From our American correspondent, Esteban:
In a recent article here at CT, Tim Worstall himself noted something interesting about human reproduction. During times of severe stress (famine, war, etc.) the ratio of female to male births increases dramatically. Biologists believe this is because the womb (not consciously, of course) changes what pregnancies continue.
This struck me as something rather difficult to ascribe to random chance/natural selection. We all got the grade school lecture about how tall giraffes won the genetic lottery and that’s certainly easy to accept. But, in the example above, human wombs that are capable of this type of “discretion”, “intelligence”, “self-awareness” – that’s rather a tall order. How did the original “smart wombs” get that way?
I’m a bit agnostic about this theory of Intelligent Design, but I do find it intriguing in a few ways. For one, I’ve noticed that people who don’t take it seriously will often use language that sounds supportive (unless they’re on guard to avoid it). For example, we recently attended a wild bird presentation (vultures, hawks, owls, etc.) and the bird wrangler was describing a large owl. He noted that the owl’s feathers were designed differently from a hawk’s due their hunting styles. Note the word “designed” – he didn’t mean it literally, but the aerodynamic qualities are such that unless you make it a point to avoid such language you’re probably going to do so.
Another example – I’ve often heard people try to explain the purpose of the human appendix. Doesn’t “purpose” imply design, not just random variation?
A libertarian economist I read fairly often once noted that he found it interesting that many people on the political left who believe in natural selection without any kind of guidance cannot accept the idea that economical order can arise without their guidance. And, likewise, many on the right are completely comfortable with spontaneous order in free markets but can’t conceive of it in the natural world.
It seems to me that this is a bit like the old “irresistible force versus immovable object” paradox. On the one hand, the universe, life, human life, seem impossibly complex to have happened randomly. On the other hand, the universe is actually very large. Perhaps there are enough monkeys banging away at typewriters to produce not just Shakespeare, but the script of every Seinfeld episode.
There’s an old parable about old two friends who sat up late debating the existence of God. In the morning the Atheist got a cup of coffee and wandered into the study where he found a beautiful poem written in dramatic script. He showed it to his friend and asked when he wrote it. He denied authorship and explained that the cat often sat on the desk watching the birds outside. It must have knocked the top off the inkwell and dragged its tail across the paper, writing the poem accidentally. When the Atheist scoffed at this he was asked “so you believe the whole World just happened by accident, but this poem had to have an author?”
But, back to what got me started – if one accepts the theory above about “smart wombs” it seems like a large leap of faith is necessary not to ascribe some type of direction here. And, as I noted above, unless they make an effort to parse their language very carefully, people will use terms like “designed” regularly regarding evolution, natural selection, biology, etc. (i.e., the human iris is designed to control the amount of light which reaches the retina). Perhaps it’s just that natural selection works like the “invisible hand” and looks so much like an intelligent designer that that terminology feels right?
One final note, in the opening paragraph I included the phrase “not consciously, of course” because Tim used it in his original comment. Not one to miss a trick, he is.