“life On Mars Is Almost Certain!”
…And what’s more, the planet’s highly civilized inhabitants live together in perfect harmony. So argued an eminent astronomer named Percival Lowell, and for decades tens of thousands of Americans believed him.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
Lowell remained skeptical. All his irritation went on public display in 1909 in an article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly , “The Revelation of Evolution.” Ostensibly it is about Charles Darwin, whose centenary was observed that year. Yet at points the veil becomes embarrassingly thin, and the heroic portrait of the man “ahead of his time,” the lonely “pioneer in thought,” is obviously meant to apply to Lowell himself. Darwin was, as Lowell felt himself to be, the target of “that lower class of scientists who conceive science to be limited to the accumulation of facts,” and there is a touch of maudlin self-congratulation (“For a man to get the world’s ear while he is yet alive is his damning with faint praise”). And at the end, there is an unabashed appeal for support: “Let us be open-minded, and remember that the true regard is not to accept to-day what yesterday failed to appreciate, but to champion the advance that now is making while yet it is to-day.”
Popular support he did have, in abundance. Lowell was perhaps as dedicated and talented a popularizer of science—of his own theories, at least—as America has ever produced. He had, of course, the advantage of an inherently sensational topic. Lowell’s work was clearly among the influences that inspired H. G. Wells in the 1890s to write his chilling tale of Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds . Wells pictured a race of beings, hardened by life on a parched planet, setting out to conquer the lush, green earth. Readers of the day enjoyed the novel but preferred the picture given by Lowell and others of Mars inhabitants: a wise, serene, peaceful race that had long since done away with war.
Lowell was convinced that the regularity of the Martian canals proclaimed the work of intelligent beings.
For Lowell the evolutionist, as Mars was now, so Earth one day would be. “On our own world,” he mused, “we are able only to study our present and our past; in Mars we are able to glimpse, in some sort, our future.” This future held both good and bad. Mars prophesied a progressive drought. The belief that Earth’s deserts were spreading and its seas drying up won a good deal of support around the turn of the century. In 1904 the exiled Russian geographer and anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin forecast a long period of drought for Earth; early measures, he said, should be taken for combatting it. Lowell, of course, had the answer. Mars, like a good neighbor, was pointing the way: in all likelihood, irrigation canals would one day span a dry Earth from pole to pole. In time, the water would disappear altogether, and life with it. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a young man who had heard Lowell lecture and had read The War of the Worlds set himself a goal in life. Robert Goddard’s pioneering work in rocketry was planned to give mankind the means to save itself from extinction, by traveling to other worlds, as Wells’s Martians had done, when Earth was no longer habitable.
In June of 1901 the Lowell Observatory had a visit from Lester Frank Ward, the leading figure in American sociology. He was invited to look at Mars through the large telescope. “I was surprised at what I could see,” he recorded. “I could see great canals or long cavities in various directions.” References to Martian life soon began to creep into Ward’s sociological papers. His enthusiasm is readily understood. Ward was leery of the popular Social Darwinism of the day. Lowell’s work confirmed his belief that man, like the Martians, could dominate and even conquer the natural environment instead of remaining the helpless plaything of it; furthermore, Mars showed that cooperation, rather than competition, was the way of the future.
In 1907 Ward wrote a popular article titled “Mars and Its Lesson.” By an involved series of geological comparisons, Ward decided that, although Mars was rapidly drying up, many millions of years would pass before Earth would reach that stage. On Mars we could see a “race of vast antiquity and supreme wisdom, clinging desperately to the orb that bore it, half gasping for breath, and hoarding every drop of its precious water, but doomed in the relatively near future.” This would be the fate of Earth, but in a future so distant as to be inconceivable. The prospects were bright indeed, and the “contrast with that old decadent orb that is now telling us its story, instead of depressing us, should inspire us with thankfulness that we are young, with faith in an unlimited future.”