A couple of years ago prominent evolutionary biologist David Barash opened a remarkable window on his classroom teaching. Writing in the New York Times, he described a yearly talk — “The Talk” — he gives to his students at the University of Washington. In The Talk, he explains why Darwinian theory, if faced squarely, undermines belief in a “benevolent, controlling creator.”
His candor is to be commended. Many biology students likely receive a similar message, perhaps more implied than explicit, from their teachers. But what about the conclusion he draws? Does what we know about biology run counter to the idea of purpose or design behind life?
In the Wall Street Journal, the prolific Dr. Barash recently highlighted a particular challenge, as he sees it, to “intelligent design.” I put the phrase in quotation marks because the only example of design thinking he gives goes back well over a century and a half, to the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), while skipping over modern evidence of intelligent design altogether. But leave that aside.
In the article, he reviews two new books that describe the evolutionary mess that our bodies are — a hodgepodge, so this argument goes, of barely good enough solutions to physiological problems, a collection of compromises that leave us prone to injury and disease, according to the authors and according to him. I haven’t read the books in question, but Barash’s piece provides an occasion to examine the often-heard argument for “unintelligent design.”
There’s an undercurrent that runs through that argument, sometimes visible on the surface, sometimes below the water, tugging our feet out from under us. That ripple on the surface goes something like this: our design isn’t perfect. That’s the visible part. Then there’s the undercurrent: If there were an intelligent designer he would have made perfect things. Barash, ever frank, says this directly. Giving examples like the optic nerve and the prostate gland, he says, “An intelligent designer wouldn’t have proceeded this way.” Therefore we are the product of patchwork evolution and there is no designer.
Note, that undercurrent is an assumption. Who knows what an intelligent designer capable of creating life would have done? Theologians who believe the designer is God may argue about that, but science provides no insight.
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