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Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

You Can’t Climb a Mountain with Ostrich Legs


A post yesterday on the human oral cavity, a frequent target of taunts about “unintelligent design,” noted that the ability to speak clearly is had at the cost of a small danger of choking. Commenting on this, thoughtful reader Matthew makes a great point about the trade-offs that necessarily go along with intelligent design in biology. He refers to anatomist Alice Roberts and her stunt of designing a “Perfect Human Body,” which Jonathan Wells and Ann Gauger both wrote about earlier.

The Only Problem

The only problem is that this imagined body isn’t and can’t be perfect. From “A Vision of the ‘Perfect’ Woman,” with some revealing comments by Dr. Roberts who chose ostrich over human legs:

LEGS: Our knees and feet are complex. Both are prone to damage, and failure. But there are more efficient ways of doing things. “If we focused on one thing, we could streamline the design. I’ve taken my inspiration from ostriches — which are bipedal, like us, but extremely good at running.”

Running is good, and avoiding injuries is excellent. But there’s a seemingly unavoidable trade-off:

“I traded agility for speed when I altered my legs and replaced my feet — and that means my chances of climbing a mountain are zero. But I think it’s worth it — even though I screamed when I saw the final 3D model of my creation,” she explained.

Alice Robert thinks trading human for ostrich legs is “worth it,” although thus equipped “my chances of climbing a mountain are zero.” What about swimming? That’s an interesting question that Dr. Gauger reflected on. Ostriches can bathe when it gets hot out but they have a hard time exiting a swimming pool without human assistance and if they get too far out to sea, they probably require rescue.

Exploring the Planet

Matthew’s insight: “The CURRENT design is the more efficient one that gives us the ability to use the entire planet.” Right! Humans are the only creatures that swim where we want, dive deep below the ocean surface, climb high mountains, plunge into deep subterranean caves, and run fast, thanks to the design of our legs (and arms) despite the trade-offs that come with it. Ostriches are fast, but they are not known for their scuba skills, or as mountaineers or spelunkers.

Compromises are driven by the limitations of a material world, but also by the vision that lies behind the design. The vision of Alice Roberts is comfortable with setting mountains out of reach of the “perfect” woman. However, it was apparently a priority for the intelligent agent behind our actual design that human beings should have the ability to explore the whole planet, just as the design of Earth itself and its place in the cosmos were evidently configured to permit human exploration.

You could get theological at this point, but there’s no need. Clearly, we were intended to discover our world, whether land, sea, or skies. The facts speak for themselves.

Photo credit: TheDigitalArtist, via Pixabay.