Launched in 1972, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was the first human artifact designed to leave the solar system and, possibly, encounter life forms beyond our ability to imagine. It carries a plaque intended to introduce the designers of the vehicle to any aliens that might cross paths with it. The iconic image shows a pair of human beings, a male and a female, the former with a hand raised in greeting.
As biologist Michael Denton observes in his new book, Children of the Light: Astonishing Properties of Sunlight that Make Us Possible, the irony of the depiction of man and woman is that any living beings out there would likely find us not strange or alien but remarkably familiar. This is because the universe appears to have been very, very carefully crafted to sustain intelligent beings on a model like our own.
Denton has shown as much in a series of short books, the Privileged Species series — starting with Fire-Maker, followed by The Wonder of Water, and now culminating with Children of Light. The new book is available as of today from Discovery Institute Press. You can get your copy here now.
This is intelligent design that sweeps the planet, covering not biology alone, but chemistry, geology, and physics. In Children of Light, Denton shows how the universe was tailored from its inception for “light eaters” — creatures with high-acuity vision like ours, depending as we do on plant-based nutrition, entailing photosynthesis.
Equally rigorous and lyrical, Dr. Denton concludes this way:
In this book, I have described the fitness of the radiation emitted by the Sun for life on Earth: the fitness of the atmosphere to ensure sufficient IR radiation is absorbed to warm the surface of the planet, preventing water from freezing and animating matter for chemical reactions; the fitness of the atmosphere to let through the visible light to the Earth surface to enable photosynthesis which generates the oxygen and reduced carbon fuel necessary to support our “light eating,” energy-demanding lifestyle; and the fitness of the same light for high-acuity vison in beings of our bodily design and size.
By “fitness” he means the ultra-fine focusing — fine almost beyond calculation — of multiple natural laws and natural phenomena, all converging on life, and intelligent life in particular, as we know it. As in his previous work, Denton draws on the insights of Lawrence Henderson (1878-1942) and ID’s godfather, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), while showing how unlike Darwinian natural selection, the idea of natural fitness has been accumulating evidence in its favor for going on two centuries and promises to continue to do so into the future.
[T]here must surely be many more elements of fitness for our biology which await discovery. This expectation is borne out by the fact that every major advance in science since the beginning of the nineteenth century has revealed further element of unique fitness in nature for life on Earth.
Between Horror and Hope
We’ll have more to say about Denton’s accomplishments with these three books in days to come. For now I want to suggest that the difference between his scientific vision and its alternative is the difference between hope and horror. The materialist view is ably and entertainingly sketched by the classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), who told of a cold cosmos indifferent to us and crawling with unreckonable and unspeakable monsters.
Denton’s view is the opposite: Whatever source of purpose or intelligence designed our world and our universe, it operated from the beginning with a human and humane goal. Dr. Denton is a biologist, not a theologian. Yet this message is obviously suggestive of a theistic perspective. Our ancient ancestors, he recalls, looked to the Sun, giver of light, as the supreme object in nature, worthy veneration. The Biblical author, one might add, opens the description of creation with the majestic command, “Let there be light.”
This is followed by the first recorded judgment — moral, aesthetic, or practical: that the light was good. If you wished to summarize Denton’s new book in the briefest possible terms, that is how I would do it.
Image: Pioneer 10 plaque, designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake; artwork prepared by Linda Salzman, Sagan.Photograph, by NASA Ames Resarch Center (NASA-ARC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.