“Snakes and blathers” (DNA in ancient artwork, India anti-science)


Today, we will examine a pair of claims floated in the past year that were presented as furthering human knowledge, but which were supported with almost no evidence. One is secular, the other religious, but our concern here is not with any spirituality or lack thereof, but with the truth.

The first example comes courtesy Jordan Peterson, a somewhat eclectic and iconoclastic Canadian psychology professor. While not a religious extremist like those in the other example, Peterson maintains friendly ties with the Christian right and on the rare occasions he has spoken about atheists, has had nasty things to say. In this instance, however, his claims don’t have a religious bent. He has periodically proclaimed, with inconsistent degrees of certainty, that entangled serpents in ancient artwork depict DNA strands.

Short for deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA is a molecule that contains a person’s hereditary blueprint and decides which amino acids are embedded in certain proteins and in what order they lie. As to its shape, Skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson writes that strands in a DNA double helix run anti-parallel, or in a head-to-toe fashion. The double helix also has a major groove and a minor groove, which are formed by the DNA molecule’s backbone.

A winding staircase would more resemble DNA than entangled snakes in artwork. The suggestion that disparate ancient people had all acquired knowledge of a structure that scientists only became aware of during the nascent years of rock and roll is grandiose claim, one which Peterson fails to support with evidence beyond suggesting a similar appearance.

There are better explanations than long-lost knowledge for why ancient artists would have employed twisting snakes in intimate positions. First, snakes entwine themselves when mating, so the images may represent reproduction, creation, or childbirth. In other cases, the serpentine symbols may depict a culture’s deities. They could also represent fear, as snakes fascinate many of us in a macabre sense. Some are venomous and they have striking differences from humans, with no arms, legs, eyelids, or visible ears, and having a narrow, forked tongue. It’s easy to see why an artist would consider them to be striking subject matter.

Peterson makes the point that intertwined snakes existed in ancient art from places as far apart as China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Australia, and India. The insinuation is that the artists were drawing from a common source. Such thinking is a frequent error committed by Young Earth Creationists, ancient alien aficionados, and cryptozoologists. They think because lookalike images crop up in cultures that never intermingled, the characters existed in real life.

But this more accurately speaks to the commonality of the artistic process. Besides, the supposedly similar creatures usually don’t look that much alike. With snakes, the similarity is there, but that’s because humans know what the slithering reptiles look like, which is not the case with dragons, Yetis, and Andromedans. This leads to another strike against Peterson’s hypothesis: The ubiquity of snakes. Snakes existed in all these places, so their portrayal in artwork requires no extraordinary explanation.

Perhaps the most important point is that entangled snakes in ancient artwork have only negligible resemblance to DNA. Karlsson pointed out the substantial differences. First, the snakes do not mirror the DNA strands’ anti-parallel positioning. If the snakes were depicting DNA, they should run in opposite directions from each other, not be head-to-head. Second, the art does not include any structure resembling nucleotides, which run horizontally in DNA strands and which would connect the snakes is the artist was modeling DNA. Next, there are no structures akin to 5 carbon sugars, the part of DNA which resembles Tinker Toy assemblies. Finally, the snakes are without grooves.

Moving on to the second example, a trio of speakers this month at the Indian Science Congress made shocking claims that attribute relatively modern developments and ideas to writers of ancient Hindu scriptures and they deities they crafted.

Chemist and university vice-chancellor, Gollapalli Rao, cited an ancient Indian poem as proof that stem-cell research and test-tube babies existed in India thousands of years ago. And anyone with an in vitro fertilization appointment at that time could have flown there on one of the airplanes the country had been blessed with by Ravana, a deca-headed demon-god. Rao based this claim off his reading of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Such claims always run in one direction. A religious person might try to bolster a favorite theological text by extracting a supposedly scientific interpretation from it. By contrast, no scientist ever tries to strengthen a peer-reviewed article by pointing out its consistency to a 4,000-year-old religious tract.   

Meanwhile, paleontologist Ashu Khosla credited dinosaurs as the work of Brahma. But at least he didn’t deny the behemoths’ existence, and Rao affirmed the science behind in vitro fertilization and flight. Much worse was speaker Kannan Krishnan, who contested the theories of Einstein and Newton because of Krishnan’s interpretation of Hindu scripture.

Fortunately, this highly-creative science was limited to three persons out of hundreds of attendees. In another piece of cheering news, event organizers promised that next year they will vet the speakers. So I’m guessing we won’t be hearing from Jordan Peterson and his snakes.

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