God is Dead, the Earth is Not Our Mother, and We are Alone?

Dr. Peter Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, is an atheist and prolific author (he’s written about a dozen books over his career). He’s also a skeptic concerning two things that a lot of secular people (including me) would like to believe in: (1) the Gaia hypothesis (the idea that the Earth is a nurturing and protective mother that, akin to a living organism, maintains homeostatic and allostatic balances optimal for life and ecological diversity); and (2) the common Earth hypothesis (the idea that Earth-like planets with complex life are common in the cosmos).

Here are his two books on these subjects: The Medea Hypothesisa nice pun on the kindly Gaia hypothesis (recall that Medea, at the end of Euripides’s play, kills her own children); and Rare Earth.

This is all by way of preface to say that I like the two YouTubes below presenting Peter Ward’s ideas, and wanted to share them. The first is a TED talk; the second is a recent debate with Stephen Meyer concerning evolution v. intelligent design.

Euripides wrote in the fifth century BCE (known by way of a fragment from a play whose title has been lost), “Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.” Peter Ward exemplifies this spirit.

Contrary to the spirit of Peter Ward is this quote of Augustine’s (penned nearly a thousand years after Euripides, and symptomatic of the beginning of many dark days in the history of humankind):

There is another form of temptation, even more frought with danger. This is the disease of curiosity […] It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.

Thank goodness we live in an age in which scientists like Peter Ward, and not theologians like Augustine, are most seriously attended to. The truth outs.

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Source for the quotes: Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind (Vintage 2002).  

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to God is Dead, the Earth is Not Our Mother, and We are Alone?

  1. Fascinating! But it made me giggle a bit, most of the folks I know who like the Gaia hypothesis DO believe that Earth/Gaia will KILL us when she is sick of us. So, by telling us about hydrogen sulfide poisoning? Dr. Ward just tells us “her” favorite murder weapon!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Okay, but the hydrogen sulfide kills off more than humans, and Ward notes that the Earth’s climate, historically, has been far less stable than we would like to believe. What is most stunning to my mind is Ward’s graph showing us in the summer of multicellular organisms (and how short a span it actually is relative to the age of the Earth and its total life expectancy).

      But perhaps WE are the method, via our technology, by which Gaia extends the era of multicellularism. That would make us the solution, not the cancer. That’s logically possible as well. Maybe the future should justly not belong to Thoreau, but to Ray Kurzweil (who will not go gentle into that good night).

      –Santi

  2. Longtooth says:

    Its smoking gun interesting to compare the Discovery Institute’s take on the Sternberg peer review controversy with the account found in Wikipedia.

    http://www.discovery.org/p/11

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sternberg_peer_review_controversy

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