Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life
by Roy R. Gould
Harvard University Press, 2018
Roy Gould, Principal Investigator and Education Analyst at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophyics, has a central contention in his new book, Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life, and that claim will be familiar to anybody who's ever been to church services in any religion on Earth: the universe has a plan, and that plan extends to involve humans. The universe “has not wandered aimlessly” for the billions of years of its existence. “It's been at work, hard at work, and it has unfolded with a logic and beauty that stagger the imagination.” The universe is “neither animate nor inanimate. We don't even have the language to describe the universe properly.”
To put it mildly, this is odd talk coming from anybody with any kind of scientific training. The universe is not sentient, so it cannot by definition have a plan, for instance. Gould attempts to fudge this self-evident point by saying the infrastructure of the universe is, in fact, its plan, but the two words have completely different definitions – conflating them is like saying that the recent defeat of your football team was its victory, or its retirement plan, or its vending machine.
And the universe is not “neither animate nor inanimate” – it's inanimate, since only living things are animate, and things that aren't living are inanimate.
And we do indeed have a language to describe the universe properly – it's called physics. Saying we don't even have the language to describe the universe properly is describing the universe improperly.
The natural impulse is to give the author the benefit of the doubt, of course, and to hear him out. But as the pages turn in The Universe in Creation, it's difficult to avoid the impression that the author is not saying what he actually means. That a kind of extended (albeit possibly unwitting) subterfuge is taking place. If you're reading a book about the Big Bang and cosmology and could swap out the word “universe” for the word “God” without changing a single other word in the text, you are not reading a book about the Big Bang and cosmology. You are reading a religious text.
If Gould is willing to impart intention to the universe, it won't be much of a stretch if he then gives that intention a goal, and you know what that goal will be: you. The bedrock, essential assumption of all religions is that the point, the goal of the universe and everything in it is humankind, one very recent species out of the hundreds of millions of species that have evolved, thrived, and gone extinct on Earth over the course of billions of years. Since underneath its scientific rhetoric, Universe in Creation is in many ways a Creationist text, it follows that the book will do what Creationist texts always do: conflate the beginnings of the universe with the beginnings of life on one planet. Such books take as their starting point that, as Gould himself puts it, life is “on the universe's to-do list,” which leads automatically to the standard Creationist line about the universe being “fine-tuned” for life. “So why is the infrastructure of the universe so hospitable to life?” Gould asks. “How were these specifications made in the first place? This problem is known as the fine-tuning problem. It is one of nature's deepest mysteries.”
None of this – the explicit and the implied – is true. Specifications can only be “made” by somebody, which is a religious, not a scientific, assumption, and the fine-tuning 'problem' is not one of “nature's deepest mysteries,” since it's neither a mystery nor a problem. The universe isn't fine-tuned for human life; it's in fact overwhelmingly, brutally, instantly lethal to human life. If while typing words like that Gould had been instantly transported, say, 40,000 feet straight up, he'd have died almost immediately. If he'd been transported to the same longitude and latitude of any other planet in the solar system, he'd have died almost immediately. If he'd been transported to roughly 75% of the rest of Earth's surface, he'd have died almost immediately. The universe isn't fine-tuned for life, much less fine-tuned for human life. Saying that it is because humans can survive on some parts of the surface of one planet is like saying the enormous wood-pile out back was fine-tuned for the spiders living in some of its crannies. And yet this is essentially what Gould says throughout his book: “The Sun's surface is not merely a safe temperature. It is the right temperature to provide a spectrum of light that will drive the development of life on Earth. The light leaving the Sun has just the right span of energies to stimulate chemical reactions here on Earth” – and so on.
It's simultaneously easy to understand why a book like Universe in Creation got written – it's a bleak and extremely stark thing, to confront the self-evident fact that humans are an animals species whose existence has no intrinsic higher meaning – and difficult to understand why a book like Universe in Creation got published. And more difficult still is trying to imagine its intended audience. Religious believers (modern ones, needless to say – Gould might talk about “infrastructure” and “to-do list” but he always does so in the singular; the Olympians? Please – let's be rational) already trust that they're the point of the entire age and expanse of the universe (and a steadily-growing percentage of them believe that age is just around 6000 years) – they don't need all this talk about weak gravitational force. And scientifically literate readers are going to dismiss as woo-woo any talk about hard vacuum, dark matter, scattered nebulae, and hydrogen clouds having intentions. It's tough to imagine Universe in Creation pleasing either group.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.