Is there life on Mars? Some of this week’s biggest “news” is also this week’s oldest news.
A quarter of a century ago, a team of scientists discovered a meteorite in the Allan Hills of Antarctica that was given the name ALH 84001. Its origin was identified as Mars, the story being that an asteroid had hit Mars, breaking off the fragment and hurtling it into space some 16 million years ago. Eventually the fragment was captured by Earth’s gravity and landed in Antarctica 13,000 years ago, the story goes.
A little more than a decade after it was discovered, investigators discovered microscopic structures resembling life on the rock. Due to the meteorite’s alleged Martian origin, the team claimed it was evidence of not simply life on Mars, but that life on Earth began with just such an interplanetary journey. The claim was met with skepticism from all sides, however; scientists pointed out that the microscopic structures were not necessarily biological.
But the discovering scientists didn’t give up. David Mackay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center was part of the team that first examined ALH 84001. He still claims the meteorite is “very strong evidence of life on Mars,” and that claim is now buttressed by a new analysis of the rock conducted via electron microscope.
The new research took a closer look (literally) at magnetite crystals on the surface layers of ALH 84001, which “have the form of simple bacteria,” the Times reports. Could the crystals be the remains of carbon-based bacteria? The research indicates that “about 25 per cent of the crystal structures were chemically consistent with being formed from bacteria.” Apparently that evidence was strong enough to warrant this statement from Times journalist Hannah Devlin: “[The research] showed that microscopic worm-like structures found in a Martian meteorite that hit the Earth 13,000 years ago are almost certainly fossilised bacteria” (our emphasis). Really?
Although nothing scriptural absolutely rules out the idea that God could have created microbial forms on Mars, we are quite skeptical of the “alien” interpretation of ALH 84001. Our skepticism is both because the Bible clearly implies a lack of alien life (or, at the very least, intelligent alien life) and because the research into ALH 84001 appear to be biased by evolutionary hopes. Consider these points:
It’s not only creationists who point to the role of catastrophic events in shaping earth’s geologic history. A new study sheds light on how Britain was separated from the rest of Europe by a “super-river.”
Scientists publishing in Quaternary Science Reviews examined sediments from the bed of the Bay of Biscay (to the west of France) in a bid to better understand the formation of the English Channel (which separates Britain from France and the rest of Europe). According to the team, a “super-river” known as the Fleuve Manche (or Channel River) carved the channel after a glacial lake overflowed.
The researchers’ story begins some 500,000 years ago, when (according to them) Britain was connected to France via a land bridge near Dover (which today is Britain’s nearest point to France). During an ice age 450,000 years ago, water stuck between ice sheets formed a large glacial lake “behind” the land bridge.
The researchers dated the sediments they gathered from the Bay of Biscay and claim they were deposited by the super-river in three separate incarnations: one 450,000 years ago, another 160,000 years ago, and a third less than 100,000 years ago. During ice ages the sea level fell, opening the land bridge so that Britain was connected to Europe. Each time, the lake eventually overflowed and the super-river split Britain from the continent. Not only that, but the consequential “megafloods,” as the Daily Mail puts it, carved through chalk beds, resulting in Dover’s famous white cliffs.
Although the research is interesting, the idea that the English Channel was carved by a megaflood isn’t new. We last reported on it in July 2007, when we wrote:
Let’s take stock here: an enormous amount of water, a short timeframe, evidence of water-gouged landforms, and a large basin left behind. Does this sound strangely familiar? . . . According to a biblical interpretation, it is likely that the Channel was formed at some point after the waters receded from the one true “mega-Flood” that the world has experienced. For more information on the likely scenario concerning this event, see Flood cuts off Europe.
It could be “the most thorough study ever of a single organism,” and what is the unsurprising conclusion? “[E]ven the simplest creatures are more complex than scientists suspected,” reports Wired’s Brandon Keim.
German and Spanish scientists have conducted a study of the organism Mycoplasma pneumoniae, a microbe considered extremely “simple” compared to most life-forms. With only a fifth as many genes as E. coli, M. pneumoniae is a good starting point for biologists to learn more about how cells work. The surprise, however, is that its genetic workings are “much more subtle and intricate than were previously considered possible in bacteria,” write two University of Arizona biologists in a Science commentary on the research.
The team studying M. pneumoniae spent time documenting the proteins used by the microbes, recording gene activity, mapping the microbe’s physical structure, and taking note of the chemical reactions inside the organism. “What emerged was a picture of surprising complexity,” Keim writes. The findings challenge scientists’ ideas about how genes work, showing that, as Keim explains,
Groups of genes thought to work in unison did so only intermittently. At other times they worked in isolation, or in unexpected configurations.
Just as importantly, the study showed that the 3-D arrangement of the genome is crucial to cellular function. More information is stored in genes than in its base pairs. “Linear mapping of genes to function rarely considers how a cell actually accomplishes the processes,” write the University of Arizona scientists, who add, “There is no such thing as a ‘simple’ bacterium.”
Anne-Claude Gavin of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who co-led the project, explained, “What we’ve learned is that if you want to understand any cell and the protein complexes it makes, you can’t infer what happens from the order the genes are in.”
Her colleague Peer Bork added, “There were a lot of surprises. Although it’s a very tiny genome, it’s much more complicated than we thought.”
That complexity shouldn’t be a surprise, though: as our knowledge of the cell and life’s genetic basis increase, we continue to encounter workings that transcend our understanding. But virtually none of this complexity was visible to Darwin. Would he hold on to faith in the idea of evolution if he was aware of the challenges posed to it by even the simplest of cells?
Reassembling half-billion-year-old fossils from bone fragments: a task so complicated that only computers can handle it?
Researchers from the University of Leicester and Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum report in the journal Palaeontology an interesting “competition” they held: do humans or computers do a better job reassembling fragmented old fossils?
The scientists looked at how well paleontological “experts” were able to rebuild conodont fossils compared to the results of computer-based statistical methods. Conodonts were eel-like creatures thought by evolutionists to have lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Their many teeth, often scattered throughout marine rocks, complicate the process of reconstructing their skeletons. Another difficulty is that scientists have no living examples of conodonts on which to based their reconstructions. These factors make reassembling conodont fossils the equivalent of putting together jigsaw puzzles without any picture as a guide. University of Leicester researcher Mark Purnell, one of the study leaders, explained the difficulty:
“When a vertebrate animal dies, whether it’s a fish, a sabre-tooth cat or a dinosaur, the flesh rots away and the bones of the skeleton are usually scattered before being fossilised. In order to interpret them correctly, the palaeontologist must piece them back together, or at least work out which bits are which.
“To make matters worse, within any one [conodont], teeth from different parts of the skeleton looked almost identical! Now we have a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, where each piece could go in different places. But just so it’s not too easy, conodont teeth are also microscopic.”
What was the result of the friendly “competition”? The most reliable reconstructions were produced not by computers, but instead by expert paleontologists. However, computers were more consistent than human researchers; less experienced paleontologists were prone to mistakes, and even the expert paleontologists had their own disagreements.
Our point is not to emphasize the value of either human- or computer-led research; obviously each has its place. Instead, this story reminded us of the difficulty in piecing together any poorly preserved or scattered fossil, especially when (as the scientists indicate) we have no living representatives to serve as a “guide.” When the fossils are incomplete, how can anyone—human or computer—know a reconstruction is accurate? Further troubling is the role evolutionary dogma plays in telling paleontologists how a fossil “should” look if it is assumed to be a transitional form.
For these reasons, this research reminds us of the caution we should accord to every fossil reconstruction. Especially when it comes to supposed “ape-men” like Lucy, Ardi, and others, we must be aware of the fact that evolutionary ideas may be (consciously or subconsciously) guiding the reconstruction, giving scientists a false sense of certainty. Even statistical techniques, when it comes to organisms that have no living representatives, may include tacit evolutionary ideas.
Most ants are carnivorous, yet some are herbivorous. But how do the herbivorous species get the nutrients they need?
For creationists, envisioning a world without death—as was the case before Genesis 3—entails envisioning a world without carnivory. And while some creationists have argued that insects are not alive in the biblical sense (and, thus, ants’ victims do not “die”), a new study shows how ants can survive without eating other organisms.
The research, from Chicago’s Field Museum, considered how ants that eat plant matter only can acquire the nutrients they need to survive, especially proteins—which isn’t a problem for ants that eat other organisms. The answer may lie in symbiotic microbes that live in herbivorous ants’ guts. The researchers learned that Rhizobiales, an order of bacteria, lives inside most herbivorous ant species but not carnivorous species. Rhizobiales microbes are already known to help plants convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into biologically usable compounds.
“It, thus, seems likely that the acquisition of nutritional gut bacteria has enabled the evolution and maintenance of herbivorous, nitrogen-poor diets across the ants,” a press release on the research states. The researchers also found other microbes living in some herbivorous ants’ guts.
While evolutionists see the microbes as having enabled previously carnivorous ants to survive herbivorously, creationists can just as easily see the opposite: God may have created all ants to be herbivorous, with specially designed gut microbes helping supplying essential nutrients to ants. In the post-Fall world, some ants have survived without the necessary microbes by resorting to carnivory—but what we see today are only flawed versions of the Creator’s original designs.
Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, New York Times or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!
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