Ten years after publishing The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells revisited the Red Planet, writing a non-fiction article speculating about what type of life existed on Mars. The provocative question he posed to readers: "Is it probable that evolution has gone upon exactly parallel lines on the two planets?"
The essay, published in the March 1908 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, was titled "The Things That Live On Mars" and featured astonishing illustrations (left and below) by William R. Leigh who, until then, had made a living painting landscapes of the American West. Years later, the famed science-fiction author Edmond Hamilton would describe the article — which he discovered when he was just four-years-old — as a defining moment in his life: "I looked at that magazine until it wore out. I wasn't yet able to read it, to read the article, but those pictures! I sat and wondered if Mars was a long way off and if it was a very strange place."
Wells described his article as an invasion by imagination, based upon "scientific reasoning… in conformity with the very latest astronomical revelations." Although the central question on readers' minds was the possible existence of intelligent beings, Wells argued that this could not be considered in isolation of the other lifeforms that had emerged on the planet:
They cannot live there alone; they can be but a part of the natural history of Mars in just the same way that man is but a part of the natural history of the earth. They must have been evolved from other related types, and so we must necessarily give our attention to the general ﬂora and fauna of this world… before we can hope to deal at all reasonably with the ruling species."
It sounded logical, although it had one key flaw: Wells derived most of the "latest astronomical revelations" about the Red Planet from Percival Lowell's controversial 1906 book, Mars and Its Canals, which was dismissed by most of Lowell's peers in the astronomical community. Still, it's difficult not to be swept up by Wells' colorful descriptions, as he meticulously contemplated every aspect of the Martian environment, and what it might reveal about the type of life that evolved there.
Fauna and Flora
Wells reasoned that the appearance of "Martin herbs and trees" was a consequence of the planet's gravity and atmospheric conditions:
The force of gravity upon the surface of their planet is just three-eighths of its force upon this earth; a pound of anything here would weigh six ounces upon Mars… The limit of height and size in terrestrial plants is probably determined largely by the work needed to raise nourishment from the roots to their topmost points. That work would be so much less upon Mars that it seems reasonable to expect bigger plants there than any that grow upon the earth.
Snow occurs nearly everywhere all the year round, but the commonest of all forms of precipitation upon Mars would seem to be dew and hoar frost….the Martian tree-leaf will be more after the fashion of a snowfall-meeting leaf, spiky perhaps like the pine-tree needle… Moreover, since moisture will come to the Martian plant mainly from below in seasonal ﬂoods from the melting of the snow-caps, and not as rain from above, the typical Martian plant will probably be tall and have its bunches and clusters of spiky bluish green leaves upon uplifting reedy stalks.
Wells went on to suggest that Martian vegetation offered valuable clues as to the types of animals that lived in the alien forests:
[Due to thin air] its anatomy must be built with more lung space than the corresponding terrestrial form. And the same reason that will make the vegetation laxer and ﬂimsier will make the forms of the Martian animal kingdom laxer and ﬂimsier and either larger or else slenderer than earthly types. … Since the Martian vegetation will probably run big and tall, there will be among these big-chested creatures climbing forms and leaping and ﬂying forms, all engaged in seeking food among its crests and branches. And a thing cannot leap or ﬂy without a well-placed head and good eyes. So an imaginative artist may put in head and eyes, and the mechanical advantages of a fore-and-aft arrangement of the body are so great that it is difficult to suppose them without some sort of back bone. Since the Martian vegetation has become adapted to seasonal ﬂood conditions there will be not only ﬂiers and climbers but waders — long-legged forms. Well, here we get something — ﬂiers, climbers, and waders, with a sort of backbone.
The Architects of the Canals
Having described the animal and plant life on Mars, Wells argued that it was now easier to speculate about the ruling inhabitants who had made the gigantic canal-system that Lowell envisioned:
Clearly these ruling beings will have been evolved out of some species or other of those mammal-like animals, just as man has been evolved from among the land animals of this globe… How far are these beings likely to resemble terrestrial humanity? There are certain features in which they are likely to resemble us. The quasi-mammalian origin we have supposed for them implies a quasi-human appearance. They will probably have heads and eyes and backboned bodies, and since they must have big brains, because of their high intelligence, and since almost all creatures with big brains tend to have them forward in their heads near their. eyes, these Martians will probably have big shapely skulls. But they will in all likelihood be larger in size than humanity, two and two-thirds times the mass of a man, perhaps… Will they stand up or go on four legs or six?… A multitude of types, like the squirrel, the rat, and the monkey, can be found which tend to use the hind legs chieﬂy for walking and to sit up and handle things with the fore limbs. Such species tend to be exceptionally intelligent. There can be no doubt of the immense part the development of the hand has played in the education of the human intelligence. So that it would be quite natural to imagine the Martians as big-headed, deep-chested bipeds, grotesquely caricaturing humanity with arms and hands.
Finally, here is a thought that may be reassuring to any reader who ﬁnds these Martians alarming. If a man were transferred suddenly to the surface of Mars he would ﬁnd himself immensely exhilarated so soon as he had got over a slight mountain sickness. He would weigh not one-half what he does upon the earth, he would prance and leap, he would lift twice his utmost earthly burden with case. But if a Martian came to the earth his weight would bear him down like a cope of lead. He would weigh two and two-thirds times his Martian weight, and he would probably ﬁnd existence insufferable. His limbs would not support him. Perhaps he would die, self-crushed, at once. When I wrote The War of the Worlds, in which the Martians invade the earth, I had to tackle this difficulty. It puzzled me for a time, and then I used that idea of mechanical aids, and made my Martians mere bodiless brains with tentacles, subsisting by suction without any digestive process and carrying their weight about, not on living bodies but on wonderfully devised machines. But for all that, as a reader here and there may recall, terrestrial conditions were in the end too much for them.
Wells conceded that his theories were, ultimately, imaginative leaps of speculation. ("How wild and extravagant all this reads!") Still, creationists at the time took issue with his essay. One such writer, William Halls, observed:
H. G. Wells, writes … from the standpoint of the evolutionist… Speaking of the Martians, Mr. Wells says, "Clearly these ruling beings will have been evolved out of some species or other of those mammal-like animals, just as man has been evolved from among the land animals of this globe." If this theory were true that man, on this globe, and intelligent beings on other globes, also, were evolved from a lower order of animals, by chance, without an intelligent design, then it might be reasonable to suppose that they would be subject to the modifying conditions of environment, and that the inhabitants of one world would differ from those of another, in proportion to the difference of their environment.
But this theory is contrary to divine revelation, and also analogical reason… The inhabitants of all the worlds, including Mars, being the sons and daughters of God, to suppose that they are different in form in one world to those on another, is unreasonable; though there may be individual peculiarities, no two being just alike; yet in their general conformation, they must agree. There is one supreme power governing all things in heaven and on earth… In the legitimate exercise of this power there is harmony, order, and uniformity, the same on earth as in the heavens.
To my knowledge, Wells never engaged in a public debate on this subject. Though I can't help but wonder what a Scopes Martian Trial would have been like.