Last month, the National Geographic Channel completed its heavily promoted six-part miniseries, Mars, which was presented in a format that bounces back and forth between the present day and a fictional future mission to the Red Planet about twenty years from now. It’s of interest not only as entertainment but for the assumptions it makes about the origins of life. In case you plan to watch Mars yourself at a later date and would prefer to be surprised, beware of abundant spoilers to come.
Though the future mission is (obviously) fictional, it is based on the science we know today and where scientists expect technological advances to be in the early 2030s. It is slickly produced by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer, with a well-honed and dramatic story about a group of six adventurers who leave everything they know for the sake of exploration and scientific advancement. The series strives for accuracy and is realistic about the many challenges and travails that Earth-bound scientists and astronauts must overcome to achieve a successful, permanent colony of humans on Mars.
In the present day, the show features the pioneering work of space visionary Elon Musk and the efforts of his engineers at SpaceX. Though their work now is on the more pedestrian goals of launching satellites and supplies for the International Space Station into Earth orbit, the ultimate aim of SpaceX is to establish a permanent, self-sustaining settlement on Mars. Musk wants to get there as soon as possible because he believes we should be a multi-planet species that can survive an extinction event on Earth. Our long-term survival depends, Musk argues, on our becoming a space-faring, interplanetary species. The present-day scenes are peppered throughout with short vignettes of Musk, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Martian novelist Andy Weir, various scientists and Mars exploration visionaries, explaining the incredibly hard work it will take to design the systems to carry a crew to Mars, land them on the surface safely, and sustain them on the planet’s surface. There is precious little room for error because they can’t just turn around and head home if something goes catastrophically wrong.
In the future, the story begins in 2033 with an international team of six astronauts selected by a consortium of countries working together to establish a settlement on Mars. We learn about the lives of the astronauts, their motivations, and follow them on their journey to Mars. Not all goes well on their landing, and they find themselves miles from their pre-supplied habitat with a seriously wounded commander. They eventually make it to the habitat and establish their settlement deep in a cave that protects them from deadly cosmic rays due to the lack of a thick atmosphere and magnetic field on Mars. After some time, they are producing their own food, and subsequent missions join the growing settlement. But politicians on Earth, along with a couple of new, aggressive scientists, try to push the mission too far, too fast, and end up seriously jeopardizing life-support systems. One of those scientists becomes delusional, opens an air lock, and takes out himself as well as several of the scientists in his section of the habitat.
While an ID proponent can certainly enjoy the series, as I did, it’s no surprise that evolution is simply assumed. In the present-time scenes, scientists and Mars enthusiasts wax philosophical about why man must explore. Exploration is just part of what it means to be human. It’s about the drive to continue our species. It is what we have evolved to become. And of course, the most important discovery man will ever make will be to find life on other planets or moons. This is expected, but I got a nagging sense as the series progressed that life on Mars was driving the narrative, which brings me back to the story. With the recent, deadly mishaps, the mission is in serious peril, and is about to be scrubbed. But one of the scientists finds a curious substance trapped on the coils of a power generator. After a search for more of this curious substance and some quick lab work, with the scrubbing of the mission imminent, the scientist discovers the curious substance is teaming with life. And so, on Earth, instead of an announcement that the mission will end, it is announced to thunderous applause that there is life on Mars.
And thus, the series concludes, on a note of optimism. For some, it was a fitting and exciting climax. For me, hardly climactic, instead unrealistic and a bit deceitful. Why?
It seems evident that the purpose of this well-financed and executed series was to solicit “buy in” from the public that going to Mars is a worthy, if highly dangerous, expensive, and challenging, pursuit for all of mankind. This is made clear in the present-time scenes. The deceit lies in attempting to convince the public there is a high likelihood life will be found on Mars, as if life were simple, more than probable, where all you need are the right conditions and life will spontaneously arise on its own. But we know that this is contrary to the best available science. Researchers struggle to identify a viable pathway by which the spontaneous assembly of a single-cell organism could have been accomplished. The unguided origin of life is all but mathematically impossible given the lack of time and probabilistic resources. See Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design for ample documentation. Yet OOL researchers continue to push the favored materialist narrative and deride those who reasonably posit a design theoretic.
So much for Mars. It’s good to be able to report, though, that not all science fiction is as unrealistic about the challenge of explaining life in materialist terms. You may have seen the Ridley Scott film Prometheus, released in 2012. In this movie, a pair of archaeologists convince the aging founder of a terraforming company to launch an expedition to a moon billions of miles away. Their argument to him is based on ancient hieroglyphs, found in various cultures that had no physical contact over millennia, depicting a race of alien people pointing the way to a system of five stars. The two scientists persuade the founder these alien beings were the “engineers” of humans. The founder, seeking a fountain of youth, wishes to meet with these engineers who he hopes can deliver him from his aged, failing frame. Though the expedition quickly runs into trouble, the two archaeologists confirm that the long dead aliens on the planet possessed human DNA. One of the archaeologists quips to the other, “There is nothing special about the creation of life. Anybody can do it. All you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain. Right?”
And that view, generally, is the one a lay audience receives from the science community and popular media. (What scientists say in their technical literature is, as we know, a different matter.) In Prometheus, however, the other archaeologist, Commander Shaw, playfully caressing the cross on her necklace, has a fitting rejoinder. “Well, if they made us,” she asks, “then who made them?” Touché, Commander Shaw.