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Straw Man: Nathan Lents Versus the Theory of Perfect Design

Mike Egnor has joined Jonathan Wells in instructing Nathan Lents on some points about human physiology. In a series of articles, Dr. Lents has been working hard to try sell his new book, Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes. He first came to my attention with a piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The Botch of the Human Body,” on the theme of “our many design glitches.”

Evidently he believes this is a knockdown response to intelligent design. I assume he’s been offering his very best examples of poor design, from his book or not, but those examples aren’t very good.

He teaches biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City U. of New York). Lents, who according to his bio received his PhD in 2004 from Saint Louis Univerity [sic] School of Medicine, think he could have done a better job with the eye, the testicles, the maxillary sinus, and other features. And who knows? Maybe he could. 

True, things go wrong with our bodies, with results that range from the tragic to the merely expensive or inconvenient. We already knew we’re on our way to rejoining nature from the day we’re born. We can ask why, at a level deeper than biology, the design of life includes decay and death, but ultimately we only know that it does. Suffering does not negate the positive evidence for design: the fine-tuning of the universe, the eye of the eagle, or the elegant efficiency of the bacterial flagellum.

Of the trials that befall innocent human beings, I doubt Dr. Lents has much to teach Dr. Egnor, a pediatric neurosurgeon. The existence of disease is attested by the practice of physicians through the millennia. As to the limitations of design in a physical world, what exactly does he think he has to tell any of us? Lents cites presbyopia, which affects most people in our 50s or so, as the pair of reading glasses on my desk reminds me. My family helps support a local orthodontist in a quest for a better bite for our children. I could go on. Anybody could.

He pushes the “junk DNA” meme, but as Egnor points out, this is increasingly dated. Zombie science, as Jonathan Wells would say. Lents thinks evidence for shared ancestry between humans and apes is evidence against ID. It’s not.

This is another instance of the naïve “If there were a God, and if I were that deity, I sure wouldn’t have done it this way” school of theology. In trying to go after ID, Lents would have helped himself by reading Stephen Meyer, Douglas Axe, Michael Behe, William Dembski — or Egnor, Wells, or other scientists in the ID community — before venturing this far out. Intelligent design isn’t a theory of perfect design, as he thinks. It’s a theory of how organisms change over time, an alternative to Darwin’s. ID observes information increase in living things over the course of a long history, and shows that intelligent agency is the best explanation. A very compressed version of a prominent design argument is here:

ID itself, and not a straw man, is the idea you need to respond to if you’re a critic. It isn’t an argument against common descent. It doesn’t identify the source of design with God, but leaves that question to theologians. It certainly doesn’t say that if the source is God, then the design is executed just as you, or I, or Nathan Lents would do it.

Theology, in fact, doesn’t get any more shallow than in the hands of Dr. Lents. Let the following sink in. He responded to a post by Steve Laufmann with, among other statements, the whopper that, “Even the last five Catholic popes have rejected intelligent design sometimes with harsh words.” You don’t have to be Catholic, as I’m not, to see immediately how ludicrous that is. First of all, “Catholic popes”? Are there Protestant ones? The link goes to an article quoting Pope Francis, to the effect “that God isn’t ‘a magician with a magic wand.’” Right, and who said He is? 

Including the current holder of the office, the most recent five Popes would be Francis, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I, and Paul VI, who led the Catholic Church from 1963 to 1978. ID traces its history to the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who broke with Darwin over the design issue. But the modern theory is generally understood as having been launched by Michael Behe with Darwin’s Black Box in 1996. Paul VI rejected an idea promulgated 18 years after he died?

While the Popes haven’t explicitly endorsed ID, as you wouldn’t really expect, certainly they haven’t endorsed its opposite — the idea that nature bears no evidence of design, which is what it would mean to “reject” ID. The general approach seems to be, as Benedict put it, that “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” For an informed perspective, Lents could check out Fr. Michael Chaberek’s book, Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis.

I don’t expect him to do that. In fact I don’t expect to hear much more from Professor Lents at all. As I was writing this he tweeted to me about how he’s “preparing a response” to Egnor’s most recent post [Update: here it is], which “will probably be the last one I respond to. It’s like shouting at a brick wall.” Uh huh. Shortly after, he retweeted a comparison between ID and flat earth-ism. What’s that about a brick wall?

Photo credit: Momentmal, via Pixabay.