Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God makes an analogy between a watch and the universe. He has in mind an old analog watch, since that is all there were in his time. If, being unfamiliar with watches, you were to find one and examine it, he maintains that you would understand it to have a creator, since it is composed of intricate parts that all work together. By analogy, he draws the conclusion that other things we find in the world also have a creator and that the universe as a whole has a creator. It’s usually taken for granted that the watch part of the analogy works. But Charles Southwell reports in An Apology for Atheism of an instance in which someone unfamiliar with watches did come across one and took it to be an animal. He writes,
never before having seen anything of the kind he thought it a living creature, and full of fear ran back among his neighbours, exclaiming that he had seen a most marvellous thing, for which he could conceive of no better name than CLICKMITOAD. After recovering from their surprise and terror, thisbold peasantand his neighbours, all armed with pokers or other formidable weapons, crept up to the ill-starred ticker, and smashed it to pieces.
Southwell points out that the reason we recognize watches as being designed is because we know from experience that humans are capable of and routinely do design such things. This man, lacking this experience, didn’t respond in this way. What this reveals is that our paradigms shape how we interpret what we find in the world. Thanks to Darwin, who was born four years after Paley died, our paradigm for understanding biological organisms has changed. Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us that the diversity of life in the world is due to the natural selection of mutations. As I have already explained in several other posts on evolution, this process works, and it accounts for the variety of life without assuming a designer is at work making different organisms.
This is enough for many people to discard Paley’s argument, though more may be said. The teleological argument argues that the entire universe is created by God, who is supposed to be supreme in might, intelligence, and benevolence. Yet when we look about the world, there are various flaws in the design of things that do not not fit well with this idea. These include vestigial organs, kludgy designs, death and suffering, and various causes of death and suffering, such as degeneration, disease, cancer, disharmony, conflict, and competition. I will argue that all of these are easily explained with evolution by natural selection, but that they are all problems for the idea that we are special creations of a supreme being.
Let’s start with vestigial organs. Humans have vestigial tail bones, whales have vestigial leg bones, and penguins have feathers. These are all indications that the different species were not all individually designed by an intelligent designer who purposely gave each animal exactly what it needed. Instead, vestigial organs point to the idea that these organs were not always vestigial in the ancestors of species with vestigial organs. For example, humans have ancestors with tails, whales have ancestors with legs, and penguins have ancestors who could fly. This is easily explained by evolution, which says that species gradually change over time, sometimes becoming new species. It is not easily explained by the idea that all species were created at once by a supreme being.
Besides vestigial organs, various lifeforms exhibit kludgy designs. A kludge is an expedient, inelegant, sometimes inefficient, work-around solution to a problem. For example, I have a computer speaker that, thanks to a heavy cord coming from it, is prone to falling on the floor. To keep it from falling, I have placed a letter sorter on its side behind the speaker, and I have secured it to the desk with large metal clips. This is a jury-rigged solution for keeping this speaker on my desk. Software sometimes has bugs or limitations that cannot be fixed directly. For example, when I was programming a real-time synthesizer for my Commodore-128 several years ago, I ran into the problem that I needed more memory than was ordinarily available. To get around this, I took advantage of the fact that the Commodore-128 had two video modes, and I used the memory normally allocated for its lower-resolution video mode for my program. This meant that I could not use the program in this video mode, but I could at least use it in the other. This solution was a kludge, and it worked until the video mode I needed for my program stopped working in my monitor for that computer.
In the context of biology, a kludge will normally involve a repurposing of something, as opposed to building something completely new for the new purpose, or working around a limitation without fixing it. For example, the human brain is built in layers. Instead of simply having a human brain designed specifically with humans in mind, we have a neocortex built on top of a mammalian brain, which is built on top of a reptilian brain. This is sort of like building early versions of Windows over DOS instead of scrapping DOS altogether. Another example is the human spine, which originally evolved as an arch to support quadrupeds. As humans evolved to walk upright, this arched spine twisted into an S shape. Walking upright might better be supported with multiple spines, but instead of being designed from the ground up for upright movement, the arched spine simply got reshaped to support upright walking as well as it could. An example of a kludge that works around a problem is how human vision works. The human eye has a blind spot, but we don’t notice this, because the nervous system has evolved to work around this. These kludges in the design of human beings point to the idea that we are merely modifications of earlier types of animals, not creatures designed from the ground up. We would not expect this from an intelligent designer with the qualifications that God is supposed to have, but we would expect this from a blind process that gradually reshapes old forms into new ones.
Let’s now turn to death. From the perspective of believing that we were created by an all-powerful, all-loving God, death is a mystery. The Biblical response has been to say that death is a consequence of sin. Considering that death is pervasive, and no known living beings are immortal, the idea that death is a consequence of two of our human ancestors disobeying God doesn’t seem very plausible. For evolution, death is the consequence of life being expendable. That statement needs further elaboration. The evolution of life is about the reproduction of life forms. It is the reproducibility of life that makes it subject to evolution. But life is not something that reproduces itself. What I mean here is that lifeforms are produced by DNA, which is not a lifeform, for its own reproduction. As I have described in more detail in Abiogenesis by Natural Selection, a living organism is a robot designed by DNA for the sake of its own survival and reproduction. A lifeform is useful to DNA so long as it can help it make, assist, or protect more copies of itself, but when the time for this has passed, a lifeform loses its utility to the DNA that made it. As a consequence of this, human beings are in their prime during their typical childbearing years, they normally stick around long enough to raise the next generation to adulthood, and then they start to degenerate and eventually die. The DNA that makes people moves along from one generation to the next, building and using multiple hosts to sustain and reproduce itself. From its perspective, we are just vehicles for the use of DNA, not something that exists for its own sake. In general, evolution favors strict parsimony. It devotes resources to what actually helps further reproduction, and it withholds resources from what doesn’t. Once one generation replaces another, the old generation becomes less relevant to the DNA.
Although you might imagine that the DNA would benefit from lifeforms sticking around indefinitely, continuing to make more copies of themselves, evolution tends to favor youth, because the younger generation is more evolved. First of all, the genes making up the younger generation have passed through more trials. So, the selection process for the genes making up the younger generation will be a little more rigorous. The younger generation may also have new mutations, and some of these may prove useful. In general, there would be a huge cost to the DNA in keeping lifeforms alive indefinitely. One cost would be that several of these lifeforms might never reproduce, and they would just hang around draining the resources needed by younger relatives. This would not spread the DNA that produced them. Another cost is that evolution would proceed more slowly. Evolution works more quickly with rapid turnover of generations, and the faster this happens, the faster it can adapt to new conditions in the environment. For best results, DNA doesn’t need lifeforms like us to last much more than two generations, one for producing offspring, and one for raising them. Also, imminent death has the psychological effect, at least in humans, of making them more interested in reproduction. This creates an additional selective factor in favor of eventual mortality. So, DNA made us for its sake, not for ours, and the usefulness we have to DNA is limited. While we would like to live forever, that is of no ultimate benefit to our DNA, which benefits more from moving on to newer models.
It should not be construed from what I’m saying that all lifeforms designed by evolution will last little more than a few generations. Some lifeforms are much longer lived than humans. For example, trees can live for centuries. There are some relevant differences between trees and humans. Humans are mobile animals who get energy through the oxidation of fuel. Trees are stationary plants who sustain themselves through the photosynthesis of sunlight. Humans compete for mates, have to live several years before they are capable of reproducing, carry unborn children inside of themselves, and may choose to not mate at all. Trees reproduce autonomically, sending out pollen that the wind or insects may carry to other trees, and they reproduce through seeds that do not require any effort from the parent after they are formed. From the perspective of DNA, there is a greater cost and a higher risk to reproducing itself through humans than there is to reproducing itself through trees. Since it doesn’t cost much to sustain the life of a tree, and tree reproduction is much easier than human reproduction, tree DNA can more easily benefit from keeping the tree around. Also, the longer a tree stays around, the bigger it gets, which extends its influence over its area. In contrast, human growth is limited to a size that is functional for human mobility. Anyway, there are a variety of factors that can cause some lifeforms to live longer than others. But all lifeforms die eventually. This is because DNA is not invested in keeping its robots alive forever. DNA can afford to discard robots, and since it is non-living and non-conscious, it does so without ever having a concern about what its robots would like.
Besides this, evolution is so good at continually redesigning life because of death. If lifeforms regularly lived indefinitely, the advantage one has over another would be limited to reproductive advantages. The lifeforms that could reproduce the fastest would populate the world until there were no more resources left for further reproduction. At this point, evolution would just stop if death didn’t exist. But another reason we have death is that living organisms are inherently imperfect. Being constructed by blind natural selection for the sake of nothing more than sustaining and reproducing DNA, lifeforms were not constructed for the sake of living forever, and they are not immune to death from natural causes or from other lifeforms trying to eat them. So death is going to exist anyway. And evolution benefits from death. Thanks to death, natural selection is able to select for survival abilities, such as catching prey, avoiding predators, and adapting to the environment. Without death, evolution would have never produced life as advanced as ours is. Without death, evolution would have stopped at very simple life, and we wouldn’t exist at all. So, as much as we may wish to never die, we owe our lives to death. From an evolutionary perspective, death makes perfect sense. From the creationist perspective, it makes no sense or is poorly explained by a myth.
Let’s now turn from death itself to specific causes of death. I already mentioned degeneration in passing. I’ll now turn to infectious diseases, parasites, and predators. These all come down to the same thing. Something is trying to eat us or exploit us. Evolution doesn’t favor one particular lifeform over others. It adapts each lifeform to best survive in its environment, and the best strategy for some lifeforms is to eat or exploit other lifeforms. While we might seem to be on top of the evolutionary pyramid, because our intelligence, communication skills, and adaptability let us dominate the world, there are other animals who have evolved the ability to kill and eat us. Sharks, alligators, crocodiles, lions, tigers, wolves, and bears are just some of the animals capable of killing and eating humans. Besides these large predators, there are much smaller predators who have evolved the ability to invade our bodies and either eat us alive from the inside or consume our food, thereby starving us to death. These include parasites and bacteria. Besides these, there are viruses. These are not really alive, but they do evolve alongside us, and they invade our bodies to make use of our biological machinery to replicate DNA to make more copies of themselves. With all the animals, large and small, that can kill us, we live in a veritable gladiator’s arena.
This doesn’t fit well with the idea that a loving God specially created us to be his companions. But it fits perfectly well with evolution by natural selection, because competition is one of the main things that drives it. All lifeforms live in constant competition with other lifeforms for the same resources. Natural selection favors the winners of this competition, which are those who can survive and reproduce. This is not a battle of good vs evil, where the good will triumph. It is a completely amoral battle, where those who survive and reproduce, by whatever means available to them, pass on their genes to future generations. Some will do this by killing or exploiting other species. Some will do this by escaping from danger. As some species get better at preying on other species, members of those species have to get better at avoiding capture. There is constantly an arms race going on between predator and prey, where each gets better. As we kill germs with antibiotics, for example, they evolve into supergerms that can resist our antibiotics. Evolution accounts for this; special creation does not unless what God really wants is total battle between lifeforms.
Let’s now turn to cancer. This is where a body’s own cells start replicating themselves willy-nilly without following the plan that the DNA has for the whole body. From the perspective of special creation, this makes sense only if God intends for us to die. It makes more sense from the perspective of evolution. At first, it may seem counterintuitive. It doesn’t seem to make sense that we would evolve a self-destruct mechanism like cancer. But we have to remember that our lives are not the end goal for evolution. What drives biological evolution is the reproduction of DNA. From its perspective, which is not the same as that of human morality, we exist only as a means for DNA to replicate itself, not as an end-in-ourselves. Cancer, technically speaking, is when our cells revert to the strategy of asexual reproduction used by our single-cell ancestors. While we are in our prime, at the age when we can have and raise children, our DNA has a stake in preventing our cells from reproducing asexually. When we go beyond this age, our DNA has less of a stake in favoring sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction. Some of our cells may revert to asexual reproduction at this time, because our DNA has stopped holding them back from it, and the DNA they have inherited from our single-cell ancestors leads them to adopt the earlier strategy of asexual reproduction. Also, the reasons I already brought up for degeneration would also hold. Our DNA may have a better chance of spreading when young people are not surrounded by old people competing with them for resources or requiring their assistance. Because of this, natural selection may favor mutations that lead to cancer in old age. It gets old people out of the way, so that their descendents can better take over the role of spreading their genes. Cancer in younger people may be due mainly to failures in stopping a body’s cells from using the reproductive strategies of their single-cell ancestors.
Suffering is something different from death, though it often has the same causes. Suffering is the subjective experience of pain or torment. Simple life, such as amoebas, may not experience suffering, but we do. From a Biblical perspective, suffering has been explained as a punishment for sin. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that we should feel pain in situations that are life-threatening. Pain is a signal that warns us of danger and motivates us to get away from it. Lifeforms evolved the ability to feel pain for their own protection. Without this ability, lifeforms would too easily die from dangerous situtations without passing on their genes. Emotional pain, which is common in mammals, helps to sustain bonds between social animals. By feeling emotional pain when apart from loved ones, mammals are more likely to cooperate together, including making and raising babies together. In my own experience, some of the worst emotional pain is tied to the loss of romantic partners. It makes perfect sense that natural selection would favor this, because sexual reproduction depends upon men and women getting together to have sex. But sex itself, which is sometimes decried by religion, doesn’t even make sense from a creationist perspective. If God could make people from scratch, why not just make all people that way and not even give us the ability to reproduce? This would be a sure sign of creation, but instead of this, we live in a world of self-replicators, all of whom have been produced by other self-replicators.
So, evolution accounts for things like conflict, competition, death, suffering, disease, and imperfect design much better than the idea of intelligent design does. If we were created by an intelligent designer who cared about what was good for us, we would be flawless immortals living in a safe, harmonious environment. Many people do dream that the afterlife will be like this. But there is no evidence of this, and the world we live in is not like this. All the imperfections we find in ourselves and in our environment are better explained through evolution by natural selection. In light of this new paradigm that Darwin has provided us, Paley’s argument from design has no force.