A Review of "The Miracle of Man: The Fine Tuning of Nature for Human Existence" by Michael Denton
As executive editor of Discovery Institute Press, I've had the good fortune over the past few months to edit the final installment of Australian biochemist Michael Denton's Privileged Species series. The book is titled The Miracle of Man: The Fine Tuning of Nature for Human Existence.
I am, of course, far from an unbiased observer of the book. Fair enough. But allow me to distill what I find a most extraordinary argument, and at the end I'll point you to a couple of different ways you can dig deeper if you're interested.
Nature Stunningly Fit
Denton's argument is not your typical design argument. Rather than focusing on molecular machines, like the bacterial flagellum motor, which appear designed, or the origin-of-life problem, or the challenges the fossil record poses for evolutionary theory, or even, say, the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics for life, Denton synthesizes evidence from a broad cross-section of scientific disciplines to argue that nature is stunningly fit—seemingly fine-tuned—not just for cellular life, not just for carbon-based animal life, and not even just for air-breathing animals, but for bipedal, land-roving, technology-pursuing creatures of our general physiological design.
It sounds almost like a religious argument, even a biblical one—human beings as the pinnacle of creation. But Denton doesn't claim any organized religion, and all the arguments he gives in the book are scientific.
If you have followed the evolution/design controversy closely, you may have heard of Denton. He authored the seminal 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. He has an M.D. from Bristol University, England, and a biochemistry Ph.D. from King's College in London. In his Privileged Species series, and particularly in this final book in that series, he draws on a wealth of evidence, some of it very recently discovered, to argue that nature is not merely fitted in a handful of ways to allow for our existence. Instead, what we find are "ensembles of fitness," as he puts it, and more than this, "ensembles of ensembles" arranged hierarchically, with one ensemble enabling the next, and that next one enabling others after it.
He offers dozens of examples. Here I'll just quote an early passage in the book, where he teases three of them:
To list and fully describe all the instances of prior fitness would fill many volumes, but to briefly mention just three here: Without the prior environmental fitness of the radiation emitted by the sun and without the transparency of the atmosphere to visual light, there would be no photosynthesis and hence no oxygen, and no oxidations in the body to provide higher organisms like ourselves with the copious amounts of energy we need to satisfy our metabolic needs. Without the prior fitness of water (with its astonishing array of unique properties) to serve as the medium of circulation, there would be no circulatory system. And without the unique prior fitness of the transition metal atoms, there would be no way to convert oxidations to metabolic energy. We will examine in depth each of these factors later in the book.
Objections Posed & Answered
Well, but if nature weren't fitted for our existence, we wouldn't be here to celebrate our good fortune, someone might counter. Denton calls that observation "trivial," and I agree. It's not unlike a criminal shutting his eyes before an expert firing squad, hearing the rifles roar, and then opening his eyes. "Wow," the criminal next to him says. "A perfect bullet pattern around each of us, and not a scratch on us. They must have missed on purpose!" "Nonsense," the first criminal shoots back. "If they hadn't happened to miss, we wouldn't be here to comment on our good fortune." True enough, but the observation does nothing to dismiss the powerful, and perfectly rational, sense that the results were intended.1
A more relevant objection would be to say that surely nature could burp up other highly intelligent, technologically capable animals in other parts of the universe, ones otherwise radically different from us. And surely these alien creatures could have taken a radically different path to an advanced technology than our path, an alternate route that didn't require the mastery of fire and metallurgy.
This objection, unlike the previous one, isn't illogical. It's just not, according to Denton, supported by the evidence. Denton's book is, in essence, a piling on of multiple lines of evidence against that counterclaim. His case is not easily condensed, since he draws from multiple fields of science, chases down various hypotheticals, and shows why each of them doesn't wash. It's not a soundbite argument. It's a cumulative argument, an argument from consilience.
There is one body of evidence in Denton's corner that is easily summarized. It is, according to him, the total lack of contrary evidence in the scientific literature. Despite decades of intense research, "no single book or paper exists with a well worked out blueprint for a cell fundamentally different from our carbon-based cell," he says. "Nor has anyone provided a well worked out blueprint for an advanced carbon-based organism fundamentally different from us with a high metabolic rate, high intelligence, and manual dexterity capable of making and controlling fire."
As for the need for fire making and metallurgy to achieve a scientific revolution, an industrial revolution, and high-level technology, here as well, according to Denton, "there is not a single book or paper describing a substantially different route to an advanced technology and science."
Inscribed Since the Beginning
Denton doesn't rule out the possibility of intelligent, technological aliens. But he says if they're out there, they will resemble us in form and physiology. "One can imagine variations on the humanoid theme, of course," he says. "But to the degree they are credible, they will be variations very close to the human form."
The possibility of intelligent aliens is conjecture, of course, and for Christians it raises some interesting theological questions we won't go into here. (But see C. S. Lewis's space trilogy for some of his musings on the subject.) In The Miracle of Man, Denton is more interested in the physical evidence before us. He finds the direction in which the evidence is pointing extraordinary. Near the end of the book, he summarizes his argument and conveys his sense of wonder:
The human person as revealed by modern science is no contingent assemblage of elements, an irrelevant afterthought of cosmic evolution. Rather, our destiny was inscribed in the light of stars and the properties of atoms since the beginning. Now we know that all nature sings the song of man. Our seeming exile from nature is over. We now know what the medieval scholars only believed, that the underlying rationality of nature is indeed "manifest in human flesh." And with this revelation the post-Copernican delusion of humankind's irrelevance on the cosmic stage has been revoked.2
For those with the time to read, I highly recommend Denton's new book. For a quick flyover of his argument, check out a 32-minute video on YouTube, Privileged Species Featuring Dr. Michael Denton.
1. Various philosophers have discussed the analogy, including John Leslie and Richard Swinburne. See Leslie, Universes (Rutledge, 1989), 13–15, 108, 125, 148–149, 158, 161.
2. The Miracle of Man, chapter 12.
is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books, including Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, with Matt Leisola (Discovery Institute, 2018), The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got and the West Forgot, with Jay Richards (Ignatius, 2014), and A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, with Benjamin Wiker (IVP, 2006).Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #61, Summer 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo61/a-deep-running-miracle