March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Book Review: The Not-So-Intelligent Designer, by Abby Hafer

Posted: Friday, May 20th, 2016

by Glenn Branch

As the title of The Not-So-Intelligent Designer suggests, Abby Hafer is ready to take intelligent design seriously. A zoologist who teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College, she invokes her specialty to argue that intelligent design is refuted by the quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology. Along the way, she offers a spirited assault on the promoters of intelligent design, accusing them of purveying uncertainty and doubt about evolution, peddling religion disguised as science, and engaging in propaganda reminiscent of the tobacco industry.

There is a lot to like about The Not-So-Intelligent Designer. The book is written with brio and it brims with examples and illustrations. The thirty-five short and punchy chapters alternate between explaining the science and exposing those who misinterpret or misrepresent the science, thus managing to alleviate any hint of tedium. And Hafer is sometimes quite splendidly indignant. Particularly noteworthy was her castigation of William Dembski’s bland comment that it would be “nice” for human birth to be easier; Hafer responds by explaining the gruesome results of obstetric fistula.

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The central argument, however, is not convincing. Hafer usually proceeds on the assumption that intelligent design predicts that all biological structures and systems function optimally. Thus her various examples of the imperfections of the vertebrate retina, the human birth canal, and so on, constitute falsifications of intelligent design. But intelligent design is not officially committed to claims either of universality or optimality: it claims only that some biological structures and systems can be explained only with reference to intelligent, not necessarily perfect, agency.

Acknowledging the point, Hafer sometimes suggests that if it is not construed as predicting that all biological structures and systems function optimally, intelligent design becomes untestable and thus unscientific. She is right insofar as intelligent design is often presented in terms that render it untestable (or testable only with the addition of claims about the designer for which there is no independent evidence). But the necessity of presenting it thus is not obvious, and so there is a constant temptation to wonder if a version of intelligent design is capable of withstanding her arguments.

Creationists who, unlike the chief promoters of intelligent design, are willing to help themselves to overtly extrascientific claims are able to deflect arguments from imperfection such as Hafer’s—at least to their own satisfaction. Two popular strategies are to claim that the structures and systems in question are only apparently suboptimal but are in fact optimal considered in the context of the designer’s overall goals for life in general, as well as to concede that the structures and systems in question are suboptimal but attribute the fact to the deleterious consequences of the Fall described in Genesis 3.

To be sure, focusing on imperfections is a good way of understanding evolution. But it would have been better for Hafer to have emphasized how the imperfections of human anatomy and physiology display a phylogenetic pattern characteristic of descent with modification. For at the end of the day, it is the unquestionable explanatory success of evolution, rather than the explanatory failure of intelligent design, which demonstrates, in the words of the book’s subtitle, why evolution explains the human body and intelligent design does not.

Hafer covers a lot of ground in a short space, so there are various details that invite quibbles and nitpicks. Particularly problematic is her emphasis on experimental evidence as essential to science—she even castigates the promoters of intelligent design for not including the phrase “experimental evidence” in their definition of intelligent design, apparently without considering that it is not included in standard definitions of evolution. It is important to realize that evolutionary biology employs historical as well as experimental methods, a point obscured in Hafer’s treatment.

Science teachers are not going to want to use the book in the classroom or to recommend the book to students, in part because of the choice of examples—the discussion of testicles and scurvy are guaranteed to elicit giggles and grimaces—and in part because of the candid discussion of religion, which might be regarded as offensive, such as the characterization of the Designer as “the world’s biggest abortionist!” (p. 52, emphasis in original). In their own reading, though, they will find it a lively, opinionated, and provocative introduction to the topic.

Author: Abby Hafer

ISBN: 978-1-620-32941-2

Published by: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Available from: http://wipfandstock.com/the-not-so-intelligent-designer.html

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the integrity of science education against ideological interference.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

7 Responses

  1. I must beg to differ on Dr. Hafers and Glenn Branch’s view of this so called “Not-So_Intelligent Designer.”

    What she sees as “quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology,” many see as an elegant and quite magnificent design with an amazing and far ranging menu of capabilities. Let me suggest an exercise that the doctor, Mr. Branch and others can easily accomplish, and I believe you may see my point.

    Take an evening out and partake in one of those wonderful choral and orchestra performances taking place all around the world at any given time – I would recommend Handel’s Messiah for this exercise.

    As you are watching and listing to this amazing musical performance I would like you to notice and watch a number of things very carefully.

    First the hands – the hands and body motions of the conductor, as well as his facial expressions and body movements as he leads the choir and orchestra through this magnificent musical piece.

    Continuing with the hands — watch the hands, and in particular the fingers of the orchestra members as they travel across the various instruments – the sting section, the brass section, the woodwinds — the piano. Watch carefully as their hands precisely match the direction given by the conductor. Watch as the fingers subtly, and at times strongly tease the music from their instruments.

    And note the various musical instruments — envisioned, designed and created by many beautifully designed and created hands and fingers.

    Next the choral voices – listen as these beautiful voices blend together perfectly with the orchestra, and watch the faces and mouths as they blend perfectly with the hands of the conductor and with the orchestra.

    Next listen and pay attention to your own reaction as message of the words and music bring excitement and inspiration into your heart and soul.

    As you leave the concert hall, take time to look at the building and its architecture and artistry. Again, the hands, arms, legs and mind of those artisans designed those arches, paintings and sculptures you admire so much.

    And when you get back home in bed, ponder over the creation of the musical score of the “Messiah.” Imagine Handel hovering over his desk and the paper taking on lines and musical symbols – and words. Imagine him going back and forth over that manuscript as he goes to and from the scriptures that are inspiring him. Imagine the music that is building inside his head as he creates this masterpiece.

    No – the human body is not the “quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology,” but is something far more splendid and wonderful.

  2. Next I would suggest a couple of sporting events for Dr. Hafers and Glenn Branch.

    First to a major league baseball game where they can witness the flawless execution of a double play. Beginning with the pitcher placing the ball across home plate at 90+ mph. We then see the batter follow that fast moving and curving baseball with his eyes, calculating where it will be as it passes into the strike zone where he can then attempt to hit it with his well hand/eye coordinated swing. Then we see the shortstop field the fast moving ball after anticipating and calculating where it will enter his glove. He then shovels it off to the second baseman who tags the runner out while leaping over the runner, and then a quick and precise throw to the first baseman who steps on first base for the second out of the double play.

    Next we go to an NBA basketball game where we witness the continual back and forth of finely tuned, trained and coordinated athletes showcasing example after example of what these well designed machines are capable of.

    Next we are off to an NFL football game where we witness precision in the well designed human body of a quarterback throwing the football with precise accuracy to a fast moving and maneuvering receiver who stretches his body out to execute a fingertip catch as he passes the goal line for a touchdown.

    No – the human body is not the “quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology,” but is something far more splendid and wonderful.

  3. It is interesting to see the NCSE so gladly promoting “non-intelligent design” yet argue that intelligent design has no place. This is a clear case of “my beliefs are better than yours because they are mine, and they are therefore allowed.”

  4. Interesting, but the first reference I tried to follow was incorrect: Wilcox et al. on spontaneous abortions was published in 1988, not 1998. Not a big deal, but enough to make you worry about the scholarship.

  5. Using the human body, sporting events, and classical music and performances as evidence that intelligent design is a viable construct represents what Taleb defines as “emperical nativism. He states the following:

    We react to a piece of information not on its logical merit, but on the basis of which framework surrounds it, and how it registers with our social-emotional system. Logical problems approached one way in the classroom might be treated differently in daily life. Indeed they are treated differently in daily life. (Taleb, Nassin N. (2007). The Black Swan. New York: Random House p. 53)

    Overall, if the natural world and human history are the result of a plan and choices made by an intelligent agent, causality and contingencies are eliminated out of necessity. As a result, causal forces in nature do not exist or are limited and as stated by Olding, a historian and philosopher, “the things of the world cause nothing.”

  6. Next we travel into the applied biological science of medicine and medical research and invite teachers and Mr. Branch to read and study the extensive articles that a Dr. Howard Glicksman has compiled on the intricacies and design of many aspects of the human body. We see this compilation of science reporting at http://www.evolutionnews.org/continuing_seri/the_designed_bo/ This series contains at least a half dozen articles on blood pressure alone, and how it is controlled within the human body.
    Note that this science reporting by Dr. Glicksman is seen in the Discovery Institute web site http://www.evolutionnews.org – an ID site – and not on the pages of the National Center for Science Education. I have been following the NCSE site as well as the Discovery site and others for years now, and what I find is that good science reporting like I describe above is found often and on a regular basis there, whereas seldom – approaching never – is an any science reported by NCSE. I find that very interesting and troubling, and thus would offer a caution to teachers to view NCSE with a great deal of skepticism, and especially this book which is little more than a hit piece on those of us who differ with the Atheistic stance and mission of NCSE.

    No – the human body is not the “quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology,” but is something far more splendid and wonderful.

  7. […] must beg to differ on Dr. Hafers and Glenn Branch’s view of this so called “Not-so-Intelligent Designer.” (Click on the link just to the left to learn more about this book […]

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