Panning God: Darwinism's Defective Argument Against Bad Design
By Jonathan Witt
The metaphor of cosmos as "watch" (a timepiece) captured the
imagination of Enlightenment thinkers, confronted as they were with fresh
insights into the laws governing motion both near and far. Despite the advance
of science since the Enlightenment, the metaphor of cosmos as a watch persists.
Indeed, we now know that the physical constants of nature are finely tuned to
an almost unimaginable degree, so that, for instance, even slight changes in
the force of gravity or electromagnetism would render the universe incapable of
permitting life. In a crucial sense, then, the universe is watch-like, its
physical constants resembling a precision instrument.
But trouble comes when metaphors are reified. The metaphor of cosmos as
watch is an illuminating image. Even so, all metaphors break down if pressed
far enough, and this one breaks down pretty quickly.
Think of the morally compromised gods of Mount Olympus meddling in the
affairs of their various mortal offspring; or of Plato's "the One" (what he
also called "the Good" or "Father of that Captain and Cause"); or the holy God
of the Bible, father and shepherd and husband of His people. With none of these
conceptions of the deity is the world construed primarily as a precision
instrument meant to function so perfectly its maker need never pay it any mind.
Whenever the deity is construed as a personality, and not merely as a
non-sentient organizing First Principle, He is depicted as interested in the
world itself, as a creator who delights in the work of His hands.
In an interview for The Philadelphia Inquirer, biologist and
leading Darwinist Kenneth Miller said, "The God of the intelligent-design
movement is way too small . . . . In their view, he designed everything in the
world and yet he repeatedly intervenes and violates the laws of his own
creation. Their god is like a kid who is not a very good mechanic and has to
keep lifting the hood and tinkering with the engine" (May 30, 2005, A01).
Miller is a Roman Catholic, but notice how blithely he equates the designer's
ongoing involvement in creation with incompetence. Why? What if the creator
prefers to stay involved? What if he doesn't intend to wind up the watch of the
cosmos and simply leave it to wind out everything from supernovas to
sunflowers? What if he wishes to get his hands dirty making mud daubers?
What if the designer is more like a spirited dramatist than a fastidious
watchmaker? Would we say to Shakespeare, "You keep writing and rewriting your
plays! You have the unhappy imperfection of wanting to stage your creations
with live actors, and even worse, of directing them! You repeatedly violate the
laws of drama and poetry with your detestable and irrepressible urge to create
something new-absolutely unable to leave well enough alone! Shame!"
Certainly, we could try to discuss the order of nature without considering
the designer's attitude toward his creation (that is, whether he is more a
watchmaker, bridegroom, or dramatist). But the Darwinists have already smuggled
this issue into the debate by assuming that, if there were a designer, he could
only be a detached and hyper-tidy engineer. Having smuggled the assumption in,
they then regard as beneath consideration any evidence of a designer who (as
they put it) "meddles in his creation."
Similarly, they dismiss the notion that an omnipotent and omniscient
designer might fashion a creature that, considered narrowly, would seem to fall
short of an ideal design. Here they not only make a theological claim but
ignore key questions at once practical and aesthetic: How do concerns about
ecological balance impinge upon a critique of animal structures? Or more
poetically, how does each creature play a part in the overall drama of life?
They fault the designer, for instance, for not giving pandas opposable thumbs.
An omniscient and omnipotent designer would already have known about the
superior opposable thumb, they argue, and would have been sure to give it to
them. Since he did not, he obviously does not exist or, at least, is not
directly involved in designing thumbs.
The irony is that the panda's remarkably sturdy thumbs work beautifully for
peeling bamboo. Must the cosmic designer's primary concern for pandas be that
they are the most dexterous bears divinely imaginable? From a purely practical
standpoint, might opposable-thumbed über-pandas wreak havoc on their ecosystem?
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, might not those charming pandas up in their
bamboo trees with their unopposing but quite workable thumbs be just the sort
of humorous supporting character this great cosmic drama needs to lighten
things up a bit? If Shakespeare could introduce a comical gravedigger into the
tragedy of Hamlet, why cannot God introduce whimsy into His work?
Pandas as comic relief? To spurn the notion as patently ridiculous, as
beneath consideration, is merely to expose one's utilitarian presuppositions.
Why, after all, should the designer's world read like a dreary high-school
science textbook, its style humorless, homogenous, and suffocating under the
dead weight of a supposedly detached, passive voice? Why should the
designer's world not entertain, amuse, and fascinate, as well as "work?" Why,
in short, should we not expect it to have the richness of variety and tone
we find in a work of art like Hamlet?
The bad-design versus good-design discussion is often framed by an
engineer's perspective, not an artist's or mystic's. When I noted this to
philosopher Jay Richards a few years ago, he responded in a letter: "After all,
why do we assume that God created the universe to be a watch, in which a
self-winding mechanism makes it 'better?' Maybe the universe is like a piano,
or a novel with the author as a character, or a garden for other beings with
whom God wants to interact. It is amazing how a simple image can highjack
a discussion for a century and a half."
For evolutionists like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, reductionist
thinking paves the way to all sorts of unwarranted conclusions. Gould preaches
against the atomistic view that "wholes should be understood by decomposition
into 'basic' units;" but then Gould himself practices such thinking. He and
many other biologists assume not only that nature is a kind of watch but that
each individual design is its own watch, its own machine, meant to be judged in
relative isolation. They evaluate the panda's thumb by how well it works as a
thumb, not by how well it fits into the whole life of the panda, including its
place in its own environment. At the aesthetic level, this assumes that the
panda's maker could not have been thinking (as artists do) of the whole work.
It is the same mistake the Darwinists make again and again.
For instance, in The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins ignores the
larger demands of vision in his critique of the mammalian eye, zeroing in on
the eye's so-called "backward wiring":
Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out
on the side nearest the
light. . . . This means that the light, instead of being granted an
unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of
connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion
(actually probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the
thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!).
His analysis collapses under two mistakes. First, geneticist Michael Denton
has clearly demonstrated that the backward wiring of the mammalian eye actually
confers a distinct advantage by dramatically increasing the flow of oxygen to
the eye. Dawkins the reductionist misses this because he analyzes organs in
isolation when it suits his purpose.
Then there is Dawkins's obsession with neatness, his assumption that any
proper creator would idolize tidiness over all. But do we really want to
substitute the exuberantly imaginative, even whimsical designer of our actual
universe for a cosmic efficiency freak? Such a deity might serve nicely as the
national god of the Nazis, matching Hitler stroke for stroke: Hitler in his
disdain for humanity's sprawling diversity; the tidy cosmic engineer in his
distaste for an ecosystem choked and sullied by a grotesque menagerie of
strange and supposedly substandard organs and organisms. Out with that great
big prodigal Gothic cathedral we call the world; in with a modern and
minimalist blueprint for a new and neater cosmos.
Interestingly, the god of the English canon, William Shakespeare, has
received much the same criticism from the tidier eighteenth century
neoclassical critics. This actor-turned-playwright lacked classical restraint,
the argument went. Lewis Theobald perhaps initiated the century's long
criticism of Hamlet's coarse speech when, in 1726, he commented on a
particularly bawdy line spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia: "If ever the poet deserved
whipping for low and indecent ribaldry, it was for this passage." Never mind
that Hamlet's comment was not gratuitous but, instead, crucial to both plot and
Around the same time, Charles Gildon regarded Shakespeare's general habit of
mingling the low with the high, the comic with the tragic as a "wholly
monstrous, unnatural mixture." With only a little more restraint, Edward Taylor
(not to be confused with the American metaphysical poet of the same name)
lamented, "How inattentive to propriety and order, how deficient in grouping,
how fond of exposing disgusting as well as beautiful figures!", how often he
compels the audience "to grovel in dirt and ordure."
As modern critic Herbert Spencer Robinson noted in his work on English
Shakespearian criticism, even the admiration of the more sympathetic
neoclassical critics was always "modified and tempered . . . by regrets that
Shakespeare had elected, either through ignorance or by design, to embrace a
method that discarded all classical rules."
What do we make of such criticism today? Most find it damagingly narrow. Few
wish to substitute for the works of the "myriad minded" Shakespeare the
relatively impoverished fare left over after unsympathetic neoclassical critics
tidied him up.
The relevance of the comparison should now be clear. The criticism of
Shakespeare is akin to the Darwinist's overly tidy treatment of vision or the
panda's thumb. In each case the critic analyzes the work narrowly, ignoring the
larger context, be it ecological, aesthetic, or otherwise. Proponents of this
line of argument value a hyper-constricted and abstract elegance over other and
often more vital criteria like variety, imaginative exuberance, freedom, even
moral complexity. In their attempt to master everything, they deny anything
that exceeds their grasp. They lose the meaningful whole. If that
is lucidity, it is also madness.
Now, the Darwinist might complain, "What is all this artistic, aesthetic
balderdash? We are scientists, not poets or starry-eyed mystics. Leave the
artists to their pattern-making and let us get back to our hard-nosed,
empirical science." Fine, but if they wish to avoid an argument about aesthetic
principles, they should not assume within their arguments aesthetic principles
that are at best highly debatable, and at worst contrary to the canons of
Jonathan Witt, senior fellow with Discovery Institute, is
co-author, with Benjamin Wiker, of A Meaningful World: How the Arts and
Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. Witt earned his Ph.D. in English
from The University of Kansas where his dissertation on aesthetics received
highest academic honors and led to articles in Literature and Theology
and The Princeton Theological Review. Witt's essays have appeared in
such places as The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star,
Touchstone, and Philosophia Christi. His book-in-progress,
Darwin vs. Shakespeare, explores how Darwinists employ widely
discredited and contradictory aesthetic presuppositions in their arguments
against a creator.