Discovery Institute: The Miracle of Fire

This is a grand occasion, dear reader. We are introducing you to what we call the Curmudgeon’s Idiocy Avoidance Doctrine (or CIAD), which is this: When you find a plausible, logical, natural explanation for some phenomenon, and there are no facts to contradict that explanation, then there is no reason to reject it in order to embrace an incomprehensible supernatural explanation.

You are about to observe how that doctrine is flagrantly violated by the Discovery Institute. This just popped up at their creationist blog: A Reasonable, but Incomplete, Account of How Humans Mastered Fire. It was written by Michael Denton, a Discovery Institute “senior fellow,” who wrote the 1985 creationist classic, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which he has recently updated — see Discovery Institute Touts Denton’s New Book.

Denton devotes much of his post to discussing a recent article by J. A. J. Gowlett suggesting how fire was discovered, mastered, and used by early humans, and the benefits which flowed from that early and profoundly important accomplishment. Then he says:

I have no real problem with Gowlett’s scenario. It seems on the whole reasonable, and the evolutionary path from discovery to mastery of fire must surely be largely correct. Yet it is certainly incomplete in one profound and crucial aspect.

And what might that be? Brace yourself, dear reader. Here it comes:

It omits any mention of a very fundamental fact, that the conquest of fire and the subsequent development of technology were only possible because of an extraordinary fitness in nature to that end, involving multiple environmental conditions and very specific properties of particular types of matter. Without a set of truly remarkable facilitating coincidences in the nature of things, man would never have mastered fire or started on his long journey of technological discovery, which led from a “pre-fire” stone age to the “post-fire” advanced technological society of the 21st century.

[*Begin Drool Mode*] Ooooooooooooh! [*End Drool Mode*] Let’s read on:

To begin with, the reaction between carbon (C) and oxygen (O), which releases enormous quantities of heat and energy, is only “safe” because of the relative unreactivity of carbon and a unique and remarkable inertness of oxygen at ambient temperatures.


Of course, to have carbon compounds to burn in an oxygen-containing atmosphere requires a biosphere that provides both the wood (the fuel) and oxygen. Only in a carbon-based world similar to our own, with large woody plants to provide the fuel, and plants to provide the oxygen via photosynthesis, is fire possible.


The unique utility or fitness of the carbon atom for the construction of complex replicating chemical systems, which might form the basis of living systems and make possible a biosphere like that on earth, has been noted since the mid 19th century.


But this is only to touch upon some of the chain of coincidences that make fire possible. The oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the process of photosynthesis. This depends on another set of exacting conditions.


Without the right atmospheric conditions, that is, without the properties of the gaseous constituents being almost exactly as they are, there would be no photosynthesis, no oxygen, and no advanced forms of life.


This brings us to the question of the need, which is critical to support fire, for a percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere of about 20 percent. Coincidentally and very fortuitously, this percentage of oxygen is also sufficient to support metabolically active terrestrial organisms like ourselves, deriving our oxygen directly by absorbing it from the atmosphere. So fire and human respiration, although very different processes, can occur in an atmosphere containing about 20 percent oxygen.

Enough of that. We get the point. The universe has to be what it is in order for fire — or anything else we know about — to happen. Now we’ll skip to the best part of Denton’s post:

In short, the discovery of fire, our subsequent mastery of it, and the road it opened up to an advanced technology were only possible because of our inhabiting a world almost exactly like planet earth, complete with atmospheric conditions exactly as they are, along with the properties of carbon and oxygen atoms (and indeed many of the other atoms of the periodic table), and because we possessed a unique anatomical design (including the hand) uniquely fit for fire-making.

Denton continues:

So again, while much of what Gowlett says is correct, he leaves out any discussion of the crucial fitness of the cosmic environment for fire and for man, the fire-maker. The reason for ignoring this elephant in the room is not because there is no elephant in the room or because the facts are in dispute. The reason has to do with the truly remarkable nature of these facts.

[*Begin Drool Mode*] Ooooooooooooh! [*End Drool Mode*] And now we come to the thundering climax at the end of Denton’s post:

The truth is that no matter how unfashionable it may be in the context of our present culture, and whatever the causal explanation may eventually prove to be, we do occupy a special place in nature. The coincidences are so extraordinary that the inference to design is surely at least worthy of serious consideration.

So there you are, dear reader. Everything you know, or think you know, is woefully incomplete without the utterly essential factor of Oogity Boogity, which only the Discoveroids are wise enough to recognize.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

18 responses to “Discovery Institute: The Miracle of Fire

  1. Do these people ever get the point that if certain things didn’t happen then we wouldn’t be here to discuss them? (Now, isn’t that special! Thank you Church Lady, now sit down and shut up.)

    Gosh, so many things needed to happen! Its like the lottery, the odds are winning are so very, very bad … yet someone does win every time! Blessed be the Creator!

  2. I mean, he has to be at least tangentially aware that a heck of a lot more stuff than just carbon can burn under the right conditions? Heck, find yourself a teaspoonful of FOOF (Dioxygen difluoride) and you can watch, well, just about anything burn. Including you, if you forgot to put on good running shoes that morning.

    And that the energy conversion from burning wood is really quite dreadfully inefficient?

    And that it’s actually an entropic process where you generate less energy than the original object contained and a good portion of the remainder is wasted?

    And that there are perfectly natural conditions on Earth, just as our more-than-frequent rainstorms, or at higher elevations, where lighting a fire is more or less impossible without a significant amount of effort?

    And that there are areas, like large swathes of Asia, that are so low in useful timber that fires are rare and costly to the extent that everything, from home design to the way food’s cooked, is affected by it?

    And that fire and the energy cycle that human respiration plays a role in are both carbon-based and thus not as different as he surmises?

    Wow. That’s just . . .

  3. IDiocy at its very, very best.

  4. Thus, the firefighter is the pinnacle of the intelligent designers’ creation. Or maybe the Burn Unit nurse. Hard to say.

  5. Charles Deetz ;)

  6. Derek Freyberg

    And the edge of the puddle is so remarkably shaped as to contain the water within it.

  7. michaelfugate

    Douglas Adams and the puddle….

  8. If they had decided that there was fire without the needed natural conditions, what would be their conclusion? Obviously, that fire had to be intelligently designed! (That being the argument starting from the premise that life is not a natural result.)

    What if the world was such that we could survive without the need for such a dangerous thing as fire? That our food did not have to be cooked, for example. Why that means that the world was designed for our good.

    What if fire was not dangerous? It was designed not to be dangerous.

    Whatever the premises, the same conclusion.

  9. michaelfugate

    All fires have a start. Humans are fire-starters. If humans didn’t start a fire, then God must have started the fire; fires do not start by random chance. Or some such nonsense.

  10. So now chemical reactions between atoms also require intervention of the Designer? Soon these people will be back at the theory that birds fly because angels keep pushing them up.

    Anyway, I think anyone in an area of frequent bush fires would dispute the intelligence involved in inventing the oxidation of wood.

  11. Say, dweller42, any more interesting stuff you have in your cupboard?

  12. Well, ever since I started storing my FOOF there, I am without cupboards, so . . .

  13. At some point, you just have to go with the universe you have.

    Do they really want to lengthen all the scientific papers by a few pages listing all the turtles on the way down?

  14. They want to shorten all the scientific papers by replacing all of the mechanisms with “God can do anything, so whatever happens, God could have done it.”

  15. Groan. Once again, a creationist—*cough* *cough*—excuse me, a proponent of “intelligent design”—argues, in effect, that the universe exists as it does because otherwise we couldn’t exist, rather than that we are able to exist because the universe is as it is.
    Or in other words, the existence of the universe is pointless unless we are in it, therefore it was designed with us in mind. And that means a Designer with a special interest in our planet—just as the Bible says, although of course ID has nothing to do with the Bi—AHAHAHAHAAAAA!
    Excuse me, I just couldn’t finish that sentence without laughing.

  16. If there is a different universe, with different physical laws and constants, harboring somewhere a form of intelligent life – one of those lifeforms would be claiming that that particular universe and everything in it was so improbable that it had to be designed.

    Maybe creationism is just a byproduct of evolving intelligence, and more or less universal. Maybe it’s a “phase” all intelligent beings pass through – sort of like the “terrible twos.”

  17. But that has interesting consequences …
    The parameters of the natural world must always be nearly as they are today. Such as the speed of light, radioactive decay, …
    Those parameters make the existence of life natural.

  18. He totally forgot to give credit to Prometheus for giving us fire in the first place.