Is the Cosmos a Work of Poor Engineering or the Gift of an Artistic Designer?
by Jonathan Witt
When as a boy I read “The Scouring of the Shire” near the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I could not understand why Tolkien felt the need to tack on such an anti-climactic and shabby bit of evil. Only later, as I began to notice modernity’s penchant for ugliness in the world beyond Middle Earth, did I understand that the scouring of the Shire bespoke a present evil, a malevolence insidious precisely because it lacked the stark drama of the trenches or the gas chambers.
I came to understand that the demolition of the hobbits’ lovely village possessed the striking lines of caricature not because it was unrealistic but rather because the depiction is so sharp and trenchant. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed cataracts, an incapacity to see a thing vividly, truly.
God of the Nazis
The twentieth century was, in its darkest moments, an arresting illustration of the will to power, but it also exhibited a less imposing if somewhat more curious urge: what could be aptly termed the will to ugliness. The perversely drab “pre-fabs” of postwar England, the American slum projects constructed by a later generation, the willfully dissonant monstrosities of much modern high architecture, the willfully tortured, obscure, and graceless prose of the deconstructionists, even the black-eyed and anorexic grotesques of the Paris catwalks—all bespeak an age driven to throw up trappings repulsive in their embrace of detachment and death.
The cultural pedigree of this modern predilection for ugliness is old, various, and to some degree mysterious. But here I want to suggest that Darwinism—in which I include its DNA-inspired mutation, neo-Darwinism—has contributed to this will to ugliness not merely by underwriting a vision of the world as a godless accident, but also in the very way it critiques and thereby dismisses the idea of an Author and Designer of life.
What I call the a-teleological macroevolutionists—those who argue that the cosmos is the product of chance and has no intrinsic end or purpose—argue that life emerged by natural selection without design from single-celled organisms, and they claim to use strictly scientific methods to support their position. In truth, however, they often slip into what is essentially an aesthetic and theological argument against a designer.1 Others have noted this, but what has not been fully explored is the dubious nature of the evolutionists’ aesthetic argument.
Consider one especially prominent example, evolutionist Richard Dawkins’s critique of the mammalian eye in his The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design:
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!)2
Never mind for the moment that it has been 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.3 Let us ignore that brilliant bit of engineering and look at Dawkins’s intriguing obsession with neatness. O brave new world whose supreme designer distinguishes himself first and foremost by his tidy-mindedness! Aldous Huxley has ably dramatized the horror of a society so engineered.
Do we really wish to substitute the exuberantly imaginative, even whimsical designer of our actual universe for a cosmic neat 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 apparently substandard species. 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.
One of the first things that would have to go is the panda—if not the whole bear, then certainly his two thumbs. In Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb, the late Harvard paleontologist has this criticism for his title character:
An engineer’s best solution is debarred by history. The panda’s true thumb is committed to another role, too specialized for a different function to become an opposable, manipulating digit. So the panda must use parts on hand and settle for an enlarged wrist bone and a somewhat clumsy, but quite workable, solution. The sesamoid thumb wins no prize in an engineer’s derby. It is, to use Michael Ghiselin’s phrase, a contraption, not a lovely contrivance.
Now one might take the usual defend-the-engineer tack here, and any design advocate trained in such matters certainly should scrutinize Gould’s assumptions as to the inferiority of the panda’s thumb. Gould even provides a small opening when he concedes that the sesamoid thumb is “quite workable” and “does its job.” Indeed, when he finally witnessed a panda firsthand, he “was amazed by their dexterity and wondered how the scion of a stock adapted for running could use its hands so adroitly.”
By Gould’s account, the panda’s thumb makes a fine peeler for bamboo, the panda’s principal food, and investigation may demonstrate that it is actually superior to an opposable thumb for such work.4
However, do not hold your breath waiting for pandas to take up fly-fishing or needlepoint. For versatility, the opposable thumb is the clear blue ribbon winner. Which raises the obvious question: If an intelligent designer designed the world, did he not think of the opposable thumb until after he designed the panda? And was he too tired to go back and upgrade that poor panda?
To such a question the Darwinian community collectively responds thus: “Obviously not. If there’s a designer out there running the show, he’s a real bumbler, a second-rate engineer who could not get a job in a third-rate Swiss watch factory. Since the idea of a second-rate designer is patently ridiculous, there is no designer.”
This argument is rife with problems already underscored by design thinkers like William Dembski in his book The Design Revolution. The most basic failing of this line of reasoning is that even if the panda’s thumb is proven to be less useful than it could be, that doesn’t negate the evidence that the whole panda has the mark of design. It’s a creature dependent upon an architecturally marvelous cathedral of complex, specified information, the sort we know from experience is fashioned only by intelligent agents.
Indeed, the panda would remain so even if it had no thumbs at all. The Yugo, I’m told, was a badly designed automobile, but no sane person would argue that with all its problems, it wasn’t designed. The same logic applies to a panda or a duck-billed platypus or an ostrich.
But the point here is that these anti-design arguments by Dawkins, Gould, and other Darwinists are not scientific ones. They are aesthetic arguments, expressing an idea of what the universe should look like—that is, that it should satisfy the tidy-minded engineer. But who is to say that the Darwinists’ taste is that of the cosmic designer, if there is one? Who is to say that the designer should value tidiness over, say, whimsy?
Recently, something else struck me about this effort to call attention to the apparently jury-rigged quality of certain elements of the cosmic “watch” and then declare that such things could not have been designed: Critics of intelligent design tuck some idiosyncratic and highly dubious aesthetic presuppositions into the metaphor of the cosmos as watch. These include an overemphasis on tidiness, a de-emphasis on beauty, and a dismissal of any possibility that the creator might wish to commune with his creation. Surely a perfect watchmaker would wind up his perfect (tidy, efficient, functional) watch and step away, freed by the perfection of his instrument from the need to tinker any further with it.
We can see how Enlightenment thinkers arrived at this metaphor of the watch, confronted as they were with fresh insights into the orderly, mathematically precise nature of the cosmos. And contemporary astrophysicists, even those who resist the idea of a cosmic design, now tell us that the laws and constants of the cosmos are, in fact, finely tuned to an almost unimaginable degree, such that even very small changes in a few of them would render complex life utterly impossible. So at least in one sense, the universe is watch-like.
But all metaphors break down if pressed far enough, and this one breaks down pretty quickly. Where a single metaphor crowds out all others in a matter as complex as our living world, it produces an intellectually impoverished and very misleading stick-figure rendering of the subject. Thus, the thinking person is wise to ask, to what extent is the universe watch-like? To what extent should it be watch-like?
To cling to the watch analogy in a critique of the notion of a wise cosmic designer fails to face an obvious (and theological) question: Is this an adequate way to speak of the hypothetical designer? Is his satisfying the aesthetic demands of the Darwinists a sufficient test of his existence? To put it another way, if there is a cosmic designer, what does he need a watch for? He doesn’t. One would be hard-pressed to name a major religion that posits a transcendent god who uses the universe primarily as a tool.
Not even the god articulated by the orderly minds of Plato and Aristotle fits the bill. Whether we 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, the deity is not construed as one interested in the world primarily as a tool for himself. Indeed, whenever he is construed as a personality, and not merely as some sort of non-sentient organizing First Principle, he is depicted as one interested in the world itself, as a creator who delights in the work of his hands.
The Lover’s Watch
Dare we use the word “love” in this context? Dare one suggest that the designer loves his creation in a way the watchmaker does not love the watch he makes, that the Creator would no more think of his creation as a tool than would a bridegroom his bride or a father his children? The fact that such terms as love and bridegroom strike many as inappropriate to the evolution/design debate merely testifies to how thoroughly the utilitarian assumption behind the metaphor of the watch has permeated Western thinking.
Certainly, we could try to discuss the matter without considering the designer’s attitude toward his creation (that is, whether he is a watchmaker or a bridegroom or father). But the evolutionists have already smuggled this issue into the debate by assuming that, if there were a designer, he would be some sort of disinterested and hyper-tidy watchmaker. Having smuggled in this highly questionable point, they then regard as beneath consideration any idea of a designer who (as they put it) “meddles in his creation.”
Or they dismiss the notion that an omnipotent and omniscient designer might fashion a creature short of an optimal design. Here they not only make a theological claim but ignore a key question at once practical and aesthetic: How do concerns about ecological balance impinge upon a critique of animal structures?
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 do it in his tragedies, why not God?
Pandas as comic relief? To spurn the notion as if it were patently ridiculous and 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 not the designer’s world entertain, amuse, and fascinate, as well as “work”?
In summary, virtually the entire bad-design versus good-design discussion is framed by an engineer’s perspective, not an artist’s or mystic’s. When I mentioned this to the philosopher Jay W. 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’s amazing how a simple image can highjack a discussion for a century and a half.”
What is worse, Darwinists like Gould and Dawkins commit the error called atomism: the idea that, in Gould’s own words, “wholes should be understood by decomposition into ‘basic’ units.” In other words, they 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.
This is, at the most practical level, to misunderstand pandas. At the aesthetic level, it is to declare that an artist who might have created pandas could not have been thinking (as artists do) of the whole work.
Interestingly, the god of the English canon, William Shakespeare, came in for much the same criticism by the tidier-minded among his neoclassical critics as the God of the cosmos has come in for from the tidier-minded scientists. This actor turned playwright lacked classical restraint, the argument went.
In 1726 Lewis Theobald perhaps initiated the century’s long criticism of Hamlet’s coarse speech when 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.”5
Another regarded Shakespeare’s general habit of mingling the low with the high, the comic with the tragic as a “wholly monstrous, unnatural mixture.”6 With only a little more restraint, a third lamented the bard’s tragedies: “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.”7
Happily, most neoclassical Shakespearean critics were enthusiastic, and yet, as one modern critic noted, even the admiration of the more sympathetic 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.”8
What do we make of such criticism today? To use Freud’s language, itself rude and vulgar, such criticism strikes us as anal-retentive. What emotionally whole and thoroughly sane admirer of Renaissance drama would want to substitute for the works of the “myriad minded” Shakespeare, the relatively impoverished fare left over after unsympathetic neoclassical critics tidied him up?
Perhaps the relevance of the analogy is becoming clear. The criticism of Shakespeare is akin to the evolutionists’ criticisms of the cosmic designer. In each case the critic believes the respective artist in question should build all of his characters according to some rigid set of criteria that ignores broader concerns, be they ecological, aesthetic, or otherwise. Proponents of this line of argument value tidiness over other and often more vital aesthetic criteria like intricacy, harmony, variety, imaginative exuberance, freedom, even moral complexity.
A Queer Assumption
The Darwinists’ aesthetic criticism moves from the unconvincing to the positively odd in a further and even queerer assumption: the conviction that no all-knowing and all-powerful designer would restrict himself to the materials at hand, even when such designs are clearly superb. Darwinists are quite fond of this argument, apparently considering it irresistibly persuasive to all but the most irrational mind.
I saw an especially brazen instance of this strange aesthetic dogma at a debate at Texas Tech University between Darwinist James Carr and intelligent design microbiologist Michael Behe. Arguing against Behe, Carr used the similarities in the genetic code of chimps and humans as a bad-design argument. What all-powerful creator would need to recycle his materials like this, he argued. It was almost as if he considered it unmanly of the Fellow Upstairs.
Gould leveled essentially the same criticism against a would-be cosmic designer in his description of Charles Darwin’s study of orchids:
Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers, parts usually fitted for very different functions. If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes. Orchids were not made by an ideal engineer; they are jury-rigged from a limited set of available components.9
Or as one writer Gould quoted put it, nature is a superb tinkerer, not a divine artificer.10
The argument that no cosmic designer would so often recycle his creative material is a common tactic, one Darwin himself employed. In a letter to Asa Gray around 1861 Darwin wrote, “Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. . . . If man was made of brass or iron and no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should perhaps be convinced.”11
Certainly humans made of iron or brass would create enormous difficulties for a Darwinian explanation of humankind’s existence. But the tenor of this comment fits Darwin’s attitude to the similarities among the species. His unstated assumption seems to be that the similarities are not merely one missed opportunity for the natural world to reveal its design and thus falsify his theory, but a positive argument against a cosmic designer.
Most of us would respond, “But why?” The only logical way to use the similarities as an argument against a designer is to take as an aesthetic premise the assumption that no omniscient and omnipotent designer would design in such a way. In other words, one would have to assume that using the ho-hum materials at hand instead of consistently elevating higher works of art with newer and “better” materials violates some pre-established and widely accepted aesthetic principle. “Why,” Darwin asked in The Origin of Species, “should the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils in any individual flower, though fitted for such widely different purposes, be all constructed on the same pattern?”12
Ironically, Darwin unwittingly suggested a very un-Darwinian answer in a letter to his sister. Expressing his admiration for the Duke of Northumberland’s home, Darwin wrote, “His house was very grand; much more so than the other great nobility, and in much better taste.” The young biologist did not attribute the house’s nobility and beauty to a prodigal use of variously distinct materials or motifs—quite the contrary. “Every window in his house was full of straight lines of brilliant lights, and from their extreme regularity and number had a beautiful effect. The paucity of invention [emphasis mine] was very striking, crowns, anchors, and ‘W.R.’s’ were repeated in endless succession.”13
So why should Darwin be surprised that an intelligent designer of the world would proceed in the same way? Conventional wisdom in the field of aesthetics all but demands such an artistic method. Pattern and variation are interdependent concepts fundamental to art. Where would Schubert’s “Theme and Variations” be without the theme? The point is so basic one feels silly making it.
Should the later movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony be censured for continuing to build off an original motif? Do we exclaim with the woman at the first performance of Bolero that Ravel must be mad for building on his central motif? Do we not instead admire the way he built so exquisitely and powerfully on the central motif till the climactic grandeur of the finale? Ought we to demote Monet from the first rank of the impressionists because he had the bad taste to paint poplars and haystacks over and over again? Do we not instead marvel at the fecundity of his imagination, at the subtly of his observation and insight?
No one, not even his harshest eighteenth-century critics, accuses Shakespeare of bad art on the grounds that Much Ado About Nothing and Othello share virtually the same plot, creatively altered to produce radically different plays. Few if any object to Shakespeare’s repetition of motherless girls as heroines, or to his girls-disguised-as-boys theme, or to his repetitive use of the sonnet form for his poetry.
Where the atomist or reductionist regards elements in isolation (and properly so within certain intellectual disciplines), the artist seeks variety within unity, rhythm, and harmony, qualities fundamental to the creation of beauty. Notice I am not claiming a seat of honor for some culturally narrow artistic practice—say, the English sonnet—but rather appealing to principles broad and fundamental in the history of the world’s art.
If there is an intelligent designer behind this astonishingly complex work of art we call the world, it’s quite sensible to suppose he would be at least as artistically savvy as the artistically gifted among his creatures, that he would cultivate harmony and unity through the creative reuse of common materials. 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 art.
In the meantime, those who reject such dubious reasoning, who understand that the world is the handiwork of unimaginable genius, could do worse than to follow the aesthetic lead of those humble and beautiful hobbits who returned to their desecrated Shire carrying elven soil: We can take a soil richer than the dead ground of materialism and sprinkle it wherever we can, honoring the miracle of creation’s growth even as we tend to our proper role as stewards and gardeners of a world between Heaven and Hell, a place we might aptly call Middle Earth.
1. See, for instance, Paul Nelson’s “The Role of Theology in Current Evolutionary Reasoning,” Biology and Philosophy 11 (1996), pp. 493–517; William Dembski’s Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 1999) and The Design Revolution (InterVarsity Press, 2004); and Cornelius G. Hunter’s Darwin’s God (Brazos Press, 2001).
2. W. W. Norton, 1996, p. 93.
3. Excerpts from “The Inverted Retina: Maladaptation or Pre-adaptation?” Origins and Design 19.2 (2000): 14 June 2000, www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od192/invertedretina192.htm.
4. W. W. Norton, 1980, pp. 21, 22, 24.
5. Quoted in Paul S. Conklin, A History of Hamlet Criticism: 1601–1821 (Humanities Press, 1968), p. 53.
6. Charles Gildon, quoted in Herbert Spencer Robinson, English Shakespearian Criticism in the Eighteenth Century (Gordian Press, 1968), pp. 26–27.
7. Edward Taylor, “From Cursory Remarks . . .”, in Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 1774–1801, edited by Brian Vickers (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 130–132. This Taylor is not to be confused with the wonderful American poet Edward Taylor, the last of the metaphysical poets, who spent a great deal of time in the “dirt and ordure” exploring the mysteries of the divine and the human.
8. Robinson, English Shakespearian Criticism, p. xii.
9. The Panda’s Thumb, p. 20.
10. François Jacob, quoted ibid., p. 26.
11. “To Asa Gray,” 17 September 1861(?), volume 2 of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin, ftp://sailor.gutenberg.org/pub/gutenberg/etext00/2llcd10.txt.
12. Sixth London Edition (1872), ftp://sailor.gutenberg.org/pub/gutenberg/etext99/otoos610.txt.
13. 9 September 1831, volume 1 of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ftp://sailor.gutenberg.org/pub/gutenberg/etext00/1llcd10.txt.
Jonathan Witt is a senior fellow and writer in residence at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He and his wife Amanda have three children, whom they home school.
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