Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dembski on Vestigial Structures

Dembski has a post making an absolutely silly argument about vestigial structures. Actually two silly arguments. Here’s the first one:

Vestigial structures in biology are commonly cited as evidence for evolution, and it may well be that they did evolve. But if it is evidence of evolution, it is evolution in the wrong direction — it’s not the sort of function enhancing/innovating evolution that is supposed to give evolutionary theory its bite. Vestigial structures, after all, are structures that have lost their function. If all of evolution proceeded in this fashion, we’d quickly descend to a world of nonfunctionality.


Well no kidding, Bill. If selective pressure made every single structure in an organism superfluous at the same time, every organism would be non-functional. Thank you so much for pointing that out, Captain Obvious. Of course, that’s an impossible hypothetical so what his point could possibly be is up to you to speculate. This is a pointless bit of irrelevancy that would leave even John Madden wondering why anyone would bother to say it. Here’s the second silly argument:

But vestigiality need not evolve by purely material means — it can also be designed. I was delighted to be informed (after my recent debate with Michael Shermer at Bridgewater College) of a nifty example of vestigial structures that arise not through “devolution” but rather through design, to wit, vestigial running boards on older automobiles.

What an odd argument – “I found something that humans designed that had an unnecessary aspect to it; therefore, God would have created things just like that too.” As if God learned how to design from his own creation? Just bizarre reasoning. Of course, the good thing about invoking God as an explanation for things is that He could have created absolutely anything in any way at his whim. There is no possible artifact that one could find that could not be explained as having been created by God. After all, he works in mysterious ways. And if he just happened to want to create in a manner that mimics evolution, who are you to question him?

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    February 22, 2007

    Ed – Thank God (and keep in mind I am a type one atheist), Thank God that you did not go to the Bill Dembski school of obfuscatory writing! Trying to read Demsbki makes my eyes glaze over, then I want to shake him and tell him to get to the damn point and spit it out!

    IMO Demsbski has fast descended to a level of obscurity that must really drive him crazy, err… crazier. He rarely posts on his own site, and has turned over posting moderation to egomaniac and IDiot savant DaveScot Springer. He’s been bounced around like a bad stepchild by the university’s he’s worked for, and his ID “Science” has been identified as ID Religion by courts all over the country.

    As far as I can tell, Dembski needs a new line of work, and he is perfectly trained and qualified to write procedure software and hardware manuals, or instructions for Korean companies. Bill – if you’re out there, give it a try. The ID thing just ain’t cutting it for you.

  2. #2 386sx
    February 22, 2007

    Of course, that’s an impossible hypothetical so what his point could possibly be is up to you to speculate.

    Exactly. And if one is a creationist then one is going to speculate that whatever the point is, it definitely proves that evolution is really really stupid. “Vestigial bad. Vestigial evidence for evolution. Evolution bad too.” It really is that simple.

    As if God learned how to design from his own creation?

    There are many examples of this sort of thing that can be found in the holy bible scriptures. For example, God had to wait for people to invent swords before he could hand them out to the angels, and God had to wait for people to invent chairs before he could have a throne from which to rule the universe. Why does everybody hate the baby Jesus? I don’t know.

  3. #3 Raging Bee
    February 22, 2007

    So God — oops, I mean The Designer, of course — gets his design tips from the AUTO INDUSTRY? That would make Dembski’s God stupidest deity ever imagined by humans. Why can’t he get design tips from doctors instead? They’re the ones who deal with all the wonky design flaws every day.

    With a Creator that stupid, it’s a wonder his Universe lasted even six days…

  4. #4 Raging Bee
    February 22, 2007

    Wait — maybe this is where God got the idea for fins on fishes…

  5. #5 386sx
    February 22, 2007

    So God — oops, I mean The Designer, of course — gets his design tips from the AUTO INDUSTRY?

    Good point. Also let us not forget that God had to wait for people to invent babies before there could be a baby Jesus, too. It is no small wonder that people are at the apex of all of God’s creation. Why, they are the most important things in all of the universe. Excepting of course for the baby Jesus. :-)

  6. #6 Russel
    February 22, 2007

    A while back I looked up an old Chick tract on evolution, “Big Daddy,” (http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0055/0055_01.asp) to make a point in a discussion I was having with a friend. I was surprised to see that they had actually updated it. Part of the update was the inclusion of this argument, which amused me because it was so blatantly ignorant that even I, who am not an evolutionary biologist and possessing poor argumentative abilities, could blow it out of the water. I was fairly certain that only a basket case like Chick would have the chutzpah to present an argument like that. I thought that even Dembski would have the sense to stay away from that argument. I am once again humbled.

    Incidentally, if your familiar with “Big Daddy,” but haven’t seen it in a few years, it is worth checking out again. He includes an argument against gluons that has to be read to be believed. The irony is so spectacularly… unbelievable.

  7. #7 Kristine
    February 22, 2007

    What an odd argument – “I found something that humans designed that had an unnecessary aspect to it; therefore, God would have created things just like that too.”

    Talk about literally creating God in your own image! All Dembski worships is himself. That’s what’s going on here. Ditto for everyone else at UD. He doesn’t want a new job, J-Dog–he’s already the Lord of the Universe, complete with the requisite “persecution” and “crucifixion” to make him supremely sorry for himself.

  8. #8 matthew
    February 22, 2007

    the man is like a child…

    he is obviously being deceptive because he cannot be in this game and be so dense…

  9. #9 TImcol
    February 22, 2007

    What Dembski fails to realize is that in the case of human beings, some of our vestigial components are actually dangerous to us. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I would expect that every year significant numbers of people around the world die from acute appendicitis (and it is only through advancements in science, not religion, that people now have better chances of survival).

    If a real designer had invented a running board for a car that turned out to kill the owner of the car, you can be sure that the designer would learn from their mistakes and future designs would either eliminate the fatal flaw or provide a safer modified running board. In fact the development of the car, shows that this has happened over and over again, to the point that cars today are considerably safer than cars 50 years ago.

    But not so with our Designer who doesn’t seem to learn from his/her mistakes. Of course the ID camp likes to tell us that we should not judge whether design is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (which makes you wonder where the ‘intelligent’ part of ID kicks in). But instead, it is apparently OK for God to leave in bad design elements (indeed harmful and potentially fatal ones). Sounds like God needs to go to Design school…

  10. #10 John Pieret
    February 22, 2007

    So people die in agony every year from burst appendixes because God is nostalgic for the days when our ancestors were herbivores in need of a caecum?

    This is a great example of what Elliot Sober was talking about in his article, “What Is Wrong With Intelligent Design?”:

    It is easy enough to construct a version of ID that accommodates a set of observations already known …

    http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/what's%20wrong%20with%20id%20qrb%202007.pdf

    But, in order to be scientific, you must be able to test that proposition. Just how do you test whether the “Designer” made the appendix that way because he liked the look of it, like retro running boards, if we are not allowed to inquire into the his/her/its means and motives?

  11. #11 386sx
    February 22, 2007

    But not so with our Designer who doesn’t seem to learn from his/her mistakes. Of course the ID camp likes to tell us that we should not judge whether design is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (which makes you wonder where the ‘intelligent’ part of ID kicks in). But instead, it is apparently OK for God to leave in bad design elements (indeed harmful and potentially fatal ones). Sounds like God needs to go to Design school…

    See the only problem with that is that they have that one covered with their “fall of man” and “corruption from sin” apologies. So the bad designer argument is only a minor irritation, and the creationists, who have very very extremely really really excellently strong faith in their beliefs, will only laugh in the face of such silliness.

  12. #12 slavdude
    February 22, 2007

    Hey Ed,

    I’d watch your last paragraph. It’s really ripe for quote-mining.

  13. #13 Marine Geologist
    February 22, 2007

    “vestigial running boards on older automobiles.”

    Now I’m confused! If running boards are vestigial on older automobiles, why did I have to have running boards put ON my truck???? Did Dodge evolve it and loose them somewhere along the way?

  14. #14 howl
    February 22, 2007

    >So God — oops, I mean The Designer, of course —
    >gets his design tips from the AUTO INDUSTRY?

    Right. Wasn’t the Ford pinto used as another example of how a less-than-omnipotent designer could lead to a flawed outcome, yet still be an example of design. (human eye, knee, etc.)

  15. #15 Steve Reuland
    February 22, 2007

    In case no one has mentioned it, one of the most important aspects of vestigial structures is that they imply common ancestry with those organisms that have functioning versions of the same thing. The vestigial pelvic bones on whales and snakes, for example, imply that these animals are descended from species that once had functioning legs.

    Even if we take Dembski’s analogy seriously, vestigial structures still support an interpretation of common descent. Running boards on older vehicles are derived from their functional predecessors, not designed in de novo.

  16. #16 derek
    February 22, 2007

    Dembski has most of a complete logical syllogism there:

    Major premise: I cannot deny the existence of vestigial structures. They have actually been observed, and they really are good evidence that descent with modification is happening, albeit in a “bad” direction.

    Minor premise: But if this were all there was to evolution–if this is the only “direction” it can proceed in, and there is no phenomenon that can prevent deleterious mutations from spreading throughout a population–then every living thing we see around us would long ago have turned into a dysfunctional mess. And we do not observe that happening.

    Conclusion: Well obviously, er… I mean… look over there, it’s a monkey! (runs away)

    He’s accepted descent with modification, now all he has to do is take the last step and accept natural selection.

  17. #17 derek
    February 22, 2007

    P.S. Mr. Dembski, we know that God can do absolutely anything he chooses, no matter how strange a choice it seems to us. We know that by the definition of God, absolutely anything is possible, and nothing is ruled out.

    That’s why we consider the God explanation to be a poor explanation for anything, because it explains nothing; absolutely anything could happen because “God did it.”

  18. #18 Troublesome Frog
    February 22, 2007

    Is Dembski really arguing that “It doesn’t appear designed because God wanted it that way” supports the contention that the appearance of design is evidence of design? This man is a philosopher??

  19. #19 Tully
    February 22, 2007

    Running boards on classic cars are aesthetically pleasing. My appendix…uh, not so much so.

  20. #20 Coin
    February 22, 2007

    But if it is evidence of evolution, it is evolution in the wrong direction

    This is a really telling statement and demonstrates once again how badly that Dembski fails to understand the things he criticizes. It is Intelligent Design which claims that the development of life has a “direction”, not evolution…

  21. #21 kehrsam
    February 22, 2007

    The truly amazing thing is that textbook publishers are still using Haeckel’s drawings of the larval stages of early automobiles to show commonality of descent. Of course we all know that Ford and Chevy came about through separate acts of creation….

  22. #22 Les lane
    February 22, 2007

    Dembski’s comments are much as to be expected from a vestigial intellect – a good example of what happens when one spends too much time hanging out with pseudoscientists.

  23. #23 Lettuce
    February 22, 2007

    I’m pretty sure the Designer gets his design cues from Johnny Ives.

    The appendix? Just an earlier version of the vestigal mezzanine slot in the original Bondi iMac. The Designer, of course, transcends time and so was aware of the design touch long before Johnny Ives osccured, much less the mezzanine slot.

  24. #24 cleek
    February 23, 2007

    wait, running boards on modern cars aren’t vestigial, they are there for a specific purpose: they are decorative. the people who designed cars know that some people who buy cars like the look of running boards and will be more likely to buy a car with these decorative running boards (some might even say the car is more ‘fit’ for the market – it has an edge over the competition). so, even if they aren’t used for their original purpose, they’ve now ‘evolved’ a new purpose.

    good job Dembski!

  25. #25 David Schwartz
    February 27, 2007

    I think the closest you’ll find to vestigial components in human-designed objects would be features that, although they have become useless, require more effort to remove from the design than to keep in the product.

    Imagine a situation where a design is cheap to replicate but expensive to modify. In this case, there would be little reason to remove something that is both useless and harmless.

    You definitely see this in both software and integrated circuits, because the cost of changing the design is generally greater than the cost to replicate unneeded ‘components’. I doubt you will see much of this in something like a car because the cost to add running boards (over the expected life of a car design) is much greater than the cost of redesigning to remove them.

    I would expect you see the same thing in evolution. Vestigial organs persist when they are harmless. In this case, there’s no evolutionary pressure to remove them and no evolutionary pressure to keep them. So they just kind of ‘float’.

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