[Paleopsych] NYT: The Way We Live Now: Unintelligent Design

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Magazine > The Way We Live Now: Unintelligent Design
February 20, 2005


    Recently a school district in rural Pennsylvania officially
    recognized a supposed alternative to Darwinism. In a one-minute
    statement read by an administrator, ninth-grade biology students were
    told that evolution was not a fact and were encouraged to explore a
    different explanation of life called intelligent design. What is
    intelligent design? Its proponents maintain that living creatures are
    just too intricate to have arisen by evolution. Throughout the natural
    world, they say, there is evidence of deliberate design. Is it not
    reasonable, then, to infer the existence of an intelligent designer?
    To evade the charge that intelligent design is a religious theory --
    creationism dressed up as science -- its advocates make no explicit
    claims about who or what this designer might be. But students will
    presumably get the desired point. As one Pennsylvania teacher
    observed: ''The first question they will ask is: 'Well, who's the
    designer? Do you mean God?'''

    From a scientific perspective, one of the most frustrating things
    about intelligent design is that (unlike Darwinism) it is virtually
    impossible to test. Old-fashioned biblical creationism at least risked
    making some hard factual claims -- that the earth was created before
    the sun, for example. Intelligent design, by contrast, leaves the
    purposes of the designer wholly mysterious. Presumably any pattern of
    data in the natural world is consistent with his/her/its existence.

    But if we can't infer anything about the design from the designer,
    maybe we can go the other way. What can we tell about the designer
    from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature,
    there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some
    nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's
    nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the
    designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for
    instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the
    cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have
    arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops
    around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx.
    In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would
    have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the
    unintelligent variety.

    Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order.
    Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out.
    Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will
    inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of
    designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their
    environments that they were doomed to extinction?

    The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider
    how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain
    throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism
    may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our
    bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases -- cancer, for
    instance, or coronary thrombosis -- the signal comes too late to do
    much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely

    And why should the human reproductive system be so shoddily designed?
    Fewer than one-third of conceptions culminate in live births. The rest
    end prematurely, either in early gestation or by miscarriage. Nature
    appears to be an avid abortionist, which ought to trouble Christians
    who believe in both original sin and the doctrine that a human being
    equipped with a soul comes into existence at conception. Souls bearing
    the stain of original sin, we are told, do not merit salvation. That
    is why, according to traditional theology, unbaptized babies have to
    languish in limbo for all eternity. Owing to faulty reproductive
    design, it would seem that the population of limbo must be at least
    twice that of heaven and hell combined.

    It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such
    imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait -- benevolence
    or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three. But what if the
    designer did not style each species individually? What if he/she/it
    merely fashioned the primal cell and then let evolution produce the
    rest, kinks and all? That is what the biologist and intelligent-design
    proponent Michael J. Behe has suggested. Behe says that the little
    protein machines in the cell are too sophisticated to have arisen by
    mutation -- an opinion that his scientific peers overwhelmingly do not
    share. Whether or not he is correct, his version of intelligent design
    implies a curious sort of designer, one who seeded the earth with
    elaborately contrived protein structures and then absconded, leaving
    the rest to blind chance.

    One beauty of Darwinism is the intellectual freedom it allows. As the
    arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins has observed, ''Darwin made it
    possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.'' But Darwinism
    permits you to be an intellectually fulfilled theist, too. That is why
    Pope John Paul II was comfortable declaring that evolution has been
    ''proven true'' and that ''truth cannot contradict truth.'' If God
    created the universe wholesale rather than retail -- endowing it from
    the start with an evolutionary algorithm that progressively teased
    complexity out of chaos -- then imperfections in nature would be a
    necessary part of a beautiful process.

    Of course proponents of intelligent design are careful not to use the
    G-word, because, as they claim, theirs is not a religiously based
    theory. So biology students can be forgiven for wondering whether the
    mysterious designer they're told about might not be the biblical God
    after all, but rather some very advanced yet mischievous or blundering
    intelligence -- extraterrestrial scientists, say. The important thing,
    as the Pennsylvania school administrator reminded them, is ''to keep
    an open mind.''

    Jim Holt is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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