Creationism by Any Other Name

Article excerpt

A review of the film The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe

INTELLIGENT DESIGN (ID)--basically the old "argument from design"--dresses itself up in technical jargon in order to acquire a thin veneer of scientific credibility. ID advocates' opportunistic tactics, which have more in common with politicians than scientists, have been described as the "wedge" strategy--an attempt to gain academic acceptance by maintaining a presence in academic and scientific venues.

A prime example of this is the film The Privileged Planet, a contemporary classic of pseudoscience. The film was produced by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank whose expressed goal is the promotion of Intelligent Design. The film gained a degree of notoriety when the Institute boasted that The Privileged Planet was screening at none other than the Smithsonian Institute itself, with the implied endorsement of that august body. In fact, the Discovery Institute donated $16,000 to the Smithsonian, which by policy allowed the Institute to co-sponsor the film and to use the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium for its screening. This naturally sparked an outcry from the scientific community, which led the Smithsonian to refuse the $16,000 donation, thereby withdrawing their co-sponsorship and any hint of endorsement. Although the Smithsonian was still contractually obliged to show the film, the screening ended up being an invitation-only event attended by ID sympathizers.

The film revolves around the authors of the book of the same title, Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrobiologist, and Jay W. Richards, a philosopher at the Discovery Institute (the book is published by Regnery, a conservative publishing house). Their argument is that life is too improbably complex to have come about by chance; therefore there must be an Intelligent Designer. The film reviews the standard arguments for the necessary conditions needed to allow life to exist on Earth or elsewhere, such as that the planet must be in the "Goldilocks Zone"--the distance at which a planet has habitable temperatures. The film claims that if the earth were merely 5% closer to the Sun temperatures would approach 900[degrees] Fahrenheit and all the water would boil off the Earth. The type of star also has to be just right. If the Sun were smaller, then the "Goldilocks Zone" would have to be closer. But if the Earth were closer to the Sun then its rotation rate might become fixed with its rate of orbit (as with our own moon), such that the same side of the Earth would always face the Sun, creating two lifeless sides--a cold, frozen side and a scorched, seared side. (The film ignores the transitional twilight zone between the dark side and light side in which life might exist.) Plate tectonics must diligently operate to recycle carbon; there must be an atmosphere rich in oxygen, liquid water, and a circulating, liquid iron core generating a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. (Never mind the microbes found at thermal vents in the ocean or at significant depths in mines--which do not require oxygen.) The planet must be orbited by a large moon--our Moon stabilizes the tilt of the Earth, keeping the seasons temperate. The planet must be surrounded by larger planets in order to protect it from gigantic space debris that are absorbed by these larger planets before they can strike the Earth. And the list goes on and on.

In short, a whole lot of things have to be precisely right in order for a planet to be habitable, and all of these factors must be present in order for life to exist on any planet. (It could be argued that these are merely the factors that allow for a very specific type of life and are not even necessary for a number of Earth creatures). In The Privileged Planet it is stated that if we assume that the odds of each of these factors occurring are the same, and if we fix these odds at one out of ten, then the odds of all of these conditions coming together in one location are 1/1,000,000,000,000,000. …