Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hitchens's "Discovery" of Something Prosaic

At the urging of gentle reader Kevin B, we take up the latest anti-theistic screed of Christopher Hitchens, a.k.a. the world's smartest human.

Hitch claims to have had an epiphany while watching the TV series Planet Earth, i.e. that the blind salamanders found in subterranean caves prove ineluctably the truth of naturalistic Darwinism and the falsity of all forms of theism, including especially "creationism," by which Hitch means everything from the young earthers to the ID advocates to, presumably, theistic evolutionists.

His reason, in sum: while the vestigial eye sockets of blind salamanders clearly demonstrate that the creatures' ancestors had eyes which disappeared over generations, they make a mockery of the notion that a designer so designed said salamanders. Here's what we see as the crucial statement in Hitchens's characteristically meandering and overwrought (the man writes so much that no one ever edits it) article:

Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders? Why give them dummy eyes that don't work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors?

Our retort is, essentially, "Why not?" Hitchens's point, which he fancies so clever and original, is the mirror image of one made by the late, great Stephen J. Gould in his celebrated essay, "The Panda's Thumb": pandas have thumb-like appendages perfectly adapted for stripping the leaves from bamboo shoots, the primary occupation of pandas, but the appendages are not thumbs at all but a strange extension of the wrist bone, clearly a sign of evolution but clearly not something that a designer god would do.

In sum, Gould and Hitchens object to the design in each case. Hitchens assumes that a "designer" has to design everything anew for each new creature. Hence, a blind salamander must be redesigned without eye sockets if the designer intends him to be eyeless. Gould, contrariwise, said that a "designer" must design everything on the standard plan: all thumb-like appendages must be true thumbs and not wrist-bone extensions.

SWNID, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable with both outcomes being the result of a process of design that includes the gradual adaptation of creatures to their environments over time by means of genetic variation.

Let's take an example closer to home. SWNID is a pale person. Our most recent ancestors developed ghostly pallor as an adaptation to their inhospitably cold, dark Northern European environment. Our more distant ancestors, inhabitants of sunnier climes, likely were blessed with a greater measure of melanin, for them an adaptation to their more tropical environment. The fact that SWNID exhibits vestigial freckles is a humorous reminder of this genetic variation and, we believe, of the designer's cleverness in making us so that our kind adapt to changing environments over time.

So what's the big deal if salamanders who make their way to caves and stay eventually have many eyeless descendants because a salamander or two who in the course of natural variation happens to get no eyes has a small advantage (nothing to get poked? two less organs to supply blood to?) over his peers? Is that a sign that there's no designer or merely that the designer made his design adaptable to various environments?

Hitchens and Gould haven't disproved a designer. They've said that they don't like the design.

Theists beware, however. It's worth remembering that notions in Darwinism like variation and natural selection have proved convincing to many because they are so palpably observable. The argument between the naturalistic Darwinists and the theists is not an either/or debate in its entirety.

Meanwhile, Hitchens and his atheist friends are still stuck on the classic, unanswerable questions of naturalism: why is there something instead of nothing (Hitch makes a stab at this, noting that someday again there will be nothing, or at least no humans, but that hardly solves his problem or creates one for theists who have an eschatology), why is there life as well as non-life, and why are there humans as well as non-human creatures?

That's why we're still placing our bets on God.

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