A Short Commentary on Percival Lowell’s “Mars as the Abode of Life.”

Adventurer in thought: Percival Lowell ( 1855-1916)

Adventurer in thought: Percival Lowell ( 1855-1916)









A work dedicated to Dr. Paul G. Abel

Biographical sketch: Percival Lawrence Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 13 1855, the eldest son of Augustus and Katherine Bigelow Lowell. A ‘Patrician’ American family, the Lowells were financially successful and politically well-connected. Their wealth could be traced to the efforts of an ancestor, Francis Cabot Lowell, Perciival’s great great uncle, who, after visiting the mechanised textile mills of Lancashire, in Northern England, returned to the ‘colonies’ with his own ideas to establish a cotton mill at Waltham, MA. Such a venture was to dramatically change the fortunes of the family, propelling them to the top of the social order. Lowell’s father presided over his many business ventures with an iron fist, becoming widely known as a martinet in all that he set his mind to. Not content to let his children wallow in the prosperities accrued by earlier generations of the family, Augustus expected them to excel at whatever they set their mind to. And in this capacity they fulfilled that duty. Percival’s younger brother, Abbot Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943) became a distinguished educator and legal scholar, serving as President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933. His much younger sister, Amy (1874-1925), became a well known poet and was posthumously awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926. Percival himself was enrolled in various private schools at home and abroad, eventually attending Harvard, where he excelled at both English literature and mathematics, graduating with honours in 1876.

So proficient was Lowell at mathematics, that one of his professors, Benjamin Peirce, invited him to stay at the University to teach the subject, but he declined, later recalling that, “I preferred not to tie myself down …. not because mathematics had not appealed to me as the thing most worthy of thought in the world.” Adventurous and self-confident, the young, Bohemian Lowell took himself off to Europe on a year-long tour of its capital cities, venturing as far as Syria before returning home in 1877. For the next six years, he got stuck into his family’s cotton business, serving as it executive head for a short time. But such work proved far too mundane for Lowell to commit to and so, in 1883, he set off for Japan in search of new interests. This was the first of three trips to the Far East Lowell would embark upon over the next decade. Why he did this is still uncertain, but the young man was known to have cultivated quite an ego, so much so that it made it “almost impossible” for him to settle down in Boston.

There, far from home, Lowell would immerse himself in the alien culture of the yellow man, learning his languages and customs, but ultimately conceding that the peoples of the Orient had represented the survival of the unfittest, their ‘evolution’ having been prematurely stunted by their lack of imagination and the suppression of ‘individualism’ within their societies. Lowell’s opinions were strongly shaped by the pervading ideas of his day; social Darwinism. A nation was to be measured ultimately by its gross domestic product, competing with others, both economically and culturally, for a place at the top table. In a Universe infinitely old, with no God looking over his shoulders, it was the only brute reality that made sense to him. This was the world view that shaped his future career and which made him the man he became. Such ideas were set out squarely in his earlier literary works which included Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm, published in 1886, and the Soul of the Far East, which hit the bookshelves in 1888.

Lowell’s foray into telescopic astronomy began early, when his mother gifted him a fine 2.5 inch Clark refractor at the tender age of 16. From the opulence of his family mansion at Sevenels, Heath Street, Boston, he would observe the heavens. It was around this time also that his life-long interest in the planets was stoked. In the fertile playground of his imagination, Lowell believed that the celestial worlds beyond the Earth were places where, “our wildest fancies may be commonplace facts.” He likened the great observers of his day to Columbus of old, discovering and exploring brave new worlds. What better way to dedicate one’s life than to join in the search to uncover something of the culture of these civilizations in the sky, which had evolved completely independently of those on Earth.

One man in particular, embodied the spirit of this new age of exploration, the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), who, during the Great Opposition of 1877, observed a dense network of linear structures through his telescope on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but which became mistranslated into English as “canals”. His admiration for the Italian visionary comes into sharp focus in Lowell’s earlier work; Mars and its Canals (1906);

To Schiaparelli the republic of science owes a new and vast domain. His genius first detected those strange new markings on the Martian disk which have proved a portal to all that has since been seen…. He made there voyage after voyage, much as Columbus did on Earth, with even less of recognition from home.

With the news of Schiaparelli’s failing eyesight in the mid 1890s, Lowell took it upon himself to continue the work that he had begun. Lowell had acquired considerable experience with larger telescopes. Indeed, a 6-inch Clark achromatic had accompanied him whilst travelling to Japan.  But to carry out serious research on the Red Planet,Lowell began to look for larger instruments. His influence at Harvard allowed him to borrow a fine 12-inch Clark and he even convinced the trustees at Harvard College to enlist the services of the staff astronomers to scout out locations in the American southwest where the seeing conditions were  particularly  good for planetary observation. Eventually, Lowell decided to build an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, where he would carry out the majority of his observations of the planet Mars.

At a cost of $20,000 (over $500,000 in today’s currency), the main instrument chosen by Lowell was massive, fully 2 feet across (24 inches clear aperture) with a focal length of 30 feet (f/15), the optics housed in a tube fashioned from riveted steel. Lowell mounted two other instruments alongside the main telescope, also refractors of 12-inch and 6-inch aperture, either of which could have served as the centrepiece of a small college observatory in their own right. The telescope was placed on a massive clock-driven equatorial mount. The vaulted dome in which the great telescope was housed, was designed by an ex-cowboy-turned machinist, Godfrey Sykes, and was erected from hatchet-hewn ponderosa pine timber by a team of ten labourers in as many days!

The magnificent 24-inch Clark was the primary instrument used by Lowell to conduct his Martian studies and his observations formed the basis of his famous books on the subject of extraterrestrial life. Curiously, at a cost of $300,000 (provided by public donations and private benefactors), the historic telescope has recently (as of 2015) received a new lease of life to inspire future generations of star gazers (see the October 2015 issue of Astronomy Now for a interview I conducted with the staff at Lowell Observatory).

The newly refurbished 24-inch Clark refractor used by Percival owell to carry out his Martian observations. Image courtesy of Sarah Conant, Lowell Observatory.

The newly refurbished 24-inch Clark refractor used by Percival Lowell to carry out his Martian observations. Image courtesy of Sarah Conant, Lowell Observatory.















Another view of the restored 24-inch Clark at Lowell Observatory. Image courtesy of Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory.

Another view of the restored 24-inch Clark at Lowell Observatory. Image courtesy of Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory.















In 1908, at the age of 53, Lowell married Constance Savage Keith (1863-1954), eight years his younger. Well connected, Constance made her name and her money in the real estate business. Indeed, the couple were first acquainted when he bought a property from her. They honeymooned in London, taking a hot air balloon ride over Hyde Park in order that he could photograph the landscape. Quite possibly, Lowell was thinking of the Martian canals he had seen through his telescope and wanted something to compare them with.  Constance outlived her husband by nearly four decades, spending most of that time as a recluse before passing away at the ripe old age of 91.

Author’s Comments on the Preface: The trustees of the Observatory encouraged Professor Lowell to popularise his ideas about life on Mars through a series of public lectures, setting out, in a step-by-step manner, the scheme of events as he understood them, that shaped the evolution of the Red Planet.The lectures he conducted were an over-night success, mesmerizing his audiences with a sincere and compelling vision of how life arose on Mars and evolved through Darwinian means to create a race of intelligent beings fighting desperately to survive on a dying planet. People from all around the world flocked to hear the urbane astronomer deliver his sensational allegory. The book was a lucrative spin-off of these lectures and became an international bestseller. Then, as now, there was no shortage of people who were all too eager to surrender their sovereignty as supremely created beings, uniquely made in the image of God, throth’d to ‘the fountain of all life’, for a new kind of ‘reality’, dreamt-up and cultivated by ‘influential’ people, that of a plurality of habitable worlds at every conceivable stage of development; a Universe with infinite possibilities, a cosmos where Man could no longer be at the apex of the Natural Order. Never once did they consider a truly astonishing, and, as yet, unfalsified conjecture; that God created life uniquely on Earth and nowhere else as a personal revelation of His glory and love for us!

Chapter I: The Genesis of a World

In this opening chapter, Lowell recounts the cosmogeny of the Solar System, in which he imagined the Sun and its retinue of worlds being formed from gas and dust that had slowly coalesced under the auspices of gravity, heating up as they did. To Lowell, it was the property of mass itself that determined the evolutionary fate of the Sun and the planetary bodies, an idea that still holds currency with us today.

Lowell believed that the stuff of the heavens and of the Earth were one and the same. As evidence, he discusses the properties of meteorites – stony or metallic in character – in which some 26 of the same chemical elements were found to constitute them and not one that did not occur on Earth. To Lowell, this provided powerful evidence that whatever occurred on Earth must inevitably occur on other worlds, including Mars.

Lowell then presents six stages of planetary formation from “sun to cinder.” The size and mass of the body ultimately dictating whether it would remain in a primordial state or could evolve through various stages. These stages ( pp 12)  he identified as:

I The Sun stage: Hot enough to emit light

II. The Molten Stage, hot but lifeless.

III. The Solidifying Stage, where solid surfaces formed. Ocean basins determined. Age of metamorphic rocks.

IV. The Terraqueous Stage: Age of Sedimentary rocks.

V. The Terrestrial Stage: Oceans have disappeared.

VI The Dead Stage. Air has departed.

In this scheme, Professor Lowell considered the outermost planets; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 2nd ‘planetological’ stage. The Earth was at Stage IV, Mars, V and the Moon at the sixth stage.

Note that Lowell took it ipso facto that the planets were not the same age. Jupiter, for example, was younger than the Earth, Mars older.

As one proceeds to read more of this chapter, one gets the distinct impression that Lowell was not so proficient with science as he was with mathematics. For example, he seems to have believed that the larger the planet the greater the height of its mountain ranges.

Now, when we come to scan Mars with nicety, we are gradually made aware of a curious condition of its surface. It proves singularly devoid of irregularity. The more minutely it is viewed, the more its levelness becomes apparent. (pp 16).

Smaller planets, of which Mars is in relation to the Earth, have weaker gravitational fields and thus might be expected to have taller mountain ranges and not smaller ones as Lowell surmised. For instance, we now know that great shield volcano, Olympus Mons, soars over 25 kilometres into the Martian sky – more than three times higher than Mount Everest. Indeed, Olympus Mons remains the largest volcano yet discovered in the Solar System.

Lowell believed Mars to be completely devoid of mountains (pp 17).

The remainder of the first chapter covers other aspects of planet evolution. Lowell firmly presents the idea that the internal heat of a planet will shape its future development. As a curious aside, he discusses the origin of the Moon and seeks to explain why its surface ended up so much rougher than the Earth. Lowell believed that the Earth and Moon were forged from the some matter and mentions the theory of the British astronomer, Sir George Henry Darwin (1845-1912), who believed the Moon spun off the Earth in the distant past, the two bodies having once been fused together in a pear-shaped mass which split into two bodies proper. Lowell uses this theory to explain how it ended up so battered and cratered. The internal heat of the primordial Moon i.e. vulcanism, was responsible for its vast crater fields and mountain ranges. When it lost its atmosphere, weathering all but ceased. There is no mention of impact-induced cratering.

Chapter II: The Evolution of Life

Covering pages 35-69

In this section of the book, Lowell pronounces his faith in Darwinian evolution. Eschewing his Christian heritage, Lowell found in Darwinism a way to explain the origin and development of life through its various stages. Lowell discusses the fossil record – as wholly incomplete as it was then – to espouse his idea that when the necessary chemical conditions are met, life was an inevitability, as sure of emerging as rocks and minerals.

I shall not dwell on a criticism of Lowell’s ideologies about how life came into being, either on Earth or on Mars, only to state a few simple points that cast righteous doubt on the validity of his ideas.

  1. Scientists were gloriously unaware just how complex even the simplest forms of cellular life were during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Had Lowell been able to see the astonishing internal organisation of the cell as revealed by techniques such as electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography, a simple appeal to probability would surely have cast a long shadow of doubt in his mind. On the contrary, Lowell, like Darwin, thought the cell to be merely composed of blobs of protoplasm – much like a warm, gelatinous soup of salts and amino acids – that was not very complex and thus might have easily arisen by purely naturalistic means.
  2.  The fossil record was very incomplete in Lowell’s day but he nonetheless took a leap of faith in accepting it. Today, although some leading evolutionary biologists are engaged in a kind of aggressive denial that Darwinian ideas are wrong, the truth is that the fossil record falls far short of supporting any Darwinian scenario, which anticipated innumerable transitional forms. Indeed, it could be argued that the best explanation for the fossil record are waves of creation events, replacing one strata of life with another to better cope with the changing conditions on our planet over the aeons. The Ediacaran and Cambrian radiations provide rock-solid evidence for a creationist perspective.
  3. Great advances in knowledge have cast even more doubt on the evolutionary paradigm as promulgated by contemporary biologists. This author has spent much time summarising the many intractable problems with the theory.
  4.  In one recent analysis, this author has clearly and unambiguously shown that even the simplest steps towards the creation of living systems requires an inordinate amount of intelligent design; so much so that a wholly naturalistic emergence of a living system is scientifically untenable.


Chapter III The Sun Dominant

Covering pages 70-110

In this chapter Lowell sets forth his understanding of how the progress of planetary evolution transitions from one that is dependent upon its own intrinsic heat to that of the energy provided by the Sun. In very elegant and engaging prose, Professor Lowell develops the idea that in the earliest ages of rocky planet evolution, lifeforms rely almost entirely on the energy resources of the planet, but slowly, over the ages, the atmosphere of the planet clears, transitioning from dark and murky to clear and transparent. Lowell finds evidence for such a scheme of events in the various strata of the then known fossil record. As our own planet allowed more and more light to penetrate to the surface, so too did it evolve ever more sophisticated plant life to take advantage of this steadily increasing solar irradiance.


Author’s note: Today we understand that the Sun has steadily brightened over the aeons, being between 10 and 15 per cent less luminous at its inception than it is presently. This was unknown to Lowell and his contemporaries. Moreover, this brightening will continue apace until life on Earth will no longer be possible. We thus find ourselves in a fortuitous ‘window’ of time where our technical civilization can flourish on a global scale, supporting a human population – sons and daughters of God – far larger than has ever been possible. We live at the best possible time and in the best possible place, in the entire history of the cosmos.This was part of the Divine Plan, pledged before the foundation of the world. See Genesis 17:6


Lowell then applies the same ideas to the planet Mars, Earth’s elder brother, and notes that the process of atmospheric clearing has progressed more than on Earth, its air being almost devoid of clouds. It is in this chapter that we get our first description of the telescopic appearance of the Red Planet as seen through the great telescope used with diligence by Lowell:

Viewed under suitable conditions, few sights can compare for instant beauty and growing grandeur with Mars as presented by the telescope. Framed in the blue of space, there floats before the observer’s gaze a seeming miniature of his own Earth, yet changed by translation to the sky. With its charmed circle of light, he marks apparent continents and seas, now ramifying into one another, now stretching into unique expanse over wide tracts of disk, and capped at their poles by dazzling ovals of white. It recalls to him his first lessons in geography, where the earth was shown him set ethereally amid the stars only with an added sense of reality in the apotheosis. It is the thing itself, stamped with that all-pervading, indefinable hall-mark of authenticity in which the cleverest reproduction somehow fails.

pp 73-74.

The reader will note that Lowell describes the achromatic Martian images as having an ‘instant beauty’. And yet, the great Clark refractor employed by Lowell had a significant amount of chromatic aberration.

Lowell continues this chapter by discussing some of the features of the Martian environment. It’s tilt is similar to that of the Earth and its year, nearly twice as long. Thus, Lowell concludes, it will experience similar seasons to our own world, only longer in duration.Telescopic investigation correctly revealed that Mars has a thin atmosphere as deduced by the presence of morning and evening mists observed on the planet’s limbs, and, like the Earth, has prominent polar caps. There was still some debate about whether these ice caps were composed of water or , as others had suggested, carbonic acid (this is essentially an aqueous solution of carbon dioxide), but Lowell seems to favour the water ice hypothesis. His reasoning is this: carbon dioxide would sublimate at the temperatures and low pressures on the Martian surface and thus would not produce a liquid. On the contrary, he brings to our attention a dark rim that is seen girdling the ice cap as it ‘melts’ in late Spring and throughout the Summer. Presumably, the snow melt would darken the terrain immediately around the ice cap.

After discussing the albedo of Mars (he provides a value of 0.27) and the other planets, Lowell then addresses the question of the planet’s surface temperature. Though it is not entirely clear how he comes up with these figures, he seems to accept a mean surface temperature of 48 degrees F (9C). That being said, Lowell seems to be under the impression that, owing to the greater length of the Martian seasons, it will enjoy greater temperature swings (up to 50 degrees F) during the summer months, despite its thinner atmosphere. In essence, he treats Mar’s environment much like the deserts of Earth, heating up rapidly as the Sun rises higher in the Martian sky and cooling off rapidly (to sub-zero temperatures < 32 degrees F) as it sinks below the horizon at the approach of night.

Here at least, the essence of Lowell’s deductions are sound. The temperatures can indeed rise as high as 20C (68F) within a few inches of the surface, near the equator, during the height of a Martian summer but its mean global temperature is nearer -60F, far lower than Lowell was willing to entertain.


Here Lowell provides the observational evidence that Mars, at least superficially, has many gross features in common with the Earth. The careful student of the Red Planet will notice features; a dark marking, a bright spot or some such, traversing the disk, disappearing behind one limb and reappearing some time later on the opposite side of the planet. Such observations naturally led to the idea that the planet is rotating. Furthermore, Lowell informs us that the length of the Martian day (or ‘Sol’) is only a little longer than our own; 24 hours and 40 minutes. Furthermore, the angle of the planet’s tilt turns out to be ‘singularly’ like our own; 24 degrees as opposed to 23.5 degrees for our planet. This, together with the planet’s longer year, would naturally translate into commensurately longer seasons, with spring lasting 199 days, summer 183 days, autumn and winter 147 and 158 days, respectively.

Lowell’s magnificent telescope also provided him evidence of a thin but substantive atmosphere enveloping the planet, as inferred by the presence of clouds and mists that accumulate on the planet’s morning limb and various other refractive phenomenon that could be best explained had Mars been endowed with a sea of air. His fecund imagination carries us to the Martian surface, where he draws our minds’ eye to a Martian dawn or dusk. Because of the thinness of the the planet’s air in comparison with the Earth, Lowell conjectures correctly that twilight would be very brief affair in comparison with the Earth. Day and night would come more abruptly on this neighbouring world, and with little forewarning, the stars shining with a brilliance and steadiness(owing to the rarefaction of the atmosphere) quite unlike anything seen on terra firma.

pp 81-85

In this section, Professor Lowell once again puts forth his reasoning on the nature of the intensely white polar ice caps clearly on view through his telescope. Lowell saw a darkened ring called ‘blue belt’ encircling the polar cap and seems to have been ‘confirmed’  by a number of other observers:

The blue belt proclaimed the presence of a liquid. Thus carbonic acid could not be concerned, and the substance composing the caps was therefore snow. For no other, that we know of, dons their snowy aspect with change of state.

pp 82.

Today we know that the Martian ice caps are indeed comprised mostly of water ice, with a thin (~1 metre thick) veneer of carbon dioxide ice dusting their uppermost parts. What is more, as autumn marches into winter, the growing ice cap sequesters some 20-30 per cent of the Martian atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide), drastically reducing the atmospheric pressure on the planet by the same amount.

pp 85-90

In these pages, Lowell explores the thorny question of what kinds of temperatures are enjoyed by Mars as it orbits the Sun. The Martian orbit is noticeably more eccentric than the Earth’s (0.0934 as opposed to just 0.0167 for our planet), varying from 1.67 A.U. at aphelion to 1.38 A.U at perihelion passage, causing the planet’s solar irradiance to vary from approximately 1.9 and 2..8 times lower than those enjoyed on the Earth’s surface. This greater eccentricity would render the Martian seasons more erratic than those on Earth. The Red planet is at its closest when its southern hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. So the southern hemisphere experiences hotter summers than the northern hemisphere.

Lowell clearly understands that this is a complex question with many factors having to be taken into account, including the albedo of the planet, the thinness of the atmosphere and its chemical constitution etc. Lowell holds onto one over-arching fact that illuminates his entire thought process; on Earth, owing to the presence of substantial cloud cover, the sky is such that the Sun shines only half the time it might were there no clouds to screen it. On Mars, where the skies are innocent of cloud cover, the Sun can warm the surface more effectively. Indeed, on page 86 Lowell suggests that when everything is taken into account, the average surface temperature was 48 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to 60F on Earth (8.9 C and 15.5C, respectively).


Author’s note: There is considerable repetition of ideas in this chapter, particularly on the subject of the Martian polar caps. Lowell was certainly preoccupied with driving home the idea that Mars had water ice- which it certainly has – and that its atmosphere could stably sustain liquid water. One can only surmise that Lowell may have viewed these points as being crucial to the undergirding of his ultimate conclusions.


So, according to Lowell, Mars was a cold planet, but not nearly so cold as to preclude the possibility of life having taken hold upon it.

pp 95-106

This is especially the case, since global average temperatures don’t really reflect the temperatures encountered at various latitudes and at various times of the Martian year, where increases in heat and cold may be encountered. Lowell explains that because of the long Martian summer, temperatures continue to rise owing to the planet’s ability to absorb more heat than it reflects back into space.  He was clearly convinced that during these clement periods that temperatures would soar so much that it would permit animal and vegetable life to prosper and reproduce. Indeed, Lowell goes out of his way to stress that it is the mean summer temperatures and not that of the winter that would dictate the kinds of habitat likely to be encountered on the planet’s surface.


Author’s note: Spacecraft that have landed successfully on Mars have shown that  soil temperatures can reach a very comfortable 20C during the heat of a Martian summer at the equator but can fall as low as  -153C at the Martian poles. The mean Martian temperature is much lower than what Lowell imagined though – somewhere in the region of -60C. This is far more harsh than Lowell was ever able to entertain.


Lowell then presents the best terrestrial analogy of life in a thin Martian atmosphere by discussing at length the plight of living things who have eked out a living at higher altitude on Earth, where the atmospheric pressure falls away exponentially. In particular, he discusses the mountains of California, at altitudes up to 12,600 feet, where hardy coniferous trees seem to live happily. Lowell argues that since life has adapted well to the thin mountain air, so must the animal and vegetable life on Mars.

pp 106-110

In this, the concluding part of this chapter, Professor Lowell launches into his classic evolutionary train of thought; if there exists the necessary conditions to allow life to flourish on the Red Planet, then time is the necessary ingredient for evolution to take place, starting with the simplest forms of life and ascending upward towards ever more complex animals, and finally the emergence of intelligence and self awareness. Lowell correctly asserts that while his telescopic observations could never hope to reveal the bodily forms directly, intelligent beings, through the gradual control of their environments, would inevitably build larger and larger artificial structures. Then and only then, could they betray their presence to an Earth-bound telescopist:

Subjugation carries its telltale in its train, for it alters the face of its habitat to its own end. Already man has begun to leave his mark on this his globe, in deforestation, canalization, in communication. So far his town and his tillage are more partial than complete. But the time is coming when the earth will bear his imprint and his alone. What he chooses will survive; what he pleases will lapse, and the landscape itself become the carved object of his handi-work.

pp 109-110.


Author’s note: Despite what paleoanthropologists wish to promulgate through their myopic belief in the evolutionary paradigm, there is no hard evidence that human beings evolved from lower animals. Determined to make their case and shore up their world view, these scientists deliberately ‘project’ their own images onto these fossils, which are invariably incomplete skeletons, in order to present them in as human-like a way as possible.  But this is little better than the fraudulent drawings made by 19th biologists such as Ernst Haeckel, who attempted to show that many animals begin development in essentially the same form. What paleontologists engage in today is just more sophisticated ‘bluffery’ of essentially the same nature as Herr Haeckel’s analysis.

And while there undoubtedly existed hominins which lived for a short time before going extinct, none of these animals left any signs that they had cognitive and behavioural capacities any more advanced than the Great Apes we share our planet with today. The Bible clearly professes that Man was a special creation, made in the image and likeness of God (the Imago Dei):

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2:7

Even the most ‘advanced’ hominin to have been uncovered by paleoanthropologists, the Neanderthals, left no artefacts that would comport to modern human behaviour. And despite some evidence that traces of Neanderthal DNA can be recovered from some human gene pools, this could as well be explained by an ancient act of bestiality than anything else. Why else would the Lord warn us in His Levitical statutes?

Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.

Leviticus 18:23


Chapter IV Mars and the Future of the Earth

pp 110-120

In this chapter Professor Lowell advances his theory that Mars presents a glimpse of what the Earth will look like in the distant future. But he also believed the converse was true; that in the distant past Mars had oceans of liquid water just like our world but had managed to lose much of it over the aeons. The mechanisms driving the loss of this water to interplanetary space, according to Lowell, are the result of Mar’s weaker gravitational field, which would allow a small molecule like water to attain the escape velocity of the planet ( which is only about 45 per cent of that on Earth i.e. ~11 km per second). This is a plausible scheme of events. One significant mechanism for water loss involves photolysis, that is, the chemical breakdown of water by high energy solar radiation at high altitude, releasing oxygen and hydrogen. The latter being very light and sprightly, would easily escape into space, whereas the heavier oxygen, being highly reactive, would be sequestered by  surface minerals, slowly oxidising them over time.

Lowell suggests that water loss has also being going on here on Earth over the aeons and cites some evidence from the best available geologic evidence available to him at the time.

Lowell’s drawings of Mars in this section ever more boldly show the presence of curious linear features – the fabled canals – criss-crossing the planet.


Author’s note:

Today scientists have painted a much more complex picture of how Earth acquired and maintained its oceans. While it is certainly possible for water molecules to acquire enough kinetic energy to escape the gravitational field of the Earth, we now know that it can be replaced by water issuing from the Earth’s interior, so that the net result is that our planet has maintained its substantial water oceans over billions of years. Indeed, while most of us consider the Earth to be a water rich world, the reality is that it is substantially the very opposite; the Earth is water poor. Only a thin veneer of water covers our world and in terms of mass, constitutes just a small fraction of one percent of the planet’s total mass. Indeed, the Earth’s neonatal water inventory was much higher, which would have led to the formation of a perilously deep global ocean, so much so that it would likely not have enabled landmasses to emerge above the surface. Without landmasses, there would be no facility to efficiently recycle nutrients to sustain the complex biosphere our world would come to nurture. Had a Mars sized object not collided  with the primordial Earth, our planet would have likely ended up with a chokingly dense atmosphere and far too much water to allow complex life to flourish. In this sense, NASA’s mantra, “follow the water,” is  too simplistic and misleading, as far more factors must be set in place before a planet can sustain life. Future surveys of extra-solar planets will likely confirm this in the coming years. Having water does not equate with having life.


pp 120-130

In this section of the chapter Professor Lowell discusses the phenomenon of desertification, of which, in this capacity, elder brother Mars was in a far more advanced state. Slowly but surely, this increasing aridity will eventually cause our planet’s lakes and seas to disappear. Lowell uses many reasonable arguments to drive home his point, discussing the petrified trees and forests of Arizona, and going further afield to the ancient city of Carthage in North Africa, Egypt and Palestine, where clear evidence for dried up rivers exist. The great engineering feats of the Romans – the aqueducts especially – are also used by Lowell to impress the point that while plentiful water once flowed for hundreds of miles through these ingenious constructions, the water has now largely disappeared. In this way, Lowell asserts that all civilizations eventually will build systems of irrigation, channels, canals, aqueducts to allow their peoples to flourish in regions that would otherwise be quickly reclaimed by the deserts.


Author’s note:

Lowell was indeed correct to claim that the process of desertification is increasing on Earth. Today we know that each year an area roughly the size of Ireland is reclaimed by the advance of the deserts, especially when one looks at the huge increases in the area of the Sahara (which has expanded some 10 fold in just two millennia) and Gobi ( three times larger) deserts in particular. But while Lowell claims that there is a definite sense of inevitability about the onward march of the deserts, it does not mean that it can’t be stemmed or even reversed. In arguably the oldest book of the Bible – Job – chapter 38 – the Lord speaks about precipitation and the water cycle at some length;

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;

To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;

To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?

 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Job 38:25-29

Here we see the triune creator of the Universe sending water to places where no man lives, nourishing the wild plants that eke out a living there. And no flower blossom is truly wasted on the desert air! What seems clear from this passage is that in order to reclaim regions of the desert, we have a responsibility to first repair the damage we have wrought on these places. Humans are the principal culprits in the production of this new desert land, caused by over-grazing of their herds at the desert boundaries, stripping away the most nourishing grasses that grow there and using the remaining vegetation as cooking fuel. Yet, new scientific evidence suggests that if these regions bordering the great deserts are replanted, they not only curb the encroach of the parching sands but also encourage greater levels of precipitation, eventually reversing the march of desert land proper. Such initiatives would also absorb significant quantities of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which in turn would cause the ancient cycles of precipitation to return. The process of transpiration in flowering plants contributes an astonishing 10 per cent of the Earth’s atmospheric water inventory and thus also would help cool these regions so that they can better sustain human and animal life. The Israelis have been world leaders in this initiative for decades and have managed to grow an incredible amount of food and other vegetable matter, which has made them the envy of their neighbours. Thus, the Lord has given us the ingenuity to keep this planet habitable for as long as He sees fit. Only by paying closer attention to God’s superior wisdom can we become better stewards of this wonderful planet we inhabit. Managed replanting would turn the Gobi and the Sahara into the bread baskets of the world. More on desert greening technology here.


pp 130-140

In this section of the chapter, Professor Lowell discusses the ‘evidence’ for water and vegetation on Mars. He believes that the vast tracts of the planet that remain “opaline” in tint throughout a Martian year must be totally devoid of life, like one vast Martian Sahara, whereas the blue green areas he identifies with vegetation. His telescopic studies indicate that these tracts of vegetation occur at temperate latitudes and seem to grow in intensity and size as the planet transitions from winter through spring and then summer.

Lowell’s assistant, the young Vesto M. Slipher, attached a spectroscope to the great 24-inch refractor and captured spectra through red filters of the Moon and then Mars at the same altitude in search of the spectral signature of water vapour. In an inset sandwiched between page 138 and 139, Lowell shows the results of such spectra and identifies the ” a” line of water vapour in the spectrographs obtained from Mars but not from the Moon.


Author’s note: Many astronomers active at the time were sceptical that Mars showed spectroscopic evidence of water vapour as the so-called  ‘a’ line captured by Slipher’s efforts was exceedingly weak. Between 1925 and 1943, astronomers, Walter Adam and Theodore Dunham of Mount Wilson Observatory, using much more sensitive equipment than that employed at Lowell Observatory, tried to detect oxygen and water vapour in the Martian atmosphere but their results were generally negative, or at best, ambiguous. Indeed, it was not until 1947 that the Dutch-American astronomer, Gerard P. Kuiper, obtained unequivocal evidence for carbon dioxide in the Martian air. Finally, using data obtained by the much more powerful 100-inch reflector atop Mount Wilson, astronomers Spinrad, Münch and Kaplan, finally detected traces of water vapour at 8200 Angstroms (820nm), and which were most strongly exhibited over the planet’s polar caps.  Reference here.


pp 140-45

In these concluding pages Lowell sums up his thoughts on the state of affairs on Mars. He estimates that the total water inventory on the planet is 189,000 times less than that of the Earth. And yet, all the while, Lowell turns this bleak fact into an opportunity. For while Mars’ oceans of water have long disappeared, together with the all the marine life it must surely have harboured, evolution would have allowed for the development of advanced land-based creatures whose minds became ever more sharply focused on rendering this water supply accessible:

The evidence of observation thus bears out what me might suspect for the planet’s smaller size; that it is much further along its planetary career than is our earth. This aging in its own condition must have its effect upon any life it may previously have brought forth. That life at the present moment would be likely to be of a high order. For whatever its actual age, any life now existent on Mars must be in the land stage of its development, on the whole a much higher one than the marine. But, more than this, it should probably have gone much farther if it exist at all, for in its evolving of terra firma, Mars has far outstripped the earth.

pp 142-143

Using this line of reasoning, Lowell felt that some creature would have come to dominate all other forms of land life on the planet and through intelligence, would have pressed into service ‘brain over brawn’ in constructing artificial structures that would betray their presence across the sea of interplanetary space.

The stage is now set for Lowell to present the case for such structures and he finds his champion in a hitherto obscure Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910).


Author’s note:


The ongoing data obtained from the Kepler planet-finding mission has established that the Universe contains countless trillions of Earth-sized planets. A fraction of these will be located in the so-called habitable zones of their parent stars. But numbers alone are not enough to prove the link between the Principle of Plenitude and the Copernican Principle, as it might apply to life in the wider Universe. Does the age of a planet really relate to how habitable it can be?  Systems significantly older than the Earth might not have acquired the necessary elemental constitution to allow them to remain geologically active over a long enough time period to recycle minerals. For example, there is good evidence that the Earth is unusually enriched in long-lived radionuclides to sustain plate tectonic activity over its long history. This appears to have been a product of sheer serendipity and which could hardly have been foreseen by planetary scientists. The vast majority of these so-called habitable exoplanets will be much older than the Earth (8-8.4 billion years old) and some quirk of nature – of which there must be legion –  either dynamical or physio-chemical in nature, would likely scupper any chances of life gaining a foothold upon them. Curiously, there are signs that astrobiologists are coming round to recognising that these problems are real. See here for more details.


Chapter V: The Canals and the Oases of Mars

The fabled Martian canals as drawn by Lowell.

The fabled Martian canals as drawn by Lowell.

Covering pages 146 to 183.

As we have previously seen, the Italian astronomer, G.V. Schiaparelli came to the world’s attention by claiming to have detected long, linear structures criss-crossing the Martian surface in 1877. Lowell attributes their relatively recent ‘discovery’ to the advancements in telescope optics. Schiaparelli used a fine 8-inch Merz achromatic refractor to detect the “canali,” which translates from the Italian as “channels.” Although Schiaparelli was initially cautious about ascribing an artificial origin to these linear features, he soon spoke out in favour of their ’artificiality’, especially after Lowell began to sensationalise their presence in his voluminous writings. Indeed, he doesn’t take long in introducing the word ‘canal’ in this chapter, appearing first on page 149. Curiously, he aims to drive home the artificial nature of these structures by providing the reader with aerial photographs (displayed on page 148) of real canals taken over the Serpentine recreational lake in Hyde Park, London, when he made a balloon ride during his honeymoon in 1908. These structures were created back in 1730 at the behest of the Queen Caroline. Lowell describes the appearance of the Martian canals;

…..the canals are of various length. Some are not above 250 miles long, while others stretch 2500 miles from end to end. Nor is this span by any means the limit. The Eumenides-Orcus runs 3450 from where it leaves the Phoenix Lake to where it enters the Trivium Charontis. Enormous as these distances are for lines which remain straight throughout, they become more surprising when we consider the size of the planet on which they are formed. For Mars is only 4220 miles through, while the Earth is 7919. So that a canal 3450 miles long, for all its unswervingness to right or left, actually curves in its own plane through an arc of some 90 degrees round the planet. It is much as if a straight line joined London to Denver, or Boston to Bering Strait.

PP 149-150.

Schiaparelli himself detected 113 canals and Lowell increased the tally to 437 at Flagstaff. To the untrained eye, these canals seemed rather haphazard but Lowell insisted they had a “regular irregularity”:

It resembles lace-tracery of an elaborate and elegant pattern, woven as whole over the disk, veiling the planet’s face. By this means the surface of the planet is divided into a great number of polygons, the aerolas of Mars.

pp 151


Author’s note: It will be of interest to the reader that Schiaparelli also believed in Darwinian evolution and was himself a hydraulic engineer by training. Combining his world view with his profession, he arrived at the perfect synthesis of both: vast canal structures designed by advanced Martian engineers.

The canals were also ‘seen’ by astronomers using silver-on-glass reflectors. The great British student of Jupiter, Arthur Stanley Williams (1861-1938), reputedly saw some of them with a 6.5-inch equatorially mounted Newtonian, though he later sided with Eugene M. Antoniadi, that they were largely illusory.


Over the next several pages, Lowell elaborates on what he and his assistants at Flagstaff had discovered about the canals. Many of them seemed to converge on dark spots, which W.H. Pickering dubbed ‘lakes.’ Lowell, in his ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ mindset prefers the term, ‘oases,’ 186 of them in all, claiming that many canals converge at these points;

In the case of one of them, Ascraeus Lucus, no less than 17 canals converge to it.

pp 157.

And then, Lowell explains that while many of these canals are singular in nature, some appeared duplicitous under telescopic study:

Out of the 437 canals so far discovered, only 51 have ever shown duplicity.

pp 159

He ‘justifies’ the reality of their duality by asserting that if these were the product of some optical aberration, all of the canals would appear likewise.

On page 162, Lowell discloses the distribution of the recorded canals as a function of Martian latitude. The vast majority appear to be concentrated within a few tens of degrees of the equator, both north and south.

Over the next 12 pages or so, Professor Lowell introduces new and more elaborate terminology. Plotting the appearance of the canals as a function of Martian date and latitude, he came up with diagrams ( one illustrated on page 174), which he referred to as “cartouches”. Furthermore, these “cartouches” participated with the “waves of darkening” in an elaborate  interplay between the available water distribution and Martian vegetation.


Author’s note: Lowell is clearly attempting to drive home his belief that the Martians were using their canal networks to optimise agriculture. It is interesting that Lowell introduces Egyptian symbolism (pp 171) in his analysis; a common feature of mystery religion literature.

It has recently been discovered that the Martian soil is rich in highly toxic substances known as perchlorates, which, at the concentrations detected on the Red Planet, would likely prove toxic to any would-be photosynthetic organisms. The ubiquitous levels of perchlorate on Mars would severely scupper any attempts by future colonists to grow crops for human consumption. Martian soils are also nitrogen-poor (content is below the minimum measurable level. i.e <0.1%) in comparison to those on Earth; source.

Mars, like everywhere else outside the Earth, is a hostile place for life.


Chapter VI: Proofs of Life on Mars

Covering pages 184-216

In this, the final chapter, Lowell doesn’t really break much new ground, beyond more wild speculations concerning the morphology of the illusory canals. Rather, he goes over old ground, re-stating and summarising material discussed in previous chapters in order to consolidate the points he wishes to stress. Further to this he maintains that, owing to the advanced evolution of Mars beyond that of the Earth, the indigenous life too is nearing its end. Lowell restates his cosmogony about life, the Universe and everything on page 215-216:

Thus, not only do the observations we have scanned lead us to the conclusion that Mars at this moment is inhabitable, but they land us at the further one that these denizens are of an order whose acquaintance was worth the making. Whether we ever shall come to converse with them in any more instant way is a question upon which science at present has no data to decide. More important to us is the fact that they exist, made all the more interesting by their precedence of using the path of evolution. Their presence certainly ousts us from any unique or self-centred position in the solar system, but so with the world did the Copernican system the Ptolemaic, and the world survived this deposing change. So may man. To all who have a cosmoplanetary breadth of view it cannot but be pregnant to contemplate extra-mundane life and to realize that we have warrant for believing that such life inhabits the planet Mars.


Author’s note:

Lowell died a century ago this year, and it is no exaggeration that his legacy has had a profound effect on the scientific attitudes of the next generation of scientists. Lowell wanted us to dream; to rise above the ‘mundanity’ of this existence and to contemplate another more encompassing cosmology where our perceived ‘importance’ was merely an illusion. We are citizens of the cosmos and not just the Earth. Lowell’s writings inspired a whole genre of science fiction, including the most famous of all; The War of the World’s by H.G. Wells. It is because of Lowell that we send robotic emissaries to the Red Planet every other year, exploring its wonderful mysteries from the ground and from orbit. He has given us wings!

The Martians of Lowell’s imaginations do not exist however. And while probes continue to look for signs of life on Mars, it appears as though it’s a very hostile place. But we cannot yet say for sure whether it is completely devoid of life. There may exist microbial ecosystems living deep underground, protected from the harsh radiation incident on the planet’s surface. Traces of methane have been detected on the surface, but it is not yet clear whether this is a geological source or the manifestation of active microbial activity. We shall know which of these scenarios (or even both) are valid in the near future, God willing. Knowing that the Earth has been richly filled with living things over billions of years, it is almost certainly the case that some of this life will have made its way to Mars, given its relative proximity to the Earth.  Whether that life is extant or not is another question entirely though. Given the harshness of the Martian environment, the probability is low, but still finite.  With the entrenched presumption of a non-supernatural explanation for life’s origins, many scientists will be eager to ascribe such a finding to indigenous  Martian life, having independently arisen there.  Future missions should develop diagnostic techniques to distinguish  between these two possibilities. Further afield, there is a slim but non-zero chance that Earth life might have seeded other solar system bodies over the aeons.

Many scientists anticipate that life will be common place in the galaxy, but this is based on Darwinian reasoning. However, there are many legitimate reasons to doubt the Darwinian paradigm, not least of which are the compelling probability arguments now being developed by scientists advocating intelligent design. What is certain is that Darwinian evolution will not survive the information age that is now upon us. Furthermore, though not conclusive, the lack of success of detecting extra-terrestrial intelligence provides further evidence that the Darwinian paradigm is not likely to be valid in the wider Universe, so we should not expect them to chime in any time soon (if at all).

The exploration of Mars and other solar system bodies is a worthwhile scientific venture, but the extreme risks that attend manned missions, together with its enormous cost to the tax payer are good reasons to continue robotic missions to the planets. And as for colonisation, it is much easier to maintain the viability of our precious world before ‘abandoning ship’, as it were, and looking to others. We owe this much to the Earth.

Additional Reading: Rovers Report on Mars’s Past Potential Habitability

Further Viewing: An Introduction to Information Theory

Lecture 1

Lecture 2

Lecture 3

Lecture 4

Lecture 5

Lecture 6

Lecture 7

Lecture 8

Lecture 9

Lecture 10

Lecture 11

Lecture 12

Lecture 13

Lecture 14

Lecture 15

Lecture 16


De Fideli




2 thoughts on “A Short Commentary on Percival Lowell’s “Mars as the Abode of Life.”

  1. I am so glad to see someone actually uses primary sources rather than urban myths presented by the news media. Thank you! You may be the only one.

    Lowell’s view that Earth is in the IV. Terraqueous Stage and evolving toward the V. Terrestrial Stage of Mars is fascinating. This view fits the facts. We are just looking for a good explanations for the evolution.

    NASA has never gotten over Mariner and Viking finding Mars a very dry planet. As Seth Shostak points out, mankind began looking for Martian life with Lowell’s telescope and now hopes to find Martian life with a microscope. Lowell made the solar system inspiring to mankind. Microbes are not that inspiring

  2. Hello Gene,

    Thanks for your message. I appreciate your comments. I think you are right about Lowell inspiring future generations of space-farers; his imaginations are in large part the reason why we have held Mars in our sights over the decades.

    I have yet to complete this work but promise to do so in the New Year.

    Season’s Greetings to you and yours,


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