Meteorite from Mars? Déjà vu.
When Charles Darwin gave his theory to the world in 1859, his followers recognized that there must have been some point in Earth's early history when elemental life spontaneously appeared from non-life. Evolution without a Creator demands that this must be the case, and the process is called "abiogenesis."
Our school textbooks teach that amino acids came together by chance in some primordial sea and formed proteins; in the process of time these eventually became - Charles Darwin. However, textbooks seldom use the word "abiogenesis" for the curious reason that the student will have been told on another page that life can come only from pre-existing life, a universally recognized fact known as the Law of Biogenesis. The story behind this piece of double-think is important in light of the New York Times headlines for August 7, 1996, offering then the latest news leak from NASA that "Signs of primitive life on Mars are found in Ancient Meteorite."
In 1861, two years after the world received Darwin's theory, France's greatest biochemist, Louis Pasteur, showed by a series of elegant experiments that the existence of life depended upon biogenesis. This work was internationally recognized and won Pasteur the coveted French Academy of Science's prize. Pasteur was outspokenly opposed to Darwin's theory and in 1864 delivered a particularly spirited and widely reported defense of divine creation as the only possible initiator of life. He pointed out that if life could originate from matter (non-life), God as author of life would then no longer be needed. This touched at the very heart of Darwin's fledgling theory, and five weeks later the French press announced that elements of life had been discovered in a recently fallen meteorite. It had fallen at Orgueil in southwestern France, and a French chemist said that it contained "a complex mixture of high molecular weight," suggesting that it had derived from once-living organisms.
The story was given currency by the highest authorities. In 1871 Sir William Thomson, president of the British Association, told the assembly that life had come to this planet carried on "countless seed-bearing meteoritic stones." Almost a century later, in 1964, the popular Life Science Library series, in its book The Cell, reflecting on the Orgueil meteorite, declared that "cell-like fossils have been found in meteorites sometimes - 40 million to the cubic inch. This is a startling indication that life might have been much more prolific on other worlds."
The Orgueil meteorite is kept at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and in 1961 spectral analysis had shown that those hydrocarbons detected in 1864 "very closely resembled the composition of butter"! The reasonable assumption would seem to be that someone had made an attempt to discredit Pasteur and at the same time provide evidence for Darwin's theory. And those "cell-like fossils. . .40 million to the cubic inch" had long before publication of the Life Science Library book, turned out to be nothing more than a mineral, hexagonal crystals of troilite, or ferrous sulphide! Other organic chemicals and "fossils" turned out to be ragweed pollen and furnace ash.
In 1969 another meteorite fell in Murchison, Australia. In 1970 investigators reported that racemic amino acids were found deep within its interior. While this ruled out the possibility of terrestrial contamination, NASA announced this to the public as, ". . . probably the first conclusive proof of extraterrestrial chemical evolution." This statement provides more than any other the real reason for the exploration of Mars.
The next stage in NASA space exploration took place in 1976. The Viking Lander Mission was a robot specifically designed to test the Martian soil for signs of life. For several years after a successful landing the public was simply told that the results of the life-search experiment were "inconclusive". The more objective scientists said that the results showed the planet to be absolutely sterile, but of course, none of this made headline news. Moreover, the Viking Lander finally disproved the old "canals on Mars" myth put about by Percival Lowell almost a century earlier but this never made headline news either.
In 1984 a potato-sized meteorite was discovered buried in ice in the Allan Hills, Antarctica; it was given the identification AH 84001 and claimed to have been blown off the planet Mars. In August 1996 NASA's David McKay and his team announced that they had discovered deep within this meteorite polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and some "fossil Martian bacteria" about one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair. Perhaps David McKay's announcement in early August 1996 was coincidental but it came just a month before the Fall launch of NASA's Pathfinder Program. This employed the tiny Sojourner robot to search for water on Mars. Of course, if there is was no evidence that water had ever been present on Mars there would be no point in looking for the evidence of life. To this day no one knows, if there was water. Many scientists were extremely skeptical of McKay's claims that meteorite AH84001 actually came from Mars or that the 'fossil bacteria" was actually evidence of life.
Nevertheless, the media provided the hype for the public and the White House put words into the President's mouth reporting that he is "likely to call for more study of the question of fossil life on Mars and may propose adding resources to on-going NASA projects to place unmanned spacecraft and roving vehicles on the planet." "Adding resources" is political talk for the commitment of more money. Within a week or so in a televised White House lawn ceremony, the American tax-payer watched as President Clinton signed appropriation to NASA for ten billion dollars over the next ten year for Mars exploration.
By 1998 those suspicions about the evidences for life in meteorite AH84001 had grown to the point where few, if any, other scientists accepted the claim. The so-called "fossil bacteria" were at least a thousand times smaller than any known terrestrial bacteria, and the organic material (PAHs) was predominantly contamination from amino acids in the Antarctic ice. Further, although the composition of the meteorite is reported to be the same as the atmosphere of Mars, there remains the problem of how this potato-sized rock escaped the Martian gravitational field. There is, in any case, no certainty that it came from Mars.
In spite of all this uncertainty now evident after the initial claims, the ten billion dollars appropriation seemingly made on the basis of this evidence has remained secure. In February of 2003 television viewers watched as the Columbia and its crew tumbled to Earth in a fireball. It was not only a tragic loss of life but a wake-up call for NASA to not compromise on safety. President Bush offered more money. Less than twelve months later, the public memory of this tragedy began to fade with the evident success of the latest Martian venture. The superb photographs sent back from Mars by Opportunity in January 2004 had, once again, raised hopes in many minds that the evidence for the origin of life will be found.
As a modest prediction, we might expect some significant discovery to be announced by NASA, say, in the year 2006 when the ten-year appropriation comes to an end. If this should be the case, watch out for retractions once new funding has been secured. The bottom line in the search for life on Mars is that by the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life, no matter how slim, there will be placed in the public mind the unstated suggestion that life can begin without a Creator. At the same time, the embarrassing question of how life began on planet Earth could now be completely avoided by an appeal to its origin beyond our planet and thus beyond reach for human inquiry. At this point, the issue is clearly not one of science but of religion since it is an unprovable article in the faith of evolution.
Bible-Science News Volume 34:7-October 1996
Painting: Fragment from the Orgueil meteorite.