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Ask An Atheist: How do you explain design throughout the universe?

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By Jim Downard

How does the atheist worldview explain apparent design throughout the universe? Does it all boil down to coincidence?

A lot to unpack in that question, though the package does show up a lot in anti-evolution apologetics.  First, what does “apparent design” mean?  In practice, it involves living systems in the first place (fewer people talk about the “apparent design” of canyons or galactic nebulae, or subatomic particle fission tracks), and that their components do all sorts of neat stuff (like metabolizing food, and parasitizing the brains of animals).

But these problems aren’t just the province of “atheists” though the questioner may have thought that they did.  How much of the “apparent design” of nature is not designed at all, but naturally occurring whether or not there is a supernatural entity (and only just the one?) looking on as bystander?

The classic examples of “design” like the vertebrate eye or the Intelligent Design icon of the rotating bacterial flagellum actually show plenty of traces of their natural evolution. There’s plenty of technical literature on those subjects, which I do try to keep track of at my #TIP “Troubles in Paradise: The Methodology of Creationism” research project at www.tortucan.wordpress.com, and it’s fun to see the gymnastics anti-evolutionists go through to keep away from most of that data (they also largely don’t do any of the work, either, making them very much bystanders, not participants in the scientific work).

As for boiling things down to “coincidence,” the last group invoking that are evolutionists (their religious or atheist opinions here being quite irrelevant).  It’s not coincidental that the core of the flagellum resembles a Type 3 Secretion System (T3SS) pump … it is one, and that gives clues as to what the flagellum was doing in the organism’s distant ancestors before it evolved the more overtly rotating parts that ID groupies burble over today.  It further turns out that the T3SS forms found in living organisms got them by copying the genes for them from those flagellar bacteria.  Bacteria do that lateral gene transfer thing a lot, as well as endosymbiotic mergers that create new forms of life (from the plants whose chloroplast organelles derived from cyanobacteria, to the mitochondria that act as cellular power houses in all complex life, including us).

No coincidences involved in all that, just the natural evolution of systems that do “designy” things because they’re alive and do their thing, no stopping it.  So no evolutionist thinks that any “apparent design” came together like the cliche tornado in a junkyard.  To the contrary, every jot and tittle of life on earth developed gradually by natural steps, steps that are increasingly identified and even experimentally retroengineered.  In my “Evolution Slam Dunk” book on the reptile-mammal transition macroevolution evidence I noted many examples of paleogenomics, from the teeth of extinct mammal ancestors to the ancestral dinosaur bones that led to bird beaks, where scientists are experimentally reconstructing ancient biology and morphology.

Now the inclusion of “universe” may reflect the questioner channeling the views of Intelligent Design apologetics who claim there has been “fine-tuning” of physical constants to make the universe congenial to life.  That’s a rather different and deeper issue than the biological examples I’ve noted, and is more a matter of philosophical desire.  Yes, if gravity were weaker there would be no stars to make heavy elements to end up as the molecules in biological systems.  But can gravity be different than what it is?  Is there some cosmic HiFi set where a designer can fine tune the settings so that the beautiful music of life comes through in DTS stereo?  Or is there no adjustment available at all, gravity does what it does, no options possible?

Unless one get that User’s Manual for the Universe to check, those who want to see anthropic design in things can find them.  But why then was not the object of that design to make sure there were microorganisms capable of parasitizing the brains of animals, and that animals that can make things like atomic bombs and Hamlet were just “coincidental” natural byproducts?

Those are deep questions that aren’t actually answered by saying Designer!  They are a way of making us feel more important, that a Designer (whether cuddly or malevolent or indifferent) gives us justification for ourselves.  But do we really need that?  Is not the making of Hamlet (or the atomic bombs) not a validation of its brilliance (or scary purpose) independently of whether gravity is fine-tuned or a Designer really liked making T3SS so organisms can spread disease more efficiently?

The universe may be just what mathematics does for a living, and all the “design” within it are just the working out of all that.  I say “just” not to minimize it.  That “just” is all the extraordinary things matter and life can do given time and circumstance.  And certainly not “just” coincidence.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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