Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bad Design is Still Design

One very popular argument against Intelligent Design is the argument from suboptimal design. It seems that many are persuaded by this argument, but it really doesn't take a whole lot of careful thought to see how ineffective such an argument is.

In a more general version of the argument, our critic might make reference to species which have gone extinct, or they might simply poke fun at how our health deteriorates as we age, and that eventually our bodies give out entirely, all while insisting that this is "crappy design."

Unfortunately, the person who offers such an argument forgets that automobiles, aircraft, ships, buildings, trains, computers, bicycles--and a million other things we use daily--all have finite longevity and are all products of Intelligent Design. Is someone actually going to say that a Lycoming aircraft engine is a "crappy design" because, for example, the engine will require an overhaul after around 2000 hours of operation? Passenger aircraft have a finite longevity as well, established by the very company that designed and manufactured it. Once a particular Boeing 747 has endured a certain number of pressurization cycles, the whole airframe must be scrapped. Does this mean that a Boeing 747 is a "crappy design?" I would challenge the ID critic to cite just one known product of Intelligent Design that will not wear out and become non-functional at some point in time. Obviously, Intelligent Design and limited longevity are quite compatible with each other.

The reason that argument seems attractive to many ID critics is that they they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the term "Intelligent Design." The word "intelligent" is not meant to be a description of the "quality" of a given design. A primitive arrowhead carved from a piece of flint is as much the product of Intelligent Design as the most modern, precision-engineered bowhunting arrowhead.

So it isn't whether the design is good or bad that tells us whether something is the product of Intelligent Design. When we say that something is the product of Intelligent Design, it's not because the design is good or bad. Rather, it's because we see that someone had to use intelligence to produce the thing in question, and intelligence boils down to the ability to make goal-oriented choices.

When you look at man's early attempts at flight, you will see a comical array of hopeless contraptions none of which had any hope of getting off the ground.  In spite of this, each was a product of intelligent design because someone made choices oriented toward achieving a particular goal. Even if those choices were bad choices, they were still choices oriented toward a goal and that is intelligent design.

Of course, we need to be prepared to deal with the more specific appeals to "bad design" as well.

But first, let's examine the structure of the argument. Anyone who points to examples of "bad design" to make a case against Intelligent Design is essentially saying that if something has a design flaw, it cannot be the product of Intelligent Design. But this raises an important question: Can we see design flaws in things which we know are products of Intelligent Design? If the answer is "Yes," then their argument is dead on arrival. And of course there are numerous examples of just this sort of thing:

In July of 1981, approximately 2,000 people assembled inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri to watch a dance competition. Spectators filled suspended walkways on the second, third, and fourth floors when, tragically, the structural support for the fourth floor bridge caused the collapse of two of the walkways, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200. The actual architect's design wasn't flawed, but the people building the structure departed from the architect's specs and essentially substituted their own design, and it turned out to be badly flawed.

In the mid '90s, General Motors took a lot of heat over a pickup truck design that placed the fuel tanks outboard of the frame rails, creating a serious fire hazard in the event of a side impact. Indeed, engineers were responsible for the design, and these engineers--like all other humans--were intelligent. But here we have a good example of suboptimal design, undeniably the product of Intelligent Design.

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger and seven crew members were lost in a massive explosion about 73 seconds after lift-off. The explosion was caused by the failure of an O-ring in one of the field joints in the right-side rocket booster. A design flaw in the O-rings made them vulnerable to wide temperature variations and this, along with poor decision-making at NASA, lead to the destruction of “Challenger” and her crew.

These three examples all demonstrate conclusively that the presence of design flaws is entirely compatible with Intelligent Design. The hotel, the pickup truck and the rocket booster are all the products of Intelligent Design, and yet they all exhibited certain design flaws.

Having said all of that, it's important to note that I'm not actually conceding that there are examples of suboptimal design in nature… I sincerely doubt there are any. But Richard Dawkins certainly thinks he's found some…

A YouTube video features Richard Dawkins and Randolph Nesse discussing the human eye. The entire conversation is about how the human eye supposedly disproves Intelligent Design. The video is instructive for several reasons. Speaking of the human eye, Randolph Nesse says the following:

"It's a perfect example of why the body is not designed. I mean, imagine a camera designer for a famous camera company like Nikon or Pentax who put the wires between the light and the film, which is how our eye is working."

Perhaps Nesse should have quit while he was ahead. He was doing fine until he had to admit that our "eye is working" in spite of what might appear to be a rather odd design.

He goes on to point out the the human eye has a blind spot, and he and Dawkins actually demonstrate this for the video. But then Nesse does something he shouldn't have: He keeps talking. After exposing the blind spot, he says this:

"What's amazing, though, about how natural selection has made the eye so that it works despite this built-in flaw, is that the eye constantly jiggles slightly. We call it 'nystagmus,' and this seems like a problem, but it's actually a solution."

It's obvious what Nesse has just done, and not all that cleverly. Whatever he sees as a design failure is evidence against Intelligent Design, but everything he sees as a design success counts as evidence for Darwinism. Convenient, isn't it? This is a classic case of "heads I win, tails you lose." But Nesse continues:

"Because if it wasn't for the eye jiggling constantly…, that blind spot would always be in the same spot and you'd never see anything there. But because the eye moves slightly, you end up getting complete coverage of your field of vision."

Curiously, Nesse refuses to see this as a designer's work-around aimed at optimizing the function of the eye, and Dawkins' own comment is that in spite of this serious flaw, the human eye is "a remarkably fine instrument." This is odd, because earlier in the video Dawkins cites a famous German psychologist named Helmholtz who said that "If an engineer had given him the human eye, he'd have sent it back." Why send back a "remarkably fine instrument?" These men are truly grasping at straws.

The fundamental problem with the argument from suboptimal design is rather simple: The only way you can assess the design of a particular system is if you have knowledge of all of the design objectives. You don't have to be an engineer to understand that engineering is all about balancing and optimizing multiple competing design objectives. A bicycle frame needs to be very strong, but it also needs to be very light. Making the frame strong would be fairly straightforward: Just carve the shape out of solid steel. Likewise, making the frame very, very light would be simple as well: Paper tubes, perhaps. But of course both would be useless… the solid steel frame would be too heavy and the paper frame would lack the necessary strength. What Dawkins and Nesse refuse to acknowledge is that they don't really know enough about all the design objectives that needed to be balanced to give us the eyes we have and so they're really not qualified to assess the design one way or another, and neither am I.

One rather odd example of this argument from suboptimal design came to me from a long-time friend of mine who asked me why men have nipples. Hmm. Good question. And I can see why, on the surface, this seems like a really strange design feature for men and I could see why it would make my friend scratch his head a bit. But when you actually dig for answers, this question ends up exposing a powerful argument for design.

The reason why men have nipples is actually quite simple: Every man starts out as a female. Every egg is female by default, and so has specification for all of the appropriate equipment. When an egg is fertilized by a sperm carrying a Y chromosome, those specifications get altered and a few weeks into development, what would have been ovaries become testicles, etc. But here's where we uncover a surprising argument for design: If we find an object that has useless features, does that mean it was not designed? Well, turns out the answer is "No."

I'm a car enthusiast, and I noticed that if you could look at the engine block of just about any car out there, you would likely find features on that engine block that are completely useless in that particular car. I'm talking about features common to cast parts like engine blocks, cylinder heads and manifolds called "bosses." A "boss" is a raised, reinforced part of an engine block's casting that is typically drilled and tapped to accept a fastener of some sort. A modern engine block is likely to be adorned with quite a few of these, but in any given car, only some will be used. And so, if you could get in there to see it, you would find that in any given car, there are a number of entirely useless casting bosses. In one car model, the engine might be mounted longitudinally while in other models the engine might be transverse-mounted, and this might require different mounting points where a different set of bosses are used.

Engineers are smart… if a particular type of engine is going to be used in different car models, they're only going to want to create one mold for the engine block, it's far more efficient. That one mold will yield a block that has provisions for mounting it in any of the car models designed with that engine in mind. But, as each engine is installed in individual cars, some bosses are not going to be used. And so you're left with these "empty" bosses--they're even drilled and tapped--but nothing gets bolted to them. They had a use, but because that engine ended up in car model X rather than car model Y, they no longer have a use.

A similar scheme can be seen here with the nipples on men. The nipples had an intended use in a potential sort of way, but because the egg ended up getting fertilized with a Y-chromosome instead of X, those nipples will never serve that potential purpose. The point is that this isn't bad design at all… it's actually quite good design. Or, at the very least, it's a design strategy that is easy to find in things that we know are products of Intelligent Design.

The moral of this story is that when you encounter this argument from suboptimal design, whether it's the human eye or the laryngeal nerve in a giraffe's neck, there's no need to give up any ground at all. Even IF we were to concede to certain design flaws in biology, (and we shouldn't) we know that in general, design flaws are not incompatible with Intelligent Design. But we also know that we can't even determine whether the curious routing of the laryngeal nerve in a giraffe is a "design flaw" because we don't know all the competing design objectives, and neither does the critic. All we can really say is that it's curious… even baffling. And there are many things that we use every day that have features which, if we were to pay attention, would puzzle us. But that never means that the object wasn't designed… in fact we know--whether it's a toaster oven or a hat rack--that it was the product of Intelligent Design. And so curious--even apparently useless--design features are not incompatible with Intelligent Design, which means that the argument from suboptimal design is a very poorly designed argument