Monday, November 09, 2009

Rereading Neil Shubin: Buildings and Heads

I am rereading Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish. Why in the Wide World of Sports am I doing this when I have a gazillion other books to read, I will never know but...this time around I was struck by his building analogy to the cranial nerves of the head:
I am reminded of my first days here in Chicago in 2001. I had been given space for a research laboratory in a hundred-year-old building and the lab needed new utility cables, plumbing, and air handling. I remember the day when the contractors first opened the walls to get access to the innards of the building. Their reaction to the plumbing and wiring inside my wall was almost exactly like mine when I opened the human head and saw the trigeminal and facial nerves for the first time. The wires, cables, and pipes inside the wall were a jumble. Nobody in his right mind would have designed a building from scratch this way, with cables and pipes taking bizarre loops and turns throughout the building.

And that is exactly the point. My building was constructed in 1896, and the utilities reflect an old design that has been jury-rigged further with each renovation. If you want to understand the wiring and plumbing in my building, you have to understand its history, how it was renovated for each new generation of scientists. My head has a long history also, and that history explains complicated nerves like the trigeminal and the facial.1
I reread the passage and thought of the progressive creationist' position. Sure, it is possible that God intentionally and by divine fiat created the trigeminal and facial pathways like that, along with a whole host of other oddities that are present in not just the human body but in all sorts of different animals (not to mention the shared viral DNA). Anything is possible but given that you can see how these things develop, why make the extra logical leaps necessary to explain them as "quirks of the creator" when there is a perfectly good explanation for them lying around in the form of evolutionary theory, unless you really really don't like evolution?

1Shubin, Neil (2008) Your Inner Fish. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 85-86.
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  1. The 27th Comrade8:09 AM

    The first time I checked the engine of a Toyota Land Cruiser (the kind that were already old in 1989), the same thought raced through my mind. Why would I accuse anybody of having intended - even designed - this terrible mess?
    Of course, these days I know engines and engineering in general better, but still.

  2. It is also interesting to see the changes that went into the conversion from a carburetor engine to a fuel-injected engine in the mid-80s. Even in the late 80s and early 90s there were holdovers from that kind of set up that, despite making little sense from a fuel-injected standpoint, were not changed because it was hard to figure out how to get it to work. We owned a 1986 Chevy Cavalier (don't ask) that was one of the early hybrids and it was a mess.