Life on Mars

The four rhesus macaque monkeys mentioned in this blog a few months ago, as in training to make the journey to Mars (‘To Boldly Make Them Go’, 25 July), are due to be launched some time this year. Or were due: I can find no publicity about the matter since the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology made its proud announcement to the world’s press back in 2015. Perhaps the response on that occasion was not as favourable as expected. However, a petition of objection set up by PETA is still in effect (there’s a link to it in the notes below), so I guess that the work itself continues.

Meanwhile, research goes forward into the viability on Mars of simpler terrestrial Hubble's Sharpest View Of Marsorganisms: lichens at the Mars Simulation Facility at Berlin, potatoes at NASA. And at the other end of the journey, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Orbiter, a co-operative venture with Russia’s Roscosmos agency, continues its observations, looking (among other things) for signs of life, at least of life at some time in the planet’s past. (The ‘Exo-‘ part of the name refers to ‘exobiology’, or life beyond earth.)

Those are only a few of the schemes of Martian research at present under way. All of them, I think it can be said, have the question of viability somewhere in mind: that is, could Mars be made habitable to humans? So it’s reassuring to know that agreements already exist as to our good behaviour should we ever get there. In fact the basic legal instrument governing activities in space, generally called the Outer Space Treaty, is now exactly fifty years old. This is a fascinating document, high-minded and even utopian. The aim seems to have been to learn from worldly history, and to secure something better than that for outer space (a term which includes “the moon and other celestial bodies”, as the text reiterates every time, with a strange mixture of the lawyer and the poet).

“Outer space,” the Treaty announces in Article I, “including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.” I’m glad to note that it goes on to confirm something suggested in that earlier VERO post about space travel (“whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity”): “States Parties to the Treaty,” says Article V, “shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space.” The original “States Parties” were the U.S.A, U.S.S.R., and Britain, but there are now 105 governments signed up to that model of conduct.

However, it’s doubtful what sort of impression four bewildered monkeys – if it’s not four dead monkeys – might make, as envoys, upon alien minds. Such minds might wonder how the brilliantly sophisticated science which had brought the space-vehicle their way had got mixed up with the physical and moral squalor of forcing weaker lives to take the risks of the journey. And even as a set of principles, the Outer Space Treaty may not read as well at a distance as it does on earth. The airy munificence with which it makes a common human property of the whole universe is hardly good envoyism; in fact it’s species-arrogance on a comically grand scale.

You may feel confident (as perhaps the people who framed the Treaty did) that there won’t be any aliens to do the reading. But then we’re told by Article V of the Treaty at least to behave as if there are. And certainly there’s already a whole lot of reading matter provided for them on Mars, courtesy of the 2008 Phoenix Lander’s DVD, a “multi-media” collection titled Visions of Mars. Among the texts selected for it, in this case with a curious tactlessness, is the 1897 novel by H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds.

There’s a familiar challenge sometimes put to proponents of vivisection, ‘What would you say if aliens (typically, Martians) were to arrive here and set about experimenting on humans?’ It may be rather a worn-out trope these days; I recall that Professor Colin Blakemore said as much when someone put it to him during a talk he gave in Oxford University a few years ago. That doesn’t make it any easier to answer; nor was the Professor’s own answer very convincing. In fact I’ve yet to hear a convincing one. (“Show me a Martian!” one scientist said by way of knock-down answer on a television programme.) Anyway, this question, in a more inclusive formulation, was very much on H.G.Wells’ mind when he wrote War of the Worlds.

Accordingly he begins, “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s … that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water … Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

As we are to the other animals on earth, so these Martians are to ourselves: it’s a point which Wells makes over and over again. At first, the humans view the arriving Martians Alvim-correa12with the same complacent curiosity that the dodo must have felt at the arrival on Mauritius of “that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food”. The Martian fighting-contraptions seem as mysterious to the people of Surrey as “an ironclad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.” When their destructive power shows itself, the humans are scattered like ants, smoked out like wasps, have their homes casually destroyed as a rabbit’s burrow might be destroyed for the making of a human dwelling. These are experiences “that the poor brutes we dominate know all too well”. In fact from now on “With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide.” A panicked young clergyman exclaims “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? … What are these Martians?” To which the narrator answers, concisely summing Wells’ argument, “What are we?” [I’ve added the italics.]

Although the novel imagines a time when the Martians will have settled the human question, by domesticating some (“picking the best and storing us in cages and things”) and hunting the feral remainder, in fact they don’t have time to get that far. Their unresistant bodies abruptly succumb to earth’s bacteria. What their own medical science might have been, had it had time to work, is not discussed, but it’s sufficiently implied in the mentality pictured in that opening paragraph, especially in the chilling word “unsympathetic”.

Not that Wells himself was in any way hostile to the science project. He was even a keen defender of vivisection, though he wrote a frightening fantasy of its temptations and pathologies in The Island of Dr Moreau. (The perverted Moreau himself is surely based on the celebrated French vivisector Claude Bernard: see the previous post, ‘Meditation on a Stick’.) Nor, for that matter, was Wells a vegetarian, despite all that he says and shows in War of the Worlds of the fundamental wrong of human predation, or in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, whose narrator “can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house.” But then these stories are indeed told by particular narrators, not in Wells’s own voice. And the narrator of War of the Worlds is a writer on philosophical subjects, whose current project is “a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed”. Wells himself is merely of the present (1897, that is), but this is a man of the near future looking onward, as an ethicist, into a future beyond that, and he believes (as Wells himself also did) that moral ideas may, perhaps must, develop. In particular he says, “Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.” The implication of the book is that if we don’t improve our “moral ideas”, we shall fully deserve, in one shape or another, the coming of an enemy no better than ourselves.

Of course we now know, as Wells could not, that there is no such enemy, or for that matter any friend, on Mars. But that doesn’t affect his warning, for he makes quite clear in his own way what Ray Bradbury was later to say in his Martian Chronicles: We are the Martians.” It has become evident, certainly since 1945, that we don’t have to hypothesize or search space for that ‘enemy no better than ourselves’ which will destroy us if we don’t learn peaceable manners. The Space Treaty, perhaps despairing of the prospects on earth, hopes we may at least adopt such manners on our way to other worlds. But we’ve seen the attitude towards those worlds which even the Treaty takes for granted. Humans seem to be incurably supremacist. I conclude that the Director of the Mars Simulation Facility spoke a greater truth than he knew when he said, “We must be extremely careful not to transport any terrestrial life forms to Mars. Otherwise they might contaminate the planet.”

Perhaps, therefore, we might develop a new moral idea from a much more recent science fiction story, ‘Homo Floresiensis’ by Ken Liu. Here, a young researcher of bird life on one of the Spice Islands comes across a hitherto unreported tribe of hominids. Fearing for their future, he looks for something in their way of life which might qualify them as humans and thereby enlist on their behalf the “moral prohibition against treating them as inferior”. He knows well, as a zoologist, what such ‘inferiority’ would entail. Finding nothing reliable, he and his associate make what for such scientists would be a heroic decision: they leave the tribe alone. “We often celebrate the discoverers,” says one of the two, as they quietly abandon the island; “But maybe it’s the undiscoverers that we should be proud of.”



Notes and references:

The earlier post about space travel can be viewed here:

PETA’s petition can be signed at

The studies of lichen at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin are reported at , from where also the quotation about contamination of Mars is taken. The NASA potato studies are reported in the Times, 10 March, p.11.

For the text of the Outer Space Treaty see

Quotations from War of the Worlds are in the Penguin 2012 edition, pp. 3, 32, 51, 151, 70, 161, 8, 156. The quotation from A Modern Utopia is taken from an essay ‘H.G.Wells and Animals: a Troubling Legacy’, which can be read on the excellent web-site of the Animal People Forum at

Ray Bradbury was quoted during a BBC Radio 4 programme Seeing is Believing, on 6 March – part of its current ‘Mars Season’, which has included a dramatization of War of the Worlds. ‘Homo Floresiensis’ appears in the anthology Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates and published by the Oxford firm Rebellion Publishing in 2014: quotations from pp.57 and 60.

The photograph of Mars is from NASA’s online gallery of images, where it’s titled ‘Hubble’s Sharpest View of Mars’. The illustration from a French edition of War of the Worlds (Brussels, 1906) is by Henrique Correa.










Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s