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Life on Mars? The real lesson from Lowell
By Andrea Bottaro
Posted March 17, 2006
In an almost comical display of lack of self-awareness, Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute has recently taken inspiration from Google’s homage to Percival Lowell, the 19th
century astronomer who argued for the existence of a system of
engineered channels on the surface of Mars, to extract from this
glorious scientific blunder the lesson that science moves, at times,
“backwards”, i.e. rejects apparently established theories for more
traditional, often religiously inspired views (something that Witt
clearly wishes would happen far more often).
In addition to Lowell’s channels-on-Mars theory, Witt mentions in
his article the idea of a Universal Beginning and opposition to
spontaneous generation as other instances in which ideas originally
found in the Judeo-Christian tradition have at some point worked their
way back into the scientific mainstream. I’ll just pass on discussing
Witt’s rather simplistic ideas about modern cosmology and abiogenesis,
not to mention the history of science, since his arguments are just a
rehash of well-known ID and Creationist talking points that have been
abundantly critiqued before. I want instead to point to another
obvious, and far more topical lesson that Witt could have taken from
Lowell, but, alas, didn’t.
The most striking aspect of Lowell’s argument for the artificiality
of Mars’s “channels” is, in fact, its uncanny resemblance to modern
arguments for the intelligent design of biological structures. Luckily
for the interested reader, Lowell’s first book on the subject, titled
simply Mars, seems to be the object of some sort of cult following, and can be found online in its entirety (chapters 4 and 5 are the most relevant to the discussion here). For any ID connoisseur, reading Lowell’s original arguments is an exercise in dèjá vu (eat this French, Berlinski!), since they are an almost perfect example of design inference as currently practiced by ID advocates.
Essentially every fallacy of modern ID inferences can be found in
Lowell’s book. You will find confident claims about the manifestly
non-natural basis of the observed structures:
... the aspect of the lines is enough to put to rest all the theories
of purely natural causation that have so far been advanced to account
for them. This negation is to be found in the supernaturally regular
appearance of the system, upon three distinct counts: first, the
straightness of the lines; second, their individually uniform width;
and, third, their systematic radiation from special points.
Physical processes never, so far as we know, end in producing perfectly
regular results, that is, results in which irregularity is not also
discernible. Disagreement amid conformity is the inevitable outcome of
the many factors simultaneously at work.
That the lines form a system; that, instead of running anywhither, they
join certain points to certain others, making thus, not a simple
network, but one whose meshes connect centres directly with one
another, is striking at first sight, and loses none of its peculiarity
on second thought. For the intrinsic improbability of such a state of
things arising from purely natural causes becomes evident on a moment’s
Their very aspect is such as to defy natural explanation, and to hint
that in them we are regarding something other than the outcome of
purely natural causes.
You will find references to diagnostic features of basic human design, and analogies with known designed structures:
That the lines should follow arcs of great circles, whatever their
direction, is as unnatural from a natural standpoint as it would be
natural from an artificial one; for the arc of a great circle is the
shortest distance from one point upon the surface of a sphere to
In fact, it is by the very presence of uniformity and precision that we
suspect things of artificiality. It was the mathematical shape of the
Ohio mounds that suggested mound-builders; and so with the thousand
objects of every-day life.
(I can almost hear Behe arguing about Mt. Rushmore!)
Specious mathematical/probabilistic arguments and analogies are there too:
Simple crossings of two lines will of course be common in proportion
to the sum of an arithmetical progression; but that any three lines
should contrive to cross at the same point would be a coincidence whose
improbability only a mathematician can properly appreciate, so very
great is it.
Of course all such evidence of design may be purely fortuitous, with
about as much probability, as it has happily been put, as that a chance
collection of numbers should take the form of the multiplication table.
Strikingly, you will even find claims that the “overhelming impression of design” is prima facie evidence of actual design:
Their very aspect is such as to defy natural explanation, and to
hint that in them we are regarding something other than the outcome of
purely natural causes. Indeed, such is the first impression upon
getting a good view of them. How instant this inference is becomes
patent from the way in which drawings of the canals are received by
incredulously disposed persons. The straightness of the lines is
unhesitatingly attributed to the draughtsman. Now this is a very
telling point. For it is a case of the double-edged sword. Accusation
of design, if it prove not to be due to the draughtsman, devolves ipso
facto upon the canals.
Finally, Lowell knew he could not formulate a convincing argument
for design without tackling the fundamental issue underlying design of
any kind, that is, its purpose. Just like ID advocates who, in order to support their design inference, find themselves forced to conflate function with purpose,
so did Lowell have to justify the existence of this elaborate channel
system with some sort of anthropomorphic goal. He thus claimed that,
since Mars is clearly a dry planet, the existence of channels was
entirely justified as part of an irrigation system (indeed, he went as
far as describing the existence of putative “oases” at the intersection
points of the channels).
Now, Lowell’s argument about the “purpose” of the Mars canals was
clearly more far-fetched than most of the equivalent arguments of
modern ID advocates about the “purpose” of biological structures, but
one should keep in mind that Lowell, unlike Behe, Dembski, etc, didn’t
have the benefit of actual science providing convenient, empirically
tested functional explanations for his supposedly designed structures.
In fact, when faced with structures whose functional properties are
unknown, ID advocates do not fare much better than Lowell: for
instance, Jonathan Wells has claimed that since centrioles (which are
sub-cellular structures of unclear function that participate in the
cell division process) look superficially like man-made turbines, they
must be, and he built around this spurious assumption a whole fanciful
model of what teeny-weeny turbines could actually be doing in the
context of eukaryotic cell division.
Finally, if you are wondering how Witt could have missed the obvious
parallels between modern ID advocacy and Lowell’s “martian” design
inference, let me point to Witt’s vitae page on the Discovery Institute site,
where Witt proudly claims to have discovered the fallaciousness of
“Darwinism” after getting over all those pesky “arcane scientific data”
They claimed to rest their arguments on a wealth of arcane
scientific data, but once I dug past the jargon, I found that their
arguments were always built on a foundation of question begging
definitions, either/or fallacies, bogus appeals to consensus, and
quasi-theological claims that ‘an intelligent designer wouldn’t have
done it that way.