looking for design in all the wrong places…

July 21, 2009

Often, when I write critical comments about creationism aka “intelligent design,” plenty of readers like to ask me how random, unguided forces of evolution could possibly produce creatures that seem to be so perfectly tuned to their environments. Ordinarily, I’d point out that the non-random process of natural selection would quickly eliminate organisms not suited for the ecological niches in which they evolve, but that doesn’t work on creationists. For them, history flows in reverse and every animal has to be predestined to occupy it current niche, otherwise the world makes no sense.

So instead, I try to point out that evolution doesn’t actually produce perfectly tuned organisms and if there’s some grand designer behind every living creature, he would probably get a D for his over-engineered work. Need a few examples? Well, here are a few of my favorites from a list of ten atrocious evolutionary “designs” compiled by Wired Magazine.

4 Giraffe birth canal. Mama giraffes stand up while giving birth, so baby’s entry into the world is a 5-foot drop. Wheeee! Crack.

5 Goliath bird-eating spider exoskeleton. This giant spider can climb trees to hunt very mobile prey. Yet it has a shell so fragile it practically explodes when it falls? Well, at least it can produce silk to make a sail. Oh, wait — it can’t!

8 Slug genitalia. Some hermaphroditic species breed by wrapping their sex organs around each other. If one of said members gets stuck, the slug simply chews it off. What. The. Hell?

And I can think of many more cases in which existing biological structures just don’t seem to be built for the way we use them. Our bodies alone suffer all sorts of ailments from walking upright, sitting for extended periods of time, and having caloric requirements needed for a feral world in which you never know when your next meal is coming, rather than industrialized societies in which food generally comes on schedule.

Here’s what would convince me that there might be some design behind our biosphere. Not only would we share the same structures for transmitting hereditary information and basic genetic toolkits, we would also have very simple, efficient bodies which would be compartmentalized and easily interchanged, like Legos. Rather than praise our over-elaborate complexity as proof of design, maybe, just maybe, creationists should take a few industrial design courses and learn the real hallmarks of good design before trying to look for it in nature.

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  • oregonmjw

    God, where do I begin? Oh, I know:

    “. . we would also have very simple, efficient bodies which would be compartmentalized and easily interchanged, like Legos.”

    What a novel idea! If you want, say, blond hair, you can make an “after market” selection. Of course, we already do that, and it’s called a beauty salon. Bad example. I know: you want the lithe body and powerful legs of a runner? Drat, no need for Lego exchange, just get a Hollywood trainer. We don’t all need to be the same; and efficiency is not all it cracked up to be. Hell, snails can chew off their genitalia if they want.

    The point is that I find the evolutionary development of all things, working in concert with most of the other things to be an extraordinary turn of events.

    Do I subscribe to “intelligent design?” Well, if it’s described as something, someplace set this in motion sometime; probably. Do I subscribe to to the theory (wish fulfilment) of a deity serving in this role? Nah.

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There’s nothing wrong with claiming a little spiritual strength from thinking that you might be part of a greater whole. On to the other hand, buying to the whole enchilada, as they say, can choke you.

    Moderation in all things Greg – except a good wine and good friends. Then you can go crazy.

  • musubk

    I’ve tried to explain to cdesign proponentists that complexity is not an indication of design, and a good design is marked by simplicity, not the overly complex Rube-Goldberg devices we see from evolution. They don’t get it. The fact that their design argument is based on complex=designed requires them to reject it. They’re already sure we were designed, you know, so obviously anything that says otherwise must be wrong and they can dismiss it out of hand.

    Really, you can’t infer intentional design without having some idea of the intent of the designer. That works fine if you believe an old book tells you about the intent of the designer, but completely falls apart with their (dishonest) claim that ‘we make no assumptions about who the designer is, we just know it was designed’.

  • musubk


    Well, if it’s described as something, someplace set this in motion sometime; probably.

    The problem with that is it sets up an infinite regression and we can no longer think of there being a ‘beginning’. If the universe must have been set in motion, then whatever set it in motion must have been set in motion, and so on, ad infinitum. Certainly doesn’t leave room for a deity in the ‘creator’ sense, because that creator needs its own creator.

    The alternative is to throw causality out the window and say that things actually do happen without being caused. This is what people do when they claim a creator made everything, they allow ‘creator’ to violate causality and say it didn’t need a creator. But that’s not parsimonious, you could just as easily say the universe itself didn’t need a creator. that extra step of a deity is unneccesary, it’s just wrapping up the unknown into a little black box called ‘god’ and telling everybody not to look in that box. It doesn’t actually explain anything.

    We don’t really have an objective reason to choose either (infinite regression or acausal), at least not that I know of. Maybe we never will. And both seem rather unsatisfying.
    Not that we should expect the universe to give answers we find intellectually satisfying in the first place…

  • colonelfazackerley

    I learnt a new one of these recently. The Laryngeal nerve goes from the human brain, loops around the aorta and goes back up again. Awesomely stupid ‘design’!

    More incredibly, in the Giraffe is the same. The nerve only needs to go a few centimetres, but instead it travels many metres.

    In common ancestor fish the nerve quite sensibly goes from brain to gills. Now us mammals are complicated, it is tricky to see how incremental steps could untangle the nerve.

    Nice diagram (scroll down to “Diagram of Key Nerves for Voice Production”). Also describes added risks from the complex design.

    I heard about it here
    (Video unfortunately only available in the UK, hopefully, this will reach a US network)

  • oregonmjw

    I see my mistake now. You’re right, of course. Would your theory apply to the Big Bang? I mean, it was a BIG bang – somethng had to triger it. someONE? It’s just impossible for us to get our heads around how all this happens. I’m gonna go view my original Star Trek episodes; see if I can turn up anythng plausible. Gat back to you.

  • musubk


    I’m gonna go view my original Star Trek episodes; see if I can turn up anythng plausible. Gat back to you.


    Yeah, it applies to the big bang too. Everything we see points to it happening, so it’s not really a reason to doubt it. But did it just happen without a cause or did something cause it? The big bang theory tells us more about how the universe has evolved since the ‘beginning’ than it does about the ‘beginning’ itself.

    Let me know if you find anything in Star Trek.

  • musubk

    And it should be noted that we do observe things that happen ‘without cause’, at least as far as we can tell. Radioactive decay is one.

  • Greg Fish

    But isn’t radioactive decay a product of an unstable atom trying to get to a more stable state? Sure, radiation itself is emitted at random intervals but we know that when an atom has more than the 83 protons we find in bismuth, the charge between these protons starts pushing the nucleus apart.