This Friday, February 12, is Darwin Day, the birth date of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). It’s an occasion celebrated around the world for revealing the truth about who we really are and what we’re really like—so say Darwin’s more aggressive followers. Look at yourself in the mirror. You’re just an animal, and a poorly made one, at that. You are the product of “unintelligent design.”
But perhaps, on this occasion of Darwin’s birthday, might it not be worth asking, is what they say true?
Let’s examine the rhetoric of one of the more articulate and media-savvy of those who express this viewpoint, professor of psychology Dr. David Barash. A couple of years ago he 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.
More recently, in the Wall Street Journal, the prolific Dr. Barash 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 a theological document, the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), while skipping over modern scientific evidence of intelligent design (ID) altogether. I’m sorry to say this is typical of many who criticize ID. But leave that aside.
In the article, Barash reviews two new books that describe the evolutionary mess that our bodies are – a hodgepodge, so this view insists, 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 itself makes the case 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 70 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 flaked 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 is our capacity for abstract thought, an activity you and I are engaged in right now, and our incredible fine-motor skills. Think concert pianist.
On that note, happy Darwin Day, and I do mean happy. Before allowing some evolutionists to get us down and 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 holds a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Washington and is a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute.