Review: Calculating God

3 stars
An alien encounter that only works on the small scale

A spider-like extraterrestrial emerges from a spaceship parked in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, enters the museum, and requests to speak with a paleontologist. It’s a great opening for Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, a story mostly told in the first person from the point of view of said paleontologist, a man with the ominously biblical name Thomas Jericho.

The alien, who is named Hollus, reveals quickly that their species, the Forhilnor, believes the existence of God to be a scientific fact. Hollus wants to learn more about extinction events in Earth’s history.

Mild spoilers (click to reveal)

The Forhilnor have found evidence that mass extinction events have occurred at approximately the same time on multiple planets now inhabited by intelligent life—apparently including the extinction events in Earth’s history. In addition, they believe that the evidence for a universe fine-tuned to support life cannot be explained except by an intelligent designer.

Thomas Jericho is a staunch atheist, but Hollus is not religious in the conventional sense. The two scientists become friends as they study the fossil record of Earth and other planets. Will Doubting Thomas come around to see the evidence of the designer? And what are two American anti-abortion terrorists planning to do in Toronto?

Like Saint Thomas (depicted in this painting by Caravaggio), Tom Jericho demands strong evidence before accepting extraordinary claims.

Intelligence by Design

In exploring the evidence for God, Sawyer stacks the deck in favor of a designed universe. In addition to made-up discoveries by the extraterrestrials, he revisits creationist canards like the idea of irreducible complexity, of “missing links” in the fossil record, and of lack of evidence for speciation.

The book was published in 2000, and as Sawyer has stated, he was influenced by neo-creationist literature such as Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box”. This was before Kitzmiller v. Dover, a key lawsuit in 2005 which set back the so-called Wedge Strategy to use the pseudoscience of “intelligent design” as a backdoor to introduce creationism into schools.

But even in 2000, plenty of scientists and skeptics had extensively debunked the arguments Sawyer has his characters regurgitate (see, for example, the FAQs). It’s one thing to invent evidence for an intelligent designer that serves the story; it’s another to rely on pseudoscience. In Calculating God, Sawyer does both.

The Verdict

In spite of this, I found the book more engaging than The Terminal Experiment (review), and less dated. Parts of Calculating God feel like a theater play, a big story told on the small stage of a Canadian museum, with charming characters and a sense of humor and self-awareness.

Hollus, the extraterrestrial visitor, is very memorable: truly alien in appearance but, at the same time, witty and relatable. Their human counterpart, Tom Jericho, comes to life in small details such as his political disagreements with the museum’s administration. The friendship between Jericho and Hollus is believable and carries much of the book forward.

Ultimately, however, Calculating God takes itself too seriously. In the last third of the book, increasingly implausible events lead towards an ending that is only a poor imitation of works that have surely inspired it, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.