Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Mars Bugs and Intelligent Design — On a Collision Course?

Many people enjoy thinking about the significance of discovering extraterrestrial life. Even wildly implausible claims of discovery can trigger such reflections. 

How about insects on Mars? Writing at the popular religion website Patheos, theologian James McGrath weighs the ramifications. A claim last month of such a discovery, complete with photos, spurred his comments.

The Bugs from Mars

At the Entomological Society of America conference in St. Louis, entomologist William Romoser presented a jolting research poster asking, “Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth?” He argued that Mars is teeming with insects, fossil and living, even some reptiles. This was startling because he is a leading expert on insects. His textbook The Science of Entomology went through four editions from 1973 to 1998. He announced:

To my knowledge, aside from circumstantial evidence presented in the literature (Levin, 2019), the meaning of which is debated among astrobiologists, this is the first professional report of direct evidence of identifiable life forms beyond the confines of Earth. While any given image does not in itself prove anything, I believe the mosaic of what I have described is compelling.

Professor Romoser also uploaded his research poster to the website ResearchGate. When I checked it this week, it had enjoyed over 46,000 “reads” and a “research index” of 149.3, which is higher than 99 percent of research items on ResearchGate. Scholars from countless fields post their work there. Impressed? Not so fast!

Debugging Mars

Within 24 hours of Romoser’s publication, the Internet was buzzing with doubts about the Martian bugs, which include creatures he called “bees.” Chelsea Gohd at pointed to a more likely explanation:

But, according to David Maddison, a professor in the integrative biology department at Oregon State University, this “proof” is likely just an example of pareidolia, a phenomenon in which people see patterns in random data.

NASA responded to questions about Romoser’s research with sober scientific restraint:

The collective general opinion of the large majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life. As part of its astrobiology objectives, one of NASA’s key goals is the search for life in the universe and the Mars 2020 rover, launching next summer, is our next stage in exploring the potential of past life on the Red Planet.

Although we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe. From studying water on Mars, probing promising “oceans worlds,” such as Enceladus, Europa, and Titan to looking for biosignatures in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, NASA’s science missions are working together with a goal to find unmistakable signs of life beyond Earth.

Romoser is an emeritus professor at Ohio University, which touted the work with a press release, only to remove it later from their website (a third-party archived copy lingers here). The press release concluded: “The evidence of life on Mars presented here provides a strong basis for many additional important biological as well as social and political questions.” I picture Ohio University officials turning as red as Mars over Romoser’s exotic claims.

Wisdom calls for careful examination of scientific claims before pondering larger implications. But Professor James McGrath took the bug bait and ran with it. 

Aliens and Faith

McGrath, a New Testament scholar at Butler University, asked: “Would finding alien life cause a mass crisis of faith?“ He consulted astronomer David Weintraub’s book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life to ponder the question. “The short answer,” according to Weintraub, “is that some already believe in ET (e.g., Mormonism, Bahá’í), some simply assume such life likely (Hinduism, Buddhism), some think that ET is God’s business, not ours (Judaism), and some (mostly conservative Christian denominations) would have big problems.” 

The supposed clash of aliens and religion — analyzed historically and philosophically in conversation with contemporary science — is a major theme in my book Unbelievable, as I partially explain in this video:

McGrath says “certain religious groups already deny the veracity of dinosaur fossils,” and so they might also “refute any evidence of alien life.” Is that so? After 25 years of teaching science and religion (and their interactive history and philosophy) to about 2,000 students at three conservative Christian colleges, I am still waiting to meet my first dinosaur-denier. There are probably a few out there beyond my quarter-century audience. 

Turning to alien life, most of my students also seemed to be open to where the evidence might lead, with no fears of a possible faith crisis. Alien contact with humans is very unlikely given many scientific facts, including the cosmic speed limit of travel and communication — the speed of light. It is more difficult to assess the probability of intelligent creatures existing beyond our contact horizon, which is tiny on the cosmic scale. Historically, Christian thinkers have held a variety of theological views about intelligent extraterrestrial life (see Chapter 4 in my book). So Christianity is not anti-ET. Relax!

I do analyze a potential crisis, identified by some scholars, in Chapter 7. This epistemic catastrophe is due to an increasingly popular atheistic assumption about the technology of the envisioned arriving aliens. Their high technology would appear to us as “magic,” indistinguishable from the supernatural, owing to billions of years of development past our stage of biological-cultural evolution. Or so the story goes. Such wildly optimistic thinking is prominent in science fiction books and movies. These epic naturalistic assumptions would severely undermine the ability to rationally assess whether alien visitors are natural or supernatural creatures.

Aliens and Science

McGrath seems unaware of this naturalistic ET enlightenment myth, as I’ve called it. Instead, he focuses on how certain conservative Christians would, as he thinks, be alien-deniers because they are science-deniers regarding biological origins (i.e., Darwin skeptics). In the same paragraph he writes: “Proponents of Intelligent Design might point to [aliens] as evidence in support of their own stance — just as they also cite the lack of evidence of life elsewhere as purportedly proof that life cannot begin or evolve significantly through natural processes and thus requires a Designer/Tinkerer.” 

Well, not exactly. As a scientific research program, intelligent design is neutral on aliens, and not guilty of the inconsistent expectations that McGrath alleges. 

Here’s an accurate definition of intelligent design:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.

Such a broad scientific research program is consistent with the existence, or the non-existence, of aliens. If technology-bearing aliens exist, and if they are within our contact horizon, then one day we might detect their efforts to communicate with us. Although such alien contact is extremely unlikely, it is a potential example of detecting intelligent (alien) design. But the scientific integrity of intelligent design research would not be significantly affected by discovering (or repudiating) aliens.

Editor’s note: Dr. Keas’s book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion, makes an excellent Christmas gift.

Photo: Mars, by European Space Agency & Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research for OSIRIS Team [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo ], via Wikimedia Commons.