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Nathan Lents: Science with the Parking Brake On 

Nathan Lents

Nathan Lents, who is a professor of biology at John Jay College, City University of New York, has taken intelligent design theory to task. He is right to do so.

In his new book, Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, Lents argues that several aspects of biology — the structure of the maxillary sinus in the face, the anatomy of the retina, “junk” DNA, among others — argue against design. He has a limited understanding of the biology (he’s completely wrong about the retina, which is beautifully designed, he understands little about the physiology of the maxillary sinus, and he seems ignorant of the ENCODE research that has helped discredit the notion of “junk” DNA). But on his central point — there are real scientific challenges to ID arguments, he is exactly right. 

How so? Let’s take a look at his argument about the maxillary sinus in the face. Lents writes:

One of the important drainage-collection pipes is installed near the top of the largest pair of cavities, the maxillary sinuses, located underneath the upper cheeks… Putting the drainage-collection point high within these sinuses is not a good idea because of this pesky thing called gravity.

Lents misunderstands the physiology of sinus drainage. The visible opening (ostium) in the maxillary sinus is not the only, or even the main, route of drainage. There is a complex system of interconnection, often at the microscopic level, between the paranasal sinuses, and Lents betrays an ignorance of sinus physiology in asserting that the large visible opening out of the sinus, which is indeed located at the upper wall of the sinus, is the primary physiological route of drainage. 

The Complexity of Sinus Drainage

Researchers T.J. Mann and colleagues note:

Intersinus connections and accessory ostia of the maxillary sinus are well known to rhinologic surgeons but are less known for the remaining paranasal sinuses. Probing and dilatation of the natural ostia of diseased sinuses is being popularized currently by the clinical value of balloon catheter dilation (BCD). Although short-term high success rates with treatment of the dilated ostia/duct have been reported with this technique, the potential impact of fractures of adjacent bony septae on accessory sinus ostia, on mucosally lined surfaces, and on intersinus drainage pathways still has not been considered. The aim of this study was to review the literature on accessory sinus ostia, intersinus connections, and mucociliary drainage pathways for the entire sinus system that are relevant to BCD…. Accessory sinus ostia exist for each paranasal sinus. Many sinuses drain not only directly into the nasal cavity but also indirectly through adjacent sinuses. Of note, one major drainage pathway of the frontal sinus is over the ethmoid sinuses and via the ethmoids into the maxillary sinus and subsequently into the nose. Drainage of the sphenoid sinus exists both through posterior ethmoidal cells and directly into the nasopharynx… Accessory ostia are not only common for the maxillary sinus but also for the entire paranasal sinus system. BCD may potentially inadvertently impair mucociliary clearance of the sinuses through effects on secondary drainage pathways.

Mann and his colleagues make an important point that highlights Lents’s error: ignorance of the complexity of sinus drainage, and particularly the uninformed belief that the large ostium at the top of the maxillary sinus is the primary drainage path, leads to serious surgical mistakes.

In reality, the paranasal sinuses drain by very complex pathways, with many accessory ostia and via several (rather ingenious) interdependent pathways. Furthermore, they don’t drain primarily by “gravity,” as Lents naïvely asserts. Ciliary action moves secretions along to a network of drainage channels. It is perhaps best to think of the large ostium on the upper wall of the sinus as an “overflow” channel, analogous to the overflow opening in your sink. It is not meant to conduct the main flow of fluid in the sinus. In fact, it can’t be the main outflow path, because it is high in the sinus yet the sinus is not often filled with fluid. 

From design considerations, it can be inferred that a drainage ostium in the floor of the sinus would drain at too high a rate, drying out the sinus mucosa and predisposing to plugging of the ostium by thick debris. It is more reasonable to consider the maxillary sinus ostium, at the top of the sinus, as an overflow port than as the main port of drainage. And that’s elegant design. After all, how well would your sink work if the overflow port was at the bottom, rather than the top, of the sink? By asking design questions, we gain deeper insight into the physiology of sinus drainage, and generate new and very important scientific questions that have immediate relevance to medical practice. 

Lents obviously understands none of this (which is physiology taught to medical students), yet he uses his misunderstanding of rudimentary physiology to deny design in biology. Actually, the drainage of the paranasal sinuses is a beautiful example of intricate and very subtle design, and the efficiency of the drainage of the nasal sinuses is unmatched in the world of human engineering. For most of humanity’s seven billion people, paranasal sinuses drain flawlessly for the better part of a century without any tinkering at all. “Poor” design? If sinks and toilets drained as well as sinuses, plumbers would be mostly out of work. 

But Lents makes a more important point about design in biology, and unlike his error about sinus physiology, he is quite right about this. 

Design in biology is a testable scientific inference. Lents himself tested it, and although his ignorance of physiology led him to the wrong conclusion, he demonstrates quite nicely that intelligent design is a testable inference in biology.

A Vital Inference

Intelligent design is, more so, a vital inference in biology. The questions “Is this designed?” and “What benefit does this design confer?” are perfectly valid scientific questions. In fact, as knowledgeable scientists such as Mann and his colleagues demonstrate, the design inference leads us to ask important questions about physiology that we might miss if we don’t infer design. The question “Why is the ostium at the top of the sinus?” leads us to understand that the important drainage pathways are elsewhere and not visible to the naked eye, and form an elegant and complex system. In fact, surgical dilation of the visible ostium can be harmful, because it disrupts the elegant natural system for drainage. Understanding this is very important to medical science, as Mann and colleagues show.

Intelligent design is a scientific inference, and it leads us to important discoveries that are essential to medicine. The Darwinist inference to “mistakes” leads away from asking the important scientific questions. Mistakes in biology, after all, need not be investigated on a deep level. It seems that the catastrophic Darwinist error about “junk” DNA, which has set molecular genetics back decades, occurs in many other areas of biological and medical science. Darwinism is science with the parking brake on.

There are purposes for things in biology, even if the purposes are not immediately apparent. Intelligent design science leads us to a deeper understanding of the purposes, and thus to a deeper understanding of biology.

Dr. Michael Egnor is Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Photo credit: Jayel Aheram, via Flickr.