One thing science does well is self-criticize. It’s part of the way we work. We scientists hold up a theory or a conclusion and ask our colleagues to find a hole in our argument. The goal is to shave off the rough edges and weak spots. Every one of the most beautiful diamonds was first picked up as a very unimpressive rock that was made into something very different through careful but ruthless surgery. Skepticism is a good thing! So are critical thinking, investigation, and decision-making that isn’t attached to an ideology.
This is in part why I’ve been speaking and writing quite a bit lately against Intelligent Design (ID). As a believer and a scientist, I’m not trying to eliminate belief in general, but to cut off those parts that don’t stand up well to scrutiny.
So, ID: the idea that some incredibly smart and powerful architect carefully planned and crafted life and the universe. And let’s be honest. Most ID proponents have a Christian agenda, or at least a theistic one, so in their minds the architect is God himself (though most will be careful not to actually state that). Such an architect is not simply “incredibly smart and powerful,” but is all-knowing and all-powerful.
My concern with ID is that it’s not a slam-dunk idea: it’s open to all kinds of criticism and counter-arguments. It hasn’t been thought through carefully enough.
What’s worse, it sets up naïve young believers for a big fall. After promising to find complete agreement between science and faith … in fact, promising to use science to bolster faith … some expert in that particular area of science points out a fatal flaw and the embarrassed believer’s faith is bruised. If that happens a few too many times, their faith is eventually discarded.
Death by a thousand cuts.
Or they insulate themselves from that experience by retreating from the world of non-believers and talking only with fellow believers who speak the same language. What kind of witness is that?
ID proponents are often keen to use it to explain the incredible complexity of genetics and certain carefully selected aspects of biology/physiology. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you’re going to claim an organism is intelligently designed on the basis of ID’s explanatory power for certain things, then you also need to apply it to other biological aspects of that organism as well.
Including the really cringe-worthy aspects about which I blogged previously. I won’t repeat those points here: today’s blog-post will focus on a completely different category of argument against ID: those aspects of our biology/physiology which are merely head-scratchers. The latter don’t produce major theological or moral problems like the former. Instead, they’re just simply hard to attribute to an all-powerful and all-knowing designer who’s building his greatest of many creations … the pinnacle species … mankind. (but they’re very easy to explain using Natural Selection).
There are many examples of these “head-scratchers” … our ability to twitch our ears … fingernails and toenails … the appendix … the recurrent laryngeal nerve … our “tail” … to name a few. But when I used the example of goosebumps in a recent radio interview, I was barraged with emails and comments. This example was even referred to as “trivial.” It seems many didn’t get the point I was/am trying to make. So I’ll use that particular example as a test case, then use it to draw out a general take-home message which applies to all the others.
But before diving straight in, let me use an analogy to illustrate my point.
Imagine NASA wants to launch a space probe to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor galaxy almost 4.5 light years away (a gajillion kilometers away). One of many things they would want is a radio communication system that works reliably over such vast distances. You’d expect them to design a powerful, carefully sculpted satellite dish with equally sophisticated electronics, right?
Would you be surprised if instead they built a much smaller antenna that barely had enough strength to reach Mars, and that they had the on-switch connected not only to the navigation and imaging systems (to make sure that radio communication only happened when earth was properly lined up for reception), but curiously also to the fuel tank sensors (which meant that radio communication was also triggered whenever one of the tanks signaled that it had gone empty)?
Or what if you found out they just took a car antenna, soldered that onto a cheap GPS unit which they modified to produce radio signals, and replaced the on-switch with a car garage door opener. You could call this resourceful and inventive, but is it an example of truly impeccable design?
It would all sound quite strange, right? Very much unlike NASA? Would you feel reassured if NASA-defenders pointed out that the transmitter worked perfectly fine for sending a signal from the east coast to the west coast of North America? Or that they showed how their garage door opener works perfectly well (while failing to acknowledge that there are no garage door openers outside of our solar system)?
So now let’s look at goosebumps: the tiny little hairs on certain parts of your skin that stand up on end whenever you get cold or are scared witless, pulled up to attention by a tiny muscle attached to their base.
Most would agree that they help keep us a little bit warmer, trapping a thin and fragile layer of air around us like a blanket, which explains why they’re triggered by the cold. But they’re hardly sufficient to the task: they’re only found on certain parts of our body (more on that in a moment), and they certainly don’t do anything for us when we’re shirtless and it’s five degrees out, let alone minus twenty degrees.
Which is just like the under-powered radio transmitter designed by NASA.
A couple commenters writing to me went so far as to claim that those tiny muscles even generate some additional heat when they contract. Again, even if that were true, the fact remains that you won’t last long shirtless in the middle of winter. But in fact, that muscle is a specialized type called “smooth muscle,” which has been my area of scientific expertise for several decades. Unlike other types of muscle, smooth muscle burns very little energy, so very little heat is generated.
Most other muscles like the heart and all the ones attached to bones (like your biceps) contract briefly and then relax for a short while to recover and regenerate their energy supply. In the process, they generate a little bit of heat. That’s why you shiver when you get really cold. That’s your body’s last-ditch effort to get some heat production before the whole system crashes.
Smooth muscles, on the other hand, remain contracted for very long periods of time … some even for your entire lifetime! Smooth muscle around your arteries and veins never rests, but is constantly contracting to keep your blood pressure within a narrow range. Your sphincters remain contracted your entire lifetime except when you want to go to the bathroom. The one in your iris is constantly adjusting for subtle changes in light (and your mood!?). Smooth muscles generate sustained contractions which don’t require a constant supply of energy. Hence, very little heat production.
Then we come to a second aspect of this “head-scratcher”: why would those hairs which serve to keep us warm be triggered by strong visceral emotions, like a rabid dog barking in our face, or the thought that one had seen a ghost, or even the opening of a powerful symphonic piece?
This would be like NASA connecting the satellite dish controller to the ‘fuel-empty’ gauge.
Some pro-ID commenters proposed other explanations, like: “the muscles help squeeze oil on to the skin” … “provide extra sensitivity to touch” … “help us to detect parasitic infections” … “contribute to the healing of damaged skin” (because stem cells tend to hang out around these anatomical structures). That may be true: the hair follicles that produce goosebumps may well do all those things, but this doesn’t explain why goosebumps are only recruited when we get uncomfortably cold or frightened.
The central point for ID-proponents to understand is that it’s not enough to find some function for a given system: even a broken coat-rack with no hooks can be used as a door stop or a defense against a snarling dog, but you wouldn’t declare that the broken coat-rack is intelligently designed. Besides, even Darwinian Evolution predicts function in a given system (through Natural Selection). The important question is whether a designer, faced with a particular problem, would have designed that system in that particular way, using miscellaneous re-purposed pieces.
Like whether NASA would use the car antenna, cheap GPS unit and car garage door opener to make a mission-critical communications system.
Finally, one writer claimed that they “also help in the cooling process by keeping perspiration in an even layer rather than dripping off.” So which is it: they’re useful in keeping us warm, or helping us cool down? Do those sparse hairs really keep perspiration in an even layer? And why would many other parts of our bodies which get very sweaty not have goosebumps (face, chest, abdomen, insides of legs and arms, groin area)?
Instead, aren’t those diverse functions better explained as vestigial remnants from an evolutionary process? They serve two very useful functions in animals which are thickly covered by them: keeping warm when it’s cold outside, and helping the animal to look more intimidating when threatened. Even a kitten suddenly arching its back and fluffing up its fur will hold off the family dog. But we humans have lost most of those hairs over the millions of years, and our sparse coverage is just not up to the task of keeping us warm anymore (thank goodness for animal skins and control of fire!). They might also have been part of that intimidation-defense mechanism in our ancestors: isn’t it interesting that goosebumps are more prominent on the upper and forward-facing parts of our bodies, and peculiarly absent from those parts which wouldn’t be seen by a threatening opponent if we happened to be crouching down on our hands and knees. But they’re no good to us anymore: do you really believe that a mugger/thief/murderer or some other aggressor is in any way deterred by their victim exhibiting goosebumps?
So my take-home message to the pro-ID crowd is this:
Finding a function for a peculiar design is not the same as turning a poor design into an excellent or “intelligent” design, nor does it discriminate between ID and Darwinian Evolution. Both world-views predict biological parts will have a function: Natural Selection will “try” to hang on to those parts that serve a useful function, even those which are cobbled together from spare parts, and to lose those that don’t serve any useful function. What does discriminate ID from Darwinian Evolution is asking whether the part looks like that which a designer would fabricate from scratch to serve that particular function, or whether it looks instead like pre-existing parts were modified or MacGyver-ed to play the role.
Before identifying a function and declaring “Aha, therefore: Intelligent Design,” consider whether a designer (especially an all-powerful one) would have created that function in that particular way if they were starting completely from scratch, or whether evolutionary mechanisms had to modify previously existing designs.
For example, I’ve frequently heard that pelvic bones in whales are evidence for ID because they serve as attachment sites for muscles: this point was alluded to during the radio interview. If a designer had wanted a bony attachment site for muscles, would he/they have fashioned two separate bones, one of which has a bulbous end that looks like the head of a femur? On the other hand, if the legs of this animal were being phased out through Darwinian mechanisms (they only increase drag during swimming), wouldn’t it make sense that the external parts of the limbs would be lost, but the more internal parts would be retained since they already serve as attachment sites for the muscles which are already in place?
As always, I feel the need to remind readers that I’m not challenging Christian faith. Instead, my target is an explanation for how things came to be the way they are, one which includes our best scientific information on the question. Despite Job’s explanation for the weather (just look at chapters 37 and 38), most Christians turn to the Weather Channel to see what naturalistic mechanisms like pressure gradients, solar input and moisture content have to say on the matter. Very few expectant mothers who are Christian will ask their doctor whether their potter’s wheel (Job 10:8–9) or knitting needles (Ps 139:13) are OK.
So when it comes to questions of origins, let’s be more careful and honest. My goal is not simply to oppose ID, but to raise the dialogue to a more rigorous and critical level. I look forward to good, healthy, productive exchange on this.
Bring it on …