Ben Bova’s New Earth is a spectacular novel that mixes hard sci fi with a touch of space opera. I recently investigated a major theme of the novel: the notion that we may find hope in the stars. Here, we’ll explore some other major themes of the book, including exploration, the possibility of human extinction, and xenophobia. There will be major SPOILERS in what follows.
A major theme found in New Earth is the urge to explore and possible benefits thereof. In a conversation between Anita Halleck–a wealthy investor, and Douglas Stavenger–the semi-retired leader of Selene, the independent sovereign nation on the moon, this theme is drawn out most poignantly:
“It’s a big universe,” said Stavenger.
“But what good is it [exploration of “New Earth”]?” she demanded. “What does it accomplish? So they explore another planet. Does that help anybody? Does that solve any real problems?”
…”There are always problems on Earth.[” said Stavenger. “]And here in Selene, too. That shouldn’t stop our push to explore.”
“Where will it end?”
“It won’t end. We keep on exploring, keep on learning. That’s where new knowledge comes from, the frontier. And new knowledge always leads to new wealth, new benefits for everyone.”
“Very practical,” Stavenger corrected. (83)
There is some debate now over funding for NASA, for example. What good does it do to send people to the moon? Surely that funding could be better spent on, say, relieving world hunger. In fact, this exact argument is made within New Earth, because the planet Earth is itself suffering from catastrophes caused by global warming, among other issues.
Yet Bova, through Stavenger, makes an argument for exploration: the drive to explore, the imagination; these are things which drive invention and innovation. As Stavenger put it, the drive to explore leads to new wealth and new technology for everyone. It is interesting to see this debate play out in fiction, though this was largely where it dropped… However, one could argue that the ultimate revelation, that humanity was truly on the brink of destruction from the coming apocalypse from a local star, is itself an argument for the success of the project of human exploration.
Our home planet is in serious trouble in the time of New Earth. Global warming has devastated the environment, causing flooding across coastal regions, precipitation cycles to reorient and move. Drought and inundations of rain alternatively destroy their respective climate zones. Humanity flees the shorelines.
Through this bleak look into humanity’s plight, Bova issues a call for humans now to work against environmental catastrophe. Of course, some dispute the trend towards global warming, but even if global warming is some sort of myth, it seems to me that we must work toward caring for creation in such a way that we minimize our destruction of ecological systems. We are God’s stewards on Earth and so we should work to take care of the gifts of God’s creation.
Of course, in New Earth the consequences of forsaking this gift of God–our charge to care for the Earth–are put into fictional perspective. The destruction to the planet leads to destruction of human life.
The resistance the human characters have in New Earth to the information presented to them by the “humans” on New Earth is interesting and, in my opinion, helps to characterize the reality of human nature. Many of the humans on the excursion to New Earth are deeply suspicious of the alien life they have found. Moreover, the way they react to the friendliness of the aliens reflects a culture that the aliens (and the sentient machine) view as deeply barbaric. The human tendency to be distrustful, it is said, is due to their evolutionary history and the way that such distrust helped survival.
However, I think this same portrayal has theological significance. Humanity is fallen, and our past is littered with the results of our fallen nature. It is not at all hard to imagine humans reacting just as those did in New Earth. The reality of human nature is such that one cannot but think that no matter how tactfully and amiably such aliens approached us, the reaction would probably be negative. To trust the aliens to tell us about a coming destruction for which we should prepare to survive is to take it to another level.
What does this say about human nature?
Bova’s work New Earth is one of my favorites from one of the masters of science fiction. I’ve already discussed how it explored the issue of hope from the heavens in materialistic literature. Now, we’ve seen how it explores other issues which are both current and historic. Let me know what you think of the themes brought up in the book!
Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals– I write about creation care from a number of perspectives offered at a recent panel of prominent evangelical thinkers in this area.
Book Review: “For the Beauty of the Earth” by Steven Bouma-Prediger– Several issues related to the environment and Christian theology are drawn out in this extremely interesting book.
I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.
Ben Bova’s contributions to science fiction are monumental. A six-tme Hugo Award winner (!!), he is established as one of the most successful and entertaining authors of our time. I have quite enjoyed a number of his works, though I have at times been critical of his portrayal of religion. Bova’s major series, the “Grand Tour,” follows human exploration of the solar system (and at some points, beyond). The series is constructed in such a way as to not require readers to follow it chronologically. They are interlinked and interrelated, but not interdependent. Here, we’ll look at two recent books in this series which look at the discovery of an Earth-like planet. There will, of course, be major plot SPOILERS for both books in what follows.
After telescopes on Earth discover an Earth-sized planet relatively local to our own Solar System (ten light years away), the race is on to learn more about this planet. Farside portrays the struggles of a number of people in their efforts to build an observation base on the dark side of the moon. Jason Uhlrich seeks his Nobel Prize in his attempts to be the first to observe and chart the planet.
Life has already been found within the Solar System, and now two rivals rush to be the first to discover it in the great beyond of the stars. What is interesting is to note some of the assumptions that go into Bova’s characterization of life beyond Earth. First, one primary assumption seems to be that where there is water, there must be life. Second, life should be expected in all corners of the universe.
These assumptions are the subjects of much debate within the scientific community around the possibility of life on other planets and the origin of life. Regarding the former, there are those who do believe that life will be found in abundance throughout the universe. After all, given that we exist, life cannot be all that improbable, right? The other primary way of thinking is to argue that life is, in fact, quite rare in the universe and our own existence is a wonderfully improbable jackpot win.
New Earth picks up some time after the events of Farside. Humanity has sent an expedition to “New Earth.” Upon arrival, there is a great mystery: “New Earth” is eerily like Earth itself. It turns out that a machine known as a “predecessor” has created the planet and grown these human-like aliens as a way to break it to humanity that there is, in fact, more intelligent life “out there.” Moreover, there is a catastrophic event coming towards the whole arm of the Milky Way which will wipe out these intelligent species, and humanity needs to help preserve themselves and the other species.
Though skeptical, ultimately all the members of the expedition are convinced, and the book ends with the message reaching Earth and the gearing up to proceed on this mission given by the Predecessor.
There are, of course, any number of things that one could nitpick regarding the plausibility of the scenarios Bova envisions (one would be the rewiring of Uhlrich’s brain to “see” via hearing and touch… how does that work?), but here we’ll focus on two aspects of the work: the plausibility of life outside Earth and the mythos of the benevolent alien.
In Farside, readers who haven’t surveyed the body of Bova’s work discover that the Solar System itself teems with life: life once flourished on Mars, and its vestiges remain; on Jupiter, creatures soar in the skies; life is found elsewhere throughout the System. Bova’s vision of the origin of life seems to be that if there’s water, there may be life. Yet one has to wonder about the plausibility of life forming on a planet like Jupiter. How might biochemical interactions with delicate balances of material be maintained for long? What of the distance to the sun? The origin of life requires all kinds of factors to be “just right” and it simply is not enough to fudge the numbers by saying “It could have happened this way.” To develop a hypothesis around ad hoc assumptions is faulty.
Intelligent life, as explicated in New Earth, is even more problematic. It is easier to have single celled organisms than to have the complexity needed for intelligence. Even granting a naturalistic scenario, the conditions must be even more tuned for life and allow for the nurturing of that life for extremely long periods of time. The universe is indeed huge beyond belief but one has to wonder if even that immensity is enough to repeat the conditions which occur on Earth.
Of course, in the end, one must acknowledge that these are tales of science fiction, not proposals about how science fact might be. There is a certain sense of awe and wonder involved in considering whether life could exist all over the Solar System. It seems to me, however, that if that is the case, it probably got there by means of Earth–blown off the surface of our planet by an asteroid and traveled through space to Mars and possibly beyond.
Another major theme found in both books is what I dubbed the “Myth of the Benevolent Alien.” There is a kind of pervasive battle in science fiction between the notions that aliens want us dead or that aliens are going to be ultimately some kind of saviors of humankind. New Earth brings this benevolence front and center: some unknown life form created these “Predecessors” to find and aid intelligent life. It’s a scenario filled with wonder and hope. But it’s also a scenario which I’ve found time and again in materialistic literature.
The way this story goes: wherever possible, life is certain. It’s a kind of appeal to a fantasy of a godless universe wherein it may be possible to find hope and meaning in the stars. As one character (I believe it is Grant) said in Farside: Ad astra! (To the stars!). Second, the actual inherent implausibility of life both leads to this longing (we don’t want to be alone) and to a search for meaning (how did we get here?). My own answer is that theism provides a more plausible explanation of both the longing for meaning, meaning itself, and the way in which life arose. Interestingly, however, the atheistic accusation that theists are engaged in wishful thinking is perhaps mirrored through various declarations made by naturalists themselves (see the post linked above and in the links below).
Bova’s novels thus serve as a way forward in this discussion. By illustrating our longing and loneliness through the fulfillment of our desires (the discovery of life and the notion that we are not alone), Bova grants readers their wishes. However, we ultimately come to realize that these are indeed just wishes. Perhaps, one day, a “New Earth” will be discovered. But even if that happens, it will not be enough to satisfy our loneliness, nor will it answer our ultimate questions. Theism is the ultimate antidote to loneliness, the ultimate answer for our questions.
Materialists: Where is hope? Look to the stars!– I analyze one aspect of materialism: the way that some look to hope in the “beyond” of the outer limits of the universe. Hope, for materialists, may come from the stars. Our salvation may lay beyond our solar system, in benevolent aliens who will bring great change and advances to us.
Our Spooky Universe: Fine-Tuning and God- The incredible circumstances which allow for life to exist and thrive on Earth are the cause for not merely fictional speculation, but actual reflection upon our place in the universe and how it might relate to the transcendent. Check out this post which surveys the evidence for the existence of God found in “fine-tuning.”
Ben Bova, Farside (New York: Tor, 2013).
Ben Bova, New Earth (New York: Tor, 2013).
Fazale Rana recently debated Michael Ruse on the topic of the origin of life. Essentially, the question of the debate was whether the origin of life is best explained by naturalism or design. Here, I will provide brief comments on the debate.
Please note I make no claims to being a scientist and I am fully aware that I evaluate this debate as a lay person.
Michael Ruse Opening
Michael Ruse was careful to note that he is not keen on saying design is not possible. Rather, his claim is that naturalism is the most plausible explanation for the origins of life.
Ruse’s argued that design is implausible. Specifically, he noted that if design is the hypothesis put forward, there are any number of ways that one might consider that hypothesis. Is the designer a natural being within the universe or a supernatural being like God? Is there only one designer, or was there a group of designers (and he notes that a group of designers seems more plausible because automobiles require many designers to bring them about)? Finally, he raised the issue of bad design choices. He asked why, if there were a “hands-on” designer, would that designer not grant immunity to HIV and the like.
Ruse also argued that one can fall into the fallacy of selective attention- if one focuses upon only one example in isolation, then one might come to a conclusion that certain laws/theories may not be correct. But placing these same problems in context shows that they can be explained against “the background of our knowledge.”
Finally, Ruse ended with a number of examples for how problems which were seemingly insoluble were explained by naturalistic means. He also argued that one of the popular arguments for design, the flagellum, has so many different varieties (and is sometimes found to be a vestigial organ), and so cannot be shown to be designed.
Fazale Rana Opening
The problems which must be accounted for within an origins of life model are numerous. One must account for self-replication, the emergence of metabolism, the formation of protocells, the synthesis of prebiotic materials, the formation of life’s building blocks, and more.
Rana then turned to some primary models used by researchers to explain origin of life (hereafter OOL). First, there was the replicator-first model, which was problematic because in order for a molecule to be a self-replicator, it must be a homopolymer. But the complexity of the chemical environment on early earth rendered the generation of a homopolymer on the early earth essentially impossible. Next, the metabolism-first model runs into problem due to the chemical networks which have to be in place for metabolism. But the mineral surfaces proposed for the catalytic systems for these proto-metabolic systems cannot serve as such; Leslie Orgel held that this would have to be a “near miracle” and Rana argues that it is virtually impossible. Finally, the membrane-first model requires different steps with exacting conditions such that the model is self-defeating.
Rana argued positively that OOL requires an intelligent agent in order to occur. The reason is because the only way that any of these models can be generated is through the work on OOL in a lab. Thus, they can only be shown to be proof-of-principle and the chemistry breaks down when applied to the early earth. The fact that information is found in the cell is another evidence Rana presented for design. The systems found in enzymes with DNA function as, effectively, Turing machines. Moreover, the way that DNA finds and eliminates mistakes is machine-like as well. The fact that the needed component for success in lab experiments was intelligence hinted, according to Rana, at positive evidence for design.
Finally, Rana argued that due to the “fundamental intractable problems” with naturalistic models for the OOL and the fact that the conditions needed for the OOL and the processes required to bring it about have only been demonstrated as in-principle possible with intelligent agents manipulating the process.
First Cross Examination
At this point, Ruse and Rana engaged in a dialogue. Ruse first challenged Rana to show how the OOL model based on design could actually be based upon Genesis, as he quoted from Rana’s book (written with Hugh Ross), Origins of Life. He pointed out a few difficulties with using the Genesis account in this manner. Rana answered by putting forth his view of the Genesis account as an account of the origins of life on earth–a view which sees the Genesis account as corresponding with the scientific account (concordism). Yet the Genesis account is itself written from the perspective of a hypothetical observer found on the face of the earth rather than a perspective above the earth.
Rana asked Ruse for his thoughts on how much impact philosophy has on the debate over the OOL. He noted that it may be a presupposition of naturalism which lends itself to interpreting the OOL. Ruse answered by saying it is a good point and that philosophy cannot be denied a role in the discussion. But the question is not simply one of “gut commitments” and that one has to also take into account the scientific evidence and a “pragmatic reason” for holding to naturalism: naturalism works. It continually explains problems, even if it takes time.
The difficulty with the OOL debate is that it is too easy to take things out of context in order to show how many problems there are with a model. He argued that it is “peculiar” to take the results of a group of researchers and yet somehow go “flatly” against the “overall interpretation that each and every one of these people” would have taken from the research.
Despite all the difficulties, Ruse argued, researchers are starting, slowly, to get some view of how to explain the OOL. He pointed to some successes within the OOL sciences to show how eventually we may discover a naturalistic explanation.
Rana began with the notion of a creation model. He argued that models are not always drawn from the data, but rather models and theories are constructed from a number of different points.
Regarding the science itself, Rana noted that there is no established source of prebiotic materials on the early earth. The popular theories for how these materials might be generated fail for a number of reasons.
The argument, Rana said, is not a god-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, it is an observation of the breadth of scientific evidence which shows that in-principle experiments have been successful, but when applied to the scenarios for the early earth, the only way for success to be achieved is through intelligent agency (scientists in a lab manipulating the conditions).
Rana asked Ruse to respond to the notion that OOL research is similar to literary criticism in that all the different theories continue to be debated but none have come into dominance or can be established over the others. Ruse responded by noting that OOL research does have some “just so” stories but that science has taken seriously the criticisms and come towards the possibility of answering some of the questions.
Ruse asked why God would not intervene for things like cancer. Rana answered by noting that in the broad scope of a model with intelligent agency, poor design is no problem. But because Rana believes it is the God of the Bible, he says it may be a legitimate criticism of the design position. However, things which appear to be bad designs can turn out later to have some reason for the way they are used. Moreover, once a creator has put in place designs, they are subjected to the laws of nature and so they could become decayed or break down.
Ruse Closing Argument
Ruse argued that when one takes a “Biblical position” one is “not doing science any more.” If one wants to assert that the science points to miracles, then Ruse said he would argue that the nature of our experience is not “blank” in relation to the OOL, but rather that the previous successes of naturalism means we should fall back upon naturalism regarding the OOL because it has worked in so many other areas. Thus, the problem with the OOL is not with the problems themselves but rather with our own ability to solve the problems.
Rana Closing Argument
The OOL and complexity of the cell require an intelligent agency in order to account for the OOL on earth, Rana maintaned. The problems with naturalistic accounts appear to be intractable, and the role of intelligent agency in lab work cannot be ignored because that same agency is what leads to the allegedly naturalistic successes. The information found in biological systems also give evidence for design.
Finally, methodological naturalism turns science into a game to be played in which the goal is always to find a naturalistic explanation, even if none is forthcoming. Instead, science should be, in practice, open to the possibility of agency within the natural world. Ruse’s argument is essentially an appeal to the future in which the notion is just that one day the answers will come forth.
First, I would note how pleased I was with the nature of this dialogue. Unlike some other debates, Ruse and Rana were largely cordial and even amiable towards each other. It is clear that they each had respect for the other’s work and arguments.
The debate itself was very interesting. Fazale Rana continually went back to the science and pointed out the difficulties which remained, while Ruse seemed to continually appeal to the overall success of the naturalistic paradigm. Regarding Ruse’s position, I think it was perhaps disingenuous to conflate naturalism with science, particularly considering that very point was largely at the center of the debate. Is it indeed the case that we must be methodological naturalists? It seems that even Ruse agreed that our answer to this question will largely shape one’s interpretation of the problems and reactions to the problems brought up.
Regarding the science itself: Ruse brought up several successes which scientific research has yielded, but it seemed clear that none of these offered evidence which countered Rana’s arguments of the intractable problems for the OOL. Rana did an excellent job showing how the models which are in vogue right now for the OOL all fail on a number of levels to account naturalistically for the OOL.
Moreover, the fact that current research does rotate around the actions of intelligent agents. Given that such intelligent agents are necessary to bring about even the in-principle results for the OOL, it seems that Rana’s argument that this hints at an intelligent agent in the overall OOL schema was largely successful. It seems to me to count as positive evidence for design.
Overall, I have to say this was a great debate. I think one’s conclusions regarding the outcome of the debate largely will come down to a matter of worldview.
Be sure to check out my extensive writings on the origins debate within Christianity.
The debate can be found here. It is worth a watch/listen due to the complexity of the issues involved. Or you could just watch it here:
Be sure to check out the Reasons to Believe web site, which is the organization Fazale Rana is part of.
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If you’ve been reading the science news lately, you’ll find there has been a lot of buzz about “extrasolar planets”, or “exoplanets” (i.e., planets that orbit other stars). For an example, see here. The reason why is in the last several years, the number of exoplanets that we’ve discovered has increased dramatically, mostly due to the Kepler mission. But regardless of the reason why, one interesting question this brings up is, “Are there other planets that host life?”
This is an incredibly profound question for both the religious and non-religious alike. For the Christian, the knee-jerk reaction might be “no, of course not, God specially created the life on earth and did not do so elsewhere.” (By the way, I do not necessarily espouse this view.) For the secularist, the presence of life on other planets only adds weight to the idea that life arose here on earth by strictly naturalistic processes. So what does science have to say about this subject? Given the sensationalistic popular news articles, one might think the universe is teeming with alien life. However, the data actually say otherwise.
First, answering the origin of life question, from a scientific standpoint, is incredibly hard. In fact, after investigating the state of affairs on this problem in order to write a book, it has driven agnostic physicist Paul Davies to proclaim1:
When I set out to write this book, I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life’s origin…Having spend a year or two researching the field, I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding…This gulf’s not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna.
He goes on to say:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There are two reasons for their unease. First they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists…Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding…
Second, even though it is a conceptually difficult phenomenon to study, scientists are incredibly confident that it will be resolved one day. The main reason why is that the alternative to having a naturalistic origin of life would be a supernaturalistic origin of life, something that most secular scientists not only do not believe in but also that they rule out completely according to their philosophical worldview.
Third, we now know that life on our planet originated in a geological instant. As soon as this planet became even remotely suitable for life, roughly 3.9-3.8 billion years ago, life began (our earliest evidence for life is between 3.86 and 3.80 billion years ago). To the secular scientist, this implies that even though we have no idea how, the origin of life must be a very simple, fast process.
Fourth, because the origin of life is simple and fast, it probably is not a finely-tuned process, according to the reasoning of secularism. In other words, all you need are some minimal requirements (liquid water, a rocky planet, some carbon-containing compounds, and a short window of time) and life will surely appear. This principle led astronomer Steve Vogt, upon discovery of a rocky exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” (the distance from their star that would allow a planet to potentially harbor liquid water), to state, “The chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” (As an interesting sidenote, the particular planet he was referring to may not even be a planet. Of course, we are still discovering exo-planets, and I have been confident for some time that we would find a near-earth-sized rocky planet in the Goldilocks zone. And lo and behold, we have. For examples, see here and here.)
So, given this background, is it likely that such “Goldilocks planets”, which are likely to be all over the place in the universe, harbor life? Well, there are two sides to this story. As I laid out above, the popular secular point of view (and the point of view portrayed by the media) is that life is inevitable whenever loose conditions are met (background point four). So of course, whenever you have a planet in the Goldilocks zone, life is inevitable. This view springs solely from the assumption of naturalism (background point 2) and the fact that life arose on earth quickly (background point 3). You can easily see this point of view when reading the popular news articles, which are overflowing with unbridled optimism.
The other view is that life is rare in the universe, because all of the prowess of the origin-of-life scientific community has returned a comparatively small amount of promising data (background point 1). In fact, not only has little actual progress been made towards discovering naturalistic pathways towards origin of life, but instead the more we know the more we discover how far away we are. Problems such as the lack of a prebiotic soup, the irreducible complexity of life, the homochirality problem (all bio-molecules must be either 100% right-handed or 100% left-handed), the difficulty in producing a cell membrane, and the finely-tuned conditions needed to carry out the chemical reactions that produce biological precursors all reveal a much less optimistic story from the point of view of hard science.
The problems for the hypothesis of the naturalistic origin of life don’t stop there, however. The more we study our planet, the more we realize that an exoplanet needs a lot more going its way than just to be in the Goldilocks zone. There are a whole host of astronomical and geological parameters that must be exquisitely finely-tuned for life to (1) exist and (2) persist on a planet. The timing of the formation of the exosolar system, the location of the exosolar system within the galaxy, the type of galaxy the exosolar system is in, the elemental composition of the star and planet, and the existence of stable, long-lasting plate tectonics are just a few of the finely-tuned parameters that must be met for life to exist and thrive.
None of this is to say that we should not be investigating how life could have originated, or whether exoplanets may harbor other life forms. Indeed, if God did create the universe and life, I am convinced that these scientific disciplines will serve only to glorify Him further.
But these observations do beg the question: which is it? Is life abundant in the universe, a premise based on one data point and questionable assumptions, or is life rare, a premise based upon the empirical findings of the fields of biochemistry, organic chemistry, astronomy, and geology? It seems to me that hope springs eternal for the secular exoplanet researcher, but the hard scientific data tells another story.
1. Davies, Paul. “The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life.” Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (March 16, 2000)
Dr Greg Reeves holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University, and is currently an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University. He is the co-director of the NC State chapter of Ratio Christi. His blog can be found at twobooksapproach.blogspot.com.