Friday, August 26, 2005

An Impossible Challenge?

I spent this past weekend dog-sitting, stretched out on the couch at my friends' apartment with the pooches, enjoying the air conditioning, drinking beer and taking advantage of cable to watch documentaries on Animal Planet.

Over and over again, I was struck by certain language in the narration, and I noticed it again in a special Op-Ed in The New York Times this morning: "In a broad physiological sense, we are practically identical not only with other mammals but also with birds - muscle for muscle, eye for eye, nerve for nerve, lung for lung, brain for brain, hormone for hormone - except for differences in detail of particular design specifications."


I tried an experiment. Google "cheetah" and "design." You'll get the following phrases from various websites:

"Not only is the cheetah's physical shape designed for speed, but it has other special features as well. For instance, the spine of the cheetah is flexible enough to act as a spring when the cheetah runs. It also is the only cat without retractable claws. This allows the claws to always be exposed, acting like cleats when the cheetah is running. The tail is also designed to help maintain balance at high speeds and during quick turns."

"The bones of a cheetah are designed to take punishment."

"Everything about the cheetah is designed to enhance its running speed."

"Other cats retract their claws to keep them sharp, like carving knives kept in a sheath --the cheetah's claws are designed not for cutting but for traction. This is an animal biologically designed to run."

Or, perhaps:

"Some sharks have teeth that are very sharp, wide, wedge-shaped, and serrated (having a jagged edge), designed for catching and tearing apart prey."

"The eagle's whole head is designed for its fishing and scavenging lifestyle."

"During winter, beavers must feed on the bark of trees they have cut and stored in the autumn, using their specially designed, self-sharpening front incisors."

"Some of the more hardy species such as S. Flava produce a series of 'mutated' stems which don't grow to full height. These stems are designed to protect the plant against frost."

Now, these phrases that I've selected quite randomly doing the most basic search are not from wacky creationist websites. I've linked each and every one of the references.

What's going on here?

Is it merely the limitations of language? Is it just easier to say "many bats have evolved specialized facial structures and bizarre looking ears designed for sound production and hearing"? Is science unable to describe evolution and natural selection without using the word design?

Or is it that scientists, perhaps unconsciously, have already embraced and accepted that our intricate, interconnected universe is best explained as the product of an omnipotent guiding force?

This is not to say that just because I located some random statements about plants and animals that contained the word "design" that everyone should drop what they're doing and support the current nonsense called "Intelligent Design" masquerading as science, which is being pushed by a specific group of people with a clear religious agenda.

Instead, the rabid secularists, such as Nobel laureate Herbert A. Hauptman, who said recently that belief in God "is damaging to the well-being of the human race," need to acknowledge that science regularly describes unique natural features as having been "designed," thereby implying a "designer."

Secular fundamentalists regularly demand that any and all references to God or religion, no matter how objective, be kept out of public discourse.

Fine. As pharaoh challenged the Israelites to make bricks without straw, so I charge secularists to describe the natural world without using the word "design."


Anonymous said...

Designed by natural evolutionary processes, not an omnipotent guiding force.

Andy said...

But that makes no sense; if there is no guiding force, then the genetic changes that mark evolution are, essentially, successful accidents. Design expressly implies intention.

Tin Man said...

True, design implies a purpose.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that "scientists, perhaps unconsciously, have already embraced and accepted that our intricate, interconnected universe is best explained as the product of an omnipotent guiding force." It only means that "design" is a convenient metaphor. After all, we refer to "sunrise" and "sunset," but that doesn't mean we think the sun revolves around the earth.

Even if scientists did unconsciously accept an omnipotent guiding force, that wouldn't make it so.

Sorry to always disagree with your evolution-related posts. Hope it's not annoying.

Crash said...

The cynic in me suspects that the writers knew that if they used the word "evolved" instead of "designed", the wingnuts on the right would have tried to shut them down.

But more than likely, Tin Man is right. It's just a metaphor that people without a scientific background can wrap their brains around.

jwc said...

you're playing semantics. ask the authors of those articles to define how they use the word "design" and you will not be met with anything that implies ID. After all it's not "intelligent" design, it's the single intelligence-free survival of the fittest that designs such lovely things - which are still changing even today. What looks well designed today will look obsolete tomorrow (how else to explain the wooly mammoth and Mac Classic?).

Andy said...

I see. So when I say a word means what it means and you insist it means something else, I'm the one playing semantics?

I particularly enjoyed how you used a man-made machine and compared it to an extinct species as if they were one and the same. On a fundamental -- and apparently deeply suppressed level, in your case -- you do recognize the role that divine engineering has played in the shaping of the world. Interesting.