Why ‘Prometheus’ gets it all wrong, and why it matters

There were a lot of things wrong with Prometheus (daft dialogue, ridiculous character behaviour, odd-pacing, odd-editing and incongruous music), but I’m only going to focus on the greatest error the film made: its ridiculous distain for scientific fact. I’m going to explain just how badly the writers got it wrong and why it matters. I almost laughed before I realised how tragic the tale is.

If you’re telling a fantasy story you can pretty much get away with anything. With science fiction, depending on how “hard” or “soft” you want it: you can get away with a lot less or a bit less respectively. Prometheus fails as science fiction because there is nothing more scientific about its premise than the Never Ending Story’s. But even if you want to say that Prometheus is a bit of fantasy fun set in space, it still fails because it contradicts some of the most important and established knowledge we have, just as any fantasy story that depicted the earth as being the fourth planet from the sun would instantly lose all credibility and connection with the audience. Similarly, even a fantasy about humans must depict them as creatures with two arms, two legs, and not, for example, 100 tentacles.  We know that the earth is not the fourth planet from the sun, so whatever planet “earth” we are told is the fourth from its sun, it’s not ours, and it’s not our earth, and it’s not us, just like we might connect with a 100-limbed fantasy species and even empathise with them, but if you call them “human” you’re just being silly. But imagine that a large politically-powerful group of people had a vested interest in perpetuating a myth that our earth is in fact the fourth planet from the sun. All the evidence notwithstanding, Mars is the third planet and Earth is the fourth. What seems like a scientific faux pas and bit of fantasy fun takes on a darker and worrying shade. Well that is the problem with Prometheus.

The basic plot of Prometheus is: an alien race dropped their DNA in the oceans of earth long ago and so created humans. This is about as scientific as saying that you can take a drop of blood from a dog, inject it into a giraffe, and expect the giraffe to give birth to dogs or giraffe-dog hybrids. The very definition of “species” in fact is a community that can only breed successfully with itself.

During the film, it’s discovered that these aliens called “Engineers” have a 100% DNA match with humans. This is either rubbish or meaningless, take your pick. If the writers were trying to say that the Engineers are genetically similar to humans, the match is trivial: every living thing that lives or has ever lived on this planet shares the same DNA. A lot of DNA is arguably junk anyway, but “there is more than 95% to 98% similarity between related genes in humans and apes in general. (Just as in the mouse, quite a few genes probably are not common to humans and apes, and these may influence uniquely human or ape traits.) Similarities between mouse and human genes range from about 70% to 90%, with an average of 85% similarity but a lot of variation from gene to gene…” [source] So if they have the same DNA code as us, so what? That only proves that they evolved on earth. But if the insinuation is that they are a 100% DNA match with humans, despite being aliens, that is nonsense because…they aren’t human! That would be like a forensic detective placing you at a murder scene 5000 miles away and 5000 years in the past, because your DNA was a 100% match to a criminal in the past, which is impossible, or matching you because you both happen to be human beings…

But, even if aliens could drop something in earth’s primordial oceans that could somehow mingle with DNA…even that doesn’t make sense because evolution simply doesn’t work that way. A few Star Trek episodes tried to do something similar with evolution and failed for the same reasons. In those stories, the premise was that evolution could be sped up and the results observed in hours or days instead of millions of years. This is such a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution that it makes me depressed just thinking about it. But before I explain that, let’s start at the beginning:

All living things on this planet are the product of common descent. We all share the same DNA and metabolise energy in the same way because those fundamental parts of life happened once, billions of years ago, and not again. All life is descended from very simple self-replicating molecules. On this planet, DNA eventually got this job and the code used is the same today as it was 3 billion years ago. (If life exists on another planet, it too almost certainly started with very simple self-replicating molecules, but it’s overwhelmingly improbable that it would evolve the same DNA code as Earth’s, if it even used DNA at all.) Today, there are thousands of computer programming languages because each was designed by a human computer programmer for a specific need. But in nature, there is only one programming language and it had to be modified and utilised only by trial-by-fire selection in the wild over a very long time. (Incidentally, the ubiquity of this one (and only one) natural language is another argument against intelligent design.)

The “Engineers” could not have any DNA similarity with us unless they came from earth, which they clearly did not do. But we didn’t see the Engineers dropping DNA into the earth 3.5 billion years ago (unless the opening scene of the film was supposed to be earth at that time…in which case I suggest History of the Earth 101 for the writers to give them an idea of what this planet was like so early in its life. Let’s just say Hell would’ve been more hospitable.)  But suppose the engineers got DNA started in the first place (which isn’t implied in the film) all those aeons ago. Is that any better? Nope. Which brings us to:

Humans look the way we do because on this planet we are a member of the primate family. We share a common ancestor with all apes alive today, and our nearest relatives are chimpanzees. The modern human being as we know it today is only about 150,000 years old. But, we didn’t have to evolve this way. On earth, countless unpurposed events directed life in different directions. To name just two: the great oxygen catastrophe and the Cretaceous–Paleogene event (which wiped out the dinosaurs) – two events which forever shifted the course of evolution on Earth, and which were unplanned and devastating in their own right. The oxygen catastrophe didn’t have to happen, but it did. A meteor didn’t have to hit the earth and wipe out the dinosaurs, but it did. On this planet in the past, creatures that we would call primates today found it advantageous to walk upright thus freeing their hands for manipulating the world. On this world, that gave them an advantage over their competitors in the wild. Those creatures which would become us developed higher intelligence as tool-using thinkers. But as Chuck from sfdesbris.com says: “it’s not enough to be smarter, smarter has to give you a distinct advantage.” It’s not a foregone conclusion that evolution will lead to intelligent life, although given time and the right conditions one might expect it to. One might also expect that intelligent life on other worlds would be analogous to humans as tool-using thinkers, using their appendages to manipulate the world and freeing up their bodies to evolve larger brains. But that is not to say at all that such life would also evolve from creatures that would look anything like primates – they could just as easily look like walking octopuses. Again, on earth – we look the way we do, not because some alien dropped some DNA in a pool 3 billion years ago (and most certainly no sooner), but because we evolved from similar looking creatures who evolved from similar looking creatures, all of whom can call themselves descendants of apes, who in turn can call themselves descendants of whatever small mammals remained (or evolved) after the mass destruction of the dinosaurs left niches in nature for new creatures to fill.

To say that aliens created humans is absolutely stupid because we already know how life developed on this planet and everything we know and have ever learned in biology, genetics and geology confirms it – just like we know the Earth is the third planet from the sun. And this makes the entire premise of the film pointless, (much like the Answers in Genesis website). It’s like a great mystery novel akin to the space equivalent of Angels and Demons, but the final startling revelation being: the earth is flat and the sun orbits it.

No matter how wild your story premise is, there must be a part of the audience that thinks “this could happen, this is how things might’ve have been, even if they weren’t.” For example, imagine a story where aliens brainwash Hitler to invade Poland. Silly, yes, but at least it can’t be disproved. (Of course, something isn’t proven true just because it can’t be disproved.) But with Prometheus, it simply can’t be true, because we didn’t pop into existence with unique DNA 150,000 years ago – we evolved from other species very slowly and share our DNA with all other life on earth. The story is not reflective or metaphorical, it’s dumb.

The only way to have Prometheus’s story make any sense as regards its DNA claim is to say that aliens created DNA itself and put it on earth 3 billion years ago, but even that doesn’t explain why the aliens are almost identical to humans: you cannot predict which path evolution will take because evolution, by very definition, is simply the change of gene frequencies in generations responding to the pressure of natural selection. Natural selection can be caused by sexuality and/or environment, but it’s location specific. The millions of varieties of life you see on earth today are only possible because it takes evolution that long to produce any noticeable change at all, especially speciation (although evolution on every meaningful level is an observed documented fact.) To illustrate this by contrast: if a species were already perfectly suited to its environment and its surroundings never changed, that species would never change (and evolve), not in ten million years.

But why does it matter? It matters because Prometheus is a major international release that completely abuses a wondrous field of science. It’s rubbish at best and slander at worst. It matters because there are people in positions of power who deny evolution because it contradicts their ignorant beliefs about the universe, and they want to push those beliefs on you and your children, by law, in the classroom. It matters because evolution is as established and beautiful a scientific fact as anything the human race has ever discovered, and it’s a travesty that it’s so badly misunderstood in the 21st century, so much so that most people who see Prometheus won’t even notice anything wrong with its “science”.

And the moral of Prometheus the film? Our protagonist Elizabeth Shaw regains her faith in god (of course, the personal choice of god of the writer, which is the Christian version). At one point she is teased about her faith with the claim “I guess creating life is easy…anyone can do it…you just need some DNA.” But that’s the kind of nonsense strawman of evolution that no evolutionist ever claimed! Life didn’t happen on earth because of some DNA in an ocean…DNA is only a coding language. It is genes that allow characteristics to pass from generation to generation, and NATURAL (or sexual) SELECTION is the only method by why nature can pass on some genes and withhold others. So no, you need more than just a bit of DNA…and that fact is totally ignored (deliberately?) by the writer(s) of Prometheus. Is there any other scientific field that could be so grossly disfigured and butchered by a film writer in this day and age and still get approved? I don’t think so. What do you think?

The irony here is sadly amusing: if the moral of the story was to have the protagonist reclaim her faith in god and challenge the notion that life on earth evolved naturally…it speaks volumes that such a notion was only possible in a fantasy land where the real world can be ignored and the movie script can make the impossible possible, just like the bible has the sun stand still in the sky. Most people don’t take those stories seriously, with good reason. But some do unfortunately, and they even try to re-write scientific fact to suit their beliefs. Some even use their big chance writing a Hollywood screenplay to push their creationist agenda on a worldwide audience. The sad thing? Many people don’t know any better.

***

Further reading:

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Not arguments, no debate. Read this if you doubt the facts.

Evolution at Wikipedia (if I were ever to endorse compulsory education this would be the second thing on my list.)

Other good critical reviews:

http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/ridley-scotts-prometheus-anti-science/

Aliens exist, but you shouldn’t care

Do you believe in aliens?

This is a really vague question. If a “believer” asks you, they want you to say “no” so they can follow up with “how can you believe we’re the only life in the universe?!11one”. But of course – that wasn’t what the question was. The question really means “do you believe we are being visited by aliens?”

I maintain that the same logic that makes alien life so overwhelmingly likely is the same logic that makes me thoroughly disbelieve in alien visitors. In short, aliens DO exist – but you shouldn’t give the matter a second thought.

Why do I believe that aliens exist but that we are most definitely not being visited? It’s quite simple and brief to be honest:

Evolution: if you understand it in any reasonable detail, you’ll appreciate that it’s not luck-based at all. Given the right conditions, and time – evolution is bound to happen. Of course, there are no guarantees over what form that life will take.

Probability: It doesn’t matter if earth-type worlds are rare or common in the universe. Earth is certainly unique of all the planets we’ve charted so far and the solar systems we’ve scanned to date. I think it’s fair to presume that earth-type worlds are rare – but however rare you want to make them you have to appreciate the vastness of the universe. It is a statistical certainty that somewhere out there, amidst the quadrillions upon quadrillions of stars, that an earth-type planet orbits a star like our own. (To be honest, quite a variety of star-to-planet distances/compositions would probably be acceptable.)

So vast is the universe it would actually be a statistical impossibility to not have any other life out there! And if you have life, and time, and enough planets – at least one of them should produce intelligent life – perhaps even rational.

But, this is where the alien fun ends. Remember how vast the universe is. In order for us to make contact with alien life, you not only need another species to be alive, be intelligent, develop space-travel, but do so within observable range of the earth.

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Try to appreciate just how quick that is. It would still take 100,000 years travelling at that speed to cross our galaxy. Beyond that, at the same speed, the next closest galaxy is 2,540,000 years off. In fact, even the closest star to us would take over 4 years to reach at this speed.

Humans have only been sending out EM transmissions into space for a century. The very earliest transmissions which are nowhere near as powerful as those we send now are only 100 light years away. That’s one 1/1000th the diameter of the galaxy. In order for aliens to even be aware of our existence they’d have to be within 100 light years of earth. As we know, it’s an inconceivably-gigantic universe, and the odds of that life out there being within such a ridiculously tiny radius of earth don’t bear thinking about.

But the real killer, and for me the totally unassailable argument against alien contact (let alone visitation) is time: the universe in its current state of existence is about 15 billion years old. The earth is over 4 billion years old. Life has only been on earth for a few million years. Humans have only been on earth for a couple of hundred thousand. We have only been using electricity for just over a century. We’ve been sending out EM waves for a shorter time than that. We only achieved space-flight 50 years ago. We have only been actively looking for other worlds by scanning a tiny fraction of the heavens for a few decades. Now, even if another intelligent space-faring species actively looking for life existed, or will exist – you need them to be at least at our level of technology, give or take 50 years for either of us, and within 100 light years of earth (at a stretch). And, however we communicate with each other, that signal cannot travel faster than light.

To put this in illustrative terms, let’s use what I’ll call the time-overlap thought experiment: pick a number between 1 and 4 billion: that number is how many years back in time you will travel to a random place on earth. Another person does the same. What are the odds that the two of you will now meet up? And even if luck be damned, and incredibly you both picked the same number, and live at the same time on earth – you need to make contact before you die of old age – but let’s say you’re both different ages, both or either of you could be very young or very old. Where do you look? Which direction do you start out in? What do you look for?

It’s the same with aliens. Maybe they existed but died out ages ago? Maybe they are only now discovering the internal combustion engine? Maybe somewhere out there a CO2-laced volcanic world orbits a yellow star that will evolve intelligent life in many eons to come? Or maybe they are just like us typing blogs on their internet right now, but are just too far away. Who knows?

It’s fascinating to consider, but it’s speculation without resolution. Ultimately, the notion of alien visitors (especially given the total lack of proof) should be dismissed out of hand. The existence of alien life, either good or evil, is totally irrelevant to us. So although it’s overwhelmingly likely they are out there, by the same principle it’s overwhelmingly certain we will never ever know about each other.