Outsmarted by the Unintelligent

Humans are arguably the most intelligent beings on the planet (the fact that we can act in spectacularly unintelligent ways at times notwithstanding). We have been and continue to be devoted to “outsmarting” diseases. And yet we find it challenging.

The reason is not in serious dispute. It is evolution. Were it not for the adaptation of viruses and bacteria to changes in their environment, including changes in the form of medicines we develop to try to eradicate them, we would have won such battles long ago.

Such adaptation seems intelligent, but it isn’t. The changes in viruses and bacteria are largely random, and it is simply the fact that random changes are so common and frequent that turns such mutations into a survival advantage. The chances are that, whatever we throw at microorganisms and other living causes of disease, some mutation or other will appear that allows survival in the face of the new threat (or, from our perspective, prospective cure).

We thus find ourselves “outsmarted” by single-celled organisms and things like viruses that are barely even alive, much less intelligent. For it is not they that outsmart us, but the capacity of genetic mutations to mimic intelligence in a way that can “outsmart” even “intelligent designers” such as human drug researchers.

Can there be any clearer evidence – and this is not simply ancient evidence that might arguably be open to more than one interpretation, but evidence in which we can observe the processes in the present – that evolution has the capacity not only to mimic intelligent design, but at times even to outperform it? Given the “pseudodesigned” or “designoid” results of evolution as observable in the present day, what criteria if any could be proposed that would allow for the detection of “real design”, i.e. design by an already-existing conscious entity rather than by a natural process with the capacity to mimic it? Presumably the answer is that there are things we have made, things that are evidently technological, connected by rivets or solder. If we find such a thing, we rightly view it as human-made, and if it were to have certain characteristics, we might even conclude that it were made by beings from another planet. But for as long as humans have been around, organism including ourselves have been around already, and it simply cannot be treated as self-evident that a virus, or a carrot, or even a person is the result of intelligent design. By the time humans first start speculating about the origins of life, living things are already there as part of the natural world. And the honest answer is that we still don’t know for certain what got life started. One cannot claim that a natural or a supernatural explanation is the only plausible one. The honest answer is that we don’t know. An explanation in terms of natural processes might be entirely plausible once we understand the natural processes in question. Or we might never find a scientific explanation. Either way, one thing we do know with a high degree of certainty, because we can observe it today: Once life exists, it evolves, in ways that do an impressive job of outsmarting intelligent designers, and thus are easily mistaken for works of intelligent design themselves.

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  • I agree, "we are easily mistaken".Interestingly, I am not sure if you know, but there is an expression called "The Red Queen Principle" for when organisms race against each other in development of attack and defense mechanism and maintain an equilibrium.It was named after Alice in Wonderland where Alice and the Queen are running and not getting anywhere because the ground was moving too.Such is the silliness of evolution. And thus much of the silliness in our "design".

  • Jay

    Matt Ridley's book The Red Queen provides some excellent discussion on evolutionary arms races (he casts the discussion in terms of sexual selection, but the concepts generalize well).One subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) things about the ID crowd is how internally inconsistent they are. Michael Behe has basically conceded the validity of virtually every aspect of evolution, but fiercely clings to the idea of irreducible complexity even though every example he's come up with gets shot down. Bill Dembski, on the other hand, has, to all intents and purposes, dropped any pretense of ID being anything other than creationism in a tuxedo. It makes my head swim just thinking about it…

  • I like a lot of what you've said here. I do wonder what your perspective is on information theory and its contribution to the debate. I'm sure most ID folks would say that the examples you've provided of random mutations are not really random but merely expansions upon existing strengths and therefore, "No new information is added." Just curious.

  • I don't find the use of "information" in connection with ID particularly illuminating. Certainly DNA encodes "information" in the sense that it is instructions for protein synthesis and the like. But depending how one defined "information", it might be said that there is no "new information" even when one compares a microbe with a human being; there is simply more/different information, but using the same language and the same words. And while I can understand why one would wonder how an information-processing chemical system of this sort ever got started by natural processes, I don't understand why individuals like Behe want to move from the origins area where there is enough mystery to at least lend a degree of plausibility or at least possibility to ID, to subsequent developments in which we have variations on the same code which can be adequately explained in terms of mutations/variations and various forms of selection.

  • Jay

    A duplication of an existing gene followed by subsequent mutation of the duplicate is most certainly the addition of new information. The biggest problem of the use of information theory as it applies to ID is that multiple definitions of "information" get conflated together, and the resulting word salad looks impressive but doesn't really say anything useful. TalkOrigins has an excellent series of articles on the topic that address the matter much more thoroughly than would be possible in a comment thread.