Saturday, May 19, 2012

“Intelligent” Design

We can’t discuss religion without discussing the whole “origin of life, the universe, and everything” issue. After all, it’s the main reason many people still believe in a god.

Some people think that science will never come up with an acceptable answer to the big question: how did we get here?  I freely admit that I used to be one of these people. I thought that life in general and humans in particular were much too complex to have come about by chance, and therefore we must have been created by a higher power. For most of my life, I was lazy enough to be satisfied with that. Ahh, to be young and naive...

(Disclaimer: much of this post is sourced from Richard Dawkins, who is an evolutionary biologist and writer. I highly recommend checking out one of his books for more detail on this subject from someone much more qualified than me.)

To start with, it is incredibly short-sighted to think that the only two options are pure chance and Intelligent Design. Those are both terribly illogical explanations. They are both completely and totally irrational. We can all agree that life, the universe, and everything are incredibly complex (and 42 doesn’t provide much satisfaction as an answer). Humans alone are incredibly complex: we have eyes and ears and noses and hearts and kidneys and livers and legs and arms and hands and fingers and shoulders and bones and blood vessels and cells and DNA. There is no way that we could come about, as presently constructed, by pure chance, right?  That is right, actually. Some have used the analogy that humans coming about by chance is like a tornado flying through a junkyard and creating a fully-functional Boeing 747. I completely agree.

The lazy option is to stop thinking there and chalk life up to Intelligent Design. But what if you keep thinking?  “Humans are really, really complicated, so they must have been created by God. OK, that makes sense. God could decide that His planet will be populated with beings that have eyes and ears and everything else, and while he’s at it he’ll create a bunch of other species (which are themselves really complex) so that there’s some variety on Earth. But...if it requires a god to create everything on Earth, what would it take to create a god?  That being must be even more powerful than our God (who is already omnipotent) in order to have created Him so that He could create us, and someone would have had to create him, and someone had to create him, and someone had to create him...”  This is what Dawkins refers to as “the Ultimate 747.”  Our life is about as improbable as creating a 747 in a junkyard via tornado, which we can all agree is highly improbable. However, if we were intelligently designed, our creator is by definition even more improbable than we are, meaning that whatever created him would have to be even more improbable, ad infinitum.

OK, so we’ve established that Intelligent Design is incredibly improbable because, as improbable as it might be for there to exist a being so complex that it could design us, it would be even more improbable for there to exist a designer of this designer, as that designer would have to be even more complex than our designer. The real question is not whether or not there is a God that designed us (as we can be quite certain there is not), but this: why is there something instead of nothing?  That’s a good question, and a really difficult one to answer. Just because we don’t have a good explanation for that doesn’t mean that we should accept a bad explanation. Erroneously attributing the universe to God doesn’t solve any questions; in fact, that complicates things even further because it brings the question of God’s origin into play. We have knowledge about our own lives on Earth; we have no knowledge about the life of any god. We can’t just ignore the question of where God came from. Saying “He’s always been there” doesn’t solve anything. Furthermore, since there is nothing to suggest that a god created the universe, it makes us all look stupid and naive. So let’s stop that.

To my knowledge, cosmology hasn’t advanced far enough to provide a good answer for the universal “something instead of nothing” question. It’s a question that likely won’t be definitively answered in our lifetimes, and it’s entirely possible that it will never be answered. Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss both have theories (and I’m sure there will be many more to come), but it is such a ridiculously complicated problem that there’s really no way to prove what happened billions of years ago. If you’re thinking “Hey. Idiot. We already have an answer: God designed everything. He is infinite. He always was and always will be. He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega and all that jazz,” allow me to respond. Simply put, that is a completely baseless argument. You can’t decide that the universe needs an origin but God does not. You can’t argue against all secular theories for the origin of the universe by saying “you can’t create something from nothing, therefore it must have been created by God,” because the existence of God Himself falls prey to the same argument. If the universe can’t come from nothing, then neither can God. Is it really harder to believe that a universe can come about more easily than a supernatural being capable of creating a universe?  If your head hurts thinking about this, it should. Saying that the universe has a creator only makes its origin more complex, not less.

ANYWAY, let’s stop going around in circles on that question as there is no way to prove any theories about the origin of the universe (unless, of course, there is a God and he finally decides to prove to humanity that He does, in fact, exist; strangely enough, this has never happened). However, even if we can’t answer the universal question, we should be able to answer the local question about the origins of life on this planet. While the universe is, to put it succinctly, freaking humungous, our own planet is finite in size and we’ve been here for quite a while, so that’s within our ability to explain. Luckily, we have an alternative explanation to random chance and Intelligent Design: natural selection.

It’s a common misconception to think of “natural selection” and “chance” as the same thing, which is why many people dismiss this theory. The general thinking goes something along the lines of “You’re telling me that humans evolved from single-celled organisms?  Random mutations caused those organisms to grow some limbs because that would be convenient? Whatever, nerd.”  This is an oversimplification of natural selection. In general, the theory states that, over a period of millions of years, those single-celled organisms very slowly and incrementally mutated. Miniscule, nearly imperceptible changes. If Organism A underwent a change that was beneficial to survival, and Organism B did not, naturally Organism A would not only have a better chance of surviving itself, but its descendants would also have a better chance of surviving. Eventually its descendants undergo another slight mutation that allows for better survival and procreation, and this process of evolution is endlessly repeated. Organisms that undergo detrimental mutations, on the other hand, naturally die off.

The "millions of years" point is one that cannot be stressed strongly enough--we’re talking about a time period so long that we can’t even comprehend it. While we have less than 10,000 years worth of history passed down from our ancestors (as language is required for this to happen), we know that this planet is billions of years old. For those who think this planet is roughly 6,000 years old: please stop being ridiculous. We have fossils older than that. Dinosaurs most certainly existed before that. The Bible may only go back to ~6,000 years ago but, again, a language is required to pass history on. If you are of the opinion that life began with Adam and Eve 6,000 years ago and they could speak then, I would love to hear your explanation of cavemen paintings that have been found that point to a non-existence of language at the time.

There are some points of this theory that are initially hard to accept from a common sense standpoint. For example, we know that human beings today are very complex. Even little bits of us are incredibly complex, such as the eye. How could we come to possess a pair of eyes through tiny, miniscule changes if each and every change has to improve our chances of survival?  Doesn’t it seem like the eye would have to come about in a fully-functioning form to be considered useful?  No, actually. There are plenty of examples of other species still around today that do not have sight that is as good as ours (as their means of sight evolved differently), but their ability to detect the world around them is beneficial, even if the picture is not as clear as the human eye’s. Anyone with bad eyesight can attest to this. When I’m not wearing my glasses, my vision is quite blurry, but I can still make out walls and doorways well enough to stumble my way to the toilet in the middle of the night. Without my glasses, I wouldn’t be able to recognize a person’s face from twenty feet away, but I could at least make out the shape of a person. With each step closer I take, I get more information about what I’m looking at. “That looks like a person” becomes “that looks like a person with long hair” becomes “that looks like a person with boobs” becomes “that looks like a woman who is clearly watching me approach” becomes “that looks like a woman who wants to get it on. Giggity giggity.”  Or, conversely, “that woman appears to be creeped out by me. I should stop approaching her if I don’t want a faceful of mace.”  Even something as simple as being able to detect the difference between light and dark has its benefits, and every step between light detection and complete visual clarity is more beneficial than the last.

Creationists have attempted to come up with counter arguments over the years based on some feature of humans or other species that cannot be explained by natural selection. They try to point to something, such as an eye or a wing, that they cannot envision existing in a lesser version. They argue that such things are useless unless they are in their present, beneficial state, and therefore could not have come about by tiny, incremental changes over time. This argument is known as Irreducible Complexity, which states something like “nothing less than a fully-functioning wing could help a fly survive. Having half of a wing, or a quarter of a wing, is not beneficial. Therefore, natural selection cannot explain the wing. Therefore, the fly must have been intelligently designed.”  However, evolutionary biologists have come up with an answer for every one of these arguments, proving them invalid (the wing is a really good example, actually. While part of a wing (say, 1/10 of a wing) would not enable flight, it would enable falling from a certain height without dying. 2/10 of a wing would enable falling from an even higher height, as would 3/10 and 4/10 and so on). Keep in mind that some initial changes may not necessarily be beneficial to survival, but those changes could still persist as long as they don’t decrease the odds of survival, especially if they eventually turn into something useful.

You may be thinking “Why don’t we see examples of these mutations today?  I don’t see the X-Men running around in the real world. According to your theory, evolution should be ongoing forever.”  While it’s true that the X-Men don’t exist in reality (although it would be awesome if they did), this is a pretty easy one to answer. Look at your parents. Look in the mirror. Do you look exactly like one of your parents?  Similar, yes. Identical, no. Do you think exactly like them?  Similarly, maybe. Identically, no. Therefore, a change has occurred between your parents and you. Trace those changes back through millions of years, and the idea of evolution doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Mutations do occur, and they have been observed not just in humans but in all species throughout the world in both laboratory and natural settings.

You may be thinking “Part of the theory of natural selection is what is known as ‘survival of the fittest,’ which states that inferior life forms are weeded out. How do you explain apes?  How do you explain the fact that detrimental mutations still exist?”  As for apes, they still exist because they have evolved enough to survive as they are (just like all the other species that still exist). While humans and apes likely share a common ancestor, that does not mean that humans evolved from apes, which in turn does not mean that the apes we see today are less-evolved humans--they are a different species. They have evolved to suit their environment, and we have evolved to adapt to ours. Just because an organism branches out in a new direction that doesn’t necessarily mean that the lineage that didn’t go in that direction will die out. Apes are doing just fine. So are spider monkeys. So are orangutans. They all still mate. The fact that apes still exist is actually an expected outcome of natural selection, not a surprise.

Some species are not so lucky and actually do die out. Many more would if it weren’t for the intervention of humans trying to preserve them. In fact, there are over 1,500 species currently considered “endangered” or worse, and the vast majority of species to have ever existed on Earth are already extinct. Even if you’re under the impression that this planet is a mere 6,000 years old, we have fossils of countless extinct species and many more are going extinct on a continuous basis.

As for “bad” mutations not being weeded out, the advances of society and technology are to blame when it comes to humans. 10,000 years ago, I probably would have had no chance of procreating since I have both auditory and visual deficiencies and hearing aids and glasses are relatively recent inventions. Not being able to hear or see predators would clearly put me at a disadvantage, and would likely result in a terribly sad and most unfortunate early death for me. Luckily, human society has evolved in such a way that I might have been able to survive 5,000 years ago as I would have had a family and a tribe of other humans to help protect me. My chances of finding a mate may have been decreased on account of being half-blind and half-deaf, though, so those genes may not have been likely to be passed on (although, given my charming personality and stunning intelligence, I may not have had anything to worry about. Then again, my mustache doesn’t connect to my beard, so it’s possible that the women of 3,000 B.C. would have laughed at me. Who knows?). Today, through the wonders of technology, I am neither half-blind nor half-deaf, and therefore my chances of mating and passing on those somewhat awesome, somewhat messed up genes are significantly increased (get excited, ladies!).

Furthermore, if we were intelligently designed, why are there so many design flaws?  Natural selection allows for imperfections and inconveniences to persist; its only requirement is the ability to survive and procreate at a higher rate than dying. If we were designed by someone with the ability to create us as they saw fit, there’s no reason for us to have even a single flaw, much less a slew of less-than-ideal features. We don’t have 360 degree vision. Our knees are notoriously unreliable. We suffer from countless diseases that we’re unable to fight off naturally. We have an organ, the appendix, that no longer serves a purpose other than to spontaneously decide to EXPLODE in an apparent attempt to kill us. While the vagina is great for sex, it’s rather ill-equipped for childbirth, which is something that is necessary for life to continue and yet is one of the most painful experiences in the world. It gets the job done, sure. But that is not something that any intelligent designer would consider an ideal way to give birth. Also, as a friend of mine so eloquently put it: what kind of designer puts a playground in the middle of a sewage plant?  Location, location, location.

Also, shit smells. Don’t tell me an intelligent designer would think it a good idea for us to naturally excrete some of the most awful-smelling emissions possible every single day. Farts are one of the most annoying things in the world. They smell awful, yet they’re unavoidable. They cause discomfort when you have to hold them in, but when you release them you have to deal with that terrible smell, and this happens all the time!  Even if you’re the only one that smells your farts it’s still not a victimless crime. Thankfully we live in an age of ceiling fans and air fresheners, so it’s possible to take a shit without gravely annoying anyone who has to pass in the proximity of bathrooms (and for the record, I manage such issues well as my mother taught me good manners), but just think about how annoying it was to take a shit for the majority of history. I mean, would you want to have to trek out to the outhouse in the middle of the winter every time you had to drop a deuce?  Your choice was either that or using a bedpan and stinking up the whole house. Forgive me for being crude if you’re offended by this discussion, but this is a serious point: an “intelligent” designer would not put all of humanity through all of this complete nonsense every freaking day. Why couldn’t He make farts smell like apples?  We know they had apples in the Garden of Eden, so that scent was available to Him. He had the whole digestive system thing worked out where we eat food, process what we need, and get rid of the rest, yet he for some reason decided that we should be eternally tormented by the scent of shit rather than apples?!  Why would He even make gas a byproduct of digestion to begin with?  It wasn’t enough to excrete solid and liquid waste, we had to include gas, too?  Intelligent my ass (I would add “pardon the pun” here, but I kinda liked that one. Also, my sense of humor sometimes coincides with that of a child).

Furthermore, why create so many species that are nothing but detrimental to humanity?  This includes mere annoyances such as flies and mosquitoes as well as legitimate threats to human life such as sharks and mountain lions. The Bible claims that God made man in His image and 99.9% of its contents are about humans, so if you buy into the Bible you must therefore buy into the idea that humans have a greater place in this world than the rest of the animal kingdom and that Earth was created specifically for humans. You can explain the existence of cows and sheep and goats and other livestock from a creationist point of view, but you can’t explain mosquitoes. Not only are they annoying to absolutely everyone who has ever walked on this planet, they’re deadly when they carry around malaria. Again--this is the product of an “intelligent” designer?

Anyway, If you still doubt the plausibility of natural selection, I recommend checking out some of Richard Dawkins’ works. He’s an evolutionary biologist who has spent pretty much his entire career advancing this theory, and some of the paragraphs above borrowed liberally from his writing. To my knowledge, he has an answer to all rebuttals of natural selection.

Clinging to Intelligent Design as your theory of choice when explaining life on Earth may have been acceptable before Darwin gave us an infinitely better answer (I say “infinitely” because we actually have evidence for evolution), but today it’s just a sign of ignorance.


  1. Hey Kyle. I heard about your blog and started reading it. I would actually like to sit down sometime and just have a good scientific/rational discussion sometime over a beer or two...or three... (trying to keep religion out of it as much as I/we can). This topic in particular is one I spent a lot of time researching in my younger years :c) I have read most of Richard Dawkins' works, as well as Stephen Jay Gould (if you haven't read him, you should) and Stephen Hawking (woah...Stephen Jay Gould + Richard Dawkins = Stephen Hawking?? maybe?? no...ok...).

    Anyways, the biggest one I haven't read of his is The God, I may be missing some of his arguments. Like you said, most of what you talk about up above is taken straight from his works...and I would say there are plenty of holes in his arguments; just as many as there are in any other theory out there (Christianity included). I would recommend watching a DVD called "Unlocking the Mystery of Life"...while it certainly is not definitive, and has a number of flaws in it, it is also very educational.

    I'm sure that there are few things that could be said on either side that would really sway the opinion of the other, but good healthy debates are always good to have now and then, right :c)

    Either way, while I am saddened that you have chosen to become an atheist, I hope you know I wouldn't ever shun you or discard our friendship over it. I know that we could sit down and debate about the subject and not let things get personal.

  2. I would love to get a beer with you sometime and discuss life, the universe, and everything. Discussions with people on the other side of the fence are just as interesting as discussions with like-minded people, and I completely agree that "good healthy debates are always good to have." You're one of the most intelligent people I know, and I'd love to get your take on things. As you say, chances are that neither of us will change our minds, but enhanced understanding is pretty much always a good thing :-)