“How does it come about that the face of a warrior is incised on the carapace of a crab? The answer seems to be that humans made the face.” – Carl Sagan.
Pareidolia is the phenomenon by which humans find significance in mundane objects, images, and sounds. The most prevalent examples are the dragons and bunny rabbits that children ‘see’ in clouds, the Man in the Moon, and random items perceived to have a ‘face’.
It is a human condition to see patterns and to attribute value where there is none. Carl Sagan argued that the ability to discern faces conveyed an evolutionary advantage, enabling young, prehistoric warriors to distinguish between friend and foe in a fraction of a second.
However, in certain situations (low light, for example) our pareidolic sense does a poor job of discriminating; we see ‘faces’ and ‘figures’ where there are none, in shadows and between the trees. Pareidolia manifests as a protective anxiety, an evolutionary paranoia.
Of course, the imagination plays a part; the animals and mountains we find in the clouds perhaps owe a greater credit to wishful thinking than a nebulous sixth sense.
- Moai on Mars
One of the salient points of this post, which I have yet to mention, is that the human face implies intelligence; consequently, it should come as no surprise that examples of pareidolia in the Solar System have been cited as evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
The discovery, in 1976, of a number of unusual structures in the Cydonia region of Mars – chiefly of a ‘face’ and a ‘pyramid’ – was pounced upon by conspiracy theorists, who dismissed NASA’s appraisal of the objects (a “trick of the light”) in favour of their own (intelligent design by alien engineers).
I should probably point out here that later images of Cydonia, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Global Surveyor, in 2007 and 2001, respectively, lent no credibility to claims of a Martian face; the rocky countenance was present only as a mound of featureless rock (below).
However, for conspiracy nuts, the value of scientific evidence is insignificant compared to the worth of imagination. Two ideas persist to this day; firstly, that the Cydonian ‘face’ is a deliberate representation of a Martian or human visage and secondly, that NASA is aware of this little tidbit.
- NASA, the Great Deceiver
There is a pervasive belief among conspiracists that NASA has already found evidence of life on Mars, but, for some reason known only to the brains at Cape Canaveral, they have chosen to withhold that knowledge. Perhaps to prevent a panic; perhaps just to incense the ‘true believers’.
At times, the theorists express a furious dissatisfaction with the space administration, decrying the ‘secretive’ NASA as a drain on taxes, as an engine that exists only to mislead and fabricate. However, the rationale of the conspiracy theorists is fundamentally flawed.
The questions we must ask include; why would Martians build what is seemingly a human face on Mars? Why would they construct what is ostensibly an Egyptian or Aztec-style pyramid? Do they look like us? Are they aware of us? Do they strive to emulate the greatness of the human race?
It is typically anthropocentric to insist that life was created and exists in our own image. There is nothing to suggest that Martians would resemble the human race even remotely, given the hostile climate, thin atmosphere, and ubiquitous dust on the Red Planet.
It is interesting that conspiracists choose fundamentally human artifacts as indicators of life on another world; they pinpointed a ‘face’ and a ‘pyramid’. Why? For Earthlings, those elements are immediately recognisable and evocative of life.
We seek to understand the universe by searching for familiarity in patterns that otherwise may not make sense.
In the seventies, the Viking 1 spacecraft was briefly the cause of a great deal of excitement among Earthlings, when the Lander photographed an impression of the letter ‘B’ on the Martian surface. It was later revealed to be a “trick of the light and shadow, and the human talent for pattern recognition”, to quote Carl Sagan.
The idea that Martians would use or be aware of the Latin alphabet owes more to wishful thinking and our search for regularity in the universe than any relevant evidence. Our alien neighbours, if they exist, are unlikely to have shared a writing system with the Romans.
- Watching the Clouds
The face on Mars is probably not an alien moai; it is an illusion produced from a coincidental arrangement of shadows and rocks, and given significance by fanciful brains. The ‘face’ is testament to the creativity of humans, rather than the ingenuity of a hidden Martian species.
To mutilate Carl Sagan’s words for my own ends; ‘how does it come about that the face of a man is incised on the Martian surface? The answer seems to be that humans made the face.’
Until we can conduct a thorough investigation of the various ‘faces’ of Mars, the Moon, and anywhere else they may be discovered, we should continue to view examples of pareidolia as what they are; products of imagination and paranoia, just bunny rabbits in the clouds.