If your eye’s are watering at the moment then that’ll be the effect of the smoke coming from the burning straw men over at the otherwise usually reliable Counterknowledge where Greg Stevens has decided to give evolutionists a lesson in faulty logic and reasoning… and not in quite the way he thinks he has:
A favourite parlor game of evolution supporters is pointing out examples of inefficient “design” in biological organisms. In mammals, the retina is actually backwards, forcing the optic nerve to pass through the back of the eye and creating a “blind spot” in the visual field. The appendix in humans appears to serve no function other than the possibility of becoming inflamed and (potentially) causing death. And then there is the vagus nerve…
Calling it a ‘favourite parlour game’ is a stretching a point.
It’s an argument that crops up in and around debates relating to so-called ‘intelligent design’ (aka Creationism-lite) in the context of arguments relating to ‘irreducible complexity’, in which proponents of creationism announce that certain things that are (alleged) too complex to have evolved, like the eye or the flagella molecular motor, a hence must have been designed by an intelligent designer (aka god) and biolologists then demonstrate that the opposite is true. Think of it in terms of a game of Whack-A-Mole for evolutionary biologists and you’ve got the general idea.
One of the side-games in this debate is what could be called the ‘argument from inefficient design’.
Some of the ‘design’ elements in humans are, shall we say, a touch eccentric (i.e. vagus nerve) or entirely redundent (nipples on men, the appendix, etc.) and this, its suggested, indicates that its actually highly unlikely that humans were designed because the incorporation of thes features doesn’t make sense, and its that argument that Greg takes issue with…
So here is the question, often unstated but always implied by evolution advocates: Don’t proponents of “intelligent design” have to explain why organisms have these apparent “design blunders”?
NO, THEY ABSOLUTELY DO NOT.
This ridiculous claim has been made or implied by Dawkins, Gould, and many other “big name” supporters of evolution. And it is completely wrong.
Oh… well, let’s see the argument then…
First of all, have you ever created a universe? No? Then you really have no idea what all of the factors are that a Creator may have been trying to balance and take into consideration when devising the “optimal” universe. I don’t mean this in a weird mystical “God works in mysterious ways” sense: I mean it in a real practical sense.
Which is correct… provided you accept that this hypothetical creator is limited to working within the constraints of an ‘optimal’ physical universe.
This is fine if you’re postulating a ‘Men In Black’ type scenario in which the universe was created by super-intelligent alien scientists from a higher dimension but it creates a problem if what you’ve actually got in mind in the infinite and omnipotent creator of Judeo-Christian myth because, as should be obvious, a ‘god’ who has to operate within finite limits is neither infinite nor omnipotent.
And that’s the nub of the argument here, a ‘god’ who has to worry about the practicalities of universe design is not the all-powerful interventionist personal just-say-the-word-and-it-will-done god of the Abrahamic traditions but, at best, your basic ‘fire and forget’ deist creator of the universe so beloved of some 18th century philosophés and the occasional liberal theologian, a creator who is a long way from what the vast majority of creationists have in mind.
Having missed that rather fundamental point, Greg goes on to compound his own somewhat wooly thinking with a brief leeson in basic embryology:
The vagus nerve passes through the aortic loop because that’s how it develops embryonically. The fact that it has to get “stretched” to ridiculous lengths in giraffe necks is inconvenient, sure; but (one could imagine) it would be entirely more inconvenient for a “designer” to have to completely re-think the entire process of embryonic development just because of one long-necked species.
But, again, there would only be an ‘inconvenient’ design overhead in re-thinking the process of embryonic development if the ‘designer’ is subject to the limitations of working within the physical universe and is, therefore, neither omnipotent nor omnicient – why should re-thinking the process of embryonic development prove inconvienient to an all-powerful god who sees all and knows all?
Greg saves his most basic error for last…
When it comes down to it, though, evolution supporters are falling into exactly the same trap that they accuse their creationist brethren of. When the tables are turned, this is what supporters of evolution call the “argument from ignorance“. Creationists say: “We do not understand how X could have evolved, therefore it must have been created on purpose.” Evolutionists say, “We do not understand why X would have been designed, therefore it must not have been created on purpose.”
Both of these arguments are bad, because they pre-suppose that our current state of understanding (or lack thereof) has some higher theoretical significance or explanatory power. “I do not understand” should never be the basis of an explanation of anything.
Greg’s correct in saying that ‘I do not understand’ should never be the basis of an explanation of anything, but that’s not the argument that evolution leads one to.
Evolution is algorithmic process of cumulative random mutation and natural selection in which the question of ‘why’ something evolved in a particular way is meaningful only in a very limited, finite sense. For any given pheontypic feature, evolution presents two possible answers as to ‘why’ it evolved in the form it did; either the feature (and/or one or more of the intermediate stages in its development) confered a survival/procreative advantage on the creature that possessed it, or the feature confers no particular survival advantage but was fortunate enough to arise in an ancenstral creature whose other features gave it an edge over the competition.
While we can speculate, using hindsight, reason and our understanding of the observable natural world around us, as to why a particular evolutionary innovation may have given a particular ancentral species an edge at a particular stage in its development, the precise reasons why that innovation may easily remain elusive and yet that in no sense diminshes the explanatory power of the neo-Darwinian synthesis – the evolutionary algorithm does what it does whether or not we understand the precise reasons why certain innovations prove to be more successful than others and its enough simply understand that to explain where we’ve come from and why we are here.
To a Darwinian there is no great cosmic purpose to life that requires explanation or understanding and, as such, we can simply relax and get on with life, pursuing our own small purposes, without ever finding the need to understand where we fit into the grand scheme of things… because there is no grand scheme of things.
By understand how we got here – evolution – we have no need to try to understand why and, consequently, no need for god or the god hypothesis.
That’s the point that Greg rather misses in all this, evolution may not demonstrate that god categorically does not exist, but what it does show is that even in the unlikely event that there is a creator of some description, that creator is of no relevance whatsoever to who we are or what we make of our lives. Nietzche was wrong, god isn’t dead, he/she/it is just completely irrelevant.