Voilà! Another Pain in the Neck for Intelligent Design

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For those of us who consider the “Theory of Evolution” a figure of speech, not an invitation to call into question the veracity of an established scientific principle—evolution is a fact, not a theory—what the Louisiana State Senate Education Committee failed to do in April was at the very least disappointing, and at most a dangerous example of an unwillingness to accept the world for what it is, and a failure to appreciate the immeasurable value of separating church from state.

In 2008 Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), affording public school teachers and administrators the right to introduce supplemental materials in their classrooms that challenge conventional scientific teaching on subjects like global warming, cloning, the origin of life, and evolution. While opponents have charged that the law is simply a way to sneak creationism and intelligent design into the science classroom, the act states that it will foster “thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories,” and “shall not be construed as to promote any religious doctrine.”

And yet, a lawsuit in Sabine Parish claims that a science teacher taught the infallibility of the Bible, that God created the world in 6,000 years, and that evolution is impossible. Even so, in April the Louisiana State Senate Education Committee voted 3-1 to uphold, for the fourth time, the LSEA.

Scientists, secularists, and anyone else who cares about quality public science education will continue to fight this legislation. In the meantime, if teachers are going to dissect and refute evolution, we should continue to do the same with intelligent design.

Measured against what we actually find in nature, how intelligent are alternative “scientific” theories like intelligent design? If you accept the origin of species by means of natural selection, a whole lot of curious things about the natural world—ourselves included—fall into place. If you attribute the same curiosities to the creative process of a perfect deity, however, things are rather more difficult to explain.

Numerous sources have voiced the idea that much of how things work bespeaks neither high intelligence nor sound design. Complexity and functionlessness seem to be the chief concerns. Why would any natural system or body part that is either unnecessarily complicated or of no discernable use figure into the planning process of a god? Such a deity may have all the time in the world and no doubt never gets bored or tired, but why waste the effort doing things that aren’t imminently practical? Why wouldn’t Occam’s razor be an essential tool in God’s toolkit?

Obviously, those who advocate for intelligent design are the ones declaring that God’s design is intelligent. And whatever else we may mean by intelligence, as per Occam’s principle of economy, the best results of its application always employ the simplest ways of thoroughly answering a question, solving a problem, resolving an issue, or designing an object or system. Mathematicians are so keen on the need of their theorems to exhibit “elegance,” by which they chiefly mean simplicity, that they are uniformly dismissive of any solution that doesn’t display this quality. Engineers, chemists, computer programmers, and for that matter, pretty much anyone involved in doing something benefits from simplicity in problem-solving processes.

One much debated, Occam’s-razor-be-damned counter example: there’s no godly reason why the left recurrent laryngeal nerve (LRLN), which keeps us all from sounding like a whispering Minnie Mouse, has to lasso the heart on its way from the brain to the larynx, a detour the equivalent of driving from Louisville to St. Louis by way of Denver. Evolutionary biologists and creationists (some of whom, strangely enough, are the same person) fire away at one another over things like this. The former claim, “See? This is bad design! There obviously is no God!” Creationists counter with a developmental-constraints argument to explain why God did what he did with this nerve. As the body in the womb continually grows, they contend, everything gradually gets larger and longer. All organs and systems have to be fully functional during every stage of the process, zygote to blastosphere to embryo to fetus. In other words, things must “grow up” together. The LRLN, which branches off from the vegus nerve near the aorta before circling around the aortic arch and heading back up to the voice box, simply gains its unneeded length as it follows the growth of the heart and its placement in the chest cavity. But all this line of reasoning really does is just state the facts. It doesn’t address the question. Of course this nerve becomes extra-long if its destination is in the throat and it peels off at the heart. Why, though, doesn’t it take a more direct route in the first place? In the beginning, what was constraining God from working efficiently?

If I make a mistake near the end of completing a Sudoku board in the AM New York handout commuter paper, and clearly have a “3” in the wrong box somewhere, I can try unraveling it (“ok then, the only other place this 3 can go is here, which means that 7 has to move there but no, it can’t because there’s already a 7 in that completed row, or maybe… damn it, I’m screwed!”). But that never works, and I just have to give up. But if God winds up with a meandering nerve, can’t he figure how to fix it back at the point where the nerve cells begin to differentiate? It’s not like he wouldn’t see the entire ontogenic timeline of this nerve, and that of anything else that may need altering if the nerve were shortened to an appropriate length. This is God we’re talking about, after all. Omni-this, omni-that, omni-everything.

Then there are the testicles descending through the abdomen into the scrotum—or not—and the urethra passing directly through the prostate, resulting in old men all over the world who can’t sit through their granddaughter’s wedding without going to the bathroom five times. Why can’t the fluid secreted by the prostate during ejaculation simply be added to the sperm through ejaculatory ducts as it passes by the prostate, rather than through it, like vehicles entering the freeway from an on-ramp? Would that have been so hard to jigger?

If you persist in belief in intelligent design, then what you have on your hands is a god that just doesn’t care if things get a bit sloppy, inconvenient, potentially embarrassing, possibly dangerous, or downright non-adaptive. His idea of intelligence just isn’t as intelligent as ours.

If the creationists are wrong, if God didn’t design creation, unintelligently or otherwise, we’re saying evolution did? Hardly. Evolution doesn’t design, it is neither intelligent nor unintelligent, it is not purposeful, it is not teleological, it has no “grand plan” for an outcome of nature. It works on what we understand—with confidence—to be random mutations in genes, some of which are destructive, most of which are benign, and a few of which lead to new traits in animals, plants, fungi, and single-cell life forms. Such a trait may afford an organism a competitive advantage in its environment, increasing the likelihood that it will reproduce more successfully than its fellows that don’t carry the beneficial mutation, eventually leading to new a sub-species or an entirely new species. And thus, after 3.5 billion years of mutations—less time than it takes God to drop his razor—voilà! “The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” (As Shakespeare designed Hamlet to say.)  

What, then, of a nerve several times as long as the distance it needs to go? Evolutionary biologists see it as a developmental left-over in modern mammals from the morphology of our antecedents. Or perhaps it’s one of those benign mutations, carried forward through the generations and “tolerated” by evolution because it does no harm—however inelegant it may be.

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