Biologist John Avise recently published a paper about intelligent design in the journal PNAS entitled, “Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome.” Avise poses an argument against ID:
my focus in this paper is on a relatively neglected category of argument against ID and in favor of evolution: the argument from imperfection, as applied to the human genome in this case.
The problem here is that Avise never defines or describes perfection. So how are we to determine if imperfection exists? What’s more, Avise never makes the case that intelligent designs must necessarily be perfect designs. Given these two simple facts – failure to define perfection and failure to show that design entails perfection – Avise’s stated focus fails.
But the situation becomes much more interesting if we simply discard the focus “on imperfection” and consider what Avise is trying to communicate. I think this portion of the abstract makes his argument more clear:
Yet, many complex biological traits are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers.
It’s not that some system or feature is “imperfect” that is relevant. It’s that the system or feature is “gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers.” For any system that is indeed gratuitously complicated, functions poorly, and debilitates their bearers, is not something I would consider to be intelligently designed. This is even more true if the poor function and constant breakdowns are a consequence of a complexity that is gratuitous. If I had reviewed Avise’s paper, I would have suggested he drop the whole “imperfection” argument and focus on first establishing the gratuitous nature of biotic complexity and then tracing poor performance to this very gratuity. I think that is the argument Avise is making, but it gets lost in all the harping about imperfections.
As you know, I do agree with Avise that such “bad design” counts as evidence against intelligent design. Otherwise, why label a design as being “intelligent?” But I also believe in a fair- and open-minded approach to these issues. Thus, I would follow through with Avise’s logic to the next step.
First, a design that is gratuitously complicated, functions poorly, and debilitates their bearers can still be a design. It’s simply not the design of a clever designer. It’s the design of a designer without a mind’s eye – the blind watchmaker. Avise himself seems to recognize this point:
There are many solid scientific reasons why the biological outcomes of evolution by natural selection are expected to fall routinely short of designer perfection.
In other words, we would expect the blind watchmaker to commonly design kluges.
So let’s be balanced and fair-minded about this. Let’s not stack the deck to deliver a preconceived conclusion. If something that is gratuitously complicated, functions poorly, and debilitates their bearers is evidence against intelligent design and something we expect from the blind watchmaker (a position I would agree with), then it only stands to reason that something that is not gratuitously complicated, something that functions in some exceptional manner and does not debilitate their bearers, is something that counts for intelligent design and is not the expected product of a blind watchmaker. Remember, we’re not proving or disproving anything here; we’re simply looking for clues and pieces of evidence.
Unfortunately, Avise never acknowledges the other side of this coin. And if the other side of this coin is denied, such that the blind watchmaker accounts for things that are and are not gratuitously complicated, things that function poorly and exceedingly well, and things that do and do not debilitate their bearers, then how is this approach different from apologetics?
If it is true that many skeptics of design would insist there is not an other side to Avise’s coin, that would explain why such skeptics struggle mightily if asked a simple, honest question – what would count as evidence for design? They’ve taken one of the reasonable clues off the table.
Anyway, without getting into all of that, let’s next look more deeply at Avise’s paper, as it is built upon a false assumption that will cause his whole case to unravel.