326 Wonders of Light, Water, Fire

In the beginning—at a primordial stage of the creative process making heaven and earth—“the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Planet Earth is rightly called the “watery planet,” for  nothing is more evident in all of life than the miraculous properties of water.  So, writing a short treatise as part of his “Privileged Species Series,” Australian biologist Michael Denton treats The Wonder of Water:  Water’s Profound Fitness for Life on Earth and Mankind (Seattle:  Discovery Institute, c. 2017; Kindle Edition).  He rightly employs the word wonder to indicate his thesis, for this is much more than a descriptive text.  He is (as Socrates noted about Theaetetus) by nature “a philosopher; for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.”  Similarly, Plato’s more scientifically-oriented student, Aristotle, said:  “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”

And there are indeed many wonderful aspects to water!  Now and then we’re painfully aware of it.  Especially when desiccated by a drought—or battling flood waters—we know something of its enormous  power.   More positively, we know that the slow erosion of rocks makes soil and moist soil incubates organic life.  Yet there is “another unseen and very different magic” working “inside our bodies.  The same wonder substance that is eroding those rocks and providing life with essential nutrients and minerals is doing something else!”  It’s sustaining our circulatory system.  “With each beat of our heart, water carries to our tissues oxygen and many of those very same nutrients leached from the rocks in the fall.  Water also ferries away the waste products of respiration—carbon dioxide to the lungs, other waste products to the kidneys, and excess heat to the skin, where it is vented from the body.  Our vital dependence on those beautiful tumbling waters for the life-giving minerals she draws from the rocks and our equally vital dependence on the water coursing through our arteries carrying many of those same elements around the body brings us face to face with a revelation as extraordinary as any other in any domain of science.  The one substance, water, is uniquely fit to serve two utterly different vital ends—ends as different as can be conceived: the erosion of rock and the circulation of the blood.  Both are absolutely vital to our existence.  No other substance in nature comes close to having the essential set of properties needed to do these two jobs” (p. 12).

More deeply, the wonders of water indicate that our world—and we ourselves—are no cosmic accidents.  “Through its magic, water sings a universal song of life, and in its special fitness for human physiology it sings a special song of man.  The properties of water show that beings with our biology do indeed occupy a special central place in the order of nature, and that the blueprint for life was present in the properties of matter from the moment of creation” (p. 14).   Uniquely, water exists in three forms—solid, liquid, gas.  Rocks remain rocks and oxygen and helium remain gasses.  But water, uniquely, takes various forms on the planet’s surface, and:  “Of all known substances, only water is fit for the hydrological cycle, the delivery system of water to land-based life” (p. 18).  Going into fascinating detail, Denton shows how this cycle works, saysing:  “There is a beautiful and elegant teleology in all this.  The same process which draws from rocks the minerals and essential elements for life generates at the same time—in the clays and sands and silts that together form soil with organic debris—an ideal water- and mineral-retaining matrix that provides the means by which the mineral-enriched water can be used by plants” (p. 28).  It also lubricates the movement of the tectonic plates, shifting continents and casting aloft mountains. 

“The notion that the tectonic system is the result of design rises unbidden from the evidence.  How could such an elegant system of integrated elements of unique fitness, which has fashioned the world for life over billions of years, and which transcends in its reciprocal self-formative abilities any artifact created to date, have arisen out of blind collisions of atoms?  And how could the manifold fitness of water, which conveys every impression of having been fine-tuned to turn the wheels, be mere happenstance?” (p. 58).  Indeed:   “The design of such systems, in which the parts are reciprocally self-formative, transcends the design of any artifact or machine ever created” (p. 58).  Illustrating this is the temperature regulation provided by earth’s oceans, which serve as a hemostat, regulating temperatures and conserving water, providing us with a mechanism “without any parallel in human engineering” (p. 75).  Water’s thermal properties sustain and regulate the earth’s climate, “transporting and redistributing heat around the globe.  If either of these two properties did not have the values they do, the entire climate machine would grind to a halt, permanent ice might cover the region where New York currently stands, and all tropical regions would be hellishly hot.  So the thermal properties of water help produce the atmospheric currents . . .  that contribute to ocean currents, which also use water’s thermal properties to better redistribute heat” (p. 103).

There are also currents circulating within living organisms.  “Steven Vogel, in The Life of a Leaf, describes the way water manages to get to the top of tall trees as a phenomenon mirabile dictu (“wonderful to relate”)” (p. 107).  Two of water’s unique properties are its high surface tension and tensile strength, which enable it to soar 100 feet or so to the tops of trees.  As water evaporates from the tree through its leaves, suction lifts fresh water from the tree’s roots.  “It is a basic law of hydraulics that pressure in one part of an enclosed hydraulic system is transmitted to all other parts.  As water molecules are lost from the leaves at the top of the tree, others must enter the roots to take their place” (p. 109).  Vogel “waxes lyrical in contemplating the way it’s done:  ‘The pumping system has no moving parts, costs the plant no metabolic energy, moves more water than all the circulatory systems of animals combined, does so against far higher resistance, and depends on a mechanism with no close analogy in human technology” (p. 110). 

After celebrating water’s role in human physiology and cellular life, Denton concludes his treatise by asking:  “Is there a tale like the tale of water?  Can one conceive of a substance as profoundly purposeful, serving such a diversity of vital ends?  Has any substance remotely like water been described even in the most outré annals of science fiction?  Who might have guessed or imagined in even the most unrestrained flight of fancy that in this simple substance, one of the simplest of nature’s creations, composed of only three atoms—two of hydrogen and one of oxygen—and only a ten-millionth of a millimeter across, there would be so much design?  There are more ends served in these three magic atoms than in any other natural form, and far, far more, and far more marvelous, than in any artifact created by or conceived of by man.  No words can express the wonder of such manifold purpose, so many vital ends, compressed in such a tiny piece of matter.  Water is the matrix of the cell, the blood of the Earth, the maker of mountains, the sustainer of life” (pp. 179-180).  Still more:  “In these extraordinary features, water’s design for life is transcendent!  Nothing in the artificial realm of our own limited designs comes close.  Reason recoils at the notion that such designs could be the result of blind, unseeing processes.  There is no domain in which astronomer Fred Hoyle’s celebrated confession is more appropriate:  ‘A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests… that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature’” (p. 183).

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In addition to the Spirit moving upon the face of the waters, God said:  “Let there be light, and there was light.”  So began the creative process, fueled from its inception by the wondrous power of light.  In Einstein’s world, the sole constant throughout the universe is the speed of light.  So it is fitting, when Michael Denton crafted another treatise in the “Privileged Species Series” (celebrating the wonders of the world) he would write about Children of Light: The Astonishing Properties of Sunlight that Make Us Possible (Seattle:  Discovery Institute, c. 2018; Kindle Edition).  As with water, sunshine is such a daily reality in our world that we rarely pause to ponder its splendor.  Though at one time or another we probably studied and appreciated the importance of photosynthesis, whereby plants miraculously transform light into biological beings, we’re doubtlessly less aware of the importance of the sun’s invisible electromagnetic radiation that’s needed for an amazing variety of necessary ingredients for earth’s intricate workings.  

  Still more:  earth’s intricacies seem perfectly designed for us, her residents, living in a truly “Goldilocks region” that is just right, indeed a perfectly designed, place for us.  We get just enough illuminating light and just enough heat to make this a truly “privileged planet.”  Thus Denton says:  “In addition to being perfectly fit for photosynthesis and hence for our kind of oxygen-utilizing advanced life, sunlight is also just right for high-acuity vision, which depends on another set of extraordinary coincidences in the characteristics of visual light.  And sunlight is just right not only for any type of high-acuity visual device or eye, but just right in terms of its wavelength for beings of our size and upright android design.  What is so significant about the fitness of the Sun’s light for photosynthesis and for high-acuity vision is that these are elements of natural fitness exclusively for our type of life—for beings possessing the gift of sight, breathing oxygen (aerobic), and inhabiting the terrestrial surface of a planet like the Earth” (#147).

The rightness of light for our world is facilitated by a remarkable blend of atmospheric gasses (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor and ozone), for the “life-giving light of the Sun must penetrate the atmosphere right down to the ground to work its magic, and a proportion of the Sun’s IR radiation (heat radiation) must be absorbed by and held in the atmosphere to warm the Earth above the freezing point of water and animate the atoms of life for chemistry.  Amazingly, the atmosphere obliges us in this critical task.  But as we shall see, its capacity to let through the right light and absorb the right proportion of heat depends on an additional suite of hugely improbable coincidences in the combined absorption characteristics of the atmospheric gases” (#629).  Indeed, Denton says:  “If I can be excused for expressing the coincidence in animist terms, it is as if the atmosphere were intelligently colluding with the Sun to ensure that only the right light for photochemistry . . . reached the Earth’s surface and that only the ‘right’ proportion of the IR was absorbed to warm the Earth into the ambient temperature range” (#669).  The three most important gasses—CO₂, H₂O, and O₂—effectively “ensure—by their collective absorption properties in the atmosphere—the availability of the vital light energy necessary to drive the reaction to completion.  It is as if these three gases were colluding intelligently together to promote their incorporation into the substance of living matter.  Altogether these coincidences convey an overwhelming impression of design.  The improbability that they are the outcome of the blind concourse of atoms is equivalent to the improbability of drawing the same card twice from a stack of 1025 cards stretching from Earth beyond the Andromeda Galaxy.  How else can we describe these coincidences except as miracles of fortuity?” (#903). 

Though we see only a tiny bit of the EM spectrum, we are blessed with visual capacities, and our high-acuity eyes are themselves wondrous to behold!  [Many years ago, while teaching at Point Loma Nazarene University, I attended a lecture by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA.  He gave a fascinating lecture on the eye, acknowledging that scientists were still quite puzzled by its complexity, though he was confident they would figure it all out.  I was also struck by his dogmatic declamations regarding the origin of the universe while admitting his mystification at the eye!]  As did Crick, Denton describes the eye and explains its functions.  But unlike Crick he acknowledges its improbability of emerging through purely materialistic developments.  That we have eyes to see—and that there is light illuminating our world for us to behold—is little short of miraculous, for it requires “the same tiny magic band that has just the right energy levels for photochemistry and detection by bio-matter.”  The probability that it all “just happened” means we have “had to select the same playing card from the stack that stretches that inconceivable distance beyond our nearest neighboring galaxy” (#1555).  Denton notes that most scientists, like Crick, reject his position, for the current naturalistic Zeitgeist hardly allows for any anthropocentric interpretations of our place in the cosmos.  But:  “No matter how unfashionable the notion may be in many intellectual circles, the evidence is unequivocal:  Ours is a cosmos in which the laws of nature appear to be specially fine-tuned for our type of life—for advanced, carbon-based ‘light eaters’ who possess the technologically enabling miracle of sight!  I do admit that the claim—that our existence depends on a profound fitness in nature for our specific form of being—is among the most outrageously ambitious claims in the history of thought.  Could the cosmic dance have really been arranged primarily for beings like us?” (#1745).  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before publishing his works on water and light, Micheal Denton wrote the first of his Privileged Species books, titling it Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire and Transform Our Planet (Seattle:  Discovery Institute Press, c. 2016; Kindle Eduction).  “Of all the discoveries made in the course of mankind’s long march to civilization,” he says, “there was one primal discovery that made the realization of all this possible.  It’s a discovery we use every day and take completely for granted. But this discovery changed everything.  Humankind discovered how to make and tame fire.  Darwin rightly saw it as ‘Probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man’” (p. 10). 

Building fires for heat and cooking were important for early man, and simple camp fires sufficed.  But in order to smelt metals—copper, iron, etc.—something that burned hotter was needed.  And it was discovered:  charcoal!  By burning charcoal in vented kilns you can smelt copper to make bronze and iron (thus the “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age” we study in history).  “Given the range of temperatures in the cosmos and the fantastic diversity of the properties of matter, it beggars belief that the smelting temperatures of metal ores are in reach of the temperatures that can be generated in wood or charcoal fires—a coincidence upon which the whole subsequent development of technology depended” (p. 16).  The elements of earth are just right for us—and we’re rightly designed to use them!  Only humans—conscious, rational, creative creatures with dexterous hands—“could ever have exploited the wonderful fitness of nature for fire and for metallurgy” (p. 17).  We alone are “capable of maintaining and controlling fire, of building kilns, of mining for ores, of felling trees and manufacturing charcoal, and so on” (p. 47). 

Fortunately for us, planet earth is wondrously endowed with fire-friendly ingredients!  It’s just the right size with just the right mass possessing just the right gravity “to retain permanently the heavier gaseous elements such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, but weak enough to permit the initial loss of the lighter volatile elements such as hydrogen and helium.  Only on planets of similar mass and size to the Earth’s could there exist an atmosphere containing sufficient quantities of oxygen to sustain fire” (p. 27).  Ours for sure is a Goldilocks planet!  And it contains precious ores!  As Alfred Russel Wallace said:  “‘The seven ancient metals are gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury.  All of these are widely distributed in the rocks.  They are most of them found occasionally in a pure state, and are also obtained from their ores without much difficulty, which has led to their being utilised from very early times… Each of the seven metals (and a few others now in common use) has very special qualities which renders it useful for certain purposes, and these have so entered into our daily life that it is difficult to conceive how we should do without them’” (p. 32).  To smelt these metals required the right fuel—and we have it:  wood.  In various forms—firewood, charcoal, coal, oil—wood has fueled civilization. 

In conclusion:  “Overall, the evidence suggests that the cosmos is uniquely fit for beings of our biology to thrive on a planet like the Earth and to master fire and develop complex advanced technologies.  Surely there could not be an equivalent ensemble of fitness in nature for some other type of life.  Lawrence Henderson made the same point in his classic Fitness of the Environment when he argued that the sorts of ensembles of fitness which make carbon-based life possible are so absurdly improbable that they are almost certainly unique, without any analogue in any other area of chemistry or physics” (p. 66).  “Whatever the ultimate causation may eventually prove to be, as it stands, the evidence of fitness is at least consistent with the notion that the fine-tuning for life as it exists on Earth is the result of design” (p. 67).  “Although the current Zeitgeist would have us believe that humanity is little more than a cosmic accident, one of a million different possible outcomes that happened to arrive and survive on an unexceptional planet, the evidence examined in this short book suggests otherwise—that whatever the causation of the fine tuning, we are no accident of deep time and chance.  On the contrary, as Freeman Dyson famously proclaimed, from the moment of creation ‘the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming’” (p. 69).

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In 1985 Micheal Denton published Evolution:  A Theory in Crisis, seriously questioning the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection.  Reading that work helped embolden the late Philip Johnson to write The Case Against Darwin and help launch what is frequently called the “Intelligent Design” movement.  Though Johnson and others were theists, Denton (an Australian academic) writes purely from a biologist’s standpoint, leaving theological issues in others’ hands.  Just recently he revised and upgraded his position in Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Seattle:  Discovery Institute Press, c. 2016; Kindle Edition.)   “My major goal in this new book,” he says, “is to review the challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy and the support for typology provided by the novelty and extraordinary invariance of the homologs [i.e. primal patterns]” (p. 13).  There are, he argues, perduring “types” of biological structures embedded in and best explaining the natural world.  

Taking this position leads him to align himself with leading 19th century biologists, most especially Richard Owen, who believed in quite specific “laws of biological form” which set limits to the development of species, providing “a few basic designs or Types, just as the laws of chemical form or crystal form limit chemicals and crystals to finite sets of lawful forms.  This view implies that many of life’s basic forms arise in the same way as do other natural forms—ultimately from the self-organization of matter—and are genuine universals.  Structuralism—at least in the form it took in the nineteenth century, and in the version I am defending here—implies that the basic Types of life, and indeed the whole evolutionary progression of life on earth, are built into nature.  Thus, life is no artifact of ‘time and chance,’ as it came to be seen after Darwin, but a predictable and necessary part of the cosmic whole” (p. 15).

Scientists such as Owen were structuralists, while Darwin was a functionalist.  “Where functionalism suggests that function is prior and determines structure, structuralism suggests that structure is prior and constrains function” (p. 19).  When, in 1985, Denton advanced an essentially structuralist view he was very much alone is his advocacy.  But he now says times have changed!  The evidence for a structuralist approach has mounted to almost to a cascade supporting “Owen’s distinction between homolog [the melody] and adaptive mask [tuning the piano]):  ‘We think of natural selection as tuning the piano, not as composing the melodies.  That’s our story, and we think it’s the story that modern biology tells when it’s properly construed’” (p.  29).  Denton believes:  “along with Owen and many other nineteenth-century biologists, that life is an integral and lawful part of nature and that the basic forms of life are in some sense built into nature.  I see this notion massively reinforced by the evidence of twentieth-century cosmology that the laws of nature are uniquely fine-tuned for life.  Inevitably, therefore, this book is a defense of the typological world-view similar to that subscribed to by many nineteenth-century biologists:  that the taxa-defining homologs represent a special set of natural forms which constitute the immutable building blocks of the biological world.  If the Types (or, more specifically, the homologs which define them) are indeed natural forms, their origin can never be explained by cumulative selection.  Thus, Darwinism is bound to fail as a comprehensive explanation of life” (p. 29).

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