Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Nature's Destiny

I finally got around to reading Michael Denton's outstanding work on design in nature called Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (1998), and I deeply regret my tardiness in getting to it. This is surely one of the most important works ever to have been written on the subject of design in the universe, and it should be studied by everyone with an interest in the topic and a background in the relevant science. It's Denton's thesis that every single aspect of the cosmos and life is precisely calibrated for the emergence of living things. He does not simply claim that there are some amazing coincidences in the structure of the cosmos but rather that every single fact of the physical world is optimally suited for the emergence of life. The case he builds in defense of this thesis is beyond impressive, it seems overwhelming.

Denton is an evolutionist who denies that evolution is a contingent phenomenon. It could not, he argues, have followed any path other than the one it did. Given the constraints imposed by the physical and chemical properties of matter, evolution inevitably led to relatively large mammals capable of technology and rational thought. In other words, human evolution is pre-planned and built into the laws and properties of the cosmos. The universe was built to accommodate us, and everything about it seems to confirm this conclusion.

Denton, who is himself an agnostic, scarcely mentions who might be responsible for this planning or purpose (what philosophers call teleology), but he mounts a compelling case that the universe is indeed telic, i.e. purposeful. His case is compatible with that of the intelligent design people, but antithetical to both Darwinians (who deny any purpose in nature) and special creationists (who deny that a Designer might have used evolution over deep time as It's modus operandi).

In fact, one comes away from the book with this impression: It is possible to say of virtually any scientific proposition about the universe, any trait or characteristic that might be revealed by science from the microcosmic level to the macrocosmic, that it is a good thing that it has precisely the properties it does because if it did not, we could not exist. There seem to be very few, if any, completely gratuitous facts about the cosmos or about living things. Whether the universe is uniquely fit for life we can't say, but that it is supremely suited for life is undeniable.

Whether it is the age or size of the universe, the properties of the elements of the periodic table, especially carbon and oxygen, the properties of water, carbon dioxide, and bicarbonate, the geophysical structure of the earth and its location in the solar system, the type of solar system we find ourselves in, the properties of light and electricity, and on and on for four hundred pages, every aspect of the physico-chemical structure of our world is ideally suited to give rise to living things. And were any of these even minutely different than what they are human beings would never have emerged.

Denton points out that whether one accepts or rejects the design hypothesis, whether one thinks of the designer as the Greek world soul or the Hebrew God, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the world at least "looks as if it had been uniquely tailored for life: it appears to have been designed." He writes that, "All reality appears to be a vast, coherent, teleological whole with mankind as its purpose and goal." It is therefore incumbent upon the skeptic to offer a compelling reason to reject the design inference. They cannot fall back on the canard that the design hypothesis is not testable because it certainly is:

The hypothesis can be refuted by, for instance, "the discovery of some alternative liquid as fit as is water for carbon-based life, or of a means superior to DNA of constructing the genetic tape, ... or of alternatives superior to oxidation, ... proteins, ... the bilipid cell membrane, ... to the bicarbonate buffer system, ... just one clear case where a constituent of life or a law of nature is evidently not unique or ideally adapted for life, and the design hypothesis collapses."

The materialist explanation for all this evidence of design, on the other hand, is that it's a result of chance or the inevitable outcome of the existence of an infinity of worlds, but these claims cannot be tested and are impossible to refute. The design hypothesis possesses a status, therefore, that is epistemically or scientifically superior to its materialistic competitor.

Nature's Destiny is a dense read. It's packed with information, most of which is fascinating but which probably would be a little overwhelming for someone with little background or interest in science. For one who is fascinated by the debate between design and materialism, however, and who possess an interest and understanding of the relevant science, this will surely prove to be one of the top two or three most important books one could read on the subject.

Naming the Turtle

Joe Carter outlines fifty theses of his religious credo at Evangelical Outpost. If you've ever wondered what it is, exactly, that evangelical Christians believe, Carter's post is an excellent summary.

You'll have to read his post to figure out what turtles have to do with it.

Cold and Timid Souls

Michael Kinsley is no friend of this administration so when he writes a great perspective on the recriminations being levelled at the Bush administration by people who are merely trying to deflect attention from their own culpability we sit up and take notice:

Recriminations are all the rage today. But really, does anyone ever pay attention to the prophets of doom until it's too late?

As a good American, you no doubt have been worried sick for years about the levees around New Orleans. Or you've been worried at least since you read that official report in August 2001 - the one that ranked a biblical flood of the Big Easy as one of our top three potential national emergencies. No? You didn't read that report in 2001? You just read about it in the newspapers this last week?

Well, how about that prescient New Orleans Times-Picayune series in 2002 that laid out the whole likely catastrophe? Everybody read that one. Or at least it sure seems that way now. I was not aware that the Times-Picayune had such a large readership in places like Washington, D.C., and California. And surely you have been badgering public officials at every level of government to spend whatever it takes to reinforce those levees - and to raise your taxes if necessary to pay for it.

No? You never gave five seconds of thought to the risk of flooding in New Orleans until it became impossible to think about anything else? Me neither. Nor have I given much thought to the risk of a big earthquake along the West Coast - the only one of the top three catastrophes that hasn't happened yet - even though I live and work in the earthquake zone. Of course, my job isn't to predict and prepare for disasters. My job is to recriminate when they occur. It's not easy. These days the recriminations business is overrun with amateurs, who are squatting on all the high ground. The fetid aroma of hindsight is everywhere.

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Louisiana politicians, for instance, have been flashing their foresight all over the tube. They say they asked repeatedly for more money so that the Army Corps of Engineers could strengthen the levees, but repeatedly the Bush administration actually cut the corps' budget instead.

The Corps of Engineers itself is feeling pretty smug. It has long wanted money to build levees that would even survive a Category 5 hurricane, let alone a measly Category 4 like Katrina.

Sure, and if there were a Category 6 or a Category 473, there would be a dusty Corps of Engineers report in a filing cabinet somewhere, asking for money to protect against that one too. The Corps of Engineers has done many marvelous things. But it would cement over the Great Lakes and level Mt. Rainier if we would let it. Its warnings about natural disasters are like the warnings of that famous economist who has predicted 10 of the last five recessions.

Likewise, a senator may not be the best judge of the need for a vast federal construction project in her state. Landrieu's I-told-you-so's would be more impressive if the press release archive on her website didn't contain equally urgent calls to spend billions of dollars to build boats the Navy hasn't asked for in Louisiana shipyards, self-congratulations for having planted a billion dollars of "coastal impact assistance" for Louisiana in the energy bill (this is before the flood), and so on. Did she want flood control or did she want $10 million to have " America's largest river swamp" declared a "National Heritage Area"?

Obviously - obviously in hindsight, that is - we should have spent the money to strengthen the New Orleans levees. President Clinton should have done it. Presidents Bush the Elder and Reagan should have done it. As Tim Noah notes in Slate, warnings about the perilous New Orleans levees go back at least to Fanny Trollope in 1832. In fact, the one president who is pretty much in the clear on this is our current Bush - not because he did anything about the levees but because even if he had started something, it probably wouldn't have been finished yet.

Everybody is having a fine fit about our politicians, governments at every level and "institutions" (current vogue word) for failing us in this crisis and others. The TV news networks, which only a few months ago were piously suppressing emotional fireworks by their pundits, are now piously encouraging their news anchors to break out of the emotional straitjackets and express outrage. A Los Angeles Times colleague of mine, appearing on CNN last week to talk about Katrina, was told by a producer to "get angry." But just Google a phrase like "commission warns," or "urgent steps" or "our children's future" - or simply "crisis" - and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.

Did all the attention and money devoted to protecting us from a terror attack after 9/11 leave us less prepared for a giant flood? Undoubtedly. And if the flood had come first, the opposite would be true. We, the citizens, would have demanded it, and then blamed the politicians and the "institutions" when it turned out to be a bad bet. There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we really have.

There really are few people more unpleasant than armchair quarterbacks who know nothing of why a coach makes the decisons he does but who are consistently critical of him nonetheless. These people abound in our media (turn on MSNBC, for example) and they call to mind the words of Teddy Roosevelt who wrote:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never tasted victory or defeat."