Octopus not an Alien

Hi everyone,

I’ve been looking at the paper, Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic? by Steele et al.

You can find a review of it by Mark Carnall here:
The Pseudoscience of Octopuses From Space. Mark Carnall is the Collections Manager of the zoological collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

There’s another review here, by Mike McRae of Science Alert: An Insane Paper Tests The Limits of Science by Claiming Octopuses Came From Space. McRae was formerly a writer for the CSIRO’s Double Helix and ECOS publications, and is the author of Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas (University of Queensland Publishing).

Finally, here’s a paper from Nature by Albertin et al. (2015), which is cited by Steele et al.
The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties. Abstract:

Coleoid cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are active, resourceful predators with a rich behavioural repertoire(1). They have the largest nervous systems among the invertebrates(2) and present other striking morphological innovations including camera-like eyes, prehensile arms, a highly derived early embryogenesis and a remarkably sophisticated adaptive colouration system(1,3). To investigate the molecular bases of cephalopod brain and body innovations, we sequenced the genome and multiple transcriptomes of the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. We found no evidence for hypothesized whole-genome duplications in the octopus lineage(4,5,6). The core developmental and neuronal gene repertoire of the octopus is broadly similar to that found across invertebrate bilaterians, except for massive expansions in two gene families previously thought to be uniquely enlarged in vertebrates: the protocadherins, which regulate neuronal development, and the C2H2 superfamily of zinc-finger transcription factors. Extensive messenger RNA editing generates transcript and protein diversity in genes involved in neural excitability, as previously described(7), as well as in genes participating in a broad range of other cellular functions. We identified hundreds of cephalopod-specific genes, many of which showed elevated expression levels in such specialized structures as the skin, the suckers and the nervous system. Finally, we found evidence for large-scale genomic rearrangements that are closely associated with transposable element expansions. Our analysis suggests that substantial expansion of a handful of gene families, along with extensive remodelling of genome linkage and repetitive content, played a critical role in the evolution of cephalopod morphological innovations, including their large and complex nervous systems.

I’ll say more on the paper later.

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Hi everyone. Back again. Looking at the paper by Steele et al., titled, Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic?, the following paragraph leaps out:

Evidence of the role of extraterrestrial viruses in affecting terrestrial evolution has recently been plausibly implied in the gene and transcriptome sequencing of Cephalopods. The genome of the Octopus shows a staggering level of complexity with 33,000 protein-coding genes more than is present in Homo sapiens (Albertin et al., 2015). Octopus belongs to the coleoid sub-class of molluscs (Cephalopods) that have an evolutionary history that stretches back over 500 million years, although Cephalopod phylogenetics is highly inconsistent and confusing (see Carlini et al., 2000; Strugnell et al., 2005, 2006, 2007; Bergmann et al., 2006). Cephalopods are also very diverse, with the behaviourally complex coleoids, (Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopus) presumably arising under a pure terrestrial evolutionary model from the more primitive nautiloids. However the genetic divergence of Octopus from its ancestral coleoid sub-class is very great, akin to the extreme features seen across many genera and species noted in Eldridge-Gould punctuated equilibria patterns (below). Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch colour 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 (e.g. Nautilus pompilius) to the common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) to Squid (Loligo vulgaris) to the common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris, Fig. 5) are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form – it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large. Such an extraterrestrial origin as an explanation of emergence of course runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm.

  1. The paper from Albertin et al. doesn’t back up Steele et al.'s claim that octopuses have 33,000 more protein-coding genes than humans do. Instead, Albertin et al. write that based on their research they “predicted 33,638 protein-coding genes” after sequencing the Octopus bimaculoides genome. The number of protein-coding genes in the human genome is 19,000 to 20,000, so that means octopuses have 14,000 more protein-coding genes than we do.

  2. In any case, the notion that the number of protein-coding genes corresponds in any way with an organism’s complexity is debunked in a 2008 paper by Leslie Pray, titled, Eukaryotic Genome Complexity (Nature Education 1(1):96). Pray points out that the number of genes in an organism’s genome “has nothing to do with the organism’s complexity,” and lists several organisms which have more protein-coding genes than we do: among them the laboratory mouse, Mus musculus (30,000 protein-coding genes), the rice plant Oryza sativa (51,000) and the protozoan parasite and STI Trichomonas vaginalis (60,000).

  3. The claim that scientists believe that there was a lineage leading “from the consensus ancestral Nautilus (e.g. Nautilus pompilius) to the common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) to Squid (Loligo vulgaris) to the common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris, Fig. 5)” is flat-out wrong, as Carnall points out in his critical review:

Nautilus, especially the one living species referred to, is absolutely not ancestral, definitely not consensus ancestral to common cuttlefish etc. They’re modern representatives of a long-lived-more-diverse-in-the-past group but ain’t nothing primitive or ancestral about them. The broader group, Nautiloidea, maybe, but there is a lot that needs resolving about stem coleoid relationships. The simplification here is misleading.

  1. Steele et al. haven’t done their homework on cephalopod phylogenetics: the papers they cite are more than ten years out-of-date (Carlini et al., 2000; Strugnell et al., 2005, 2006, 2007; Bergmann et al., 2006). They never even mention the article published in 2017 by Tanner et al., titled, Molecular clocks indicate turnover and diversification of modern coleoid cephalopods during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 15 March 2017, Volume 284, issue 1850), which provides an up-to-date phylogeny. Incidentally, Tanner et al. describe Nautilus as a “sister group to coleoids,” not an ancestor.

  2. Steele et al. also get their chronology wrong: they seem to think that octopuses appeared suddenly about 270 million years ago, with all of their modern features:

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago.

Wrong on two counts. For starters, the oldest known octopus fossil is not 270 million years old but 296 million years old, as Wikipedia points out. Second, as Tanner et al. point out, the really interesting features possessed by modern cephalopods evolved much later, during the Jurassic period. Here’s how the Daily Mail summarized their findings (Mysterious genetic origins of the squid, octopus and cuttlefish revealed: Creatures had a common ancestor 100 million years ago by Harry Pettit, 1 March 2017):

‘We found that cephalopods evolved during a time of great ecological change, due to competition with fish and their predators,’ study lead-author Al Tanner, a molecular biologist at the University of Bristol, told MailOnline.

'Cephalopods shifted from being slow, armoured organisms into rapid jet-propelled oceanic species, able to compete with fish.

'Their ancestors, the heavily-shelled ammonites and belemnites, probably went extinct because their predators evolved to defeat their armour, and so were easy pickings compared to the increasingly-swift squid, and increasingly well-hidden octopuses.

The period that the octopus, squid and cuttlefish split from their common ancestor was known as the ‘Mesozoic Marine Revolution’ and occurred around 100 to 160 million years ago, the researchers claim.

Or as Tanner et al. put it in their article:

Decabrachian coleoids are nektonic predators with streamlined morphology, high metabolic rates and shoaling behaviour; adaptations in common with teleost fishes [43]. The majority of modern teleost groups radiated during the Jurassic and Cretaceous [44], concomitantly with the origin of most modern coleoids as revealed by our molecular estimates and the fossil record. The scenario in which Mesozoic ecological shifts are exhibited in teleost fishes, chondrichthyans (sharks and rays), and shelled invertebrates as investigated by Vermeij [10] can be extended to cephalopods (figure 4). In the face of high-metabolism, robust predators and niche-competitors, the cephalopods may have responded in kind to these evolutionary pressures. We hypothesize that the cephalopods evolved into the forms we are familiar with today, while shelled groups fell into extinction owing to the shifts in predation in this time period. The Mesozoic Marine Revolution can thus be viewed as the final stage in the shift from Palaeozoic ecologies into the modern structure of marine ecosystems, where (at least in the nektonic realm), agility superseded passive defence.

So Steele et al. are looking at the wrong time period.

  1. Figure 5 in Steele et al. is totally inconsistent with the rest of their paper, as it depicts octopus evolution as follows: Squid + Virus = Octopus. Carnall comments:

WHY IS “SQUID” + VIRUS = OCTOPUS? That’s not even what they’re arguing here and nobody thinks that modern ‘squid’ evolved into octopuses.

  1. The weirdness of the octopus genome is simply due to the fact that not many genomes of related creatures have been sequenced yet. As Carnall explains:

To put this into context, to date there has only been one complete-ish cephalopod genome sequenced and assembled, that of Octopus bimaculoides in 2015 (Albertin et al. 2015). This is worth bearing in mind when we contemplate the ‘weirdness’ of the genome given that, as yet, there’s very little in the way of comparators in this whole group.

  1. Skepticism is warranted regarding the thesis propounded by Steele et al… To quote Carnall:

I have so many questions. 1) How did fertilised “Octopus” eggs get into space and does this mean they are coming back? 2) There are a handful of cephalopod species that can be bred in captivity and raised to adulthood, I think extra terrestrial bolides etc. are kind of a harsher environment than that so how that work? 3) If these “Octopuses and/or Squid” are laying eggs on bolides are they living in space or are they living on bolides or are they living on other planets and laying eggs like terrestrial cephalopods which are then somehow getting transported to space? 4) What about the octopuses evolving from squid plus viruses? Did we forget about that? 5) Are you defining likely and plausible as it could happen but extremely extremely remotely and with much better evidence than given here? 6) If we can go back to viruses again, isn’t it ever so slightly more plausible that viruses are living on bollides in cryostasis rather than actual fertilised eggs? 7) Why on fairly arbitrary grounds are cephalopods chosen? There are likely other better candidates you could weave a way more convincing story around if that’s the intention.

My overall verdict: a thumbs-down.


Thank you for the edit. You sure don’t have time to edit your mods but it looks better.

An explanation for all the diversification of all biota we see in earth’s history I mean. I am skeptical that known evolutionary processes can be expected to produce all that in the amount of time available vast though it is. I am skeptical that all genetic jumps happen by these processes. I mean, when dozens of scientists have a peer-reviewed paper positing that octopi are from outer space maybe some skepticism is in order…

Show me these papers? Is that a joke!

If it is, the 33 scientists who put it together and the journal don’t know it. Section 13 from here…

I mean I made a news article about this section of the paper a post of its own and you Joshua @swamidass commented on it, though no one else wanted to touch it. Here is the original article which tipped me off about the paper…

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This may not be as nutty as Revealed (unintentionally) makes it sound. I don’t believe the article he cites (and links to) actually says Octopus eggs arrived on the earth via comet.

My reading of the article, so far, suggests that surviving virus vectors can accelerate mutations in existing genetic material on earth.

Assuming I have some of the gist of the article correct, the interesting aspect is that @Revealed_Cosmology is not saying God’s finger print is on the Cambrian … he is saying some exotic cosmic event (or events) have left a finger print on the Cambrian.

This is way more acceptable than just saying that the Cambrian was filled with God’s special creation of templates.


POSTSCRIPT- we could even hypothesize that a vector from a cosmic hit could be what contributed to the first emergence of Hypoxia Inducible Factors (as discussed in the article I abstracted on Cambrian issues related to higher levels of Oxygen). [ Topic launched here: HIFs - Hypoxia Inducible Factors - - contributing to diversity in the Cambrian

Ahhh… so… @swamidass, the article is not saying octopus eggs came here from outer space. It is saying that alien genetic material, traveling securely through space in inert forms of virus, infected a branch of the Cambrian invertebrates, and combined to trigger the emergence of the dramatically more sophisticated creatures, known in the modern period as mysteriously intelligent octopus species (and maybe including some of the “pack hunting” forms of squid!

By the way, if you have trouble sleeping … do not google stories by survivors of encountering multiple squid and almost being seized and dismembered by them!

[[ Click on the image to enlarge the font size to maximum! ]]

OOOOPS… I spoke too soon… the article does speak of frozen eggs arriving on Earth from deep space…

Sorry it took so long to find it, @swamidass

"Unless all the new genes expressed in the squid/octopus lineages arose from simple mutations of existing genes in either the squid or in other organisms sharing the same habitat, there is surely no way by which this large qualitative transition in A-to-I mRNA editing can be explained by conventional neo-Darwinian processes, even if horizontal gene transfer is allowed. One plausible explanation, in our view, is that the new genes are likely new extraterrestrial imports to Earth - most plausibly as an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized Octopus eggs."

“Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6.”

“Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12–13)."

“Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research – discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years – typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.”

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Two excellent posts Vincent. I totally agree.

Much skepticism is in order. That was a trash paper, and does not at all represent current thinking. There is nothing really surprising about the Octopus genome. Their eyes are a well studied example of convergent evolution, which both refute design arguments and bad design arguments. They are camera eyes, just not camera eyes like ours. I’ve covered this in the past with Cornelius Hunter (@vjtorley was part of that conversation).

Look at all the rebukes the paper is getting. One crazy paper disputed by a large number of scientist is not a reason to doubt evolutionary science @Revealed_Cosmology.

And you did point out this paper before. I’m sorry for not getting it the first time. It is so out there crazy, I didn’t realize the absurdity of its claims. I thought it was just bad reporting.

Echoed here. Ooops. Thanks for linking to the article in the first place @Revealed_Cosmology. Sorry I missed this before now.


It is entirely bizarre to think Octopus must be of alien origin. Earth viruses can do Just fine what they are claiming. Why resort to bizarre leaps like interplanetary viruses?

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And then it becomes clear in the author and affiliation list. Several authors are affiliated with… the Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics, a total pseudoscience group with an a prior agenda.
@patrick, note they do not appear to be religiously motivated. http://www.ispajapan.com/

Look at their website and prepare to be amazed. They actually argue that the Zika virus could have extraterrestrial origin:

Whilst the Zika virus continues to grab headlines, it is possible space origin and its long-term impact on humanity appear to have escaped the attention of commentators.

Wow. I’m amazed that paper was published in the first place.

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sometimes the pseudoscience groups are harder to spot. They are in that fringe area where maybe there is a kernel of science in it. This seems out there. Anyway, as you know, a single result is meaningless until you can repeat it with lot of data.

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Well, another surprise…

In the Vedic writings of ancient India, ideas of the cosmic nature of life stretch back as far as the 2nd millennium BC. The Universe was considered to be a living entity where every form of life, including life on Earth, found its genesis.

It is not clear if this is a religious motivation, or merely a rhetorical flair. Someone should do a web interview with these guys. Could end up being interesting…

I find it interesting how often Hoyle is brought up by the authors.

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OK I am getting that no true Scotsman, errr Scientist, would take the panspermia hypothesis seriously. But the paper did get published, and I find the idea that earth viruses can greatly increase the complexity and intelligence of animals to be about as far fetched. To me this is also getting close to co-flating methodological and philosophical naturalism. That is, instead of just saying “we have no good natural explanation at this time” the most implausible naturalistic explanation is proffered over a hypothesis of divine action.

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Except regarding Octopus we do have good natural explanations. Part of how the authors make their case is by ignoring those explanations. A great way to make this clear is by looking at their comment regarding Zika.

They think there isn’t a valid way to explain how Zika virus arose, something no ID or YEC proponent would argue as far as I know. That is really out there.

That is not that we are saying. Hoyle did take panspermia seriously, and he was a true scientist.

We are pointing out that this specific paper is making an absurd argument for panspermia, and is being widely rejected by the scientific community. Crackpot papers are published all the time. You have see things like this validated. Science is self correcting, and right now it is reacting strongly against these guys.

There are actually good arguments for panspermia, by the way. For example, if we find life on Mars, it is most likely that life was seeded to Mars from Earth. We already know that there is a lot of dust trafficked between Earth and Mars, and it seems that abiogenesis is rare. If we find life on Mars, most likely its from Earth.

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If you say so boss, but I guess I am not sold on the idea that a virus can do that.

Look I agree that the idea is junk. Same for the Zika claim. That is not my point. My point is that scientists are reaching for an explanation for an anomaly here because they don’t have a good one. Why not just say “we don’t have a sensible hypothesis to test right now, if we get one we will test it”?

Totally agree. I hope we do. Maybe we can see the limits of its evolution.

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Except we absolutely do have sensible hypotheses, that were ignored by that paper. And the mechanism is not a “virus did it”, so I’m glad you are not sold on that.

To be clear, these are not total explanations. God might still have intervened here, and perhaps his intervention was necessary. Science does not deal in absolutes, and it does not traffic in God’s action. It is just silent on these things. I am very happy to disclaim its findings with that. God’s help might have been needed.

We do have sensible hypothesis for how Octopi evolved. We do not know all the details, and we certainly haven’t ruled God out. Neither have we demonstrated that God’s intervention was necessary either.

OK, well that is good because that is how the apes got super-smart in that “Planet of the Apes” movie and even then the virus was intelligently designed. But you do have me curious. You seem to be aware of a hypothesis which is a sensible natural explanation, so what on earth (or elsewhere) is it?

@Revealed_Cosmology, if I understand the thought behind your brief sentence, I should point out that there are no known limits to how much a population’s genome can change. And if you add “God-Guided” to it, there’s every reason to believe that a population’s potential for genome change is unlimited.

This explains Nested Hierarchies, while punctuated Special Creation would seem to belie the need for an Old Earth, nor would it explain why God would use a “bandycoot genome” as the basis for both a mole and for a Tasmanian Devil carnivore in one part of the Earth, but uses a “mole genome” for moles and carnivore genomes for carnivores in another part of the Earth.

Typo: “is” was corrected to "are"