Josh Rosenau's picture

The Bride of It Came From Outer Space

In “It Came from Outer Space,” I hinted that it would be fun to track Chandra Wickramasighe’s claims about extraterrestrial life in earth’s upper atmosphere back to the early days, when he was a witness for the creationists in the McLean v. Arkansas trial.

Alas, the trial transcripts from McLean are incomplete, and most of the defense witness testimony appears to be lost. But defense witness Norman Geisler took extensive notes, and published a detailed account of the trial. The McLean v. Arkansas Documentation Project has permission to post the relevant chapters, and Dr. Wickramasinghe posted his prepared statement as well.  Fred Edwords’s account of the trial for Creation Evolution Journal adds some helpful tidbits.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa grown in the space shuttle. From Kim W, Tengra FK, Young Z, Shong J, Marchand N, et al. (2013) Spaceflight Promotes Biofilm Formation by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62437. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062437 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062437Bacteria from space: Pseudomonas aeruginosa grown in the space shuttle. From Kim, et al. (2013) Spaceflight Promotes Biofilm Formation by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62437. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062437

Wickramasinghe’s claim, then as now, is that life could not have developed on earth through natural processes, and must have been seeded from space. His astronomical work had demonstrated the existence of organic molecules in space, and he claimed that the spectrometric profile of those extraterrestrial samples best matched cellulose, and in particular the cellulose produced by E. coli. He claimed that the first life on earth must have drifted in from outer space, and that subsequent developments in life’s history must have come from viral material raining down from space and adding those new capacities to the genetic makeup of life. As Geisler summarizes:

Wickramasinghe said, though, that the probabilities of upward change by chance combination of the new bacteria with current life forms was so infinitely tiny that he and Hoyle had to postulate the idea that the “intelligent designer” arranged the times and places at which the interstellar bacteria would arrive on earth so that it would cause upward change.

He claimed that this rain of viruses continues, and offered as evidence the different rates of flu infection at boarding houses near Eton. “The very large fluctuations…points [sic] clearly to non-person-to-person infection. How else could College House escape with only 1 victim in 70, representing a deviation of 6 standard deviations from the expected mean? The virus arrived from space and distributed itself with a patchiness detectable over the scale of hundreds of metres.” Clearly, it’s more likely that alien viruses are regularly sent to attack us than that different boarding houses had different practices in terms of handwashing, use of common areas, isolating sick guests, etc. Asked by a skeptical cross-examiner, “But you believe that school children caught a cold from a comet?,” Fred Edwords reported, “Wickramasinghe laughed and said, ‘That is so.’”

Edwords added, “Wickramasinghe also testified that he believed insects might be more intelligent than humans but ‘they’re not letting on that they’re smarter, because things are going so well for them.’” Whether this converges on Haldane’s famous quip about God’s inordinate fondness for beetles is left as an exercise for the reader.

Wickramasinghe was not the only defense witness to speculate about little green men. Geisler, then a professor of theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, went through this fascinating deposition:

Q. And do you have any professional opinion, as to the existence of demons?

A. Yea. Yea. I believe that demons exist.

Q. Do you have any professional opinion, as to the existence of UFO’s

A. Yes. I believe that UFO’s exist.

Q. And how are they connected with Satan?

A. I believe that they are part of a mass deception attempt, that they are means by which Satan deceives because he is a deceiver and he is trying to deceive people. He did it from the beginning in the Garden of Eden, and he has been doing it now through the years. And this is one of the ways that he is deceiving people.

Q. Your description of demons, I take it, are those other angels that fell with Satan. And they exist now?

A. Yes.

Q. And your experience with the occult — how did that relate to your view of the existence of Satan?

A. I think occult phenomena, such as the moving of physical objects through the air, and so forth, such as is manifest, for example, in the Empire Strikes Back. The Luke Skywalker, the ability to move physical objects. I think that this is a demonic power that you get by occult practices. It has been done in time immemorial. It is condemned in the Bible. And it is still manifest in the world today.

In the end, Judge Overton didn’t have trouble finding the dream team of plaintiffs’ witnesses convincing, or the defense witnesses uncredible. His decision in the case is no less crushing an indictment of the scientific pretensions and religious agenda of “creation science” than Judge Jones’s Kitzmiller ruling was for “intelligent design.” And he was especially befuddled by Wickramasinghe:

The Court is at a loss to understand why Dr. Wickramasinghe was called in behalf of the defendants. Perhaps it was because he was generally critical of the theory of evolution and the scientific community, a tactic consistent with the strategy of the defense. Unfortunately for the defense, he demonstrated that the simplistic approach of the two model analysis of the origins of life is false [the defense claimed that the law’s “equal time” provision was justified because there were only two possibilities: evolution or creation, while Wickramasinghe seemed to hold out some sort of third option]. Furthermore, he corroborated the plaintiffs’ witnesses by concluding that “no rational scientist” would believe the earth’s geology could be explained by reference to a worldwide flood or that the earth was less than one million years old.

To continue the analogy with the Kitzmiller case, Wickramasinghe would have to be compared with Steve Fuller’s bizarre testimony for the defense, which Judge Jones wound up citing as evidence for the plaintiff’s major claims, for instance Fuller’s desire for a sort of “affirmative action” to give ID a leg up in the world of science, his acknowledgment that ID aspires to “change the ground rules” of science, or indeed his flat acceptance of the claim that ID is creationism.

Mark Twain seems to have anticipated the persistence of Wickramasinghe’s panspermia claims, and the eerie parallels between creationism trials, when he laid out, “a favorite theory of mine—to wit, that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often.” This also seems to disprove Marx’s claim that history repeats first as tragedy, then as farce. With Wickramasinghe, it’s farce every time.