The Atlantic just published this interesting short article on the Atacama “alien” — a subject I have blogged about several times:  “The Controversial Study of a Girl Who Ufologists Called ‘Alien’.” As to the racism element, you can read the article — the short version is that the remains were foreign (as opposed to White European) and (likely) acquired and sold unethically — which White Europeans have a long, sordid history of doing. My interest in this article is a bit different. It offers some clear teaching points for “researchers” in (Christian or otherwise) Middle Earth (i.e., the wacky world of internet paleobabble). Here are some excerpts:

[The] DNA analysis was published last week—in Genome Research, a legitimate journal, and authored by a team of legitimate biologists led by Garry Nolan of Stanford University. That Nolan came to work with the makers of an alien-conspiracy documentary is unorthodox, to say the least. . . . Nolan . . . first heard about the girl when he caught wind of the making of Sirius. He studies immunology, and he had no particular experience with old DNA but he told the New York Times he contacted the filmmakers on a “lark.” . . .

In the documentary, Nolan says about his preliminary findings, “I can say with absolute certainty that it is not a monkey. It is human, or as close to human, closer to human than chimpanzees would be. But when you count up the number of mutations that we are observing, what we’re seeing is more than what we would expect to be caused by simple cell division.”

The rest of the discussion is meandering and technical enough that a nonexpert would come away with doubt. In the film, Nolan also says she has a Y chromosome—a mistake, he acknowledged to me, due to his inexperience with this kind of DNA analysis. (The extra mutations may also be the result of DNA degradation over the decades.)

Teaching Points:

(1) Nolan is a legitimate scientist. The Stanford website notes of him: “Dr. Nolan is the Rachford and Carlota A. Harris Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine. He trained with Leonard Herzenberg (for his Ph.D.) and Nobelist Dr. David Baltimore (for postdoctoral work for the first cloning/characterization of NF-κB p65/ RelA and the development of rapid retroviral production systems).” But guess what? Having a PhD (apparently in immunology) doesn’t make you an expert in genetics. By his own admission, he made a mistake in the analysis for the documentary featuring the specimen … which is why for the full genetic tests a team of true experts (specialists) was assembled. (Folks, your primary care physician has an M.D., but those doctors refer you to specialists because they aren’t specialists. Genetics has specialists like any other field. Even Nolan, who’s teaching at Stanford (the Harvard of the west coast) was out of his wheelhouse on this — and he knew it and did the right thing about it. You call in the real experts. This is why the team assembled by L.A. Marzulli is nowhere near adequate. (Captain Obvious note: Geography instructors, anthropologists, chiropractors, and biblical archaeologists are not genetics experts, or even forensic experts).

(2) Mutations in the specimen didn’t mean the specimen wasn’t human. Mutations are, well, mutations. The word “mutation” isn’t a synonym for “non-human.”

(3) Mutations can have a variety of causes. Their presence doesn’t mean the specimen was born with the mutation. Mutations “may also be the result of DNA degradation.”

Middle Earth researchers will of course dutifully ignore such things because they regularly employ the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy in much of what they do. It’s really a shame.

The thrust of the article is also a shame. It will be interesting to see what direction this takes. It may well cut off any sort of testing for future specimens that surface because, even if the provenance of the specimen is known, the questions will arise should you have taken it / purchased it? That will in turn force the question Should we conduct testing on it? It’s easy to see that the West is reaping what it’s sown here — centuries of tomb-looting and shipping materials hither and yon, knowing that if the specimens had come from “civilized” cultures their remains would have been treated differently, has now created this impasse and, perhaps, legal ramifications all along the way.