This idea was hatched a few years ago, bolstered by a Seattle organization called The Discovery Institute. That sounds scientific, doesn’t it? No, it was another and sneakier pig in lipstick, a way to crowbar creationism into the public education curriculum. It goes like this: we can see a seemingly intelligent design in nature, therefore proving the necessity of a Designer, and that would be God. I think it merely proves intelligence, and that’s a distinction worth delving into.
Bees form beeswax into a hexagonal structure, as I talked about recently in “Animal Intellect.” Why the hexagon? Because it provides maximum storage capacity with a minimum of beeswax. How did the bees know that? Do you thank God, or perhaps some bee deity, told them to do it that way, or did they somehow just know? The branches on a tree follow a mathematical ratio in the distance and angle from adjacent branches, and the same is true with the peduncles of a flower. The cosmos is organized according to certain laws or principles, such as thermodynamics and angular momentum. We see it everywhere, from biology to the crystalline structure of rocks and minerals.
The best example is the “phi ratio,” which is roughly 1:1.618. It’s also known as the Golden Ratio. Just looking at the human body, hold up your index finger. Note the final section. If you measure the fingertip to the first knuckle, the distance from that to the second knuckle is 1.618 times that first distance. The ratio is the same from the second to the third knuckle. From the wrist to the elbow is 1.618 time the length of the hand to the wrist. If the distance from the top of the head to the navel is 1, the distance from the navel to the ground is 1.618 times that. We see this ratio expressed throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Another pattern often seen is a geometrical figure called the Fibonacci curve, best illustrated in a cross section of the chambered nautilus. Everything seems to follow the laws of harmony of balance. The long held view of nature as “red in tooth and claw” is giving way to one in which interspecies cooperation is the norm (with the notable exception of humans).
Intelligent design does exist in nature, but that need not imply the existence of some old, white Republican male. (there are enough of them already). Still, design must be designed by something. That suggests an intellect, and intent, which further seems to hint at a consciousness. Enter British chemist James Lovelock. In the 1960s he worked with JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the search for life on Mars. He was dubious about the notion of a lander scooping up soil samples, when it was easier and at least as accurate to measure the gases in the planet’s atmosphere. He began thinking about Earth’s atmosphere, and then happened upon a curious geological fact: the Earth has somehow maintained roughly the same proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere for the last 300 million years. The writer William Golding suggested the name Gaia (or Gaea). In this worldview the Earth itself is a self-regulating, living entity (a planetary consciousness?). If there is such an entity, we humans have surely become a burr under her saddle. We’ll have no one but ourselves to blame is she shrugs us off.
The idea has received little support from the mainstream scientific community, which can be just as rock-ribbed as any other hierarchy. They didn’t like that it echoes Plato’s anima mundi, or “soul of the world.” It all seemed too primitive for modern times. That word ‘primitive’ has always had a negative connotation, because for a long time we thought ancient peoples were ignorant, crude, and brutish. We’re increasingly learning how egalitarian and sophisticated these societies were. Rather than a top down organization, they were more horizontal. They also lived more in harmony with their environment. Those who abused their landbase often disappeared, like the Maya or the Anasazi.
Somewhere along the line, we got kicked out of the garden, as it were. We separated ourselves from the world, we lost that intimate connection with everything else. Is it intelligent to try and improve on nature, which has been doing everything perfectly for four billion years? Do we really think we can design better corn than the millions of years corn has been working on it? Sure, over thousands of years we took maize and manipulated it into those sweet golden ears we have now, but genetic engineering is something else again. Nature would never have mixed a mouse gene with a plant, or a bacteria gene with our family pets, so they would glow in the dark.
The intelligent design we see in civilization, in our roads and highways or telecommunications networks, even the internet, is only a thin and delicate veneer. It’s all so very vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, solar flares, and the fact that we’re burning up the planet to get the last of the fossil fuels. Everything we make and use depends on petroleum technology. The only reason we haven’t abandoned it is the unparalleled power the industry now has. Intelligent design would be converting all our energy needs to renewables. In recent years there have been those who argue that the very concept of civilization may turn out to be a blind alley, and I’m inclined to agree with them.
I suppose it’s only fair to give the atheist perspective, which is that all of this is the result of random chance. Eventually life would begin somewhere, without any outside agency. For this to be possible, well, it would take upwards of 14 billion yeas or so, wouldn’t it?
Here’s a great piece of design work — the hen’s egg. It’s the perfect food storage container, airtight; it’s breakfast whenever you want.
I think we can all agree that there is intelligent design in the universe, and then we’re led back to the question of a Designer. I admit it’s quite possible there is a personal God, a living, self-conscious entity, a Gardener who not only created, but looks after it all. I doubt very much that it would be male, or any gender at all. That’s too limiting. A God of all things would be far beyond gender. It’s natural for humans to want to give this deity human form, and that’s still too limiting, I think. And what matter whether it’s a person, or the Force? All we need to realize is that from what we can observe, everything seems to fit together, like an intricate latticework. Everything interrelates with everything else, and all at the same time. That’s what I call intelligent design.