Thursday, July 19, 2012

Video: To Dawkins's Dismay, a "Darwinian Physician" Goes Off-Message

David Klinghoffer July 12, 2012 4:32 PM | Permalink

Here's a very amusing video -- unintentionally so. Richard Dawkins interviews "Darwinian medicine" advocate Dr. Randolph Nesse, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan. Dawkins starts off primed to have his strident Darwinism reflected back to him by Dr. Nesse, a genial fellow who wrote a book called Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine.
But almost immediately Nesse goes off message, and you can hear the tinge of concern in Dawkins's voice. In his face, you can see his doubts about Nesse grow as they talk. Even as he repeatedly reaffirms that natural selection alone lies behind the body's seeming "design," Nesse says all kinds of things that are delicious for viewers who are open to seeing actual, intelligent design in nature.
Nesse, for one thing, keeps using the word "designed" to describe physiological features. This gets Dawkins nervous: "You used the word design," he interrupts, "and we need to obviously interpret that in a special Darwinian sense."
Nesse allows that Dawkins is right, but in a way that raises awkward doubts:
You know I always end up using the word design and someone in the audience always says "You shouldn't do that, Dr. Nesse, because you don't really mean design." And they're obviously right of course.
He goes on,
But when you look at how the mechanisms of the body work, it's almost automatic to talk about them being designed, but what really gives the proof [otherwise] is when you look at how badly designed they are. No sensible person would ever have left the body the way it is.
You can imagine Dawkins's relief at hearing that.
As a first example of "bad design" that comes to mind, Nesse speaks about our forearm with its two slender bones, the radius and the ulna. If those bones were thicker we wouldn't be so vulnerable to a kind of fracture, a Colles fracture, that besets skateboarders -- who when they fall forward off their board, catch their weight on their extended forearms. That does sound painful, yet the same feature allows us to rotate our arms in countless delicate ways, with a fine dexterity that makes it possible to play the piano or the violin, or paint portraits.
It's a trade-off between sturdiness and mobility, explains Nesse -- a "historical legacy," an example of "path dependence": "Everything in the trade-offs all the way down." He seems not to notice that this is true of all design, in the human context, that you can possibly think of. It's in the nature of the physical world that every good must be somehow bought at the expense of something else. Only in pure creativity, which happens in the mind, is no compromise necessarily exacted. Translate your creative idea into matter, and it's a different story.
Nesse goes on to speak of "six possible reasons...why the body isn't better designed." He catches himself yet again: "I'm using the word design over and over again. I can see why other people do, you know. It's very hard to find another word to refer to these mechanisms that work so well."
That work so well? I thought they were all so badly designed?
Dawkins interrupts again, and this time he sounds almost cross: "Once and for all, it looks like design. Natural selection produces a powerful illusion of design."
Nesse accepts the correction, with the same winning smile he wears throughout the interview: "I'm talking about natural selection as if it has a mind. It's so easy to talk that way, isn't it?"
Finally he makes a design argument -- not that he intends it as such -- that I for one hadn't heard before:
I am amazed, Richard, that what we call metazoans, multi-celled organisms, have actually been able to evolve, and the reason [for amazement] is that bacteria and viruses replicate so quickly -- a few hours sometimes, they can reproduce themselves -- that they can evolve very, very quickly. And we're stuck with twenty years at least between generations. How is it that we resist infection when they can evolve so quickly to find ways around our defenses?
"Amazing" is the right word. He's talking about the origins of multi-celled organisms like us: How did we ever survive, under a Darwinian view, long enough to escape being consumed by creatures that reproduce so much more quickly?
What exactly that transition was between one-celled organisms or few-celled organisms and multi-celled organisms -- the ability of an immune system to protect us from things that evolve so much faster than we do, that want to have us for lunch -- must be very crucial in the origins of life.
"Crucial"! Yes that's the word all right. This leaves Richard Dawkins with a frown on his face, as well it might. Watch the whole thing for yourself. It repays the investment of time.