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Science/Fiction

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: The origin of us

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

Prometheur movie trailer (Copyright: 20th Century Fox)

(Copyright: 20th Century Fox)

Ridley Scott’s forthcoming epic is the latest attempt to satisfy our desire for a simple story about our origins.

No, I haven’t seen it yet.  So this does not contain spoilers about Prometheus, Ridley’s Scott’s return to the universe of Alien.  Well, maybe just one. The studio and PR people have taken the approach that in cyberspace anyone can hear you whisper, so there’s a clampdown on previews, and almost every detail about it that’s out there is thanks to a careful campaign of teaser trailers, viral videos, and controlled leaks.    

What is clear though is that as well as, like Alien, taking terror off terra firma and out among the stars, Prometheus is a voyage into our origins as humans, and where we fit into the cosmic order.  That’s if there is one to fit into, be it with aliens, gods, or alien gods. Scott describes it as “not just a scary movie but a really interesting evolutionary story”. Doubly scary then, given that some people seem to find anything “evolutionary” more alarming than a xenomorph bursting out of your stomach.    

Where we come from and what defines us as a species are questions that in some form almost every child asks, and which every religion attempts to answer. Our current best estimates have modern humans appearing around 200,000 years ago. But the bigger issue isn’t about when we appeared, it’s about how: what got us started and makes us special. Because who doesn’t want to be special?   And the prevailing scientific view – that simple organisms slowly and randomly developed over billions of years to become not only ourselves but everything that’s ever lived – doesn’t really do the job.   

Lightning strike

The waters of the “warm, little pond” which Charles Darwin mused all this life could have started in are further muddied by suggestions that the beginning of this long story may not even be on this planet. The controversial and much discussed theories of panspermia and exogenesis both suggest that organisms primitive enough but hardy enough to survive the effects of space could have been transported here, possibly on asteroids or meteorites, and seeded life. There are many variations on this – from the not intended to be funny (but is) 1960 “Cosmic Garbage” proposal by Austrian astronomer Thomas Gold that the source could have been organic rubbish dumped by passing extra-terrestrials, to the intended to be funny (but largely isn’t) Evolution starring David Duchovny. None though really deal with how life began, they just shift whatever happened to somewhere beyond Earth. 

The truth is that we really don’t know how, where or when it got going – in one location or many, here or elsewhere in the Universe, on land, on the ocean floor in hydrothermal vents, on a radioactive beach between the two...or even in Darwin’s warm pond. There have been all sorts of attempts to simulate how non-living molecules could be plausibly thrown together in a way that could lead to something which could grow and reproduce, perhaps the most famous being the Miller-Urey experiment 60 years ago which showed that sparks – simulating lightning – applied to an approximation of Earth’s early atmosphere could lead to the formation of amino acids essential for life. All interesting, but nothing remotely conclusive.

Add to this recent fossil finds in Africa, Siberia and Indonesia that have led to more potential ancestors muscling in on the early human family portrait – sowing doubt about which of the many candidates we’re directly and indirectly descended from – and things get messy. Instead of an origin story that’s clear and dramatic and all centred on us, the scientific evidence all points to it being a convoluted epoch-spanning epic with no clear beginning and in which we’re just part of a vast cast of (at the last count) around nine million species that all developed in the same way.

No wonder we’ve such an appetite for creation myths and other fictions that give us star billing...and often starry beginnings.   Leaving aside the many strange tales attached to actual religions – of which, at the very least, the overwhelming majority must be make believe – then the major recurring theme is of deliberate extra-terrestrial intervention.  Sometimes it’s a little nudge that lifts us above other creatures as in 2001, but far more popular is the idea we were deliberately “seeded” by aliens.

My personal favourite is the original late 50s BBC series Quatermass & The Pit .  But another neat variant is The Chase, a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation which explained away the fact that pretty much every alien the crew of the Enterprise run into looks pretty similar (only with varying hues, facial bumps and pointy bits) by having them discover a message hidden in the DNA of the different humanoid species that reveals they share a common ancestor which long ago seeded life across the galaxy.

It comes to mind because, as best as I can decipher the clues from the various snippets released about Prometheus, it seems to have a not entirely dissimilar storyline. And that brings us back to where we began. If not necessarily how. 

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