Privileged Planet, Mk. 1

Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, published a book in 1903 called “Man’s Place in the Universe: a Study of the Results of Scientific Research in Relation to the Unity or Plurality of Worlds”. Stephen Jay Gould wrote about it in one of his Natural History columns, and later reprinted it as the essay “Mind and Supermind” in his book The Flamingo’s Smile. Gould summarizes Wallace’s argument thus:

…Wallace examined the physical structure of the earth, solar system, and universe and concluded that if any part had been built ever so slightly differently, conscious life could not have arisen. Therefore, intelligence must have designed the universe, at least in part that it might generate life.

Sound vaguely familiar? Compare it to a synopsis of Privileged Planet, a book currently being hyped heavily by the Discovery Institute. (Gould, however, was writing his essay in response to proponents of the ‘anthropic principle’, especially Freeman Dyson.)

What makes Wallace’s arguments amusing in retrospect is that the model of the universe he was analyzing is wildly inaccurate. Wallace wrote about a universe which consisted of a single galaxy only about 3600 light years across. The structure of this galaxy bore no resemblance to our own; it consisted of a central cluster of stars, an inner ring of stars, and another much larger outer ring of stars.

None of this directly addresses the specific arguments made in Privileged Planet for deliberate design of the Earth and universe. Still, it should serve as a warning that such arguments are inherently tricky and it’s very easy to deceive oneself. As Gould says,

If the same argument can be applied to such different arrangements of matter, may we not legitimately suspect that emotional appeal, rather than a supposed basis in fact or logic, explains it’s curious persistence?

Eighty years after Wallace’s book, our universe could not be more radically different, yet human hope continues to impose the same invalid argument upon it.