Conversations: Unintelligent Design?


Zoe
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” What do you think about that observation?

Helena
To be honest, one would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.

Sappho
The truth is that, while there are now around three hundred and fifty thousand known species of beetles, God appears to have an even greater fondness for viruses. Biologists estimate that there are at least ten strains of virus for every species of animal on earth. Many viruses are benign, of course, and some ancient virus may have played an important role in the emergence of complex organisms.

Helena
Unfortunately, viruses tend to use organisms like you and me as their borrowed genitalia. Many of them invade our cells only to destroy them, destroying us in the process—horribly, mercilessly, relentlessly. Viruses like HIV, as well as a wide range of harmful bacteria, can be seen evolving right under our noses, developing resistance to antiviral and antibiotic drugs to the detriment of everyone.

Sappho
Evolution both predicts and explains this phenomenon; the book of Genesis does not. How can you imagine that religious faith offers the best account of these realities, or that they suggest some deeper, compassionate purpose of an omniscient being?

Helena
Our own bodies testify to the whimsy and incompetence of the creator. As embryos, we produce tails, gill sacs, and a full coat of apelike hair. Happily, most of us lose these charming accessories before birth. This bizarre sequence of morphology is readily interpreted in evolutionary and genetic terms; it is an utter mystery if we are the products of intelligent design.

Sappho
For instance, men have a urinary tract that runs directly through the prostate gland. The prostate tends to swell throughout life. Consequently, most men over the age of sixty can testify that at least one design on God’s green earth leaves much to be desired.

Helena
And how about us women! A woman’s pelvis has not been as intelligently designed as it could have been to assist in the miracle of birth. Consequently, each year hundreds of thousands of women suffer prolonged and obstructed labour that results in a rupture known as an obstetric fistula. Women in the developing world who suffer this condition become incontinent and are often abandoned by their husbands and exiled from their communities. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that more than two million women live with fistula today.

Zoe
The cure for obstetric fistula is, as it turns out, a simple surgical procedure—not prayer. Nevertheless, there are many people in the world who believe that their humble prayers—directly or by some extension—influences the course of events in the cosmos.

Helena
While many people of faith seem convinced that prayer can heal a wide variety of illnesses (despite what the best scientific research indicates), it is curious that prayer is only ever believed to work for illnesses and injuries that can be self-limiting.

Sappho
No one, for instance, ever seriously expects that prayer will cause an amputee to regrow a missing limb. Why not?

Helena
Indeed! Salamanders manage this routinely, presumably without prayer. If God answers prayers – ever – why wouldn’t He occasionally heal a deserving amputee? And why wouldn’t people of faith expect prayer to work in such cases? There is a very clever Web site devoted to exploring this very mystery: http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com.

Sappho
Furthermore, examples of unintelligent design in nature are so numerous that an entire book could be written simply listing them.

Helena
I will permit myself just one more example. The human respiratory and digestive tracts share a little plumbing at the pharynx. In the United States alone, this intelligent design feature lands tens of thousands of children in the emergency room each year. Some hundreds choke to death. Many others suffer irreparable brain injury. What compassionate purpose does this serve?

Sappho
Of course, we can imagine a compassionate purpose: perhaps the parents of these children needed to be taught a lesson; perhaps God has prepared a special reward in heaven for every child who chokes to death on a bottle cap.

Helena
The problem, however, is that such imaginings are compatible with any state of the world. What horrendous mishap could not be rationalized in this way? And why would you be inclined to think like this? How is it moral to think like this?

Sappho
Furthermore, who wants this to be true?

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 24-25)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

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7 thoughts on “Conversations: Unintelligent Design?

  1. Re bacteria evolving under our noses, this video demonstrates it quite clearly
    https://vimeo.com/180908160 It’s amazing. It takes just 11 days to evolve new bacteria species that can survive 1000x concentration of antibiotics sufficient to kill the original species. That’s a lot faster than “intelligent” humans can design a new kind of antibiotics purposefully working on it 24/7.

  2. Presumably, painful birth is not a design flaw, but a feature intended as a punishment for sins. I suppose, so are viruses, diarrhea, constipation, owl pellets, and other nice stuff. I’m not sure why owls are condemned to suffer, though. But you can’t argue it wasn’t intelligently designed because the purpose of the design is never known and can be assumed to be anything.

    I’m not arguing for intelligent design. I’m just pointing out that you can’t win this argument.

  3. That’s a really good point! Although I feel I can rationalise my efforts by addressing this issue and then moving on. Besides, thinking about ideas however redundant can still be a good mental exercise, not to mention interesting in itself.

  4. The intelligence of the design or the way things shape up is invariably judged by human standards, which is rather like a flea trying to crit a city.

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