses and their cephalopod cousins to the theory of panspermia.

Katherine Highnett, “Are Octopuses From Outer Space? Study Suggests Cephalopod Eggs Traveled to Earth on a Comet” at Newsweek (May 17, 2018)

The underlying issue is that octopuses are very strange and very smart (more on that in a moment):

The paper suggests that cryopreserved eggs of either squids or octopuses could have arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago, noting that these creatures appear to have some evidence of pre-existence. Scientists said some genetic data from octopuses and other cephalopods provide challenging examples of conventional evolutionary thinking.

Margaret Davis, “Did Octopus Came From the Outer Space? New Study Claims Meteor Impacts Brought These Eight-Armed Creatures to Earth” at The Science Times (January 28, 2022)

The idea is not being dismissed outright:

Sure, it might sound crazy, but the authors of this paper have presented a lot of interesting evidence for other scientists to mull over. Of course, it’s going to take a lot to actually prove it, too. And, singling out one specific group of animals could be making the focus far too narrow to actually prove anything. For now, all we can do is look back at the paper and watch to see what other evidence these scientists might bring forward in the future.

Joshua Hawkins, “New scientific paper claims octopuses are actually aliens from outer space” at Yahoo! News (January 26, 2022)

Others, including Brandon Spektor, quoted above, were sure from the getgo that it just can’t be true:

Other researchers were not quick to embrace this theory. “There’s no question, early biology is fascinating — but I think this, if anything, is counterproductive,” Ken Stedman, a virologist and professor of biology at Portland State University, told Live Science. “Many of the claims in this paper are beyond speculative, and not even really looking at the literature.”

For example, Stedman said, the octopus genome was mapped in 2015. While it indeed contained many surprises, one relevant finding was that octopus nervous system genes split from the squid’s only around 135 million years ago — long after the Cambrian explosion.

Brandon Spektor, “No, Octopuses Don’t Come From Outer Space” at Live Science (May 17, 2018)

The authors of the open-access 2018 paper, Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? (Steele et al.) note several things about the octopus, including this:

Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch colour and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene. 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.

Edward J. Steele et al., Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology,m2 Volume 136, 2018, Pages 3-23, ISSN 0079-6107, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2018.03.004.

Steele et al. are well aware that their thesis is controversial:

Given that the complex sets of new genes in the Octopus may have not come solely from horizontal gene transfers or simple random mutations of existing genes or by simple duplicative expansions, it is then logical to surmise, given our current knowledge of the biology of comets and their debris, the new genes and their viral drivers most likely came from space. However, it is also clear that to accept such a proposition also requires that we diminish the role for highly localised Darwinian evolution on Earth which is likely to be strongly resisted by traditional biologists.

Edward J. Steele et al., Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology,m2 Volume 136, 2018, Pages 3-23, ISSN 0079-6107, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2018.03.004.

Why might scientists advance such a daring hypothesis re octopuses? First, it was a great surprise to biologists in recent decades just how smart octopuses are. They have been called a “second genesis” of intelligence, the first genesis being that of mammals and birds. Their skill at things like opening jars is legendary.

Many life forms would not get past the fact that the crab can be seen but can’t be reached through the glass, never mind think of removing the lid.

Scientists aren’t sure why octopuses are so smart. They are not even vertebrates. They follow none of the rules for animal intelligence. They are not generally social and they don’t live long. Their relatives are snails, slugs, clams, oysters, and mussels, not other smart life forms. By contrast, apes are smart but their close relative species are other apes that are also smart.

Octopuses have more complex emotional lives than expected, as well. They get emotional about pain, research suggests. The British government has moved to protect octopuses from cruelty, much as if they were dogs. Some people have developed companion relationships with octopuses, including grieving the octopus’s death. No one does that for a snail.

So, is the octopus an alien life form? Maybe not but then we need to recognize that the development of intelligence does not proceed along the simple, evolutionary lines we might have expected.

Here at Mind Matters News on Sci-Fi Saturday, we are just waiting for the TV series to come out …

You may also wish to read: Octopuses get emotional about pain, research suggests. The smartest of invertebrates, the octopus, once again prompts us to rethink what we believe to be the origin of intelligence. The brainy cephalopods behaved about the same as lab rats under similar conditions, raising both neuroscience and ethical issues.

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Science Paper: Could Octopuses Be Aliens From Outer Space?