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?