Summary: Even as the scientific vision of humankind as an accidental by-product of the cosmos became ascendant, the first seeds of a new scientific revolution were sprouting, one revealing the fine-tuning of nature for human existence.
Editor’s note: This week sees the release of biologist Michael Denton’s new book The Miracle of Man: The Fine-Tuning of Nature for Human Existence. This essay is adapted from the opening chapter of Denton’s new book.
With the acceptance of Darwinism by the biological mainstream, Western civilization took the final step back to the atomism, materialism, and many-worlds doctrine of Democritus and other pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece. As the Darwinian paradigm tightened its grip on mainstream biology and science, all vestiges of the old teleological-organismic universe, all notions which placed humankind or life on Earth in any special or privileged place in the order of things, were banished from mainstream academic debate.
The implications of the final Darwinian unraveling for mainstream evolutionary biologists was memorably captured by French biochemist Jacques Monod in his materialist manifesto Chance and Necessity. “The thesis I shall present in this book is that the biosphere does not contain a predictable class of objects or of events,” he wrote, “but constitutes a particular occurrence, compatible indeed with first principles, but not deducible from those principles and therefore essentially unpredictable… unpredictable for the same reason — neither more nor less — that the particular configuration of atoms constituting this pebble I have in my hand is unpredictable.”
According to Monod the human race was adrift in an uncaring cosmos which knew nothing of its becoming or fate, an infinite universe said to manifest not the slightest evidence of anthropocentric bias. Instead, as Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, we are merely “the embodiment of contingency,” our species but “a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree… we are a detail, not a purpose… in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event.” Or as astronomer Carl Sagan framed the matter, “one voice in the cosmic fugue.”
Demoted to an Epiphenomenon
Thus was humanity demoted to a mere epiphenomenon, to one un-purposed by-product among many, from the imago Dei as understood in the medieval vision of humanity — that of a being made in the image of God and pre-ordained from the beginning — to a meaningless contingency, something less than a cosmic afterthought.
This modern secular vision of nature is as far removed from the anthropocentric cosmos of the medieval scholastic philosophers as could be imagined, representing one of the most dramatic intellectual transformations in the history of human thought.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.
A Second Revolution
Even as the scientific vision of humankind as an accidental by-product of the cosmos consolidated its position of ascendancy in Western thought, the first seeds of a new scientific anthropocentricism were sprouting, in the Bridgewater Treatises of the 1830s. The multivolume work included such contributions as William Whewell’s discussion of the striking fitness of water for life and William Prout’s discussion of the special properties of the carbon atom for life, revealed by the development of organic chemistry in the first quarter of the 19th century. And ironically it was during the decades following the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), during the very period when Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that “nihilism stands at the door,” when fresh scientific evidence began to accumulate suggesting that life on Earth might after all be a special phenomenon “built into” the natural order and very far from the accident of deep time and chance that the Darwinian materialist zeitgeist assumed.
Two Pivotal Books
These discoveries, and particularly the unique chemistry of carbon, were explored in World of Life by none less than the co-discover with Charles Darwin of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. In that 1911 work, Wallace showed that the natural environment gave various compelling indications of having been pre-arranged for carbon-based life as it occurs on Earth.
Two years later, in 1913, Lawrence Henderson published his classic The Fitness of the Environment, whichpresented basically the same argument but in much more scholarly detail. Henderson not only argued that the natural environment was peculiarly fit for carbon-based life but also in certain intriguing ways for beings of our physiological design. He refers to two of the thermal properties of water, its specific heat and the cooling effect of evaporation, as well as the gaseous nature of CO2 as special elements of environmental fitness in nature for beings of our biological design.
Building on the evidence alluded to by Wallace and Henderson, other more recent scholars, including George Wald and Harold Morowitz, have further defended the fitness paradigm during the 20th century. Wald argued for the unique environmental fitness of nature for carbon chemistry and photosynthesis. Morowitz argued for the unique fitness of water for cellular energetics.
These discoveries signal a sea change. In my new book, The Miracle of Man, I provide what is to my knowledge the most comprehensive review in print of nature’s unique fitness for human biology by describing a stunning set of ensembles of prior environmental fitness, many clearly written into the laws of nature from the moment of creation, enabling the actualization of key defining attributes of our biology. The evidence puts to bed the notions of Gould, Monod, and Sagan that humankind is a mere contingent outcome of blind, purposeless, natural processes.
Controversial and Outrageous?
I agree that to claim that the findings of modern science support a contemporary take on the traditional anthropocentric worldview is highly controversial and will seem outrageous to many commentators and critics. Here a distinction may prove useful. While my conclusions are controversial, the evidences upon which they are based are not in the least controversial. In virtually every case they are so firmly established in the relevant scientific disciplines as to now be considered wholly uncontroversial conventional wisdom. In other words, the extraordinary ensembles of natural environmental fitness described in my book, ensembles vital for our existence and upon which my defense of the anthropocentric conception of nature is based, are thoroughly documented scientific facts. What is unique here is the comprehensive integration of so many disparate, if overlapping, ensembles of fitness. And when we step back from these individual groves and take in the proverbial forest in all its grandeur, the panorama, I would go so far as to say, is overwhelming.
In The Miracle of the Cell I showed that the properties of many of the atoms of the periodic table (about twenty) manifest a unique prior fitness to serve highly specific and vital biochemical roles in the familiar carbon-based cell, the basic unit of all life on Earth. And as I stressed, it was the prior fitness of these atoms for specific biochemical functions which enabled the actualization of the first carbon-based cell irrespective of whatever cause or causes were responsible for its initial assembly. Now the focus turns to beings of our physiological and anatomical design and the numerous ensembles of environmental prior fitness necessary for our existence. This is a prior fitness that existed long before our species first appeared on planet Earth, a fitness that led the distinguished astrophysicist Freeman Dyson to famously confess, “I do not feel like an alien in this universe. The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”
And it is not only our biological design which was mysteriously foreseen in the fabric of nature. As The Miracle of Man shows, nature was also strikingly prearranged, as it were, for our unique technological journey from fire making, to metallurgy, to the advanced technology of our current civilization. Long before man made the first fire, long before the first metal was smelted from its ore, nature was already prepared and fit for our technological journey from the Stone Age to the present.