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#10 of Our Top-Ten Evolution Stories of 2013: Michael Denton’s Peer-Reviewed Paper on the Fitness of the Biosphere

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Published originally on March 11, 2013.

The project of developing the theory intelligent design encompasses not only an exploration, free of presuppositions, of the evidence of purpose in life and nature. It also includes an element of intellectual and historical recovery. As Darwinism and then neo-Darwinism achieved dominance in scientific and general culture in the course of the past century and a half, strains of thought that preceded and coincided with this rise, representing truer understandings of nature, were left behind and forgotten.
It’s been one of Professor Michael Flannery’s wonderful contributions to reintroduce the world to the forgotten legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace — how Wallace not only formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection simultaneously with Darwin but how he came to revise his “Darwinism” and articulate a version of proto-intelligent design that Flannery calls “intelligent evolution.”
Another scholar with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, biochemist Michael Denton, is currently in the act of recovering a lost legacy of no less significance. In a new peer-reviewed article in the journal BIO-Complexity, “The Place of Life and Man in Nature: Defending the Anthropocentric Thesis,” Dr. Denton revives and extends the thought of a leading biochemist of the early 20th-century, Harvard University’s Lawrence Henderson.
Denton once wryly described his own views to me as “pre-Darwinian,” on the Platonic model of Darwin’s antagonist Louis Agassiz (who also taught at Harvard). Henderson wasn’t pre-Darwinian, but his 1913 book The Fitness of the Environment runs counter to Darwinism’s tendency to undermine an ancient idea: that the universe was designed to be inhabitable by man. In The Fitness (as Denton refers to it), Henderson shows how the ensemble of key biochemicals seems wonderfully, eerily, and specifically fit to support life on Earth.
It’s interesting to note that Henderson published his book just three years after Wallace published his magnum opus, World of Life, which anticipates some of Henderson’s anthropocentrism.
Denton writes:

Simply put, Henderson believed that if we wish to assemble any type of chemical system capable of exhibiting those properties we associate with life, we must utilize this vital ensemble: water as a matrix, and organic carbon compounds for the construction of molecular components. Consequently, according to Henderson, only Terran life — the form of life existing on earth — is ordained in the natural order.

Henderson’s view has been not only confirmed in the past century but extended by, for example, revelations about extremophiles and from the discipline of astrobiology.
As Denton points out, it would only be of trivial interest to say that life couldn’t exist were it not for the specific properties of carbon, water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen. Much more important, and powerfully suggestive of design, is the observation that these properties are fit for life as we know it, in particular for advanced terrestrial air-breathing life, uniquely. Dramatically different biochemistries — based on boron, for example — are mere “Sunday afternoon” theorizing, dreamy and lazy and unproductive.
In brief:

Many of the properties of the key members of Henderson’s vital ensemble — water, oxygen, CO2, HCO3 — are in several instances fit specifically for warm-blooded, air-breathing organisms such as ourselves. These include the thermal properties of water, its low viscosity, the gaseous nature of oxygen and CO2 at ambient temperatures, the inertness of oxygen at ambient temperatures, and the bicarbonate buffer, with its anomalous pKa value and the elegant means of acid-base regulation it provides for air-breathing organisms. Some of their properties are irrelevant to other classes of organisms or even maladaptive.

It gets to be very specific, even down to particular details of anatomy:

It is very hard to believe there could be a similar suite of fitness for advanced carbon-based life forms. If carbon-based life is all there is, as seems likely, then the design of any active complex terrestrial being would have to closely resemble our own. Indeed the suite of properties of water, oxygen, and CO2 together impose such severe constraints on the design and functioning of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems that their design, even down to the details of capillary and alveolar structure, can be inferred from first principles. For complex beings of high metabolic rate, the designs actualized in complex Terran forms are all that can be. There are no alternative physiological designs in the domain of carbon-based life that can achieve the high metabolic activity manifest in man and other higher organisms.

That is to say, the fine-tuning of the universe goes well beyond what we had previously realized — deeper than the cosmic to what Denton refers to as the “Terran.” Design implies not only intent but specific intent — a particular vision in mind of the object or creature that will result. If all this is not suggestive of intelligent design, what would be?