Title: Cancelled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See
Author: Eric Hedin PhD
Publisher: Discovery Institute Press(2021)
Published in Salvo Blog 2024
Title: Cancelled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See
Author: Eric Hedin PhD
Publisher: Discovery Institute Press(2021)
Published in Salvo Blog 2024
A Work Commenced September 1 2023
Title Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland
Authors: Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Though I certainly wouldn’t call myself old, I’m certainly old school, preferring traditional ways of doing things compared with modern ‘gee whizz’ techniques. And when it comes to birding, I enjoy the challenge of first seeing and studying a new species, taking some notes, and then doing some bookwork to make a formal identification. Up to now, I’ve been using the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, which has served me quite well. It’s packed full of details about bird behaviour, habitats and basic biological information, but the illustrations, while being decent, have sometimes lacked enough detail for me to nail the identification of many smaller birds, such as warblers and finches. But that’s where this new work, Britain’s Birds: An Identification guide to the birds of Great Britain and Ireland hits the mark. This new work is lavishly illustrated with excellent full-colour photographs – a total of 3,591 in all – of the birds of the British Isles in their various stages of life, which makes identifying species much easier. The subjects are presented in their natural habitats which can prove very important to making those final decisions on the identity of a target.
Unlike the RPSB Handbook, the accompanying text is very concise and, for me, achieves an excellent balance between providing enough information to achieve an identification but leaving out unnecessary extraneous details that can all too often side-track the reader. The field experience of this multi-author text is abundantly in evidence, with astute insights conveyed to craft succinct ‘word pictures’ that clearly reveal expert identification knowledge. Each bird species is accompanied by a map of the British Isles showing where they are most likely to be found, together with arrows conveying migratory routes from Scandinavia, central Europe and Russia, as well as where summer migrants to the British Isles depart these islands in the autumn.
Although Britain’s Birds is touted as a field guide, its substantial weight – a whopping 1.4 kilograms – precludes its regular use as a true resource that can be used in the great outdoors. But it has a good quality sewn binding unlike the glued pages of the RSPB Handbook, which will increase its longevity going forward.
I found one entry that genuinely confused me. On page 474, the entry under ‘Nuthatches’ shows a map of the British Isles where you would come away with the impression that this species is not actively present in Scotland. This seems to be an anomaly. Nearly every passing day I’ve recorded two and sometimes many more of these birds in many different locations throughout Scotland. Nuthatches are alive and well in Caledonia!
Although published by Princeton University Press, 40 pence out of each purchase is donated to the RSPB. Undoubtedly, the RSPB, which is now approaching the 130th anniversary of its founding, has done a great deal of good in raising awareness about bird conservation and initiated many schemes across the country to conserve endangered species, there are worrying concerns that this charity has recently been infected by woke ideology, recently launching a scathing invective against the British government. I for one do not want any charity or public institution becoming politicised and promoting climate change alarmism and other ridiculous scaremongering claptrap. I don’t want to see the RSPB go down the dangerous road of virtue signalling- a path that has ruined numerous other charities. If you go woke, prepare to go broke!
That being said, Britain’s Bird’s is a tremendous work that deserves great success. Now in its second(2020) edition, it’s an indispensable guide that birders and naturalists will find invaluable. And at a retail price of £20, it’s an absolute steal!
In this blog, I’ll be reviewing astronomer Dr Hugh Ross’ latest book, Designed to the Core.
Tune in soon for details…………………...
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Dr Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy, including a large historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, showcasing how the Christian faith was never a hindrance but actually instrumental to the development of astronomical science. His new book on binoculars will be published in 2023.
A Work first Published in Touchstone Magazine March/April 2022
Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe
by Stephen C. Meyer
(576 pages, $29.99, hardcover)
Return of the God Hypothesis is the latest work from the distinguished philosopher of science, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, and one of the world’s leading proponents of intelligent design (ID). In it, Dr. Meyer shows that science at its most cutting edge has thoroughly vindicated those who have clung to a deeply held belief in a personal God who operates beyond space and time. From the earliest moments of the Big Bang, to the formation of the first living cells on earth, and on up to the present day, the extraordinary fine-tuning we observe in all realms of nature shows us that God has truly left his signature on the very large and the very small.
The thesis of this book is that modern scientific discoveries testify to the idea that a mind vastly superior to our own not only created the universe, but also purposefully arranged for it to have precisely the properties required for human life to exist and flourish. Meyer examines three seminal scientific discoveries to support his thesis: (1) that organisms contain biological information whose source cannot be merely physical or material; (2) that the laws of physics have been finely tuned to sustain life in general and human life in particular; and (3) that the universe had a specific beginning in space and time.
Building on his previous best-selling works, Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, which examined the implications of biological information, Meyer now brings cosmic fine tuning and the origination of the universe in a Hot Big Bang singularity into the discussion to argue persuasively that the single best explanation for all three phenomena is a personal God who transcends the spacetime continuum and has intervened throughout cosmic history to ensure that creatures shaped in his image would one day appear on earth.
Theistic Cosmology: The Big Bang
These three ideas were not birthed in a vacuum. The scientific revolution, Meyer asserts, began in Reformation Europe and was firmly moored in theistic principles. Quite simply, to study the universe was to get to know the mind of God. That’s why so many of the founding fathers of science—Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and René Descartes, to name but a few—framed their scientific knowledge in terms of “understanding God’s thoughts after him.” They all saw within the pages of Scripture a God who set boundaries for the tides and the winds and ordained the orderly motion of the moon, stars, and planets, a law-giving God who limits human life span to curtail the spread of personal evil within any individual.
But as the Renaissance gave way to the Age of Enlightenment, scientists abandoned these theistic principles and sought instead to formulate a purely materialistic narrative of cosmogenesis. The great celestial mechanician, Pierre-Simon Laplace, declared in the eighteenth century that there was no need to invoke a deity to explain the complex motions of the celestial bodies, and Charles Darwin posited in the nineteenth that humans evolved from lower animals through a mindless process he called evolution. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw scientific materialism reach its zenith and even spill over into political and psychological discourse in the works of such atheists as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
Yet with the inexorable march of science into the twentieth century, theism came back with a vengeance, starting with Edwin P. Hubble’s discovery that the universe was constantly expanding. This was followed by Georges Lemaitre’s discovery of evidence for a sigular cosmic event which brought the physical world—space, time, matter, and energy—into existence all at once at a particular point in the finite past. Lemaitre’s theory—for he was both a Catholic priest and a prominent physicist—came to be known as the Big Bang theory.
Meyer relates how many of the great astronomical minds of the era found such origin stories “philosophically repugnant” and went to great lengths to repudiate them. In fact, the distinguished British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle coined the phrase “Big Bang” as a term of derision. He countered the idea of the universe having a definite beginning with his own “steady state” theory of a universe that was infinitely old. This was the conservative view among scientific materialists at the time.
But as militant as Hoyle became in advancing his steady-state cosmology, the evidence for the Big Bang grew ever stronger as the twentieth century wore on. And some distinguished scientists, such as the Mount Wilson astronomer Allan Sandage, began to see the unavoidably theistic implications of a universe that had a beginning. Ultimately, the evidence for the Big Bang theory led Sandage to faith in Christ at the end of his life.
Theistic Biochemistry: Genetic Information
In exploring the current state of origin-of-life research, Meyer shows that despite the best attempts of materialist scientists to re-create the first chemical steps toward life, they have been unable to do so, but in the process have inadvertently shown that an inordinate amount of intelligent design—far in excess of current human capability—is required to bring a living organism into existence. Indeed, by calling on experts in organic chemistry, Meyer shows that even the first steps toward creating a biomolecular assemblage require many intervening stages that cannot be achieved naturalistically. He writes:
The discovery of the functional digital information in DNA and RNA molecules in even the simplest living cells provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living organism.
The thorny question of life’s origin leads Meyer to explore an even more fundamental problem for scientists who hold to a strictly materialistic narrative of how we got here. He doesn’t shy away from asking where the stupendous amounts of new genetic information came from that are needed to build complex cells and new body plans. He shows that even the most hard-nosed evolutionary biologists duck that question time and time again because no rational answer is in sight.
Theistic Physics: Fine Tuning
Moreover, it turns out that we live in precisely the kind of universe that can allow living things to exist in the first place, not to mention allowing human life to flourish. Specifically, if the strengths of the various forces of nature or the properties of the particles comprising the material universe were only very slightly different, we simply wouldn’t exist at all. This is known as the fine-tuning problem. Meyer reminds us that some of the best minds in the industry have been thinking deeply about it.
The distinguished theoretical physicist Sir John Polkinghorne believes that cosmic fine-tuning provides very powerful evidence of design. Brian Josephson, another British Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has stated frankly that he is 80 percent confident that some kind of intelligent agency was involved in the creation of life. The same evidence caused the outspoken philosopher Antony Flew to reject his own long-time atheistic teachings, which he had clung to for most of his life, in favor of deism. As Christian astronomer Luke Barnes writes: “Fine tuning suggests that, at the deepest level that physics has reached, the universe is well put together. . . . The whole system seems well thought out, something that someone planned and created.”
Nevertheless, some materialist physicists have invoked an entirely speculative concept to explain away the creation of our fine-tuned universe: namely, the weird and wonderful “multiverse,” or as some refer to it, the “many worlds hypothesis.” Our universe appears the way it is, these advocates claim, because it is just one among an infinite number of universes whose physical laws and material properties are all different. Logic dictates that a small number of these universes must contain conditions that are ripe for the development of life and human intelligence, and ours just happens to be one of them. No creator God needed.
Meyer calls upon some towering figures in the philosophy of physics to demolish the multiverse hypothesis. Roger Gordon, for instance, has compared the attempt to promote the multiverse theory to “trying to dig the Grand Canyon to fill in a pothole.” Other intellectuals have delivered their own verdicts on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Richard Swinburne of Oxford University likes to invoke Occam’s Razor in deciding whether a theistic or multiverse worldview is more likely. Since theistic beliefs require only one explanatory entity, he argues, over the multitude of entities required for the multiverse, the theistic model is more rational and more likely to be true.
Desperate attempts have also been made by influential cosmologists to avoid the obvious theistic implications of a universe that had a definite beginning. In particular, Meyer uses his considerable skills in philosophy to debunk the lofty-sounding proclamations of celebrity cosmologists such as Lawrence Krauss, the late Stephen Hawking, and others, who have sold millions of books with headline-grabbing titles like A Universe from Nothing and The Grand Design.
Meyer also examines the technical details of the real physics underlying their claims. For example, he notes that Hawking ducks the issue of a beginning by introducing “imaginary time” into the equations of general relativity. While these modifications do seem to avoid a singularity, his critics have pointed out that they are merely mathematical constructs that do not comport with physical reality. Hawking also introduces ad hoc treatments that appear simply to have been motivated by his philosophic disliking of a first cause.
Meyer lays out similar devastating arguments against other theorists who have waded in on this issue, especially Lawrence Krauss and Max Tegmark. Above all, Meyer shows that while these men may be brilliant scientists, they turn out to be very poor philosophers.
If God, Which God?
If, as Meyer asserts, the God hypothesis is the single best explanation for why the universe is the way it is, can we then infer anything about the nature of that deity? Meyer discusses the three main possibilities: pantheism, deism, and theism.
Pantheism asserts that God is the totality of all of nature, the Brahman of the Eastern religions. Meyer shows that pantheism cannot account for the cosmic fine-tuning we observe, because the deity that created the universe must necessarily transcend space and time. All the great religious texts of the Orient, however, describe a deity who must have begun to exist only after the universe came into existence.
Deism, on the other hand, posits a transcendent God, but it denies any involvement of that God in the workings of nature after the beginning. In other words, God somehow front-loaded the laws of nature so as to guarantee that creatures like us would some day emerge, but he then stepped back and let things proceed on their own.
The actual scientific evidence we have, however, indicates that God has played an active role in his creation throughout time. For example, vast amounts of new information had to have been introduced when the first complex animal body plans appeared during the Cambrian Explosion, some half-billion years ago. The fossil record shows clear evidence of mass extinctions followed rapidly by the appearance of entirely novel forms of life. That comports with a God who is always working, as the Lord Jesus said: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).
Although Meyer concentrates on just three issues in this book—fine tuning, the origin of biological information, and the singularity at the beginning of time—there are other natural phenomena that also point towards a creator God. The hard problem of consciousness, for example, is still a profound mystery, especially for those who hold to a materialistic or evolutionary world view, yet it fits neatly into a theistic framework.
Can scientific research go a step further and trace a path from theism to Jesus Christ? While Meyer is a Christian, he does not address that question in this book, at least not directly. Perhaps that discussion will become part of Meyer’s next literary project. If so, it will certainly be worth reading, too!
Dr. Neil English is busy writing his latest book, Choosing Binoculars: A Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts, which will hit the bookshelves in late 2023.
Title: The Story of the Cosmos, How the Heavens Declare the Glory of God
General Editors: Paul M. Gould & Daniel Ray
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Price: US $22.99
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
The night sky is the last great frontier. From a dark country site, away from the lights of towns and cities, the full grandeur of the starry heaven can be enjoyed. It melts even the hardest heart and fills us with awe as we contemplate its vast size, its teeming multitude of effulgent hosts and its great preternatural beauty. But for the Biblical King David, the night sky also presented powerful evidence that a Creator had fashioned it all. As an avid stargazer from my youth and a committed Christian, I have always regarded the majesty of the night sky as a grand expression of the created order.
That’s why my curiosity was piqued when I came across a new book, The Story of the Cosmos: How the Heavens Declare the Glory of God, edited by former schoolteacher and amateur astronomer, Daniel Ray, and philosopher/apologist, Paul M. Gould, who have assembled a stellar line of some of the finest Christian minds across a multitude of disciplines from the sciences, arts, philosophy and theology, united in their conviction that the Universe at large displays the unmistakable hallmarks of order, design and foresight from the microscopic realm of the sub-atomic to the macroscopic world of stars and galaxies; the handiwork of an all-powerful God; the God of the Bible.
The Story of the Cosmos comes at an especially exciting time when Darwinian ideology is being toppled by an avalanche of new science. The origin of life is as mysterious as ever; the more we probe its depths the more complex it becomes. So too is the nature of human consciousness. The book draws upon an exceptionally rich repository of intellectual thought from Aristotle, Plato and St. Augustine in the ancient world, to great Christian thinkers in the modern era including C. S Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, John Lennox and others who have all formulated the same answer to an age old question; why is the cosmos intelligible, rational and ordered? Their answer, arrived at using various philosophic approaches, is that the universe is the way it is because its Creator is also rational and human beings, made in the image of God, are capable, to some degree, of thinking God’s thoughts after Him.
Three chapters in Part I of the book, written by distinguished scientists, Guy Consolmagno, Guillermo Gonzalez and David Bradstreet, respectively, explore another, related question. What was God’s purpose in creating a cosmos that is intelligible to humankind? Their answer is that God has allowed us to be active participants in unravelling the mysteries of His creation and delights in humans figuring things out through the dual virtues of deep, logical thought and scientific experimentation. Our God has spilled his grace upon humankind in such a way that it encourages us to explore the riches of the Universe and to delight in learning something new. Planetary scientist, Dr. Guy Consolmagno, imagines himself studying the precious meteorites in lock step with his Creator, who he imagines is ‘sitting across from him’ in his laboratory, watching as he stumbles on some new insight. Astrobiologist, Dr. Guillermo Gonzales, describes the fascinating details of how our planet, far from being an ordinary world lost in the immensity of space, shows all the hallmarks of super-intelligent design for life in general, but human beings, in particular. He offers fascinating insights into things few people would never even consider. Why can we see the stars? Why is the Earth just right for launching probes into space? Why are we located on the outskirts of an enormous spiral galaxy, where the night sky is dark and transparent? The answer, as Gonzalez explains so eloquently, is that our Creator had it in mind all along to allow humans to come to some understanding of the great power, majesty and glory of His creation. In this sense, when we express awe for the beauty of the night sky, we are, in a certain sense, offering up a prayer to the Almighty. The same kind of enthusiasm is conveyed by stellar astronomer, Dr. David Bradfield, who describes how studying the complex light curves of variable stars is an exciting way to unravel the machinery of God’s creation.
It is not only through the media of science, philosophy and theology that humans have reacted to the created order. Artists too have also responded with their delicate brush strokes. In a wonderful essay by Terry Glaspey, we learn how the great out of doors and the beauty of the night sky inspired artists throughout history to see both the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial realms as a “grand cathedral” wherein the presence of God is palpable.
But all of this naturally raises other questions; what happens when scientists do not pursue the evidence wherever it leads? That’s a fascinating question that is answered by astrophysicist, Dr. Sarah Salviander, who describes in some considerable detail, the consequences of abandoning what I would call Judeo-Christian ways of thinking. Salviander showcases the disputes that arose between the astronomer, Sir Arthur Eddington, and his brilliant Indian graduate student, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Chandra). Although Eddington admired Chandra’s theoretical achievements, he refused to accept where those conclusions concerning the fate of massive stars (neutron stars and black holes in particular) would lead him. Salviander writes:
The answer is that Eddington fell victim to some combination of the four primordial barriers to understanding that are constantly at work in the minds of every person; limited perspective, misleading emotions, intellectual inertia, and excessive pride……………..Longstanding and popular ideas are often difficult to overcome even when compelling evidence like Chandra’s is presented. And, sometimes people like Eddington experience a lapse in humility that causes them to use their authority to oppose an idea they just don’t like.
In similar fashion, the distinguished nuclear physicist, Robert J. Oppenheimer fell victim to the same kind of cognitive dissonance:
A close friend of Oppenheimer’s, the Nobel laureate physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, believed that Oppenheimer’s abilities as a physicist suffered as a result of his turning away from the beliefs of the Old Testament in favour of the literature of Hindu mysticism. According to Rabi, Oppenheimer was scientifically blinded by an exaggerated sense of mystery and the boundary between the known and the unknown and became incapable of following the laws of physics to the very end. pp 95.
The same resistance to wholly rational and reasonable conclusions about the nature of reality is explored by Christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig, who explores the mindset of atheist cosmologists such as Lawrence Kraus, who expects his readers to believe that the Universe came into existence out of nothing, with no material cause or need for a Creator. In particular, he focuses on what Kraus attempts to pass as ‘nothing’ and convincingly concludes, citing sonorous rebuttals by his own scientific peers, that Kraus’ concept of nothing is in fact, a whole lot of ‘something.’
Physicists, Luke Barnes and Alan Hainline, who take a decidedly neutral stance on Christian theism in the book, similarly debunk ill-thought-through statements made by Darwin-thumping atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who famously declared that;
The Universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares, DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Unlike Dawkins, whose expertise is in zoology, Barnes and Hainline are actually qualified to comment on the notion of cosmic fine tuning, observing that, at every conceivable level, our Universe provides compelling evidence of being very special indeed. Why? Because if Dawkins’ statement were actually true, our Universe would simply not harbor life, especially conscious human life.
Given the overwhelming evidence for design and purpose in the Universe, how should the atheist or agnostic best respond to it? That question is explored in a thought-provoking essay by Paul M. Gould, who sets out a robust argument for theism based on the reasonable premise that naturalism cannot account for the flourishing of human life. Gould highlights the significant weaknesses of the so-called neo-Humean synthesis, which asserts that all of physical reality can be reduced to its micro-physical parts, in favor of what Gould calls the Aristotelian-Christian worldview, which much more robustly accounts for the properties of the Universe we humans observe in practice as image bearers of God’s character.
It was a great pleasure to read this beautifully composed work of Christian literature. It is timely, thoughtfully written and illustrated, reverent and inspiring, with great apologetic appeal. The Story of the Cosmos is a refreshing oasis for the human soul and deserves a special place in the library of all Christians, sky gazers and curious agnostics alike.
Dr. Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. His large historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, explores the lives of astronomers and how their work often re-affirmed their strong Christian convictions.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland
Little Brown 2019
(594 pages, Hardcover $20.79)
As I sat down to collect my thoughts for the review of the distinguished British historian and author, Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion- How the Christian Revolution remade the World, we are in lockdown, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the planet. Deprived of our usual liberties to roam where we will, humanity had risen above the drudgery of government imposed captivity, and shown its better side – if only for a while – helping those who are vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the poor and the destitute, supporting our health care workers on the front line, raising countless millions of dollars for struggling charities, as well as lifting the spirits of families around the world with songs, stories, games and jests.
The irony of this predicament was not lost on me as I finished the final chapters of Holland’s latest tour de force. The thesis of Dominion is that, despite the west’s departure from Judeo-Christian values upheld for centuries and millennia, and though we largely live in a post-truth society more concerned with feelings than facts, the Christian message still casts a long shadow over the shared values of our contemporary, secular, civilisation. Acts of charity, selflessness, compassion and sacrifice – all of which are deeply anchored in the gospels of the New Testament- were abundantly on display in our societies during this time of crisis.
Drawing on 25 centuries of human civilisation, Holland calls upon a rich depository of ancient, medieval and modern history to drive his point home. Beginning with the Jews, who were the first people to receive instruction from the Creator God of the Bible, Holland contrasts the strict monotheism of Judaism to the polytheism of the surrounding nations. In addition, unlike the idols of silver, gold and fine polished stone used to characterise the gods of other nations, the Biblical God first revealed to the patriarchs was not to be worshipped in like manner. Drawing on the moral laws preserved in the Torah, Holland explores the implications of the Ten Commandments, the sabbath and laws establishing proper sexual relations in this ancient people. These laws and precepts, Holland convincingly argues, though resisted by the Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, gradually became written on the hearts of what we might call western civilisation in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman world.
The singular life of Christ – an itinerant preacher and healer born and raised in the Roman-occupied territories of Palestine, and subjected to a horrific execution on a Roman Cross – Holland argues, set in motion the greatest revolution in human cultural history the world has ever seen. Indeed, Holland goes so far as to suggest that the ideas conveyed in the New Testament effectively detonated the cumulative wisdom of the ancient world. We are not the benefactors of Greek and Roman civilisation, as many historians have asserted, but of Christendom.
Accordingly, Holland lays out the evidence for this startling conclusion, exploring how the early Christians followed the example of their Lord and Savior through great acts of charity, caring for the sick, the orphaned, the poor and the weak, not to mention heroic acts of martyrdom that shocked and horrified the pagans who lived alongside them. Surviving waves of persecution under tyrannical Roman Emperors, the blood of its martyrs sowed the seed of evangelism in the hearts and minds of both slave and free for the cause of Christ. And instead of stamping the new religion out, such heroism only served to swell its ranks across all tiers of society, from the mega-rich to the abject poor.
After Constantine the Great granted his imprimatur to the Christian religion in the 4th century AD, a golden age of Christian literature blossomed in its wake, including many of the writings of the early Church Fathers – Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, in the western tradition, and Basil of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria and John Chrysostom in the eastern tradition. And after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the late 5th century AD, Christian ecclesia become synonymous with centres of learning. On the precipice of the known world, Christian monasteries preserved the knowledge passed down from classical antiquity and would eventually become the seedbeds for the establishment of the first university towns such as Padua, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge and Madrid, to name but a few.
Holland explores the long ascent of what would emerge to be the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which came nearest to making the Christian religion truly catholic, or universal, but does not shy away from the problems within the Roman See which eventually led to its greatest schism; the Reformation and Protestantism. Holland displays a nuanced understanding of how key individuals of the Reformation such as Martin Luther, fanned the flames of antisemitism by equating Jews with vermin and calling for their extirpation for the rejection and murder of the true Messiah. How could Luther, who was in lockstep with the beating heart of so many ordinary people, turn out to be a hater of the original People of the Book? Are not all human beings made in the image of God? Whatever the reasons, antisemitism remained alive and well in the centuries that followed, as Holland explores in discussing the persecution of Jews by the Spanish Church throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, and culminating with the Nazi regime which ordered the extirpation of millions of Jews in the years leading up to and throughout World War II.
But antisemitism was just one aberration that emerged from what Holland couches more generally as muddled theology. The same could be said to have occurred with the problem of slavery and racism in general. Holland recounts stories about folk who could look you straight in the eye and tell you that their Bible – in both the Old and New Testaments – condoned slavery in its various forms. And yet, while it’s easy to take a few Biblical verses out of context to justify almost anything, most references to bondservants in the Old Testament do not have the same meanings we ascribe to slavery in our own society. Evidence of this is clear enough in Exodus 23:9 when the Lord warns the people of Israel not to oppress the ‘alien’ and the ‘foreigner’ in the land, and that to remember that they too were once under bondage. Furthermore, St. Paul boldly proclaimed that there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek – all are one in Christ Jesus. It was with such convictions that prominent Christians such as William Wilberforce and others -curiously not mentioned by Holland – who provided the abolitionists with the political power to end slavery, first across the British Empire, and later in the New World, especially through the monumental efforts of Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The author revisits racism later in the book in his discussion of the late Nelson Mandela and the thorny issue of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.
Holland also explores the radical effects of science on the Christian faith, particularly the works of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s dangerous ideas gave intellectuals who either hated or held the Christian worldview in contempt – Aldous Huxley, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Andrew Carnegie and Adolf Hitler – plenty of ammunition to show that blind, impersonal and implacable forces shaped the origin and development of all life on earth. And man, long held to be a special creation by God – was merely just another evolved animal. One idea united all these men; if nature was red in tooth and claw, where the fittest only survived, surely human societies had a duty to follow suit. Suddenly the centuries old Christian ideals of compassion, sympathy and charity, respecting all individuals as unique creations of the Godhead, were now being portrayed as vice – deluded and ‘pusillanimous’ – and certainly not how an enlightened mankind ought to behave. And yet, all the while, there were (and still are) Christians who came to accept evolution, they do so ignorantly, since the latest scientific advances, which sadly, are not investigated by Holland in this treatise, are now rapidly and firmly demolishing those claims.
The God of the Bible is the God of love. Shouldn’t love always win? Holland looks at some controversial manifestations of ‘love wins,’ including the rise of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in the modern world and the ordination of women clergy. If life-long monogamous relationships are the Christian ideal, Holland asks, what is so immoral about gay marriage? And if the Bible teaches that men and women are equal but different in the eyes of God, who shows no impartiality, why can’t women deliver sermons from the pulpit? Holland shies away from offering his own opinion on these questions but suffice it to say that a close reading of the Bible condemns all homosexual acts as gross violations of God’s plan for human beings. What’s more, such deviant behaviour has a strong destabilising influence on the nuclear family. And, as to the question of women clergy, St. Paul only offers his opinion (in the negative) rather than stating that it is a decree from Sovereign Lord, and thus is open to fresh debate.
Dominion is a book that deserves to be read by a broad cross-section of society, by people of faith and those of none. And while Holland maintains a decidedly agnostic tone throughout, he is certainly sympathetic to and, I suspect, somewhat in awe of the long shadow the Christian worldview has cast over human civilisation; a shadow that shows little sign of abating in the 21st century.
Dr. Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. He also earned a Diploma in Classical Studies from the Open University. His latest historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, demonstrates how the science of astronomy was profoundly influenced by observers fully committed to the Christian faith.
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
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.
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
I suppose we could add a data point for today’s world as well; 3.57
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.”
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Book Title: Lucky Planet
Author: David Waltham
Publisher: ICON Books
Year of Publication: 2014
Price: £9.99(UK) Paperback(225 pages)
If you are a regular reader of the popular periodicals such as Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Astronomy Now, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Scientific American, etc you’re sure to notice that any articles discussing life on other worlds invariably paint a picture that life is commonplace in the Universe and will be found in many different exoplanetary environments. Very rarely(if ever), will they present articles arguing the opposite; that life in general, and intelligent life in particular, will be rare or even unique to the Earth. The reasons for this bias are many and varied but some of the most important reasons include; (1) the motivations of their authors to promote their own work in astrobiology,(2) to extend methodological naturalism to the Univese as a whole and (3) to dispell the notion that we might in any way be special.
The problem with this approach is that it is not presented in the true spirit of scientific enquiry, which seeks to find truthful answers to big questions. Thus, more often than not, the inability of these periodicals to publish scientific findings that challenge or counter their philosophic positions simply reflects the ingrained prejudice of its editorial.
I encountered this prejudice directly in a recent exchange with the editor of Astronomy Now, a magazine that I have faithfully written for for 25 years. When I wanted to write an article discussing the idea that extra-terrestrial life could be rare, citing many up-to-date scientific articles on the subject, the editor turned sour and refused to publish the work. The reason: nothing to do with science, he just didn’t like what I was reporting! A classic case of bigotry methinks. Anyway, we forgive and forget, then move on. So I decided to take my work elsewhere, no sweat. I suspect however, that my story is not unique. Many science writers before me must have experienced something similar and no doubt, it will happen to someone again in the future.
A Related Aside: Check out the hostility I received here in a recent forum discussion entitled: How many Earths in our Galaxy? I wonder if Waltham would experience the same hostility were he to post his ideas on that forum? Disgraceful? I’d say so!
That’s why I was very excited about this recent book, Lucky Planet, written by one of the UK’s most respected geophysicists, David Waltham, who heads a large research team in the Department of Geosciences, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Waltham’s thesis is this; the Earth has enjoyed, more or less, 4 billion years of “good weather,” and that we owe our entire existence to an extraordinary sequence of “lucky” happenings that have come about to make and maintain a habitable planet. Furthermore, this unmerited fortune is very unlikely to occur on the vast majority of worlds that inhabit the observable Universe. Being used to a world teeming over with life all around us, we suffer, Waltham argues, from a severe dose of “observational bias”, which leads many to naturally conclude that life must exist everywhere. He gives some very good examples of how observational bias can lead us to wrong conclusions. For example, Waltham notes that most of the stars visible to us in the night sky are actually larger and more luminous than the vast majority of stars that really exist. But with a telescope, this bias is transformed into something much closer to the truth; that the Universe is filled with innumerable red dawrf stars much fainter and less luminous than the Sun. Indeed, as Waltham reminds us, some 95 per cent of all stars that exist are smaller than the Sun! So looks can deceive!
The principle of mediocrity; the idea that our predicament should not be viewed as special is grounded in the Copernican principle, which Waltham discusses in chapter 2. I was especially impressed with his research on the life and works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who is often cited by science popularisers as a “martyr for science,” and erroneously pedelled by science celebrities such as the late Carl Sagan, and more recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson, not to mention a great many introductory astronomy texts. Waltham convincingly argues that this is largely a scientific myth used to push a certain philosophic agenda(anti-Christian) on an unsuspecting public.
Calling on a great deal of new scientific evidence from astronomy, planetary science and paleoclimate studies, Waltham weaves a very sophisticated scientific picture of the key events in Earth’s deep history that have contributed to maintaining a viable biosphere ever since life took a hold on the young Earth near on 4 billion years ago. Some of the facts he presents are indeed profound: A warming trend as small as 1 degree C every 100 million years would have been enough to make our world uninhabitable by now, and it would not have been surprising had such a trend occurred.
Much of the science in the book derives from Waltham’s own work in theoretical modelling of paleoclimates, as well as geology field work, with many amusing anecdotes along the way. When he was a boy, for example, he lived for a time on the west coast of Scotland, where his love of fossils and geology was nurtured. As a teenager, he became a keen amateur astronomer, with a particular love for the Moon, and even built a few reflecting telescopes, but like myself, drifted away from astronomy for a period to pursue his education in physics, only to return to important astronomical topics later in his career. And though he does not acknowledge the work of a Creator as the explanation for this extraordinary serendipity, he remains respectful of those who do hold religious beliefs.
The book continues with excellent, well-informed chapters on Big Bang cosmology, a spectacularly successful scientific model for the origin and evolution of the Universe, the stabilising effects of the Earth’s Moon, the role of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory in attempting to explain the many inter-related factors that maintain a complex biosphere, and how it fares in comparison to his own ‘Goldilocks’ view of Earth, where luck was the pre-eminent factor in our planet’s success. He appeals to the anthropic principle quite a bit in the book and its usefulness in explaining why the Universe as a whole appears fine-tuned for life.
That said, the book does display a few significant shortcomings. In a biological context, he uses the word “evolution” more like a magic wand than a proper scientific tool. Stars, planets and galaxies evolve because we can model their evolution with a fair degree of precision. But the same has not been demonstrated for the most complex things we know about; living systems. All we hear is ‘this evolved into that,’ with no explanation as to how it happened. And details are very important when trying to convey scientific truths. He rates Charles Darwin as a significant scientific figure, whereas I do not. There is little discussion on the details of how life arose except the usual handwaving about some mysterious ocean floor vent, and a ‘just so’ story of how replicating RNA models were miraculously encapsulated into a fully viable lipid membrane and the like. I got the distinct impression that Waltham did so in a rather tongue in cheek manner, as if he were toying with his readers. Later in the book he alludes to this shortcoming in the context of computer modelling:
It may seem surprising that the Moon could provide the best evidence of the Earth’s life-friendliness when other factors, such as biological evolution, have had a much more direct and significant impact on our planet’s developing environment. There are several reasons why the Moon tells a more convincing story of our good fortune than many other, apparently more promising, facets of our world. For a start, the behaviour of the Earth-Moon system is reasonably well understood one, controlled by the relatively simple equations of celestial mechanics. I say ‘relatively simple,’ because the details are still a bit of a nightmare. Isaac Newton himself complained that thinking about the motions of the Moon made his head ache! Nevertheless, unlike climate evolution or the evolution of animals and plants, the changing behaviour of our satellite through time can be mathematically modelled with reasonable precision.
I applaud the intellectual honesty of Waltham in an age where many inflated scientific egos assert that we have nearly everything figured out. Science itself is evolving; it never ceases so long as inquisitive minds keep seeking answers. What may be true today may not be true tomorrow. He writes;
I should in all honesty admit that experts would argue over almost every one of the details in the story I have just given…..
I was also surprised by his avoidance of providing an in-depth discussion on the Cambrian Explosion, which occurred about 541 million years ago and which led to 80 per cent of extant animal body plans suddenly appearing within a short span of a few million years(some are now saying less than a half million years), and with no credible evolutionary antecedents. Indeed, we now know the fossil record as a whole does not support an evolutionary narrative, with vast periods of stasis interspersed with mass extinctions followed by equally rapid appearances of new species and ecosystems. Waltham would have also benefitted from the work of the world-renowned synthetic organic chemist, Professor James Tour, who has recently weighed in to expose the shocking degree to which human intervention is needed to reproduce even the very first steps toward the simplest of lifeforms. Suddenly, Waltham would have to thank his lucky stars many times over again for all the other convenient happenings in Earth history!
How I wish Waltham were as enthusiastic about the details of living systems as he clearly is about rocks!
Having said all that, Waltham does concede that the origin of life will be a very unlikely event anywhere;
I believe that the origin of life, like all the major steps leading to the emergence of intelligence, is a rare occurrence.
I think that’s quite an understatement!
In addition, Waltham hopes that future robotic or human explorers will one day uncover evidence that Mars has (or had) microbial life but offers this very sensible qualification:
My hope is that we will soon find microscopic life living beneath the surface of Mars and my expectation is that its biochemistry will show it to be similar to Earth life. This will generate some interesting discussions as we debate whether the evidence that there is only one way to make life or evidence for cross-contamination between the worlds. I expect a consensus to eventually emerge that the similarities are too great to be explained by a separate origin…
As you can see from the internet thread I linked to above, I got lampooned for asserting that the question of whether life is commonplace in the Universe is not really scientific in the sense that we should not expect it to be commonplace in the Cosmos. In other words, it is scientifically naive to assume so. Professor Waltham affirms the same general conclusion in stating that the scientific consensus will very likely fall on the side of extreme rarity rather than ubiquity. He writes;
The scientifically conservative position should be that life is rare and intelligence even more so.
He even advises that others should have a similar frame of mind about the Earth:
I certainly believe that the possibility that the Earth is special should be taken seriously by everyone and for all sorts of reasons, but in conclusion, I’d like to finish with the most important justification of all for considering this idea. It’s probably true.
Waltham is a very engaging and likeable intellect; a deep thinker, who kicks back hard against the goads.
Clearly, our Dave put a lot of thought into this book. But I sense he is searching for something. He is deeply intrigued by the perfect solar eclipses we experience, whether it is merely a highly unlikely coincidence or whether it points to something far greater, and even describes his trip along with a few chums, to Germany to get a good view of the August 1999 apparition. He often gives thanks to the powers that be (let’s call it the goddess Fortuna) for how lucky he feels to have existed at all! He even ends with a surprising comment; and this from a man who cannot, by his own admission, believe in miracles:
I will not finish on a negative note. Earth and countless other inhabited worlds scattered thinly throughout an unimaginably immense multiverse has given rise to a fragile wonder of life. On Earth we have laughed, loved and wondered at the beauty of the world and the Universe around us. We are part of an extraordinary miracle and I, for one, feel very lucky.
So although Waltham’s goddess – Fortuna – allows for life bearing planets but only so rarely that one or two might exist in each galaxy at the most, or galaxy cluster, he also plays mind games with himself. I was particularly intrigued by these comments:
Acceptance that the Earth is a very odd planet, and that this was necessary for the emergence of humans, also has a very obvious impact on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Quite bluntly, if there is significant anthropic selection for Earth properties, then we are effectively alone in the Universe. As I discussed earlier, the nearest extra-terrestrial civilization could easily lie beyond the edge of the visible Universe and so be uncontactable. This is quite a disappointing conclusion for many. Indeed, one prominent, well-informed critic of the anthropic ideas has admitted that his views may be coloured by having grown up watching the original ‘Star Trek’ series. Maybe my own views have been coloured by slightly more recent films. I’ve thought for a long time that ‘Alien’ was more plausible than ‘Mr. Spock’, so it’s quite possible that my subconscious doesn’t want aliens to exist.
I can empathise with the author here, as my own position is that we are alone.
And there’s a good reason for that!
On my sojourn through this extraordinary labryinth we call life, I have lost my faith in Fortuna; for she acts blindly, with no foresight and cannot create; always fumbling in the dark.
Neither does she care.
But, 20 centuries ago, an extraordinary human being walked the dirt roads of the Galilee, bringing Light to the world, a man-child born in a manger, who grew in wisdom and stature, healed the sick and the infirmed, fed the masses with little more than a morsel of food and even commanded the winds to die down. By turning water into choice wine at a wedding, He gladdened the human heart. He raised the dead, walked on water, and after suffering a horrific execution on a Roman cross; rose triumphantly from the dead and appeared to more than 500 believers before ascending on the clouds to Heaven. In the Holy books written concerning Him we read:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.
This Person chose to enter His own creation and cared Himself to death.
His name is Yeshua of Nazareth, and He promised to return to this Earth, which He created, to bring an end to all evil, suffering and death. The same Holy books say that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.
I joyfully await His return, and would encourage Dr. Waltham to research His truth claims. He brings joy and meaning to my life; Yeshua; the eternally Living God, who will not share His glory with another.
So, to end this review, and despite the few reservations I have with it, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone wishing to get an up-to-date and scientifically accurate picture of how we got here. It is a very well written work, full of joy, wonder, humour and optimism; a book that will help you appreciate just how wonderful every human life is!
pp 49 the author says the Orion Nebula is a few hundred light years away. It’s actually about 1,350 light years distant.
pp 54 The author says that Banded Iron Formations(BIFs) cannot form in the presence of oxygen.
BIFs are formed when aqueous iron ions combine with oxygen forming insoluble oxides which form precipitates known as BIFs.
Dr Neil English holds a BSc(Hons) in Astrophysics and a PhD in Biochemistry, regularly kicks against the goads, and is author of a new historical work; Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, published by Springer-Nature.