Intelligent Design for Dummies, Part 2

Pandas at National Zoo in Washington. Photograph by Asiir. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

This is Part 2 of 2. You may find Part 1 here .

The Third Problem

“Finally, your story has a practical problem,” Questor says: “Is the panda’s thumb a poor design?” — whereupon a panda peeks its head through the panel and confides, “I rather like it, you know” (page 78). In essence, she is attacking premise (4) of Teller’s argument, by a clever appeal to the literature. Questor is presumably a college biology professor, and Wiester, who provided “the science input” for WDGDWI, is a college biology professor. Where do they go to get the information on the panda’s thumb? The Encyclopedia Americana, which Questor quotes as saying that the panda’s thumb “enables the panda to eat bamboo efficiently” and to “handle stems with great dexterity” (page 78, charmingly illustrated with a panda twirling stalks of bamboo in drum-major fashion). Gould, in contrast, consulted D. Dwight Davis’s monograph The Giant Panda (1964), which he characterized as “the greatest work of modern evolutionary comparative anatomy” (Gould 1980: 22).

Regardless of the far-from-authoritative nature of their source, Newman and Wiester’s emphasis on the efficiency of the panda’s thumb reveals that they have again misrepresented Gould’s argument, apparently due to their conflation of two senses in which it is possible for design (or, if you prefer, “design”) to be suboptimal. In the first sense, a biological feature is suboptimally designed if it accomplishes its function not as efficiently as it (or a plausible substitute) might. Thus in the first sense, to say that the panda’s thumb is suboptimally designed is to say that it is not as useful for stripping leaves from bamboo as it (or a plausible substitute) might be. In the second sense, however, a biological feature is suboptimally designed if it is not designed as well as it might have been, that is, if the process whereby it acquired the ability to accomplish its function was not as efficient as it (or a plausible substitute) might have been. That there is such a sense of what it is for design to be suboptimal is testified to by the computer engineer’s word “kludge,” which refers to a clumsy and inelegant, but not necessarily ineffective, solution to a problem. In the second sense, to say that the panda’s thumb is suboptimally designed is to say that the process whereby it acquired the ability to strip leaves from bamboo was a kludge.

It is obvious that in “The Panda’s Thumb” Gould was thinking about suboptimal design in the second, kludgy, sense: in a passage that Newman and Wiester quote, he explains that “[o]dd arrangements and funny solutions” provide striking evidence for evolution (Gould 1980: 20). Referring to the panda’s thumb, he writes, “An engineer’s best solution is debarred by history … the panda must use parts on hand and settle for … a somewhat clumsy, but quite workable, solution … a contraption, not a lovely contrivance” (Gould 1980: 24). And he acknowledges that the panda’s thumb is not suboptimally designed in the first sense: “I was amazed by their dexterity” (Gould 1980: 21). Thus WDGDWI’s discussion of whether the panda’s thumb is suboptimally designed in the first sense is irrelevant to the question Gould was addressing, whether the panda’s thumb is a kludge.

Parenthetically, the same conflation is committed by the Discovery Institute’s Paul A. Nelson, in a paper not cited by Newman and Wiester. Nelson quotes the same passages about odd arrangements and funny solutions from Gould (1980: 20–21), glossing the argument as “God is an optimizing creator. This structure, and hence, [sic] organism, is imperfect. Therefore this organism evolved” (Nelson 2002: 678). Here he is misrepresenting Gould by taking his argument about suboptimal design in the second, kludgy, sense as about suboptimal design in the first sense. Later, considering the panda in particular, Nelson writes, “other observers heap praise on the panda’s use of its forelimbs” (Nelson 2002: 690, emphasis in original), citing such praise from The Giant Pandas of Wolong (Schaller and others 1986). But, again, whether the panda’s thumb is suboptimally designed in the first sense is irrelevant to Gould’s question of whether the panda’s thumb is a kludge.

Thus the third problem is spurious. I conclude that none of the problems that Questor sees in Gould’s and Teller’s argument is at all compelling. And it is hard to avoid reaching the conclusion that she — and hence the authors of WDGDWI — are disingenuous in their purported desire to explore the issues raised by it in a fair and careful manner.

What’s Diogenes Got to Do with It?

It is surprising that Questor quotes “the Greek philosopher Diogenes” as saying,

The regularity of the season would not have been possible without intelligence, that all things should have their measure: winter and summer and night and day … [which] if one will study them will be found to have the best possible arrangement” (pages 74–75).

For there were at least five ancient Greek philosophers named Diogenes: Diogenes of Oenoanda (a follower of Epicurus), Diogenes of Smyrna (a Protagorean), Diogenes of Sinope (the Cynic), Diogenes Laertius (the historian of philosophy), and Diogenes of Apollonia. As it happens, it is from the last of these that Questor quotes; the passage is from fragment B3 in the standard collection of Presocratic fragments (Diels and Kranz 1951–2).

Why is Diogenes of Apollonia suddenly the hero of the intelligent design movement? Not due to his philosophical importance: Jonathan Barnes describes him as “essentially second-rate” and “a bore,” and declares that “[b]y common scholarly consent, he was least as well as last” of the Presocratic philosophers (Barnes 1993: 567–568). Edward Hussey says that his “general level of philosophical awareness suggests the age of Anaximenes” (Hussey 1972: 141), implying that he was about a century behind the times. Even his contemporaries were unimpressed by him: the playwrights Euripides and Aristophanes and the poet Philemon all poked fun at his philosophical views (Barnes 1993: 580, 645n3).

The answer, I suggest, is provided by the fact that the passage from B3 is generally considered to be “the first extant exposition of the Teleological Argument for the existence of God, or the Argument from Design” (Barnes 1993: 577).

Unfortunately for the proponents of intelligent design, their hero’s conception of the intelligent designer is not congenial for their purposes. The intelligent designer of which Diogenes speaks in B3 is revealed in B5 to be — believe it or not — air. “And it seems to me that that which possesses intelligence is what men call air … For it is this which seems to me to be god” (Barnes 1987: 291). To be fair, he adds in B8 that “it is great and strong, eternal and immortal, and knows many things” (Barnes 1987: 292), but it is easy to see why his views were derided by his contemporaries.

It is not just the embarrassing airiness of Diogenes’ intelligent designer that disqualifies him as a suitable emblem for the intelligent design movement, however, but the fact that Diogenes embraced the bête noire of intelligent design: methodological naturalism. Like the rest of the Presocratic philosophers, Diogenes was no atheist, but also like them, he believed that the gods do not interfere with the natural world: for these thinkers, the world was orderly arranged without being divinely administered. Reflecting scholarly consensus, Barnes writes that:

Presocratic explanations are marked by several characteristics. They are, as I have said, internal: they explain the universe from within, in terms of its own constituent features, and they do not appeal to arbitrary intervention from without. They are systematic: they explain the whole sum of natural events in the same terms and by the same methods. Thus the general principles in terms of which they seek to account for the origins of the world are also applied to the explanations of earthquakes or hailstorms or eclipses or diseases or monstrous births. Finally, Presocratic explanations are economical: they use few terms, invoke few operations, assume few “unknowns.” (Barnes 1987: 17, emphasis in original)

Diogenes clearly was working within the naturalistic framework delineated by Barnes.

In contrast, Newman and Wiester contend that “a preexisting intelligence created and designed the universe, life and human beings” (page v, emphasis added), violating the internality principle. They contend that although “nobody in their right mind questions that some animals [doubly sic: they presumably have species, not individuals, in mind, and they presumably do not wish to limit their claim to the animal kingdom] have changed some through the course of their existence on earth” (page 7), it is questionable in other cases, thus violating the systematicity principle. And it would be tedious to detail all the myriad ways in which they violate the economy principle. One example: when Teller remarks that the intelligent designer is “not exactly available for study or experiment,” Questor responds, “That doesn’t prove that an intelligence doesn’t exist, does it?” (pages 14–25). Arguing from ignorance to the existence of the supernatural is a paradigm of the uneconomical.

So Diogenes of Apollonia is not really the ancient Greek philosopher whom the intelligent design movement should be showcasing. Nor should it be Diogenes of Sinope either — it was he who, according to legend, walked about with a lantern, searching for an honest man.


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