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Reason and Revelation Volume 16 #10

Life on Mars?

by  Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.

A group of scientists believes it has found evidence for life on Mars (McKay, et al., 1996). NASA was ecstatic, and quick to point out that its personnel and funds were behind the project. This could not have come at a better time for the struggling Space Agency. The organization’s multi-billion dollar budget for the proposed orbiting space station—which NASA thinks is essential for manned explorations to Mars—has been the target of deep cost-cutting measures. July 1996 marked the twentieth anniversary of the first Viking landing and, in late 1996, NASA launched the first of two new Mars-bound probes.

However, NASA’s vested interests explain only part of the hype. Most important, we have the first serious claim of life beyond our own planet. For some observers, the ramifications reach even farther. According to NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, the new finding “gets to the foundations of beliefs of the human species.” Supposedly, this speculation about Mars will only trouble “creationists and Christian fundamentalists who adhere to a literal interpretation of Genesis” (Monmaney, 1996). But should Bible believers be disturbed by these findings? Let us take a look at the evidence.

In 1984, a geologist picked up a 4½ pound rock from the icy wastes of Antarctica. The sample, ALH84001, was very unusual, but it had all the physical and chemical signs of being a meteorite. Ten years later, a scientist identified this rock as belonging to a rare group of meteorites, apparently blasted in our direction by impacts on the Martian surface. [Eleven other meteorites have a similar composition to ALH84001. One of these meteorites, EET79001, has crystallized “bubbles” containing gas matching the atmosphere of Mars as measured by the Viking landers. The inference, therefore, is that all these meteorites have a common origin, i.e., Mars.] Also, researchers suggest that ALH84001 came from a rock formed in the planet’s earliest geologic era.

In their paper, David S. McKay and his colleagues offered several clues that, they believe, add up to evidence for life on ancient Mars:

  • ALH84001 contains relatively high concentrations of polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Converting organic matter into coal, or grilling a hamburger, are just two ways of creating PAHs on Earth. The authors suggest that the meteorite’s PAHs resulted from the chemical alteration of organic matter in the original rock.
  • The sample contains carbonate globules with magnetite crystals and iron-sulfide minerals, both of which are produced by, or contained in, certain bacteria on Earth.
  • The globules show tiny egg- and tubular-shaped features that may be the fossilized remains of bacteria. The authors speculate that the bacteria grew in calcium-rich waters that had penetrated the cracks of the rock, and were preserved as the fluid hardened into carbonate.

However, each of these clues, taken individually, is not unique to life. For example:

  • Completely inorganic processes can form PAHs. Astronomers have detected these compounds in interstellar space, and in the atmospheres of cool stars.
  • Magnetite, iron sulfides, and carbonates commonly form by inorganic processes.
  • Several researchers believe that the globules in ALH84001 formed at high temperatures inhospitable to life (Harvey and McSween, 1996).
  • Apart from their external appearance, the bacterium-like shapes on the globules show no cell walls or other features unique to living organisms, and are hundreds of times smaller than any such fossils found on Earth.
  • The proportion of sulfur isotopes in another Martian meteorite suggests the absence of organic activity.

Obviously, the claims are very tenuous. William Schopf, who was present at the NASA conference, voiced many of the objections listed above (see Grady et al., 1996). “The biological explanation,” he said, “was unlikely.” Another critic was John F. Kerridge—lead author on a paper advising NASA on a strategy for finding life on Mars. Although impressed with the science in the paper, Kerridge concluded that it “fell far short of establishing the case for evidence of biological activity.” Even McKay, as the project’s team leader, denied having found the “smoking gun” of life, let alone “absolute proof ” of life, either past or present. “We’re just saying we have found a lot of pointers in that direction” (as reported by Kerr, 1996). With regard to more complex organisms, Goldin insisted that there is “no evidence or suggestion that any higher life-form ever existed on Mars.”

This is not the last we will hear of such research; scientists will continue to offer less ambiguous evidence for extraterrestrial life. Of course, Bible believers have every right to be as skeptical of the Martian-rock claims as anybody else. Ken Ham offered the following response in light of Scripture:

The Bible does not say whether or not life is found elsewhere in the universe. However, because the Earth was created first and the Sun, Moon, and stars were made on the fourth day, it seems likely that because the Earth was center stage in the Creation, everything else was created for the Earth. We can’t be dogmatic about this, but it is most likely that only Earth has life (1996, 3[9]:3; for a slightly different viewpoint, see Jackson, 1996).

Given the current evidence, there is no reason to conclude that intelligent life exists anywhere except on Earth (Thompson, 1991). Ham, and others, also point out that if there ever was life (or at least, the remains of life) on Mars, then perhaps it was carried there by the solar wind from Earth’s outer atmosphere. Life, wherever we may find it, owes its ultimate existence to the Creator-God (Exodus 20:11).

Evolutionists believe that this latest discovery might help them understand how life can come from nonliving chemicals. Certainly, from their perspective, if life can arise by purely natural means once, then it can arise many times. This would suggest that there are universal principles at work. Surely these should be so obvious, and so pervasive, that we would have some experience of life’s appearing from nonlife. But this is not the case, and there is no reason to think that life on Mars will solve this most intractable problem of materialistic evolution.

REFERENCES

Grady, Monica, Ian Wright, and Colin Pillinger (1996), “Opening a Martian Can of Worms?,” Nature, 382:575-576, August 15.

Ham, Ken (1996), “Life in the Rock?,” Answers in Genesis Newsletter, 3[9]:1-3,7-8.

Harvey, Ralph P. and Harry Y. McSween (1996), “A Possible High-Temperature Origin for the Carbonates in the Martian Meteorite ALH84001,” Nature, 382:49-51, Nuly 4.

Jackson, Wayne (1996), "Has Evidence of Primitive Life Been Found on Mars?," Christian Courier, 32[6]:21-23, October.

Kerr, Richard A. (1996), “Ancient Life on Mars?,” Science, 273:864-866, August 16.

Kerridge, John F. (1996), “Mars Media Mayhem,” Science, 274:161, October 11.

McKay, David S. (1996), “Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001,” Science, 272:924-930, May 17.

Monmaney, Terence (1996), “Launch Pad for Flights of Wonder,” L.A. Times, Saturday, August 31.

Thompson, Bert (1991), “Is There Intelligent Life In Outer Space?,” Reason & Revelation, 11:37-40, October.

[See related article: “Mars Rock Update”]



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