Politicians can be good at playing with large numbers, but in his book Destination of the Species, Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP has figures that exceed all of Westminster’s expenses for the last decade – even if measured in pence.
He writes, for example, that there is a one in one hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion chance that the universe we know could have its laws, components and life without being specifically designed.
There are plenty more trillions where that came from as he explores cosmology to investigate the origins of human life. For life to emerge, the right circumstances had to be present and one key condition is the formation of stars. He quotes a probability of about one chance in ten to the power of 229 that “a universe created by randomly choosing the parameters will contain stars.”
Meacher considers it “the equivalent of hitting a dartboard on the other side of the universe a billion trillion miles away” that the conditions needed to set off the ‘Big Bang’ would be present to kick-start the universe. He describes it as “astonishing to the point of credulity.”
This project has been a life’s work for the retired cabinet minister. To the dismay of his family, rather than take novels on holiday, he would go armed with fifteen scientific books. Maybe he thought of them as a different sort of whodunnit.
“I might only get through ten of them, but they would all be heavily earmarked; I annotated them as I went along. I was absolutely driven by a desire to find out, to know and to understand.”
Its title is plainly a play on Darwin’s work and it delves into evolutionary biology, but it spreads far wider. Starting with cosmology, Meacher looks at the chances of our universe being the way it is by accident; then he supplements the biology with philosophy and religion with the aim of finding out whether we are here for a purpose and where we are heading.
“Despite my religious upbringing,” he says, “ I have written it deliberately from the standpoint of the spiritual agnostic, the point where most people are in modern society: uncertain, sceptical, unwilling to make any intellectual or emotional commitment without explicitly being shown the evidence and being convinced it is strong enough to believe in.”
He believes that the neo-Darwinians have got it wrong; that Richard Dawkins’ “view that any mention of religion or of God is anathema says an awful lot more about him than it does about God or about religion. I think to see everything within a narrow prism is far too rigid and far too limiting.”
Rather than religion being an enemy of science, Meacher believes that the two are complementary disciplines that need to be studied together in order to be able to make sense of why we are here – and so how we should live. It is the unique role of his work to take on this quest using both hard and soft sciences, but with none as an a priori worldview.
He recalls the questions that inspired him: “Are our lives simply a temporary rite of passage, which quickly vanishes with little or no meaning in the relentless treadmill of the universe over billions of years, or is there some greater order of things, which gives meaning to the human species? If so, where is the evidence that I can safely rely on, which is consistent with all the enormous range of scientific data that has accumulated, particularly in the last 300 years?”
Meacher’s Oxford education was key to his approach. He read the classics, philosophy and history, and his knowledge of science only developed gradually. “But when it did,” he recalls, “I found an absolute, passionate interest.
“I was taught in Greats, a rather odd name which is given to this course at Oxford. It is essentially a clarification of concepts, teaching you to deal with logic, with structure, and to develop a logical narrative and apply concepts effectively, lucidly and succinctly to whatever subject you were dealing with. I have found that an absolutely invaluable instrument. When I became interested in science, I was absolutely avid to learn everything I could, particularly about cosmology.”
He entered Oxford thinking that he might become a priest, but left preferring other ways to change the world. “I opted instead for social work as a probation officer,” he explains, “but then became strongly focussed on achieving social change instead through the political process, which took me into Parliament for the best part of 40 years. While that offered important opportunities to fight for the values and principles I believed in – and still strongly believe in – it gave no respite from the puzzlement still gnawing at me about the deeper meaning of human life and what it’s ultimately for – if indeed it is for anything.”
“Some people think modern science has disproved religion. I think that is a category error”
His background was not wasted; religion and philosophy had proven their worth to him as disciplines parallel to science and so had to be a part of his research. As he notes, “Some people think modern science has disproved religion. I think that is a category error. Science and religion reflect two entirely separate paradigms of experience, so that neither can invalidate the other. On the other hand, they should be consistent. Science can certainly massively expand the wonderment of the religious message.
“I’ve read books and journals very extensively – particularly about cosmology – and given that reality has to be one single, indivisible unity (I take that as axiomatic) I increasingly turned my mind to how it all fitted together.”
Meacher believes that his holistic approach is taking the subject further forward.
He also belives that the evidence that we have been given deserves to be studied, not ignored. He makes the point using his initial reaction to van Eyck’s painting The Betrothal of the Arnolfili, which he viewed at first as “a bit stiff” and unremarkable.
“I couldn’t have been more wrong!” he exclaims. “This is an extraordinary painting, with exquisite detail, when you look closely, which imparts a whole new understanding of what he was conveying. For example, there’s a mirror on the wall behind the figures, which at first glance you would hardly even notice. But it actually contains a reflection of the whole scene, including the artist himself, with all the precision of a modern digital photograph. I completely missed it.
“When you look at the story of the universe as we so far know it, one has to be very attentive, to pick out the really key things and then ask, “Why did that happen?” I think the only way in which you can move is by looking at all the relevant evidence – and I think that goes extraordinarily wide.
“Now the angle I bring to this is not to present any new scientific finding – I’m not a scientist – but rather, to ply the question relentlessly, looking at this evidence as objectively and impartially as one can, ‘What does all this mean? What is it telling us? ‘
“I think there is a lot of answers to that question as you go through the evidence. The chapter on fine-tuning, I think, is staggering. What scientists uncovered is that the world has been constructed with mind-boggling precision.
“In order to produce the stable universe we know, which we of course take for granted, the balance between the original outwards explosive force of the Big Bang and the gravitational forces pulling back the galaxies is precise with an accuracy which is utterly incredible: one part in one followed by sixty noughts. That is absolutely incredible when you are considering forces of such awesome magnitude. They are balanced exactly right. If they hadn’t been balanced with that precision, either the galaxies would fly apart, it would have been fluid, they would never really have formed into stars, there would never have been a universe as we know it; or if the gravitational force pulling it back was too strong, it would have gone back to the crunch almost immediately. It is extraordinary!
“There are many other examples. All the particle masses, the strength of forces of the universe, and the fundamental constants interact with unbelievable precision. It that was not so, there would be no universe conducive to life. If you look at all of those extraordinary coincidences, the English mathematician Roger Penrose has calculated the likelihood of such a universe being random as one chance in one followed by one hundred and twenty three noughts, which is a degree of unlikelihood verging on infinity.
“That is an absolutely, utterly stunning fact.”
“That is an absolutely, utterly stunning fact: either there is a designed universe – I think the evidence is overwhelming in favour if that – or you say, ‘There has been a whole series of universes, and if you have a large enough number, zillions and zillions of universes, in the end you will get a universe like this one. We just happen to be in it.’ It’s like, if you have a monkey typing away at a typewriter, he’ll sooner or later type a Shakespearean sonnet.”
Although he now passionately believes that the universe is designed, he does not assume that the creator is a personal God, because “creation is a slippery concept”. He doesn’t know how to connect the distant designer God with the loving, personal Jesus, describing the link as “mysterious”.
It was the theology that concerned me about his studies. For example, he claims in the book that the 8th century prophets re-envisioned faith in a non-theistic form and that “the New Testament never equates Jesus with God”. If these fairly straightforward theological points miss the target, how can we trust the scientific ones?
“Am I a jack of all trades and master of none?” he replied. “The answer is probably ‘Yes!’ No-one can completely achieve that depth and assurance of understanding in all areas that some people who spend their whole lives in a relatively small area undoubtedly do achieve. You have already picked me up on two points and I’m sure that scientists would pick me up on others.
“All that I would say in my own defence is that albeit I may have failed in places, I think I am right to try this task. I think it is a very important goal to try to understand the comprehensive range of the landscape and not just bits of it, because it is the wholeness and the completeness of it which does impart meaning. I have tried very hard to do my best; I hope that others will follow and improve on what I’ve done.”
Having looked at our roots, Meacher projects his picture forwards and it was these comments that I found disturbing. He strongly doubts whether the world has the moral courage to put future generations first and adapt its lifestyle enough to ride out the forthcoming strains on the world’s resources.
He pits our culture of “Scientific materialism, the grossest form of consumerism that we have got, and the increasing emphasis on personal gratification and liberalism” against the generous community-building that we need in order to check our consumption of those resources, and so survive.
The need for a change of lifestyle is crucial, he believes, if this world, which has taken billions of years to reach this stage, is to survive challenges like peak oil and peak water in the next few centuries. “That in geological time is a flicker of an eyelid.”
He believes that until the Industrial Revolution, humanity had a sense of stewardship of nature and worked with it, “But with the rise of science and technology spreading into every part of life, man’s dominance over nature has completely changed that from stewardship to an ethos of ruthless and unchecked exploitation.
“Man has almost become his own geo-physical cycle. Our carbon productivity is only exceeded by the krill in the ocean. Our industrial emissions exceed that of all the world’s volcanoes. Our agriculture moves more soil down to the seas than ever before, with enormous impact on land erosion in many areas. We are pursuing a mass extinction, perhaps the sixth mass extinction in history, indeed much more rapid and devastating in terms of the wiping out of species. We have disseminated pollution to every corner of the globe, and trace contaminants of lead and DDT are found in polar bears. Our dominance and exploitation of the Earth is on a scale which is far beyond anything in history, and actually very horrific and disturbing, because there is a limit to what the Earth, with all its unbelievable bountifulness is actually able to generate.
“One forgets sometimes that world population only reached a billion around the year 1800. By about 2050, it will have increased, the UN thinks, by tenfold, which is absolutely staggering. Of course, all of those people, in a globalised world, want to live like Americans or Europeans and have the same comfort and wealth – which is absolutely impossible – and the pressures that are building up are totally unsustainable in several areas.
“Oil is the basis of productivity of the current industrial age and we are reaching the year when the world will produce probably more oil than ever before or since (that’s likely to be in the next five or ten years, something like a colossal 95 million barrels a day) but it will then very gradually decline. But over a period of 50-70 years, it will suddenly fall off a cliff. If our civilisation didn’t have oil, it would suffer an enormous decline in its capability to sustain the world and its people in the way it does at the moment.
“An even greater concern is water. Already, something like 10 per cent of the world lives in ‘water-stressed areas’ , that is, they don’t have enough water even now – and that proportion is expected to grow to between a third and a half of the population within twenty years. If it carries on like that, water is going to become the biggest issue around which wars are fought.”
Meacher knows where the destination of our species lies, and it is in our hands. As he concludes in his book, “it’s not our capacity to control the world, but our capacity to control ourselves, which is the biggest challenge.”
Destination of the Species: The Riddle of Human Existence (Paperback) is published by O Books