Design Flaws in Human Anatomy

Kevin Rogers

(Investigator 158, 2014 September)


I refer to Kirk Straughen’s article in Investigator #157. Kirk provided a table of purported problems in the design of human anatomy and suggested solutions. Kirk’s thesis is that our bodies are a defective design and cannot be the product of an omniscient and imperfect designer.

Firstly, I am not sure whether Kirk’s list is a fair reflection on the true state of affairs. We have had a long history of people pointing out defects in human construction, only to be overturned by later discoveries.

There used to be over 200 parts of the human body that were deemed useless or unnecessary. This has now been reduced to less than 4. Also “Junk DNA” may have a useful role after all. Maybe later discoveries will reveal that the structure of the human body is better than what Kirk’s sources state.

However, let’s assume that Kirk is right, and that the human body could be much better. Does this prove that the human body is not designed? Suppose we observe a poorly designed car that could be much better. Does this prove that the car was not designed but rather the product of chance? Of course not; in this case a bad design will trump chance. But could a perfect God produce an imperfect design? Well yes, if God has good reasons for doing so. Genesis 1-3 and Romans 1 provide theological reasons why the current creation is imperfect. It was created good but is now corrupted by evil. One day there will be a new creation where there will be no more tears or pain.

Kirk has provided solutions to human anatomical problems as though the solutions are obvious and easy. Well, let’s see him implement them. In fact Kirk can’t do that and neither can anyone else. It is way beyond the reach of our capabilities.

I suspect that Kirk suffers from what I call the spectator syndrome. When spectators watch great athletes, they make it look so easy and we are quick to find fault. However, the athlete has undergone extensive training and what looks easy is not so easy after all. Often biologists suffer from the same syndrome. They observe nature but they do not build it. They observe complicated and amazing biological mechanisms and quickly dismiss any supposition of design and blithely explain their observations through random mutations and natural selection. It is all so easy for the spectator.

I have worked for a number of years as a systems and software engineer in the defence industry working on multibillion dollar projects building submarines and ships. These projects nearly always run over budget and overtime and we cop criticism from politicians, “experts” in the media and the general public; people who have never built anything with anywhere near the same complexity. The fact is that building complicated systems is very hard, and those that do design and build them are much cleverer than their critical spectators.

So I am very sceptical regarding the ease with which spectators explain the development of complicated biological systems via chance and selection.

The closest analogue to DNA is software development. Most large software systems are controlled by a problem reporting system. As problems are reported, the problems are fixed and the software system is continuously patched. However, over time the software does not improve, it degrades under its own weight. All the patches corrupt the initial design vision. So what needs to be done is that periodically the software must be “refactored”. This means that some bright spark suggests a new design paradigm and this is implemented as a radical change over a large portion of the software to create a new framework that will enable more efficient subsequent development. For instance, Microsoft periodically generates new releases of their operating system. However, these new versions are not created from incremental changes to previous releases. They are generated from wholesale changes to previous frameworks.

By analogy, from an engineer’s perspective it seems highly unlikely that new structures can be created from multiple incremental changes, since our observation is that multiple incremental changes to software systems (even by very intelligent agents) does not cause the creation of elegant new structures. It causes degradation. Those clever spectators who suppose otherwise have never built anything of consequence.





Reply to Kevin Rogers on Human Anatomy

K. Straughen

(Investigator 159, 2014 November)


In reply to my article "Design Flaws in Human Anatomy" Kevin argues by analogy that if we observe a poorly designed car that the car's poor design isn't proof the vehicle wasn't designed by an intelligent being, and then suggests this is applicable to the human body.

The problem is that we have ample proof that cars are designed by intelligent beings, but we do not know the human body is likewise designed. Moreover, poor design in a car is to be expected as cars are created by fallible beings rather than an all-wise and all-powerful intelligence. That the human body possesses design flaws is inconsistent with the claim it was designed by God.

Kevin attempts to overcome this difficulty by claiming that Nature was once perfect and that it has been corrupted, and I assume the essence of his belief is derived from the mythical account in Genesis which tells the story of Adam, Eve, the Serpent, the Tree of Knowledge and so on. There is, however, no evidence that the world has ever been a perfect place. The dinosaurs, for example, suffered from diseases such as cancer, and their existence predates humanity by many millions of years. (1)

Kevin notes that the improvements to human anatomy I suggested are beyond my ability to implement and he seems to imply that this fact invalidates my observations. In keeping with his car analogy: Suppose John Citizen sees a vehicle that has a glass petrol tank mounted on the front bumper bar. Now, in the event of a head on collision there would be a significant risk of the tank shattering and the possibility of spilled fuel igniting.

Now, John isn't a mechanic or motor vehicle body builder. He has neither the knowledge nor the skills to fabricate a steel petrol tank and reposition it in a safer location, but does this fact invalidate his observation that the design could be improved?

Kevin goes on to comment on evolution, and doubts that new structures can be created through the evolutionary process and uses his experience with computer software as alleged evidence that evolution is improbable.

The problem with this comparison is that the data encoded in DNA is part of a dynamic, self-actuating, self-replicating organic system, whereas software code is not. The dynamism of organic systems has far more capacity in terms of behaviour than the inorganic and largely static software and hardware of a computer, so the comparison Kevin uses is invalid.

Life, unlike computers and software is extraordinarily dynamic rather than static. Life adapts to changing environments through the process of mutation and natural selection. An analysis of the human genome, for example, has revealed evolution in humans within the past ten thousand years: "Some of the genes most strongly affected by selection were those associated with skin colour, bone structure, and the metabolism of different foods." (2)

Mutations add information to DNA which natural selection can then act on. For example:

Some monkeys have a mutation in a protein called TRIM5 that results in a piece of another, defunct protein being tacked onto TRIM5. The result is a hybrid protein called TRIM5-CypA, which can protect cells from infection with retroviruses such as HIV. Here, a single mutation has resulted in a new protein with a new and potentially vital function. New protein, new function, new information.

Although such an event might seem highly unlikely, it turns out that the TRIM5-CypA protein has evolved independently in two separate groups of monkeys. In general, though, the evolution of a new gene usually involves far more than one mutation. The most common way for a new gene to evolve is for an existing gene to be duplicated. Once there are two or more copies, each can evolve in separate directions.

The duplication of genes or even entire genomes is turning out to be ubiquitous. Without a duplication of the entire genome in the ancestor of modern-day brewer's yeast, for instance, there would be no wine or beer. It is becoming clear that everyone of us has extra copies of some genes, a phenomenon called copy number variation.

The evolution of more complex body plans appears to have been at least partly a result of repeated duplications of the Hox genes that play a fundamental role in embryonic development. Biologists are slowly working out how successive mutations turned a pair of protoHox genes in the simple ancestors of jellyfish and anemones into the 39 Hox genes of more complex mammals. (3)

As shown above microevolution occurs. Evolution is a fact that is slowly being clarified by the ongoing research of many scientists. Microevolution over time leads to macroevolution and radically new forms of life as is evidenced not only by the fossil record, but by the convergence of many lines of independent evidence:

We know evolution happened not because of transitional fossils such as A. natans but because of the convergence of evidence from such diverse fields as geology, palaeontology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and many more. No single discovery from any of these fields denotes proof of evolution, but together they reveal that life evolved in a certain sequence by a particular process. (4)

By contrast creationists present us with no mechanisms for the creation. Rather, most rely on a literal interpretation of Genesis where God, like some kind of supernatural magician, simply pulls the universe out of his hat.

If Kevin does not wish to believe that life on Earth (including humans) had a natural origin through the process of evolution then he may hold this position, and I respect his right to do so. The evidence, however, does not support his belief in a supernatural creation whether it is for humans or other forms of life.

Finally, for those interested in a basic introduction to human evolution I suggest the following webpage: "Early Modern Homo sapiens." (5)


Bibliography

(1) Dinosaurs got cancer:
www.nature.com/news/2003/031021/full/news031020¬2.html

(2) Human Genome Shows Proof of Recent Evolution, Survey Finds:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com.au/news/2006/03/0308_060308_evolution.html

(3) Evolution myths: Mutations can only destroy information: www.newscientist.com/article/dn13673-evolution-myths-mutations-can-only-destroy-information.html

(4) The Fossil Fallacy:
www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-fossil-fallacy/

(5) Early Modern Homo sapiens: http://anthro.palomar.edu/hom02/mod_homo_4.htm

http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/