Stephen Meyer on Bad Biological Designs

As long as we’re piling on Stephen Meyer, there are a number of arguments for which Don Prothero was prepared that Meyer apparently didn’t make in the recent debate. A couple are worth posts of their own.

One of the problems intelligent design proponents face is how to deal with bad biological designs. There are lots of examples–Oolon Colluphid of The Secular Cafe has a handy annotated list of 96 of them.

In his doorstop Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer has an appendix with 12 alleged predictions of intelligent design “theory.” One of his purported predictions concerns putatively bad or suboptimal designs in biological processes and structures. First a little background.

Intelligent design creationists in general use three basic arguments in dealing with the issue of suboptimal designs. First, they argue that the suboptimality results from “devolution.” What were once optimal designs have degenerated due to the vicissitudes of time and the second law of thermodynamics, or for some, Adam and Eve’s screw-up in the Garden–those of the YEC persuasion commonly attribute that degeneration (along with predation and parasitism) to the Fall. This is one of AIG’s approaches. Meyer also has used the “design decay” argument–see here.

A second argument is to claim that a given design really isn’t suboptimal. For example, in an interview attributed to Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, Meyer reportedly claimed that the inverted vertebrate retina was “a tradeoff that allows the eye to process the vast amount of oxygen it needs in vertebrates” [p.87] (and also see AIG’s argument to this effect).

The third approach is to wave off questions about purportedly bad design as a theological issue, not a scientific one: Who are we to make assumptions about the Designer’s unknowable (to science) intentions and motives? ‘ID is real science and we don’t do theology.’ See here and here for examples.

In Signature in the Cell Meyer incorporated two of the three arguments into one of his “predictions.” He wrote

  1. If an intelligent (and benevolent) agent designed life, then studies of putatively bad designs in life–such as the vertebrate retina and virulent bacteria–should reveal either (a) reasons for the designs that show a hidden functional logic or (b) evidence of decay of originally good designs. (p. 497)

There are a couple of interesting aspects of that “prediction.” First, of course, it requires assigning a property–benevolence–to the putative designer. There is no support for that property anywhere in the book that I have seen; it is tacked on for no visible reason. But in fact, of course, there are counter-indications for the alleged benevolence of a biological designer. In a letter to Asa Gray Darwin famously wrote

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.– I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.– Let each man hope & believe what he can.– [emphasis original]

Darwin is clearly arguing against the notion of a benevolent designer, questioning whether a particular property can be validly assigned to a putative creator. Note that he is not questioning the existence or role of a designer in general, but rather is objecting to assigning a property–beneficience–to a designer of biological systems and cites a biological phenomenon–the feeding habits of Ichneumon wasp larvae–as justification. He is bringing evidence to bear on a theological claim. That’s a perfectly valid form of argument. If theologians make claims about their creator that have testable implications about the observable world, then they are subject to refutation by appealing to observable evidence.

More problematic for Meyer’s ‘benevolent designer’ conjecture, on the basis of (kindergarten level) probability arguments Michael Behe explicitly asserted that some bad (at least from the human point of view) biological things are designed. In The Edge of Evolution Behe wrote

Here’s something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. C-Eve’s children died in her arms partly because an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria, or at least something very similar to it. (p. 237)

So much for a benevolent designer in Behe’s version of ID.

A more serious problem for Meyer’s so-called “prediction” is that his two conjectures–hidden functional logic or evidence of decay–do not exhaust the universe of possible design explanations. There are at least three more possibilities: (c) an incompetent designer; (d) design by committee or competing designers; or (e) a whimsical designer (see here for examples of the invocation of whimsy on the part of a designer from Disco Dancers William Dembski, Philip Johnson, and Jonathan Witt).

There’s no reason to exclude those three additional conjectures; they have no less warrant than Meyer’s pair. All three are consistent with the evidence. In fact, on the evidence it seems to me that the property most appropriately assigned to a putative designer is malevolence: the world/universe really is a cruel and unpleasant place for the great majority of living things.

Given no principled constraints on the designer(s)’ properties, ID has no explanatory power and no scientific value. Theories in science have (at least) three basic functions: (1) to explain observed phenomena, in the sense of identifying applicable initial conditions, relevant variables, and causal mechanisms that operate(d) to produce the observed phenomena; (2) to constrain what is possible by placing boundaries on what can happen if the theory is (small “t”) true–this is my preferred gloss of ‘testable/falsifiable’; and (3) to engender a rich and fruitful research program that leads to new knowledge of how the world works, to a clearer understanding of phenomena in the domain of applicability of the theory, and (this is tertiary but not irrelevant) to the devising of potentially useful applications/technology. Intelligent design “theory” does none of those things: it is a scientific and explanatory void.