Monday, February 20, 2006

Not Especially Intelligent Design

A new periodic feature at Peaks and Pacific. Hope it sheds light on the evolution vs. intelligent design debate.

Nasal membranes in cold weather
Below 20 degrees fahrenheit nasal membranes empty big flows of creamy snot onto your upper lip. At zero degrees that snot freezes into an unsightly lump. Embarrassing when passing cross-country skiers on the trail.

Nails on your small toes
Vestigial small toes make no sense. The tiny, gnarled and useless nails on those foot pinkies make even less sense. Damn ugly. What was God thinking?

Ear Hair
After 40, men tend to get ear hair. Why does a middle aged man need hair on his ears? I mean, come on.


Blogger Steve said...

In a philosophy of science class, years ago, a sceptic sought to end an especially pointless class debate over evolution by asking why men had nipples. It worked.

7:23 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Couldn't someone just reply, "for asthetic purposes" or "to better put nipple rings in"? I mean, think of how weird pecs would look without nipples centering them. I don't see how that comment would have ended the debate with any decent debaters arguing. (and most ID people would probably considering me pro-evolution)

5:49 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

hope this isn't too graphic.

one of my fellow entomology students cites traumatic insemination in bedbugs as a not especially intelligent design. (The male bedbug inseminates the female by gashing it through the abdomen, rather than the ordinary way. The wounded female is then susceptible to infection.)

yuck, no? worse than ear hair if you ask me.

speaking of vestigial things, how about the tailbone and appendix?

7:02 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Tailbone protects the bottom of the spine - it makes sitting down a little bit less tramatic. It also gives your butt muscles an attach point.

People argue a lot about the appendix - many think that it plays an important role in the immune system and in producing hormones during development.

I think that the ear hair is the hardest one so far - perhaps it is a way to keep the old and wise humble?

10:42 AM  
Blogger jon said...

Oh - and tramatic entry for bedbugs has an important design function. It helps keep their population down a little, which is a great thing for us.

10:43 AM  
Blogger limco said...

Maybe the ear hair has to do with the bedbugs and other nasty creatures that might like to crawl into a warm, dark place while a person is sleeping. Wading through a forest of thick ear hair would be a deterent. Maybe there is intelligent design behind that one.

10:02 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

oh dear, this raises so many troubling issues. Why create bedbugs in the first place, if they're such a problem for humanity? Why create them with genitalia which they don't use? What was the design function of this behavior during the millenia before there were beds to be infested? Doesn't the humble bedbug have some inherent value itself, as a created thing? Or is creation all about us?

ear hair, now... maybe it's one of those mutations that tend to accumulate after you've already passed on your genes, since they don't affect your fitness anymore.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Very personally, I like the "ear hair as humble pie for the old and wise" hypothesis better than the "ear hair as sign of impending impotency" theory :^)

Since we've taken this thing everywhere from men's nipples to bed bugs I'd like to add that a Republican entymologist recently named two recently discovered species of dung beatles after George Bush and Dick Cheney. He was trying to honor them, I guess. Fill in your own punchline.

4:05 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"Why create bedbugs in the first place, if they're such a problem for humanity?"

Oh, humans need to face suffering, that's for sure. It just needs to be at a controlable level so it doesn't just wipe us out all together.

"Why create them with genitalia which they don't use?"

They have genitalia they don't use? I wasn't aware of that. Is it functional and serves no other purpose?

"What was the design function of this behavior during the millenia before there were beds to be infested?"

Bed bugs that were too good at what they did could have wiped out anything.

"Doesn't the humble bedbug have some inherent value itself, as a created thing? Or is creation all about us?"

I personally think that creation is primarily about us, but that other things certainly have inherent value as well. But bedbugs aren't affected by pain the same way you and I are - they certainly don't have the neural or spiritual reserves for pain to be a big issue in their lives. This may increase the death rate of the bedbug, but everything must die at some time.

I can see these examples getting thrown out and responded to over and over again, so I'll turn the question around - what would a perfectly intelligently designed world look like to you?

(note - I am playing devil's advocate here. I'm not actually a proponent of a perfectly intelligently designed world. Perhaps more of an agnostic in that regard.)

7:13 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I don’t have a comprehensive picture of an intelligently designed world. I’ve never thought the world needed to be reasonable or intelligent for God to be sovereign over it.

Actually, the creation seems to be pretty irrational and unreasonable to me, particularly if we’re going to argue that creation in all its parts needs to contribute to human well being in some clear and straightforward way.

Most thoughtful theologians I’m aware of don’t necessarily argue that the current creation is reasonable or that it contributes to human well being in an obvious and straightforward way. If you accept that the current creation is fallen and therefore distorted, you might expect that nature would appear to be a mixed bag of both reason and irrationality, life giving and death dealing elements as far as we humans are concerned.

Strictly from the evidence at hand—without revealed truths added to our basic reason—I think you could make just as strong an argument for the primacy of viruses as for human beings in the scheme of things.

Creating a picture of a truly intelligently designed world is an act of pure imagination. As far as Christians are concerned, you’d have to imagine the creation after its redemption. Would a redeemed creation reveal an explosion of abundance and life and color and diversity that the current creation only suggests? Would the lion really lay down with the lamb (would predation end?). You’re dealing with leaps of prophetic imagination at that point.

Of course, if you don’t take Christian theology seriously, there is no need to try to understand nature from the viewpoint of how it uniquely benefits human beings or how it somehow “makes sense” of human primacy. And even if you do take Christian thinking seriously, you may develop a much more subtle understanding of what human primacy means in relation to the rest of nature than has usually been the case among believers.

But if I was going to try to imagine a truly intelligently designed world, I’d start by getting rid of all country music….:^)

6:11 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

Actually, the intelligent design argument is about the origin of irreducibly complex structures, rather than about the supposed purpose of any living thing or its parts.

We’ve been using “intelligent or not-so-intelligent design” facetiously in this post to talk about things we don’t understand the purpose of. I’m fine with leaving it at facetious. I’m not at all comfortable with ad hoc suppositions about why God did things in such and such a way. It often makes God look ridiculous, for one thing. Like the kind of explanations that Voltaire had such fun mocking: why do we have snakes? So the snake could tempt Eve, and humanity could fall and then be redeemed. Or the sort of thinking that was popular before Darwin, that an efficient creator would economize on the number of species in the world.

I don’t like anthropomorphizing God, as if God were a human engineer or city planner trying to design an efficient and elegant system. Also, I think it’s egregiously presumptuous of any human being to try to nail down the ultimate purpose of anything that exists. There’s just so much we don’t, and probably can’t, know. I really think that both science and theology often fail dismally to remember that- both in regard to historical processes which can’t be repeated and tested, and in regard to questions of purpose and meaning.

What if the purpose of bedbugs is that in 2479, someone is going to have an infested mattress and won’t be able to sleep, so they get up in the middle of the night and accidentally step on a cockroach, which happened to be the one cockroach that was about to spread cholera throughout an entire city, thus preventing an outbreak of disease which would have destroyed a civilization. Or what if God just thought it would be amusing to have a wingless insect family in the Hemiptera. These are silly examples, and they anthropomorphize God and assume direct causality in the ways that I’ve just said annoy me, but the point is that you and I would never know.

I think order and purpose in the universe are things that require a leap of faith to believe in, rather than things you can prove. As wordcat rightly points out, there are always going to be examples of things that look rational and things that don’t. And this is always going to be defined by one’s idea of what’s rational or meaningful and what’s not, which is going to be different for different people, centuries, etc. Personally, I find order interesting. When I look at the night sky, I like to know the names of the stars and constellations, and know when what planet is where- it makes me feel more connected to it all, to be able to make some sense out of it. My sister, the Dionysian free-spirited artist, hates that- she prefers to just take in the vast expanse of points of light without trying to pick out any patterns. She doesn’t need to find order in the stars to believe that they’re good. Which God are we going to use to try to figure out if the universe has meaning or not, hers or mine?

“Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre... Each thing, from the single grain of Dust to the strongest [angel], is the end and the final cause of all creation and the mirror in which the beam of His brightness comes to rest and so returns to Him... In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed... All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for. In these seas there are islands where the hairs of the turf are so fine and so closely woven together that unless a man looked long at them he would see neither hairs nor weaving at all, but only the same and the flat. So with the Great Dance. Set your eyes on one movement and it will lead you through all patterns and it will seem to you the master movement, but the seeming will be true... There seems no plan because it is all plan: there seems no centre because it is all centre.”

- C.S. Lewis, Perelandra

(ahhhhh..... I always feel that a hijack of wordcat’s blog has been truly successful when it ends up with a Lewis or Tolkien quote. I really should read more widely. Oh well.)

10:58 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

great stuff, Ruth. I agree we've been having fun--actually, my original post was meant to be a joke so we've sort of evolved it all over the place :^)

And you're right that the intelligent design argument, very specifically, is about the origin of (supposedly) irreducably complex structures.

But I think it's fair to say that underneath that argument, and the reason intelligent design folks are raising it, is the whole idea of teleology, or an argument from design for the existence of God. They simply don't believe certain structures, like the human eye, could have developed by chance, so there has to be a 'designer' who designed that structure.

So I think it's fair to discuss the meaning and reasonableness of the creation on the basis of intelligent design since I think that's what its really about on a deeper level.

I've never bought arguments for God from design, but they have a certain appeal to a lot of people who don't understand their pitfalls as well as you do.

11:58 AM  

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