What’s up at the Centre for Unintelligent Design?

This picture shows a German postage stamp featuring the Tyrannosaurus rex. Tyrannosaurus rex was a large Theropod dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous Period (around 66 million years ago).

T. rex had arms too short to carry food to its mouth. Intelligent design?

Is the AIDS virus intelligently designed? Casey Luskin, Program Officer of the DiscoveryInstitute’s Center for Science and Culture, certainly seems to think so. Indeed, he could hardly think otherwise, since the virus is full of what he calls Complex Specified Information. But let him speak for himself:

It seems to me to be a virus which is finely-tuned for killing humans. You might not like its function, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t designed. Same goes for guns, nuclear bombs, and genetically engineered viruses. All kill because they were intelligently designed to efficiently carry out that mission.

File:HIV-budding-Color.jpg

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 (in green) budding from cultured lymphocyte. Multiple round bumps on cell surface represent sites of assembly and budding of virions.

This is part of his more general argument, reiterated in the UK by the Discovery Institute’s local franchise, Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design. Casey’s formulation runs as follows:

 We detect design by finding features in nature which contain the type of information which in our experience comes from intelligence. This is generally called complex and specified information (CSI). In our experience, CSI only comes from a goal-directed process like intelligent design. Thus, when we detect high levels of complex and specified information in nature, we can infer that intelligent design.

A powerful syllogism, which can be summarised as follows:

All complex things are either (a) biological or (b) intelligently designed. Therefore all biological things are intelligently designed.

Notice that this is a purely scientific argument, free from religious or other metaphysical overtones. Casey’s Center, like the Discovery Institute that hosts it, is concerned only with science and not at all with religion, which is why it seeks “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” I came across these masterpieces of reasoning when revisiting the Centre for Unintelligent Design, curated by my good friend Keith Gilmour, Religious and Moral Education teacher here in Glasgow, and which houses, among other examples of lack of intelligence, correspondence with Keith from several Intelligent Design advocates.

The star-nosed mole, unintelligently and thus self-referentially selected as the mascot of the Centre for Unintelligent Design. The description of this creature’s foraging reads like an April Fool’s joke, but isn’t.

 The Centre itself is, self-referentially, unintelligently designed. In fact, the examples displayed there have little in common, except that they describe things that one could have imagined better otherwise. Some entries reflect completely unreasonable demands on Nature. Knees that wear out, for example. One could hardly expect them to last forever. Or teeth that rot; but they probably wouldn’t if we would only stick to a palaeolithic diet. Others reflect conflicts of interest between us and other organisms, such as those that cause potato blight (yes, Casey, the blight

File:TrematodesFig9 EncBrit1911.png

Assorted trematode parasites, from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

 

virus is chock-a-block with CSI), herpes, legionnaire’s disease, malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera, tapeworm, athlete’s foot, bubonic plague and countless other highly successful infections. Here, as with the AIDS virus, I have to agree with Casey rather than Keith. The designer, if such there be, has shown no lack of creative intelligence. To take another item from Keith’s list, the intelligence required to design the liver fluke, which goes through seven separate phases and three different hosts, must be very creative indeed.

Most interesting in the present context are those that make sense in terms of evolutionary history, but not otherwise. Of these the most comical (except, perhaps, to a giraffe) is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which happened to go behind the sixth gill arch in our fishy ancestors. No great harm in that. Unfortunately, in mammals the sixth gill arch gives rise to the aorta, so that the combined vagus – laryngeal nerve branch has to loop down to the level of the heart in its path from cranium back up to voice box. A distance, in the case of the giraffe, of some 20 feet, corresponding to a transmission time for a motor nerve of up to a quarter of a second. Fortunate, perhaps, that giraffes are rarely called on to sing Mozart arias. The most ambiguous is the human vermiform appendix, whose main function was at one time thought to be the provision of gainful employment for surgeons. Related to the caecum of our more herbivorous ancestors, it has shrunk to the point where it could not narrow any further without becoming prone to dangerous blockages. However, it is now known to have a function, as a refuge in case of infection for the bowel bacteria on which we depend for digestion. Typical of how a so-called vestigial organ can acquire a secondary role. No plan, just messing around, and what works, works.

Another organ that may have been on the way to becoming vestigial is T. rex’s forearms, too short even to lift food into its mouth. A very recent paper suggests why. Matching up the attachment points on T. rex’s skull to the corresponding muscles in a modern bird (you do admit, don’t you Casey, that birds are descended from dinosaurs?) gives a neck so flexible that the mouth could be used for grasping, making the hands unnecessary for this purpose. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this would have had the further advantage of protecting the tyrannosaur’s moral purity, by preventing it from masturbating.

There are more poignant examples on Keith’s list. I have a son and granddaughter strongly affected by the coeliac condition, in which malabsorption caused by sensitivity to wheat gluten can, unless the diet is modified as necessary, lead to seriously arrested physical and mental development. Such an outcome must have been commonplace during the 10,000 years or so between when wheat became a major part of our diets, and when in the 1940s the cause for the condition was understood.

Even more poignant, how animals, including us, give birth. Through the pelvic girdle, no problem, until brains evolve to the point that heads can only squeeze through with difficulty. An evolutionary process that, of course, happened to coincide with the development of bipedalism, making it impossible to expand the pelvic girdle indefinitely to cope with an enlarging skull. And so we end up with a typical evolutionary compromise; giving birth is an ordeal, but usually takes place without permanent damage. Some difficult births, however, lead to perinatal anoxia, or other forms of brain damage during delivery. To say nothing of death in childbirth, a major hazard to both mother and child until relatively recently. All of which could have been avoided by an intelligent designer simply placing the birth canal above, rather than below, the pubic bone. And anyone who quotes Genesis 3:16 as justification is a moral monster.

HIV image Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library. T. rex stamp through Sciencekids

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 19, 2014, in Creationism, Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very excellent observations, as usual, Paul.

    Like

  2. Brilliant. One thing that is certainly not “intelligent” is intelligence itself. Every generation has to re-learn absolutely EVERYTHING previous generations have bothered to discover, understand, and establish as an approximation of truth.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: