Humans spend a lot of time thinking about our species’ origins. The questions of "what are we?" and "where did we come from?" are common to most religions, and are some of the fundamental motivations of scientific inquiry. Of course, not all answers to these questions are equally valid, but sometimes they lead to some pretty interesting speculations. Case in point is the so-called “prison planet” hypothesis, which posits that humans are actually an alien species banished to Earth because we just couldn’t behave in our original alien utopia.
The topic is most thoroughly addressed in Humans Are Not From Earth, a “scientific evaluation of the evidence” that was self-published by a Dr. Ellis Silver. Silver is repeatedly described as a “US ecologist” anywhere the book is mentioned, but I was unable to find any scholarly research published by Silver, who is supposedly working to clean plastic debris from the Pacific.
But initial skepticism of the source material aside, perhaps Silver’s theory of Earth-as-a-prison stands on its own? There’s a decent amount of people who think there’s a case to be made for the theory, including Alex Jones, who went so far as to name his website after it.
According to Silver, a number of pieces of evidence suggest that humans are actually an alien species based on how maladapted we seem to be to the terrestrial environment. Some examples he cites as evidence that we are not of this world are as follows: Our tendency to sunburn easily, our dislike of naturally occurring foods, high rates of chronic disease and high rates of infant mortality.
Aside from these facts, Silver also told Yahoo! News that “there’s a prevailing feeling among many people that they don’t belong here or that something ‘just isn’t right.’” So while Earth approximates our needs as humans, it’s not exactly right and that’s killing us. But why were we sent to Earth in the first place, if it is so bad for us? According to Silver, one need only look at humanity’s immense capacity for violence to understand why our home planet might have wanted us to GTFO. On this view, we were condemned to this prison planet until we learned to behave, at which point we’ll be able to return home.
Is there any real evidence to back up Silver’s observations? It seems the answer is a resounding no. In the first place, much of Silver’s argument is based on highly selective readings of differences between species. For example, Silver looks at how lizards are able to lie in the sun for hours without getting sunburned or skin cancer, yet humans are not. Aside from the fact that humans and lizards are not at all the same thing (although 12 million Americans might argue otherwise), humans are also not the only animals that sunburn: so do rhinos, elephants and other mammals whose skin is not covered by feathers, scales or fur.
Another damning piece of evidence is the genetic similarity between humans and chimps, with whom we share about 99 percent of our DNA. This suggests a long evolutionary history shared by us and our furry companions, with the human line only splitting off from the chimp evolutionary trajectory about five or six million years ago—a blink of an eye in the evolutionary scheme of things.
Moreover, every living thing on Earth shares common genetic and metabolic apparatuses, which, according to Bioinformatician Bernhard Haubold of the Max Planck Institute, makes it “very likely that there once existed a universal ancestor” and that in this sense, “all living things are related to each other.” So unless the aliens sent some bacteria to live in a prison, Silver’s thesis is very tenuous on this evidence alone.
Moreover, infant mortality is dropping steadily, and the cause of death isn’t so much linked to the large head of the baby, which makes giving birth deadly to the mother (as Silver contends), but rather malnutrition, disease and other environmental factors. And what about the fact that humans’ brains appear to be uniquely tailored to catch a buzz from cannabis, a plant that can be found around the world? Is it a coincidence, or are our alien wardens sympathetic?
The appeal of Silver’s theory is obvious. There are some definite quasi-Biblical undertones (humans are condemned to live in sin on Earth, those who figure out how to not do heinous things to one another will be delivered to heaven, etc.) as well as historical precedent. During the time of the British Empire, North America and Australia were both used as penal colonies to which British convicts would be sent and auctioned off to plantation owners. And when one looks around at all the violence in the world, it’s not hard to see how someone might imagine that we’re trapped in some kind of hellish, extraterrestrial prison.
In this case, however, it appears that reality is even more fantastic than our fictions. We weren’t dropped off here by aliens—instead, Earth’s millions of diverse lifeforms emerged from some common bacterial ancestors swimming around in a primordial goop. Life isn’t perfect here on Earth, but considering how random it is that life even exists here at all, it seems a bit pessimistic to insist on calling it a prison.