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[Chalice] Nature's Plan [Chalice]

Presented January 19, 2003, by Paul Miller

Opening words

From the newsletter, Old-time Religion

"The ancients believed that the world was created by the dancing of the gods, that all things were connected through this celestial music, ant that this music (the "music of the spheres") pervaded the universe.

"Today's particle physicists postulate that a proton in one of your body's cells could be vibrating in tune with , and in touch with trans-spatially, an electron in the center of a star 100 light years away, which in turn could be in contact with a hydrogen nucleus somewhere in space far beyond the Magellan Cluster. Such "strings", by their vibration, are the source of all particles in nature. A dance of the gods, which unites (literally) all of being!

"Our ancestors believed that the earth was alive and aware, and was a beneficent deity who provided all that humans needed. Called Gaia, Hecate, Ertha , she was the primary goddess of ancient peoples.

"Many ecologists today believe that the biosphere-that thin membrane of air and living organisms which covers the planet - is indeed a living creature, exhibiting all the characteristics of a (to us) eternal being. Called fittingly the Gaia Hypothesis, this theory is the basis for what is known today as Deep Ecology.

"Pre-patriarchal cultures honored the earth as mother of all life. They honored women as the keepers of magic. They respected all life forms as members of the same family as human beings.

"Many philosophers and sociologists today are realizing that unless we as a society begin to return to that ancient way of thinking - respecting the earth, valuing the feminine, and protecting all life (human and non-human alike) - our species might not have a future at all.

"Everything comes full circle. Eventually, all things return to whence they came."

By Rel Davis, Wiccan priest and Unitarian minister

Nature's plan -- January 19, 2003

Does nature have a plan? If so, what is it? How do we fit into it? Are we even part of it?

Now, when I talk about "nature", I'm referring not only to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. I'm also referring to the whole of nature, The whole universe, from bacteria to quasars, and everything in between. In looking for a plan, I'm looking at the natural universe in all its elegance, and asking "Is this fantastic system as it is just because it is, or was it set up this way on purpose?" To me, this is to ask, "Is there a creator? Is there a master plan? Is there a god?" Or is all of nature just a freak accident? As a former agnostic and a scientist, I spent years looking for a reason to believe. Let's look at cosmology, ecology, and biology for evidence of a plan - an intelligent design in the universe.

Let's begin our search at the beginning - in the first nanosecond of our universe- at the big bang. The Big Bang Theory in now almost universally accepted by physicists, if not by religious fundamentalists. In the beginning, all of what we now call our universe was packed into the primal atom, which exploded, dispersing the stuff of which stars and everything else are made. This matter condensed, due to gravitational attraction, to form stars. Large stars went supernova, and got hot enough to make the heavier elements necessary for life. Planets formed around some stars. At least one planet in particular had the right conditions for the formation of various organic compounds necessary for the formation of life. By design or by accident, these organic molecules combined to form primitive living things. Through mutation and natural selection, matter from the primal atom evolved over 15 billion years to create bugs, birds, bananas, and humans. It is a familiar story to educated humans.

Many scientists believe life has been explained without the necessity of a creator or a plan. Not all scientists, however. In 1973, Astrophysicist Brandon Carter (one of Stephen Hawking's buddies) published a paper on "Large number coincidences and the anthropic principle in cosmology" These numbers are what physicists call "fundamental constants". These constants are the numerical values for things like the strength of gravitational force. There are bunches of the se constants, and they are very constant wherever you go. Nobody knows why these numbers have the values they do. Like my physical chemistry professor said, "That's just how God made the world".

Physicists have asked, "what if the constants were different?" The results are surprising. Take, for instance, the universal gravitation constant. Allow me to explain for the non-physicists in the class. Everything pulls on everything else. The force is called gravity. The closer two objects are to each other, or the more massive they are, the stronger the gravitational attraction between them. For example, the gravitational force between the earth and the moon equals the mass of the earth (in kilograms) times the mass of the moon, divided by the distance between them (in meters) squared, times the universal gravitation constant (6.673x10-11NM2/Kg2). It is a very small number. Don't write it down. It won't be on the test.

Nobody knows why the universal gravitation constant is exactly 6.673x10-11NM2/Kg2, but if it was just a little bigger, there would be no medium size yellow stars like our sun, only little blue super-hot stars. If it were a little smaller, there would only be wimpy cool red stars. Either way, we would not be here.

Two more examples of fundamental constants are the weak and strong nuclear force constants, which tell us how strongly sub-atomic particles are stuck together in an atomic nucleus. If the nuclear weak force was slightly weaker, the only chemical element in the universe would be helium, which would be great for blowing up blimps, but there would be no blimps to blow up. If the nuclear strong force was 2% stronger, there would be no protons, and thus no atoms, just big boring blobs of neutrons. It the nuclear strong force was 5% weaker, there would be no stars.

The list of these "large number coincidences" goes on for a long time, but I'll stop listing them before the rest of the class goes to sleep. Why are these constants as they are? I dunno. But if they were not as they are, we would not be here. There would be no sun and no earth. Can this be a fortunate coincidence? If so, our universe seems to be a very improbable place. To quote astronomer Fred Hoyle, talking about the big bang: "The universe has to know in advance what it is going to be before it knows how to start itself An explosion in a junkyard does not lead to sundry bits of metal being assembled into a useful working machine. The more physicists have learned about the universe, the more it looks like a put-up job."

The anthropic principle says the universe is set up just right so it can produce stars, warm, wet planets, and life. Of course, the anthropic principle was proposed by humans, so we are inclined to say the universe is specifically designed to create human life. My cat sees it differently. Whether the objective is to produce humans, cats, or something else, the universe does seem to be precisely engineered.

Now, let's look for evidence of nature's plan closer to home- right here on this little blue ball we call Earth. We live in a rather unlikely environment. Our planet is unique in this solar system, and as far as we know, in the galaxy. There is nothing surprising about Earth's size, distance from the Sun, or geological composition. Mars and Venus are not so very different. In a galaxy with billions and billions of stars, one would expect a few planets about the size and temperature of Earth, with similar elements in its rocks.

The really bizarre thing about Earth is its atmosphere. The average temperature on Earth is 14°C (like a pleasant spring day) because of our distance from the Sun, and other parameters. One of these parameters is the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect, if I may oversimplify in the interest of brevity, means that the atmosphere lets the Sun's radiant energy in more easily than out, so the planet is warmer than one might expect.

Too much greenhouse effect is bad. It is because of runaway greenhouse effect that the daytime temperature on Venus is 400°C. So far, the greenhouse effect on Earth is less, but significant. If the Earth had no greenhouse effect, the average temperature would be -19°C. Our entire planet would be frozen solid and dead.

From what we know about the life cycle of stars, we believe our Sun was 25% cooler 4 billion years ago than it is today. Why, then, was Earth warm enough for life to begin? Because of the greenhouse effect, of course. Methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gasses. Geological evidence indicates that 4 billion years ago, there was enough carbon dioxide from volcanoes, and methane in the atmosphere to keep earth even warmer than she is now. So, if Earth was warm enough then, why is it cool enough now, even with a sun 25% hotter? Something had to turn down the greenhouse effect, or Earth would burn up like Venus.

There is less carbon dioxide now because there are fewer volcanoes now. Also, carbon dioxide has been absorbed by rocks to form limestone. But these geological mechanisms are not enough to cool the Earth to anywhere near 14°C. Enter a very unlikely event: Life. Photosynthesizers converted carbon dioxide and water to oxygen and biomass. Organisms also increased the rate of rock weathering, which increases the rate of carbon dioxide absorption to form limestone. Oxygen, which was initially absent in the Earth's atmosphere, removed methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Neither geophysics or life alone can account for reduction of carbon dioxide to the present 300ppm level, but the two together can. These combined effects could cause the climate to cool and stabilize at a life-sustaining temperature. But where did the photosynthesizers come from? Lab experiments simulating the primitive Earth environment have produced amino acids, protenoid microspheres, DNA-like molecules, and ATP. These are some of the molecules necessary for life. They could have spontaneously formed in the primordial soup, in which life began. This primordial soup, however, is a very long way from the simplest living organism. Like Hoyle's explosion in a junkyard, no amount of stewing in a soup pot has yet produced life. How did the ingredients of the primordial soup ever combine to form something so incredibly complex as the first simple bacterium - something an army of scientists have never been able to do in the most sophisticated laboratory? Could it possible have been random chance, or was it Nature's Plan?

Now, while on the subject of biology, I would like to comment on biological synergies. Many symbioses are well known, such as that of bees and flowering plants. If nature has a plan, the bee-flower synergy is a highly elegant demonstration of it.

There are synergies more intimate than most people realize. All photosynthetic organisms, such as plants, have organelles inside their cells called chloroplasts, or plastids. They contain chlorophyll. Plastids use carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce carbohydrates, which are necessary for all plants and animals.

Animals do not have plastids, but we do have equally strange organelles within our cells called mitochondria. It is inside mitochondria that carbohydrates are used to produce Adenosinetriphosphate, popularly called ATP. It is the energy-carrying molecule that fuels our cells. We can't live without it. What's weird about plastids and mitochondria is they have their own DNA. When our cells divide, our DNA duplicates itself, so each new cell gets its own complete set of DNA. That DNA controls the production and function of everything in the cell. Everything in the cell except mitochondria, that is. Mitochondria reproduce themselves like independent monocellular organisms. The most popular theory is that billions of years ago, two single-cell organisms met. One was the mother of all mitochondria. The other was the mother of all plants, animals, and fungi. Either mitochondria mama invaded the other, or the other ate mitochondria mama. Either way, rather than one destroying the other, they decided to live together, and they have been doing so for more than a billion years.

These mitochondria are part of us, as they live within our cells, and we cannot live without the ATP they provide, nor can they live without the shelter and nutrients we provide them. Yet they are beings with their own DNA, their own genetic identity, happily swimming about in our cytoplasm, reproducing their own kind.

I mention these outsiders inside us because it demonstrates how intimately the web of life is woven. It blurs the distinction between us and them. It calls into question our unique identity. Nature's plan involves more intimate cooperation between living beings than most people realize. I am a human being, consisting of mind, body, and mitochondria. I am a human-mitochondrial symbiot. I am so intimately connected with other living beings that sometimes we can't tell where one stops and the other begins.

As we are living composite beings, the whole biosphere is likewise a composite of interdependent animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. Earth is a composite of geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.

Earth is a symbiotic homeostatic organism. That is, it self-regulates to keep itself alive. 4 billion years ago, after providing a proper place for life to begin, the atmosphere changed to keep life going. CO2 and methane decreased. O2 increased. Earth cooled just enough.

How homeostatic is earth? Pretty darn homeostatic! The fact that Earth maintained a livable temperature for some 4 billion years in spite of a 25% increase in solar heat is remarkable.

Equally remarkable is Earth's recovery from catastrophe. There have been many mass extinctions even before we humans infested the planet. Every few hundred million years, on average, a small asteroid comes along, bumps into Earth, and makes a mess of our lovely little planet.

The most recent impact big enough to cause mass extinction appears to have been 65 million years ago. Not only did this super-meteorite wipe out the dinosaurs, but it also killed most marine life. Convincing evidence shows that atmospheric CO2 increased dramatically, and average temperature rose 10° C for a million years.

But you know what? Every time Earth got blasted, Earth got better. Can it be that Earth accidentally happens to self-regulate around a comfy 14° C, recovering from occasional fevers and chills? Or is there purposeful guidance, or at least a robust design? Our planet's miraculous recovery from numerous catastrophes looks like the work of a planetary guardian angel.

Lest I run out of time, let me recap and wrap it up.

We live on an amazing planet that has supported life for 4 billion years. Earth has survived numerous injuries, and the biosphere recovered every time. The recoveries have been as if a planetary physician was at work. This is one reason why I suspect purposeful guidance in nature.

This planet is inhabited by innumerable living beings intimately linked in a web of life woven so closely that each living being cannot exist without the living whole. Not only do living beings cooperate and support each other, but beings merge so that we can't be sure who or what is an individual, like we animals and our mitochondria or plants with their plastids.

This magnificent menagerie began 4 billion years ago, when somehow the chemical compounds in the primordial soup got together just right to form the first living organism. The more I learn about origin-of-life theory, the more impossible it seems that this could have been an accident. Perhaps the planetary physician was a planetary chemist as a pre-med.

The ancient Earth environment was favorable for the creation of life, but not for the perpetuation of life. Biological and geological processes had to work together to cool the Earth so life could continue.

Of course, for all this to happen, there had to be a Sun and an Earth. I'm happy to say there is at least one of each. This is possible because the laws of physics are made, and the parameters are fine-tuned to allow stars and planets to form. It would have been much easier to design a dead universe where stars do not form and life is impossible. The planetary physician-chemist is also a cosmic physicist-engineer.

The probability that we might exist by chance rather than by design is, I think, less than one in a googolplex. It is zero.

Nature has a plan. Nature's plan is still working after 15 billion years. We are part of the plan; probably a smaller part than we would like to think. I don't know what the plan is, or who wrote it, but like an asteroid impact, we will not be allowed to stop the plan from continuing.

Closing words

From Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine

"Could we, by some act of common will, change our natures and become proper stewards, gentle gardeners taking care of all the natural life of our planet? I think we are full of hubris even to ask such a question, or to think of our job description as stewards of the Earth. We are all too plainly failing even to manage ourselves and our own institutions. I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than to expect humans to become responsible stewards of the Earth . . .

" I would suggest that our real role as stewards of the Earth is more like that of that proud trades union functionary, the shop steward. We are not managers or masters of the Earth, we are just shop stewards, workers chosen, because of our intelligence, as representatives for the others, the rest of life on our planet. Our union represents the bacteria, the fungi, and the slime moulds as well as the nouveau riche fish, birds, and animals and the landed establishment of noble trees and their lesser plants. Indeed all living things are members of our union and they are angry at the diabolical liberties taken with their planet and their lives by people. People should be living in union with the other members, not exploiting them and their habitats. A planetary physician observing the misery we inflict upon them and upon ourselves would support the shop steward and warn that we must learn to live with the Earth in partnership. Otherwise the rest of creation will, as part of Gaia, unconsciously move the Earth itself to a new state, one where we humans may no longer be welcome. "

By James Lovelock, atmospheric chemist and creator of the Gaia Hypothesis

©2003 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2003. Nature's Plan, /talks/20030119.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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