Seeing Fake Life in Dead Minerals
Fooled by wishful thinking, some paleontologists call round things microfossils when they were never alive.
The drive to connect the dots of an evolutionary worldview can lead scientists astray. In 1996, NASA held a major press conference that launched the “science” of astrobiology. It was all based on tiny little shapes within a Martian meteorite that certain wishful thinkers interpreted as signs of life that had left traces within the rock. It was shoddy science, and years of more rigorous investigations proved that the alleged “fossils” were abiotic minerals that took on peculiar shapes. The damage was done; we are still stuck with a NASA Astrobiology Institute, perpetuating a science with no bio in it and nothing to show for it (astrobiology – bio = astrology).
Misidentification of fossils has gone on ever since. Certain astrobiologists, geochemists and origin-of-life theorists get all excited when they see tiny round things in rocks. Some evolutionary biologists specialize in the search for early fossil life, imagining that the first cells popped into existence around geothermal vents or in warm little ponds. Their easy-believism can mislead them into seeing things that were never alive.
Experiments show the record of early life could be full of “false positives” (GSA News). A false positive is calling something what it is not. A superstitious person might think she has seen a ghost when it is just a bit of fog or a reflection on a window. When astrobiologists look at a rock and see little spheres or filaments, what are they seeing? Julie Cosmidis, Christine Nims and their colleagues said they might be seeing simple old geology and mineralogy.
Much of what we know about the evolution of life comes from the rock record, which preserves rare fossils of bacteria from billions of years ago. But that record is steeped in controversy, with each new discovery (rightfully) critiqued, questioned, and analyzed from every angle. Even then, uncertainty in whether a purported fossil is a trace of life can persist, and the field is plagued by “false positives” of early life. To understand evolution on our planet—and to help find signs of life on others—scientists have to be able to tell the difference.
Notice that this announcement in the Geological Society of America’s newsletter is not coming from critics of astrobiology or chemical evolution. They just want to get the science right. Nims and Cosmidis had been almost fooled themselves a few years back, when they observed some rods and spheres form in chemical mixtures of organic carbon and sulfide in the lab.
“They start just looking like a residue at the bottom of the experimental vessel,” researcher Christine Nims says, “but under the microscope, you could see these beautiful structures that looked microbial. And they formed in these very sterile conditions, so these features essentially came out of nothing. It was really exciting work.”
Realizing the mistake of their initial impression, they decided to see if home-made chemical microspheres could fossilize and look like signs of life. The answer was yes:
Nims set about running the new experiments, testing to see if these abiotic structures, which they called biomorphs, could be fossilized, like a bacterium would be. By adding biomorphs to a silica solution, they aimed to recreate the formation of chert, a silica-rich rock that commonly preserves early microfossils. For weeks, she would carefully track the small-scale ‘fossilization’ progress under a microscope. They found not only that they could be fossilized, but also that these abiotic shapes were much easier to preserve than bacterial remains. The abiotic ‘fossils,’ structures composed of organic carbon and sulfur, were more resilient and less likely to flatten out than their fragile biological counterparts.
This means that the rock record could be filled with false positives, potentially misleading evolutionary scientists looking for signs of the first life. They will need to realize that chemical and mineral structures are much more likely to form and “fossilize” than squishy bits of organic matter could.
“Microbes don’t have bones,” Cosmidis explains. “They don’t have skins or skeletons. They’re just squishy organic matter. So to preserve them, you have to have very specific conditions”—like low rates of photosynthesis and rapid sediment deposition—“so it’s kind of rare when that happens.”
The paper by Nims et al. is published in the journal Geology, Jan 28, 2021, which states, “Organic biomorphs possessing morphological and chemical characteristics of microfossils may thus be an important component in Precambrian cherts, challenging our understanding of the early life record.”
A “biomorph” is no more biological than a bronze horse is compared to a real horse. Wise researchers, even among evolutionists, should hold their colleagues accountable when they see them jumping to conclusions. Any structure that “looks” like a fossilized cell should be considered false till proven otherwise. Would that there were more level-headed analysts like this back in 1996 when we needed them.