Friday, August 6, 2010

Footprints of Nonsentient Design?

This past May the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published "Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome" by John C. Avise, consisting of a long list of genetic-based diseases and suffering, inelegant designs, in the words of the author, "gross imperfection." The article ends with a suggestion that evolutionary theory corresponds more closely with theology on this account because it allows one to blame evolution for the suffering and imperfections, rather than some Designer of it all. On both scientific and theological grounds this article falls short. The argument is the evil twin of Dr. Pangloss: that things are so bad we must be living in one of the worst of all possible worlds. How this arugment can be reconciled with the orthodox theology that this is a "good" creation is not thought through, and so it can be easily deflected by those prone to deflect.

There are two possible audiences for this article: preaching to the choir of fellow scientists convinced of the evolutionary mechanism, and convincing those who may be open to intelligent design and faith (two different things, mind you!). The science is not strong enough to convince someone who's open to an intelligent designer. On this count, Francis Collins's example of how the vitamin-C-making enzyme is messed up in the human genome is much more convincing than a laundry list of maladies caused by genetic mistakes. Avise's argument often seems to be "things aren't perfect and therefore they can't have been designed." But theology has always known that the world isn't perfectly functional, and any design must have been messed up at some point. In fact, you can't get through the third chapter in Genesis without finding some hint of this. Any ID proponent would just lay the blame for imperfection at some other point, probably the Fall. Imperfection is not an argument against design, because "only God is perfect."

Occasionally there's an interesting bit of data buried in the irrelevant catalog of disease, especially in the citation of a paper showing that as human gene complexity (measured as number of introns) goes up, likelihood of that gene causing a disease also goes up. This is the dark side of Behe's "black box": complexity has a cost. How much, where, how? This is the point to emphasize, not the fact that disease can happen. Everyone knows disease can happen, but saying disease MUST happen because of complexity, that's an interesting point.

One of the other points that follows is that cancer may be a direct consequence of complexity. After all, slime molds don't get tumors, and as complexity builds, so does cancer. (By the way, sharks do get cancer, so don't go for all those shark anti-cancer claims; but I wonder if they get cancer less than humans, and if so, if cancer susceptibility may be correlated with biological complexity. Just a thought.) If biological complexity causes imperfection then that fact should be talked about in light of theological doctrines like the Fall.

The underlying point of this article is subjective, and ID proponents will be all over that subjectivity. It's not that there are flaws, according to Avise, it's that there are "so many" flaws. Yet there's few enough flaws that humans continue to survive, live, love, etc. How many is "so many"? Is the genomic glass half-empty or half-full? "Approximately 0.1% of humans who survive to birth carry a duplicon-related disability," writes Avise, but that doesn't sound like a debilitating, unexplainable imperfection. It sounds like common experience, or actually a bit better than common experience.

The similarity of bacteria to mitochondria is hit upon late in the article. I think that's a much stronger point but it's submerged beneath the easily deflected points. That point gets its strength from the fact that God is not deceptive, and that's an excellent point to make. It convinces me. The main point Avise makes is much weaker: that God made some things that aren't perfect, and, well, that should be kind of obvious to anyone and therefore it will not change anyone's mind.

The big underlying problem with this article is its definition of health. Apparently any disease, suffering, or imperfection is an argument against God, and wouldn't it be nice if we could blame evolution instead? This is the modern cop-out; instead of "the devil made me do it," it's "I'm a victim of chance." Christians who worship a God who came to Earth in order to suffer in this imperfect world have a ready-made defense for this, that imperfect is solved not only by us "fixing" it to make it perfect, but also, even moreso, by compassion, with its root of "passion"/pain, feeling the pain with the other, not eliminating imperfection but somehow participating in it as you're praying against it. Sickness is evil and when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away, but in the meantime, we're in a clearly imperfect world. Avise offers to solve that imperfection by pushing God out of the system, replacing Him with a cosmic casino of blind chance, and that will not fly with either Christians or ID proponents (again, not necessarily one and the same!).

The article ends with a proposal to "return religion to its rightful realm," just another in a long string of "get off my lawn!" comments by scientists who claim to be accommodating faith while arguing that it doesn't really matter. Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria live.

To be clear, I am intrigued by the hints of new scientific arguments in this article. If it can be shown that complexity necessarily correlates with disease (especially a horrible disease like cancer), then that has a real contribution to make to this discussion. But such strong points are too submerged beneath an exterior that appears conciliatory but is actually theologically unsophisticated and a case of deism in sheep's clothing. Come on, fellow scientists, we've got to do better than this.

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