The Dark Side of Intelligent Design

…you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body…(Psalm 139:13-16).

Intelligent Design.

Many Christians embrace the idea because it explains science using traditional Creationism.

Some Christians are acutely cautious about it, seeing it as a naïve approach to science.

Many non-believers see ID as simply a dressed-up form of Creationism: a Trojan Horse that Christians built to get their religious ideas back into the school curriculum.

Is it any of the above?  All of the above?

“Intelligent Design” is, to be precise, nothing more than the idea that some greater intelligence is behind everything we see around us …

… the genetic code was invented by some kind of super-intelligence far more advanced than us …

… the ecology of the Brazilian rain forest was carefully put together by an intelligence with an unbelievable creativity and a flair for abundance and diversity …

… the fundamental properties of  the universe — from the speed of light, to the strength of atomic bonds and gravitational pulls, to the weight of an electron — all carefully calibrated to the tenth decimal place by an intelligence with immeasurable knowledge and power over physics and nature.

One might see that designer as being the Judeo-Christian God, but others are happy to use other names: some even talk about aliens from distant galaxies (think of the movies Prometheus and Star Wars).  To say that you are in favor of ID does not exclusively define you as Christian.

But that’s not why I resist the idea of ID.  The reason I do resist it is captured by that ancient proverb: “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”  To explain, let me borrow an analogy from the current search for the next leader of the United States.

No one can really deny that Donald Trump has certain qualities in his favor.  He’s been highly successful in business: he’s a billionaire. Within that limited sphere of influence, he’s proven himself over the long run to be a winner. He’s led many organizations to success.  He exudes an air of confidence, and is a motivational speaker.  He’s got education.  I’m sure he’s got a good golf-swing.

But does that mean he’s the perfect choice for the position?

Perhaps not. What about his business ventures that went sour: the employees who were fired, the investors who lost their capital, or businesses that wrote off large losses from broken contracts?  What does one make of the fiasco known as Trump University? What if he holds cringe-worthy viewpoints … his views on gender, race, social status, or religion … or promises to take a very questionable course of action if ever given the power to do so.

One needs to consider the whole package before throwing in one’s lot and committing to that decision.  The same thing needs to be said about Intelligent Design.

Yes, it’s true that there are many examples of natural wonders which completely defy understanding.  A claim is often made that “there’s no way for that kind of thing to happen all on its own,” as if the claimant knows all there is to know on that subject.  Maybe they’re right.  But then again …

Some will spout mind-boggling numbers intended to quantify exactly how “impossible” such a thing is. “The odds of that happening are one in ten raised to the kajillion … that’s a one with umpteen-illion zeros behind it!?” As if these things can be so easily quantified in that way.  Again, maybe they’re right.  But then again …

In many ways, the design of our bodies is amazing, and it’s easy to echo the words of the Psalmist above.  But what do we do when we find examples of a design that was actually rather unintelligent, possibly clumsy, or maybe even downright malevolent?

There are many examples to choose from.  Here are my top 10.  This may get tedious.  If you feel at any point that I’m belaboring the point, just drop down to number 10.

As we look at each one, don’t simply react in knee-jerk fashion to my challenging the passage from Psalms above.  As  fellow believers, let’s just look at simple facts, and ask the question: are they better explained by a top-down design (traditional creationism) or by a bottom-up gradual accumulation of changes (standard evolution)?

The slow gradual change involves building new features on top of old ones. Friends of ours have renovated a small old stone school building, turning it into a beautiful house. You can still clearly discern the old parts from the new.  There are old bricks, and new ones. Buried in the walls there may still be pulleys and cables which were previously used to ring the old school bell, or possibly old lead pipes and aluminum wiring from a time before the building codes were updated to copper.

In the same way, the evolutionary model would predict that our bodies should still reveal certain old designs. Remnants of old mechanisms which are no longer needed, or newer and better ones built on top of them.

On the other hand, if we are a unique, special creation, there should not be places where we see a hodge-podge: half of an old design and half of a new design. All the parts should be in their proper place and make sense. And if designed by an omnipotent omniscient intelligence, then everything should work perfectly, and make perfect sense (I only add this sentence to deflect comments from people who bought a brand new house that had many problems).

How do those two predictions pan out when we look honestly, but critically, at the design of our bodies?

(1) “Goosebumps.” Specialized hairs with muscles that stand up on end when we get cold or when someone scares the jeepers out of us. These keep animals warm in winter and/or make them look bigger and more threatening when faced with danger (picture a dog with his hackles up).  But they serve no useful purpose in modern humans. We simply don’t have enough of them to keep us warm or look more threatening. I don’t know how to explain them from a Special Creation point-of-view, but can easily accept that they’re evolutionary hang-overs on their way out as we continue to evolve.

(2) Wiggling ears.  Tiny muscles loosely attached to our ears which some can use to wiggle their ears or their scalp. Animals use these to turn their ears toward sounds; primates and humans have learned to simply turn our heads toward the sound and get our eyes on the source. I otherwise have no idea why a designer would give us humans those muscles for our ears and scalp.

(3) Genes for making tails at the bottom of our spine. These are normally turned off in us Homo sapiens, but some people are born with tails up to twelve centimeters long, which can then be removed surgically. I don’t understand why a designer would have put those genes in place, together with an off-switch that was sometimes defective, but can again see how we inherited that from ancestors who swing through trees.

(4) A nerve to our voice-box passes down the neck and a little past the heart (if you’re not paying attention, it’s now quite past its target), then loops under the aorta and back up the neck to the voice-box. This diversion adds only a few centimeters in humans, but a couple meters in giraffes, for no apparently good reason. But it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point-of-view. Nerves use genetic instructions to get them to their intended target within the developing embryo. As the body shape and design changed over millions of years, the target for the nerve kept moving away, and it was simpler to just add an extra line of code to divert the nerve at the end of its journey toward its moving target than to give it a whole new set of landmarks and instructions.

(5) Hundreds of genes for proteins which detect smells, many of which are permanently turned off or even broken in humans. Why would a designer put those there?  Or did we inherit them from ancestors who relied heavily on being able to smell their prey, predators and/or mates, and just lost a use for them as we evolved?

(6) Genes for making the major protein in chicken eggs, or to make vitamin C, or many other functions, which are fully functional in other animals, but are broken in humans.  I don’t see why a designer would have created us with a defective gene that only leads to disease (scurvy), but is perfectly functional in animals.

(7) Our eyes.  The nerves in our eyes connecting the light detector cells to the brain are positioned right in the path of the light.  To fix this problem, other cells act like optical fibers to bend the light around the nerves. Then, to get the signal to the brain, the nerves have to squeeze past the detector cells, pushing the latter apart and making the picture that the brain gets more grainy.  To fix that problem the nerve cells are bundled together into one tight cable before punching through the retina, creating only one big hole rather than millions of small holes. That big hole creates a blind-spot.  The solution: shift the blind-spot off to the side where vision isn’t so critical.  Several great solutions to design problems, but we’re still talking about design problems that needed fixing! It didn’t need to be that way: a better design would put the nerves behind the detector cells, and all the problems would disappear.  In fact, this is how the octopus solved the exact same problem of vision. Rather than talking about a designer, I think it makes more sense to see the human retina as the product of an iterative process: a primitive eye was modified, and then modified again, and modified yet again, over and over.

(8) We all know how easy it is to get food or liquid down our wind-pipe, triggering an embarrassing coughing fit and sometimes killing us. There’s no good reason why our esophagus and trachea need to converge on the same opening on our face. A good designer could (and should!) easily keep those two functions and their related anatomy entirely separate. Evolution, on the other hand, would look for the easiest solution to the problem: simply modify something that’s already in place to now serve a new function. The earliest and simplest living organisms were just tubes, taking food and liquids in one end and getting rid of the digested products out the other end, and otherwise breathing through their skin. Once they became too big for skin-breathing to reach the deeper parts of the body, it made sense to start with the food-tube which already runs down the center of the body and add a second tube system with a valve to make sure food/liquids go one way and air goes another way.  Not a perfect solution, but one that works.  Most of the time.

(9) The same problem and solution comes up in getting the male’s sperm into the female body during reproduction.  There’s no intrinsic reason why a designer would need to use the very same anatomical structures whose job it is to get rid of urine.  There are a myriad of other ways this relatively simple exchange could take place.  Once again, evolution took the easy approach: start with an already existing tubular pathway, one put in place to get things out of the body, and modify it to get sperm into the body.  Ask your parents if you still need to hear the rest of this story.

(10) Finally, for me the strongest argument against ID: childbirth. Even in today’s modern Western world, this sometimes goes horribly wrong. Sometimes the baby hasn’t positioned properly or is unusually large, or the mother’s spine and pelvis are too small or abnormally shaped. The death of the baby is mercifully a relatively quick one: asphyxiation. But for the mother, death can be long and painful.  Unless you benefit from modern Western medicine, the outcome is painful but fruitless contractions until the mother is literally exhausted to death. Other frequent causes include bleeding to death or infection.

In theory, there are many other less life-threatening ways that a designer could have solved the problem of delivering a baby. Perhaps another opening in the belly that didn’t require pushing through the mother’s pelvis. Marsupial babies (kangaroos, opossums) exit when they’re much smaller and less developed, and finish the job in a pouch outside the mother’s body. Some animals lay eggs in a nest.  Plants and many simple organisms just grow a bud on their side which pops off and becomes the next generation.

On the other hand, evolution once again solved the problem by modifying an already existing pathway: just added a tube to join the uterus to the pathway for getting urine out of the body.  Which meant the tube had to go through the mother’s pelvis.  That worked great for millions of years.  But as humans evolved and became more intelligent, we reached a critical point at which the advantages of our increased intelligence (and bigger heads) were outweighed by the disadvantages of complicating child-birth.

It’s still a horrible design flaw, but it’s easier to attribute the blame to an impersonal evolutionary process than to a designer. Some will be quick to tie this back to the Fall and God’s curse on Eve: that it’s our own fault and we shouldn’t complain.  However, this design can be observed for millions of years in the fossil records, long before any literal Fall-in-the-Garden event 6,000 years ago.  More importantly, the morality and ethics are too hard (for me, at least): this curse, imposed by a God of love and justice, results in a lottery-of-death that strikes indiscriminately at some women but not others, and also squeezes the life out of the innocent baby.

I could go on about other examples. But for me, the conclusion is clear: if one is going to point at the examples of wonderful design and attribute it to a designer, then one should be honest enough to look at examples of unintelligent or even malicious design.  Instead, for me, gradual change makes much more sense of the observed data than ID. One may prefer the traditional view we get from the book of Genesis, written long before we really understood anything about our bodies or how things work. But we can’t ignore the facts in front of us, nor base our conclusions on feelings.

I’ll finish this blog with a similar comment that I made last week: none of what I’ve written above precludes the existence of God.  I really want to emphasize this point.  God could still have been involved in some way in our getting here.  But it does mean we have to adjust, sometimes massively, the details of the journey. The words of the Psalmist can’t be taken at face value.  They need to  be seen as metaphorical and merely reflecting the state of science of their time: otherwise, what do you do with the phrase “I was woven together in the depths of the earth…”?  Stubbornly refusing to do so, in the name of words like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” “authoritative,”  “inspired,” or “a plain reading” is just not being honest or consistent with truth.

That is the focus of a whole chapter in my second book and you can get more details on all of the above there.

As always, tell me what you think …

 

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11 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Intelligent Design

  1. Luke, When you set up pre-sales for your second book, count me in. Glen

    On Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 6:02 AM, Reaching into Platos Cave wrote:

    > lukejjanssen posted: “”…you created my inmost being; you knit me > together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and > wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My > frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret pl” >

    Like

  2. I wish the author was maybe a little bit more clear on where he stands with respect to ID.

    At one point he resists ID and then in an earlier work (Reaching into Plato’s Cave) he says:

    “If one was not the type to a priori rule out the existence of a designer, then the data are equally consistent with the Cambrian explosion reflecting a point in time when the designer was having particular fun trying out new ideas. The only reason that explanation isn’t acceptable to many other people, though, is that it involves some higher intelligence or designer, which then demands the question of who that designer might be, and some people just don’t want to go down that road.

    And also

    I myself am a tinkerer and thoroughly enjoy building things, and I can imagine God doing that with living things.

    So to the author I ask two things

    What do you really believe and also if God didn’t fine tune the universe or had a role in the design of the universe exactly what is His role. It sounds like you believe in a deistic God who checks in on His creation once in awhile to get it back on track. Kind of like someone who has to kick a not quite right functioning car to get it to go.

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    • Thanks for the honest feedback. I too wish I were clear on this question. Unfortunately, I’m not. I see reasons to think one way on it, and as I dig into it I see reasons for the other view. One of my biggest struggles in the past has been in trying to find absolute certainty about things. Now, I’m becoming more and more comfortable with mystery: we don’t always have to boil something down to either this or that … sometimes it’s all of the above, or maybe another alternative we haven’t even thought of yet. My goal in these blog posts has always been to get people thinking, asking questions and discussing. I learn from that. In fact, we all have much to learn from each other.

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  3. I must say, Luke that the spanners you throw into the conservative evangelical doctrinal fortifications of received wisdom are exacting and very polished. Crafting mystery out of scientific research is one of the most creative ways of challenging the castle that I know of. On the matter or origins, I sense I may be slowly but surely becoming a Deist.

    Looking forward to next Tuesday evening.

    P

    >

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  4. When it comes to ID, there are really only two options

    1) There is an intelligence behind the universe
    2) There is not an intelligence behind the universe.

    Holding both to be true cannot be an option. Claiming both to be true and then calling that a mystery is also not an option. You can however claim that either of these propositions is unknowable. However, that might call into question as to what kind of intelligence would create a universe and then make himself unknowable to that universe – unlikely a God of love.

    I also find it interesting that the author pleads to calling on truth when examining infallibility or
    inerrancy but then uses mystery when the facing the precipice of answering the final question. Why wasn’t mystery then invoked so much earlier in the journey when for example contemplating how a loving God can also be the God described in the OT?

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  5. Thanks, Anonymous (I wish we were on a first name basis here). What you’ve done is set up a hypothesis to be tested. I like that: I’m a scientist. But before I criticize it, let me use an analogy to make my point.
    Let’s talk about whether there was an intelligence behind the existence of a baby.
    Certainly the parents of that baby were “behind” it, but perhaps they weren’t even thinking about having a baby at the time, and may not have made any deliberate, conscious efforts toward that goal. In other words, they might have been intelligent, but one could argue whether their intelligence was being directed specifically toward the goal of making of that baby. They were just following biological urges and allowing their bodies to do all the work.
    To whatever extent one would still insist that the parent’s intelligence was behind that, then one could make the same argument that the intelligence of the parents of those parents was behind the existence of the baby, and the grandparents, and the great-grandparents, and so on.
    What about the friends of any of these people: the friends who intentionally introduced the parents, or grand-parents to each other (“set them up” is the colloquial expression). Those friends played an active and intelligent part in the process that eventually culminated in that baby.
    Certainly the doctor or mid-wife who helped in the delivery of the baby had intelligence, and they in turn were taught by teachers with intelligence.
    The taxi driver who got them to the hospital contributed his intelligence to the final outcome.
    The civic engineers who designed the roads, and the road-workers who translated her blueprints into a transit system.
    I could go on. But you should get the point by now. To just ask whether an intelligence “was behind” the existence of the universe is not a very precise hypothesis to be tested. This is not to say that God is only one of many minor players, possibly even unaware of his involvement, but rather to say that he could be making many background contributions that aren’t immediately obvious. The question is not as black or white as you perceive. My next blog will get into this a bit more, but here’s a modified snippet that is particularly appropos to this point: “A God who sets up the laws of nature — including the mechanisms behind Big Bang cosmology, Darwinian evolution, quantum and Newtonian physics — knowing that they would eventually produce independent, willful, sentient beings that would roam the face of the earth in search of “the Great Being,” is much bigger than an exceptionally talented sculptor who specializes in clay.”
    So to answer your question, do I think there is an intelligence behind the existence of the universe? Yes. The mystery is in understanding how that intelligence involves himself with it, and with us. I’ve blogged before on that question … check out 04/19/15 “The human-divine connection.”
    You raise a couple other great questions/points there. I’m not dodging them. It’s just that this comment would otherwise take on the length of a full blog. Should we pursue that here, or in another blog?

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  6. Why stop at number 10?

    There are all sorts of other examples of sub-optimal design.

    11. Our inability to digest beans. This leads to all sorts of embarrassing situations which might even hinder our ability find a mate. Do we really need bacteria in our gut to help us out there? Major design flaw.
    12. Schizophrenia. Bad genes. Bad design.
    13. Cancer. Wow! Horrible disease. Even our advanced brains are having a tough time getting this one under wraps.
    14. Our pinky toe. Do we really need this thing? Cutting that nail isn’t easy you know. I would have rather had a much more manageable digit there.

    Why stop at the human body? Let’s move to bad design in the universe.

    15. Big universe. Wasted space. To what end? Just so we can build telescopes and watch Star Trek?
    16. UV rays. I’d love to be able to go outside without slathering on sunscreen. Not to mention all the melanoma it causes. Shouldn’t our bodies have a built in sun shade? Or at least get rid of male baldness. Sunburns on the head are a major downer.
    17. Tsunamis. Major design flaw of the earth. If I designed an earth I would make sure that all waves were perfect surfing rollers. No undertows either. Hang ten!
    18. And mosquitoes. OK I know they provide food for bats and dragonflies but really, couldn’t these tiny little vampires find another food source! Couldn’t they just sit on a branch somewhere spread their little wings and convert wind directly into metabolic energy. Then fly off and serve themselves as lunch to some higher life form. And all the design engineers at Ontario hydro said ” Yeah! Wind Power. Much more efficient and much better design”

    So the question is – what would a perfectly designed human or universe look like? Is there an optimum design rating like a 1-10 scale?

    I think you may even have touched on points 13 and 17 in previous blogs.

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    • Evolution is a process, or a mechanism. It can just do things by itself without any intelligence of its own; or in the hands of an intelligence, it can be a tool. For example, magnetism just exerts its force on things (like earth’s magnetic poles shifting particle beams from the sun and creating the Northern Lights), but can be used by something to do things (like an electric motor in a car built by Tesla and driven by a person). Humans have used the processes of evolution like a tool to mold domesticated animals and plants.

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  7. Hi Luke,
    Personally, I believe God do tinker with our lives but I don’t believe He tinker with the design every now and then, i.e., using evolution process. Genesis 2:7 says, God formed Adam from the dust from the ground and breath into his nostrils breath of life. And, in Genesis 221-22, created Eve from Adam’s rib (side). In other word, they were created fully functional human being. Just as the whole universe and earth were created fully functional.
    Blessings,

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  8. The evolution process of domesticating animals and plants (aka micro evolution) is observable and repeatable, i.e, scientific fact. I don’t think any young earth creationists would disagree with that. However, macro evolution (ape to human) is another matter altogether. Can anyone please provide the scientific evidence (repeatable and observable) to prove macro evolution?

    Liked by 1 person

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