DE RERUM NATURA: WATER, MR. DARWIN
MANILA, March 12, 2004 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - 'Water, Mr. Darwin'
Dear Mr. Darwin,
They found traces of water in Mars this week, Mr. Darwin. It is another world in the solar system, about 35 million miles away from this one you had so intimately explored. Scientists are all excited after studying the photographs of samples sent by the Mars Rover Opportunity. They, of course, did not find water but traces of it. They deduced it from what we know now about certain minerals that form only in the presence of water. It seems that there was a lot of water in Mars, so much of it that it overran the planet then. When? We still do not know.
The age of the solar system, where Mars and our own planet belong, is placed roughly at 4.5 billion years. Life on Earth began around 3.5 billion to 3.8 billion years ago. Yes, we know this much now and scientists have come a long way since you published your simple and elegant theory of evolution in 1859 in Albermarle Street in London. You had deep reservations then about making your idea public because it cut right into the heart of deep, long-held and well-guarded beliefs that life forms evolved separately and have always stayed the same since the beginning of time. The most shattering implication of your theory was that man, the creature who behaved according to his belief that he was the center of creation, is now just a part of the long chain of evolving life. Humans are still having trouble grasping and subscribing to your theory of evolution, 145 years since your book, The Origin of the Species, paved the way to a lucid, more sensible way of viewing natural history. Creationists are still in our midst, still feeling uncomfortable with the idea that humans share a branch in the tree of life with apes. You played it safe then when you postulated man’s origins when you wrote that he may have been "perhaps, arboreal in habits," but anthropologists saw through that and pursued it, and found that, indeed, we had our beginnings in trees and we find that in our closest genetic kin, the chimps. Last year, scientists have also found what seems to be the oldest mammalian ancestor – 195 million years old – and it is no bigger than a spoonful and looks like a rodent. They called it Hadrocodium wui and they found it in China, revealing the earliest evidence for mammalian evolution that we have inherited as mammals ourselves – middle ear bones separated from the jaw and a large braincase. By the way, Mr. Darwin, you have to know that a century and a half later, we still misquote you by carelessly throwing around the phrase "survival of the fittest," when we want to justify our cruelty and coldness to others and to the world. Science keeps reiterating evidence that suggests that life does not belong to the strong but to the creative, but humans are a strange lot and they still misquote you in the face of evidence. They have the largest brain among creatures but use it in contrary ways.
Finding traces of water in Mars has roused us again from the way we have viewed our place in the universe much the way you, Copernicus and Galileo, did in your respective times. The Viking Missions to Mars in the 70s came back empty then so we had reaffirmed that we were, indeed, "special" since the closest planet was lifeless, and possibly always has been. But the soul of science lies in discovery and our scientists, following the tradition of persistence laid out by scientists like you in history, probed further and here we are now being fed by the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, of proofs that water did exist in Mars in proportions that would have made life possible.
I write this letter filled with dreams of other worlds and imagined possibilities. Did Mars have a Darwin like you who pointed out to his fellow species then the principle behind life’s growth given changing conditions? What kinds of life forms could have existed in that planet? Mars in another time would have certainly meant different conditions for life. I also cannot help but wonder that if Mars had a Darwin, did he also sail around the planet in a ship like the H.M.S. Beagle commanded by a man like the Beagle’s Captain Fitz Roy who lost his mind? I am not the only one projecting my dreams. The rover the British sent to Mars last December was named Beagle 2. If there are more parallelisms, I would, perhaps, never know, but I write here suffused and entranced in the imagined majesty and magnificence of Mars vistas that would have also probably been enough to drive a ship’s commander sailing for the first time around his world, out of his mind.
If Mars had a Darwin like you who had, in some way, published his theory on how life evolved in their planet, I hope it is found. Then, I hope it is re-published with another reprinting of your book The Origin of Species. It would be nice to have a Compendium of Life as it evolves in the universe. I wonder if the beings in that planet, had there been any, also had an insatiable thirst to know who they were, where they came from and where they were headed. Did they know it was going to end this way one Mars day? That beings from another curious planet would land contraptions – creations they made out of their minds – that would probe their history and make it a part of their own history as well?
They found traces of water in Mars, Mr. Darwin. Water on which your grand ship sailed. Water that surrounded the Galapagos, the enchanted islands where you observed the 13 different beaks of finches and gave birth to your theory. Water with which our own planet is awash now. Water where here on Earth, all of life began.
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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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