Tag Archives: Dawkins

The Fallacy of “Sub-Optimal” Design

Ever hear people like Richard Dawkins rant about the so-called “sub-optimal designs” in nature that must obviously disprove the existence of any omniscient Supreme Designer? As a practicing professional engineer, I find it a little annoying. Let me explain why.

What exactly is an “optimal design”? When I worked for a steel joist manufacturer, our designs were typically all about minimizing weight. It was often a very tight-margin business, and if we could save another pound of steel, that was a good thing. But, least weight doesn’t always equal least cost to produce. Sometimes, it was worth it to consolidate a bunch of different optimized least-weight designs into a big run of identical pieces, even if it meant some of them were a little heavier then needed. Just think about how much faster you could work at producing something if your instructions said that the next 1000 pieces would be made exactly like the first one, instead of having to look at the directions before every piece to see what had changed. The efficiency of repetition in our shop sometimes made a design that was not optimized for weight actually the most optimal design for us regarding least total cost (i.e. we traded a small material cost increase for a large labor cost decrease).

In my current role as a structural engineer, I’m reviewing shop drawings right now on a colleague’s project where I designed the seismic bracing for him. He unfortunately had some severe architectural constraints on his project with regard to permissible beam depths and flange widths in the walls these braces were in. After spending a couple of weeks trying to work out a solution with more conventional means, I finally came across an example of a different configuration in one of my reference books that we were able to make work in our situation. Would I call it an optimal design? Not hardly, but I was thrilled just to find anything that would meet those kinds of high demand loads with the restrictions we had.

Why do I bring up these two examples? To illustrate a couple of general points regarding optimum designs.

  • Optimization is always with respect to specific parameters. If you’re paying by the ton of steel, the most optimum design may very well be the one that weighs the least. If you’re the contractor erecting the building, the most optimum design might be the one that can be erected the fastest, or with the fewest jobsite workers. If you’re the owner of the new building, the best design may be the one that balances material costs, construction costs, and lifecycle costs for an overall lowest cost of ownership. Parameters like weight, cost, speed, strength, resilience, flexibility, lifespan, redundancy, etc. are always optimized at the expense of others. It is meaningless to talk of an optimal design without specifying what parameter is optimized. By the same measure, it is also meaningless to speak of something being a sub-optimal design without knowing what the original designer was trying to optimize for. I can say a military tank design is suboptimal for speed, and that may be true, but that isn’t where the tank was designed to excel: that heavy 4″ thick armor that slows it down so much also responds to incoming fire far better than trying to drive a race car into battle! Just because you would optimize for a particular parameter, doesn’t mean the original designer (or anyone else) would.
  • Constraints limit what is possible with regard to optimization. Looking at the end product of our seismic bracing design might appear to the fabricator to be a little odd when building it, not knowing the limits we were having to work within. Even a peer reviewer, knowledgeable of engineering design, might wonder why we didn’t simply use a much bigger beam, as is typical for these types of braced frames. But, if they’re like me, they’ve learned to ask why a puzzling design was chosen before they start throwing stones at it. In engineering, we deal with design every day – creating our own designs, reviewing the designs of colleagues, even sometimes having to try to guess the original design intent behind 100+ year-old buildings being renovated. And though it can be tempting to immediately deride some design that isn’t how I would design it, I’ve found an attitude of humility very appropriate when looking at the designs of others. For sometimes, the designs I thought were poor were actually quite innovative solutions to constraints I wasn’t aware of. But then I tried to run an alternate design that should’ve been “better,” and I ran into the same constraints the original designer did, and found the original design to be the only viable option after seeing the complete picture.

This is just a couple of reasons I think the bad design argument fails. It essentially reduces to saying “Because I, a person of limited knowledge, can’t comprehend some particular design chosen by an allegedly all-knowing Designer, He must not exist.” What hubris! Moreover, it seems to go even further by thinking that these odd cases outweigh the abundance of cases of brilliant-appearing designs in nature, many of which have spawned a whole field called biomimetics.  This field of study, which attempts to improve existing human designs or innovate new ones based on designs seen in nature, would not exist except that so many natural objects solve design problems we struggle with in ingenious ways. Indeed, I would say we have sufficient positive examples of exceptional design in nature to warrant an humble, inquisitive stance toward the supposedly “sub-optimal” cases we don’t fully comprehend yet. But really, isn’t that the attitude good science is founded on anyway?


Photo credit: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23805-1665 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5349654

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – A Case Study in Design

Schematic of the human eyeLast week, I wrote about some general problems I saw with Richard Dawkins’ claims of “sub-optimal design” in natural objects like the human eye. I recommended that we keep in mind our own finite knowledge and approach the matter with the same humility an engineer should approach a peer review of a colleague’s work. This week, we’ll need to get a little more technical to see Dawkins’ error, but let’s do a little “peer review” of that particular case of the human eye.

Dawkins’ problem with the eye is that the rods and cones (the photosensors) point toward the back of the eye, while the nerves (the “wiring”) come out the back of these sensors into the interior of the eye before being bundled up into an optic nerve that connects to the brain through a hole in the retina, causing a “blind spot” where there can’t be any sensors because of the hole and the nerve bundle. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. And yet, the eye is an amazing machine that the best human minds have not been able to rival. Whether it seems backwards to us or not, the eye seems to do better than we can with our “forward” thinking. Why might this backwards wiring actually be optimal?

Many times in my field, our structural systems are more complex than they could be otherwise because of other systems such as heating and air. Let’s face it, on a hot, humid, summer day in the Southern US, the best structure is useless if nobody can stand to be in the building because there’s no air conditioning. With the eye we have a similar issue: we need wiring (i.e. nerves) for data transmission, but we also need plumbing (i.e. blood flow) to supply energy – and lots of it. The rods and cones of the retina are so sensitive, that a single photon of light can be detected. This is because a series of enzymes massively amplifies this minuscule stimulus to useful proportions. But this enzyme activity also makes the photoreceptor layer of the retina have one of the highest metabolic rates of any known tissue[1] and the highest in the human body.[2] The energy for this is supplied by a bed of oversized capilleries immediately behind the photoreceptor layer that floods the layer with near-arterial levels of oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to satisfy these high metabolic demands. This arrangement of blood supply allows a high packing density of the rods and cones making up the layer, which allows for increased visual resolution. In the opinion of biochemist Michael Denton, it is “hard to imagine how a standard-type capillary network to carry the necessary quantities of blood directly through the photoreceptor cell layer could be arranged without causing at least some decrease in the packing density of the photoreceptors and a consequent decrease in the resolving power of the eye.”[1] Considering also that blood strongly absorbs light, this plumbing system can’t be in front of the photoreceptors, even though that would allow for the nerves to be routed to the rear and more “tidily” as Dawkins suggests. In fact, any other arrangement in humans appears  to create bigger problems than it solves.

However, atheists have looked to the cephalopods like the octopus and squid as examples of creatures with good eyesight whose eyes are wired “correctly” – photosensors facing forward, toward the light, and nerves directed toward the brain – eliminating the admittedly minimal blind spot of the human eye. Although their visual acuity is comparable to some fish that have inverted retinas like us, octopuses operate in environments where ambient light is more diffuse or even negligible for the deep-sea dwelling varieties. Whereas we would actually need something to reduce the amount of incoming light if our sensitive photoreceptors faced the light like theirs, that placement is an advantage in their environments. Energy conservation can also be a design parameter. In fact, studies in different species of flies have shown that optical data transmission from photoreceptors increases with light, and there is an energy cost associated with photoreceptor activity which is at a minimum in total darkness and a maximum in full daylight. This cost can be significant as one species of fly tested used up to 2% of its total base metabolic rate just powering the photoreceptor layer of its eyes. And that was just the “ready state”, in total darkness. As ambient light increases, optical data increases, and with it, energy demands. However, the octopus’s copper-based blood, hemocyanin, only supplies roughly one-quarter of the oxygen as our iron-based hemoglobin.[4] Based on the experimental confirmations from the fly testing, it is reasonable that humans operating in full daylight will have a much higher metabolic demand than the octopus operating in the subdued light of shallow water or the near darkness of deep water. This then makes perfect sense for us to have the inverted retina we have, with its high-capacity power delivery system, while the verted eye of the octopus is more reasonable in their environment. Our inverted photoreceptors then appear to be the best possible solution, even with the introduction of a blind spot. However, this blind spot is situated in an area of each eye not used for focused vision, is in a different spot in each eye so that the input from the other eye compensates for it, is adequately corrected for in the image processing  occurring in the brain, and is actually a smaller blind spot (approx. 6°) than the most obvious blind spot for humans: our own nose, which blocks out a larger field of view for each eye.

One last thing to point out to armchair engineers like Dawkins is this: show me we can do better. If our eyes are so offensive, show how we could improve on them. Yet with all our scientific knowledge and advancements in technology and some of the best human minds working on a visual prosthetic for blind people, the pursuit of a man-made eye is still woefully primitive. It seems extraordinarily hypocritical to me to criticize another’s design, whether a fellow engineer’s or God’s, if I can’t even come close to designing something comparable. We are at the level of allowing a blind person to differentiate between light and dark, between the presence of a large opening like a door versus a solid wall, and between crude outlines of shapes that would make the old PONG computer game of the 80’s seem like an IMAX 3D movie. It’s easy to criticize something from afar. But in engineering, getting intimately familiar with the details of a problem is what makes or breaks a design. And the more we familiarize ourselves with the constraints and objectives of the human eye, the less we find to criticize.

 


[1] Michael Denton, “The Inverted Retina: Maladaptation or Pre-adaptation?”, 1999. Hat tip to blogger Wintery Knight for publicizing Denton’s research.
[2] Punzo, Xiong, and Cepko, “Loss of Daylight Vision in Retinal Degeneration: Are Oxidative Stress and Metabolic Dysregulation to Blame?”, Journal of Biological Chemistry, January 13, 2012.
[3]Denton.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemocyanin, accessed 12/8/2015.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 2

Jesus and Samaritan Woman at the Well-Guercino 1641Today’s look at Richard Dawkin’s book, “The God Delusion”, looks at a statement not by Dawkins himself, but one by Gore Vidal that he chose as an introduction to  Chapter 2’s section on monotheism. Dawkins certainly appears to agree with this statement, so let’s tear into it and see whether it has any merit.

“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal – God is the Omnipotent Father – hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.” — Gore Vidal [1]

This is so contrary to history as to be laughable. But when bestseller books say things like this, we have to take the time to set the record straight. I can’t speak for Islam, but the Bible clearly is not “anti-human”. On the contrary, the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells us that “God made man in His own image”, “in His likeness”, that He “made them male and female”, and “blessed them”. [2] Later in Genesis, God explains how seriously He takes the killing of humans and why: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”[3] Capital punishment is grounded in the idea that the killing of a fellow human is the destruction of a fellow image-bearer of God. In both of these chapters, we also see God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Rather than being “anti-human”, God tells the human race to flourish and grow, and that He will require the life of those who are truly “anti-human” (i.e. those who murder their fellow humans).

As for the “sky-god” comment, it’s amusing that Vidal charges monotheistic religions with worshiping “sky-gods”, but doesn’t say anything about the polytheistic religions that really did worship gods of the sky, like Uranus, Zeus, Jupiter, and others in the Greek and Roman pantheons. He specifically targets the 3 religions that all claim that there is not a “god of the sky”, but rather one, and only one, Creator of everything.

Now we come to the claim that Christianity is misogynistic, or hateful of women (“loathing” in Vidal’s words). First, Genesis records that it was “not good for man to be alone”, and so God made woman to be a complementary companion and helper.[4]  This establishes from the beginning that women are valued, not loathed, both by God and Christians. Many women were lauded in the Old Testament (Deborah, the judge, particularly comes to mind) . The first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. Jesus broke with tradition of the time and talked to women one-on-one on multiple occasions, and even discussed theological questions with them, also a radical departure from cultural norms. Some of the early Christian converts commended by Paul were women (Lydia of Thyatira; the “leading women of Thessalonica”; the “prominent Greek women” of Berea; Priscilla, who was specifically included with her husband Aquila as a “coworker in the ministry”; Euodia and Syntyche, “fellow workers” who “shared my {Paul’s} struggle in the cause of the gospel”; Phoebe, a respected member and possible deaconess in the church at Cenchrea whom Paul commended at length;  Tryphena, Tryphosa, and his “dear friend”Persis, 4 women who “worked very hard in the Lord”; Mary, who “worked very hard for you {the Roman Christians}; and Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice, apparently responsible for his coming to faith in Christ).[5] Women made up many of the early Christian church, and some of their earliest martyrs (i.e. Blandina in 177 and Perpetua in 203 AD)[6], and it appears that some churches were known as meeting in the houses of certain women, as Paul sent greetings to “Nympha and the church that meets in her house”.[7] One has to wonder why women would be drawn to Christianity if it were such a “woman-loathing”system. And why would Paul feel the need to thank and commend so many women in his letters to the churches if he “loathed” women?

But we don’t have to stop there. Most of the women’s rights in the world have come about specifically from countries with Christian backgrounds. Odd coincidence…. Paul taught from the beginning that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[8] With that one statement, he eliminated any basis for Christians to ever support racism, slavery, or sexism. Moreover, he told the Ephesians that “husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies”. In fact, Christian husbands are directly commanded to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her”.[9] That is an unconditional, self-sacrificial love that stands in sharp contrast with Greek and Roman cultures of the time where the wife was little more than a slave with little to no rights. It also exhibits the value accorded to wives in Christianity. In fact, although Vidal (and Dawkins) disdain Christianity as a patriarchal system, it was the influence of Christianity in the Roman empire that gained women much of their rights there.[10]

A Christian “loathing” women is acting contrary to what the Bible teaches. In fact, we’re supposed to love even our enemies, so how on earth could a Christian ever justify “loathing women”? He couldn’t. Do we acknowledge that men and women are different and complementary? Absolutely. However, it’s not hateful to recognize differences. We are different biologically, physically, and emotionally. But in God’s amazing plan, we are designed to complement each other, to work together like 2 gears meshing, to do more together than either could accomplish alone. And in recognizing God’s design for us, and the intrinsic value of each other, men and women can both have reason to celebrate.


[1] quoted by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2008, p58.
[2] Genesis 1:26-30, NASB.
[3] Genesis 9:6, NASB.
[4] Genesis 2:18-24, NASB.
[5] Lydia – Acts 16:113-15,40; Thessalonian women – Acts 17:4; Berean women – Acts 17:12; Priscilla – Acts 18:26, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19; Euodia & Syntyche – Phillipians 4:2; Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis – Romans 16:1,6,12; Lois & Eunice – 2 Timothy 1:5.
[6] Blandina – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blandina, accessed 2015/08/22. Perpetua –  http://www.britannica.com/biography/Perpetua-Christian-martyr, accessed 2015/08/22.
[7] Colossians 4:15, NASB.
[8] Galatians 3:28, NASB.
[9] Ephesians 5:25-28, NASB.
[10]  Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, 2001, Chapter 4.

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 1

Richard DawkinsToday, I wanted to look at an argument from Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” where he says “[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.”[1] Or to put it in the classic form of a syllogism:

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved.
Premise 2: Highly evolved components appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time.

This might sound reasonable until we look closer at the original question and recognize Richard’s bait-and-switch. The question at hand is whether unguided processes like physical laws, random interactions, and natural selection are responsible for the current state of the observable universe, or if a creative intelligence (God) is instead responsible. So we are baited with a choice between the natural and the supernatural, but then Richard pulls a switch and says that creative intelligences also are the results of naturalistic processes only. We find the coin toss is rigged, for the coin he’s using is really naturalism on both sides. He does this by assuming naturalism is true in the premise in order to conclude that it’s true. Now let’s flesh out some terms in his argument to show precisely how it supports the premises with the conclusion.

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved the result of unguided, naturalistic processes (because naturalism is true).
Premise 2: Highly evolved components The results of unguided, naturalistic processes appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences the products of unguided, naturalistic processes can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time, so they must somehow still be responsible for originating everything that exists, but in a non-designed way. Therefore, intelligent design is false, leaving naturalism as the true alternative.

We would certainly agree that unguided, naturalistic processes aren’t responsible for any design (ever), as design is an inherently intelligent process relying on choice and purpose in the mind of a designer. But to redefine “creative intelligence” as a naturalistic product is to try to rig the game so as to ignore the original choice between mind and matter as the ultimate causative agent. But aside from that tactic, and his assuming that naturalism is true in Premise 1 to determine that naturalism is true in the conclusion, can his first statement about sufficiently complex creative intelligences evolving be true? Actually, no. Dr. Stephen Meyer has highlighted the extremely low amount of functionally specific information that can possibly be formed by unguided processes like this:

“In a nonbiological context and absent intelligent input, the amount of specified information of a final system, Sf, will not exceed the specified information content of the initial system, Si, by more than the number of bits of information the system’s probabilistic resources can generate, with 500 bits representing an upper bound for the entire observable universe.”[2]

Meyer limits his statement of a theory of conservation of information to nonbiological cases, but that is precisely what we are talking about here when Dawkins speaks of a creative intelligence not being available to design the universe. Evolution would only be available (in theory) once a self-replicating organism had formed.  So even if Dawkins were correct that creative intelligences were evolved, he is left with no reasonable explanation for how that first life originated, or how the universe originated tuned so precisely for life to even be possible. This fine-tuning of the universe represents far more than 500 bits of specified information, yet more information than that exceeds the probabilistic resources of the entire universe. Once we are confronted with biological entities, the problem is only magnified. By Dawkins’ own admission, an amoeba has more information in it than 1,000 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.[3] And we still have a long way to go before we get to the complex intelligence found in a human. Yet it’s highly unlikely that a human would be able to fine-tune the universe to the degree we observe. It truly is a fine-tuned system of interdependent fine-tuned systems. For the designer of the universe, we are talking about many orders of magnitude beyond that 500 bit limit. We simply have to have a Designer of incomprehensible abilities available, from the beginning (technically, from before the beginning of space-time), to account for the amount of information we find in the universe. This is none other than God, and it turns out to be Dawkins who is deluded in denying Him.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2008, p. 52.
[2] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, 2009, p293-4. See here for a previous post looking at the Universal Probability Bound from which the 500 bit information limit is derived.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996, p.116.