It’s REALLY Hard for a Planet to Support Life

The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Pathfinder lander (Image courtesy of NASA)

Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of today’s greatest minds in theoretical physics, stated:

I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.

While the last sentence is obviously offered tongue-in-cheek, the first sentence is a popular view among atheists. Because they believe that life must have come into being solely as a result of natural processes, they are forced to conclude that it must be prevalent throughout the universe. After all, if it happened here, it must have happened on a lot of other planets.

As a result, many atheists are enamored with the idea of finding life on other planets. Indeed, Bill Nye the anti-science Guy says that finding life on Mars or Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) would:

…utterly change this world. Everybody would think differently about everything.

As I wrote in the post linked above, I can’t imagine that’s true. The people who commented on the article seem to agree. Nevertheless, in many atheists’ minds, it’s a big deal. After all, if life is found on other planets, it becomes easier to believe that there is “nothing special” about life. It’s common throughout the universe, so there is no need to invoke anything other than natural processes to explain its existence.

The problem, of course, is that the scientific evidence speaks strongly against such a notion.

Consider, for example, the planet Mars. Scientists have been trying to find evidence of life on Mars for years. Indeed, the first goal of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is to determine whether life ever arose on Mars. Since life as we know it requires the presence of liquid water, one of the ways NASA scientists are trying to reach that goal is to look for the presence of liquid water on the planet.

There has been a lot of evidence that liquid water used to flow on the surface of Mars, but recently, NASA found evidence that liquid water is still flowing on Mars, despite its frigid temperatures. The evidence for this is the presence of a class of chemicals called “hydrated perchlorates.” These chemicals have the ability to reduce the freezing point of water significantly, especially at high concentrations. The fact that they are abundant at certain places on the surface of the planet and the fact that they are hydrated (which means water molecules are incorporated into their solid structure) strongly suggest that they are there as a result of recently-flowing, briny water.

Unfortunately, hopes that this water might support some kind of life were dealt a serious blow by a recent laboratory study in which the researchers showed that the very perchlorates which point to the existence of liquid water on Mars are lethal to one of the most well-studied bacteria on Earth, Bacillus subtilis. This bacterium is often used as a “model” for bacterial life, especially the kind that can thrive in variable environments. As the authors state:

We show that when irradiated with a simulated Martian UV flux, perchlorates become bacteriocidal. At concentrations associated with Martian surface regolith, vegetative cells of Bacillus subtilis in Martian analogue environments lost viability within minutes.

In other words, when they simulated the environment on Mars, including the perchlorates, the bacteria couldn’t survive for more than a few minutes. Unfortunately for the “life is common throughout the universe” crowd, it’s actually worse than that. There are two other very common chemicals on the surface of Mars. Iron oxides give the planet its red color, so they are found everywhere on the surface of Mars. In addition, hydrogen peroxide has been found to be very common on the Martian surface. When the researchers added those two chemicals at their measured concentrations, the situation became 10.8 times more lethal!

Now does this mean there is and never was life on Mars? Of course not! It’s possible that there are pockets of underground water that do not contain a lot of perchlorates. It’s possible that there is a life form for which this mixture of chemicals isn’t toxic. It’s also possible that perchlorates weren’t as prevalent in the past, making Mars a more suitable host for life back then.

However, it does strongly indicate one thing: It’s really hard for a planet to support life! Think about it. The very chemicals that were used to indicate evidence for one condition of life as we know it (liquid water) are the same chemicals that seem to make Mars inhospitable to life as we know it. Worse yet, when you add two other common chemicals found on the planet, the whole situation becomes even more intolerable for life.

All the scientific evidence we have indicates that the presence of life depends on a delicate balance of hundreds of different environmental conditions. So far, Earth is the only planet that possesses this delicate balance. No other known planet comes close, and if you are forced to believe only in natural processes, statistics seem to indicate that no other planet ever will come close.

12 thoughts on “It’s REALLY Hard for a Planet to Support Life”

  1. Great post! If I may add something…When atheists look for life elsewhere to prove it’s not a spectacular phenomenon, there is an enormous logical hole they have to jump first: that life can occur naturally in the first place.

    Abiogenesis experiments have not even come close to a cell, and other experiments have not made one by accident. Even here, on friendly Earth, we cannot coax a cell out of chemicals. We cannot replicate that “first cell” needed to get the evolutionary ball rolling.

    Therefore, if we discover life native to other planets, the atheist has doubled his problem, not solved it. Now he has to explain at least two “first cells.”

    That is why I hope we do discover life elsewhere, even if it’s only microbial. It will be trumpeted by atheists as supporting their case (just like they do for every evidence of God, from stars to animals), but the logical gap in their thinking will only widen.

  2. The is such a good topic. Great post Dr. Wile. It is short and to the point. The issue is very difficult for an atheist. The first approach for them is to say that the vast expanse space does not make life elsewhere improbable but rather a certainty. However, if you consider the configuration (or balance as mentioned in this post) as a key combination needed for life then the vast expanse of space also increases the amount of possible combinations. I think all the possible dials and knobs that can be turned for an environment would make it very unlikely there is another Earth. There may be one that comes close but it will be missing a handful of factors that make it inhospitable. Infinity does not make things a certainty. The next difficulty of this topic for atheist is that currently there is zero evidence of life on other planets. This is a contradiction to the mantra of atheism which is simply there is no evidence to believe in God. So, how can any respectable atheist believe there is life on other planets without violating this rule? Oh yeah, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I guess somehow the claim that life exists elsewhere or even originated elsewhere and traversed space to seed life on Earth is not extraordinary and requires no evidence because it just makes sense.

  3. My students used to ask me questions about aliens all the time for some reason. I think because I told them I didn’t want any questions about moon landing hoax conspiracy theories or nonsense about “Area 51.” I always answered the same way. To me, life on other planets would only make my belief in God stronger because as creator he could have made life many planets if He had wanted. But I would also tell them that God would probably prevent any aliens from coming here because people generally have two views of aliens – destroyers of earth or saving us from ourselves. I would go on to say that God isn’t going to use aliens at the end times and that he already sent a savior so, therefore, no need to meet the aliens, lol.

  4. Sometimes atheists assume that Deep Time solves the problem of implausibility, that with enough time “life finds a way.” Something I came to appreciate from reading the book Rare Earth was that Deep Time actually makes the problem harder, because you don’t just need conditions for life, you need conditions for life that are stable over a long period of time, so your sun can’t be too variable in output and it can’t wander too close to a supernova on its journey through the galaxy, and your other planets can’t wander around and throw you out of orbit after a few million revolutions, and your moon needs to keep your axis stable not just for a few thousand years but for a few billion, and on and on and on…

    1. Indeed. Materialists often treat deep time like a magic wand. Just wave it, and anything can happen. From my scientific experience, time does nothing but degrade and destroy.

  5. I would say that given an Intelligent Design or Creation scenario the odds there is life, intelligent life, on other planets are pretty good. And that if we find them they will have pretty much the same type of solar system as ours. Same type of Sun with a similar planet/ moon system and gas giants on the outer orbits.

    Red dwarf stars aren’t any good as a host star because to be in its habitable zone the planet is close enough to be held in tidal lock- one side always facing the star and one always dark. That means no atmosphere and no protective magnetic field- besides no surface water.

    Read “The Privileged Planet”, they say exactly what is required and what we should be looking for. The odds against mother nature producing one such system, ours, is staggering.

    That said, if we do find such systems they will just say that mother nature just does produce systems like ours- even though to date we have yet to find one.

  6. I lean towards the non alien view. I don’t see the point. It would definitely open a Pandora’s box of theological questions – ESPECIALLY if the aliens were intelligent yet had no knowledge of Christ or even any semblance of religion at all.

    I suppose you could argue that alien civilization was not “fallen” like ours and therefore not in need of a savior. CS Lewis tried to tackle this idea in his space trilogy – however he chose to have the main character, Ransom, encounter a parallel version Adam & Eve in their “temptation” stage.

    Call me small minded, but I’d like to think that God placed all the barren planets in our universe so we might understand how blessed creation on earth is.

    1. As I write in the post, it is possible that there is an organism for which this mixture of chemicals is not toxic. However, it’s not clear that these researchers have found that organism. First, the abstract says that both of the archaea they tested were harmed by the hydrogen peroxide. It didn’t kill them, but it did negatively affect their survival. Also, it appears that they didn’t include iron oxide in the mix. Since the researchers I discussed in the original post showed that iron oxide negatively affects bacterial survival, it’s reasonable to assume that iron oxide could possibly increase the negative survival effects seen on the archaea discussed in your link.

  7. Hi Dr. Wile,
    Have you had a chance to consider the origin-of-DNA research by Matthew Powner? This article makes it sound like the discovery of the natural origin of DNA is practically at the door.

    I had read the opposite here:

    So not sure if something has happened that I missed, or if the article about Powner’s research is the typical exaggerations of a non-scholarly publication.

    Any insights?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. As you suspected, Francesco, the first article you linked is full of a lot of hype. In addition, there is one major error. He says, “…in 2009 researchers finally managed to generate RNA using chemicals that probably existed on the early Earth.” That isn’t even close to true. I assume the paper is referring to this research:

      As you can see from this article, they didn’t even come close to making RNA:

      In this new research, he has shown that a simple sugar (not deoxyribose, the sugar of DNA) can link to a chemical that is a bit like a nucleotide base (but not a nucleotide base). However, in order for this to happen, some of the building blocks have to be formed and then purified by crystallization or sublimation before the process can proceed. So even in this very simple synthesis, intelligent agents have to intervene in order to make it work.

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