June 24, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

ID Book Survives Nature Relatively Unscathed

Considering the intemperate disdain intelligent design books usually receive from the major journals – when they are even noticed (see, for example, Nature’s review of a book by William Dembski in the 07/11/2002 headline) – a new ID book fared surprisingly well this week.  In Nature1 June 24, Douglas A. Vakoch (SETI Institute) reviewed the new book by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet (Regnery, 2004).2  This book presents the thesis that earth’s location seems optimized for both habitability and scientific discovery (measurability).  This thesis counters the pessimism of Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee (see 07/15/2002 headline) by proposing, optimistically, that the earth appears intelligently designed for life.
    Angry rejection of such a notion would seem the normal response of a member of the SETI Institute, dedicated as it is to the proposition that life is common in the universe due to the almighty power of Darwinian evolution.  Maybe Vakoch is just a nice guy, or maybe Nature feels compelled once in awhile to give ID authors a semblance of civility to avoid charges of dogmatism.  Or, maybe it reflects a trend.
    Vakoch straightforwardly summarized the main ideas of the book without ridicule.  His only criticisms were that the criteria for measurability appear subjective, and that we don’t yet have enough data to determine how rare earth is:

So far, Earth is the only planet we know that has the privilege of bearing life that searches for signs of other intelligence – whether in the form of other technological beings transmitting evidence of their existence or through patterns indicating underlying design.  It may be some time, however, before we can accurately judge whether our blue dot is – as planets go – commonplace, unique or somewhere in between.

Vakoch began and ended his review with a reference to the catch-phrase Pale Blue Dot by the champion of SETI, Carl Sagan, whose book of that name emphasized the ordinariness of earth.  Vakoch entitled his review, “Bright blue dot” – without a question mark.

1Douglas A. Vakoch, “Bright blue dot,” Nature 429, 808 – 809 (24 June 2004); doi:10.1038/429808b.
2Note: a documentary film based on the book is nearing completion and should be available by end of July.  Gonzalez and Richards make their case accompanied by an impressive line-up of notable scientists expressing views for and against the privileged status of earth.

It’s refreshing to see a dispassionate, balanced treatment of a book so outside the Darwinian mainstream.  The credentials of the authors cannot be denied, but that has not stopped some reviewers from unleashing venom at anyone daring to publish a science book without the Darwin Party imprimatur guaranteeing absolute and unconditional naturalism (see what Science did to theistic evolutionist Simon Conway Morris, for instance, in the 12/07/2003 headline).  Whether more scientists are beginning to acknowledge the merits of ID arguments or not, it’s too early to tell.  (It should be noted that most anthropic arguments have come from secular scientists without any Christian or creationist proclivities whatsoever, such as Brandon Carter, Paul Dirac, and Stephen Hawking.)
    Gonzalez and Richards build a convincing case for design, but they tend to accept uncritically current scientific models as facts.  Too much trust in today’s conventional wisdom can render books obsolete when paradigm shifts occur.  Also, when some props of “accepted scientific theory” eventually get kicked out from under an argument, it can appear to undermine the whole thesis and diminish the authors’ credibility.  Much is made, for instance, of plate tectonics, stellar evolution, galactic evolution, nucleosynthesis and planetary evolution.  Solid as these theories appear to the establishment today, there have been indications of doubt that could lead to overhaul later (see, for instance, the 04/02/2004, 03/05/2004, 11/25/2003, and 11/04/2003 headlines on geology, and 01/23/2004, 01/01/2004, 10/05/2003, 09/03/2003, and 06/18/2003 headlines on astronomy).  Also, the authors rely without qualification on age estimates that are built on unverifiable assumptions about the unobservable past.
    Nonetheless, Gonzalez and Richards’ collection of evidences may contribute to a worldview shift of major proportions that could already be underway: a reversal of the Copernican Principle.  Richards has argued from history, and Gonzalez from science, that Sagan’s extrapolation of the Copernican Principle (i.e., that the earth has no privileged status) is unwarranted.  In the first place, ancients never believed the earth was the center of the cosmos.  In the second place, the more we study the heavens and the earth, the more we see conditions favorable to our existence that cannot be all due to chance.  That cosmologists are again willing to discuss these things (see 02/28/2004 headline) hints at a sea change just 23 years after Sagan’s Cosmos symbolized the triumph of secularism over theism.
    Christians should not entertain any illusions that such trends will fill their churches with new seekers.  For instance, Peter Ward, co-author of Rare Earth, knows all these things yet remains a staunch, hostile, anti-Christian atheist.  Evidence of design is not enough to save a soul, but it removes a major stumbling block to faith.  That is, however, an important – often indispensable – prerequisite.

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