February 21, 2005

God as sloppy engineer

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at February 21, 2005 4:14 PM

I missed this until everybody linked to it, so you may have seen it: an opinion piece in this week's New York Times Magazine on "intelligent design", which looks at some of the bizarre engineering found in biology:

But if we can't infer anything about the design from the designer, maybe we can go the other way. What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Another great example is the wiring of the eye: as I recall, the human eye has a blind spot because the optic nerve connects to the front of the retina and therefore blocks off a patch in the field of view. Maybe this was the only way to make it work? Apparently not, as the octopus eye is wired from the back. (This is all from memory so I may be getting details wrong.)


As much as I can't stand intelligent design (which is creationism in sheep's clothing), I don't buy the opinion piece above as a way to fight it. I have spent a lot of time studying so-called "complex systems" [the terminology sucks ass, but I'm afraid the scientific literature is stuck with it], and the seemingly straightforward engineering approach isn't necessarily the best way [though I make no claim to dispute any specific examples cited here], so I wouldn't worry about whether what we see in nature would say anything about the quality of the "design" or "designer."

What I do like to use as an argument against all that creationist nonsense is the fact that modern medicine relies fundamentally on the theory of evolution and things that build on it. If that is not successful science, then practically nothing is! I don't see those people refuting the medical technology that builds on these "controversial" theories. They seemingly only refute things based on their own convenience!

That said, I am going to go poke my voodoo dolls to see if any of those bastards die horribly...

(I should say, though, that Cobb county [I think I have the county right; I'm supposed to know this] here in dumbass GA did overturn those stickers they had on the biology textbooks. Finally, there was a victory for rational thought in Georgia...)

Of course, I am leaving the state in 3 months and change...

Posted by: Mason | February 21, 2005 10:14 PM

and the South rejoices...

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2005 2:10 PM

The relevant issue seems to be whether we can distinguish the sorts of solutions that evolution (as a blind, gradual process) generates from the sorts of solutions that an intelligent designer would make. Things like the placement of the optic nerve or the laryngeal nerve certainly look a lot like the first type of solution, but maybe if the system is too complex we really can't tell. I'm not sure whether I want to concede this or not. :)

We as a species need to get good enough at genetic engineering and development science to try stuff like putting the optic nerve on the other side of the retina to see if it works better. Of course, then there would be intelligent design, namely ours.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 22, 2005 2:13 PM

Mason, I'm jealous—I never get anonymous commenters taking potshots at me. Maybe I should be more controversial.

California's happy to have you back, of course, so I guess it's a win-win (or a win-win-win)...

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 22, 2005 2:26 PM

Well, in principle, it could be the same anonymous person using two different names. :)

Actually, I never really understood the whole idea of taking potshots anonymously. I provoke people all the time (as you can tell...); I don't mind expressing my disdain openly when I feel that way about something. The whole idea of not standing behind one's opinion openly utterly confuses me. If you're planning to be a politician or something, I understand that it's part of the game, but otherwise it's just a waste of everybody's bandwidth. How much can an opinion possible be worth if it's expressed anonymously?

Travis, you clearly need more practice provoking people. I seem to do it even when I _don't_ try. It just comes naturally, so I might as well develop those few talents I actually have... typically I've already made a comment before my mind gets around to telling me I perhaps shouldn't have... (I can be quite kenderish that way.) I think if you become more caustic (another of my few skills...), you'll get more anonymous backstabbing. :)

As for the South rejoicing, it seems that this part of the country isn't big enough for the two of us. :) In truth, it never noticed that I was here, and I'll continue insulting it after I leave. :P I'll certainly feel the effects of moving somewhere else I'd rather live, so if they have a party here the day after I leave, then do be it. :) (And I thought only my colleagues would do that...but the whole region of the country would be a truly impressive accomplishment...)

> (of course, the crowds are empty on that one...)

Posted by: Mason | February 22, 2005 8:57 PM

I actually didn't mean to be anonymous. Our network crashed and erased all of my cookies, so I posted the comment before I realized that my info wasn't there. I'm certainly not afraid of posting my opinions, Mason, especially not in regards to something that you have said. I wrote what I wrote in the heat of the moment because I am SO SICK of your constant bitching about the South. We get it, Mason. You are superior in every way imaginable. Hooray for you.

Posted by: Tracy | February 23, 2005 8:07 AM

Come on Tracy, a liberal atheist academic lives in a region where each trait by itself is viewed with deep suspicion (never mind all three in combination), and he isn't allowed to feel resentful? Hell, I don't live there and I still feel resentful, because somehow this fucked-up Southern culture of anti-intellectualism and hyper-religiosity is the dominant electoral force in America. As long as the South keeps electing corrupt piles of shit like Bush and DeLay to destroy the country I love, I'm going to have some contempt for the region. Do I think that my secular Enlightenment values are superior? Absolutely.

And needless to say, this isn't an attack on all Southerners, everywhere, but it's impossible to deny that these are the dominant elements of Southern culture.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 23, 2005 11:25 AM

I like pie.

Posted by: Lemming | February 23, 2005 1:57 PM

I had the best damn comment written and when I went to post it the fucking server went down. The knot in my stomach has loosened now and I really don't want to try to re-write what I was going to say, so I'm not going to.

Posted by: Tracy | February 23, 2005 2:22 PM

I must say that Mason's constant bitching about the south, while justified (presumably), also really gets on my nerves. I have been ignoring it though, as I know my experience living there for 18 years apparently was not the same as Mason's living there.

Posted by: Zifnab | February 23, 2005 2:55 PM

I had high hopes for this flamewar but everyone's being so restrained now. Maybe I can start some shit with Lemming: Pie sucks! Cake is the One True Dessert! :)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 23, 2005 5:37 PM

I take back (and apologize for) the anonymity comment because that was not intended by the person who wrote that. I was provoking the thought-to-be anonymous person, but since it wasn't anonymous, that comment obviously wasn't merited. Sorry! I am fine with people considering me full of whatever as long as they identify themselves when they say that.

As for other things, Joe has the correct strategy---I need to be filtered on occasion (or perhaps extremely often).

As for issues behind my reactions, Travis pretty much has it on the money (although perhaps I've indicated stuff to him in private conversations that give him extra info; I don't remember). I've been told way too many times where I'm going to end up when I die for the simple reason that my family is Jewish (and, yes, I really have been told this on several occasions), or that I play D & D, or that I'm reading a fantasy novel, or that I'm wearing an Enjoy Crack t-shirt, or that I don't go to church (yes, I have gotten that one several times too). (Who cares about my actions at all, right?) And I'll grant that only some subset of the above has occurred while living in Georgia, but one thing that has definitely happened here with a notably increased frequency is the overhearing of conversations around me referring to people like me and (a couple times) to me in particular with sometimes vague and sometimes not-so-vague statements that aren't too pleasing. (My favorite---and probably the most common---is the variant of the statement Atheists shouldn't be allowed to vote that I've overheard roughly every few weeks since I've lived in Atlanta, which is widely and correctly called liberal relative to its surroundings)

Maybe everybody else overhears their version of this stuff and I just react (much) worse to it. This certainly wouldn't be the first time I react worse than somebody else to the same thing, but (justified or not) there is a reason I can be so bitter about this sometimes (or often).

So, yes, I have a big chip on my shoulder when it comes to a certain collective. When it comes to individuals, I don't have such a chip unless they prove to me that I should have one. (Very few people have ever given me any reason to think poorly of them for such reason.)

I am extremely and unashamedly ecstatic that I am going to have the chance to live somewhere I might actually belong! GT has been great when it comes to academics (the academics and academicians at all these research institutions are completely independent of any of the other stuff), but I am glad to be moving on!

Ignoring my comments when I get on your nerves is a very good strategy! I'm not asking you or anyone else to like me. I can find like-minded people easily enough (and, yes, even the ones who agree with me wish I would bitch less often; I can empathsize with that even if I don't typically go along with it...), but I don't find it particularly comfortable being the one who is different from everyone else in just about every fashion except anatomy.

In mathematical terms, this singularity is quite pleased to be removable...

As for Travis's desire for a flame war, I did my best. :) More seriously, I would think that everybody is quite pressed for time.

Posted by: Mason | February 23, 2005 7:38 PM

Dutch McTastyapples, aka "Pie", versus The Schwarzveldekirschetortenator, aka "Cake", round 1. FIGHT!

Right off the openning bell, Dutch opens with a flurry of delicously sweet filling. A lesser opponent might have been caught by such a sudden attack, but the Tortenator dodges the blow by having rich flavor without the need for so much uncontrolled sweetness. Tortenator brings his German-engineered structural integrity to bear next, demonstrating his perfectly machine-cut physique while Dutch dribbles filling out of his sides. Not to be outdone, Dutch counters with his patented Hyper-Combo-Alpha-Plex volley, a one-two-three punch of slightly-crunchy apples, flaky crust and a crumbly topping, demonstrating to a staggering Tortenator that rich texture can overpower elegant presentation any day of the week. Desperate now to strike a blow that will turn the tide as the clock ticks down, Tortenator unveils his cherries--black cherries, delicious and sweet. Hoping that sexual symbolism will win all, Tortenator deftly ties one of his (wish it was a her now, sigh) cherry stems into a knot. Sex appeal being as powerful a force as it is, this would have delivered the knockout punch to Dutch, if he hadn't anticipated the move. With a smug look on his face, Dutch points out that while the cherries may be symbolic of desire and temptation, it is the almighty "warm apple pie" that draws a firm connection to satisfaction, gratification. (Thank you and damn you, Jason Biggs)

The day is won, if only just barely. Dutch stands over the defeated Tortenator, gloating. A crumbling, sullen wreck, the Tortenator looks up at the champion, squinting from the glare as the sun sets over our noble combatants. Just then, they are both eaten.

The end.

* * *

Sorry if that kind of petered out there, but I learned to write endings by reading Neal Stephenson.

Posted by: Lemming | February 23, 2005 7:38 PM

Tim, I think I caught a reference to American Pie. Otherwise, I'm thoroughly confused. (Or more confused than usual...)

By the way, here's a comment that I found interesting (that occurred to me after I finished my last post). I think it's exaggerated, but let me pass this along anyway.

How weird I am came up as a topic of conversation at a small party a couple months ago. The person making the comment used to be a grad turkey at Caltech and is now a faculty member at Georgia Tech. He estimated that a typical academic is about 3 standard deviations from the norm (whatever that actually is), that a typical Techer undergrad is about 5--6 deviations from the norm, and (he insisted!) that I am a full 10 deviations from the norm. I know I'm completely messed up, but I'm not so sure about 10 full deviations...

I think I come across better if people get to know me in doses rather than hear me rant all at once. :) Travis, you probably shouldn't introduce me to any of your friends any time soon. I'd like to have a long life, and I obviously haven't been helping my cause.

Posted by: Mason | February 23, 2005 8:37 PM

Lemming: Brilliant. I must concede the superiority of Pie. :)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 24, 2005 11:55 AM

I just want to say that the South will be the poorer for the loss of Mason. 'Course I don't read him all that much. But he does sound like somebody that I'd like to have a beer with sometime.

Posted by: Dad | March 1, 2005 8:57 PM
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