ID’s problem is not particularly poor design, but the evident cause of “poor design”

…The key to intelligent-design theory is not whether a “basic structural plan is the obvious product of design.” Behe, DBB, 223.

Let’s try this idea out on real science:  The key to evolutionary theory is not whether a basic structural form is the obvious product of evolution.

What?  Could anything be less scientific than claiming that finding the “obvious product” of design (or evolution) is not the key to ID (or to evolutionary theory)?

The context indicates that Behe just wants to insist over and over again that “irreducible complexity” is evidence for design, which, if it was, would mean that intelligent people would never have accepted evolutionary theory.  More importantly, if “irreducible complexity” indicated any sort of design, surely it would be accompanied by the obvious products of design–if by “design” we mean anything that is at all within our sphere of observation.  Back when ID was honest, if not especially coherent or cogent, Rev. William Paley wrote something quite the opposite of what Behe wrote:

Ought it then to be said, that though we have little notion of an internal mould, we have not much more of a designing mind?  The very contrary of this assertion is the truth.  when we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience.  We use no other terms, than what refer us for their meaning to our consciousness and observation… Natural Theology

But you know, since design is not a comprehensible explanation, Behe et al. have to reverse Paley, and insist that the incomprehensible (as they portray the mere gaps in our knowledge) is the mark of design, thus easily putting ID into the same category as “internal moulds” and Lamarckist conceptions of evolution.

A little later than the quote that begins this post, Behe is complaining that Ken Miller demands perfection from “the designer,” and suddenly finds human design to be analogous (showing how incoherent he is).  That is, humans often make designs which are not optimized, so why not build the retina of the eye backwards in vertebrates (Miller was arguing that the backward retina is contrary to design), even though it is the “right direction” in cephalopods?  Well, apart from the fact that the IDists’ “designer” is God, clearly any entity having the intelligence to design the immune system could surely think well enough to put the retina in properly, instead of backwards.

Nevertheless, I do not especially like the “backward retina” argument against design, mainly because that fact means almost nothing except that the eye was not designed.  While it is well and good to point out that life was not designed, ID has never once had any scientific argument, nor any realistic shot at fooling more than a few biologists into thinking that it was.  Both for public relations, and for maintaining the integrity of science, what we have to do is to show that evolutionary theory explains life.  The “backward retina” is not readily shown to be the result of evolution (evidence from the time when it was fixed is scant, at best), while other “poor designs” are.

 In this linked post I made the point that pterosaur and bat wings are “poorly designed” next to bird wings. Again, though, that is only the minor issue pointing to the greater issue, which is that, for example, bat wings are simply the way that they are because of the constraints imposed by (unguided) evolution upon the modification of mammal forelimbs into wings.  The problem that IDists need to explain is why “design” follows constraints of evolution, not the constraints of any known intelligence, when it produces bat wings.  Any number of factors might cause a designer to produce a less than stellar design, of course, so the important question is why the only identifiable factors behind “poor design” in organisms are the constraints of unintelligent evolution.

Moving beyond that post, however, it is important that “poor design” is found rather more often just where one would expect in evolution, during the transitional periods.  Archaeopteryx has many of the advantages of birds, including the feathers which are sculpted into the wonderful avian aerfoil wing.  Yet it is not at all as efficient or “well designed” as modern birds are, whether because of its heavy teeth and jaw (by comparison to modern birds’ light bills, that is), its bony tail, or the fact that it lacked the “ligament-based force balance system” (Nature) that makes modern bird flight less work than it was for Archaeopteryx.

One could look at any of the major changes in form and lifestyle and see there fulfilled the predictions of evolution that “incomplete optimization” during the transitional period of complex is inevitable, whether it is the transition of fish to tetrapod, tetrapod to whale, or dinosaur to bird (actually, genetic evidence suggests that bats flew prior to evolving sonar, so this too would be an incomplete transition at least for the sonar-using bats.  Without fossils of the transition, though, I only include this likely example parenthetically).  Obviously I could belabor the point and dig up the details of the transitions, however these would not add much to the argument. 

The fact is that while human designs do undergo transitions in which they are not optimized, there is nothing in human design like the millions of years of suboptimal “design” which afflict evolutionary transitions.  Their designer-God certainly would not be expected to be troubled by the trial-and-error methods that humans utilize.  Only evolution is expected to transition between modes of life via often-poor, evolutionarily constrained “body plans,” and only it could predict that bat wings will not show any kind of “common authorship” with bird wings subsequent to bird and bat lines diverging.

It is no wonder that Behe tries so hard to ignore the many practical tests of evolution, and to replace these with impractical tests which require lost evidence in order to work.  What else can he do?  He cannot point to any “obvious product of design” in life (save what we have genetically or otherwise modified), nor can he explain anything via “design” that evolution not only explains, but predicts–from the lack of common authorship of changes after divergence in (primarily) vertical-inheritance organisms, to the enduring “poor design” of bat wings, and on to the “poor designs” of Archaeopteryx which are based on the fact that it was still a dinosaur that was yet evolving its flight abilities.

There does not seem to be any other pseudoscience which tries so hard to bypass all of the reasonable tests of both itself and its “rival.”  Perhaps this is because no idea held by millions of people has been debunked in so many ways, and with so many examples, as ID/creationism has been.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

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