Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of December 2014
by Richard Peachey
“An intelligent, omnipotent God wouldn’t have done it that way — so evolution must be the explanation.“
When evolutionists make statements like that, they fall into a trap (actually, several traps). Such arguments are not scientific but theological, premised on a particular view of what God must be like. This kind of argument is often linked to perceived defects in the created order: examples include “vestigial organs,” “junk DNA,” and (supposedly) clumsily constructed body parts. Concepts like these fall under the heading “dysteleology,” a term invented by the notorious Ernst Haeckel to express his view that there is no inherent purpose in nature.
In 1978 Harvard paleontologist and leading evolutionary spokesman Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article titled “The Panda’s Peculiar Thumb,” in which he stated:
“Our text books like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design—nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution—paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.” [Bold print in quotations indicates emphasis added.]
Gould went on to detail the anatomy of the giant panda’s unusual radial sesamoid bone, which acts as an additional “thumb” the animal can use to strip off leaves from stalks of its favourite food, bamboo. He concluded:
“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 [pun!] 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. But it does its job and excites our imagination all the more because it builds on such improbable foundations.” (Natural History, Vol. 87 No. 9, Nov. 1978, pp. 20, 24, 28-30, as updated for Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb).
Gould liked this article so much he made it the title (and leading chapter) of his 1980 collection of essays, The Panda’s Thumb. Impressively, that volume won the 1981 U.S. National Book Award in Science. How disturbing, then, when in 1999 six Japanese scientists found that the panda’s “thumb” is not a clumsy “contraption” at all!
“The radial sesamoid bone and the accessory carpal bone form a double pincer-like apparatus in the medial and lateral sides of the hand, respectively, enabling the panda to manipulate objects with great dexterity. . . . We have shown that the hand of the giant panda has a much more refined grasping mechanism than has been suggested in previous morphological models.” (Nature, Vol. 397, Jan. 28, 1999, p. 310)
A few months later creationist John Woodmorappe had the audacity to add insult to injury by crafting a piece titled “Panda thumbs its nose at the dysteleological arguments of the atheist Stephen Jay Gould” (Journal of Creation [now TJ], Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 45-48). I heartily recommend study of Woodmorappe’s article.
Gould’s errors included: (a) his argument was theological, not scientific; (b) his attitude was hubristic; and (c) he didn’t have all the facts. His reasoning constituted, in actuality, a sort of “evolution of the gaps” argument.
In 1995, the noted atheistic philosopher Daniel Dennett was already anticipating (in a general way) the later research of those Japanese scientists:
“There is simply no denying the breathtaking brilliance of the designs to be found in nature. Time and again, biologists baffled by some apparently futile or maladroit bit of bad design in nature have eventually come to see that they have underestimated the ingenuity, the sheer brilliance, the depth of insight to be discovered in one of Mother Nature’s creations. Francis Crick has mischievously baptized this trend in the name of his colleague Leslie Orgel, speaking of what he calls ‘Orgel’s Second Rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are.’ ” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 74)
Dennett, sadly, fails to give credit where it’s due — to God, not “Mother Nature” — but he rightly understands the recklessness of finite scientists in thinking they can recognize “flawed design” (or “no function,” for that matter).
Various other dysteological arguments used by evolutionists have been well answered by creationist scientists. These include “vestigial organs,” “junk DNA,” the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the human vas deferens, and the supposedly “backward-wired” vertebrate retina. Just go to (for example) creation.com and enter one of these items as a search term, and you’ll find high-quality science-based responses to the evolutionist claims. (And don’t forget to check our own CSABC web articles on “vestigial organs” and “junk DNA.”)
P.S.: Dysteleological arguments against the Creator have a long history.
Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 B.C.), was an Epicurean who held a naturalistic theory of origins. In his De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), he wrote: “. . . the world was never made for us by divine power: so great are the faults wherewith its stands endowed” (translated by W. H. D. Rouse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1959 [Loeb Classical Library]. V.198f.)