Don Wise and Incompetent Design

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The idea that evolution is best exemplified in silly or stupid adaptations is an idea with a rich history. Quoting from the late, great Stephen Jay Gould in the essay that provides this site’s namesake (PDF link):

Thus, the paradox, and the common theme of this trilogy of essays: Our textbooks like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design - nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution - paths that a sensible God would never treat but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.

Following in this tradition, professor emeritus of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Don Wise has written a little ditty (WMV video link) on “Incompetent Design.”

He’s interviewed in Seed Magazine, in an article called The Other ID.

BCH

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Over at The Pandas Thumb they have a funny article about "incompetent design." Incompetent design is a parody of intelligent design that illustrates one reason for doubting that life was literally created: life is often designed in ways no intelligent bei Read More

67 Comments

LOL:

Regarding incompetent design, why is the creator not intelligent?

I didn’t say that! We don’t get into religion. The last thing we want to do is get into arguments of religion, a creator and so on. We’re just: “Is there, or is there not, intelligence in the design?”

The song is terrific!

There was a question on a previous thread asking for a list. Here are a few more:

The brain is essentially three brains, layered on top of each other and not well connected. (I’m not sure I understand the details of that one-don’t ask until my source gets back home!) It is sensitive to changes in hormones (ie adolescence, PMS, menopause) and neurotransmitters (many metal illnesses). The bones of the face, mentioned in the links above are prone to infection, which puts the brain at risk due to its proximity.

The upright carriage of the skull reduced the need for musculature and the dorsal and lateral processes on the vertabrae, leaving the cervical spine, the carotid arteries, the trachea all exposed and poorly supported, vulnerable to injury.

We eat, drink and breathe through the same opening. Choking is a risk in more “advanced” animals.

The eye produces an upside down image, which the brain must flip again. It has a limited range of wavelengths (many animals see into the UV and IR ranges)

The spine evolved for suspension (between hindquarters and forequarters) The discs wear down in the compaction of the spine held in a vertical position.

The pelvis had to be wider to accomodate the birth of a bigger brain, yet even so the human infact is born before gestation is complete, making it the most vulnerable of mammal young.

Large gluteal muscles are necessary for balancing the pelvis, making elimination messy. We are the only mammal with such a big behind.

In embryonic development, we have genes that “make” a tail, then other genes that reduce it again. We have genes that develop gill slits, then other genes that cause them to “un”develop. This does not make sense except from an evolutionary standpoint.

Have the intelligent design creationists ever offered an answer to the obvious flaws in human “design”?

I’d love to read how they respond to this. The evidence indicates the “intelligent designer” must be a chronic alcoholic, an idiot, or perhaps “he” is just cruel and instead of pulling the wings off of flies he enjoys watching his creations suffer from such poor “design”?

Cancer requires multiple components and has been described here before, is Irreducibly Complex.

That’s the worst of the design. Cancer.

Hey, this is great. I asked on another thread about this. Add to the list:

A collar bone that limits the range of arm motion by uniting the scapula and sternum and is prone to being broken, but makes pretty good sense for an animal that moves by swinging from tree to tree or knuckle-walking.

A knee joint that involves compressional grinding of two bones that are held in place by a sac of fluid prone to tearing, excess cartilage development, and excess fluid production.

Arches on the foot, which (I’m speculating) probably make sense if the foot could grasp but not if the foot was designed to support a biped.

Maybe we’ll get treated to some “before vs. after ‘The Fall’ “ gibberish, accompanied by Noah riding a dinosaur…or whatever.

Just a couple more:

The hock joint in quadrupeds is a source of tremendous strength and impact absorption. We stand on ours (heel).

Hearing must accommodate the transition of sound waves moving through air to vibrations in fluid, through the movement of a membrane and three bones linked together. Overkill, to say the least. In fact, if we depend on fluid so much, and 70% on the earth is covered in it, why can’t we breathe in the stuff?

Our hands, when relaxed, have the fingers flexed. This makes sense from a arboreal lifestyle. However, our carpals are straight, rather than curved like most primates.

Shouldn’t the quote have “tread”, instezd of “treat”?

And shouldn’t my nitpick have “instead” instead of “instezd”?

Maybe keyboards are another example of less-than-optimal design?

Comment #66019

Posted by KL on December 30, 2005 01:20 PM (e) (s)

In fact, if we depend on fluid so much, and 70% on the earth is covered in it, why can’t we breathe in the stuff?

You do breathe a fluid.

To the Steve above–several of us have, and some still do, post under the single name Steve. Consider adding a little more info, lest you be confused with me, or Steve Verdon, or Steve Sheets, or any number of other Steves.

Also, drinking beer makes me fat. Nice going Jeebus!

The “flawed” design argument is old, and of course still valid. Its what I was taught in the brief bit of evolution we got in my high school bio class, using gould’s pandas thumb as one of many examples, along with the human appendix and a few others. also taught was the example of invasive species (using the major disruption of australia by westerners, including the extinction of their native dogs and the mass explosion of rabbits) and how ecosystems take time to achieve their balance and perceived “perfection”.

Have the intelligent design creationists ever offered an answer to the obvious flaws in human “design”?

their latest trick i read this week is trying to prove that, by comparison to a computer program (and thus trying to assert that Bill Gates is an ID supporter, which he certainly isn’t), that the junk DNA in our code still has a purpose to the point of saying there’s no such thing as junk DNA, that its all being used somehow and we just haven’t figured it all out yet.

Isn’t there a nerve in the neck of a giraffe that runs several feet down the back, around some bone or other, then back up the front?

It is sensitive to changes in hormones (ie adolescence, PMS, menopause) and neurotransmitters (many metal illnesses).

The effect of hormones on adolescence is an old canard. PMS is difficult to verify. Frankly, complaining about the effect of hormones on the brain isn’t substantiated.

Don’t even get me started on neurotransmitters. Mental illnesses are not known to be the result of problems with neurotransmitters, and in any case, saying the brain is sensitive to them is like saying computers are sensitive to electronic impulses. Well, no kidding.

How about the male testicles which hang outside the body and are vulnerable (ouch),also the fact that the passage way down which they descend, cannot close correctly, and cause hernias.And of course male nipples,I have wondered about them

I don’t think that we have the “most vulnerable of mammal young.” Marsupials are much more vulnerable. However, they have a marvelous adaption called a pouch where development can complete in comparative safety.

Getting to the pouch however, is a pretty tough slog.

Then there are the more subtle forms of poor design: our cravings for sweet, salty, fatty foods, for example. Surely such desires wouldn’t have been necessary in our edenic early days in… Eden. And they’re certainly not appropriate for modern civilization. As Ivanova said, “All my life I’ve fought against imperialism. Now I *am* the expanding Russian frontier!”

What gives? Why are our food preferences designed to torment us and lead us into early graves?

JONBOY Wrote:

How about the male testicles which hang outside the body and are vulnerable (ouch),also the fact that the passage way down which they descend, cannot close correctly, and cause hernias.And of course male nipples,I have wondered about them

Yes, but if you drink enough beer, eventually you grow a protective layer of flab that completely protects your testicles, thought at that point, you probably won’t be using them all that much.

Steve S said:

To the Steve above—several of us have, and some still do, post under the single name Steve. Consider adding a little more info, lest you be confused with me, or Steve Verdon, or Steve Sheets, or any number of other Steves.

Fair enough. I’m Steve T

And speaking of testicles, which I too often am, how about the fact that the urethra passes through the donut-shaped prostate gland, which very often hypertrophies with age and thus pinches of the flow of urine like Jeebus-beer-gut guy standing on a garden hose? Another nice feat of Rube-Goldberg design, short-bus Jehovah.

Syntax Error: not well-formed (invalid token) at line 1, column 54, byte 54 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.16/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187.

As demonstrated on the .wmv, how about the total inability of some people to sing in tune? It’s not going to help you when you join the Celestial Choir, even if it is impressive in its own way.

Bob

Our hands, when relaxed, have the fingers flexed

of all the “flaws” mentioned, this is the only one I never saw addressed in any article i ever read. Does anybody know the suggested selection pressures that lead to a straightening of the carpals and metacarpals?

What gives? Why are our food preferences designed to torment us and lead us into early graves?

lol. one, they weren’t “designed” (yes, i know you would have used the term “selected” instead).

two, they wouldn’t lead you into an early grave if you lived in an area where food was a bit more scarce than we are used to these days.

fat and sugar are high energy foods, and selection would naturally favor a preference for high energy foods in any natural environment.

check out a bear’s diet sometime

Maybe the problem is just that we aren’t “supposed” to live as long as we do. In a state of nature wouldn’t most of us be kicking the bucket by our 30s?

No doubt. For the vast majority of our history, I think we were selected to make it to age 13, then breed, then die from some horrible accident or starvation about 5-6 years later. This is why osteoperosis and inflamed prostates aren’t going away any time soon.

As demonstrated on the .wmv, how about the total inability of some people to sing in tune? It’s not going to help you when you join the Celestial Choir, even if it is impressive in its own way.

Maybe singing out of tune was something that only ever happened after ‘the Fall’?

Steviepinhead Wrote:

Maybe keyboards are another example of less-than-optimal design?

Actually, computer keyboards are a classic example of cooption. Early typewriter keyboards used to jam regularly due to typists’ speed, so a keyboard arrangement was created that did its utmost to slow them down to a reasonable amount.

When computer keyboards were first created, they were basically typewriters with wires attached so the layout stayed the same. And, once computers had reached the point that unskilled personnel (for example secretaries) used them, there was a strong retarding effect on any attempt to change the layout because all those secretaries had been trained to use QWERTY typewriter keyboards back in the day and weren’t terribly keen on switching.

The result is that we’re stuck with QWERTY keyboards despite the fact that alternative layouts (such as the dvorak keyboard) or even alternative devices (I recall this thing that looked like a stress-reliever…) would be far more effective.

alternative devices (I recall this thing that looked like a stress-reliever…)

hmm. sounds interesting. post a link if you can recall specifics about it; I’m always interested in new input and pointing devices.

Sir Toejam queried:

Does anybody know the suggested selection pressures that lead to a straightening of the carpals and metacarpals?

This is probably one that needs to be directed to the Shaolin monks.

(Sorry. I first mis-typed “minks” after “Shaolin,” and I had to stop laughing before I could continue.)

I’m sure this will turn out to have something to do with using the edge of the hand for blows in the martial arts. Does anybody know Kane’s email address?

It’s interesting that Gould in making his argument, had to explicitly distance himself from what he calls “examples of optimal design.” “Optimal” is an interesting choice of words, isn’t it?

I further wonder if Don Wise is familiar with Gould’s reference to “nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative.” “Nearly perfect.” Why, that’s an interesting choice of words too!

So, he says that optimal design exists in nature, and provides examples that he thinks are nearly perfect, and then concludes that “ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution,” as indeed it is! The amazing thing is I’m not making any of this up.

Oh, and I liked the song, by the way. So, how about this for a second verse:

My retina is “upside down” but I can see just fine The spine I have gets me around when upright or supine Gould says things are “optimal” but all you do is whine! Intelligent design!

Thanks for your time,

-Steve

I wonder if kangaroos would make good hunters.

yeah there was a ‘carnivorous Kangaroo’ that became extinct only about 20,000 years ago - although ti looks a lot more ‘dog-like’ than a typical Kangaroo:

http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/[…]h_167333.htm

plus some rather batty ‘carnivorous Kangaroo’ sightings from the US of A - probably by Buckingham after a couple of tablets too many:

http://www.unexplained-mysteries.co[…]garoos.shtml

He did it by just plodding on and on after the antelope.….

As for running down an antelope - we are quite good at running away too:

Two blokes were walking through the savannah when they were spotted by a a hungry lion. One of them took off his boots and put on his running shoes.

The other bloke said ‘don’t be silly - you’ll never outrun a lion!’

To which the other one replied - ‘I don’t have to outrun the lion.….’

… a nice description of natural selection if ever I heard one.

The first time I heard the running-down-an-antelope story, the protagonist was Louis Leaky.  Apocryphal, perhaps.

Steviepinhead Wrote:

Maybe keyboards are another example of less-than-optimal design?

Acutually, another one of Steven Gould’s essay’s, The Panda’s Thumb of Technology, in I believe, Dinosaur in the Haystack.

Rev Dr Lenny Flank Wrote:

I do remember hearing somewhere a story about an athrnopologist or something who made a bet with somebody else that he could run down an antelope on foot. He did it by just plodding on and on after the antelope, which would dash off frantically for a distance, then stop, exhausted, while the plodding human just kept coming and coming and coming. After a short while, the antelope dropped from exhaustion.

A trait that we share with wolves. There’s a hifalutin’ term for it: we, and they, are cursorial hunters, and both species are well adapted to it; good thermal regulation during sustained exertion, endurance, and social cooperation. Interesting that wolves were the first domesticated species.

I’m sorry for bringing this up, but it did get me thinking about other bipedal animals. Do penguins suffer from hemorrhoids? Who would know? Prof. Steve Steve?

Bob (who must apologise again for making you think about this once more)

Ewwwwwwww. (shifts in chair nervously)

Actually there is something I’ve always been curious about. In the average human, the length of the foot from toe to heel is, on average, 1/6.6 of the height (and is, also, the same length as that of the forearm from inside elbow to wrist). So, if you know the length of the human foot, you can calculate the height of the individual by multiplying this by 6.6 .

I’ve always been curious if this same proportion is found in any of the other bipedal hominids … My guess would be that it would appear only in the later species rather then the earlier ones.

Anyone have any data handy on this?

He did it by just plodding on and on after the antelope, which would dash off frantically for a distance, then stop, exhausted, while the plodding human just kept coming and coming and coming. After a short while, the antelope dropped from exhaustion.

Interesting theory, tho it might not apply to that many animals. For example, I can’t imagine that just chasing, say, White-tailed deer would be a very effective way of hunting them.

That’d be a function of habitat, though. The deer would be able to dash away and hide, and the poor plodding human would never find it. The antelope, though, on open grassland, doesn’t have anywhere to hide.

A trait that we share with wolves.

But wolves do it in relays, no?

Hyaenas too, IIRC.

Here’s another example of Incompetent Design:

Rabbits have to eat their own poo in the morning because their stomachs are not “designed” to digest it properly the first time around. They have evolved bacteria in the intestinal tract which does the job AFTER it’s passed through the stomach. Thus the Designer is forcing them to eat their own doo-doos.

I was recently re-reading Philip Kitcher’s “Abusing Science” which briefly mentioned that example.

And the Lord made the rabbit and said, “Behold, it is good.” And the rabbit looked up and said “No it ain’t! How would you like to eat your own shit for breakfast?”

(That’s my joke, hope it doesn’t get sensored. It’s not funny without the S-word)

Actually, this is more of a case of “Malevolent Design” – like the wasp that lays its eggs in the living caterpillar, which slowly eats it alive, taking the non-vital organs first in order to keep the “meat” as fresh as possible. The “deadbeat parents” lifecycle of the cuckoo bird is another famous example of Malevolent Design. Can anybody tell me: don’t the cuckoo eggs look just like the eggs of the cuckolded species (I forget the poor creature’s name)? If so, what sort of designer designed THAT?

Can we have a seperate thread for MD “theory”?

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This page contains a single entry by Burt Humburg published on December 30, 2005 11:32 AM.

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