NASA Humanist Chris McKay: Where Darwinism Fails

Over the phone I detect a touch of William Shatner’s Kirk in the voice of NASA astrobiologist Christopher P. McKay . McKay admits he was inspired by the television series Star Trek 30 years ago and the “great voyages of discovery”. But while most of his professional …


NASA Humanist Chris Mckay: Where Darwinism Fails

By Suzan Mazur


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Chris McKay

Over the phone I detect a touch of William Shatner’s Kirk in the voice of NASA astrobiologist Christopher P. McKay. McKay admits he was inspired by the television series Star Trek 30 years ago and the “great voyages of discovery”. But while most of his professional life has been at NASA Ames Research Center in the Space Science Division, beginning as a Planetary Biology Summer Intern in 1980, he objects to being typecast saying, “I’m a scientist and not a humanist? That’s idiotic.”

McKay is now a planetary scientist at Ames researching the evolution of the solar system as well as the origin of life. He’s been involved in planning Mars missions including the 2009 Mars Science Lander. He’s an authority on Titan (Saturn’s moon) and was co-investigator on the Titan Huygen 2005 probe. McKay is also Program Scientist for NASA’s Robotic Lunar Exploration Program.

He says he does his best thinking in extreme Mars-type environments –the Arctic, Antarctic, Siberia and Chilean desert. In 1994, The Planetary Society honored him with the Thomas O. Paine Memorial Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars.

McKay now serves on the board of directors of The Planetary Society and on the editorial boards of Astrobiology journal as well as Planetary and Space Science journal. He studied physics and astrophyics as an undergraduate and has a Ph.D. in AstroGeophysics from the University of Colorado.

Chris McKay is author / editor of several books, among these: Case for Mars II, Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life, Earth’s Climate, From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement.

My telephone interview with Chris McKay follows.

Suzan Mazur: You were co-investigator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission in May. We were told that perchlorate was found in the soil. And that clay and possibly methane exist on Mars as well. What do each of these signal?

Chris McKay: Let’s start with the methane. This was evidence from ground-based telescopic spectroscopy and the European Mars Express mission. There’s a lot of controversy about the methane and there’s still not yet a coherent story about the data and its interpretation. I actually belong to the camp that believes it’s not real, that the methane data is a mistake.

Suzan Mazur: What would the existence of methane signal?

Chris McKay: If the observations are valid and there is methane on Mars, it tells us that there is a very strong source of methane and that it varies on short time scales, much less than a year. Biology is one possible cause.

Suzan Mazur: What about the clay?

Chris McKay: Clay is much more clear. There’s evidence from orbital data for phylosilicates, which is a fancy word for clay. That’s pretty solid and not surprising. It’s consistent with what we understand about Mars. And the distribution of the clays is interesting.

Suzan Mazur: What is interesting about the distribution of clays?

Chris McKay: The clay is found mostly in the ancient regions of Mars, probably indicating that these are the locations which had water.

Suzan Mazur: This is clay that has fossilized?

Chris McKay: Not fossilized but old.

Suzan Mazur: And that means?

Chris McKay: It’s a relic from some time when Mars had a lot more water. This is the leftover mud from an early wet muddy period.

Suzan Mazur: What is the significance of finding perchlorate?

Chris McKay: The perchlorate recently detected by the Phoenix mission adds to the mystery of the Martian soil. Perchlorate is an oxidizing form of chlorine and we do find it in deserts on Earth, for example the Atacama desert in Chile. Perchlorates are not bad for life, but they are not good for life either. They certainly do not rule out biology.

Suzan Mazur: Aside from drilling down a kilometer or two into Martian soil to identify what is there, which some say could take anywhere from decades to centuries – you’re keen on the idea of terraforming. Nudging Mars back to its previous life, if Mars had one.

You refer to life on Mars as a possible “second genesis“. Life on Earth as the “first genesis”? Would you say a bit more about your vision?

Chris McKay: There are two thoughts here. One is the notion of a second genesis: Did Mars have life and was that life a second genesis. Was there a separate, independent origin of life on Mars? Did that occur?

That’s a question about the history of Mars that we seek to answer with robotic missions or with human missions. It’s a science question.

If we find there was life on Mars and that it represents an independent origin of life – what I call a second genesis of life – that’s wonderfully important scientifically as well as philosophically. Scientifically it gives us the opportunity for the first time to compare two types of life. All life on Earth is one type. If we find a second genesis on Mars, we will then have the opportunity to compare biochemistries for the first time.

It’s also wonderful philosophically because if right here on our own solar system life started twice, once on Earth and once on Mars, then it’s clear the Universe is full of life. That it starts on all Earth-like planets.

As long as we only have one example of life (Earth life), we never really know if it isn’t just a cosmic fluke. So to my mind the search for a second genesis is the most important science question about Mars. That is the science-driver in terms of understanding Mars’ past history and potential for life.

Now there’s another question about Mars’ future. The second genesis is the story about Mars’ past. The story about Mars’ future is: Could Mars have life in the future?

That would involve global change. We’d have to warm Mars up once again to make it a planet suitable for life.

Suzan Mazur: Critics of terraforming ask how we would do this on Mars when we have big environmental problems on our own planet. Then there’s the cost of terraforming Mars to consider as well as the dangers of messing around with the Martian environment without fully knowing what may be out there. Would you comment?

Chris McKay: There are two concerns. One is the cost. And I think the cost is probably small. We’re not talking about a massive engineering project. We’re actually talking about producing gases on Mars the way we produce them on Earth and letting nature take its course.

The normal scenario people have when they think about terraforming is some huge science fiction-like enterprise – massive fleets of spacecraft shining giant lasers down on Mars. That’s not what I think would make sense.

What would make sense would be producing gases at a low level on Mars – the same gases we’re producing on Earth – supergreenhouse gases, which are now warming up the Earth. Then once Mars warmed up, letting life follow its own evolutionary history. The actual effort involved would be quite modest.

But there’s an issue separate from the economic issue, which is: Is this something we want to do and how does it relate to Earth?

Sometimes people say we need to do this so that we have a lifeboat after we’ve messed up the Earth. So we’ll have somewhere to go. That is not a practical option and it’s ethically absurd.

Suzan Mazur: Anything more you’d like to say along those lines?

Chris McKay: Yes. If Mars had a separate origin of life, there’s a possibility life is still there on Mars, even if in a dormant state. In that case I have advocated bringing Mars to life, back to Martian life. “Mars-aforming” rather than terraforming.

Suzan Mazur: I visited Saudi Arabia a few times and have seen the Saudi successes at reclaiming the desert.


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Ostriches and Nubian Ibex in protected area near Taif, Saudi Arabia [Suzan Mazur’s Archives]

Chris McKay: We’re also reintroducing the wolf here in Yellowstone Park. Restoration ecology is a watchword for this millennium.

It used to be ecology meant doing nothing. Ceasing to do bad things represented ecological action. Now we realize doing positive things is important too. Civilization has become ecologically pro-active. Reintroducing the wolves in Yellowstone is an example.

We could bring a planet back to life It would be the first really positive thing on our collective resume of space missions.

Suzan Mazur: What about space law? In 1967 we had the Outer Space Treaty, which said there would be no nukes or any other WMDs in orbit of Earth or installed on the Moon or any other celestrial body. Also setting out that space is res communis – no one country has jurisdiction to make laws in space. 98 countries signed and 27 ratified. Did the US and other major power ratify this treaty?

Chris McKay: I think so, but I don’t really know that.

Suzan Mazur: Then in 1979 we had the Moon Treaty based on the UN Convention of the Laws of the Sea, which spelled out that the profits of space would be shared equally among nations. Leading the charge that resulted in the US not ratifying or even signing the Moon Treaty was the L5 Society who were promoting Gerard O’Neill’s ideas of space habitats (the L5 women said they would not become pregnant until they were in the space colony). L5 were also advocates of terraforming. 13 countries did ratify the Moon Treaty but no major powers.

Those ratifying included: Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines and Uruguay. France and India signed, but Russia, China and the US neither ratifed nor signed.

I was writing stories for Omni magazine at the time and asked Malcom Forbes what he thought of the Moon Treaty. He was not in favor of the Moon Treaty. Here’s some of what Forbes told me, which he reprinted in Forbes:

“I think it’s a nice academic theory, but the point is, who’s going to spend all the money to dig out the ore if all of it has to be turned over to the commune of nations? You obviously can’t go out and stick a flag down, as in the old colonial days, and say the moon is yours. This is your Saturn. But you just can’t remove incentive and say everything belongs to everybody. That would mean nothing belongs to anybody, and nobody would then go get it. . . .

I think that if the French find a lot of ore on a particular asteroid, then France should be able to sell the ore in the world marketplace. Then somebody else will go after another asteroid for ore, as entrepreneurs have done on Earth for oil and for everything else. Competition makes people go seek it, and mankind profits universally. Though a drug company may own the rights to a certain medicine, mankind globally eradicates a certain disease.”

Does current space law address this issue about sharing the profits of space and what are your thoughts?

Chris McKay: I have thoughts on it but I’m not involved in space law at all. I think these points are irrelevant.

Suzan Mazur: Really?

Chris McKay: They are based on what I think is a false assumption, which is that there is money to be made in space. I think that’s smoke & mirrors. It’s the same smoke & mirrors that they applied to the space station and the production of wonder drugs in microgravity.

Suzan Mazur: So where are we now then in the discussion about the commercialization of space? In 1985 Aviation Week launched a magazine called Commercial Space: The First Business Magazine of the Space Age. The thinking was that space was “not just adventure, exploration and national prestige anymore” – in fact, 2,100 companies were supposedly supporting space activities at the time.

I noticed that Aviation Week ran a web page article last year called: “International Commercial Space Development for the Future 50 Years“, but the original AW magazine Commercial Space seems to be defunct.

I also remember having a lengthy conversation with someone at Shearson Lehman in the mid 80s about investments in space. You don’t think the thunder’s still there regarding business in space?

Chris McKay: I meant the way Forbes was describing it. Mining in space. There’s business in space, of course. The business in space is Earth observation and tourism, the only businesses in my view that make sense at all in space.

Suzan Mazur: Earth observation.

Chris McKay: In my view, satellites in orbit looking at Earth is not really space business. It technically is in industry parlance.

Suzan Mazur: So these 2,100 companies that were supporting space activities at the time?

Chris McKay: I bet 99.999% of them were supporting launch and Earth observation, Earth satellites, Earth communications.

Suzan Mazur: You don’t think the drug companies are sending up experiments.

Chris McKay: There have been no drugs developed in space. There have been no companies beating down the door. The only business in space has been the use of space as a platform to look at or talk to Earth. That’s a huge industry.

When I go out into the field, I have a little dish and I can get Internet through satellite. I love it! I get on Google Earth and I can look into my backyard and love it. That’s not space industry in my view, that’s Earth industry. That’s not what I mean by space industry.

What Forbes was implying was that there’s gold on an asteroid and someone’s going to go out and mine it and sell it on Earth. That’s what I say is bogus.

Suzan Mazur: That’s science fiction.

Chris McKay: It’s not just science fiction, its absurd. Science fiction when it’s done well is about things that we can’t do but we can think possible. Absurd are things that just make no sense at all.

Suzan Mazur: Have the number of space interest groups been expanding or has the pouf gone out of the souffle in recent years about interest in space?

Chris McKay: I think they’re high right now, partly because NASA is back on the track to go to the Moon and Mars. But there’s still – you go to NASA headquarters and there are still people talking about how we’re going to make money mining oxygen on the Moon and we’re going to have return on investment. We’re going to sell oxygen mined on the Moon. I think it’s so stupid that I’ve stopped even arguing about it.

I don’t think there is a mineral-based economic activity on the Moon or Mars or asteroid belt that’s going to pull private industry. But people still believe there is.

The L-5 Society/Forbes view that you just quoted – which is the view that there are mineral resources in space and we’re going to get rich by mining asteroids and the Moon, selling those minerals to passing spaceships or bringing it back to Earth – I just think that’s absurd.

Tourism is not absurd. Clearly there is a lot of interest and a lot of money to be made in tourism. Serious contenders are putting money forward in space tourism, like Virgin Galactic. Nobody is spending real money developing a mining operation on the Moon.

Suzan Mazur: Now I understand the Astrobiology Program funds are hurting. Is that right?

Chris McKay: That’s another matter. The science will continue at some small level. Science funds will go up and down as fashions dictate. Sometimes it’ll be geology and astrobiology. They’ll always be in there. But it’s always going to be a low level government-sponsored activity.

Suzan Mazur: What, of the Astrobiology Program?

Chris McKay: Any science activity. Lunar geology, Martian astrobiology, the search for life, understanding volcanoes on the Moon and Mars – all of these are worthwhile science activities and they will all occur, but will be a low-level activity.

Suzan Mazur: Seems peculiar with people so interested in the origin of life – I would think there would be more resources put into this.

On the theory side of origin of life – are you involved in the review of papers and would you tell me what you look for in accepting or rejecting a paper? What reservations do you have in reviewing a paper coming from outside your peer circle?

Chris McKay: Mostly, is the paper presenting new ideas or new data. A lot of astrobiology papers written on the origin of life are just somebody’s afternoon speculation.

Suzan Mazur: You’re on the board of . . .

Chris McKay: I’m on the editorial board of several journals.

Suzan Mazur: Which ones?

Chris McKay: Astrobiology, Planetary and Space Science, probably some others I can’t keep track of. I get a lot of papers to review and I spend a lot of time reviewing papers. I think I’m the favorite reviewer for anything that’s astrobiologically speculative.

A lot of people lately – because astrobiology has become so fashionable – like to write what you could call Sunday afternoon theories. Well, maybe life could be based on boron, for example, and they write about it – all just speculation.

I insist that papers have new ideas, important new ideas or important new data. That they don’t just be somebody’s random ideas like wouldn’t it be interesting if there was life on a planet that was really hot and based on heavy metals and . . .

Suzan Mazur: So a paper needs math.

Chris McKay: Not necessarily math, it needs substance. It needs to have some meat to it. I’m using the word in the old English sense. A paper can have an important new idea or important new data and develop that idea or data. What I’m coming across is a lot of papers that are basically sophomore term papers on the origin of life. They review the field and then speculate about possibilities.

Even though the paper’s well written, I’ve read this 50 times before. If this were a sophomore term paper in an astrobiology class maybe I’d give it an A. But it doesn’t need to be published in the literature because it doesn’t add anything to our collective understanding.

Suzan Mazur: What percentage of papers do you actually give a nod to.

Chris McKay: Oh I’m pretty generous – about 80% or 90%.

Suzan Mazur: Really.

Chris McKay: Yes. I’m known as the soft reviewer. That’s just the way I am. My view of reviewing is that it’s not the onus of the reviewers to be the gatekeepers. My name doesn’t get attached to the paper. It’s not a problem for me if a paper gets published that’s garbage. The author’s name is attached to it. The primary responsibility for quality and acceptability is the author’s.

I reject only in egregious cases, where I think it would be a real waste of the journal, in the sense that I’m a guardian of the ink space of the journal. We have finite pages we can publish each year and I don’t want to waste those pages.

Again, I don’t assume intellectual responsibility for the papers. The authors do that. I give authors broad benefit of the doubt.

Suzan Mazur: How many of these papers coming in for review would you say you’re reading on a weekly basis?

Chris McKay: I’d say it’s at least one a week. It comes in waves. Right now I have so many that I have to keep a separate folder on my computer called papers and proposals to review.

Suzan Mazur: Are you saying you’re overwhelmed with papers at this point?

Chris McKay: One a week is overwhelming. When astrobiology was less popular there’d be two or three a year. But one a week is overwhelming.

Suzan Mazur: It’s interesting that you give the nod to 80% or 90% of papers.

Chris McKay: Most scientists submit a paper that does have new ideas and new data. Scientists realize their name is on the paper. So the papers are generally not just random ruminations.

Suzan Mazur: These papers don’t require data, but it helps to have data. The important thing is to have a clear idea and develop it.

Chris McKay: If you’re publishing a paper without data, then you’ve got to have some pretty good new ideas. There are papers which present new ideas and explore the implications and present testable hypotheses derived from those ideas. That’s an interesting paper. Let’s publish that.

Suzan Mazur: What is your perspective on the line between life and non-life being arbitrary?

Chris McKay: I don’t think we understand that division. It’s useful to think of it in two ways. One is that the division is sharp. That it’s like a phase transition. Like the difference between water and ice. It’s rather sharp. And then it’s meaningful to talk about living systems as distinct from non-living systems or pre-biotic and biotic.

The other view is that it’s not sharp. That it’s gradual. That it’s a continuum of a state. And then it becomes hard to define when something is alive and when it is not.

Suzan Mazur: That’s when it’s arbitrary.

Chris McKay: We as scientists don’t know.

Suzan Mazur: But what is your best guess?

Chris McKay: My best guess is that it’s a sharp transition. I guess that based on the nature of life which is this feedback between information and matter. You have information stored in the genome and then you have material systems which are organic molecules which implement that. The feedback is self-amplified feedback. Typically self-amplied feedbacks have sharp ons and offs.

Suzan Mazur: Now you say in searching for life elsewhere in the Universe, the logical things to look for are energy, carbon, liquid water, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. But you don’t say look for natural selection. Do you think Darwinian natural selection exists throughout the Universe?

Chris McKay: Yes. Natural selection, I think, is the essential aspect of life no matter where we find. It would be great to have some way to detect natural selection, but we’re unlikely to be able to. We have a hard time detecting it here on Earth and showing that it’s occurring.

But we see the products of it. In our biochemistry we see the results of billions of years of natural selection and optimization. So we detect natural selection indirectly.

If we were to go to Mars and find a dead rabbit on the surface of Mars, a Martian rabbit, that is neither alive nor is it undergoing reproduction and selection. But it would be proof of Darwinian selection on Mars because that rabbit or the Martian animal, the dead Martian animal would be proof of natural selection because only natural selection could produce that dead animal. And so we would have found evidence of life, evidence of natural selection – and if it was an alien biochemistry, evidence of a second origin of life, all from having found a single dead animal.

There’s an unfortunate problem in the English language where life refers to a process, refers to an individual, and it refers to a collective phenomenon that has a history. When people talk about defining life – they mix all those together in a messy way and it makes no sense. . . .

Suzan Mazur: What about other mechanisms of evolution, self-organization and self-assembly? They precede natural selection?

Chris McKay: Something had to precede Darwinian natural selection. The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways.

First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Secondly, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level. [emphasis added]

Suzan Mazur: So you’re saying Darwinian natural selection sets in at what point?

Chris McKay: I think it must set in after life has started. After there’s a genome, genotype. That’s the one obvious place where Darwinian natural selection fails – is in the origin of life. It can’t be Darwinian all the way down.

Suzan Mazur: At what point did the gene set in?

Chris McKay: We don’t know. That’s the question. It’s got to do with whether the transition to life is abrupt or gradual.

Suzan Mazur: What is the gene?

Chris McKay: The gene in a general sense is anything that stores information in an algorithmic way. Stores instructions how to build something. It doesn’t have to be DNA, it could be RNA or it could be something else. But at some point life invented software.

I think the language of computers is very useful here. There’s a distinction between hardware and software. Darwinian selection only works when there’s software. And everything that’s prebiotic is hardware.

At some point life got onto software And that’s when Darwinian selection could begin. Darwinian selection can’t work on hardware by definition because Darwinian selection involves inheritable traits. Only a system that has software has inheritable, mutatable traits. It doesn’t have to be DNA, but it has to be software. And it has to record algorithmic information, instructions.

Suzan Mazur: You began your association with NASA in 1980 as a Planetary Biology Summer Intern at NASA Ames – which is where you are today.

Chris McKay: Yes. Still here. Same building.

Suzan Mazur: In a different capacity though. Those Star Trek episodes about a positive future really meant something.

Chris McKay: Yep.

Suzan Mazur: We’ve gone through a dark period in recent years – could more films about a positive future actually help bring one about do you think? How close is science fiction and science reality?

Chris McKay: Let me not just talk about films. Let me talk about literature and the humanities. The humanities is the study of human things in human terms And they’re incredibly important to defining our human view. Science doesn’t tell us how to live our lives or how to strive for a better world. The humanities do that. And so there’s a very important role for literature, film, art.

Science gives us a lot of valuable information. But it’s the humanities that tells us about the human condition and what motivates us to make the world a better place – literature and art. It’s our understanding of our humanness in human terms. That’s what the humanities are.

I am a student of the humanities because I am a human being. I completely reject a distinction between science and the humanities. I’m a scientist and not a humanist? That’s idiotic.

Suzan Mazur: Science and art have a close connection historically. Thinkers like da Vinci, for instance and so many other examples.

Chris McKay: Even in the non-genius end, as a human being and part of this culture I interact with this culture. I find motivation and inspiration and learn from being part of this culture. The human aspect of my environment is very important to me.

Literature, science fiction, are part of how we together create an image of the world as we would like it to be. So when we write stories about a positive future, we are in a very real way telling ourselves we shall make it so. We shall make a positive future. I’m a big supporter of that. It’s an important part of my own motivation.

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Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr @ aol.com

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