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Evolution-2: The lack of evidence for perfect design

In the first post in this series, I showed with the example of a soap spray nozzle how natural design could come up with systems whose intricacy and complexity is such that it was superior to the efforts of intelligent human designers. But what about the argument that a god-like designer would be able to come up with an even better nozzle design? It is true that if we allow for the existence of such a designer, we could get the best possible design for a nozzle. The catch is that assuming that god is a perfect designer opens up a whole set of new problems, not the least of which is why if god is so powerful he would need any kind of nozzle at all and not simply create any kind of spray he/she needed.

Let me start with a limitation of natural selection. There is a well known result about any method of solving a problem that starts (like natural selection does) with some state, tries out small variations, selects the one that shows the greatest improvement over the starting point, tries out variations based on that new state, selects the best one again, and so on, which is exactly the way that natural selection works. The problem is that while you will end up with a better result than the one with which you started, it may not be the very best solution that is conceivable. Such algorithms result in finding a locally optimal solution but not a globally optimal one.

As an example, suppose you are in open ground and totally in the dark. For some reason, you need to get to the highest point in the ground, say because flooding is occurring and you know the water is rising very slowly. (The specific reasons are not important. The point is to have some kind of external pressure that drives the selection process in one direction.) You could gingerly take small steps in every direction, see which way went up the most, and move one step in that direction. Then you again take tiny steps in all directions and select the one direction that moved up most, and move to that position. And so on. By repeatedly doing this, you are guaranteed to arrive at a peak.

(This is how natural selection works, though to be a more accurate analogy, we need to start with many people at the starting point, have couples move in each direction, have only the couples that get to higher ground survive while the others drown, have those successful couples produce lots of children at that location, who then move as couples in different directions, and so on.)

The catch is that the peak you arrive at may not be the highest peak in the vicinity. If a yet higher peak were to be separated from your initial starting point by even a small dip in the ground, you would miss it using this algorithm, since it does not allow you to make a short-term disadvantageous change in anticipation of future benefits. Natural selection is not guaranteed to produce the very best or the most perfect solution or design. It instead works on a ‘just good enough for now’ basis. This means that biological systems do not necessarily make progress towards perfection even though they do become more complex over time.

Now a god-like designer would presumably be able to see all the possible solutions (even in the dark) and pick the one that is best overall and guide you to that point. But the interesting thing is that the results of nature are more consistent with the ‘just good enough for now’ strategy of natural selection than that of a perfect designer. After all, we know that while nature’s designs (by which I mean designs arrived at by natural selection) are marvelously adapted and successful for many things, they are by no means perfect.

As Sean B. Carroll says in his book The Making of the Fittest (2006) which examines the DNA evidence for natural selection:

Modern species are not better equipped than their ancestors, they are mostly just different. They have often gained some coding information in their DNA and, as I have shown throughout this chapter, they have often lost some, or even many, genes and capabilities along the way.

The fossilization and loss of genes are powerful arguments against notions of “design” or intent in the making of species. In the evolution of the leprosy bacterium, for example, we don’t see evidence that this pathogen was designed. Rather, we see that the organism is a stripped-down version of a mycobacterium, which still carries around over a thousand useless, broken genes that are vestiges of its ancestry. Similarly, we carry around the genetic vestiges of an olfactory system that was once much more acute than what we have today.

The patterns of gain and loss seen species’ DNA are exactly what we should expect if natural selection acts only in the present, and not as an engineer or designer would. Natural selection cannot preserve what is not being used and it cannot plan for the future. (p. 136)

The very fact that it is estimated that over 99% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct is powerful evidence against perfect creation. The only way out of this for the religious believer is to think that god, although perfect, is somehow holding back and deliberately creating imperfections and thus making it merely look like something like natural selection is at work. Or god does not interfere at all, ever in the natural selection process once it began way back at the beginning of life. Or is simply careless and produces sloppy designs.

Darwin himself, based on his careful study of plants and animals, found it hard to believe in the idea of an intelligent designer. His biographer David Quammen in the book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006, p. 120) highlights the kinds of questions that troubled Darwin, and which he expressed in letters to the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who believed in the idea of special creation of humans.

I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.
. . .
Why would a benevolent God design ichneumon wasps, for instance, with the habit of laying eggs inside living caterpillars, so that the wasp larvae hatch and devour their hosts from inside out? Why would such a God design cats that torture mice for amusement? Why would a child be born with brain damage, facing a life of idiocy?
. . .
An innocent & good man stands under [a] tree & is killed by [a] flash of lightning. Do you believe (& I really shd like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t.

The question of pointless suffering and loss were not hypothetical issues for Darwin. He had been devastated when his own beloved daughter Annie had, at the age of ten, died after a long and mysterious and undiagnosed wasting illness. Darwin seemed to feel that such things were incompatible with a benevolent deity. As Quammen writes, “Any god who controlled events on Earth closely enough to preordain such an occurrence – or to permit it, if permission was necessary – wasn’t one that Darwin could take seriously.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, although not aimed at doing so, ultimately provided the basis on which belief in a designer god, and thus god itself, could be abandoned.

Comments

  1. Thought Shaman says

    Mano,

    Sean Carroll obviously did not consider how software engineers write code when he contrasted natural selection with the approach of engineers and designers. Many software engineers rarely ever delete code; they simply comment the offending lines out just in case they might need the code later. In this respect, the loss and gain of genes is very much like that of a software program created by a designer. That genes and software seems analogous ought not to be surprising. After all, genes encode instructions for a “biological machine.”

    As you imply, positing a perfect “designer” does not necessarily imply “perfect” creation. That god, if one exists, is being sloppy or holding back are possibilities. However, there is another possibility that arises from applying the software engineering model. It is possible for god to “know” the goal (say, create a free-willed, creative, moral being) and all possible paths to achieve the same, but be unclear about how he/she/it feels about the “form” that this being must take. The distinction is utility v/s aesthetics. This notion of god wherein god “knows” all but does not “feel” all is consistent with the Christian description of deity.

    There is a very big distinction between assembling buildings and creating software. Is it that many anti-evolutionists are simply using the wrong engineering model?

  2. says

    Mano,

    I’ve been poking around your blog and I assume by your comments that you are an atheist. I may be wrong but it appears that way. I have absolutely no problem with the idea of evolution or natural selection but I also don’t think that this dismisses the possibility of a loving and active God.

    I like to think I am a rational and practical Catholic Christian. As such, I believe in an imperfect and flawed universe that is “evolving” towards perfection. The explanation for that belief may not stand up to scientific scrutiny but believing in this type of “evolution” is what makes faith…Faith.

    I’m come to be glad that I don’t have to have proof for everything. It leads to less disappointments.

  3. wanderer says

    In the third paragraph of your first post in this series you say,

    “today I will begin an occasional series of posts that looks at the details of the theory, including the mathematics that underlies it and which was
    developed later by people like J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher.”

    This would lead one to think that this series would be a discussion of the marvel of evolution. Perhaps teasing us with mathematical explanations of how evolution works.

    Yet, by the end of the first post we know your true intentions. You intend to continue your argument against God and religion by focusing on creationism and intelligent design. You end the first post of this series with,

    “…Believers in a god-like designer might argue that what natural selection did here was outperform mere mortal designers and that god….”

    and start this post with,

    “But what about the argument that a god-like designer would be able to come up with an even better nozzle design?”

    To say that you want to “to create a better awareness of what the theory involves” while actually arguing against religion and creationism is academically dishonest. But at least we now know your true purpose for this series of posts.

    That being said, the issue of a perfect creator has always bothered me. If there is a perfect creator, why do we have the need to eliminate waste from our bodies? Why didn’t God simply make our bodies ‘super burners’ where everything consumed was converted to energy. It seem clear that we are not perfect creations, it seems illogical to think we were created by a perfect being.

    That is unless our scope is too narrow. Perhaps we should not be looking at the individual level but rather at the system level. Maybe we, as individual beings, are not perfect. But maybe the process, the system of life and death is perfect.

    In short, maybe God is not creating perfect or imperfect creatures. Perhaps God has created a perfect system and things like extinction are necessary parts of that system.

  4. Thought Shaman says

    Wanderer, perfection is a strange concept. We can make anything perfect by simply restricting the domain. Phrases like “the system of life and death is perfect” or “perfect creator”, etc. have little meaning by themselves. The utility of any notion of perfection is “relative” *chuckle*.

    Jake, unless you consider either the “big crunch” or “heat death” to be perfections, science indeed does not support your conjecture of a “universe evolving to perfection.”

    Why is it that religious people use the word faith to indicate belief? Faith has two distinct usages “proposition,” and “trust.” Are religious folks trying to benefit from the subconscious triggering of the positive warm feelings of “trust” even when they clearly mean belief?

  5. James Collins says

    Mano wrote: The very fact that it is estimated that over 99% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct is powerful evidence against perfect creation. The only way out of this for the religious believer is to think that god, although perfect, is somehow holding back and deliberately creating imperfections and thus making it merely look like something like natural selection is at work. Or god does not interfere at all, ever in the natural selection process once it began way back at the beginning of life. Or is simply careless and produces sloppy designs.

    Sir, you seem to have missed an important part of the Design of life. God made it perfect, but He also gave them freedom of the will. They blew it, and lost their status of perfection.

    After sin entered and God introduced entropy in His universe, eveyting started going down hill from there. God introduced Entropy in order to limit the length of time that earth would be safely inhabitable. That time is afmost over now.

    Of course the entropy caused even life forms to become weaker and weaker as time passed.

    But God had built into all life forms the ability to change ever so slighty, via micro-evolution. There never has been and never will be a time when any life form macro-evolved.

    The germs that are getting so that they can outwit the drugs are still the same KIND as those who failed to do the job. Any biologist will tell you that they are the same KIND.

    Ignorant evolutionists are claiming that the drug restant bugs have evolved, do not know their science. However some that know better still claim that it is evidence for evolution. It is NOT!

    The simple fact is that evolution is a mythology, and many people are angry and confused, but that is not necessary, we can prove that evolution is a myth, and here is how…

    Many people, when they can’t provide evidence for their theory, adopt the strategy of falsehood. Such is the case with many of those who have fallen victim to the propaganda of renowned evolutionists.

    If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a ‘simple’ living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the ‘simple’ cell.
    After all, shouldn’t all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a ‘simple’ cell.
    If it weren’t so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.
    Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try answersingenesis.org. The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence ‘FOR’ evolution for THEMSELVES.
    Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the ‘raw’ stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth’s recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!
    Oh, you don’t believe the ‘original’ Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

  6. says

    Jake,

    Welcome to the blog.

    You are right, I am an atheist.

    I am afraid that while the idea of a universe heading towards perfection once appealed to me (through the writings of Teilhard de Chardin), I cannot take it seriously anymore. I cannot make it consistent with a asicentific understanding of the world.

  7. says

    Wanderer,

    I think that anyone who reads this blog on any regular basis knows that I think that much of the arguments against evolution come from religious people. I have been consistently writing contrasting the religious views of people on the diversity of life with the scientific view, so my references to religion should not have come as a surprise to you.

  8. Joel says

    Mano,

    You said “I have been consistently writing contrasting the religious views of people on the diversity of life with the scientific view…” and you say the equivalent to that in the next frame above and others. The scientific view is not that of evolution, the big bang, atheism or any of the other such beliefs. Those are the atheistic views. There is not one smidgen of empirical evidence that any of it is true. And I’m not referring to micro-evolution which is a known phenomenon of any kid over 12. There are hundreds of quotes accessible from scientists admitting those things. All of this is done in an effort not to have to submit to an all powerful God and/or to continue to receive large research grants. If you would like to see many of those quotes, here is one listing: http://www.evolutionisdead.com/quotes.php?search=rate

  9. says

    The world is working toward perfection. Until God takes away free will, which He will, there will not be perfection, only hope. To spread the hope is the point. God will be there. Will you?

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