Pigs, errr, I mean Dinosaurs in Spaaaaace

So I’ve had a look at the latest attempt of someone to write something odd about dinosaurs and it’s hard to fathom what on Earth is the motivation or intent. Now I don’t pretend to know much about amino acids or their handedness, and certainly don’t claim to follow much of the paper as a whole, but as dinosaurs are only mentioned in the last paragraph, I don’t feel there’s a huge problem with my commenting on it. Here is that final part in its entirety:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. 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.

Now there are lots of reasons this could have been written and it is hard to know another author’s mind (though oddly enough people often seem willing to guess what people were thinking). It may be a joke 9or at least supposed to be deliberately lighthearted), but if so, it’s not clear and it is written seriously and in a formal paper where there’s no hint of humour in the rest that I have picked up. If it’s just there to make the point that evolution might have proceeded differently on a different planet, well, duh. Does that really need to be made? Not least in the context of different amino acids? And in any case why invoke dinosaurs specifically? In short it’s hard not to assume that this is supposed to be a serious, if hypothetical, point.

The problem with it though is manifold. First off, it’s hypothetical in the extreme. So IF dinosaurs evolved on other worlds and IF they didn’t go extinct in a KT -like event then they MIGHT have carried on evolving into something special. Well yeah. And the first two of those are really quite contentious – would dinosaurs evolve on another world? Who knows? My guess is no. There’s too much chance, too much variation. What if there was no land, or it was too hot, or cold, or the gravity was too high, or reptiles never evolved, or fish never evolved or etc. etc. and forever. And extinction? Well it’s common. Normal even. Everything goes extinct sooner or later and while sure the stromatolites are still hanging on, it’s not like they’re numerous, diverse or widespread is it? And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that there are advanced dinosaurs out there – birds.

So basically this conclusion comes down to if dinosaurs existed elsewhere (and there’s no reason to think they did or ever would) and they didn’t go extinct, they might continue to evolve. Thanks. For. That.

More interestingly and insidiously, the press release opens with the line:

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs – monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans – may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.

What was that I said the other day about things not being in the paper? Where does it talk about intelligence or cunning? Where does the research show this? It’s a hypothetical point in the conclusion, not part of the research at all. It talks about ‘advanced’ dinosaurs, but being bigger, or smaller, or faster or more feathered, would be more ‘advanced’. In short, this is PR that does not fit with what the paper claims. It invokes dinosaurs for no reason at all (why not amazing synapsids if they hadn’t gone extinct, or amazing gorgonopsids, or ammonites, or graptolites, or anomalocarids?). That is, at best, I would suggest really rather naughty.

It still doesn’t explain why on Earth these conclusions are in the paper in the first place other than, (and I am *trying* to be generous here, but it’s very hard), because it was thought it would have greater impact to invoke amazing space dinosaurs. What other obvious conclusion is there? There’s thousands of weird and wonderful lineages that have existed on this plant and are now all but gone or truly extinct that could have dominated if circumstances were different. Why invoke dinosaurs other than because they are the most famous, instantly recognisable, and the thing most likely to be picked up? Personally, I can’t think of anything.

Dinosaurs might simply be too media-friendly *not* to attract such attention, but when the press release is framed this way, on a paper that barely mentions them, and then in only the most hypothetical of rather trite manners, it’s hard not to take this as little more than a stunt. That does a disservice to palaeontologists and macroevolutionary biologists with all their work on dinosaurs, extinction, evolution and the like, but also to the very paper it’s supposed to be promoting by giving such a false impression of it’s conclusions (even if they are, at best, a bit silly) and the journal that houses it. In short, it’s a pretty poor show all round. There may be some simple and obvious explanation, but I’ll be damned if I can spot it or work it out.

 

Breslow, R. (In press). Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth Journal of the American Chemical Society.

10 Responses to “Pigs, errr, I mean Dinosaurs in Spaaaaace”


  1. 1 mattvr 13/04/2012 at 9:17 am

    It’s only the fear that my blog will become ‘All Kitteh All the Time’ that prevented me from lampooning this one. I do have to say that since peoples’ impression of dinosaurs primarily comes from fantasy based sources, eg. fictional movies and books, there’s a pretty blurred fact/fantasy line in the minds of people where incredulity gets a little wonky. I’d also suggest that this sort of thing provides ammunition for ‘evolution deniers’ and even the anti-science groups who take this sort of wild speculation as evidence for scientists “making it up as they go along”.

  2. 2 ernestvaldemar 13/04/2012 at 9:24 am

    If I’m wrong, I’m sure you’ll correct me, but I’m pretty sure that New Caledonian Crows and African Grey Parrots are quite intelligent theropod dinosaurs. So there’s no need to invoke extraterrestriality. We already know what smart dinosaurs would look and act like.

    But then, I’d argue that the topological problem-solving ability of slime molds pretty much puts any time-traveling intelligence hypotheses to rest. I feel this way because I am old and cranky.

  3. 3 Stu Pond 13/04/2012 at 11:25 am

    I haven’t read the paper (it’s behind the inevitable paywall, and I doubt I would understand it anyway), but it seems the author suffers from a severe deficit of imagination. If the only life forms he can envisage on other worlds are dinosaur-like creatures then that strikes me as being rather banal a scenario; the real wonder of alien life is that it’s nature will defy any hamfisted analogy dreamt of by man.

    Two things though:

    1)I do think one day we will think of ecosystems in cosmic terms. I’m calling this “Pond’s Cosmic Ecosystem Hypothesis”. You heard it here first.

    2) I love the word ‘chirality’.

  4. 4 Brian 13/04/2012 at 11:55 am

    Wish I could read the article. Your quote soundalike an explicit reference to the Turians of Mass Effect.

  5. 5 Henrique Niza 13/04/2012 at 12:48 pm

    Well, the press release is indeed, ugh… stupid but the truth is the paper, for whatever reason, actual refers to dinosaurs and no other extinct, prehistoric life-forms. Plus it refers to “advanced versions of dinosaurs” which to the Ordinary Joe, shameful the journalist in this case, means extremelly smart dinosaurs equipped with beam-powered lasers on their backs. I’m actually surprised to not see an image of the 80’s cartoon Dino-Riders associated with this report.

  6. 6 daleamon 13/04/2012 at 1:52 pm

    Physicists in particular live in a different world of thought than Paleontologists. I’ve seen it before where many in the field seemed to deny the possibility of impacts causing major effects on evolution… primarily as an echo of the battle against the catastrophists of long ago. In the Physicists mind this was all very silly, because the numbers showed it: asteroids existed in quantities such that it was an absolute certainty that Earth had gotten whacked *hard* on a regular basis; the numbers on energy release also made it a certainty that anything then living on the planet had a very bad day for several millenia afterwards.

    Similarly, in the Physicists mind, just calculating the number of possible states of collections of atoms and dividing that into the probable size of the Universe means that dinosaurs (or something very like them) exist elsewhere, to a very high probability. Read some of Dr. David Deutsch more popularly oriented work, specifically “The Fabric of Reality” for a good dose of a different world view.

    So, yes. Reality is so mind-bogglingly large that it is about as certain there are dinosaurs elsewhere as that the Earth will get whacked by another big one.

  7. 7 Michael Richmond 13/04/2012 at 2:56 pm

    >> There may be some simple and obvious explanation,
    >> but I’ll be damned if I can spot it or work it out.

    Have you considered that the writer of the press release, and perhaps the author of the article, simply want as many media outlets as possible to pick up the story?


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