Unintelligent Design

A review of the book The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not, by Abby Hafer

Intelligent Design (ID) maintains that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause (presumably God?) rather than by the natural process of evolution. That’s nonsense; evolution explains the natural world much better. Abby Hafer has a doctorate in zoology and teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. She was incensed by the claims of ID, so she wrote this book explaining the history and claims of ID, conclusively debunking it, and demonstrating that no intelligent designer could have created a human body with so many design flaws.

Creationists invented the term Intelligent Design to get around the Supreme Court’s finding that creationism was a religion and to try to disguise creationist beliefs as science. They went back to their creationist textbook Of Pandas and People and replaced every mention of the word “creationism” with the words “intelligent design,” and every mention of “creationists” by the words “intelligent design proponents.” But they were careless. The new textbook had a cut-and-paste typo that read “cdesignproponentsists.” 

She exposes the religious agenda of the Discovery Institute as revealed in the infamous “Wedge” document and shows that the individual members of its staff disagree about almost everything. Some believe the earth is only 10,000 years old; others accept that it is billions of years old.  Some believe every species was individually created by God; some accept that humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor but say that doesn’t explain the differences between the species. Some are HIV/AIDS denialists. She comments, “I’m not sure that they could agree among themselves that gravity makes things fall down.” There is only one thing they agree on: they want your children to be taught ID as science and they expect you to pay for it. 

Hafer chose to describe ten simple design errors; there are many, many more. Because sex sells, she starts with a sexy example; she points out that human testicles are positioned outside the body. Why? Because the human body is too hot for sperm production. That puts a vulnerable organ in a vulnerable position and creates all sorts of inconvenience. But the supposed Creator designed some animals with retractable testicles and some with testicles that reside permanently inside the body, like frogs and elephants. Birds have a higher body temperature than humans, and yet they have internal testicles. Hafer asks whether the Designer likes turkeys better than us, and wonders if the Designer is a turkey. 

Her other examples of bad design:

  • The birth canal. Kangaroos don’t have the problems humans have. Human women and babies often die in childbirth; obstetric fistulas result from difficult births, and one third of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. Is the Designer an abortionist?
  • There is a species of jellyfish that is immortal. Why couldn’t the Designer have made humans immortal? Does he like jellyfish better?
  • The human throat: air and food passages meet and mix, sometimes with fatal results; whales don’t have that problem.
  • The human blood clotting system: the heir to the Russian throne had hemophilia, which contributed to the Russian Revolution. It is sex-linked, only occurring in males. Does the Designer prefer women?
  • The human eye requires light to pass through many layers of cells before reaching the photoreceptors. In the cephalopod eye, the light hits the photoreceptor cells first, and they see better and in dimmer light than we do, and they can recognize polarized light. Does the Designer prefer squid and octopus to humans?
  • We can’t make our own vitamin C; most animals can. We get scurvy; cats and dogs don’t. What’s worse, we have the entire pathway to make vitamin C except for the last step. We can’t manufacture that one last enzyme.
  • We only get two sets of teeth; sharks have replaceable teeth and don’t have to go to the dentist.
  • Female sharks can reproduce without males; humans can’t.
  • The human appendix is unnecessary and only causes problems requiring surgery. 

This is not Intelligent Design. The only possible conclusion is that the Designer is incompetent or favors other animals above humans, but ID proponents don’t seem to recognize that.

There are lots of other flaws she could have covered, but she opted for economy in order to leave room for an impassioned defense of science and a full rebuttal of ID. For those who want to know more, Nathan Lents covered many more flaws in his book Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes. 

She includes a cogently argued defense of science and evolution and shows how science denial causes harm. She provides a 2-part Handy Dandy Intelligent Designer Refuter with answers to every point ID proponents might bring up in an argument. She spends considerable time refuting the “irreducible complexity” argument, explaining how the eye and the flagellum evolved. She ridicules ID promoters for not knowing the difference between a cilium and a flagellum, and not knowing that bacteria don’t have cilia. The very organism that Dr. Behe writes about is a living refutation of his claims about irreducible complexity. It has a system for building a flagellum that is reducible, and he doesn’t seem to know about this. It is inexcusable that he didn’t do his homework.

She refutes the “academic freedom” argument: “Even college professors do not have the freedom to teach anything they want any way that they want.” She says she was hired to teach anatomy and physiology, and she would lose her job if she taught Mark Twain instead. His work is fiction, and she is supposed to teach science.

She refutes the “teach the controversy” argument: We don’t need to teach the Flat Earth “controversy.” She comments, “I pity any passenger on an international jet liner whose pilot truly believes that the earth is flat. It could end tragically.”

She asks, “Even Detroit does recalls. Why can’t God?”

The book is packed full of information about human anatomy, about other animals, and about animals that shouldn’t exist according to ID. The many illustrations and the snarky sense of humor make it a delight to read. It’s less than 200 pages and the chapters are short and easy to digest. She ends by saying she thinks our bodies are beautiful the way they are, regardless of their imperfections, and there is real beauty in our ability to really understand the world instead of just making things up. She says evolution is “the greatest indisputably true story ever told.” She wonders if she is preaching to the choir but says the book’s information and arguments are exactly what the choir needs to defend evolution against pseudoscientists and political pressure groups. ID is an anachronism that has no place in the 21stcentury.

This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.