Aliens are in the news again. In June, a Navy report could not rule out the possibility that “unexplained aerial phenomena” spotted in our atmosphere were visitors from outer space. In January, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb claimed an alien spacecraft had actually swept through our solar system in 2017 — and more are coming. Loeb later doubled down, suggesting that UFOs spotted by the military could be spies sent to gather intelligence about our life on Earth.
As crazy as it all sounds, scientists have long posited the possibility of aliens on our planet. In fact, Francis Crick (who along with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule) once theorized that life on Earth was “deliberately transmitted” by intelligent extra terrestrials. Far from being scorned, Crick’s “Directed panspermia” theory was presented at a conference organized by Carl Sagan in 1971 and later published as a scientific paper.
Scientists took this idea seriously because even the simplest living cells aren’t simple at all.
Watson and Crick discovered that chemical subunits in DNA function like letters in a written language or digital symbols in computer code. As Bill Gates explains, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins echoes this assessment, noting the “machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” In a recent tweet, he confessed to being knocked “sideways with wonder at the miniaturized intricacy of the data-processing machinery in the living cell.”
The presence of information in even the simplest living cells suggests that intelligent design played a role in life’s origin. After all, we know computer programs come from programmers and information generally — in a book or newspaper, for example — always arises from an intelligent source.
Perhaps for this reason, Dawkins once acknowledged the cell might contain a “signature of intelligence” — and attributed the source of that intelligence to alien intervention. As he mused, “it could be that somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved . . . [a] high level of technology and designed a form of life that they seeded onto this planet.”
But invoking an alien intelligence as the source of life on Earth does nothing to explain how life, and the information needed to produce it, first arose elsewhere. “Panspermia” just kicks that ultimate question out into space.
In addition, no alien being within the universe can explain what scientists have discovered about the structure of the universe.
Since the 1960s, physicists have learned that we live in a “Goldilocks universe” where the fundamental parameters of physics have been finely tuned, against all odds, to make life possible. Even slight alterations in the values of key factors — such as the strength of gravity or electromagnetism or the masses of elementary particles — would render life impossible.
Consequently, many scientists think this fine tuning points to a cosmic fine-tuner or “super-intellect” as Cambridge astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle famously put it. Moreover, the fine-tuning parameters were set at, or soon after, the beginning of the universe, long before any alien intelligence could have evolved or acted to determine them.
Can aliens explain both the origin of life and the fine tuning? Probably not. Explaining both these mysteries requires an intelligence who can act within the universe (to produce the code necessary to life) and also act on the universe as a whole from the beginning (to establish its finely-tuned structure).
Believers in this kind of intelligence greatly outnumber believers in alien astronauts. They have long called this intelligence behind life and the universe by a different name.
They call it God.
Stephen C. Meyer directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. His book, “Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe” (HarperOne), is out now.