Evolution and Creationism

Consider the Botfly: The Argument from Design Revisited

          Perhaps you were entertained as much as I was by the antics of the Four Horseman of atheism, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, who in their respective books and articles have poured corrosive disdain on religious belief, at least of the monotheistic kind.  You can even watch them on YouTube.  Basically, they recycle the usual litany of accusations and rationalist arguments.  If you are young and just beginning to experiment with atheism, you might find their screeds thrillingly shocking and brave.

          I went through the transition from belief (fundamentalist Baptist) to atheism some time ago and now consider myself post-atheist, meaning that I am an equal opportunity skeptic and don’t think either side has proved, or can prove, its case, and that I don’t think religion is the Iago of human history, nor that science and rational thinking will necessarily save our species or improve our morals.  I certainly don’t think that science can either prove or disprove the existence of God, mainly because God is an untestable hypothesis which, as Laplace remarked to Napoleon, scientists don’t need to do their work.  It should be mentioned here that being a scientist does not qualify one to decide His existence—but neither does being a theologian or philosopher.  Untestable means exactly that, untestable.  I do not see how positing a God or a spiritual or supernatural realm or dimension answers any question better than materialism does.  In fact, it does so rather less well, because it tends to cut off both answers and questions.  That God works in mysterious ways seems to be a satisfactory approach to life’s mysteries and problems for many people, but I find it insufficient, though not necessarily unnecessary.  Nonetheless, as an intellectual nut, it can be fun to give the arguments of both sides a crack.

          Both believers and atheists are concerned with theodicy:  How can a benevolent and omnipotent God permit such terrible suffering? How can evil be accounted for, and perhaps more importantly, how can human beings have free will if God is both omnipotent and omniscient?  For, in the case of God, isn’t knowing what is going to happen a form of determinism?  Atheists indulge in the same debate as theologians, some coming down on the side of materialist free will and others on the side of determinism.  The latter are quite Calvinist in their belief in predestination (except, perhaps, in their own case.)  And what could be more teleological than the theory of evolution by natural selection, culminating so conveniently in us.  I read that scientists like Paul Davies are interested in the apparent fact that the Universe is perfectly suited for life and enjoy wondering why it is so perfect, just right for human beings.  Are we the Universe thinking about Itself?  Did the Universe think about making us so that we could think about It?  It is a lovely and poetic thought, and I would write a poem about it, if Richard Wilbur hadn’t beaten me to the punch.  But it seems to me that the Universe is not perfectly suited for life and for us, but rather that life (and we) is somewhat feasibly well suited to it.

          I have to conclude that atheists are disappointed Christians.  They do, however, have plenty of reason for their disappointment.  Looked at squarely, the Christian God is an impossibility.  If He exists, He is either not omnipotent or He is not benevolent (whether or not He is omniscient is irrelevant to my thesis).  To prove that (insofar as it can be proven, see above) I will press into service one of the most effective of the classic arguments for the existence of God, the argument from design.

          The argument from design operates on the premise that a well-ordered world occupied by well-ordered living creatures cannot have come out of nothing and, more importantly, cannot have occurred spontaneously.  Order implies two principles:  in broadly general terms, cause and effect.  Everything must have causes, and everything began with the First Cause, which is an intentional being whom we call God.  And because God is an intentional being, He caused everything for a reason, the myriad effects culminating in one great effect, the outcome of all history.  God designed the universe with an end point or purpose in mind, and therefore the universe is not a toy or plaything.  The argument from design is as old as the great Greek philosophers, but it is particularly cogent in the context of monotheism, and one of its best promulgators was Thomas Aquinas, who included it in his five proofs for the existence of God. 

          All such arguments have operated by analogy, as the following quotations suggest.  The Roman philosopher Cicero states:

The divine power is to be found in a principle of reason that pervades the whole of nature.  When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?

Similarly, Aquinas says:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

Both passages imply that God is like human beings; He is intelligent and He directs his actions and creations to a purpose.  Just as humans design sundials for the purpose of telling time and arrows for the purpose of piercing a target, so God designed the world, although for what end or purpose is not clear.  The argument from design thus assumes that reason precedes the universe, indeed is a fundamental principle of the world, rather than a product of it.  (This is not unlike the neo-Darwinist view that specific traits are selected for a particular purpose.)

          William Paley wrote the most well known, or at least most often heard about, defense of the argument from design in his treatise Natural Theology (1802), and in the introductory pages of his defense he elaborates his famous analogy of the watch implying a watchmaker (an artificer, as he frequently calls it).  It is a clever analogy, but flawed.  He begins by scenario:  Imagine walking in a field and kicking up a stone—you would not pay much attention to it, for it is only a stone and evokes no questions.  But what if you had instead kicked up a watch?  Would you not be curious about so curious an object?  Would you not examine it, and upon finding it wonderfully designed to tell time, conclude that it was made for the purpose of telling time by someone, even if that someone were nowhere in view?  Certainly you would, and with great justification.  Just so, the world and its objects, both animate and inanimate, are wonderfully designed, and therefore there must be a designer or artificer, an intelligence that created all these things to an end.  Paley extends his analogy by (fancifully) suggesting that the watch has the capability of producing more watches, that is it reproduces itself; this is important to a point that Paley makes early on, that supposing that this watch in your hand is the latest in an infinite series of watches does not lessen the necessity that there be an originating designer.  (One has to assume that such an argument in defense of atheism was common enough in Paley’s day to warrant the addition of this odd element to his description of the watch.)  Unfortunately, Paley was at a disadvantage in antedating Darwin’s theory of evolution by half a century, so he could not have known that the near-infinite series was not one of watches (or botflies or zebras) but of gradually less and less complex creatures back to no creature at all.  Or to reverse the order, he could not have known that the very first life forms were relatively simple single-celled things barely really yet alive nor that the creatures he was familiar with were the end result of millions of years of increasing complexity.  He was laboring under the error of assuming that each kind of creature and its various marvelous parts were created as is, rather than being the product of ages of cumulative development and selection.  Nevertheless, it is obvious to a modern reader that the early stirrings of what eventually became the theory of evolution were already being much debated in Paley’s time and that Paley was premonitorily disturbed by their implications.

          The analogy is further flawed by the very fact that none of his readers would have been the least mystified by the watch.  Everyone in England by that time knew what clocks and watches were, and quite a few of them owned one or more.  They often knew who made the watch they carried or the clocks they kept in their houses.  But unless they began by assuming the existence of God already (in which case, they were not in need of the argument from design, other than as a defense of what they already knew against the clearly depraved reasoning of atheists), they would have difficulty in making the leap from a well-known manmade object to inferring a designer from objects which were known not to be made by humans—for example, that neglected stone, which Paley rather cavalierly dismisses from consideration.  But wouldn’t a real scientist ask, whence the stone, even more so than whence the watch, made by the well-known Thomas Russell or some other artisan of the times?  Further, the watch is made by people for the purpose of telling time; the botfly, however, serves no purpose, at least no human or externally determined one.  The botfly lives wholly for itself, and its sole purpose is to reproduce and survive.  It has no interest in telling its host what time it is.

          One of the commonest counter arguments to design is that if God were so omni-everything, why is the world so imperfect?  Paley has a fairly good answer:  proofs for the existence of God are distinct from arguments respecting his attributes.  Consequently, after devoting the majority of his book to examples of wondrous design in living things (including an interesting chapter on the development of living creatures over the course of their lifetimes, a process he calls “Prospective Contrivances”), Paley addresses both the attributes of God and the issues generally subsumed under theodicy.  The attributes of God are 1) He is a person; 2) He is intelligent; 3) He is omni-everything, eternal, self-existent (not caused by something prior), and spiritual; 4) He is the Unity behind the apparent variety of the created world (the Universe is a system, and, true to the intellectual temper of Paley’s times, mechanical); and 5) He is good or benevolent because the features of His creations are beneficial to themselves, and He has given His living creatures the capacity for pleasure (which He does not limit to human beings but confers on all sentient beings, insects, birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals).

          But what about imperfections, suffering, and chance?  Paley addresses these at length, but for the sake of brevity, we can boil them down to one central principle:  free will, or as he calls it, free agency.  Without free will, there is no virtue, no motive for activity or improvement, no scope for the exercise of human faculties.  Even death is integral to the system.  As he points out, “Death itself, as a mode of removal and succession [i.e., new generations], is so connected with the whole order of our natural world, that almost every thing in that world must be changed, to be able to do without it.”  In the case of human beings, fortunately, there is the prospect of a higher form or mode of life after this one, this one being a testing ground for the next.  Paley also cleverly notes that chance (or at least the appearance of chance) is necessary for free agency as well, for if everything were determined, there would be no room for the exercise of choice and action.  One of his arguments (again, one from analogy, which is his preferred logical method throughout Natural Theology) is sufficiently clever to warrant summary here:  We have all had the experience of running into someone we know by chance, say as we are transferring planes at the Atlanta airport on our way to Italy.  Between flights, we encounter an old college buddy whom we haven’t seen in decades.  “Fancy that,” we say, and perhaps, if we have a superstitious tendency, “This must mean something.”  For Paley, what it means is that we planned our trip to Italy, starting from our home in, say, Phoenix, with a change in Atlanta, and a final destination in Milan.  Our college buddy also planned a trip, from his home in Baton Rouge, with a change in Atlanta, and a final destination in New York.  We are traveling for pleasure, he is traveling for business.  We encounter each other in the Atlanta airport as a consequence of our separate and unrelated plans, as well as the planned routes and hubs of the airlines.  As Paley puts it, “events which are not designed [encountering our friend] necessarily arise from the pursuit of events which are designed [our and our friend’s separate plans for a trip].”  Note that the direct intervention of a deity or angel is not required to effect our encounter with our long-lost friend.  It requires no more than the plans of us and our friend to be effected, and by this means chance is explainable.  Very neat.  Design is not the illusion—chance is, and further, chance is the product of the workings of design.  (This line of thought makes me wonder if polytheistic design, or fate as it seems so often to be, is the intersection of the competing plans of the gods, or if monotheism is a higher level of abstraction than polytheism.)

          In the United States at least, the argument from design has traditionally been used to support a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation (setting aside the fact that Genesis offers two versions), and there remain today many people who believe in the “young earth theory” and that fossils and other indications of great swaths of geologic and cosmic time are simply erroneously interpreted by scientists or deliberate deceptions by God meant to trip up the proud and faithless.  Other creationists, however, conceding to the scientific evidence for great stretches of time and for evolution, resort to the dodge of Intelligent Design.  One has to fan away a great deal of smoke before one can get to the fundamental theses of the proponents of ID, and even then one may not be sure exactly what they believe.  For example, the official website of the ID movement states that “the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural.” This is disingenuous to say the least, as all adherents of ID are also theists, often with very clear allegiances to identifiable denominations and conservative religious groups.  This in itself would not invalidate their arguments, of course, so those arguments, particularly in view of their claims that ID is science rather than religion, warrant some consideration.  The most recent and popular statement of the ID thesis is Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell:  DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.  For a reader not well-versed in science, including information theory, the book is compelling.  It extends to 610 pages (in the hardback edition), including extensive notes, bibliography, and footnotes.  It piles up extensive examples of how DNA very specifically codes for specific and very complex traits and concludes that the extent of “information” contained in DNA cannot be accounted for by natural selection alone.  Meyer states that that “information” cannot be originated by accident but must originate in an intelligence:  “Our commonsense reasoning might lead us to conclude that the information necessary to the first life, like the information in human technology or literature, arose from a designing intelligence” (17). 

          Or it might not, if for example we understood the differences in the various meanings of the word “information,” which he conflates throughout the book.  Or it might not if we noticed that Meyer’s argument is pretty much the same one as offered by Paley, but updated to DNA rather than anatomy to accommodate our latest technology and metaphors.  Most of us no longer think of the universe or individual living things as machines (although Dawkins still uses that metaphor in The Blind Watchmaker) because machines have become too routine to evoke much notice.  Instead, we indulge in metaphors based on computers and digital technology and software, even when we actually know little about how they actually work.  (Again, Dawkins also devotes many pages to a programming analogy to illustrate his conception of how natural selection works.)  Suffice to say, however, that an information scientist would not conflate his or her concept of “information” with the commonsense notion of things to know, as Meyer does.  Even without that fundamental metaphorical error, Meyer’s argument is fatally flawed, as is Paley’s, by its dependence on an anthropomorphic and anthropocentric analogy that argues backwards from a recently invented and comparatively simple human technology onto complex and often messy natural phenomena that pre-date human beings by many millions of years.  This is, of course, how analogy works, but it is also why analogy is merely illustrative rather than explanatory.  Just as the concepts of contemporary physics cannot be explained in everyday language but in the higher math, so DNA cannot be explained in terms of literature or libraries or databases—they can be illustrated to the lay person in these terms, but the lay person so enlightened still doesn’t know what geneticists know as geneticists know it.

          More interesting for my thesis, however, is Meyer’s disingenuous dance around what he refers to as the “implications” of the ID theory for theism.  In retelling an encounter with a skeptical interviewer, Meyer says that “he tried to get me to say that I thought the designing intelligence responsible for life was God” (439), as if that attempt were evidence of the nefarious intentions of the interviewer.  But given that, as Meyer admits, he is a Christian, and that everyone associated with the ID movement is at least a theist if not an outright Christian, the interviewer certainly was not trying to get Meyer to render a false confession.  Then Meyer writes, “the theory [of intelligent design] does not make claims about a deity, nor can it.  It makes a more modest claim based upon our uniform experience about the kind of cause—namely, an intelligent cause—that was responsible for the origin of biological form and information” (440); but if that is not at least part of “our” definition of God, what is it?  Then after further denials that ID (and the argument from design generally) is an argument for the existence of God (even though the argument from design has never before been used to any other purpose), Meyer states: 

          Moreover, intelligent design, arguably, has specifically theistic implications because intelligent design confirms a major tenet of a theistic worldview, namely, that life was designed by a conscious and intelligent being, a purposive agent with a mind.  If intelligent design is true, it follows that a designing intelligence with some of the attributes typically associated with God acted to bring the first living cells into existence.  The evidence of intelligent design in biology does not prove that God exists (or that a being with all of the attributes of a transcendent God exists), since it is at least logically possible that an immanent (within the universe) intelligence rather than a transcendent intelligence might have designed life. (443; italics in original)

Aside from an angels-on-a-needle kind of circumlocution in this passage, one is struck by Meyer’s attempts to argue that the traditional attributes of God are not in fact attributes of God but only of an intelligence.  Immanent rather than transcendent?  Is he really saying that an immanent intelligence is not God while a transcendent intelligence is?  Is he saying that a transcendent God would be supernatural while an immanent “intelligence” would not be supernatural (see above regarding the ID website’s claim on this point)?  This distortion suggests that Meyer either knows little of the history of theology or that his views are influenced by sectarian biases.  Whichever may be the case, this line of argument is so ludicrous as to prove what Meyer wishes to deny, that ID is a theistic, creationist line of argument, every bit as much so as Paley’s or Aquinas’s, and is also in fact what its critics say it is, a way of conceding to creationism equal time and consideration as Darwinism by stealth.  For all its scientific camouflage, ID is creationism—nothing more, nothing less.  It really makes no difference if creation is thought to have occurred seven thousand years ago or four billion—it’s still creationism.

          Well, almost.  What we might call pure or literal creationism clings to the young earth, seven-days version of creation as narrated in Genesis (ignoring that there are two different versions), while intelligent design does acknowledge the fact that the earth is millions of years old rather than only 7000 or so and that evolution occurred, although under the direction of the Intelligence rather than natural selection.  Both Pew and Gallup polls indicate that around 42% of Americans capable of answering simple survey questions believe in young earth creation; however, given that intelligent design is actually a more complicated hypothesis than literal creationism, it is harder to get a read on how many people subscribe to it because of the differences in the way the questions on the two surveys are worded.  I am nonetheless struck by the high percentage of the population which believes in literal creationism, the largest single group in the survey results.  In comparison, intelligent designers seem almost enlightened, particularly when one notes that the percentage of practicing scientists who believe in God or a supreme being is pretty high (59% combined), although not as high as the general public (96% combined).  Being a scientist may entail a greater likelihood of being an atheist, but does not guarantee it.  Equally, being a scientist does not make reconciling the evidence of science with the doctrines of religion, or at least of Christianity, any easier or more logical.  ID might seem like a feasible compromise between science and religion in general, but does not work so well when the doctrines of a particular religion are considered.

          The “implications” [Meyer’s term] of intelligent design for theology demonstrate the continued difficulties.  However nimbly intelligent designers may dance around the issue, the agenda of the ID movement is quite clearly to neutralize the atheizing tendencies of Darwinism and update Paley’s argument to fit present circumstances.  It is an assault on atheism and a defense of Christianity, as all arguments from design have always been.  Therefore, the actual implications of ID for Christian doctrine should be worked out.  In a nutshell, the foundation of Christian belief is that God created a perfect world; he created man in His image, innocent of sin or the knowledge thereof.  But he also created man with free will, for otherwise man could not really be said to be in God’s likeness.  As a test of man’s free will, God planted a tree in the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and instructed man not to eat of its fruit, lest he die.  But the serpent tempted first Eve and then, through her, Adam, and they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for they wished to be as the gods, knowing both good and evil.  When God discovered their sin, He condemned them and all their descendents to hardship and death and turned them out of Eden so that they would not eat of the tree of life and become immortal.  Thus began the whole sacred history recorded in the Bible, from the Old Testament ups and downs of God’s chosen people to the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, all to be ended eventually in the Second Coming. 

          Note what’s very important for my point here:  Death did not exist prior to Adam and Eve’s fall.  The creation story mentions herbivorousness, but not carnivorousness, and Adam and Eve are portrayed as eating fruit, not meat.  Indeed, there seems to be a definite bias towards farming in at least one of the two creation narratives; the second one says that “there was as yet no farmer to till the land,” but neither narrative mentions herders or hunters.  Thus, death is a punishment for sin, and redemption from sin will also be redemption from death (John 3:16).  To underscore this fact, consider these Biblical passages:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  I Cor 15:22

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.  Rom 5:14

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Rom 6:23

And that death will end with the Second Coming and the completion of sacred history is attested by the “peaceable kingdom” motif in Isaiah 11:6-8:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
       the leopard will lie down with the goat,
       the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
       and a little child will lead them.

 The cow will feed with the bear,
       their young will lie down together,
       and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
       and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.

(If a reader objects to my citation of an Old Testament passage in support of a description of the results of the Second Coming of Christ, my defense is, that’s what Christian ministers do—in cherry picking verses from the Bible, I am acting in the best, or at least the typical, Christian tradition.)

          The implications of intelligent design for Christian doctrine are devastating—if ID is true, it destroys the foundation of the Christian story of death and redemption and brings down the entire edifice of two thousand years of doctrine and theology.  It is very simple:  Evolution, whether driven by natural selection or intelligent design, cannot operate without death; death is as essential as life to evolution; death and life are the two sides to the same coin.  Death was present from the very beginning of life, millions of years before human beings emerged on the earthly savannahs; predation and parasitism, disease and degeneration (old age) were already long established by the time the first men and women, boys and girls began to wonder about their own existence.  Death is neither new nor recent, and evolutionarily speaking is not a punishment for sin.  As Paley noted, death is a necessary condition for new generations of life; without death there is no birth.  (It appears that Paley did not take Genesis literally.)  Nor, in fact, is there any development.  Programmed cell death or apoptosis is part of the process of embryonic and neural development, and throughout an organism’s life, cell death and regeneration are continuous; indeed, lack of cell death is called cancer.  Rather than looking at life and death as dichotomous or antithetical to each other, perhaps we should view them as a continuum or feedback loop.

          Nonetheless, Meyer is not without grounds for claiming that intelligent design is rejected by the bulk of the scientific community because it challenges that community’s most dearly held doctrine, the Neo-Darwinist thesis of gradual evolution by natural selection.  And perhaps there are some who would hold that stealth may be the only way for Meyer and his ID crew to get their ideas heard.  The angry and dismissive tones in which ID arguments are rejected certainly suggests a degree of prejudicial hostility to intelligent design which, to someone with little or no stake in the war, may appear excessive.  So too the way that strict natural selectionists reject the suggestions by equally reputable and anti-creationist scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, that other factors played an important role in evolution.  After all, one cannot either prove or disprove either ID or strict natural selectionism on purely evidential grounds, given that so much of what would constitute such evidence is irretrievable from the remote reaches of past eons.  In this regard, Dawkins’ famous best-seller The Blind Watchmaker makes a very compelling case for gradual change through natural selection at the level of DNA, despite its rather excessive reliance on metaphors of machines and computer code.  To my mind, it makes a better case than does Meyer’s book, even though Meyer also likes the computer code analogy.  But when Dawkins attempts to recover the likely processes of the earliest beginnings of life, he has no choice but to resort to speculation.  When he attempts to determine the likelihood of there being other planets with life, particularly self-reflective intelligent life, he must resort to even deeper speculation, and the blizzard of reasoning which accompanies his speculations does not lessen their speculative, indeed sometimes fantastical, nature.  Like Meyer, Dawkins conjectures to the point of extrapolation fatigue.

          Both Meyer and Dawkins have at least one trait in common, a dogmatic certainty about the existence or non-existence of God that neither can prove on the grounds they go to such great lengths to explain.  Evolution cannot prove the existence of God, especially in the particular form that contemporary Christianity conceives of Him, and it cannot prove his non-existence.  Science should not be hijacked by theology nor by anti-theology.  Science and theology are, as Gould suggested, different magisteria, or to borrow Fleck’s term, different thought collectives.  There is much that is profound as well as much that is trivial in both.

          As I noted above, the argument from design does continue to have a strong appeal, despite its inherent weaknesses.  So long as we keep our attention on generalities like the cycles of the seasons or the bounties of a world that benefits mankind, or as long as we focus on the obviously beautiful things like orchids or Thoroughbred stallions or colorful songbirds, or things of clear benefit like eyes and ankle bones, we can continue to believe that the observable world reflects the intelligence and order of a beneficent and loving God.  (So too as long as we can distill the complexities of life to the comparatively simple principles of man-made objects such as watches and computer programs.)  The argument might appear somewhat less cogent if we consider poison ivy, hyenas, or weasels, but ecologists can point out that predators at least control the populations of herbivores and thus keep Nature in balance.  Perhaps.  But let us consider creatures which appear to have no purpose other than to make other creatures miserable, parasites.  Let us consider particularly the edifying example of the botfly.  There are a number of botfly species, but I will use only one, Dermatobia hominis, the human botfly.  This creature exemplifies an incredible degree of apparently intelligent design.  The female botfly pursues mosquitoes upon which it lays its eggs, ensuring secure attachment with a kind of glue.  The mosquito then pursues a source of fresh blood to nourish its own eggs.  It lands on a suitable human, pierces the skin and begins to suck up blood.  Apparently the body heat of the ingested human blood softens the botfly glue, permitting the eggs to drop from the abdomen of the mosquito to the surface of the person’s skin, where the eggs hatch and the botfly larvae use the tiny hole created by the mosquito bite as a point of entry to the subcutaneous layers, where they chew away at the flesh of their “host.”  The botfly larva is beautifully and precisely designed to survive its eight weeks beneath the skin, having its breathing tube at its rear end, which sticks out slightly at the surface, and having backward-projecting spines that make it difficult to remove the larva by hand or pincer.  Although generally the larva does little permanent harm to its human host, it defecates slimy fluids, and victims have reported being able to feel the larvae moving around in their skin.  Upon completion of the larval stage, the parasite emerges from the skin and drops to the ground, where it pupates and in a week emerges as an adult.  The purpose of the adult botfly is to mate and lay eggs on gullible mosquitoes, thus beginning the cycle anew.  Interestingly, the adult botfly does not eat, in fact cannot eat as it has incompletely developed mouth parts.  All this, both form and behavior, controlled by the botfly’s DNA. 

          Parenthetically, I think that this lack of a functioning mouth creates a problem for both the design argument and the strict Neo-Darwinist narrative of natural selection.  On the one hand, this lack can seem like a cruel joke; on the other, one has to wonder how lacking a mouth can be called an adaptation.  Which came first, the lack of a functioning mouth, thus leading to the adult not eating, thus leading to additional adaptations for quick reproduction and piggy-backing on mosquitoes to save precious time?  Or did the adults stop eating and over time lose their ability to eat?  What could “adaptation” even mean in this instance? 

          As an example of parasites, the botfly is rather tame.  Other parasites wreak considerably more havoc on their hosts, without providing any known benefit.  Bilharzia, tapeworms, roundworms, amoebas, cuckoos, viruses and bacteria cause harm and suffering without doing much that can be called “good.”  Both predation and parasitism have interesting implications for the designer kind of reasoning towards the existence and attributes of God, as perhaps does even so innocent an act as munching on a carrot, for what they suggest is a rather bloody-minded deity who could very well take pleasure in the suffering of his creatures.  At the very least, in constructing the harmony and balances of the system, individual suffering, of which there is so much throughout the living world, is to Him a matter of indifference. Death is as much at the heart of this system as life is.  Yet with some notable exceptions, such as the Puritan idea of an angry and deterministic God, this picture of a death-loving god is seldom considered by Christians. 

          But perhaps considering parasites, viruses, and predators is looking too far afield.  Perhaps we should look closer to home for answers to the questions raised by the argument from design.  Perhaps we should consider ourselves.  All too often we look at ourselves the way Miranda looked at the shipwreck survivors, as the paragons of creation:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
The Tempest (V, i)

We certainly devote a great deal of time and resources to singing our own praises, as any glance at the college curriculum or the schedule of educational channels on television indicates.  The humanities, psychology, anthropology, philosophy and medicine are all about us, and usually about how wonderful we are.  Even evolutionary biologists tend to wax a bit panegyric when they turn their attention to human evolution.  This may be in part because we have nothing nearby to compare ourselves to, so in our own minds at least we tend to stand out as particularly unique, and puzzling, in the grand landscape of life on earth.  A little lower than the angels, we might be tempted to think, and while this human-centered narcissism has been tempered a bit by the insights of Darwinism, generally we consider ourselves to be pretty remarkable. 

          Yet there has also always been a certain degree of humility in our views of ourselves, originating in our all too vivid awareness of our mortality.  Again we can quote Shakespeare, this time from Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

 Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28


The sentiment, of course, was not original to Shakespeare; his words reflect a long history of humble pie, most often expressed through the ages in religious terms:

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

 and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalms 8:4

For all flesh is as grass,

and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.

The grass withers,

and the flower thereof falls away.

I Peter 1:24

The Bible contains many passages on this theme, which can also be found in all world religious traditions.  It may be seen as unfortunate that such a modest view of mankind has not informed the actions of men or influenced the course of human history.  It is not necessary here to list the multitudinous counts of the indictment, as most of us are well acquainted with the examples of our enthusiastic indulgence in war, murder, torture, selfishness, recreational cruelty, megalomania, delusion, and general mayhem of our species, not limited by the way to densely organized civilizations (see Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing).  Some of the earliest and best preserved human fossils bear signs of violent death at the hands of other humans.

          The good-hearted, high-minded bourgeoisie of our times would like to pretend that human evil, if I may use that quaint term, is the result of blighted circumstance and that, if only we raised our children better, gave everyone a college education, and distributed the advantages of society equitably among everyone, violence and exploitation would disappear.  Unfortunately, such utopias as have been attempted have not ended well, perhaps because people have not seen the benefits to themselves nor the fun in peaceable kingdoms, regardless of how they might be arranged.  Or perhaps it’s because utopias try to simplify that which is irreducibly complex.

          It is therefore interesting to wonder, if we take the argument from design seriously, what the nature and behavior of humans might say about the Designer.  There are sound Biblical grounds for taking this approach; according to Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  If human beings are indeed created in the image or likeness (a variant translation) of God, might we not by examining the nature of man be able to extrapolate to the nature of God?  If man is arbitrarily cruel, for example, might not God also be so?  Aside from the complicating issue of man’s fall from innocence and all the difficulties presented by the notion of free will which that entails, can we find any scriptural evidence for the cruelty of God?  Now, before we begin, I am aware that theist readers will already be objecting that God’s apparent cruelty is punishment for sin.  Perhaps, but it is interesting to note how the concept of “sin” has changed over the centuries.

          Let us look at an early example: 

A man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath.  He was brought before Moses and Aaron and kept in custody because no one knew what to do with him.  Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die.  The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.”  So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. Num 15:32-36

This brief passage is noteworthy for its stark brevity, and a modern reader might want a bit more explanation.  Why, for example, was the man gathering wood on the Sabbath?  Was his family hungry or cold?  Was he aware of his misdemeanor but unaware of the punishment, said punishment apparently not yet having been devised (“no one knew what to do with him”)?  Is it fair or arbitrary to come up with the punishment after the crime has been committed, rather than before as a deterrent and warning of its relative seriousness?  Why is a seemingly mild transgression worthy of such a brutal sentence?  I cannot imagine an American fundamentalist or evangelical (if there’s a difference) campaigning to impose such a sentence today, particularly considering that they are wholesale violators of the injunction themselves (why do shopping malls open at noon on Sundays?).  Perhaps such harshness was seen as necessary to bringing a stubborn people into line.  For after all, the Israelites had gruesome work ahead of them.  They had the promised land of Canaan to wrest from its native inhabitants.

          As regards this work, God is described as having the following to say: “You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you.  Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:16).  At least here a reason for the cruelty is provided, and it is certainly true that repeatedly throughout the Old Testament the Israelites succumb to the temptations of idolatry and following false gods.  Apparently, however, the concept of proselytizing and conversion had to wait some centuries before it occurred to anyone.  At any rate, the Israelites had little problem in obeying God’s orders to kill all the brutes:

Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.  Num 31: 17-18

When Israel had finished killing all of the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. .. .. .. Israel carried off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua.  Joshua 8

And so on.  The Old Testament narratives of the conquest of Canaan are one bloody verse after another, and the Israelites incur the wrath of God only when they take even the slimmest measure of pity on their enemies.  The epic proportions of the bloodshed, the preoccupation with warrior fame, and the invocation of the will of the gods or God invite comparison to that other great ancient paean to heroic bloodshed, the Iliad.  The comparison further suggests that ancient men were puzzled by their own preference for violence rather than peace and sought answers in the only paradigm they had at hand for understanding it, the religious paradigm.  Men behave tragically because the gods make them do it.  All gods are jealous gods.

          Contemporary atheists of a scientific bent say our genes make us do it.  Evolution is a competition for reproductive survival—for territory and resources necessary to genetic success.  Our magnificent minds notwithstanding, our fundamental motives are atavistic, powered by our reptilian brain rather than our neocortex. 

          One of the biggest problems of atheists is that they all seem to be monotheists.  Despite the fact that most people throughout human history have been polytheists, polytheism seems not to have thrown up many atheists.  I suppose it is harder to be angry at many gods rather than one.  Or perhaps polytheism has done a better job of accounting for the unpredictability and disappointments of life than monotheism has.  Or perhaps monotheism is simply a more powerful theory, as suggested by contemporary physicists seeking a unitary theory of everything.  Certainly it can be argued that every great secular theorist of the modern Western world has been more determined by monotheistic thinking that any of them would care to admit.  There has to be an answer, and that answer must be One, whether we are talking science, society, education, economics, or salvation.  You either accept the One or you reject it in favor of Another One, whereas in polytheism you can choose a favorite god or gods and worship him or her or them without worrying too much about whom your neighbor is worshipping.  Or if you like the results your neighbor is getting, you can add his god to your personal pantheon without diminishing any of its prior residents.  Not that polytheism is all roses and honey, as, for example, the Aztecs demonstrate.  Polytheism tends to be syncretic, whereas monotheism tends to be at best synthetic, at worst obstinate.

          Polytheists have considered the facts of life and reached some interesting conclusions.  For example, the Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped a god called in English the Decapitator (Ai Apaec), who was frequently depicted as a spider holding a human head.  There is a certain analogical logic in this depiction.  The Moche practiced a rather gruesome form of human sacrifice.  They believed that death was as much a fundamental aspect of the world as birth and life and that blood has mysterious powers.  They also lived in a region where a kind of trapdoor spider was common, and I can’t help but think that the sight of such a spider suddenly jumping up from below ground to grab a passing victim and drag it down to its lair inspired Moche thought about death and the underworld.  (See Robert Frost’s poem “Design” for a much later rumination on the lessons to be drawn from observation of a spider capturing its prey.)  It is also interesting that their depictions of the spider with its eight legs splayed around it resemble the human rib cage.  We know little about the rites and beliefs of the Moche, but what we do know suggests that the Moche did not believe that their gods were benevolent in any sense we would recognize.  Oddly enough, however, they do seem to have posited a supreme creator god who was too powerful and remote to be interested in the puny affairs and concerns of men, making him strikingly like the clockwork god of the Deists.

          Likewise other pre-Columbian civilizations.  The Maya had a large pantheon of gods who had different and often multiple functions and who sometimes could bring both blessing and disaster.  There were creator gods and war gods, gods of various climatic phenomena, maize, and death.  Noteworthy too are their rituals of human sacrifice and voluntary shedding of blood by the nobility.  The brutality of Mayan sacrifices can boggle the mind:  victims went through extensive tortures prior to death, including but not limited to burning, amputation, disemboweling, and having their fingernails yanked out.  Nobles apparently used self-induced pain as a means of experiencing visions of their ancestors.  Clearly, Mayan gods were not seen as benevolent and loving, nor apparently as all powerful, considering that so many were necessary to the creation (13) and functioning of the world. So too the Aztecs, who had around one hundred different gods and who apparently sincerely believed that only human blood could keep the sun rising every day.  Some gods had more power than others, but none had absolute power.  The Maya and Aztecs were far from having the concept of a Supreme Being, First Cause, or Prime Mover.  Their world was chaotic and unpredictable, which ironically enough is why they, and other polytheisms, devoted so much effort and material wealth to placating the gods and trying to predict the future through omens, calendars, and other techniques of divination.  (Interestingly, with the rise of monotheism in the Old Testament, divination and oracles were repudiated as contrary to the very concept of one god.)

          Examples of polytheism’s basic premise that the world is a chaotic place shaped by competing and contradictory forces (the gods) and the corollary beliefs that human beings are as subject to these forces as any other creature and that death is at least as ubiquitous as life, could be multiplied many times over, and one could think that polytheism, insofar as religious viewpoints are concerned, is a more accurate description of the observable realities of the world than is monotheism.  Theodicy is not an issue for these religions.  Suffering is an intimate part of the whole, part of the motive force of creation.  Thus in considering the botfly, Aztec or Mayan theologians would have found nothing surprising about it, and they certainly wouldn’t have viewed it as a contradiction of their ideas about the gods or the world.  They simply would have inferred its association with the appropriate god, and the matter would have been settled.

          Monotheism, however, is not so accommodating of contradictions.  The mindset of the monotheist is unitary and consistent, and apparent contradictions must be reconciled, as Paley and, earlier, Samuel Clarke mightily labored to do.  The botfly must be accounted for.  If we consider religion as an important aspect of the history of ideas rather than for its truth or falsity, and if we therefore consider monotheism as a stage in the development of human ideas, we can better understand why contemporary Westerners, both believers and nonbelievers, think in monotheistic terms and also why for many Westerners, and certainly for most Americans, the implications of both biological evolution and modern physics are repellant.  And we will better understand why teleological thinking strategies continue to frame the way both are talked about.

          It is important to keep in mind that those who argue for the existence of God on the basis of design already believe that God exists or are already inclined to believe.  Thus the argument from design is basically an a priori one, as are all arguments for the existence of God.  If you already believe some proposition to be true, evidence for its truth abounds.  Paley’s book is filled with examples that prove his point so long as the point is already taken.  There is, however, that stone he parenthetically mentions early on and then drops.  The stone does not provide a good analogy for the argument because: 1) it doesn’t appear (at least to Paley) to be complex or made according to a plan or blueprint; there are many stones in that hypothetical field, of various sizes and colors and all generally shapeless and lacking moving parts or identifiable purpose; and 2) unlike the watch, which his contemporary readers already knew well enough was made by humans for human purposes, and which any curious person could observe being made, the stone does not have an identifiable artificer and no one had ever seen a stone being manufactured.  So whereas there is no question about how the watch came into existence or why, there very much is for the stone.

          So let us conduct a mind experiment.  Let us put ourselves in Paley’s field and let us kick up both that stone and that watch.  Not being already convinced of the existence of a benevolent, omni-everything creator God, we might dismiss the watch as being of little interest because we already know how watches are made.  We might pause long enough to look for its maker’s mark and to determine if it still works (if it does, we will slip it into our pocket, if it doesn’t we will give it a good toss back into the weeds of the field).  The stone, on the other hand, might be of some interest to an atheistical person of scientific bent.  Is it igneous or sedimentary?  Is it of a composition and shape common to the area, or is it strangely different?  What does it reveal of the geological history of the place?  How old is it?  Etc.  But it is rather unlikely that we would ask who manufactured the stone and for what purpose.  Even Paley does not pause to consider that question, naturalist though he is.  James Hutton, Robert Jameson, and Charles Lyell did, and by doing so made an actual discovery, the very long stretches of geologic time, a discovery that made possible Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection over eons.  The argument from design, so dependent on analogy (watches, arrows, sundials, etc.), has not led to any discoveries whatsoever.  Indeed, the history of the churches’ resistance to scientific discoveries indicates that they recognize dangers to their doctrines when they see them coming and make every effort to throttle them before the faithful are corrupted.

          Human beings are hampered by two things:  The limitations of our faculties (including the limits of our brains) and our language.  Even today, with our modern technologies and sophisticated instruments, there is a great deal that we cannot perceive; we may never overcome our limits, and it is even possible that we will reach a point at which we cannot push our perceptions any further (which we might acknowledge—or we might egotistically believe that we have perceived everything there is, being unable to imagine anything else).  We are also limited in our intelligence and imagination.  The brain is a powerful organ (or at least we flatter ourselves that it is) but it is not even remotely capable of omniscience.  Our lack of competition makes it difficult for us to imagine a being whose intelligence is either greater than ours or very different from ours.  Space aliens, for example, are always depicted as humanoid in form or as exaggerations of familiar earthly creatures such as insects or reptiles.  Hence our anthropomorphizing of hypothetical superior spiritual beings (gods) as well as of markedly intellectually inferior real beings (chimps, dogs, cats, etc.), the latter in fact being a favorite stealth analogy in a surprising amount of neo-Darwinist writings, especially of the popularizing kind.

          Witness recent claims that rather a lot of animals have “language,” when in fact they do not.  Animals communicate information of course, but they do not have the properties of language.  They do not have metaphor, etymology, irony, conversations and dialogues, sermons and lectures, poetry and epics and novels, propositions and syllogisms, monographs and theories.  They do not have complex and compound, periodic and cumulative sentences, imperfect and pluperfect tenses, prepositions and particles.   (Nor are their tools anything like even rather rudimentary human technologies.)  They cannot do what Paley did two hundred years ago, they cannot do what I am doing now as I write this essay, and they cannot do what you are doing as you read and mentally contest my words.  They do not have language.  We do, and with language comes incredible power of thought and imagination.  But not necessarily accuracy or validity.  We can be tripped up by our own words, as Paley recognized in his many references to words without meanings.  A beautifully stated, perfectly logical edifice of argument can be completely wrong, even completely empty, like a Potemkin village, all façade and no substance.  To be convinced by an argument is not necessarily the same as having discovered Truth (or even truth). 

          The argument from design as it is traditionally framed is fundamentally anthropocentric (as well as anthropomorphic).  It approaches its question from the point of view of humans:  All its examples tend to be drawn from those living things we find beautiful or useful or from those traits we share (or imagine we share) with other animals.  They also seem pre-selected to prove the existence of a particular kind of god, one who is very much like us (“in his image”) only bigger.  A human-centered orientation can also infect the way evolutionary biologists narrate their story of natural selection.  An example of this tendency is given by R. C. Lewontin in his reviewof a book titled What Darwin Got Wrong.  In explaining that “mutations that had been detected from a change in some obvious feature of an organism also affected other outcomes of the organism’s development and metabolism,” Lewontin offers as an example the effects of mutations in the color of the eyes of fruitflies.  Normally, an adult fruitfly’s eyes are dark red, but certain genetic mutations can cause them to be “bright red or orange or colorless.”  One’s initial naïve conclusion might be that a single gene had mutated, thus affecting a single outcome, eye color.  But wait, there’s more to this than meets the eye:  These genetic mutations also affect the survival rate of the fruitfly larvae, “even though they have no eyes.”  From a human perspective, eye color seems to be the trait in question, the one being selected; but from the perspective of reproductive survival, it likely is something else, since if the larvae don’t survive long enough to become adult flies, eye color is irrelevant.  Perhaps we focus on the eyes because they are relatively easy for us to see and because sight is an important sense in humans (eyes as windows of the soul and all that).  Thus what is obvious to us may not be what is most important to fruitflies.  (See the New York Review of Books, 27 May 2010, pp. 34ff.)

          Perhaps we should also say that we are hampered by history, or at least by our narratives.  The antiquity of the belief in a supernatural or spiritual world above or beyond the material world gives it a great deal of folk credence, and if we are raised in a family or social context in which that belief, however it may be specified (in particular gods and doctrines, for example), it can seem natural and commonsensical, whereas a materialist view can seem strange, confusing, and unaccountable.

          How, for example, can something come out of nothing, or how can the material create itself?  The questions imply that everything has to have a cause, and each cause has to have its own prior cause, back to the beginning—but at that beginning, something not caused must have been the first cause.  The idea that there is no beginning, but genuine infinity back in time forever and always, seems to elude most people, at least when materiality is considered—apparently somehow or another God can be without a beginning, though there is no explanation for how that can be so.  The very first humans to think about these things can be forgiven for positing unseen human- or animal-like beings as the causes of observable phenomena, as their knowledge was virtually zero.  It is easy to forget or not think of the fact that these first humans had to start building the human database of knowledge from scratch, and that they had to build the vocabulary and grammatical structures that would enable them to think about, discuss, and preserve their hard-won knowledge and theories.  Even so recent a figure as Paley can be forgiven his errors, considering how much was yet to be discovered (he died in 1805) about the causes of disease (germ theory), genetics (Mendel, Watson and Crick), cells, relativity, etc., not to mention Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories of evolution.  But Paley could have seen, had he the right frame of mind, that while it is true that in our (limited) human experience something does not come from nothing, it is also true that, when causes can be actually identified, they are always material causes and that what we have never seen is a non-material cause.  And this is becoming ever more evident as phenomena which once were mysteries are found to be explainable in purely material terms.  Thus, where once plagues were thought to be the work of God, punishing the sinful and faithless, it has now been established that they are caused by very tiny living organisms and can be controlled or even, in some cases, driven into extinction.  We might want to say that nonetheless viruses are the means by which God punishes sinful men, but there being no evidence to support that thesis, it is purely suppositional.  One could as easily assert that vaccines are God’s way of punishing viruses for killing babies.  Similarly, we can explain the apparent rising of the sun in the east and its setting in the west in purely material terms and no longer believe (or need to believe) that the shedding of human blood is required to ensure that the sun continues to repeat the diurnal cycle.  The examples of mysteries once attributed to supernatural/spiritual beings that are now known to be quite material in their causes would fill an encyclopedia and are taken for granted.  Thus, there is plenty of reason to believe that material is sufficient to explain the phenomena of the world, and still no demonstrable reason to believe that spirit is required to do so, other than perhaps as a shorthand for saying “I don’t know.”



  • frostwire 4.18  On December 2, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    Hey! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

    • William L. Scurrah  On December 3, 2011 at 8:55 AM

      No, I don’t use Twitter, nor Facebook or any other social networking site. Frankly, I find them boring.


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