The Case for a Creator: A Parade of Horribles, Part I

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

Most of chapter 7 focuses on Guillermo Gonzalez’s “privileged planet” hypothesis. This argument, as he uses it here, consists of listing every way in which our planet or our solar system could have been different, and concluding that every single one of them would be completely fatal to life.

Throughout this chapter, neither Strobel nor Gonzalez ask any of the obvious follow-up questions, such as whether different kinds of life could exist in these conditions, whether life like Earth’s could have adapted, or even whether there are living things on Earth that already deal with very similar challenges (as we’ll see, in many cases, there are). Instead, their reigning assumption is that life as a whole is as fragile as a soap bubble, and even a single change to Earth’s parameters would have been catastrophic for the entire biosphere.

There are more arguments tossed out in this chapter than I could do justice to in a single post, so I’m splitting my responses up into several parts. This is the first post of what will either be two or three.

Jupiter

According to Gonzalez, the presence of Jupiter in our solar system “acts as a shield to protect us from too many comet impacts” [p.173]. Jupiter’s enormous mass and gravitational pull “deflects comets and keeps many of them from coming into the inner solar system, where they could collide with Earth with life-extinguishing consequences… If you want to get an idea of the stuff that probably would have hit the Earth [without Jupiter], look at the surface of the moon.” [p.174]

I’m not sure what point Gonzalez thinks he’s making here. Is he saying that Jupiter’s gravitational pull somehow shields the Earth but not the Moon? The two are so close, in astronomical terms, that any reputable scientist would find this laughable. Rather, the Moon’s surface preserves evidence of the kind of bombardment that both the Earth and the Moon were subjected to early in the history of the solar system, Jupiter’s presence notwithstanding. The Moon, which has no erosion, still bears these scars, while the Earth has largely erased them.

Although there’s no denying that Jupiter’s gravitational shield has deflected many cosmic objects that could otherwise have made it into the inner solar system, I’m far from convinced that this is an absolute necessity. As just mentioned, Earth did suffer a heavy bombardment early in its history, but that did not prevent life from forming here (soon after the bombardment had ended, in fact). Today, most of the lingering planetesimals and other stray rocks left over from the solar system’s formation have been cleaned out, and large impacts on our planet are relatively infrequent, Jupiter or no. And even when Earth has been hit by large objects, although mass extinctions ensued, life as a whole did not die out.

Earth’s Orbit

Next on Gonzalez’s list is the low eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit – i.e., the shape of our orbit is nearly circular. This keeps us in what he calls the “circumstellar habitable zone”, the Goldilocks region where liquid water can exist and the planet neither overheats, like Venus, nor freezes, like Mars.

“So if the Earth’s distance from the sun were moved by, say, five percent either way, what would happen?” I asked.
“Disaster,” came his quick reply. “Animal life would be impossible.” [p.174]

What Gonzalez ignores here is that the Earth’s climate is not wholly determined by the solar flux. The composition of our atmosphere – the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like water vapor, methane and carbon dioxide – determines how much of the Sun’s warmth our planet retains. In fact, we depend on a moderate greenhouse effect to sustain life. “Circumstellar habitable zone” or no, the Earth’s surface temperature would be below freezing if not for our atmosphere.

It’s not hard to believe that a change in atmospheric composition could keep our planet livable even if we were closer to, or farther from, the Sun. In fact, the Sun’s output of energy is not a constant, but has changed dramatically – not by a mere 5%, but by as much as 30% – over the lifetime of our solar system. Yet the Earth’s geologic records show that it’s had a warm surface and liquid water throughout that time. This is the so-called faint young sun paradox, and the favored scientific explanation does invoke changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

And even if the Earth’s temperature did vary due to a more elliptical orbit, there’s no reason to believe that would have been disastrous for life. Richards claims, “It doesn’t do you any good to have melted water for four months and then have the whole planet freeze up again” [p.174]. I’m sure that would come as a surprise to the arctic species that already cope with very similar conditions: a brief, warm growing season followed by months of dark and cold. In fact, some geologists believe that around 700 million years ago, nearly the entire planet was covered with ice, and that did not extinguish life either.

The Moon

ID advocates are particularly enamored of the Moon, especially since we’ve learned that it formed from a gigantic impact early in the solar system’s history – the kind of unlikely event that they love to use as evidence of divine providence. Quoth Gonzalez:

“There was a remarkable finding that the moon actually stabilizes the tilt of the Earth’s axis… The tilt is responsible for our seasons.” [p.179]

He does not explain why the existence of seasons is a prerequisite for life; nor does he address the obvious point that equatorial and arctic regions, which experience little seasonal variation, support plenty of life.

Gonzalez goes on to say that if the Moon were not there, Earth’s axial tilt could vary wildly, and if it were much more massive, it could slow down the Earth’s rotation far more than it does. Either way, he worries, “you could have large temperature differences between day and night.” [p.180]

Again, there are already species on Earth that cope with large temperature swings between day and night. The Sahara Desert, for example, sees diurnal variations of almost 100°F, but is not lifeless – the major limiting factor for life is the availability of water, not the temperature.

It’s probably true that living on Earth would be more difficult if there were more frequent asteroid impacts, or more drastic temperature swings, or more chaotic seasonal variation. But this is a far cry from saying that life on Earth would be impossible. Based on the climactic extremes that other living species and even other human societies already deal with, we have every reason to believe that life would continue to thrive, even in the presence of the parade of horribles that Gonzalez invokes.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.amunium.dk Slater

    Wow, that’s a downright pathetic chapter. The arguments made by this Gonzalez-fellow would be embarrassing to a small child.
    You’re absolutely right, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that, given many billions of planets in the universe, pure statistical probability demands that at least one of them would show habitable conditions, even if we accept his baseless claim that any change would render the earth inhospitable. Even accepting all the lies, this brings us no closer to a conclusion of god.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, there is a reason the phrase “God of the gaps” is so often pronounced as though one were spitting our a bug that had crept into one’s salad.

  • penn

    I hate the absolute abuse of statistics in this line of argument. We necessarily evolved on a planet capable of supporting life, so the conditional probability of our planet being able to support life (given that it must for us to exist) is 1. We also have absolutely no idea how likely such a planet is, but in a universe with 100 billion galaxies each with on the order of 10 million to 1 trillion stars it is not hard to believe that such a habitable planet would arise out of chance alone.

  • Sean Wills

    Of course, the most simple rebuttal to this line of argument is that there are many, many planets in the universe. Imagine if we knew that there were millions of universes with varying conditions – the ‘fine-tuning’ argument would instantly collapse, wouldn’t it? The same is true of this one.

    As penn pointed out, the supposedly priveleged position of our planet is easily explainable by chance.

  • Frank

    –Of course, the most simple rebuttal to this line of argument is that there are many, many planets in the universe. Imagine if we knew that there were millions of universes with varying conditions – the ‘fine-tuning’ argument would instantly collapse, wouldn’t it? The same is true of this one.

    Yes, of course, although adopting that argument implies that “we” are extremely rare in the universe, perhaps so rare that for all practical purposes we are alone.

    I think an alternative approach is to point out that most of the factors that are argued are speculative–we don’t really know that these conditions are necessary for something like “us” to exist. Also, we are in no position to argue that other combinations of factors would not also permit “us.” A sample of one is not statistically valid.

    For example, take the business of the presence of Jupiter and Saturn protecting us from a certain flavor of annihilation. Are we sure of that? Could not a statistical case be made that these planets make matters even worse, or that some other arrangement might be even better? I know enough about the three-body problem to know that calculating these things is done only by inserting gross simplifying assumptions.

  • Dan

    As to Jupiter protecting the inner planets from debris impacts, one need only look at the surface of Mercury to understand the fallacy of that logic.

  • AnonaMiss

    Creationists trying to paint the existence of life on earth as astronomically unlikely (and thus necessarily divinely created) remind me of a (pre-WTC bombing) joke I heard once about a frequent flyer who was so terrified of someone planting a bomb on his plane that he always packed a bomb in his own luggage – because while the odds of there being one bomb were still high enough for him to worry about, the odds of there being two bombs on the same plane were astronomical.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I did have to laugh about the Jupiter section. “Jupiter acts as a shield for the Earth, except when it doesn’t.”

  • http://1939to1945.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    @Frank

    Latest research indicates that the presence of Jupiter (and Saturn) is something of a wash when it comes to preventing collisions with comets and asteroids. While the gas giants have, apparently, cleaned up most of the outer solar system they also act as a perturbing influence on objects in the inner solar system. Thus they tend to nudge the asteroids and short period comets into earth-crossing orbits.

    See Jupiter – Our Silent Guardian? on the Universe Today website for a recent article.

  • Alex, FCD

    I’m not sure what point Gonzalez thinks he’s making here. Is he saying that Jupiter’s gravitational pull somehow shields the Earth but not the Moon?

    Clearly this man was denied tenure because atheists are mean.

    Frank:

    Yes, of course, although adopting that argument implies that “we” are extremely rare in the universe, perhaps so rare that for all practical purposes we are alone.

    No it doesn’t. We can imagine that the set of possible universes is such that either there will be lots of planets with life or none. That’s pretty much the set of conditions on Earth: a given location will either have a fair bit of life or be completely sterile. You never find just one living thing.

  • mike

    Following up on NoAstronomer #9, it was my understanding that Jupiter has a tendency to induce some gravitational harmonics with the asteroid belt over long periods of time, giving the asteroids a very eccentric orbit during some parts of the solar system’s development and circular orbits during other times (like now). Without Jupiter, (this is me now speculating) perhaps there wouldn’t have been periods of heavy asteroid bombardment in the Earth’s history at all?

  • exrelayman

    Here’s what is truly sad to me: the masses in the pews will buy this crap and deride real scientific knowledge.

  • Frank

    Mike: “No it doesn’t. We can imagine that the set of possible universes is such that either there will be lots of planets with life or none. That’s pretty much the set of conditions on Earth: a given location will either have a fair bit of life or be completely sterile. You never find just one living thing.”

    I don’t understand. It seems to me that if the argument is true (which I question) that the odds against everything being “just right” for intelligent life to evolve are extremely adverse, then it seems to me to follow that the odds against intelligent life being present in any given system will correspondingly be large and the existence of such beings would be extremely rare.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    They’ve got it completely backwards. It’s not fine-tuning for life on Earth. It’s fine-tuning against life on Jupiter. The unnamed and completely anonymous Designer must have a thing against gas giants. I assume that He (again, an unnamed and anonymous “He” that’s capitalized for, and I can’t stress this enough, no religious reason whatsoever, or if there is a religious reason it’s a secular religious one) was bullied by a chubby kid or burly older brother as a child.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I had a commenter throw the Jupiter as asteroid vacuum cleaner argument in this post I wrote last year:

    http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com/2008/07/travelers-in-endless-space.html

    I answered him as follows:

    Yes, I have read recently about the role Jupiter plays as a sort of vacuum cleaner, either attracting or repelling killer asteroids, thus limiting the number of major impacts on Earth. But if our universe was “intelligently” designed, why bother to make asteroids at all? You are citing another version of the Douglas Adams Puddle in assuming that some higher intelligence placed Jupiter where it is to serve a particular role, when a god such as one posited by the Bible need not make anything like that at all. When you consider how many solar systems there are in the Milky Way, let alone the rest of the universe, we should not be surprised that in at least one solar system a gas giant like Jupiter inadvertently plays some role in protecting the inner solar system from catastrophic impacts.

    Alternatively, God could have programmed it so that asteroids would not strike the Earth even in the absence of a Jupiter. The mental gymnastics these people have to resort to is astounding.

  • Mackrelmint

    Hi Ebon, I have to thank you for the shout-out on behalf of arctic species and life existing in extreme climates. Gonzalez has obviously forgotten this, as you’ve pointed out so well. I live in Canada’s far north (I’m about 70 miles from the Arctic Ocean) and am daily fascinated by the northern wildlife around me here, many of whom don’t head south or hibernate for our long winter. It’s dropping down to about -30C tonight and I expect to still see the ravens flitting around on their daily hunt for food and know the sheep, moose, muskoxen and caribou among many other species, are getting by out there in the dark cold, perhaps like me looking forward to the return of the sun in the New Year.
    I’m enjoying the ongoing book review. Thanks muchly for undertaking it!

  • Paul S.

    A great book on this subject is “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe” by Ward and Brownlee. In a nutshell, their argument is that while microbial life may be abundant throughout the universe that, due to Earth’s physical properties, there are a vast number of reasons to believe that complex life is rare elsewhere.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com pendens proditor

    Shouldn’t a divinely privileged planet be even safer than this one? How about having no seasons, no temperature swings, no earthquakes, no hurricanes, and no ice ages? How about a higher percentage of habitable area for human beings?

    And why a planet at all? Why not a structure more like a Dyson sphere where we could breed like rabbits forever and never use it all up? Hell, why not build us and the universe in such a way that we could inhabit every square meter of it? Surely an omnipotent being could cook something like this up.

    It’s just like any argument for intelligent design:
    - In the face of good design: “See! It’s obviously good!”
    - In the face of bad design: “Who are you to judge God’s designs? You don’t have the God’s eye view necessary to see why this is actually good design.”

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I note that they make no mention of the Chicxulub strike that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Absent that bull’s-eye, we would probably not be here at all.

  • ildi

    Another factor involved in intelligent life evolving on this planet is the we’re in the boonies of the galaxy. When a star goes nova, the EM pulse it releases basically kills off any life on any planet within hundreds of light years. Of course, if you watch the Discovery Channel, that’s all she wrote when one of the supervolcanoes such as Yellowstone blows, or a tiny asteroid explodes just above the surface of the Earth (a la the Siberioan explosion in 1908), or the Earth’s magnetic field flips, or the sun starts generating boatloads of sun spots, or…

  • Jennifer

    There’s also the point that life will be much more precarious in around a billion years as the Sun gets hotter; and in three or four billion years it will start expanding and either turn Earth into vapor or knock it out of the solar system altogether. Doesn’t sound very fine tuned to me.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Oh, I get it! It’s an argument from personal incredulity – albeit a particularly long, detailed, and stupid one – dressed up in highly abused astronomy! Seriously, what arc length of extra-solar approach angles does Jupiter really shield us from? Argh!

    @ Alex, FCD: Another available interpretation of Frank’s comment is that “practically alone” simply means that we’re so far in space and time from other intelligent life that, unless we learn how to terraform and get off this rock, we’ll never be able to contact them because we won’t be around long enough. At least, that makes more sense, so I’m giving it to him on the principle of charity.

  • TEP

    The placement of life on Earth is also wonderful evidence of fine tuning. If we’d been just 15 kilometres lower, we’d have all burnt to death in boiling magma. Had we been 15 kilometres higher, there would be very little atmosphere and high exposure to solar and interstellar radiation. Instead, life just happens to be on the surface, where conditions are just right for its existence. Change the altitude by a small amount either way, and life becomes impossible. Clearly evidence that the location of the biosphere is fine-tuned. It’s a miracle, I say!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    D, I think the argument is that Jupiter’s gravity does the shielding, not its physical mass. Not that that’s any more valid. Just sayin’, is all.

  • colluvial

    Actually, Strobel’s contention that our existence here, against such long odds, is proof of a creator, is invalid right from the beginning. The fact that this one planet, out of probable billions, supports humans is only because it had the necessary conditions. Humans do not have to exist, they simple happened to exist. It did not have to be on this particular planet, it just happened to be. An equivalent situation would be that of considering two pebbles lying on a beach and concluding that because of the extreme odds against the juxtaposition of these particular groups of atoms (considering all the vagaries of cosmic and geologic forces), that they were intentionally placed in that configuration by a creator. And every other pebble, on every other planet, as well.

  • Frank

    It seems to me that if ours were the only Solar System–we could see nothing beyond it–then the arguments of how the Earth seems specifically designed to permit the evolution of carbon based life, and for its persistence for billions of years, would be impressive evidence of some external benign influence. The argument that we happen to be here so that the chances against us being so heavy would not carry much water.

    However, there are umpteen gazillion possible solar systems, so that the chances that one or two, here and there, are suitable, seems virtually certain. That being so, the whole argument for a benign influence goes up in smoke.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ Thumpalumpacus (#24):
    I’ve been coming at this from the angle that Jupiter’s gravitational pull is no more likely to steer an approaching object off of collision course than to steer one onto collision course (after accounting for the rarity of “would collide with Earth but for Jupiter” events in the first place), unless Jupiter eats the object. But Sol’s greater gravitational pull makes Jupiter a wash, as the only objects Jupiter is likely to “shield” us from that the Sun could not are objects that would be approaching from the Jupiter side, when the Earth is between Jupiter and the Sun. Even when we look at it from the perspective of gravitational pull, it’s only a tiny segment of arc length that’s continuously moving around.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Sorry, D, I was just having an OCD moment. Your analysis looks spot-on to me.