Could primordial soup be served ice-cold and made with a liquid other than water? Astrobiologists believe that it’s possible on Titan. Although the temperature on Saturn’s massive moon is a chilly minus 179 degrees Celsius, it has a thick nitrogen atmosphere rich in organic molecules and a surface speckled with methane lakes. These ingredients, according to computer simulations recently conducted at Cornell University, could combine to form cellular membranes, which are crucial for the evolution of complex cells. “Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life not as we know it,” said one of the researchers in a news release. Another expressed hope that we might someday send a probe “to float on the seas of this amazing moon.”
But the creationists at the hilariously misnamed Discovery Institute, a prominent advocate for intelligent design theory, had a different spin on the story. It described the Cornell researchers as hucksters who had proved nothing: “Get out your checkbook, U.S Congress. Coming up: a search across the Solar System for stone-cold dead BUBBLES.”
Ridiculing astrobiologists is a favorite sport at the Discovery Institute, which complains on its news site that “hardly a month goes by lately when the science media fail to breathlessly report the discovery of a new planet, in some star's ‘habitable zone,’ that might hypothetically be capable of supporting life.” The institute attributes the coverage in part to hype purposefully generated by “organized science” to shake down the government for grant money.
But the creationists also see a more sinister agenda than naked greed. They place astrobiologists among the ranks of the “Darwin Brigades” who have always been “eager to undermine human exceptionalism,” since “the alleged ordinariness of the human race was vital in establishing common ancestry as a plausible theory.” Astrobiology, they argue, expands this line of thought, since it holds to the Darwinist belief that life started by accident and that—under the right conditions—it can emerge anywhere with a liquid solvent (preferably water), energy, and organic compounds. This delusion, the Discovery Institute adds, undermines human exceptionalism on a cosmic scale by proclaiming that the Earth is not particularly special, just one among billions of potentially life-bearing planets.
The Discovery Institute claims instead that, the more data we gather about the Earth and other solar systems, the more clear it becomes that the cosmos was designed specifically with us in mind: “Someone decided that life should exist in this universe and made sure that Earth received all the proper protection and environmental benefits it needed to become the home of humankind.” And, of course, scripture is always available to provide supporting evidence. “The Earth's uniqueness brings to mind what the prophet Isaiah recorded thousands of years ago: ‘For thus says the Lord—Who created the heavens, God Himself, Who formed the Earth and made it, Who established it and did not create it to be a worthless waste; He formed it to be inhabited—I am the Lord, and there is no one else.’”
The intellectual godfather of these views is Guillermo Gonzalez, a proponent of intelligent design who is an assistant professor of astronomy at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Gonzalez puts a theological twist on some of the theories proposed by his more secular-minded colleagues. Chief among these is the “rare Earth” hypothesis, which emphasizes that even the slightest deviations in cosmic and terrestrial events could have rendered our planet inhospitable to life.
The most recent scientific treatment of this idea is the book Lucky Planet, by David Waltham, an astrobiologist and geophysicist at Royal Holloway College, University of London. “There are many ways of getting a world wrong but few ways of getting it right,” Waltham writes. “Earth was blessed with incredible good fortune, giving it all the right properties to sustain a complex and beautiful biosphere.”
Gonzalez and theologian Jay Wesley Richards present a different interpretation in their book The Privileged Planet, which has become a manifesto for intelligent design cosmology. Scientists such as Waltham, Gonzalez says, “argue that although Earth’s complex life and the conditions that allow for it are highly improbable … [they’re] still nothing more than an unintended fluke.”
Privileged Planet, however, sees evidence of a divine architect, arguing that the cosmos has been purposefully engineered to enable us to appreciate it: “The fact that our atmosphere is clear; that our moon is just the right size and distance from Earth; and that its gravity stabilizes Earth’s rotation; that our position in the galaxy is just so; that our sun is its precise mass and composition—all of these facts and many more not only are necessary for Earth’s habitability, but also have been surprisingly crucial to the discovery and measurement of the universe.”
This measurability is presented as a refutation of chance. For instance, the composition of our atmosphere is such that it filters out deadly radiation while remaining transparent enough for the science of astronomy. Gonzalez takes correlation between habitability and measurability a step even further, noting that our transparent atmosphere also enables us to detect and deflect asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth. Such knowledge would only be useful for a technologically advanced civilization. Therefore, he reasons, it endows humanity with a survival mechanism that is intrinsically tied to our predestined development as a scientifically literate species.
It’s the sort of circular reasoning that can give you an ice cream headache. But, from the perspective of creationists who believe that the Earth is God’s very special planet, it answers two questions that have been dogging them ever since scientists in the 19th century began seriously investigating the possibility of life on other worlds: If the Earth is at the theological center of the universe, why is it physically located in the boondocks of the Milky Way galaxy? And why would God create so many planets just to leave them barren of life?
Intelligent design cosmology purports to answer the first question by declaring that we are, in fact, located at an exalted place. A planet situated in intergalactic space, far from other stars, would have less light pollution, making it ideal for observing distant phenomena, but with no other nearby planets to observe, the location would be virtually worthless for discovering the laws of celestial mechanics. A planet near a dense nebular cloud, on the other hand, would be conducive to learning about star formation, but because of the glare, not the wider universe. Earth, Gonzalez argues, “offers surprisingly good views of the distant and nearby universe while providing an effective platform for discovering the laws of physics.”
And why would a deity who cares only about Earthlings bother to design an infinite cosmos just to fill it with dead planets? Intelligent design proponents have an answer for that, too. They see the wider universe as the byproduct of the lengthy process of bringing the Earth into being—a massive undertaking that began with the creation of energy, followed by the formation of matter, elements, galaxies, planets, and ultimately, us. Extraterrestrial life is not a factor in this equation.
That’s why the Discovery Institute exudes an I-told-you-so schadenfreude whenever scientists discover exoplanets that appear to be poor candidates for sustaining life. The most basic definition of a “habitable” planet is one that exists in its solar system’s “Goldilocks zone”—close enough to its star to provide sufficient heat for liquid water but not so close that any water steams away. But there are a myriad of other factors that determine whether an exoplanet can host life. For instance, if an exoplanet is too small, it won’t be able to retain an atmosphere; if it’s too large, the high surface pressure will make water solid, regardless of the temperature.
“Not only are more requirements for habitability being discovered, but they are often found to be interdependent, forming a complex ‘web,’ ” the Discovery Institute says. “This means that if a planetary system is found not to satisfy one of the habitability requirements, it may not be possible to compensate for this deficit by adjusting a different parameter in the system.”
That might be true if you believe that our solar system is the perfect template for habitability. Scientists have discovered combinations of factors that could allow for planetary systems very different from ours to support life. For instance, a planet orbiting close to a small, cool star can become “tidally locked,” so that one side always faces the sun while the other side is trapped in permanent darkness. It was once thought that the daylight side of such a world would lose all its water, since it would evaporate and freeze on the night side. But recent climate modeling suggests that ocean currents could transport enough heat to melt away dark-side glaciers, keeping the planet wet enough for life.
And then there are the surprising potential habitable zones that we’ve found within our own solar system—in the methane lakes of Titan and the massive oceans of water beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. There might be microbial life on Mars, or fossils of long-extinct organisms that thrived around 4 billion years ago, when the Red Planet had an atmosphere and water.
The intelligent design crowd doesn’t rule out the existence of what it calls “simple life” on other worlds. However, as the Discovery Institute sniffs, “we likely won't be satisfied with microbes barely surviving on a moon. … We are looking for much more complex life, with a brain capacity similar to our own, and the ability to modify its surroundings into complex technology.”
It’s stunning that even critics of astrobiology could be witless enough to write those words. We’d be quite satisfied with microbes eking out an existence on an alien moon. In fact, evidence that life can emerge on other worlds would be the most significant discovery of the millennium.
Perhaps the most revealing statement made by creationists is their disdain for “simple life.” Yes, compared with us, a bacterium is simple life. But there is nothing simple about life itself. It is, to our knowledge, the only thing in the natural universe that is capable of physically changing itself to adapt to its environment. Darwin’s words still resonate today: “Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
And that’s what really worries the missionaries of intelligent design. The discovery of extraterrestrial organisms would confront them with two unpalatable conclusions—that evolution is the driving force behind life, and that God has plans that don’t necessarily include us. For creationists, it’s far more comforting to pin their faith upon a dead universe.