Prometheus And The Origins Of Life

Jun 13 2012 @ 12:46pm

Zen Faulkes considers the science in Ridley Scott's newest film:

If aliens created humans, how would we know? Would it be as simple as ordering up a galactic paternity test? Detecting the difference between the evolved and the constructed is… not simple. This is the problem faced by Creationists and Intelligent Design. They claim that they have methods of detecting design in biological organisms, except that instead of the designer being Prometheus’s engineers, they see the designer as God. One potential criterion for distinguishing the designed from the evolved is is “specified complexity.” So far, biologists have not found “specified complexity” useful, but the question of distinguishing the built from the biological is a good one.

Distinguishing the designed from the evolved could increasingly be a relevant problem as synthetic biology progresses. Researchers have been able to build viruses from scratch for a decade now. We had the first organism with an artificial genome a few years ago. There, the team at the J. Craig Venter Institute deliberately implanted “watermark” in the DNA sequence of the bacteria. Not everyone might be so helpful as to sign their work, however. How could you determine if a flu virus was a natural mutation versus one that was deliberately built in a lab? You probably couldn’t, as far as I can tell. There’s no way to tell DNA made in a lab apart from DNA made in an organism. It’s all atoms.

James Gorman recently raised [NYT] similar concerns. Angela Watercutter sees similarities in the treatment of science and religion in the film:

The movie’s incessant sly references to faith shed light on the fact that, when it comes to how we answer life’s big questions, some use the scientific method, some use catechism, others use both, and everyone believes something. Scientific theories can be proven more readily than the existence of deities, but the path of the righteous in both cases starts with a leap of faith.

James Bradley sees a paucity of true religion in the film:

"It’s what I choose to believe" the characters in Prometheus say more than once, as if this somehow answers any challenge to their beliefs, or is a meaningful answer to the somewhat sizeable question of what happens to us after death. … Despite its religiosity American culture has largely given away the symbols and narratives that underpin traditional religion. This might seem an odd thing to say given the rise in fundamentalism, but in fact the two aren’t incompatible: what matters isn’t the narratives but belief, not just in God but in America. A threat to one becomes a threat to the other.

The culture of Hollywood may be less religiose, but in many ways it’s part of the same phenomenon. Severed from the traditional narratives of religion, writers and filmmakers fall back on the inane language of personal growth and faith, a language and discourse that is incapable of plumbing deep because it’s essentially ungrounded. In place of the deep symbols of religion we have exhortations to belief and faith, as if these were ends in themselves.

I'm off to see it tonight. Aaron and I watched Alien and Aliens to prep. Alien stands out to me as easily the superior movie.