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?


  1. You sound young.

    Do you believe that everything exists because of chance? Are you a believer of the Big Bang theory and evolution?

    Do you know what the above really means?

    1. That at one point there was nothing, and somehow there was something.

    2. That something expanded to be a lot of things.

    3. Then, one non-living cell became a living cell.

    4. The living cell expanded and became many cells.

    5. These multi-cells became so many complex living things - plants, fish, animals, etc .. with complex systems that work so well together ... ex: circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive system, nervous system, muscular system, etc...

    6. don't forget how well the rest of the universe fits together ... nature, gravity, the solar system, the galaxies, etc

    Do you know the probability of any one of the above occuring? And the probability of ALL of them occuring??? To me, it's like finding an exact duplicate of urself, which is an impossibility ... that itself is so amazing.

    Regards, Thomas

  2. Thanks for commenting, Thomas. As I see it, in a theoretically infinite universe, across an infinite time period, even the least likely of events will happen. Certainly, it's incredible that life did manage to evolve on Earth, but it's not quite as simple as you state. The Big Bang may not be a one-off event - it's been theorised that the Big Bang was merely the "latest" Big Bang, as the universe may go through cycles of expansion and contraction. Obviously I'm no astrophysicist, but it seems more plausible to me than the idea that there was nothing, and then "a designer" (in the nothingness) created the universe.

  3. If I roll a 1 million sided dice and get the number 471,243 can I claim that it must have been god choosing that number, because the chance of that happening was a million to one?

  4. Dawkins has followed the advice of his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould and refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because doing so would give them the "oxygen of respectability" they crave.

    He suggests that creationists "don't mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public.

  5. I have just heard Christopher Hitchens talk about how religion poisons everything and he is absolutely right. These beliefs are based on such monumental stupidity that it is hard to put intelligence in the same sentence. Well spoken

  6. Thanks, Tilda. I read Hitchens' book "Why God is Not Great (how religion poisons everything" and found it pretty hard to argue with.

  7. My interpretation of an ID model: The probability that life would exist on earth is so small that there must have been a creator.

    First of all, I'd like to say that simply because a probability is small, doesn't mean the thing won't happen, whether it be an infinitesimal probability, the argument takes a gamble, which I think the promoter neglects. In fact, I know he/she neglects it, he is arguing that GOD EXISTS, not that there is a 99.99..% chance that God exists. (It's like saying, I know I'm going to win the bet, which he doesn't, even though he might bet the house and the kids).

    My interpretation of a typical rebuttal involving evolution: Evolution is the process by which intricacy was arrived at, therefore there is no need for an intelligent creator.

    To that, an intelligent ID'ist might ask: What is the probability that a zillion years ago, spacetime would have the capacity for a situation ripe for evolution. (With the implication that, the probability is so small, yet again, there must have been an intelligent creator)

    Regarding the intricacy of watches and people on planet earth as justification for the existence of a creator based on the idea that it is unlikely to occur otherwise is a many-flawed argument yes, and is moot. The other side of the argument is also moot, evolution may have been the process by which intricacy was arrived at, but what deserves most attention is, what makes evolution possible? What gave matter the potential to spring to life?

    Is it that "in a theoretically infinite universe, across an infinite time period, even the least likely of events will happen."

    I'm not sure that's correct, no matter how long my computer sits on my table, it will never morph into a winged-octopus. (Not sure what this entails)

    In response to Thomas "1. That at one point there was nothing, and somehow there was something."

    and clever-bitch

    "The Big Bang may not be a one-off event - it's been theorised that the Big Bang was merely the "latest" Big Bang, as the universe may go through cycles of expansion and contraction."

    I see two alternatives here, matter always existed, expanding and contracting, or, there was nothing and then there was something. I believe that either the "nothingness" or the "everlasting matter" possessed the ability to carry out the process of evolution, so the evolved ID argument is: What is the probability that spacetime would have the capacity for life?

    Maybe what I'm saying is that ID arguments are so incredibly absurd, sadly, if their rebuttals assume that 'the probability that life would exist is very small', they are also absurd.
    Many unfinished thoughts here sorry, just touching on a few things, hope you aren't too bored or offended, not enough time to think, all of this could be wrong, nothing is set in stone until the knot is tied!

  8. Thanks for commenting Mr Macdougall.
    "What gave matter the potential to spring to life?" -- Check out the Urey-Miller experiment, which showed that amino acids (the "building blocks" of life, if you will) can be created by a combination of gases including methane, infused with an electrical charge. The experiment mimicked the conditions of the early earth, and at least to non-believers such as myself provides a great answer to how life could have allegedly "sprang from nothing".

  9. Hello there. Clever Bitch is right. The big bang theory has many parameters. Actually the string theories, M-theory, the quantum foam phenomenon, gravity all suggest that we are not the only universe out there. We are part of a multiverse where in some universes there is life whereas in other universe there is not. The big bang is merely a quantum fluctuation out of the quantum foam. There is no such thing as "nothing" in physics. We use this word in a different way to make sense of our world. We seek causal relationships for something infinite , the universe, and this logic does not apply there. Our logic is a construct of the macrocosmos and some things work way different and less deterministic and teleological in the sting world, the quantum world...

  10. 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. removing wisdom teeth