‘The evidence seems to be building that we are all actually Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock,” Steven Benner told the Goldschmidt meeting, this week’s international scientific convention in Florence.
The theory that microbes from Mars ‘infected’ the Earth via meteorites, finding conditions here more conducive to their evolution, is nothing new. But Benner’s theory, that the minerals essential to life’s formation were only readily available on Mars, is. Such a notion challenges almost every aspect of human culture, from biology to philosophy and faith — and practically every science fiction scenario in the book.
Long before HG Wells’ War of the Worlds threatened the home counties with a Martian invasion, we humans were looking up at the red planet, coursed as it seemingly was by canals constructed by extraterrestrials, imagining the worst. From John Wyndham’s scary triffids to Tim Burton’s kitsch Mars Attacks!, dystopian science fiction has ever been predicated on the fearful alien other. How ironic to discover that we were the aliens all along.
There are serious questions here. For centuries philosophers have pondered the effect that the discovery of extraterrestrial life might have on human religions — could Christianity sustain itself in the light of evidence that we are not alone? Yet the Vatican’s chief astronomer, Gabriel Funes, recently announced that Catholics should actually welcome aliens as our extraterrestrial brothers, quoting Dante’s Inferno as his mission statement: “Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”
One has to admire the sheer optimism of modern science: I love the fact that there is such a discipline as astrobiology, whose practitioners’ task is to imagine what life might be like on other planets. It is in undersea volcanic vents that we can look back into what life might have been like, at that moment of contamination. How odd that we see those bizarre creatures of the Stygian depths, with their eerie antennae and sightless eyes, and regard them as alien, when they are, after all, our distant ancestors.
And is it not part of our human hubris that we should presume all aliens to be weird versions of ourselves? Hairless apes, pretty much inept at most things, increasingly reliant on the machines we have devised — and which in turn now threaten our own destruction.
In 1896 the American astronomer Percival Lowell hypothesised about “Mars as the abode of life”. He presumed that an advanced civilisation had flourished on Mars, but was dying, despite its desperate attempts to re-engineer its climate by using those canals to tap the planet’s polar ice caps for water. And for all that this civilisation had sought to prevail over its environment, “What [was] found inconvenient or unnecessary to enslave, it would exterminate, as we have obliterated the bison and domesticated the dog.”
Lowell’s vision inspired Wells’ nightmare of technologically advanced but rapacious aliens invading Earth to appropriate our resources. Doubly ironic, then, that we were the real Martians, and that many people — including quite a few scientists — believe that we’re accomplishing that same scenario with equal rapacity. A century after Lowell, James Lovelock’s Gaia theory posited that the planet would outlive its human infestation, shrugging it off as a temporary blight like a plague of greenfly, leaving barely a trace of our insignificant sway behind. As David Bowie, another alien who fell to Earth, sang in Life on Mars: “It’s a Godawful small affair.”