“…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).
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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