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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Of God and the case for unintelligent design

by Lisa Fullam for the San Francisco Chronicle

August 4, 2005

As the theory of intelligent design again hits the news with President Bush's encouragement this week that the theory be taught in schools alongside evolution, I have one question: What about unintelligent design?

Take rabbit digestion, for example. As herbivores, rabbits need help from bacteria to break down the cell walls of the plants they eat, so, cleverly enough, they have a large section of intestine where such bacterial fermentation takes place. The catch is, it's at the far end of the small intestine, beyond where efficient absorption of nutrients can happen. A sensible system -- as we see in ruminant animals like cattle and deer -- ferments before the small intestine, maximizing nutrient absorption. Rabbits, having to make do with an unintelligent system, instead eat some of their own faeces after one trip through, sending half-digested food back through the small intestine for re-digestion.

Horses are similarly badly put together: They ferment their food in a large, blind-ended cecum after the small intestine. Unlike rabbits, they don't recycle their feces -- they're just inefficient. Moreover, those big sections of hind gut are a frequent location for gut blockages and twists that, absent prompt veterinary intervention, lead to slow and excruciating death for the poor horse. The psalmist writes: "God takes no delight in horses' power." Clearly, if God works in creation according to the simplistic schemes of the intelligent design folks, God not only doesn't delight in horses, but seems positively to have it in for them. Furthermore, why wouldn't an intelligent designer make it possible for animals to digest their natural food without playing host to huge populations of bacteria in the first place: Couldn't mammals have been equipped with their own enzymes to do the job?

But that's not all: Consider mammalian testicles. In order to function optimally, they need to be slightly cooler than the rest of the body and so are carried outside the body wall in the scrotum. Why would one carry one's whole genetic potential in such a vulnerable position? Clearly it's not a gonad problem in general -- ovaries work just fine at body temperature and are snuggled safely within the pelvic girdle for protection. But for testicles, nope -- the scrotum is jerry-rigged to allow for a warm-blooded animal to keep his testicles cool. Surely an intelligent designer could have figured out a way for testicles to work at body temperature, as ovaries do.

Here's another: Do you know anyone beyond the age of 20 or so who has not had a backache? Let's face it: The human body is that of a quadruped tipped up on end to walk on only two legs. The delicate and beautiful cantilever curve of the human spine compensates (but not enough) for the odd stresses that result from our unusual posture. Perhaps the God of intelligent design has a special place in his plan for chiropractors? And what about the knee? Between the secure ball-and-socket of the hip and the omnidirectional versatility of the ankle is a simple hinge joint, held together only by ligaments (including the anterior cruciate ligament) whose names are known to athletes and sports fans because they're so easily and frequently injured. Again, unintelligent design. The real problem with intelligent design is that it fails to account for the obvious anatomical and physiological making-do that is evident of so much of the natural world. Evolutionarily minded folks see this as the result of genetic limitations and adaptations accumulated in specialization for certain environments, while the intelligent design folks are left with a designer who clearly cannot have been paying close attention.

While there are extremely precise and fine-tuned mechanisms in nature, there is also lots of evidence of organisms just cobbled together. For instance, take marsupials, who give birth to what in other animals are analogous to fetuses, then have to carry them around in what amounts to an exterior uterus until the offspring are ready to face the world. As a theist who sees natural evolution not as a theory but as well- established observation, I take comfort in the catch-as-catch-can of the natural world. I have every confidence that an all-loving creator walks in and with the natural world as it struggles to fruition, cheering on our evolutionary triumphs (let's hear it for the opposable thumb!) and standing in solidarity with the evolutionary misfits and misfires, like rabbit guts and horses generally. Isn't this how God walks in and with us in our individual lives as well, cheering us on, emboldening us and consoling us in our often misguided attempts to live well and do right, and standing in compassion and solidarity with us when we fail, and loving us into trying again? And isn't this a more compelling vision of God, and truer to the biblical God who comes again and again to offer salvation to erring humankind, than that of a designer who can't quite seem to get things right?

21 comments:

dbackdad said...

There's many a male who wishes the unintelligent designer had did a better job with the testicle problem. :-0

Great article.

RCA said...

Interestingly I was watching the last of Planet Earth today (excellent BBC nature show co-made with discovery so recommend it to all USA readers as they'll have the opportunity one way or another)... anyway watching PE and remarked to my other half I can almost understand the argument towards intelligent design unless you stop to analyze the facts...interesting post CK as always

Foilwoman said...

Also, only an unintelligent designer (or a sadistic one) would have made reproduction so risky and painful. Or have made rabbits so damn dumb.

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: There's many a male who wishes the unintelligent designer had did a better job with the testicle problem.

Indeed there are... [chuckle].

rca said: remarked to my other half I can almost understand the argument towards intelligent design unless you stop to analyze the facts.

Very true. You can cetainly see why the idea of an Intelligent Designer (just called 'God' for short back then) was the commonly held belief before Darwin - and still is actually! There is a strong illusion of design in many life forms. But it's not until you really start looking that the illusion fades to be replaced by evolution.

foilwoman said: only an unintelligent designer (or a sadistic one) would have made reproduction so risky and painful.

With regard to human reproduction... Well, we all know the theist 'answer' to that one don't we? "Original Sin" [no sniggering in the back]. Those guys really did try to have an answer to everything didn't they - no matter how silly it turned out to be with even a few minutes analysis....

Vancouver Voyeur said...

Very interesting article. I've never really thought about the unintelligent design all around us as an argument against intelligent design. Although I have often said whoever created the design of the womb, monthly cycles and childbirth must have been a sadistic bastard. :-)

Juggling Mother said...

Also the Panda, which is a carnivore trying to survive on Bamboo, the Koala - constantly stoned:-) And lets not forget our penchant for choking to death due to the extremely unintelligent combination of food & air intake positioned together, then blocked by a voice box!

uberchap said...

Interesting article although I'm unclear where it's leading. I don't really understand the assertion that there is a lack of intelligence present in the design of the creatures mentioned. All these creatures have survived which shows that their "design" as a whole is successful.

Many men may bemoan the fact that their sexual organs are vulnerable but many women are pleased that they are. Not just women, of course, but anyone who has to defend themselves from a male adversary who may be physically superior. A knee in the balls will defeat even the largest male.

What amused me about this article was that I felt that the author liked the idea of unintelligent design because that would then prove that God was a bit of an idiot. But by acknowledging that would force you to accept that God had a hand in the creation of all living things, and, even that there is a God.

So, do atheists believe in unintelligent design ?

Cyberkitten wrote:
With regard to human reproduction... Well, we all know the theist 'answer' to that one don't we? "Original Sin" [no sniggering in the back]. Those guys really did try to have an answer to everything didn't they - no matter how silly it turned out to be with even a few minutes analysis

Care to elaborate on your understanding of Original Sin ?

RCA said...

Knowledge is a sin?

Sex is a sin if not exclusively used for reproduction? If you enjoy it it's bad too?

been a long time since I read the old testament but they seem to be dominate themes...

uberchap said...

Knowledge is a sin ?

That's a new one on me as a Christian and not one that I'd agree with. Unless you are referring to Adam eating from the tree of knowledge. Well, he did, and we are where we are. But I do not think faith in Christ requires people to be starved of knowledge. Athiests often claim this but this is not my experience in faith.

Catholics have a hang up about sex being used for recreational purposes, I agree. I don't share that view as an Anglican. The Anglicans are more relaxed about sex. Obviously, all Christians believe that the ideal state in which to enjoy a loving sexual relationship is within marriage. Some now accept same sex. Many do not. I am in the former category in terms of my belief but not my actions as I am heterosexual. For me the Christian attitude towards sex is sex in a loving relationship, or failing that sex which does not demean, hurt or abuse one of the partners. Many Christians would call me liberal as far as my attitude towards sex is concerned. Faithfulness to a partner is vital to me though. I will not cheat on my wife. But, I know that you don't have to be a Christian to realise that you shouldn't do that.

If you're interested in Christianity then it's primarily the New Testament that you should look at, not the Old.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: Care to elaborate on your understanding of Original Sin ?

I was responding to foilwomans comment about childbirth by making a comment regarding Genesis 3:16

"To the woman he said, Great will be your pain in childbirth; in sorrow will your children come to birth".

This outburst from God being caused by Eve's disobedience to God's will with regard to eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. Thereby giving rise to the 'original sin'.

uberchap said...

Cyberkitten said:

With regard to human reproduction... Well, we all know the theist 'answer' to that one don't we? "Original Sin" [no sniggering in the back]. Those guys really did try to have an answer to everything didn't they - no matter how silly it turned out to be with even a few minutes analysis....

I still don't know what you are getting at here. Even though childbirth is painful it does not seem to have deterred people from creating more children. So in evolutionary terms painful childbirth is "sucessful". Anyway, do you expect it to be painless considering the physics of it ?

But surely this is irrelevent to you as you don't believe in God ?

CyberKitten said...

uberchap - As I said in my previous comment...

foilwoman said: Also, only an unintelligent designer (or a sadistic one) would have made reproduction so risky and painful.

So I quipped: Well, we all know the theist 'answer' to that one don't we? "Original Sin"

..which is covered by Genesis 3:16.

It's not that hard to follow surely? I was being sarcastic if you couldn't tell. As you rightly said I don't believe in God...

uberchap said...

Risky and painful ?

If you believe in evolution as I do then you have to admit that human reproduction is a success.

The pain of childbirth helps with the bonding process as well as it being a physical inevibility. So that works if you believe in God or not.

I can assure you that your comment is not at all hard to follow. I just thought it a rather a cheap shot. The concept of original sin is a very difficult one to understand. In one sense, I don't think we have to "understand" it; we just are where we are. We can't change what happened.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: The concept of original sin is a very difficult one to understand. In one sense, I don't think we have to "understand" it; we just are where we are. We can't change what happened.

The whole Garden of Eden thing is just our particular Creation Myth. I don't think that there is much in there to 'understand'. As to "changing what happened" I'm not 100% sure what you mean - unless you actually believe the whole Adam & Eve business?

uberchap said...

I'm not referring to the "whole garden of Eden thing" whatever that is as far as you're concerned. I am referring to original sin. As a Christian I believe in original sin i.e. that I am imperfect and I believe that I have the tools through Christ to deal with that. I don't know what you mean by the whole Adam and Eve business. I believe that the creation story is allegorical.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: I believe that the creation story is allegorical.

So... Where does original sin come from? Why did a perfect being (God) creat an imperfect one (you) when he could've done a better job?

uberchap said...

When I said creation I was referring to the six days of work and one of rest. I said that I have no problem with the result of original sin i.e. imperfect humanity. The fall of man is the description of why we are where we are. I do not have a problem with acknowledging human failings and going to God to sort them out.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: I said that I have no problem with the result of original sin i.e. imperfect humanity. The fall of man is the description of why we are where we are.

So... Is the Garden of Eden allegorical too? What was the original sin? How is it passed on down the generations? More to the point *why* is it passed down from generation to generation? What happens to babies if they die just after birth? Do they go to Hell (dying in sin)?

uberchap said...

Why do you care as an athiest ? You're not able to convert me to your way of thinking and I am uninterested in trying to convert you. The reason for my occasional posts to your site is when I read something here that I consider to be untrue or a misrepresentation of the Christian faith.

If you want better answers to your questions, seek them from a Christian theologian and post them here for us all in the interest of reason and balance. But since I suspect that you will not want to do that you'll have to make do with my imperfect answers.

I do not believe the creation story is literal. Some claim that there was a place called Eden and others claim they noeknow where that was. I neither know nor care. It does not matter. The original sin as you know was to eat from the tree of knowledge. before mankind ate from the tree it was in perfect harmony with God. After it ate it wasn't and therefore has to strive to attain perfection. Man also had free will since eating from the tree. This is a story used to decsribe the imperfect nature of mankind as believed by Christians. The how and why are irrelevent to me. What is relevent is that this true according to my faith. The concept of an imperfect humanity is not difficult to grasp.

No, babies do not go to hell. How could they as they are not independent biengs and are unable to understand the conflict between free will and the requirements of God's will ? Surely you understand even that !

Is this a proper discussion or a schoolchild "debating" forum ?

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: Why do you care as an athiest ? You're not able to convert me to your way of thinking and I am uninterested in trying to convert you.

I'm interested in many things. Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean that I cannot or should not be interested in religion. Actually it interests me a great deal - especially as I really don't 'get' it. Because of this interest (and lack of understanding) I tend to ask (lots of) questions of anyone who professes a belief. Part of my interest is in what people believe, but my larger interest is in why they believe it.

As to any thought of conversion... [grin] I know from experience how difficult it is to change a persons mind - especially with something as fundamental as someones religious beliefs. So I have no desire and very little expectation that anyone who reads this Blog will suddendly realise the 'error of their ways' and transform into an atheist. Nor do I expect that I will suddenly 'find religion'.

As to mans imperfections.. We are certainly FAR from perfect (whatever that means) but I believe that our perfectability - both as individuals and as a species - is fully in our hands and ours alone. I don't think waiting for a deity to make things better will hurry the process on in any way. That's one of the bugbears I have with religions in general - it's an abrogation of responsibilty.

Finally - uberchap said: Is this a proper discussion or a schoolchild "debating" forum?

I would hope that it's a 'proper' adult discussion. Though I'm sure that we can still have fun whilst we discuss things..

uberchap said...

I'm not waiting for a deity to sort me (or anyone else) out either. As a Christian the waiting's over for me although the journey is very long. I am not a glove puppet for Jesus so it's not a matter of being "controlled" like a a robot. I have free will. I can chose to follow or not. It's in my hands, it's my choice. No abrogation of responsilility is implied by believing. Quite the reverse, in fact.