Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The stupid designer

Richard Dawkins, of all people, writing in Free Inquiry (Feb/March 2009), summarizes Darwin's Big Idea as:

Given sufficient time, the non-random survival of hereditary entities (which occasionally miscopy) will generate complexity, diversity, beauty, and an illusion of design so persuasive that it is almost impossible to distinguish from deliberate intelligent design.

Ahh, no professor. You have had an astonishing, and quite uncharacteristic brain fart. It is, as you well know, quite easy to distinguish the products of evolution from deliberate intelligent design.

Consider one familiar species, Homo sapiens. Among the innumerable design flaws in this generally splendid product are:

  • The baby's head is too big for the birth canal. Prior to modern obstetrics, it was all too common for women to die in child birth.

  • There is a vestigial tail, that serves no purpose except to produce excruciating pain if you happen to fall on it -- and it is located precisely in a place where that is likely to happen -- but only to a creature that walks upright on its hind legs.

  • There is a narrow pouch extending from the entrance to the colon, which serves no evident purpose except to become infected. Prior to modern surgery, infection and perforation of the vermiform appendix was a frequent cause of death.

  • The spine has a structurally defective curvature at the bottom, causing no end of unpleasantness.

  • The respiratory and alimentary entrances to the body go through a common portal, leading to frequent accidents in which ingested material gets stuck in the trachea, resulting all too often in untimely death.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. With a tweak here and there, we could do much better. Evolution, however, had to work with what it had, which was mammals with small heads, that walked on four legs, that evidently had some use for an appendix and a tail, and which didn't talk so that the trachea could be more effectively closed off during swallowing.

Understanding human evolution is very helpful for public health and medicine. For example, it provides insight into the kind of diet and lifestyle which is most likely to prolong good health and vigor, and into the immune system with all the good it does, and the harm as well when it turns against us in Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.

One of the great joys of atheism is that we do not have to contend with the problem of evil. This is the ruination of every theologian, although they swaddle it in sufficient sophistry to stifle its intolerable screams. If God made everything and saw that it was good, why did he make our bad backs and our deaths in childbirth and our treacherous autoimmunities? What a jerk! If he was smart enough to design smallpox, we were even smarter to eradicate it.

The fact is, we do have all sorts of flaws, some of which we're learning how to fix, at least partially, but others of which we still have to live with. That can be a drag, but at least now we know we don't have to take it personally. No intelligence did this to us on purpose, it just happened. And fortunately, unlike the designer, we actually are intelligent, so we can do something about it. Isn't that good news?


robin andrea said...

Dawkins sounds a bit like those new age people who say everything is as it is meant to be, and it's all beautiful. I know he doesn't imply the "meant to" part, but that illusion of design just smacks of joyous complicity by unseen hands, because it's all so freakin' complex, diverse, and beautiful. Your list of flaws is truly a thing of beauty.

Gar said...

Hi. I jumped here via Pharyngula.

Just a thought, you may be reading too much into what Dawkins wrote. To me, it makes sense. Try looking at it as if he is talking about cherry blossoms (beauty), cute little bear cubs and seal pups (beauty), the way similar animals differ just enough to fit in perfectly with their environment (diversity), and brains (complexity). An intelligent designer, a.k.a. a human, could do no better than evolution itself. On the other hand, it would be wise to always include the list of "flaws" you give here to remind creationists that although life in nature is wondrous, it has no end goal or grand purpose.

Cervantes said...

Well, it may not be what he meant, but Dawkins did literally write "almost impossible to distinguish." My point was not to dis Dr. Dawkins, but to observe that the traces of evolution, as opposed to intelligent design, are everywhere, including in our bodies and minds. And they are not "almost impossible" to see, they are glaringly obvious.

Sorry, but I do think Dawkins's statement was careless and he would no doubt regret it if I had the opportunity to point it out to him.