Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some thoughts from Francisco Ayala

Last week, at the University of Oklahoma, Francisco J. Ayala gave a talk. Ayala, a member of the National Academy of Science, the Presidential Medal of Science, and a pioneer in the molecular study of evolution, made some important points about the creationist “intelligent design” (ID) movement most of us already knew, but said them in a direct and powerful way that most of us had not dared. Ayala is also a former priest, and is one of the few evolutionary scientists with formal training in theology.

Ayala said that, if creationism were true, then God was incompetent. The adaptations of organisms are imperfect and are cobbled together from whatever parts were available. No competent engineer, Ayala said, would use the same design for a car, an airplane, and a boat, yet that is exactly what we see when we compare the designs of, for example, a dog, a bird, and a whale. In particular, he mentioned the process of human birth, in which the birth canal is almost too narrow and the frequent result, before modern medicine, was the death of both mother and child during childbirth. Why would God design something like this? But from an evolutionary viewpoint it makes sense. First, natural selection makes use of whatever parts are available; that is all it can do. That is why dogs, birds, and whales have the same basic design. Second, evolution is constrained by contradictory forces. Natural selection favored, in the human lineage, upright posture (which confers an advantage on a small birth canal) and large brains (which confers an advantage on a large birth canal). These competing forces have resulted in a birth canal that is on the deadly edge of being too small. No competent supernatural designer would have used these imperfect designs.

Ayala also said that, if creationism were true, then God is cruel, even perverted (Ayala’s terms). He made reference to the many extreme examples of extremely prolonged and painful diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis. What kind of God would design things like this? Certainly not one worthy of worship.

Ayala’s conclusion was that intelligent design was blasphemy, because it makes God out to be incompetent and cruel.

I believe, along with Ayala, that creationists need to be confronted with the consequences of their own beliefs. But I would go even further. The evidence that Ayala cited not only contradict the idea of an Intelligent Designer, but also the concept of an all-powerful God in the universe today. Why does such a God, today, allow us to suffer from the cruelty imposed by the mindless laws of nature and the brainless behavior of parasites? It is not just a matter of asking why God made the world the way it is; it is a matter of asking why God permits it to continue in such a pointlessly cruel state.

In springtime, it is easy to overlook the cruelty of the world. And our brains have an instinct to see much beauty in the world. I plan to focus on the beauty of the world. But I will do so by giving my attention to the beauty itself, rather than digging up the tangled contradictions of attributing the beauty of the world to a creator while making excuses for the world’s cruelty.

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