Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Unintelligent Design

Last week, I found myself in the most amusing of discussions with a proponent of the so-called Theory of Intelligent Design. I've enjoyed arguing against this watered-down little brother of Biblical Creationism since I first came across it, and certainly jumped at the chance to do so with Grinning Devotee.

The conversation followed the normal gyrations - first, he put it to me that evolution was "just a theory", which didn't comprehensively account for the complexity of the human body - a creation so marvellous that it must warrant a designer. Ignoring the logical follow-up question ("who designed the designer?"), I argued that there was no real evidence against the theory of evolution, other than the spurious claim that anything complex must have been consciously created or designed rather than having painstakingly evolved via natural selection. Finally, he turned the accusation around. "What evidence is there, looking at the extraordinary complexity of the human body, that it wasn't designed by a higher intelligence?", he challenged.

And this is where it got fun. The human body is a veritable laundry list of unintelligent features, just a few of which are provided below for your consideration.

Appendixes: First on the list would have to be an organ which, despite serving no discernible function, can explode, flood our bodies with poison, and kill us in a matter of days. Intelligent Design disciples have consistently had difficulty providing any explanation for the inclusion of this vestigial organ in an intelligently-designed human body.

Hemorrhoids: Yes, hemorrhoids. Apart from being painful, the humble hemorrhoid is renowned for occurring exclusively in humans. As the only truly bipedal mammals, humans have evolved in one distinctly unintelligent way. Think about it - can you name another mammal whose anus is directly below its centre of gravity?

Semen Allergy: Referred to in medical circles as Human Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity, this condition causes around 5% of women to have an allergic reaction to proteins in their partner's semen. The reaction can involve anything from redness and itching, to hives, blisters, and even anaphylactic shock. It's hard to think of a less intelligent factor to include in human reproduction.

Maternal Mortality: On the note of women's health, the WHO estimates that the lifetime risk of death caused by pregnancy and childbirth is a whopping 1 in 16 for women who don't have access to modern medical techniques such as Caesarean sections and blood transfusions. This rate is a great deal higher in humans than in other mammals. It's easy to see why. Our brains and heads have evolved rapidly to become much larger than the heads of any other ape, whilst our pelvises are disproportionately small.

Wisdom Teeth: This item should come as no surprise to anyone who's visited their dentist for the painfully expensive, and just plain painful experience of having these yanked out of your head. These teeth are thought to be vestigial remnants of a larger human jaw, containing more teeth for crushing and chewing plant matter, but now they essentially serve the function of creating wealth in the dental industry, and providing mortifying pain and infection to a large proportion of human adults. Archaeologists examining mass graves from the middle ages have surmised that the majority of (non-accidental) adolescent deaths from the period were probably caused by major impaction of the third molars. In terms of the debate at hand, it seems ironic that they're called wisdom teeth.

The Human Spine: In the course of their lives, up to 90% of adults will experience back pain. For many, the pain will be severe, and debilitating enough to cause significant problems with mobility, work, leisure and sleep. As far back as 1951, the late-great anthropologist and anatomist W.M. Krogman argued that the high incidence of vertebral problems in humans, which is not observed in other animals, can be attributed to the failure of the human spine to adequately adapt to walking upright. As he noted in Scientific American "the result is some ingenious adaptations, not all of them successful".

and finally...

Cancer: It's hard to argue that there's anything intelligent about cells which can be genetically programmed to turn into fatal tumours.

Grinning Devotee was amused, but unconvinced by the evidence of poor planning entailed in the human body. He said;

"You can't get pissed at God for everything that can go wrong with a good design."

"On the plus side", I said, "if you believe in evolution, then you don't need to get pissed with God at all."

"Ah," said Grinning Devotee. "Now you're just trying to be clever."

How intelligent is Intelligent Design?