An IDea that’s hard to swallow

It couldn’t happen at a worse time.  You’re casually sipping from your coffee or coke in a room full of people when it all goes very wrong.  You take a careless sip and it goes down the wrong way.  Your throat immediately seizes up, your gut starts to spasm in an attempt to push it back up while your tongue blocks that in order not to make a spectacle of yourself, and you make a valiant effort to keep the whole internal struggle hidden from everyone around you.  Your eyes to start to bug out, your chest begins to heave and then … despite knowing that it only goes downhill from here … you start to cough.  Small coughs at first but soon you’re hacking and spewing your drink across the room.  You meekly make your exit with all eyes on you as you wipe a few drops of your drink from your nose.

That’s why I can’t embrace Intelligent Design anymore.

Okay, so I’ve made a big leap there and left a few readers behind me.  Let me join some of the dots.

I was recently a guest on a radio show defending my book against a seasoned advocate for Intelligent Design (ID). At one point, I called attention to a simple fact of our human anatomy that makes ID a big pill to swallow: the fact that our wind-pipe and food-pipe converge on the same opening on our face.  That simple little aspect of our design makes life really difficult for many people …

… those with a disease that robs them of the ability to control the muscles in their throat, leaving them constantly struggling against the saliva that keeps building up and interfering with breathing;

… those that go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy a nice steak and end up choking to death on a bite that was just a bit too big;

… those that go swimming and take a breath at the wrong time, and end up drowning as a result;

… those that develop problems from stomach acids making their way into the lungs.

It didn’t need to be that way.  It could have been possible to keep those two tubes separate, especially since the wind-pipe already has a separate connection to the nose.  It just seems to me that if we were designed … with the architectural plans carefully drawn up well in advance, and all the potential design flaws anticipated and rectified before the building began … that a good designer would have kept those two separate, or at least come up with some other less problematic solution.

To illustrate my point, I told a story of award-winning architects designing a 20-story building, but trying something new and innovative: this building would have a stairwell that doesn’t simply let people move from one floor to another, but also serves two other functions.

First, the metal railing would be used to conduct high-voltage to different parts of the building.  Rather than using separate electrical cables with the proper shielding and insulation, and moving those cables well out of the way.

Also, they would use the stairwell as a chimney for three combustion engines in the basement: the furnace for heating the building, the incinerator for burning the garbage, and a diesel generator as a back-up power supply.  Rather than building a separate chimney, they would vent the exhaust and fumes through the stairwell and out the top of the building.

Now obviously, humans don’t tolerate high-voltages and exhaust fumes too well, and these architects are smart and compassionate, so they include motion detectors that shut these things off when they detect people entering the stairwell, and turning it all back on when they sense that the people have left the stairwell.

This system works really well … for the most part.  However … every once in a while … the motion detectors don’t notice that someone’s still in the stairwell and that person gets electrocuted or asphyxiated by the fumes.  But for the most part, there isn’t a problem.

To get to my point, then: would we put up with this?

Absolutely not.

At the very least, that building would be closed down and the architects likely given fines, if not imprisonment.

So when we look at this convergence of the trachea and the esophagus, why do we not call this for what it is: a bad design?  One that makes it very difficult to insist that we’re carefully designed? Even more so if the designer were omnipotent and omniscient.

The four answers I was given come up often in discussions like this, and this is one of the reasons why I’m writing this blog post: to call attention to the strategies that are typically used when one challenges ID.

Strategy #1: appeal to Optimal Design.  The idea here is that the design problem was a tough one, and the designer just found the best balance between competing design considerations.  In this case, I was told that the design makes room for the voice-box, giving humans the unique ability to speak (a big advantage), but that it also raised the risk for the problems mentioned above (a big drawback), and God did the best that he could.

I have to admit I hadn’t anticipated that, and it made me go back and do some homework.  I learned that the two tubes are further apart when we’re babies … the wind-pipe is higher up in our throats, which allows us to keep breathing while drinking … and that the wind-pipe and voice-box do indeed move down as the baby grows up and begins to speak. But the same thing happens in many other animals like deer and giraffes who also vocalize. Likewise for many long-necked birds, some with windpipes longer than their entire body in order to make such loud and deep sounds … if you’re the least bit curious, I highly recommend you check out this link.  The short stumpy necks of the poor chimps and gorillas, on the other hand, are just not long enough for such deep-throated vocalization, which explains (in part) why we can talk and they can’t.  I’m left with the conclusion that this arrangement of our throats is not a result of a designer wanting to give us the ability to speak.

So if the main problem was that the designer needed more room for the voice-box, it would have been possible to lengthen the neck just a little bit more rather than join up the two tubes in a way that creates so many other secondary and life-threatening problems. This is not an example of optimal compromise between competing design limitations, nor is it easily explained by Special Creation.  It is easily explained, though, by evolutionary descent from a common ancestor: the earliest animals were basically worms … tubes that took food in one end and ejected waste out the other end … and the lungs that were needed for more complex life forms were just an add-on to that.

Strategy #2: dodge the question by deferring to other designs which have been challenged and since been shown to be useful.   I was also reminded of other puzzling designs that were previously taken as evidence against ID until science caught up and showed us that they were purposeful, as if that’s all one needs to do to invoke ID (both an Intelligent Designer and Natural Selection would explain designs which are useful).  The examples that always come up in these discussions were once again put on the table: the remains of pelvic structures (hips) in the back ends of whales, the appendix, the retina and junk DNA.

But an explanation for how things work the way they do or what useful function is being served is very different from a perfectly logical explanation for it having been designed that particular way in the first place.

Imagine walking through the recently renovated basement of a friend who just installed a new gas furnace, and noticing that a low-hanging pipe from the now non-functional oil-burning furnace is decoratively painted and being used to hang coats and winter clothes. Would that be an example of intelligent design … in which your friend carefully thought about the need to hang clothes and how he was going to address that function long before the home was even built … or an example of finding something useful to do with some leftover bits and pieces that previously served a different purpose?

I see the same resourcefulness in the whale’s pelvis and the appendix, but it doesn’t explain why these needed to be designed this way in the first place..

As for the retina: it’s pointed out that the backwards design provides the light-sensing cells with a blood supply for energy, immunological support and heat removal.  But a blood supply from the back side of the retina would do the same thing.

Yes, we’ve since learned some amazing things about why the retina is wired the way it is, why “junk DNA” isn’t so junky after all, or why a certain pseudogene serves a regulatory role in genetic function (ignoring the fact that this wouldn’t explain literally thousands of other pseudogenes in our genome).  But these explanations are equally compatible with either Darwinian Evolution or with Intelligent Design: they don’t definitively rule out the former and leave the latter standing tall.  But you’re still left with quite a few other questionable designs that seriously challenge the latter view but make perfect sense from an evolution world-view (see my next point).

Strategy #3: we don’t know at this time why it’s designed that way, but we might someday.  Many parts of our bodies appear to be useless and strange, but are easily shown to be leftover bits and pieces from our evolutionary journey.  I mentioned goose-bumps, our ability to twitch our ears, and a particular nerve which traces a strange path through our bodies.  I could have also mentioned several other wandering nerves and arteries, as well as fingernails and toenails (do you really think we were given those to protect our toes from getting stubbed or to decorate with polish, or could they have been claws a few million years ago?), or the fact that the anatomical parts used to get rid of waste (urine) are also used for sexual reproduction.  The common pro-ID defense is that we can’t explain them today, but we might someday … therefore: Intelligent Design.

I’ve got to say, the logic isn’t very strong here.  It’s really nothing more than a faith statement.  A God-of-the-gaps.  The problem with that kind of God is that he only ever gets smaller as the gaps get filled in.

Strategy #4: you can’t criticize it until you show you can do better. Yes, it’s easy to be an arm-chair quarterback, but that shouldn’t stop one from making perfectly valid points and asking honest and legitimate questions.  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether I’ve done that.  One may not like the message, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true or worth considering.

I don’t at all disrespect my “opponent” in the radio show interview.  I’ve read much of his stuff, and agree with parts of it. We just have two different viewpoints on this question of where did humans come from.  I’ve done my best to just stick to the facts.

So, to wrap this blog up.

Although one can come up with certain examples that look like intelligent design, you can’t have your cake and eat it too …the fact is that many other examples leave a pretty big lump in one’s throat and choke off the argument.

And once again, as I’ve pointed out in many previous blogs to believers in general who now may feel uncertain about their faith, and to atheists as well: this doesn’t mean we have to throw out the concept of God.  We’re not debating his existence, but rather how he might have done things. We just have to stop seeing him in human terms, or reducing him to simply an explanation for the way things are.  Perhaps he’s far bigger and more multi-dimensional than all that.

What are your thoughts on this? …


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4 thoughts on “An IDea that’s hard to swallow

  1. Luke. Enjoyed listening to your comments on the show. When I listen to arguments about Intelligent design I think of the Far Side cartoon called “God makes snakes” and wonder how God made humans. When I think of intelligent design, I think about the inherent properties of simple elements and the inherent geometric symmetry seen throughout nature. I think about the imbedded properties of elements. For example, hydrogen, which has beautiful yet simple properties likely not to have evolved after created. The fact that elements exist with inherent properties that can combine with other simple elements (but not all) to create complex structures seen in many different yet repeating forms. I think this is a better conceptual model of intelligent design than “god makes snakes”. The way things evolved once the basic forms were in place leaves lots of room for evolutionary thoughts.


    • I Googled that Far Side comic … hilarious! I like your thoughts about the embedded properties of matter that allow (cause?) them to interact such that you get increasing order and complexity. I know this concept goes against what many people understand about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, but they don’t realize that the latter applies to a closed system, and Earth is anything but a closed system … a quick Google search shows that we get a constant injection of energy from the sun of 1372 watts per square meter. Every square meter, every day, continuously, ever since some gases began to coalesce and give us this ball of stuff we’re standing on. That’s a lot of energy available to work against entropy. But getting back to your cartoon, I’ve occasionally used an analogy of someone taking a big sheet of plastic, scrunching it up tight into a tiny round ball, setting it down on the ground, and watching it slowly unpack itself to reveal something like a plastic origami dog, and asking whether that wouldn’t be incredibly more amazing than another person who takes the same sheet of plastic and using scissors and tape and a lot of glue to form a similar dog. Likewise for someone who could simply infuse inanimate matter with basic physical laws and let that evolve into complex beings, compared to someone rolling clay between his fingers like the Far Side cartoon. Thanks for the morning laugh.


  2. Interesting idea, I must say. Allow me to share my thoughts here:
    Let’s look at the design of a car manoeuvre functions. The primarily design is to drive forward with the ability to steer left/right and occasionally reversing. Can we drive in reverse at all time? Sure, but that’s not the design intent and therefore it would be awkward, uncomfortable and dangerous if we choose to do so.
    Coming back to human anatomy on choking while sipping coffee or enjoying nice piece of steak, none of these would happen IF we operate under the design intent. “Those with a disease that robs them of the ability to control the muscles in their throat” are not operating under the design intent. Instead, they are suffering due to defective condition(s). it’s like driving a car with a smashed windscreen and blaming the car designer for bad windscreen design…
    The above comparison is not meant to offend anyone but an opinion from a mechanical design engineer. I hope it makes sense… 😉


  3. By the way, energy will only be useful if there’s a system that can harness it properly, such as a car engine that converts the energy from fuel explosion into usable energy to drive a vehicle. That requires carefully designed and manufactured device (engine) to make it works. And not forgetting the skillfully tuned air/fuel ration plus precisely timed combustion… In other words, Definitely Not Accidental (DNA).;-)


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