April 9, 2020

Book Review: Perfect Planet, Clever Species by William C. Burger.

On sale now!

It is one of the biggest questions in science. How unique are we? Has the drama of life and intelligence played out countless times in the history of the cosmos, or are we so improbable that we are effectively alone? Either answer is a stunning relation. In this week’s review, Perfect Planet, Clever Species out from Prometheus Books, author William C. Burger uses some of the most recent cutting edge findings to tackle the question of how human intelligence arose. We’ve discussed the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” and reviewed the book of the same name. Proponents posit that the Earth and life on it are the result of a fortuitous set of circumstances, from the existence of plate tectonics to a large axis-stabilizing moon to a large gas giant world (Jupiter) “goal-tending” the inbound stream of comets & debris.

Perfect Planet takes this one step further, looking at our evolution and the history of life on Earth. Is intelligence like our own inevitable, or an ultimate liability? Do clever species like ourselves ultimately consume all available resources and collapse, or do some become wise enough to be sustainable long term and space faring? We’ve tackled the issue of the Drake Equation and how many civilizations might be out there in our galactic neighborhood previously. Perfect Planet presents the elements of the equation with the fresh perspective of the most modern data available. The book also touches on a question raised by Stanislas Dehaene’s 2010 work Reading in the Brain; was the rise of our hunter instincts and our ability to interpret symbols and signs the key to our success? Why was it that after several ice ages and near extinction we were able to suddenly thrive and dominate? We were incredibly fortunate that we didn’t go the way of cousins such as the Neanderthals (yet ?) and instead went on to invent radio telescopes and IPhones and blog about how clever we are. But will our hubris be our undoing? One wonders if it is the inevitable fate of an intelligent species to have its “moment in the sun” only to fall prey to over-population and climate change.  It’s sobering to think that we’ve more than doubled the human population since the 1960’s, and the world of Stand on Zanzibar may yet come to pass.

In the end, we suspect (yes, scientists have ‘hunches’) that we do not yet understand the upper and lower perimeters by which life can take hold on a planet. We’re a statistic of one, the only biosphere that we know of. Are we at the lower-upper end of the habitability range or “just right?” The Sun is also slowly increasing its output to the tune of about 1% every 100 million years; although we’ve got about 5 billion more years until Sol becomes a Red Giant, liquid surface water will be impossible on the Earth in less than a billion years. Mark your calendars, and read Perfect Planet, Clever Species and ask yourself if we’re brainy enough to beat the entropy of time!


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