This review addresses a collection of five books written by Michael Denton for the Discovery Institute, addressing the theme of the wonders of creation. It probably should have been titled “The Privileged World series”, but that is not for me to claim. I have read these texts on my Kindle or iPhone. I presume that there is some intended sequence for reading these books, but I’m not sure what it is, so will choose my own order as I read through them. I will offer a summary at the end of the five reviews.
Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire and Transform Our Planet, by Michael Denton ★★★★★
The subtitle of this short work does not do justice to the content of this book. It is a marvelous text, discussing many issues regarding fire that I had never ever contemplated. Regarding humans, if we were much smaller, we would not have had the capacity to handle fire. If we didn’t have human hands with opposable thumbs, the dexterity to start a fire would have never occurred. If we were too large, other issues arise, including physiological issues of human mass preventing us to be able to stand erect as bipeds.
The physics of this world is actually a more interesting story. The nature of water is vital in being able to allow trees to develop and grow. Wood in its various forms is essentially the fuel that is used for starting and maintaining fires. Progress in working with wood and charcoal allowed for hotter fires, first in order to kiln ceramic pots, and then to be able to work with metals. The atmosphere must not contain too much oxygen or too little. Too large of a planet or too small of a planet would have been unsuitable to maintain a fire-safe atmosphere. Oxygen is a fairly stable molecule, allowing for its safe use in forming fires. Wood is also very stable, as witnessed by the challenge of getting campfire wood hot enough to produce the fires we love to sit around, warm ourselves, and roast marshmallows on.
The intricacies of our planet that allow such a simple thing as fire to take place and to allow man to control those fires for their own uses is astounding. Denton does a wonderful job at leaving the reader in awe regarding the wonderful creation that God has designed for us.
The Wonder of Water, by Michael Denton ★★★★
This wonderful little tome discusses the nature and properties of water that make it a very special and unique substance. Unlike any other liquid known to man, it possesses very precise qualities, that even if slightly altered, would make life on our planet impossible. Water’s freezing and boiling point, water’s viscosity, water’s reactivity, it’s solubility, it’s transmissibility of light, it’s nature when it freezes and boils, are all properties that make it a very unique fluid, “almost” as though it were specifically designed. We so readily can imagine a complex organism like man, or even a simple bacteria, as being irreducibly complex. Yet, water is also an unimaginatively complex substance that forms the basic substance for life as well as for the modeling of our planet into a habitable orb. Plate tectonics, the oceans, the atmosphere, the physical form of the earth with mountains, plains, polar icecaps, and continual “recycling” of that landscape is all a result of water’s properties. Truly it is a substance that goes unnoticed because of its ubiquitous presence, yet Denton anticipates that we will discover many more properties of water that form its distinctive significance in our universe.
Children of Light: The Astonishing Properties of Sunlight that Make Us Possible, by Michael Denton ★★★★
“And God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light”. Though some will joke that God spoke Maxwell’s equations, the newer Quantum Electrodynamics still fails at grasping the dual nature of light being both a wave and a particle. Yet, even Richard Feynman would agree that we haven’t really grasped the nature of light and electrodynamics with our inadequate models. Denton explores these thoughts as well as the nature of light. Looking at the entire spectrum of electromagnetic waves, visible light forms only the most minuscule portion of that spectrum. There is no reason why the visible spectrum should predominate in the universe, from the emission of stars to the emissions of man-made light-emitting products. Yet, the visible spectrum is the only portion of the spectrum that could sustain life and allow for all of the natural and biological wonders that we see. Slightly more energetic waves would denature DNA and proteins, and slightly less energetic waves would be insufficient for photosynthesis and being the earth from being nothing but a frozen tundra. Light is so mundane, and yet such a remarkable miracle.
The Miracle of Man: The Fine-Tuning of Nature for Human Existence, by Michael Denton ★★★★
This book seems to be more of a summary of the last three books. It serves as a good summary. While evolutionists seek to determine how the “development” of the species is in adaptation to a very complex universe, Denton takes another approach by looking at the world that species are “adapting” to, and looks at how that universe seems to have intentionally been designed to permit life. This is the anthropocentric nature of the universe, as though the universe and its laws and characteristics of all its elements seem intended to allow life to take place.
This book was an intimate reminder to me of my days in medical school. I recall nearly weekly taking long walks or runs meditating on human anatomy and physiology and being perplexed at how perfect the entire system was designed and assembled. Life, from the smallest cells to the most complex organisms such as man, has such a remarkable intricacy; how reproduction with embryological development is so intriguing as to defy man’s greatest efforts to unlock the mysteries that we observe. Denton marches through many of the systems of the body, the circulatory, the respiratory, the musculoskeletal, and the nervous system, showing that they were all perfectly designed. The size, structure, design, and physiology are just right; i.e., they are just too perfect to have happened by accident. No other possibilities for evolution could have created the same superior function that we see in the observed bodies.
The Miracle of the Cell, by Michael Denton ★★★★
The Miracle of Man addresses the macroscopic wonders of life on earth, especially the life of multicellular organisms. The Miracle of the Cell takes a look at the microscopic and biochemical wonders of the cell. As usual, Denton focuses almost entirely on the biophysical properties of nature, and especially the nature of the elements and simple compounds that allow life to exist. His appreciation as to how organometallic enzymes just seem to find the correct metal atom to accomplish a certain task and none other is greeted by great wonder and suggestion that only intelligent design could possibly accomplish the task. It was a delightful ending to the story of just how privileged we are as a species, and how special it is that the world “seems” to be a perfect fit for life. It is remarkable how alteration of any of the properties of the chemical world we live in, such as a slight lowering of the freezing point of water, a slight shift in the spectrum of light emitted by the sun, a slight alteration in how oxygen absorbs light in the atmosphere, a slight difference in the viscosity of water, and a plethora of other properties of nature, would have made life not only different, but rather, frankly impossible to have occurred. It is a wonderful world that we live in!
There are several reasons why I gave the books in the series only 4 stars. There is excessive repetition in these books, and eventually, Denton might consider publishing them all as a single volume, reducing redundancy in the process. Each individual volume is well contained, yet the books are presented as a series, which I (perhaps wrongly assumed) were intended to be read as a series.
Denton is a physician-scientist, something that I also am. Reading the 5 books was a matter of suffering through the (appropriately) simplified language of how a physician would speak with a patient. For me, it was frustrating. For the non-biologically in-tuned reader, it is most appropriate what he did. Still, there is a lot that I learned from reading these books, and a perspective that was beautifully scripted.
Denton seems very reluctant to come to the conclusion that it must be an infinite-personal God that guided the “creation” of man. His reluctance is puzzling since he cannot account for one of the most intriguing properties of man, that of a conscious, communicable being with a sense of morality, with ingenuity, with those traits that so distinctively separate man from other living creatures. Besides, he is taking a science-of-the-gaps mentality, simply assuming that all it takes is enough time before science will determine the finer points of the development of the universe and life on planet earth. Man, with all his brilliance, has not yet even once competed with random “nature” to produce an enzyme that accomplishes a given task. Take for instance the Grignard reaction, one of the first learned in college organic chemistry; invent an enzyme that can accomplish what the Grignard reaction accomplishes at body temperature in standard organic conditions! There are thousands upon thousands of enzymes, none of which we can develop a better enzyme to do the task. Even in the laboratory, we are dependent upon biologically extracted enzymes to perform our molecular biological feats of wonder. It is easy to snipe that only time and research will be necessary to improve on what we find in nature, yet the absence of even a minor improvement upon nature still awaits us.
Just as a last word, please do not criticize my book reviews, as many of them were written under extreme duress in 110°F weather. If you have any criticisms, I will sic Greta on you!