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Are Our Bodies the Product of “Unintelligent Design”?


A couple of years ago prominent evolutionary biologist David Barash opened a remarkable window on his classroom teaching. Writing in the New York Times, he described a yearly talk — “The Talk” — he gives to his students at the University of Washington. In The Talk, he explains why Darwinian theory, if faced squarely, undermines belief in a “benevolent, controlling creator.”

His candor is to be commended. Many biology students likely receive a similar message, perhaps more implied than explicit, from their teachers. But what about the conclusion he draws? Does what we know about biology run counter to the idea of purpose or design behind life?

In the Wall Street Journal, the prolific Dr. Barash recently highlighted a particular challenge, as he sees it, to “intelligent design.” I put the phrase in quotation marks because the only example of design thinking he gives goes back well over a century and a half, to the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), while skipping over modern evidence of intelligent design altogether. But leave that aside.

In the article, he reviews two new books that describe the evolutionary mess that our bodies are — a hodgepodge, so this argument goes, of barely good enough solutions to physiological problems, a collection of compromises that leave us prone to injury and disease, according to the authors and according to him. I haven’t read the books in question, but Barash’s piece provides an occasion to examine the often-heard argument for “unintelligent design.”

There’s an undercurrent that runs through that argument, sometimes visible on the surface, sometimes below the water, tugging our feet out from under us. That ripple on the surface goes something like this: our design isn’t perfect. That’s the visible part. Then there’s the undercurrent: If there were an intelligent designer he would have made perfect things. Barash, ever frank, says this directly. Giving examples like the optic nerve and the prostate gland, he says, “An intelligent designer wouldn’t have proceeded this way.” Therefore we are the product of patchwork evolution and there is no designer.

Note, that undercurrent is an assumption. Who knows what an intelligent designer capable of creating life would have done? Theologians who believe the designer is God may argue about that, but science provides no insight.

It’s another assumption that good design never breaks down. Not many human machines can last seventy years without breaking down sometime. A 1940 Cadillac, top of the line, in continuous use, would have needed considerable refurbishing by now to keep it running and looking decent. Its leather seats would likely have cracked and its paint job cracked and dimmed, numerous sets of tires worn out, its brakes replaced numerous times, and its valves and pistons either machined or replaced.

At the same age, many human beings look pretty good by comparison, since we generally keep running without replacement parts long after our warranty has expired.

Any human designer knows that good design often means finding a way to meet multiple constraints. Consider airplanes. We want them to be strong, but weight is an issue, so lighter materials must be used. We want to preserve people’s hearing and keep the cabin warm, so soundproofing and insulation are needed, but they add weight. All of this together determines fuel usage, which translates into how far the airplane can fly. In 1986, the Rutan Voyager made its flight around the world without stopping or refueling, the first aircraft ever to do so. To carry enough fuel to make the trip, the designers had to strip the plane of everything except the essentials. That meant no soundproofing and no comfortable seats. But the airplane flew all the way. This was very special design.

Last, despite what some, like Dr. Barash, would tell you, our bodies are marvels of perfection in many ways. The rod cells in our eyes can detect as little as one photon of light; our brains receive the signal after just nine rods have responded. Our speech apparatus is perfectly fit for communication. Says linguist Noam Chomsky, “Language is an optimal way to link sound and meaning.” Our brains are capable of storing as much information as the World Wide Web.

We can run long distances, better than a horse and rider sometimes. For an amusing comparison of our fastest times compared to various animals, have a look here. But bear in mind, not one of those animals can run, swim, and jump as well as we can.

Then there are our incredible fine-motor skills — think concert pianist — and our capacity for abstract thought, an activity you and I are engaged in right now.

Before allowing some evolutionists to drag us under, let’s remember and be grateful for all the things that go right and work well. Intelligent design does not mean “perfect design,” or “design impervious to aging, injury, and disease.” It means being a product of intelligence, whatever the source might be, giving evidence of care, intention, and forethought, as our bodies surely do.

Ann Gauger

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Ann Gauger is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and Senior Research Scientist at the Biologic Institute in Seattle, Washington. She received her Bachelor's degree from MIT and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington Department of Zoology. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where her work was on the molecular motor kinesin.