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As a Critic of Intelligent Design, Nathan Lents Fails to Connect

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Nathan Lents, a biologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, came to my attention with a Wall Street Journal article recently on the human body’s “poor design.” It was a piece intended to promote his new book, Human Errors, and I was pleased to find someone who might be an interesting new participant in the evolution debate. We’ve since interacted here, by way of his blog, and over Twitter. I treasure thoughtful ID critics when they come along, but Lents fails to connect.

His claims include that “The human eye is a well-tread [sic] example of how evolution can produce a clunky design.” Jonathan Wells replied, explaining why the argument is 30+ years out of date, as Dr. Wells had already done in Zombie Science. Unless I missed it, there was no response. Lents has sprayed insults at Mike Egnor, and got down in the weeds about the maxillary sinuses. He believes he understands more about the anatomy of the human head than a distinguished neurosurgeon like Professor Egnor. Lents studies how corpses decay. Egnor serves the living by rebuilding skulls, among other things. For most of us, to say “I’m no brain surgeon” is an expression of humility. Not for Lents.

Arguing in a Circle

Larger points from Egnor about how Darwinian theory argues in a circle (“X is optimal for Y because Y evolved at X, unless it’s a mistake”) he claims not to understand. And you know what? I believe him. Lents is someone who insisted at one point that the most recent five “Catholic popes” (to distinguish them from the Protestant pontiffs?) have “rejected” ID. That would presumably include John Paul I who held the office for 33 days before his death in September 1978. In other words, some 18 years before Michael Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, launching the ID movement. The notion that any pope would “reject” the idea (postdating him by almost two decades!) that modern knowledge about biochemistry and molecular machines gives evidence of purpose, in favor of evolution by purposeless Darwinian shuffling alone, boggles my mind. But not Lents’s.

Intelligent Not “Perfect” Design

When I suggested that he consider the major arguments for ID offered by Behe, Meyer, Wells, Axe, Dembski, and others, pointing out that “perfect design” is a straw man, Professor Lents dodged. He responded that he never intended his book as a reply to ID since ID is “religious” not “scientific.” Of course that’s a phony objection. Design proponents state their case in exclusively scientific terms. The thesis of “perfect design,” meanwhile, is neither religious nor scientific, an idea that no one believes. Egnor made that point as well, but again, there was no response to it.

Any man or woman who has reached age 25 or so knows that the human body breaks down. Like any design in the physical world, it operates under constraints that can be frustrating, painful, or fatal. No ID advocate says otherwise. Why, on a deep level, are we all destined for death? No doubt some of Lents’s past students, working in law enforcement or forensics, could give him a more mature perspective on that. There may be evidence of design flaws. This is not evidence against intention in biology, any more than it is in human technology.

Lents claims he has already studied enough about intelligent design to dismiss it, having read “almost half of Behe’s Of Pandas and People.” He adds, “I couldn’t finish, it’s THAT bad.” The only problem? Michael Behe didn’t write Of Pandas and People, which, in any event, is not in the canon of major ID works we suggest to curious people.

Our appeal is to curiosity, but that is a quality that I don’t see prominently displayed by Professor Lents. Regarding the case for design, I have found no indication that he knows what he’s talking about.

The Wonder of It All

That’s a shame because thoughtful people do wonder about the questions that he raises. And there are good answers to those questions. Discovery Institute biologist Ann Gauger, for one, has responded to the “unintelligent design” argument. She notes that despite undoubted limitations, “our bodies are marvels of perfection in many ways.”

The rod cells in our eyes can detect as little as one photon of light; our brains receive the signal after just nine rods have responded. Our speech apparatus is perfectly fit for communication. Says linguist Noam Chomsky, “Language is an optimal way to link sound and meaning.” Our brains are capable of storing as much information as the World Wide Web.

We can run long distances, better than a horse and rider sometimes. For an amusing comparison of our fastest times compared to various animals, have a look here. But bear in mind, not one of those animals can run, swim, and jump as well as we can.

Then there is our capacity for abstract thought, an activity you and I are engaged in right now, and our incredible fine-motor skills. Think concert pianist.

For a Darwinist or anyone else to trash the wonder of it all seems not only uncurious, but ungrateful.

Update: As of this morning, Lents was tweeting to me about how “Darwinist” is a term used unfairly to describe his position. “They try to use ‘Darwinist’ like an albatross linking evolution to Darwin’s Victorian white supremacy.” Unfortunately Lents is misinformed. Darwinists, as you can see here, use the word to describe themselves. And as the forthcoming documentary Human Zoos demonstrates, the line of descent from 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism down to today is all too clear.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Lorna Gutierrez.