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A systems architect looks at claims about the “botched” human body

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From Steve Laufmann at ENST, on Nathan Lents’s book  Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes. 

As a systems architect, I’ve spent decades designing and implementing large and complex systems of information systems — often involving thousands of individual systems. Such systems are normally embedded in complex processes that may span days, months, or even years. They integrate information systems with human activities, often across multiple organizations. These systems have a lot of moving parts.

It turns out that a number of key design principles are essential for building and modifying complex systems of systems. Get the design principles right, and everything works better. Mess up the design principles, and everything is harder — and sometimes impossible.

A few years ago I realized that these same design principles apply to living systems. So, my insights into systems design may offer an unconventional perspective into how living systems work, and how they change over time.

It’s not clear that Lents fully understood my previous comments on the “bad design” argument. In saying that the bad design argument is inherently weak, I was talking about the class of argument rather than specific instances of the class.

There are five ways the bad design argument can (and often does) go wrong:

Not understanding the relevant design goals and constraints.

Not accounting for design tradeoffs, which are necessary in all complex systems… More.

The “bad design” argument goes over best, one suspects, when people are making small talk in venues where correcting misinformation is a social Error. Not a lot of thought goes into it at either end. (“Well, Mizzle, you weren’t supposed to take it that seriously! You spent Three Whole Minutes yattering about blood circulation in the endothermic eye, as if anyone gives a ___!” Oh, so Facts Matter, do they? Here’s the only Fact that really matters around here: Dawkins is Cool and you are not.)

See also: Does Nathan Lents, author of a “bad design” book really teach biology? A doctor looks at his claims about the human sinuses

At Skeptic: Five Questions about Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design

External testicles another instance of bad design? Oddly, in making such a dramatic claim (“there is no good reason that sperm development has to work best at lower temperatures”), Lents does not quote any expert on the subject of temperature and sperm development.

and

Jonathan Wells on Lents’s claim that the human eye is wired backwards

6 Replies to “A systems architect looks at claims about the “botched” human body

  1. 1
    Allan Keith says:

    I’ve never been sold on the good vs bad design argument. It only makes sense if the “designer” intended to design something that could last well beyond the time necessary to reproduce and provide sufficient parental care so that the offspring could also reproduce. But if he didn’t, it seems to me that the “design” we see in nature is adequate. Then again…?

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    I agree that the good/bad design argument is a weak in both cases. Without knowing anything about the purported designer, how do we judge the quality of any putative design? All we can say, following John Stuart Mill in Three Essays on Religion, is that design implies working within constraints or limitations, which would argue against an omnipotent and omniscient being:

    It is not too much to say that every indication of Design in the Kosmos is so much evidence against the Omnipotence of the Designer. For what is meant by Design? Contrivance: the adaptation of means to an end. But the necessity for contrivance—the need of employing means—is a consequence of the limitation of power. Who would have recourse to means if to attain his end his mere word was sufficient? The very idea of means implies that the means have an efficacy which the direct action of the being who employs them has not. Otherwise they are not means, but an incumbrance. A man does not use machinery to move his arms. If he did, it could only be when paralysis had deprived him of the power of moving them by volition. But if the employment of contrivance is in itself a sign of limited power, how much more so is the careful and skilful choice of contrivances? Can any wisdom be shown in the selection of means, when the means have no efficacy but what is given them by the will of him who employs them, and when his will could have bestowed the same efficacy on any other means? Wisdom and contrivance are shown in overcoming difficulties, and there is no room for them in a Being for whom no difficulties exist. The evidences, therefore, of Natural Theology distinctly imply that the author of the Kosmos worked under limitations; that he was obliged to adapt himself to conditions independent of his will, and to attain his ends by such arrangements as those conditions admitted of.

  3. 3
    niwrad says:

    Mill’s reasoning is wrong. The Author of the kosmos “worked under limitations”, but these limitations are not of the Author (Who is Unlimited) rather are uniquely of the kosmos. The designed kosmos is necessarily limited because it cannot be otherwise, the Unlimited is unique (two “unlimited” would limit each other). Since Unlimited is already the Author, it cannot be unlimited His design.

    Design implies working within constraints or limitations, but these constraints are specific of the artifact, not necessarily of the designer. Example, why does a car constructor make cars, not airplanes? Evidently because he wants to make cars. But this per se doesn’t prove that he isn’t able to make airplanes (and in fact there are constructors who make both).

  4. 4
    Kas says:

    I’ve always felt that arguments from “bad design” implicitly admit what they are intended to deny: Design;-) Just take away the “bad”, which is little more than the speaker’s/writer’s subjective judgment.

    As a Christian, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find what looks like “bad design”, because sin led to our physical detriment, including disease and death.

    ~Kas

    Darwinism makes it impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

  5. 5
    Tom Robbins says:

    The entire topic is ridiculous – bad design? Tell that to any of your Billions of cells, that work on scales so small, it is hard for us to comprehend. God was said to make man out of the clay of the earth. The Judeo-Christian God made it clear, that once we chose knowledge/free will, we paid a price for it – growing older faster, sikness, pain in childbrith – I don’t think they are all listed out. But what I think some fail to see is he did this not out of anger, but out of love – the need for a self-aware being like himself, to have free will. It is easy for me to envision that in the beginning we were perfect, in that we did not grow old, our bodies stayed the same, there was no suffering, we had all we needed. And then we transitioned to a state of self-aware free will – putting the fig leaves over our privates, as we were for the first time ashamed. I for one think it makes perfect sense, but God’s reasons for doing it, we can only guess at as I have done here. I think it makes perfect sense, that the trade off to a NON omniscient self aware being would be that one had to feel pain in order to know pleasure, had to toil on ones own to survive, otherwise, no free will. If God so much as directly intervenes to the point where there is no question he exists, then a huge chunk of that free will is stripped away. Strip it away more and more and you have automatons…kind of like we see AI, which will never become self-aware, but they may act like humans, and still be nothing but a mirror of us, as we originally were a mirror or facsimile of God. To understand that God knew this all would happen, but still reacted with emotion as if it was new to him, is the great mystery of GOD – perhaps, since time is one big loaf of bread to God, and most likely to us whom move on after death, we can see events and be moved, but we see it all at once.. I am not trying to pull a God of the gaps here, I am just saying the answer to this question does pass into the realm of philosophy and the mystery of our creator. The Perfect consciousness that exists over all spans of time and space, yet part of the trinity that feels for us and loves us, along with the spirit that hopefully moves us closer to our creator, so while we are alive in this life, we can inch toward the infinite perfection (as perfect and as God like as any human can be) that was our savior. My musings only….for all I know it is so much larger than this, or maybe built in layers of understanding….

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    The Judeo-Christian God made it clear, that once we chose knowledge/free will, we paid a price for it – growing older faster, sikness, pain in childbrith – I don’t think they are all listed out.

    So man chose to have free will?

    Was he free to not choose free will?

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