Wednesday, November 12, 2008


A Tale to Pinto a Donkey

I suppose I should preface this with the statement that I really admired Stephen Jay Gould's take on science and his writing. Also, The Panda's Thumb is one of my favorite blogs. But the fact is that Gould's use of the panda's thumb as an argument in favor of science and against creationism was deeply flawed. This is not anything previously left unsaid, but Elliot Sober, in his new book, Evidence and Evolution (in case you haven't noticed, I really like it) has a good discussion of the difficulties with what he calls the no-designer-worth-his-salt argument.

Panda's have what might be called a "thumb" but, in fact, it is not a digit:

Rather, they have a spur of bone that sticks out from their wrists. The thumb and the paw together form a V through which the panda repeatedly runs branches of bamboo, laboriously stripping the stalks to get them ready to eat. Pandas spend a large portion of their waking lives at this task. The thumb is extremely inefficient. Gould's point is that no designer worth his salt (the phrase is due to Raddick 2005) would have given the panda this device for preparing its food. A truly intelligent designer would have done better. On the other hand, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection says that inefficient devices of this kind are not at all surprising. Darwin thought of natural selection as a gradual process that improves adaptedness; natural selection does not necessarily lead to perfect adaptation, whatever that might mean. Selection modifies the traits found in ancestors by small changes; the result is not that the best of all conceivable adaptations evolves; rather, natural selection causes traits to evolve that do a better job than the alternatives that are actually present in the evolving lineage.

... [Gould] claims that the hypothesis of intelligent design makes the panda's thumb very improbable, whereas the hypothesis of evolution by natural selection makes the result much more probable. Creationists have a serious objection to Gould's argument. It can be expressed by a rhetorical question: How does Gould know what God (or some unspecified designer) would have wanted to achieve in building the panda? Gould is assuming that an intelligent designer would have wanted to supply pandas with a superefficient device (like a stainless-steel can opener) for preparing bamboo and would have had the ability to achieve this objective. But why is it so clear that God would have wanted to do this? Perhaps God realized that if pandas had better tools, they would eat all the bamboo, which would cause the extinction of the bamboo forest and of pandas as well. And maybe these two extinctions would have triggered a cascade of others. Perhaps God realized that these bad consequences would follow if pandas had better tools, and so he decided to slow them down. Creationists don't need to assert that they know what God would have had in mind if he had built the panda. All they need to say is that Gould does not know this. Gould adopts assumptions about the designer's goals and abilities that help him reach the conclusion he wants - that intelligent design is implausible and Darwinian evolution is plausible as an explanation of the panda's thumb. But it is no good simply inventing assumptions that help one defend one's pet theory. Rather, what is needed is independent evidence concerning what God (or some other intelligent designer) would have wanted to achieve if he had built the panda. And this is something that Gould does not have.

Not that creationists should be smug. Sober goes on to show how this very objection also applies to Intelligent Design and, in fact, renders it untestable and, therefore, not science.

But does that mean the no-designer-worth-his-salt argument is useless? Not necessarily. Consider what Francisco Ayala makes of it:

The implications of the theory of intelligent design are not even compatible with the idea of a personal God, a creator, "which is all powerful and all knowing and benevolent, that is omnipotent, omniscient," said the Spanish-American Ayala.

"It would have to be imperfect design or incompetent design or inept design, but not intelligent design," he said, noting for example that human beings have more teeth than can fit in the jaw, so dentists have to remove the wisdom teeth.

True, the inefficient "thumb" of the panda might save the bamboo forests (or have some other rationale) but what does it say about a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient being that he/she/it has to resort to such Byzantine jerrybuilt solutions? If God can't do more elegant design, doesn't it imply some serious constraints on his foresight and/or abilities? At the very least, it guts the power of what has been at the heart of the argument from design for centuries -- the claim that nature displays good design.

In the end, the panda's thumb is a theological argument against a particular version of God. And the attempt to avoid the argument leaves that God, not as the infinitely competent creator of a magnificent universe and all that is in it but, instead, as a bumbler on a par with, as famously argued by the Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin, the designers of the Ford Pinto.

If that is the sort of God you want to worship, you might want to make sure your insurance is paid up.


I have also started reading Evidence and Evolution and I must admit that I also like it. I have found the section on ID a bit lacking, however. Not for the reason that it is short, but rather because I think that Sober spends too much time on demolishing ID as a likelihood argument (just like the one critiqued here). ID, however, is framed a posterior probability argument and Sober doesn't want to consider ID as such simply because he can't find a good way to assign ID a good prior probability. That is fair enough, but I think that the posterior probability argument deserves more than a brush off in a couple of paragraphs (or it might even have been a single sentence, come to think of it).
I reckon that the weakness in the 'poor designer' argument is that a future probability argument defeats it.

If an ID believer says "Ah the panda's thumb is poor design now, but in 2 million years time one of the pandas' descendants will use that bone spur (developed alongside other radical body changes) to help spread the skin of the gliding pandas wing!" - then (apart from being untestable in the short term) this counteracts the poor design argument.

I still think ID is religious rather than scientific though.
" ... the panda's thumb is a theological argument against a particular version of God. And the attempt to avoid the argument leaves that God, not as the infinitely competent creator of a magnificent universe and all that is in it but, instead, as a bumbler on a par with ... the designers of the Ford Pinto."

And would you blame the CEO of FoMoCo, or instead perhaps, the design team for that model? To go a bit further, culpability lies with the production group that farms out the fabrication of subassemblies, and selects hardware vendors. The devil is in the details.

Pinto's easily collapsible rear end could equate to a weak lumbar region. Its four protruding bolts on the differential that often puncture the gas tank in a collision is somewhat akin to the ribs puncturing the lungs, a common occurrence. Thus, the easily rupturable fuel system is somewhat analogous to damage to both the spleen and the lungs, from proximal sharp objects. In both cases, the protruding objects (bolts or ribs) could have been designed to skew elsewhere in the event of trauma.

An interesting comment regarding CEO Lee Iococca's attitude toward getting it into production:

"When it was discovered the gas tank was unsafe, did anyone go to Iacocca and tell him? "Hell no," replied an engineer who worked on the Pinto, a high company official for many years, who, unlike several others at Ford, maintains a necessarily clandestine concern for safety. "That person would have been fired ... Lee would chomp on his cigar, look out the window and say "Read the product objectives and get back to work." "

Would there be an analogy here, if design and gene tweaking were done on a subordinate level? Perhaps.

Design in biosystems is obvious, but the means, not so evident. Human forensics is analyzable; transcendent ones are not. But in the case of 'bad design' args, there is an underlying assumption that a creator that is omni/omni/omni (a theological assumption), would only produce 'perfect' bioforms.

First, a strict monotheistic assumption is illogical. Everything on this side is hierarchical, so why not in the cosmic region? And if 'theme park earth', probably one of many, has evolved various bioforms over vast time, it makes more sense that it's simply a bio workshop to try out different competing designs, i.e. you design the parasite, I'll design the remedial system. Homologies? Sure, since each iteration is a modification of a prior one, rather than a 'poof' production, and of course, the embryogenetic system is the fabricator. I accept adaptive evolution and facilitated variation to a degree.

A further refutation of the 'bad design' paradigm. Even if a supreme entity exists that designed everything, why would it want the earth experience to be perfect, or even better than it is? Life on the temporal plane is more of a sabbatical diversion than a Utopian one-time experience, unless you believe certain theological expounders who have set the belief standards.

To conclude, bioforms have no inherent consciousness, none of them. The consciousness component appears energy based (quantum intelligent particles perhaps), and with a coherent structure. There is much evidence of spirit forms existing, along with OB experiences, most from individuals who had no reason to fabricate, or with an underlying profit motive (book, séance business, etc). There is coherence and correlation between the various accounts, and yet they are sumarily dismissed as hallucinatory. And all essentially the same? Odd coincidence.

Yes, but is not consciousness synaptical? The evidence is that the brain and central nervous system are merely the links to its sensory and operational components. Temporal memory is a brain function, but the data probably exists elsewhere, as well, for later access. Hate, anger, lust, humor could be synaptical as well, as a necessary adjunct to a bio existence.

By now you know I'm not a 'Creationist', in the classic sense. And, judging from your rants over time (knew you on newsgroup), I seriously doubt that you're a strict materialist. I'd put you a notch higher than most of your compatriots.

Lee Bowman
formerly IDadvocate@...
And, judging from your rants over time (knew you on newsgroup), I seriously doubt that you're a strict materialist.

I suppose that depends on what you mean by "strict." My interests have always been epistemological -- what we can know and how we can know it. Roughly, I think that coincides with science. There is a limited version of the cosmological argument that I think (but do not know) makes a First Mover of some sort slightly more probable than its negation but which carries no implication of a conscious being, at least in any sense we could recognize. I've often described myself as an agnostic pantheist with touches of deism, if that is any help.

Whether or not that puts me a notch above or below anyone else is one of those matters I don't think we can know.
"There is much evidence of spirit forms existing"

This nonsense is rather different from the usual nonsense by the supposed contributor to UD.
But hey, that's just me ...
Hello there,

This is a message for the webmaster/admin here at

May I use some of the information from this blog post above if I provide a link back to this site?

It's here for all to see but you use it at your own risk. The management takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information and assumes no liability for any damages you may incur.

Thanks for sharing this link - but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at have a mirror or another source?

While it doesn't have the same quote, here is a similar article:
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