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Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique are We? Hardcover – 20 Sep 2002

4.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (20 Sept. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591020166
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591020165
  • Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 2.6 x 23.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,717,706 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Do we live in a special place in the Universe, or not? The debate has been joined by William Burger, curator emeritus of a biological and palaeontological museum, who makes no secret of his opinions in the title of this book. There was already the book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee, professors respectively of geology and astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle and supported by Brownlee's colleague Guillermo Gonzalez, in The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery. To give the background, this is an area where militant atheism joins with fundamentalist Christianity; Burger's book is published by a militant atheist publishing house, Gonzalez is an admitted old-earth creationist, and Ward and Brownlee are influenced by Gonzalez.

All the above works purport to show that intelligent life in the universe is very rare, and that we are quite possibly unique in our galaxy. This book compares with the others - it may be that its title is too obviously biased for it to sell as well as the others. The main difference between this book and the others is that this one majors in biology and archaeology, and, as might be expected, these parts of the book are excellent.

This book might be taken as an exemplar of a certain kind of fashionable tome. Firstly, play to the gallery by insisting that we live on a very special planet, and that we are very clever.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x98a8ded0) out of 5 stars 3 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x98ab8180) out of 5 stars Really outstanding book with one major flaw 14 Feb. 2004
By Dennis Littrell - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an outstanding recapitulation of who we are and how we got that way written by a wise and learned man. William Burger, who is Curator Emeritus at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, begins with our sun and its place in the universe and ends with reflections on human beings and how rare we might be. Along the way he demonstrates that he is well-grounded in a variety of disciplines, including most especially evolutionary biology. I found his insights into the discoveries of science most interesting and edifying. I especially liked his clear prose and forthright statements shorn of humbug and euphemism.
Strange to say, however, I am not in agreement with the spirit of his central thesis. While it is true that we human beings are unique in the most technical sense of the term, just as every fingerprint is unique, it is questionable whether the essence of who and what we are as intelligent beings is unique in this unimaginably vast universe. Indeed, I am amazed that Burger, who is so objective about our savage tenancies as well as our incredible ability to manipulate our environment to our perceived advantage, can be so, shall we say, myopic in his inability to see the possibilities in the wider scheme of things.
Near the end of the book he recalls the famous Drake Equation, and as others have done, examines each of the factors and comes to the conclusion that it may very well be that we are the only intelligence species extant in the galaxy.
I have pointed out the fallacies inherent in such an endeavor elsewhere, but let me note here that at least 90% of the matter in the universe is still a complete mystery to us. While it is technically feasible to say that intelligent life as we know it; that is, carbon-based life dependent upon liquid water, etc, may very well be rare in our galaxy, it is a mistake to suppose that any convincing argument against the existence of intelligence life itself has been made.
There is also a peculiar fallacy in the argument (sustained throughout the book) that there is something marvelous or probabilistically rare in the unique series of events that have characterized the odyssey (as Burger calls it) of our planet's "perfect" history, leading to our rise. This argument can be seen as a sidebar to the "anthropic cosmological principle," which I like to call the "anthropic cosmological fallacy," in the sense that we are here only because of a miraculous series of events, when in fact we are here precisely because of those events. The fallacy can be seen in being dealt the following hand at poker: the nine of hearts, the five of clubs, the king spades, the eight of spades, and the trey of diamonds. This is quite an amazing hand. The odds against it being dealt are 2,598,959 to 1! (same as the odds against being dealt a royal flush in, say, diamonds). It is only our perspective that makes the one hand seem commonplace and the other miraculous.
Burger writes, "However unlikely our odyssey, the incontrovertible fact is that our planet, our solar system, and our star are ideally configured for the development of intelligent life..." (p. 290)
This is not only ex-post facto reasoning, it is misleading since beings living near (or even on, for all we know) a brown dwarf may make a similar observation, citing the congenial warmth of their star and the lack of "visible" radiation as part of the unique factors that make their life possible. They might even point to how "lucky" they are at being particularly good at sensing the surfaces of things, a talent that would not have developed in a "sighted" world, a talent that has allowed an intelligence of a particularly high order to evolve.
Earlier in the book, Burger argues convincingly that it was the stresses and demands of inter-group war (a biological arms race within our species) that promoted the rapid grown of our brains. This is a fine insight. However on page 280 Burger writes that without our stabilizing moon, "a badly wobbling planet...[would] put huge stresses on terrestrial vegetation and the animals it supports." His conclusion is that without the "accident" of our precisely perfect moon, intelligent life is unlikely to have evolved. But, to recall his own reasoning, is it not possible that the "stresses" of a "wobbling planet" could lead to compensations by life forms, perhaps even serving as a factor in the growth of intelligence?
Burger concedes that bacterial life may be common in the universe and that there may even be life under the surface of frozen worlds, as on Jupiter's moon, Europa. However he writes that "Such an environment...won't give rise to complex life-forms that are hungry for energy." He adds, as though in explanation, that "there's not a lot of energy available." (p. 277) But, it is hard to see how such an explanation explains anything. When there is a scarcity, perhaps it is the other way around: creatures then become even cleverer at finding what they need.
I wish I had more space to talk about the rest of this excellent book and to point to the many fine observations made by Burger and to celebrate the 99% of his book which is wonderful and a delight to read. I have cited his idea that war is what has swelled our brains (see p. 211). That argument alone is worth the price of the book, but there are many others, including a devastating critique of the possibility of interstellar travel to colonize the galaxy beginning on page 272. I also liked the many sharp and candid statements that sparkle the text. Here's one to think about:
"Killing members of our own group is murder, but killing members of other groups is the fastest way for a male to gain social prestige." (p. 215)
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x98ab81e0) out of 5 stars Wonderful Survey, Dubious Conclusion 18 July 2003
By M. A Michaud - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book may provide the most balanced and readable non-technical overview in print of how life and intelligence developed on the Earth. Burger covers an amazingly wide variety of scientific issues, ranging from the probability of planetary systems around other stars to the evolution of our basic technologies. Unfortunately, Burger's balanced presentation falls apart in the last chapter when he turns to his primary purpose, which is to discredit the idea that intelligent life and technological civilizations may exist elsewhere. Suddenly we find ourselves reading opinions based on unproven assumptions, personal beliefs, and politically correct ideology. Burger introduces values into the Drake equation that are as arbitrary as those used by scientists who are optimistic about the existence of other civilizations. He tells us that finding another planet as good as ours is "close to impossible," a truly odd statement given the recent successes in finding other planetary systems. Interstellar travel is described as a "near-impossibility," though no law of physics or engineering makes it so.
Burger argues that, since our own evolutionary path is extremely unlikely to be repeated because of unique circumstances and chance developments, intelligence is unlikely to evolve elsewhere. He fails to consider the possibility that there may be many other possible evolutionary paths in other environments, also driven by both chance and necessity, that could lead to intelligences very different from our own. Physical and cultural evolutions elsewhere do not have to duplicate ours to produce intelligence and civilization.
Burger shows his cultural pessimism when he writes that "the present drama unfolding on planet Earth makes it seem highly likely that energy-guzzling technological societies have a short life span," clearly an unproven assumption. He repeats this conclusion on the last page when he writes that "it seems highly likely that creatures with higher cognitive intelligence...come into being from time to time, then quickly fade away." How can he possibly draw such a conclusion from one example? This is opinion, not science.
Since Copernicus, scientists have discredited the assumption of human centrality again and again. Yet many biologists still seem to cling to anthropocentrism. The history of science suggests that, in the long run, they are riding for a fall.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99edcdec) out of 5 stars A renaissance scholar�s take on the totality of biology 8 May 2003
By Emmet J. Judziewicz - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The hackneyed term "interdisciplinary science" is often bandied about in academia (mostly by clueless administrators), so it is a real pleasure when a true interdisciplinary work appears. Botanist William C. Burger's new book "Perfect Planet, Clever Species" is one of those rare exceptions: a thought-provoking synthesis of biology, geology, astronomy, history, and sociology.
It is a truly interdisciplinary look at nothing less than life on earth: How it began, how it diversified, and the chances for "life" originating again anywhere at all in the universe. Further, Burger looks at the scale of earth's biological complexity, and the road that one species, humans, have taken to attain their present complex technological society.
What impressed me most about the book is Burger's interest in the "backstory" of life - its astronomical context. In my experience most of my fellow biologists are unfortunately "astrophobic" and shrink from any consideration of how extraterrestrial events (such as gamma ray bursts, Jupiter, the moon, or the sun's galactic orbit) may have influenced evolution and indeed made us possible. In this regard, "Perfect Planet, Clever Species" is a useful companion volume stressing the biological side of the "Rare Earth" hypothesis of astronomers Ward and Brownlee.
Highly recommended; the distillation of a lifetime's worth of research, reading, and thought by a renaissance scholar.
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