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Superfluous Design: A Problem for Darwinism

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In an ID the Future podcast, Michael Denton and David Berlinski discussed traits that exhibit perfection of design. The human eye, for instance, can detect single photons of light. You can't design a light detector better than that! The human language organ (vocal cords, etc.) are perfect, Berlinski says, for communicating abstract thoughts in the mind to others.

Many traits seem to go far beyond the requirements of mere survival. This, indeed, is a theme of Denton's new book, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. They cannot be "cobbled together adventitiously" by an aimless process. Berlinski believes "every living creature is perfect as it is; it cannot be made better." Let's consider some additional examples.

The Venus Flytrap

It's been over two years since we considered the design details in this little carnivorous plant. New work by researchers in Germany, published in Current Biology, shows that this plant can count! The team's video, posted on Live Science, shows how the trigger hairs inside the leaves generate action potentials that can be measured by electrical equipment.

Experiments show that the number of action potentials generates different responses. Two action potentials are required to close the trap. When closed, the plant starts producing jasmonic acid. The third spike activates "touch hormones" that flood the trap with digestive juices. The fifth spike triggers uptake of nutrients. The struggling insect will trigger some 50 action potentials. The more they come, the more the trap squeezes tighter and tighter, as if knowing it has a stronger prey. The squeezing presses the animal against the digestive juices, also allowing more efficient uptake of nutrients. This story was reported by the BBC News and New Scientist, which quoted the reaction of some scientists:

It's not quite plant arithmetic, but it's impressive nonetheless, says Liz Van Volken­burgh of the University of Washington in Seattle. "The Venus flytrap is hardwired to respond in the way that's now being described," she says.

Wayne Fagerberg at the University of New Hampshire in Durham agrees. "Obviously it doesn't have a brain to go 'one, two, three, four'," he says. "Effectively, it's counting. It's just not thinking about it." [Emphasis added.]

In our experience, "hardwired" things that can count and activate responses are designed. This elaborate mechanism, involving multiple responses that activate machines on cue, seems superfluous for survival. The Venus flytrap has photosynthesis; it can make its own food. The argument that it needs animal food because it lives in nutrient-poor soil is questionable; other plants, including trees, do fine without animal traps.

The Zebra

Darwinian adaptationist explanations have failed again to explain zebra stripes. They've been trying for many years. A leading hypothesis is that the stripes provide camouflage (an idea debated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace). Researchers at UC Davis tested that idea and found it unsatisfactory. Instead of looking at the stripes through human eyes, they looked at them the way a predator does.

In the new study, Melin, Caro and colleagues Donald Kline and Chihiro Hiramatsu found that stripes cannot be involved in allowing the zebras to blend in with the background of their environment or in breaking up the outline of the zebra, because at the point at which predators can see zebras stripes, they probably already have heard or smelled their zebra prey.

Nor are the stripes for recognizing mates. Why doesn't that explanation work? "[O]ther species of animals that are closely related to the zebra are highly social and able to recognize other individuals of their species, despite having no striping to distinguish them."

Scientists have also suggested that the stripes discourage biting insects. But the same counter-argument applies; if that is an evolutionary law of nature, why aren't all the other animals striped?

Embryologists are struggling to understand how patterns and markings develop in the womb (see PhysOrg). They can barely explain piebald cats (University of Bath), let alone the highly distinct, regularly spaced stripes on a zebra that turn horizontal on the legs and hindquarters, conforming to the body's contours. If other animals don't need the stripes, this appears to be another example of superfluous design.

The Human Brain

The Salk Institute dropped a bombshell in the field of neuroscience, showing that human memory capacity is 10 times what was previously thought. If so, this takes our argument for superfluous design to a whole new order of magnitude. Watch the word "design" as this news release compares your brain to the Internet.

Salk researchers and collaborators have achieved critical insight into the size of neural connections, putting the memory capacity of the brain far higher than common estimates. The new work also answers a longstanding question as to how the brain is so energy efficient and could help engineers build computers that are incredibly powerful but also conserve energy.

"This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience," says Terry Sejnowski, Salk professor and co-senior author of the paper, which was published in eLife. "We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power. Our new measurements of the brain's memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web."

A petabyte is 1015 bytes, or a thousand terabytes -- and that's a conservative estimate. An evolutionist might be able to defend enough memory in a hominid brain to remember dangers from predators and where to find food or a mate, but why this superabundance of capacity? It's also efficiently stored, searchable, and quickly accessible. It is so good, in fact, that computer engineers want to imitate its "design principle" to reach that kind of incredible power and energy efficiency.

The Puzzle of Perfection

These examples reinforce Denton and Berlinski's view that the "puzzle of perfection" in the living world represents a serious challenge to Darwinian mechanisms -- or any unguided process that views survival as the only criterion of success, for that matter. This is not "bricolage," as Berlinski quips, the mere cobbling of parts that happen to be lying around. When we see exceptional design that is so good we want to imitate it, we infer that we are witnessing the products of super-intelligent design.

Image credit: Paul Maritz [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.