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Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We? Hardcover – September 1, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-1591020165 ISBN-10: 1591020166
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Editorial Reviews


"...a masterful survey." -- Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 2004

"...a must for undergraduate science students and graduate students of liberal arts." -- Plant Science Bulletin Vol.49, No.4, Winter 2003

"...a sweeping, fascinating look at the history of life on what might be the rarest of planetary jewels." -- Savannah Morning News, January 26, 2003

" excellent reference to the high school biology enjoyable read for the evolutionary biologist..." -- Science Books & Films, August 2003

"...highly readable..." -- Quarterly Review of Biology, March 2004

"...interesting read...well documented..." -- Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 2004

"...intriguing story of how humans evolved to rule the Earth, noting the remarkable coincidences that permitted this to occur." --, March 2003

"Burger writes with the clarity and humor of one who has had experience communicating complicated ideas to the lay public." -- Boston Globe

From the Inside Flap

How likely is it that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe? This is the intriguing question that has prompted William Burger's illuminating and absorbing exploration of the unusual circumstances surrounding life on Earth. For many years the federal government funded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), later popularized by Carl Sagan's novel CONTACT and the movies of the same name starring Jodie Foster. Though in actuality SETI never has received signals from an alien civilization, the search continues to this day through privately funded endeavors.

Burger--examining the critical episodes in our planet's early history and the peculiar trajectory of life on our world--shows that the long odyssey of planet Earth may be utterly unique in our galaxy. He describes features of the Sun that are far from average. By some estimates, 80 percent of the other stars in the Milky Way galaxy are smaller, and it is unlikely that any of them could supply the energy requirements for a life-sustaining planet such as our own. Earth, as the third planet from the Sun, sits within the "Goldilocks" orbit: It is in the perfect position to receive not too much heat, like Mercury and Venus, and not too little, like more distant planets of the solar system, but just the right amount to foster the development of life on our diverse planet.

Turning to the evolution of life itself, Burger points out a host of amazing accidents (for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the proliferation of flowering plants) that makes the steps along the way to Homo sapiens seem like very rare events indeed. He also calls attention to the curious fact that the early hominid brain tripled in size over the relatively short time period leading to the appearance of modern human beings. Finally, he notes aspects of humanity's cultural evolution that seem unlikely to have been duplicated anywhere else.

Burger's enlightening evaluation of evolutionary and cosmic history, full of fascinating details, makes for a compelling case of human achievement's place in our universe.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 345 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591020166
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591020165
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,694,432 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 14, 2004
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By M. A Michaud on July 18, 2003
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Emmet J. Judziewicz on May 7, 2003
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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