A controversial study has a new spin on the otherworldliness of the octopus

A more alien creature has not been spotted on Earth.
A more alien creature has not been spotted on Earth.
Image: EPA/Georgios Befallas
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Octopuses are strange, smart creatures that certainly seem alien—what with the tentacles, camouflage, and shape-shifting skills. Still, the idea that they actually came from outer space would seem to fall strictly into the realm of sci-fi; an update of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, say.

But in these interesting times, real life reads like fiction. Recently, a group of 33 scientists worldwide—including molecular immunologist Edward Steele and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe—published a paper suggesting, in all seriousness, that octopuses may indeed be aliens.

The paper, published in the March issue of the the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, is controversial, obviously, and the vast majority of scientists would disagree. But the paper is still worthy of discussion—for one, as a thought exercise, because outlandish ideas are often initially rejected. And in provoking us with seemingly bizarre theories, it forces us to acknowledge that there are aspects of life on Earth for which classic evolutionary theory as yet has no explanation.

The octopus, for example, is traditionally considered to come from the nautiloid, having evolved about 500 million years ago. But that relationship doesn’t explain how these odd cephalopods got all their awesome characteristics or why octopuses are so very different, genetically speaking, from their alleged nautiloid ancestors. The paper states:

The genetic divergence of Octopus from its ancestral coleoid sub-class is very great … Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch color 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 to the common cuttlefish to squid to the common octopus can’t be found in any pre-existing life form, the authors say.

So far, so good. But then the paper gets highly speculative. The researchers continue, “It is plausible then to suggest they [octopuses] seem to be borrowed from a far distant ‘future’ in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.”

To make matters even more strange, the paper posits that octopuses could have arrived on Earth in “an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized octopus eggs.” And these eggs might have “arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago.” The authors admit, though, that “such an extraterrestrial origin…of course, runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm.”

Indeed, few in the scientific community would agree that octopuses come from outer space. But the paper is not just about the provenance of cephalopods. Its proposal that octopuses could be extraterrestrials is just a small part of a much more extensive discussion of a theory called “panspermia,” which has its roots in the ideas of ancient Greece. 

The word “panspermia” translates to “seeds everywhere.” The idea is that the seeds of life are everywhere in the universe, including space, and life on Earth may originate from “seeds” of some kind in space. In this paper, the authors argue that the “seeds,” or alien life forms invading Earth, come in multiple forms, including “space-resistant and space-hardy” viruses and bacteria. It supports this argument by pointing to organic matter found in comets, as well as various medical studies on the inexplicably intelligent self-replicating abilities and super-strength of viruses. The paper reviews 60 years of experiments and observations from a range of scientific fields to support its unusual conclusions.

Virologist Karin Moelling of the Max Planck Institute Molecular Genetics in Berlin isn’t convinced, although she says that the paper is worth contemplating because there’s still so much we don’t know about the origins of life on Earth. She writes in in a commentary (paywall) in the same publication, “So this article is useful, calling for attention, and it is worth thinking about, yet the main statement about viruses, microbes and even animals coming to us from space, cannot be taken seriously.”

Evolutionary scientist Keith Baverstock from the University of Eastern Finland, in his commentary on the paper (paywall), is equally wary. The proposed theories “would support an extra-terrestrial origin of life,” he writes. Still, they don’t necessarily lead to that conclusion; there are other plausible explanations for the evidence the paper offers.

The authors are well aware of the intellectual resistance to their ideas, writing:

We certainly do not want this paper to read, as one reviewer has put it, ‘somewhat like a last-ditch and exasperated attempt to convince the main stream of the scientific community that…life has been carried to this planet from elsewhere in the universe on comets/meteorites.’

The researchers acknowledge that some forms of life originated on Earth. But they still say that other, perhaps earlier, forms originated elsewhere, like outer space. In other words, they argue that the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, and, taken together, they would help fill in some gaps in the current scientific understanding that the classic evolutionary theory cannot.

The paper is intended to be provocative. That said, it did withstand a year of intense peer-review before publication. As Steele told Cosmos, “It has thus passed some severe and tortuous tests already.”

If for no other reason, the ideas proposed in this rather radical paper are worthy of our attention because we always tend to agree with what we already believe. Yet the history of science is full of theories that were mocked and rejected out of hand, only to finally be accepted as truth. Or, in Steele’s words, “The situation is reminiscent to the problem Galileo had with the Catholic priests of his time—most refused to look through his telescope to observe the moons of Jupiter.”

Consider these scientists intellectual troublemakers. You don’t have to agree with their theories about octopuses from outer space to appreciate their contribution to the great conversation about the origins of life. Society and science need people to articulate unconventional ideas and shake up the status quo. They provoke us to rethink what we imagine we know.