Not-So-Intelligent Design

June 30th, 2008

One of the things I’ve always found most persuasive about the Theory of Evolution is that it’s completely amoral. You get a little change in your genetic code, and you live or die depending on one thing and one thing only: whether it works.  Does it let you see better, escape faster, digest more easily, hide more effectively, kill your adversaries?  It all boils down to one single question: is the change more likely to make you an eater or an eatee?

If you’re a marsupial, for example does the modification make it likely that (a) some day the grandchildren will gather around your knee and listen to tales about how you walked five miles to Marsupial School with ten pounds of books in your pouch, or (b) that they’ll walk right past the leftovers of your knee after whatever ate you moved on to find dessert?

It doesn’t matter to evolution whether you were a good kangaroo or a bad kangaroo.  What matters to evolution is whether that extra 1.2% of thigh muscle kept you out of tooth range until you were old enough to breed.

I’m going to come back to this, but I wanted to make the point that amorality is one of the things that makes evolution convincing.  It’ll make more sense later.  Maybe.

Then there’s extinction.  The vast majority of all the life forms that ever walked, slithered, swam, flew over, planted roots in, or burrowed through the earth are extinct.  Poof.  Gone.   Last year’s model.  Elegant, even unique solutions to problems as complicated as sight, hearing, respiration, movement, reproduction – just crunched and tossed on the bonepile like so many biological first drafts.

It may be politically incorrect to suggest that extinct species were somehow inferior – in fact, I’m certain that some dunderhead is just days away from coming up with a PC substitution for “extinct,” something like “mainstream-adjacent” — but the scoop is that extinct species didn’t work. Things ate them. They got so specialized that when their one and only food source disappeared, they starved to death.  They couldn’t move faster than glaciers.  They were too dumb to live.

They were, in short, mistakes.  So if intelligent design is all that intelligent, what’s with all the mistakes?

Umm, maybe try just one thumb?

And, to get back to morality, one assumes that intelligent design was (and presumably still is) implemented and overseen by a Being with the kind of moral fiber that is capable, for one thing, of sorting folks into the line for either heaven or hell.  Since this decision will affect us for a very, very, very, very long time, one hopes that it’s not entirely random – that God doesn’t flip a coin or something, and heads, you’ve got wings, tails you’re the marshmallow at a roast.   We presume there’s a morality at work.  And morality is what makes intelligent design so impossible for me to believe in.

We’re being asked to believe that morally guided intelligent design produced the beings who ran Auschwitz.  That it created a world of nature that, as Lord Tennyson says, is red in tooth and claw.   That it created a race, in humanity, who regularly kill each other by the millions in (often useless) wars.  That it produced Dick Cheney.

Pinnacle of intelligent design?

The only explanation for these phenomena is that the process that created them was not run along moral lines. It didn’t reward saintliness and rebuke bloodthirstiness. In fact, the bloodthirsty are pretty well established at the top of the food chain.  Things with big teeth and a certain amount of cunning won.  They always have.

I mean, isn’t that what the afterlife was supposed to set straight in the first place?

14 Responses to “Not-So-Intelligent Design”

  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I believe “intelligent design” is considered to be a pseudo-science by the scientific community, that a supernatural influence created this existence, many attribute to God. Part of the problem, I believe, is a lack of information. We can’t know all there is to know, so we don’t know what we don’t know. As a Christian, I fill/gloss over the gaps with the label of faith. I’ll just bet that the scientists wish they had such a convenient label-maker.

    And as a Christian, I don’t believe we as a species are in a linear progression to the big end. I don’t think we are evolving morally. Each human has an individual relationship with God. Ergo, I don’t accept a Cheney or a Clinton or a Bush or anyone currently living as our pinnacle.

    I also struggle with the concept of the “big sort at the end”. I’m always getting in the wrong line at the supermarket and the post office. I’ll probably wind up in the wrong line and be too intimidated to raise my hand. I’m hoping for a good line-leader when the day comes.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Cynthia — I plead guilty to being somewhat flip in this piece, but I’ve never understood the fundamentalist problem with evolution, any more than I understand its problems with cosmology and the age of the universe. It seems to me that God, if there is a God, did not create a universe that needs constant intervention in the form of miracles to make progress or simply to stay on track. Evolution (and the Big Bang and the star cycle, for that matter) seem to me to be really elegant mechanisms of precisely the kind an inspired Creator would put into place: He/She wouldn’t just create a static world, but a living, changing world of ever-increasing complexity.

    Here’s Darwin: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    That, to me, has a religious tone to it, and, in fact, many of the greatest scientists are deeply religious. For me, Intelligent Design is a defensive reaction by people who have never actually made an effort to understand Darwin.

    And by saying the Theory of Evolution (or this, or that) can’t be true, it seems to me that they’re in a sense subtracting their way toward God, and if I believed in God I’d add my way toward him, since the only idea of God I can imagine is that He/She is everything.

  3. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Interesting take. I like the analysis using amoral vs. moral. My next non-fiction read is “The God Delusion”, by Richard Dawkins, who’s also written pretty extensively on evolution and other science based topics. My worldview only allows me two possible answers to questions about the origin of the universe and of species and for me it comes down to things that accepted science has proven and “I don’t know” (a perfectly acceptable answer for me). I tend not to express these opinions much in public because I’ve been consistently surprised at the beliefs/certainties many other people have and the emotion that many who subscribe to faith based belief systems often send my way when they find out I’m a non-believer, but your post has inspired me to let it all hang out, so to speak. There have been painful episodes in my life when I’m sure I could have gained a great deal of solace if I could have made a leap of faith and believed that something invisible was directing things, that there is a reason for everything or that perhaps there is some other life where our consciousness exists after this one, but I’ve never been able to do it.

  4. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I don’t think Intelligent Design is as much of an issue over here as it is in the US. I don’t see any evidence that there is an intelligence behind the way the world is and not just because of the moral aspect that you’ve highlighted. Some parts of the world only make sense if we all evolved by trial and error – for example, the appendix.

    I don’t in fact see any evidence at all for the existence of God or gods. There may be superior beings somewhere out there in the universe. Unless they come from a world where symbiosis is the norm I hope that we never meet them.

  5. bets Says:

    It may be surprising that I’m an extremely faithful Episcopalian. I also am a firm believer in Evolution. To me, it makes perfect sense and is a reminder of just how small we are.

    My biggest problem with Intelligent Design is that it relies on some sort of preconceived Fate (and with it to some extent: personal responsibility). That throws Free Will out the window. I think we all have Free Will, from Very Important People right down to the spider I stomped yesterday.

    Hey. The spider CHOSE to come in my house.

  6. M. Y. Aguayo Says:

    I’d say life is perfect with all it’s moral and amoral manifestations. Are we not all energy interacting within our own particular
    reach?

    The soul doesn’t require affirmation. The
    action or non-action of any significant entitiy is merely the expression of life and spirit at play. I don’t just mean the fooling around kind of play. But isn’t that what multiplies?

    How we establish the legacy of existence is
    how we treat the young, the new life. That
    influence carries into the next cycle of life or
    death.

    We are blessed to be participants in this
    complex amoralistic society striving to be clear, hardworking and happy individuals.
    More than that is a very personal quest
    to which few venture. The facts are in
    it is dangerous.

  7. Greg Says:

    He/She is everything? Well, why not? Anything else would be a contradiction in terms and pretty darn disappointing.
    Who wants a third rate Diety? Instead of a Prime Mover we get what, a tertiery mover, something along the lines of Bekins?
    It seems to me that the people who push such contracted views as Intelligent Design are suffering from a decided lack of imagination. As you said, (I think) evolution fits very nicely into a grand scheme.

    I heard a quote, “creation was God playing hide and seek with itself”– inifnite diversity in creation simply because It could.
    I can just see the Diety on the sixth and last day saying, “Okay, I’ve handled the prototypes. And now, for something completely different, I give you– Everything Else (eventually).

    So instead of appreciating the mindboggling vastness of infinite diversity, certain folks feel compelled to dumb it down to the level of ‘Heavenly Father Knows Best’, ascribing a whole set of anthromorphic qualities to a Supreme Being.
    Haven’t we turned the old biblical saw on it’s head and created God in Our image? Doesn’t that make us serious underachievers?
    But we don’t have to settle for that. We can have sublinme or rediculous.
    We can have ‘I Am That I Am’ (God to Moses)
    or, ‘I yam what I yam'(Popeye to Olive Oil)
    Isn’t consciousness cool?
    Let’s rev this thing up and see what she’ll do!
    Intelligent design? Hopefully it’ll go the way of the appendix: A vestigial belief that didn’t make the cut.

  8. Dana King Says:

    Like many, I’ve been immersed in George Carlin for the past week, watching his HBO specials one a night. His relevant thought: If God is perfect, how come everything he makes dies?

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, isn’t this fascinating? When I wrote that piece, I had no idea it would provoke so many interesting responses.

    Absolutely everyone who’s written has made me stop and think. I really wrote the original piece off the top of my head at about 6:50 AM in Seattle, after I’d done a radio interview. But, as sometimes happens, it took on a life of its own as I wrote it, and now it’s out there and all you guys are topping it.

    Lisa, I’m with you. As much as I’d like to be able to turn certain uncertainties over to faith, I can’t do it — and I don’t know why, because if anyone should have faith, it’s I. My life has been one long blessing, and whenever I fell (up till now), I’ve always landed someplace soft. And I agree that it’s generally best to sit on some of your opinions, because there’s no way to know what others believe and no good reason to trample on anyone else’s belief system. Even though I just sort of did exactly that.

    Bets, while I don’t subscribe to any variation of Christianity, I share your belief in the existence (and the necessity, in any world I would want to live in) of free will. To me free will means that our accomplishments are our own, and so are our mistakes, like the one your spider made. A mistake that would have had the same consequences if it had come into my house, too.

    M.Y. (or Maria), those are beautiful thoughts, and I couldn’t agree more that the best way to influence the development of future generations is to be very conscious of how we observe our responsibilities to the young. And even though I’m more of a cynic than you are, I agree that living things, in their purest form, are all perfect, and I like the notion of the spirit at “play,” even if I don’t quite know what the spirit is.

    Greg, I love the phrase, “the mindboggling vastness of infinite diversity,” and if I were to believe in God, I think the God I would believe in would come up with a mechanism capable of creating precisely that. And as the very last act of the seven (metaphorical) days of creation, once he/she had lots of practice and knew his/her chops were really working, I like to believe that God created whatever it is we see in the eyes of the people we love.

    Dana, especially George Carlin. Of all the comedians in the world, why George Carlin? I can’t think of any entertainer I’ll miss more.

    Amazing stuff, everybody — and Cynthia, if those lines to the afterlife exist, I know you’ll be in the right one.

  10. Larissa Says:

    It’s amazing how this topic stirs so much. People come out of the ether to talk about it. Which says more to me than any one idea about the whole thing. To me, the discussion is less about what line we’re standing in when it’s all said and done-there are Christian faiths out there who don’t believe in any line. There is a line in Genesis that says “the soul that sins, itself shall die.” Or something to that effect. It’s up to the reader to dig further and define soul. Regardless, Bible quotes out of it (that’s about the only one I know)-the fact that people talk about it, intelligently, passionately, etc. is more of a testamant to life than anything else. It’s a tribute to our ego as much as it is to our humility. Our ability to realize, or outright deny, that we might not be IT.

    Personally-I was raised in a very “interesting” religious field, one that shaped a lot of my earlier decisions and beliefs. At the same time, now and in this skin, I don’t claim anything. I’m curious. I’m learning. I don’t think that man is the measure but I am far from accepting that God is a one facet low rate diamond. It’s supposed to be the Crown Jewel. Our raison d’etre and there’s only one way to get there? I think life is more like Sudoku. There’s options. Lots of options.

    I might go post about this instead of filling up the comment box…

  11. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Tim: Thank you for your kindness!

    Larissa: Interesting comments. I’ll be heading to your site to dig a little deeper. I didn’t understand the “one facet low rate diamond” analogy. Also, I always thought Sudoku had plenty of options, but only ONE of them was correct. But, I get bored with numbers long before I come close to completing even one of those puzzles. Now, the logic puzzles (John is older than Mary, and has six sisters who are taller than….)

  12. Larissa Says:

    The “one facet diamond” comment was actually based on something I read several years ago…the idea had stuck in my head. I probably should have explained. In awful paraphrase it was talking about our understanding of the unknown, faith, God, etc. and the many faces those things have to different people. It talked about how the idea of looking at through only one viewpoint could, in theory, be like looking at a beautiful diamond as only one facet instead of the many that make it up. It was interesting and not at all talking for or against any one belief. I’m not really either. I’m just interested in how many people come out to express opinions. As far as Sudoku goes, each puzzle has a different right answer. So while in one scope, there is only one answer, in the grand scheme, there are lots of right answers. It was a late night analogy I guess (c: Ok, I’ll let Tim have his blog message window back. (c:

  13. Pia Says:

    There are different branches when it comes to intelligent design. Ranging from those word by word believing the bible and that the world is 6000 years old, others thinking there is a God who created it all.

    The interesting thing is that science never said there is no god, science never stated that God did not start things.

    They do go against the whole notion of the world being only 6000 years old. There’s just too much evidence against it, too many observations and tests made to make that likely. And this is when we have Creationists coming with their comments that God placed the dino bones in the ground so humans would have a puzzle to solve and what not. Those discussions can be entertaining to read at times because people in their arguments and counter arguments ends up becoming emotional and their answers just more and more vague and sought. Like they capture themselves in a quicksand where they dig themselves down, deeper and deeper.

    The nice thing about the Big Bang is that we do not know what started it. Science dare not even begin to guess at that. It just started and then the universe was created.

    What started the Big Bang though? A butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in nowhere? A god making a big burp? Two big turtles mating and laying an egg? Was it a big crunch that started another big bang (though the latter seems not to be the case since the Universe apparently won’t collapse due to dark energy which makes the objects accelerate faster and faster from the centre)? Was it just random? Was it God? Was it an old Nirvana ending? What was it?

    Why couldn’t the universe and all life and non-life in it just be a big experiment. Perhaps we are God. Perhaps we all are a small piece of God. Perhaps she blew herself up and was the big bang. And everything we see now, this day, in the past, in the future, is part of God. That God is learning, that God is all these things in order to learn from all these different experiences.

    Afterall, you can’t know how it is to be in love before you have felt love. You can’t know how it is to hurt, before you have been hurt. You don’t know how it feels to be a cat before you’ve been a cat. You don’t know how it is to be the ocean pulled by the moon-tide before you’ve been the ocean.

    Perhaps… perhaps all this is just God experiencing all aspects of life, all aspects of the universe, experiencing how it is to be physical.

    One thing’s certain. Life’s one long lesson, so valuable. As Tim wrote in his writers resources (which I agree wholehearted with), there are no failures, only lessons and knowledge about how -not- to do a thing next time.

    *grins* The big blasphemy thought, perhaps God is just learning from the mistakes made 😉

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Pia —

    What a thoughtful post. Absolutely on target — it’s entirely possible that the universe is God’s way of expanding his/her range of experience, creating a mirror to define him/herself or even an analyst to help her/him work through some issues or an uncontrollable impulse to create beauty and complexity — who knows? The whole thing could be a doodle on a blank space in the Divine Yellow Pages.

    I have no issues at all with the idea that there’s something we could call God, although I also have a much clearer idea of what I think God isn’t than what I think he/she is. If that makes sense. I look at the world sometimes and see what I think of as artistic finishing touches — let’s have something that flies through the air and makes music, for example, or wouldn’t it be cool if light sparkled on water? Or, on a larger scale, the incomprehensible beauty of galaxies.

    So I guess the thing that makes me feel religious is the old Argument from Design. The concept goes all the way back to Plato (at least), so I am, as always in spiritual matters, au courant.

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