Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Unintelligent Design

I had an email today from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yes, you did read that correctly. The FSM, as I shall refer to it hereafter, is an altogether silly website about the aforementioned monster who allegedly created the universe and everything in it and whose followers are known collectively as Pastafarians. The content of the site is delivered absolutely poker-face straight and never deviates from the contention that the FSM is a real religion based upon utmost faith. Of course, in reality, it is a humorous website aimed at debunking what it sees as the nonsense of intelligent design and other Creationist theory. It does this by making extraordinary claims that are obviously nonsense but which, as the site points out, are no less provable than what orthodox and fundamentalist religious believers hold to be true. The latest is the theory that global warming has been caused by a decline in the number of pirates.

This kind of woolly thinking - that two sets of accurate statistics can be thrown together as cause and effect - is exactly the kind of argument that many Intelligent Design (ID) and Creationist proponents roll out as 'proof' of their beliefs. I have yet to visit any website or read any of their literature that has one shred of supportable evidence for their cause.

Most of the world's major religions claim that God, or gods, created the heavens and the Earth. There is no proof of this, of course - no one was there to see it. Therefore, it can only be a belief based upon faith alone. Consequently, the FSM argues that their version of the Creation is just as valid. If I truly believed that the world and everything in it had been created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, why should my views be considered any less valid than those of Muslims, Christians, Jews or Hindus? Consequently, any creation myth also has no basis in truth, only faith.

Science, on the other hand, is able to provide a huge amount of evidence to show that the Earth and the universe were formed by entirely natural processes. Currently, the general consensus is that the universe exploded into existence with the Big Bang. But scientists are happy to concede that if a better theory comes along, then they will abandon the Big Bang. Similarly, if real evidence for a god-based creation came along, both I and the scientists swould accept it. The point of a theory, in the true scientific sense, is that it's not some wild idea plucked from the air; a theory is a considered and well though-out idea supported by evidence. A theory is what we hold to be the most likely explanation of events based upon that evidence. I believe in the Big Bang theory because it seems the most likely chain of events based upon what we've so far uncovered. I believe in the theory of evolution because it makes sense, because there's a mountain of physical evidence to support it and because I can see some of that evidence myself in the altered forms of 'designer' animals like fancy pigeons, the various breeds of dog and allotments of giant vegetables being grown for Summer fete competitions. If the Creationists come up with something better, I'm prepared to listen and maybe even change my views. That's what being theoretical means. Yet I never see religious fundamentalists calling their creation story 'The God Theory' despite the total lack of physical proof.

The Intelligent Design theory is based upon a rocky foundation of half-truths. It's the idea that life is far too complex to have arisen solely by accident. Therefore, it must have been designed. Ergo, there must have been a designer. Here's a classic example of the kind of fuzzy 'evidence' that ID champions put forward:

'The eye is an extraordinary apparatus ... it is self-focussing, it has lenses and an iris to control light density, it has it's own washer system, can self-repair and by way of a complex system of nerves is able to provide us with stereoscopic binocular vision. How could something this complex have been created by accident?'

Well, I'm sorry, but of course it could. What many of the followers of ID forget is the almost unimaginable periods of time over which the eye has evolved.

You all know what a human eye looks like and how it works. But can you imagine what a slightly less effective eye would be like? Of course you can. Look around the natural world at the range of eyes that exist. Most are inferior to ours. It's really not that hard to imagine that our eyes were once not as good as they are now but have got better. Maybe they couldn't focus quite so well. Or maybe they were not so good at controlling the amount of light falling on the retina. Now try to imagine an eye not quite as good again. Maybe this eye has no variable focal system at all and requires its owner to move its head backwards and forwards to focus. Again, not too hard to imagine is it? Now imagine an eye that's not as good as that one ... and another ... and another. You keep imagining successively worse eyes until what you arrive at is a simple cluster of cells that are sensitive to only light and dark. It will probably take you no more than 15-20 'versions' of the eye to go from modern eye to primitive light sensor. Okay so far?

Now consider the fact that eyes started to evolve around 540 million years ago. Spread those 15-20 stages across this immense gulf of time and suddenly the eye, extraordinary as it is, is not necessarily something that needed a designer. Rather than 15-20 stages of improvement, there were millions of tiny incremental changes spread across the 540 million years. The evolution of the eye has been a slow but steady progression from primitive to complex. ID champions try to throw us off guard by implying that the eye sprang fully-formed from nothing. Yes, that would be a miracle. But that's not what hapened. The fact is that the creatures with the best proto-eyes survived to reproduce and pass on their genes and those with the worst didn't. Consequently, the eyes got better and better as generation after generation passed the good eye genes on. Ultimately that has led to us. Our eyes still aren't perfect of course. We can only see one small part of the electromagnetic spectrum - even goldfish can see more of it than we can. And they go wrong all the time, which is why we have spectacles and contact lenses and laser eye surgery. Surely an intelligent designer would have ironed out those wrinkles?

Every argument I have ever seen for ID can be easily shot down in flames. It therefore amazes me that the ID movement still persists and has even had some degree of success in getting its inaccurate, suppositional and wildly unscientific version of events into school curricula as a viable alternative to evolution and natural selection. You want arguments against Intelligent Design? Okay ... why do we only have one heart, brain and liver - all vital organs we can't live without - when we have two eyes, ears, ovaries, testes and kidneys? We can happily survive with just one of those, in some cases without either. How is that intelligent? Why do we have redundant organs like the appendix? Why do we have a coccyx, a vestigial tail? Why can't we regenerate new limbs and appendages and organs? Even lowly creatures like starfish and lizards can do it. Why not us? Aren't we God's supreme design? Why arrange our reproductive systems in such a way that the organs involved share duties with our waste disposal system? Intelligent design? Hell no. There are huge issues of infection and disease caused by placing our child-creating and naughty fun systems next to a sewage plant. Why do we produce children with heads so large that the mother has to go through agony to give birth? Why do we crave most the foods that do us the most harm? I could go on. And on. And on.

There's a piece of dialogue in Terry Gilliam's film Time Bandits (1981) in which Evil, played by a wonderfully over-the-top David Warner, rants about the Supreme Being's supposed 'intelligent design' with his lackey:

'Look how he spends his time: forty-three species of parrots; nipples for men."
"Slugs? He created slugs? They can't hear, they can't speak, they can't operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic?"

Evil presupposes that a Supreme Being exists. As an atheist, I don't. But whether you believe in a god or not, the evidence is all on the side of evolution; the entirely unscripted and almost random process of natural selection without any goal or design. The fact that there are so many faulty designs out there - ourselves included - is surely proof enough that there was no cosmic drawing board from which life sprang in all its forms. If it were possible to go back to that drawing board and design Man from scratch, the result would be a far more efficient and better-designed organism than we are. It would be stronger, fitter, healthier, less susceptible to disease and injury, more caring and altruistic. I doubt that it would look much like a human being though.

The good thing about The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and sites like it is that, as daft and cynical as they may be, they remind us to keep our badly-designed feet on the ground and continue to search for the truth - the real truth, supported by evidence - of our origins. The scientific story of life is every bit as extraordinary and breathtaking as any religious version of events. The only difference is that science does not elevate us above the rest of the natural world. We're put in our proper place in the grand scheme of things; where we belong as the Fifth Ape. But there's no shame in that.

I'm proud and humbled to be part of the most extraordinary and staggeringly beautiful biosphere - possibly unique in all the universe - and I don't need the fallacy of a designer to make me feel any better about it. Do you?

FSM logo car badge by Ring of Fire Enterprises
Catch the Creationism vs Evolution debate at sites like Talk Origins.


Tess Kincaid said...

I believe in a Supreme Being.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Willow - I have no issue with religious belief. Neither do I have any issue with faith-based systems like Buddhism. It's everyone's fundamental right to believe what they want to believe. As it's my right to be atheist.

What I take umbrage with is are those people and organisations that deliberately fumble, falsify or mess with the truth to make the world fit their own viewpoint. It worries me that children are being asked to ignore the clear evidence before them in favour of dogma based purely upon belief. There is room for religion and science to work happily side by side. When I went to school, we learned about the Bible in Religious Education classes and science in Science classes. We were given the choice to believe what we chose with neither being particularly weighted. By having religion creep into science lessons (i.e. by teaching kids - as some US States do now - that evolution is 'just a theory' and that the Biblical story of the Creation is just as valid) we're going to turn out a generation of kids whose viewpoints will not be driven by objective study and observation. It will be driven by their belief system. And that does not bode well for the next generation of scientists. The worse case scenario is that they subvert their findings to fit their world view, as has happened at other times in history. And they were never good times.

Anyway, enough of this dark and gloomy talk. It's the nature of science to find the best possible explanation for things being the way they are. But when it comes to the ultimate question of 'Where did everything come from?' you Believers hold all the trump cards! The Big Bang theory is good but it has some serious holes in it, mostly around the issue of dark matter and lots and lots of missing anti-matter. It's a damned sight easier to have faith and say, 'I know where it all came from ...'


Tess Kincaid said...

I totally agree with you on those who contort the truth to make it fit their particular view!

I believe in creation and evolution. They go hand in hand in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and entertaining post. Thanks for the link to Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster! Just brill.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - So pleased to hear it. The last thing I'd want to do is cause offence. Atheism seems to be the last taboo. I tend to find that truly intelligent people can balance their faith with the pursuit of truth, knowledge and beauty. x

Rob - Glad you enjoyed it! It gave me a good laugh too.

Debby said...

I had to re-read this a couple of times. I don't like knee jerk responses to different opinions. I wanted to be sure of my words. Religion is an odd thing. I actually was an atheist until I was 29. Here's the thing. I meet many Christians who are outraged over abortion, and there are Christians who will deny the existance of dinosaurs. To me, it is so simple. God gave us free will. I would never personally have had an abortion. It is wrong by my own standards, but I don't have the right to think for everyone else. To my mind, evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive. From the vantage point of eternity, thousands of years of evolution is but a blink of an eye. I believe that I have the right to believe, and to align my life with His principles. This should make me quiet, patient, loving, helpful,tolerant, etc. (Certainly not a bad thing in this world.)When religious zealots are angry, yelling, intolerant, committing acts of violence to support their beliefs, I can say this one thing...they don't understand God at all.

So if I appreciate the world around me and give thanks to God for it, if I look at people and see God in them (yes, you as well...), why should it bother anyone at all? Gratitude and loving-kindness are traits sore needed in this world. Given your recent posts on family and home, I'd say that you, non-believer :^D, have those self same traits in abundence as well. Good onya!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks for your intelligent and reasoned comments Debby. As you quite rightly say - and I endorse your thoughts 100% - it is the zealots that cause the problem. I'd include atheist zealots in there too as they can be just as bad. I honestly believe that we are inherently good - altruistic behaviour exists in many animal species even at a primitive 'protect the young with your life' level. With our intellect and reason we've simply raised that natural behaviour to a higher level. Nature is not all red in tooth and claw and anyone who suggests that the natural state of the human condition is 'dog eat dog' or 'survival of the fittest' does not understand humanity. We care for our sick, our aged, our wounded, our disabled because that's the way we're hardwired. We love our kin and our friends because that's what we do. I personally don't need a god to explain this, but whether a believer or not, I maintain that the golden rule of 'treat others as you would be treated yourself' holds true for us all. xx

Debby said...

And don't you think that if people everywhere could politely discuss their differences reasonably, maybe over a cup of coffee (okay...you can have a beer or a tea, if it suits you better...), and then push away from the table agreeing to disagree, would that not make this world an easier place for ALL of us, believers and non-believers, alike? It would certainly make life easier for the poor souls who do not have time to sit and stare at the sky pondering God, because they are too busy digging the ground for a meager living.