Book Review: “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross.

A Fresh Look at our World.

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

                                                                                                                       Hebrews 2: 5-8

 

Title: Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (2016)

Author: Hugh Ross

Publisher: Baker Books

ISBN: 9780801016899

Price: £12.99 (paperback) pp 283

I love my long summer vacations after another year of intense teaching, from mid-May to late August. I get to do lots of things around the house.

Recently I decided that it was high time to re-organize some of the books in my library. So I went ahead and removed all the titles by Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Fortey, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, Richard Leakey, Jacob Bronowski and a few others, and re-shelved them in my newly enlarged fiction section.

“Heresy!” I hear you shout. Well, after reading this new book, Improbable Planet, by astronomer and Christian apologist, Hugh Ross, I was compelled to do so. Ross is no scientific shrinking violet. Holding a bachelors degree in physics from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Toronto, Ross also carried out post-doctoral research on quasars at Caltech before his Christian faith led him to begin a ministry that seeks to show the harmony between science and faith; a worldview informed from the idea that the Creator provided not one, but two revelatory books; Scripture and Nature. In 1987, he founded his organisation, Reasons to Believe(RTB), in southern California, which has grown in size and influence, helping thousands of thoughtful people make the transition from unbelief to belief. Not only does RTB address astronomical topics, his team now includes PhD-trained scientists in molecular biology, chemistry and physics, as well as a number of highly trained philosophers and theologians. Ross has also built up a huge ‘extended family’ of like-minded people, not just from the sciences and medicine, but the wider community in general, which you can find in presentations of their testimonies on the RTB website.

The thesis of Dr. Ross’ book is this: far from being an ordinary planet orbiting an ordinary star in an undistinguished planetary system, lost in an obscure part of a typical galaxy adrift in a vast sea of other like galaxies, the Earth was the location of an extraordinary chain of events that took place over the aeons, where a super-intelligent agency (which he identifies as Jesus Christ), prepared our planet for its eventual seeding by human beings for the purposes of redeeming billions of souls – a sizeable minority of all the humans that have ever walked the face of the Earth. In support of these claims, Ross calls on an enormous body of scientific evidence from the fields of astronomy, cosmology, planetary science, paleontology, geology and biology to make his case.

Of course, for some, the fact that Ross identifies as a Christian is a complete showstopper. That’s unfortunate, as many will dismiss the book simply based on the man’s spiritual beliefs, but that’s a terrible argument from ignorance; no different in essence from any other kind of bigotry. But rest assured, if you enjoy science, once you settle into the work, you’ll soon appreciate how compelling his arguments are.

Ross can best be described as an Old Earth Creationist, by which I mean, he accepts the consensus view in the scientific community that the Earth and the Universe in which we find ourselves in is old. But not all OECs believe in all the same things. He defends hot big bang cosmology as the origin of space-time and all the matter and energy it contains. He believes that stars and planets evolve over time, citing a huge body of evidence in support of his beliefs. What you won’t find in this book however, is support for biological (read Darwinian) evolution. A long-time sceptic of the evolutionary paradigm, his highly trained team has expertly critiqued the ‘wooly’ scientific claims of its adherants. Now that Neo-Darwinian evolution is coming away at the seams, with an army of biologists now abandoning it by the droves, his long-held and deeply entrenched scepticism of this so-called ‘science’ has been fully vindicated.

Sadly, Ross has endured criticisms, not so much from secular scientists, who largerly respect his work, but from other Christians who hold to a Young Earth Creationist(YEC) perspective, that is, the Earth and the Universe around us are only 6,000 years old. And some YECs have acted very aggressively toward his apologetics. This is also unfortunate, since the age of the Earth is not an issue that Christians should divide over. In truth, both groups have much more in common than they have differences. Indeed, it matters not whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or billions of years old; nature alone will never produce something as complex as a living system in either scheme. Fortunately, his gentle demeanour has won over many YECs over the years and gained the admiration of still more.

That said, there will always be diehard YECs….and that’s OK.

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An interesting aside:

Dr. Ross presents some very intriguing facts about the demography of the human race over time. Consider this data found on page 229:

Date  (AD)                          # of Non-Christians per Christian

100                                            360

1000                                          220

1500                                            69

1900                                            27

1950                                             22

1980                                             11

1990                                               7

I suppose we could add a data point for today’s world as well; 3.57

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A fresh interpretation of the facts:

The opening chapters of the book assesses the big scientific picture; we live on the outskirts of an unusually large and symmetric barred spiral galaxy, our solar system orbiting the Milky Way galaxy about 26,000 light years form the centre. But astronomers have discovered that the location of our solar system lies just inside the edge of the so-called co-rotation axis of the galaxy, where stars orbit at the same speed as the nearby spiral arms. This is highly fortuitous, Ross argues, as it largely prevents the solar system from entering and leaving spiral arms which would likely have severely disrupted any life that would have developed on the planet. But we know that the solar system very likely did not form where it is located today. The evidence suggests that the unsually high metallicity of the Earth and the solar system at large, points to a location of origin much closer to the galactic centre, where the abundance of such metals are much higher than at the co-rotation axis.

Nota bene: Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydogen, helium and lithium as ‘metals’. Such metals were forged inside ancient stars and released to the interstellar medium when they die, either as planetary nebulae or in cataclysmic supernovae events. The incidence of the latter was much higher nearer the galactic centre where the densities of stars was considerably higher than it is at our present location. Indeed stellar metallicty peaks about 50 per closer to the galactic centre than it does at our present orbital radius.

A detailed analysis of the solar system’s elemental abundance strongly suggests that it was enriched by a number of different supernovae explosions(including a very rare type) that enriched it with unsually high levels of heavy elements, particualrly long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and thorium but also short lived species like aluminium 26. This is clearly seen in the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust which comes in at about 8.1 per cent as opposed to the 0.01 per cent for the Universe at large. The rapid decay of these relatively huge quantities of radioactive aluminium released a great deal of heat which helped purge our neonatal solar system of much of the volatile material it would have otherwise ended up with. Our Sun is also anamolous in its oscillatory motion above and below the mid-plane of the Milky Way. Stars in the solar neighbourhood oscillate at right angles to the galactic plane with an amplitude of about 400 light years. In contrast, the Sun exhibits an oscillatory amplitude about half of this value, protecting it from being excessively bathed in galactic radiation, which would have also destroyed the ozone layer, resulting with an increased UV irradiance upon the Earth, scuppering future land life.

The Moon-forming event is discussed in detail, where a Mars-sized object(nicknamed Theia) collided with the neonatal Earth sometime between 50 and 100 million years after our world formed by accretion of material from the solar nebula. Ross explains that this has caused quite a bit of ‘philosophic disquiet’ among some of leading researchers in the field:

The cover article for the December 5, 2013, issue of Nature reported Canup’s concern that “current theories on the formation of the Moon owe too much to cosmic coincidences.”

pp 54

In any event, the collision produced a Moon with sufficient mass to stablise the Earth’s rotation tilt axis, protecting our planet from rapid and extreme climatic variations. Over the aeons, our Moon has gradually recessed from the Earth, slowing its rotation rate to a life-sustaining level. The Moon-forming event further removed large quantities of volatiles from the primordial Earth, preventing it from outgassing enormous quantities of water vapour which would have caused our world to end up with a choking global ocean hundreds of kilometres deep, prevening the formation of continents required for efficient re-cycling of nutrients necessary for all life.

Chapter 6 describes the dynamical history of the planets in our solar system, particualrly the formation of the asteroid belt and the ‘grand tack’ migrations of Jupiter from its rapid formation beyond the snow line of the solar system, followed by its migration inward before moving back out from the Sun to its present stable position. Indeed, the Sun’s family of planets and their positioning is unlike any exoplanetary system thus far characterised.

Chapter 7 provides a fascinating overview of the concept of a habitable zone but takes it far beyond what most science writers are willing to consider. Most of us, for example, are familiar with the water habitable zone; that annulus around a star where temperatures allow a planet to maintain liquid water over geological timescales. Ross takes this concept to a whole new level though, describing not one, but a further seven other zones that must be set in place to allow life to flourish on Earth. These include:

  1. The Ultraviolet habitable zone
  2. Photosynthesis habitable zone
  3. Ozone habitable zone
  4. Rotation rate habitable zone
  5. Obliquity habitable zone
  6. Tidal habitable zone
  7. Astrospheric habitable zone

Without revealing too much in the way of details, Ross writes concerning the UV habitable zone:

The fact that the liquid water and UV habitable zones must overlap for the sake of life eliminates most planetary systems as possible candidates for hosting life. This requirement effectively rules out all M dwarf and most K dwarf stars, as well as O-, B- and A- stars. All that remain are F-type stars much younger than the Sun, G-type stars no older than the Sun, and a small fraction of the K dwarf stars. As  described in chapter 5, only stars at a certain distance from the galactic core can be considered candidates for life support. In the Milky Way Galaxy, some 75 per cent of all stars residing at this appropriate-for-life-distance are older than the Sun. Once these and other non-candidate stars are ruled out, only 3 per cent of all stars in our galaxy remain as possible hosts for planets on which primitive life could briefly survive.

pp 85

Chapter 8 is particularly meaty from a scientific perspective, as it is in this chapter that Ross lends his decades-long studies to the thorny issue of how life appeared on Earth. He writes:

More than a decade ago, evidence indicated that the origin of life occurred within an immeasurably brief time span. The late heavy bombardment (LHB) raised the temperature of the entire planetary surface so high as to evaporate all its water and melt all its rocks. Then, according to multiple isotopic studies, just as soon as the surface temperature cooled enough for the possibility of life’s existence, life appeared. This evidence prompted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to comment, “One of the most arresting facts that I have ever learned is that life goes back as far in Earth history as we can possibly trace it…..In the very oldest rocks that stand a chance of showing signs of life, we find those signs.”

pp 97

That the Earth had life as soon as conditions were cool enough to accommodate them  seems inescapable, and Ross quotes numerous studies recently(as in the last decade) conducted on ancient zircon minerals, graphitic carbon, and metamorphosed shale that clearly show that a complex biosphere was already established as early as 3.8 billion years ago. The ‘smoking gun’ to this complex origin of life may, according to Ross, come from the isotopic signature of photosynthetic life as early as 3.7 billion years ago. He writes:

Another research team found that the carbon isotope signature of planktonic oragnisms in metamorphosed shale dating to 3.7 bliion+ year ago. In the same shale they measured a high ratio of uranium to thorium. This finding indicated a sequence whereby organic debris produced by a local reducing environment that precipitated uranium deposited in the shale sediment by oxidized ocean water. The presence of this oxidised water implies that oxygenic photosynthetic life was abundant prior to 3.7 billion years ago. Given that the simplest oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria contain over 2,000 gene products, this finding suggests that highly complex unicellular life already existed sometime before that date.

pp 98-99

How this complex cellular biochemistry originated so early completely eludes an evolutionary mechanism. It is simply incredulous that such complex cellular life could could come into being by a blind(by necessity) Darwinian process in such a short a time window. Indeed, more and more studies are revealing the same pattern: life began complex.

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Another curious  aside: What’s the status of prebiotic chemical research?

Even the first chemical steps towards life require an in-ordinate amount of human ingenuity(read intelligent design or foresight). That much was recently admitted by a high-ranking  German prebiotic chemist in a leading scientific journal. Other heavy weights in the field have also waded into this debate, including Professor James Tour (who favourably reviewed an earlier draft of Ross’ book), who has exposed the scale of ignorance exhibited by educators towards this intractable scientific problem. Furthermore a credible source(terrestrial or extraterrestrial)  of homochiral enantiomers of sugars and amino acids needed to build the first cells has not yet been identified. Indeed the origin of life is the oustanding scientific problem of our generation and will likely remain so for many decades, if not centuries to come.

Much of this is not reported in the popular science periodicals, so readers beware!

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Many people think it reasonable to believe in some vague evolutionary sequence of events simply by noting that the first lifeforms were microbes with multi-cellular organisms following them before the most complex creatures of all appeared; vascular plants and animals. But Ross entertains an entirely novel idea; the reason why life started out with microbes before introducing more complex life has nothing to do with evolution; more specifically he notes that the environment of the early Earth was very hostile to life, with large swings in temperature and pH, very high concentrations of unprocessed vital poisons** and with radiation levels(from the decay of radioactive atoms) five times higher than exist today. The reason why life started with microbes is that they are much hardier than more complex life (eukaryotes and muti-cellular lifeforms). Indeed, Ross points out that these biochemically sophisticated microbial species removed large amounts of vital poisons from the environment turning many of them into ores (many of which are now used by humanity in high technology devices).

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**

What are vital poisons?

Vital posons are elements that are toxic if ingested at too high concentrations but are needed at specified low concentrations in body tissues to enable life processes to be maintained. Such elements include boron, fluorine, iron, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, manganese, copper, zinc, iodine, molybdenum, cobalt and nickel etc.

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Thus, in this scheme of events, the Creator put these microbes to work as early as possible to terraform (my own terminology) the Earth’s earliest environments, clearing it of solubilised toxins which was necessary before eukaryotic and multicellular life-forms could be introduced!

In chapter 9, Ross provides an excellent overview of how primitive life functioned in maintaining the large-scale geologic health of our planet, particularly in playing a starring role in stimulating long-lived plate tectonic activity:

In 2015, two geophysicists, Eugene Grosch and Robert Hazen, noted that the subsurface fluid-rock microbe interactions could result in more efficient hydration of the early Earth’s  oceanic crust. This hydration would promote bulk melting leading to the production of felsic crust( igneous rocks rich in feldspar and quartz), which, being lighter than basaltic crust, in turn would generate microcontinents. That is, Earth’s first microbes, by faciliating extensive hydrothermal alteration of ocean floors, yielded extensive mineral diversification that soon resulted in the formation of several microcontinents.

pp 111

 

What is more, as life began to gorge on the minerals formed in Earth’s early crust, it accelerated its weathering, which in turn fed the resulting sediments into subduction zones, thereby stimulating still greater tectonic activity. This was vitally important for Earth’s future history, as the decline in long-lived radioisotopes over time might not have generated the required levels of thermal energy needed to keep the crust in a pliable state needed to build the large continents our planet would end up having. In addition, the early introduction of global  oxygenic photosynthesis drew large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate for a steadily brightening Sun. What Ross makes clear is that without the early introduction of life on Earth, this planet would most likely be sterile or nearly so, by now.

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Yet another curious aside:

Our world is richly endowed with minerals. Indeed, compared with Mars and Venus, which have an estimated 500 and 1000 different types of minerals, respectively, Earth is lavished with over 4,600 known mineral varieties, many of which required the active presence of living systems to create them! See Robert Hazen’s 2013 book, The Story of Earth, for further details.

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As described in chapter 11, ongoing plate tectonic activity resulted in the formation of virtually all of Earth’s continental land mass by about 2.5 billion years ago, resulting in 29 per cent of our planet’s surface area being covered by dry land above sea level. To most onlookers, a value of 29 per cent seems somewhat arbitrary, but in fact, it may be highly fine-tuned. Greater land surface areas would induce too little precipitation in the interior of those ancient continents, preventing life from gaining a foothold in these places. On the other hand, land areas significantly less than 29 per cent would not be able to re-cycle enough valuable nutrients between the land, the sea and the atmosphere to maintain a healthy biosphere.

Chapter 13 & 14 of Improbable Planet discuss the significance of the many mass extinction events in Earth history with forensic detail. Again, at first glance, this might indicate that the cause of life on Earth has no author, but Ross begs to differ. Indeed, he suggests that the sporadic cycles of extirpation followed by rapid recovery of the biosphere with new forms of life achieved two aims;

1. The remains of these ancient life-forms yielded massive amounts of new biodeposits that would be used by humanity to launch a global civilization( think of how fossil fuels led to the Industrial Revolution, for example).

2. The lifeforms that replaced those that went extinct were more efficient collectively at drawing more greenhouse gases out of the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby compensating for the greater heating effects of an ever-brightening Sun.

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A Question for your consideration: If God designed life so that it could evolve from one kind into another, then why does Earth history reveal so many mass extinction events? Why would He bother?

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Ross calls on the second revelatory book of Scripture to advance his claims. Consider the words of the Psalmist of old:

These all wait for You,
That You may give them their food in due season.
What You give them they gather in;
You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
You hide Your face, they are troubled;
You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104: 27-30

Intriguingly, the fossil record agrees with the creation and extinction events discussed in Psalm 104 but, significantly, does not support a gradualistic scheme long envisaged by evolutionists.  Accordingly Ross takes his trained scientific eye and applies this to the study of the most famous explosive events in the history of life on Earth; the Avalon (574 -543 Million years ago) and Cambrian Explosions (543-533 Million years ago), the latter of which led to the sudden emergence of some 80 per cent of all existing animal body plans without any credible evolutionary antecedents! Perectly formed eyes, brains, nervous systems, skeletal systems etc, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Ross discusses the sense of bewilderment expressed by paleontologists seeking to provide an evolutionary explanation for these quantum leaps in biology, which are outlined in pages 172 to 179, quoting some leading researchers in the field, and in particular the utter failure of molecular clocks to keep pace with all the innovations wrought by these  explosive events in the history of life.

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Essential reading for the intellectually curious.

Some further reading on the Cambrian Explosion: I would highly recommend readers  consult and study Stephen C. Meyer’s New York Times best-selling book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design(2013). Concerning this book, paleontologist Dr. Mark McMenamin(Mt. Holyoke College) said:

It is hard for us paleontologists, steeped as we are in a tradition of Darwinian analysis, to admit that neo-Darwinian explanations for the Cambrian explosion have failed miserably. New data acquired in recent years, instead of solving Darwin’s dilemma, have rather made it worse. Meyer describes the dimensions of the problem with clarity and precision. His book is a game changer for the study of evolution and points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of amimals.

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In the final few chapters of the book, Ross outlines an extraordinary sequence of events involving continental breakup, mountain formation, ocean current changes, and ice ages that prepared our planet for the arrival of the pinnacle of God’s creation; humans. He notes that mankind’s appearance coincided with a time when solar activity flaring was at its lowest and solar luminosity (the Sudbury study) reached its greatest stability. Putting it all together he writes:

Is it mere coincidence that our one-of-a-kind long cool summer occurs simultaneously with the following unique events: (1) The Sun becomes exceptionally stable in luminosity, with minimal flaring and ultraviolet and X-ray radiation; (2) no nearby supernova eruptions occur: (3) maximization of the diversity and abundance of life on Earth; (4) various habitable zone windows align perfectly; and (5) many other coincidences described in these pages all come together? Not likely. These amazingly arranged features should give us pause to consider the meaning of our human existence.

pp 218-19

The final chapter reveals the spiritual reasons for human existence as outlined in the pages of the Bible. The enormous body of scientific ‘coincidences’ that Ross presents make it very clear that God deliberately and painstakingly prepared the Earth for humans and that our existence is truly a miracle. That said, these conditions cannot persist indefinitely. We are living in a very narrow window of time in which all these factors work optimally. The story Ross weaves makes it very unlikely that other lifeforms will exist elsewhere in the Universe, as many other scientific authorities in the field are now beginning to concede, and certainly nothing like human beings, but he does point out that we are not alone. The God of the Bible created a host of angelic creatures, the majority of which remained loyal to their Maker and have some capacity to interact with humans. It’s up to each and every one of us to accept Christ’s offer of redemption with exigency or suffer the eternal consequences.

I will leave you with the words of Professor James Tour concerning this wonderful book:

“In Improbable Planet, Ross holds the readers’ hand, leading them in a readable yet gently technical format through a compelling layer-upon-layer argument for the distinctiveness of the planet on which we live and of the preparation for inimitable life on Earth. The text is replete witth references from primary scientific articles in some of the most well-respected journals, underscoring the highest academic rigor taken in substantiating the factual claims. Only the shamefully flippant could dismiss this book as being a faith-filled presentation rather than the scholarly work it represents.”

I wholeheartedly agree!

 

Dr. Neil English is the author of a large(650+ pages) historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, recently published by Springer-Nature.

 

 De Fideli.

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