Just Lucky, I Guess
A Review of The Privileged Planet
California Wild: The Magazine of the California Academy of Sciences
January 1, 2005
The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards. Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 2004. 444 pp., $27.95 hardcover.
Is there scientific evidence that an intelligent designer created our universe? Scientists and theologians have debated this issue for centuries, but now the arguments are heating up. The battle between evolution and creationism has been joined in schools around the country, and each new discovery in astronomy invites people to consider their place in the cosmos. Now authors Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards have stepped into this breach with a provocative new book claiming that our ability to learn about the universe arises from its careful design.
The Privileged Planet links two concepts that at first seem unrelated: "habitability" and "measurability." Habitability considers whether a place in the universe is suitable for advanced life to develop. Our planet is a cozy place for liquid water, while our large moon prevents Earth from suffering climate-changing swings on its axis. Our sun is a stable star with a life-friendly temperature, and our place in the Milky Way galaxy-like baby bear's porridge-is "just right" for many astrophysical reasons.
This is familiar ground to science enthusiasts. But the authors deepen the discussion by introducing "measurability"-our capacity to view and analyze the cosmos. Gonzalez, an astronomer, and Richards, a theologian, make the case that scientists could not possibly have learned so much about the workings of our planet, our solar system, the galaxy, and the universe at large from any other location. Their chain of logic includes climate records in sediments at the bottom of the ocean; the clarity of our atmosphere; the size of our moon (perfect for eclipses); our neighboring planets-which reveal orbits and the effects of gravity; and the lack of space dust in Earth's immediate vicinity, which opens a window on the birth of the universe itself. "The myriad conditions that make a region habitable are also the ones that make the best overall places for discovering the universe in its smallest and largest expressions," the authors write.
In the book's closing chapters, Gonzalez and Richards argue forcefully that the ties between habitability and measurability represent a "surprising pattern" too deep to chalk up to a roll of the universal dice. Rather, they maintain, "The universe is designed for discovery. The cosmos exists for a purpose." It's a message that readers will find either comforting or distasteful, depending on their predilections. The authors acknowledge this, stating that they hope skeptics will at least consider their reasoning. But as they try to sever the secular roots of modern cosmology, Gonzalez and Richards can become strident. They portray the "cultural elite" of science as blinded by a secular bias, and dismiss the idea of multiple universes-promoted by some of the field's leading figures-as "infinitely more fanciful than most fanciful science-fiction stories."
Still, The Privileged Planet is entertaining, with no mathematics and enough tales from astronomy, geology, and physics to satisfy serious readers. And to their credit, the authors, who have had their own epiphanies, don't dwell upon the notion of God as cosmic designer.