Dealing with “Unintelligent Design”

16 05 2007

The June issue of Natural History is now out, and in addition to a wonderful story on the La Brea Tar Pits Richard Milner brings us a summary of the recent spate of Dover/evolution vs. ID books that have been cropping up entitled “Darwin in Court.” Chances are you already know the story of the Dover Trial or own some of the books Milner mentions, but in the middle of his article he touches on something far more important. As much as I enjoyed Randy Olson’s film Flock of Dodos, my least favorite part involved the discussion of “unintelligent” design in rabbits; I felt that it was a bit of a diversion and overall the argument doesn’t really work. Milner seems to agree;

When rabbits chew and swallow their veggies, [James] Hanken explains in the film, they shunt the food past both large and small intestines to a special fermentation pouch, known as the cecum, from which they expel marble-size pellets called cecotropes. Then, at night, you pet bunny eats its own droppings. This time, however, they are processed in the intestines, where the half-digested food is absorbed, and the resulting waste discharged as true feces. Who know? Olson’s night-vision camera show a rabbit filmed in the dark, and, sure enough, you can actually see what’s up doc. “For every example of intelligent design in nature,” says Hanken, “I can cite you ten others of unintelligent design.”

But that’s just one way of looking at it. The rabbit works well enough to have survived, after all, so it must be a successful design-no matter what we might thank about the “intelligence” of a design that requires an animal to eat its own excreta. Indeed, it is peculiar for a biologist to maintain that some living things are less intelligently designed than others. If all biological systems arose from natural, mechanistic processes, they’re all unintelligently designed.

Although the phrase “intelligent design” does invite “unintelligent design” as its opposite, the operative word is “design.” Creationists believe that you can’t get something as complicated and finely tuned as a rabbit through unplanned, intermediate steps. The greater the intricacies, they insist, the higher the intellect must have been to create it. That biologists think that they could improve on the design of the rabbit is ultimately no answer to the creationists’ argument, particularly if the improvements merely reflect human prejudices about what is an optimal or beautiful design.

Did you catch the straw man in there? I doubt that Hanken considers some organisms to be intelligently designed and others not (if he did he would be an ID advocate), but rather that examples of “unintelligent design” are much more widespread than the handful of old-reliables like the flagellum which ID advocates love to cite. Nor do I think Hanken was suggesting that biologists could do better (or would even want to) when it comes to biological systems, and in that sense Milner is way off the mark.

Milner is right, however, in that when we start to get into the good design vs. bad design argument we are, in a way, throwing creationists a bone. Once we breach that territory the argument is no longer about how the systems came about, but rather how efficient or “good” we deem them to be. For this, there is no standard, and of course an animal that eats its own cecotropes (or simply poop to the uninitiated) would seem like an inefficient or overall repulsive design. The rabbit, however, doesn’t seem to mind and gets along just fine, and in such cases creationists often cite the idea that you can only do so much with certain forms to gain certain functions. I do not have it handy at the moment, but in Lee Stroble’s Case for a Creator an example of a laptop computer is given; you want the screen to be so large, but you need to have the rest of the computer correspond in size and have the requisite hardware, which requires space, as well as having space for the hard drive, disk drives, etc., and so while we could argue that a computer with a bigger screen or more internal memory is “better” it might not have been possible given certain constraints put on the particular model being discussed.

Rather than giving creationists the opportunity to delve into such a discussion, why not simply leave out the question of “unintelligent design”? As mentioned earlier, once we start debating what is good or bad design we need to qualify what we mean by that and not merely go with our own anthropocentric opinions of what is good vs what is repulsive or wasteful. Simply put, the “bad design” argument is not a winning one and I don’t see it convincing those who already suppose that design exists; in fact, arguing good design vs. bad design is actually letting creationists get their foot in the door to say “Aha! So all else being equal, we can agree that there is design!” In a way, the “bad design” argument is more of a tactic that would be expected to promote atheism to promote science; the underlying point of the attempted exercise is to convince listeners that if a designer created such a gross or inefficient system, they must be somehow mentally deficient and therefore not the all-knowing, all-powerful, or benevolent God that many believe in. In a philosophical or theological debate, it’d be interesting to see how such a view would play out, but I don’t think it has any place in scientific discourse or should be relied upon as an effective debate tactic in confronting creationism.


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4 responses

16 05 2007
Chris Harrison

I think we talked about the usefulness of “unintelligent design” in ID debates a few months ago, but I just wanted to suggest that Olson’s inclusion of the shit eating rabbit scene was probably an attempt to garner laughs. I don’t think his goal there was to present a good argument against ID.

16 05 2007
utenzi

Anyone that believes in ID is doing so on Faith and any logical argument, no matter how elegant or well laid out is just not going to work. Faith will trump logic every time for those that subscribe to that type of religious belief. Why waste the time debating them? Maybe populating school boards with rational people would be a better use of time.🙂

16 05 2007
laelaps

You’re right Chris; we did discuss it after a discussion I had with my wife on the topic. I know the inclusion of the rabbit was an attempt to get humor, but the humor was supposed to make the (pardon the analogy) scientific topic more digestible for public consumption.

Whether it was an effective argument aside, I just felt that the film somewhat lost its momentum during that scene; it just seemed that more time was spent on it with the producer waiting for the rabbit to eat a cecotrope than was really necessary.

16 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment utenzi. You’re right in that ID/creationism is faith-based, and I wrote this post more as advice to avoid a trap rather than as instruction on how to win the argument. I agree that public debates between scientists and creationists usually do little more than give credibility to the creationists, but the “unintelligent design” argument does come up in magazines, blogs, books, and film often enough that I think it needed to be addressed.

You’re right about school boards as well; it’s absolutely amazing how many creationists show up on school boards and try to get creationism into the classroom (despite organizations like the DI howling that ID shouldn’t be taught in the classroom). Even where creationism is not prevalent, elementary science certainly needs to be rescued from apathy.

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