No Other Eden
Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe
by Guillermo Gonzalez
Peter D. Ward, a paleontologist, and Donald Brownlee, an astronomer, are both at the University of Washington. Both are well known in their respective fields: Ward has written several books on life extinctions in Earth history; Brownlee is head of the Stardust mission to a comet, and his name has been applied to interplanetary dust particles collected in the Earth’s atmosphere—Brownlee particles. As a colleague in the same department, I know both scientists well. (I see Brownlee almost every day.) The three of us are currently working on a technical paper on habitable zones in the universe.
I have been discussing topics related to habitability on a regular basis with the authors since they began writing their new book, Rare Earth. Given my substantial involvement with it, I must recuse myself from a critical evaluation of the book’s scientific content. However, I will give a brief descriptive summary of Rare Earth and place it within the broader context of the current debate on intelligent design.
Briefly, in Rare Earth Ward and Brownlee introduce their hypothesis that simple microbial life is common throughout the universe but that complex metazoan life is extremely rare. They base the first half of their hypothesis on the recent explosion in knowledge about extremophiles—organisms that live in extreme environments. These include deep-sea thermal vents, hot springs on the continents, and dry valleys in Antarctica, places not too different from some of the habitats on some other planets and large natural satellites in the solar system. They base the second half of their hypothesis primarily on the large number of astronomical factors that must be satisfied within narrow ranges for complex life to exist. Some of these factors include a large natural satellite, a giant planet in the proper orbit to act as a “comet shield,” the right type of host star, the right orbit in the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy, and the right type of galaxy.
The intense public interest in Rare Earth as soon as it went to press caught all three of us by surprise. We expected this to be like most other semi-technical books, which are usually read by relatively few specialists. It quickly rose to about No. 10 on Amazon.com for a few days. The New York Times printed a long, lavishly illustrated summary of the book on February 8th entitled, “Maybe We Are Alone in the Universe, After All.” Both Ward and Brownlee have granted numerous television and radio interviews following the book’s release in January. Peter also participated in a couple of radio debates with Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.
I attended the authors’ only talk on the University of Washington campus on their book. I also listened to one of Ward’s radio interviews. My interest was not so much in their presentations as it was in the questions from the audiences. In both instances the questions primarily centered on the possible theistic implications of their hypothesis, with one questioner showing concern over how the “Religious Right” might employ Rare Earth to further their agenda.
Ward’s answer was disappointing: “We are just incredibly lucky. Somebody had to win the big lottery, and we were it.” In other words, it’s just the same old appeal to chance and large numbers (or a very long period of time). Some of his other answers, however, indicated to me that he might be open to the possibility of design in the fundamental constants of nature.
One of the great ironies in all this has been the complete ignorance on the part of the authors and their secular fans concerning the contributions of theistic scientists to the rare Earth hypothesis. Hugh Ross, an astronomer and founder of the ministry Reasons To Believe, in 1993 published the book, The Creator and the Cosmos, wherein he presented a long list of many of the same kinds of astronomical and geophysical factors Ward and Brownlee describe in their book.
Because Ross’s book was not widely read outside the Christian ghetto, his ideas were stillborn as far as the secular media are concerned; during the time the rare Earth hypothesis was being spread in the Christian community, it was being either ignored or actively opposed outside it. The greatest irony is that I, a creationist/intelligent design advocate, have been the source of many of the ideas presented in Rare Earth and accepted by many secular scientists. Simon Conway Morris, whose work is cited more often in Rare Earth than any other individual researcher, is also a Christian (though this fact is not widely known).
The failure of the Christian voice to be heard is, sadly, due to the complete lack of credibility of Christian scholars within the scientific community. This is the result of years of marginalization and even demonization of anyone holding to creationist beliefs. The secular press and science journal editors rarely make distinctions among intelligent design scholars or the various species of theistic scientists: young-earth creationists, progressive creationists, or theistic evolutionists. Sometimes, theistic evolutionists are given a pass, but anti-Darwinists who are not overtly secular are always viciously attacked.
In their final chapter, “Messengers from the Stars,” Ward and Brownlee try to put their hypothesis within a broader historical and philosophical context. They rightly note that the rare Earth hypothesis goes directly against the Copernican Principle. The Copernican Principle had its origin in the simple hypothesis put forth by Nicholas Copernicus that the structure of the solar system is heliocentric as opposed to geocentric. This physical understanding of the universe, in which the Earth is not the center of anything, has been extrapolated and inflated into a general metaphysical doctrine that asserts a complete lack of “specialness” for the Earth or its inhabitants. True, the physical form of the Copernican Principle has been proven true, as we have been moved into an average-looking place in the universe, but at the same time, Earth has been shown to be quite special in its ability to support living things.
This first became evident in 1973 with the introduction of the Anthropic Principle into cosmological discussions by Brandon Carter, and it was reinforced by the publication of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in 1986. Barrow and Tipler amassed a huge collection of examples from astrophysics and chemistry showing just how finely tuned many constants of nature have to be for us to exist. It appears the universe was designed with the goal of producing us. This is the central theme of the Anthropic Principle, and it goes directly against the philosophical form of the Copernican Principle.
Surprisingly, most popular science writers and many professional astronomers have continued to interpret new discoveries in astronomy within the Copernican framework. For example, over the last four years many magazine articles and over half a dozen books have been written about the new extrasolar planet discoveries, all interpreting them as furthering the Copernican revolution. But any open-minded person looking at the new discoveries objectively will see that they demonstrate just the opposite—the solar system is far from typical. Ward and Brownlee are among the first secular scientists to admit to this obvious fact.
Their hypothesis also goes directly against the religious dogma of the SETI Institute, which has enjoyed a love-fest with the public during the last decade or two. The movie Contact was a masterpiece of propaganda, which most of the public seems to have accepted. Even astronomers have been suckered into swallowing the SETI misinformation. Ward and Brownlee are to be thanked for going against such a powerful opinion-setting institution. Theirs is the first significant critique of the SETI position since Frank Tipler opined against SETI and openly criticized Carl Sagan in the early 1980s.
Unfortunately, their political incorrectness goes only so far. The deepest meaning they could derive from their rare Earth hypothesis is that perhaps it will encourage greater enthusiasm for environmentalism! And, of course, they blame all the environmental problems on the rapid human population growth. Apparently, they have not read the late Julian Simon’s works, such as his famous book, The Ultimate Resource, or his most recent one, Hoodwinking the Nation.
Don’t get me wrong. I do share a concern for the health of the ecosphere, but environmental awareness is certainly not the deepest meaning I would extract from the rare Earth hypothesis. No, I would say that Rare Earth presents yet more evidence of divine design. I would go even further and claim that the evidence shows our uniqueness and God’s great care and love for us by his creating a vast universe just to have one planet inhabited by beings capable of worshiping him. What could be more meaningful?
Guillermo Gonzalez is currently research assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. He holds a Ph.D. (1993) in astronomy from the University of Washington. His specialty is stellar spectroscopy, and his current primary interest is the study of stars hosting extra-solar planets.
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