Intelligent design proponents have an interesting conundrum on their hands.
They have the prima facie plausibility of creatures that are, in many ways, suited to their environments and activities going for them. But they also have the European bee orchid. They have the too-human tendency toward pareidolia and the assumption that everything complicated is also manufactured, but they also have to answer for the Maltese “fungus.”
That’s where a hidden perversity in the reasoning behind intelligent design emerges, and where the irrational nature of the entire beast becomes particularly obvious.
Embryonic chickens have tooth buds that just need a little prodding to erupt. Bony fish maintain buoyancy with an organ that can squeeze their guts out of their mouths if they change depth too rapidly. Whales breathe air and have vestigial leg bones. A handful of genetic errors can turn an ordinary fetus into an inchoate blob of hair, feet, and eyes. Land crabs breathe air and can’t swim but need to lay their eggs in seawater. Koalas carry their young in pouches that face down while they walk on tree branches. A scorpion’s anus is located near the end of its tail, often hanging directly over its eyes. There are not one, not two, but four totally distinct morphologies dispersed among animals for using a flapping motion to move through the air. The ducts between a human’s testes and penis make three passes through the pelvisalong the way, despite the easiest path involving zero. Humans have an organ whose primary function is getting inflamed and exploding.
The “designs” of actual organisms are staggeringly bad. And that puts the intelligent design advocate in rather a bind.
And the way they exit that bind is to impute functionality to all of that evolutionary baggage, to make what would be unconscionable pranks by a trickster god into just and prescient features. The sheer ridiculousness of collarbones and necks and pretty much everything about sea snakes and potato blight has to be functional because the design is intelligent, and God doesn’t make mistakes.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it usually looks like this:
The misfortunes people experience have to be deserved, because the world is just, and God doesn’t make mistakes.
The idea that the world is based on impersonal, uncaring physical and statistical laws that contain neither intelligence nor ethics is abhorrent to both views, because they’re the same view: that the universe exists specifically for humanity’s convenience. Hurricanes and saltwater intrusion present the same problem as dodder and birth canals that go through the pelvis: evidence to the contrary. All of these phenomena have to be refracted through the same distorting lens to preserve faith in a just and merciful deity.
So they all become secret goods, “benefits” in some heretofore-unimagined way or punishments for some offense or “lessons” we are supposed to learn.
Dandelions produce a full suite of flower parts despite usually reproducing asexually because…it’s beneficial to humans to have highly visible vitamin-filled flowers around.
Humans have parasites that burrow into their skin, grow and multiply, and eventually create painful itchy cysts that burst on contact with water to release their progeny, and that can only be treated by winding the foot-long adult worm a few inches per day around a dowel so that it doesn’t snap and release deadly toxins into its host…because someone, somewhere, is putting a penis too close to another penis.
There are four totally distinct wing mechanisms in the animal kingdom because…look, they all have wings, okay, and that means they’re secretly the same thing made by the same hand.
Haiti is plagued with mudslides, earthquakes, and endemic poverty because of…voodoo zombies.
Humans have a hole in the bottom of the abdominal cavity leading to a thin-skinned pouch containing the testes because inguinal herniaskeep us humble.
All of these scenarios have a few terrifying things in common.
Each one of them is a visible, obvious flaw in the world from a made-for-humans perspective that the religious view makes into a divine mandate, whose circumvention is blasphemous. If it is part of God’s design that guinea worms maim and kill thousands of people in Africa, then wooden dowels and clean water are tools of blasphemy. If it is part of God’s design that grasses drop their seeds when ripe, then the entire history of human agriculture has been a string of starvation-averting blasphemies.
If a deity designed humans to be perfect and/or punished us for our iniquity with pain in childbirth, then even recognizing that humans’ birthing process is what it is because of our mammalian heritage and recent bipedalism is a crime against Yahweh, let alone the centuries of obstetric medicine that make giving birth much more optional, more survivable, and less terrifying than it has ever been.
Replace our uncaring world with the sketches of a mad artist and we get a far more stringent dichotomy between “natural” and “unnatural”than even alternative “medicine” proponents push, where humans doing anything at all to understand our world, improve our lives, or protect ourselves from the world’s dangers is a simple and unambiguous signal that we take God’s design to be inadequate.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many Christian cults draw arbitrary lines through scientific knowledge and technological progress, declaring abortion or geology or contraception or astronomy or treatment for gender dysphoria or immunology or medicine itself to be unacceptable expressions of hubris in the face of ultimate power? For who are we to meddle in the perfect realm crafted by eldritch omnipotence, and enforce our vision of how much better the world could be?
This is why promoting atheism and fighting the intelligent design movement are both social justice issues. When the world is the work of impersonal forces that we can learn to manipulate and control, when disease is the result of pathogens and syndromes follow from evolutionary roots and natural disasters come from rocks and clouds—that is when progress on the human condition is possible.
That is how we can design our affairs…intelligently.