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The complexity of living beings has very often been appealed to as a proof of the existence of a perfect creator. In the last decades the proponents of the Intelligent Design have strongly defended the idea that some biological traits have been consciously planned by an intelligent creator, feeding a millenary debate. John Avise gives his contribute to this debate, focusing his attention on the imperfections of the human genome.
While those traits working almost perfectly are in fact compatible both with the evolutionary hypothesis and with the creationist one, the most recent studies on the flaws of the human genome "offer a Gargantuan challenge to the intelligent design". Thus the old question "Why do flaws and evil exist in a world run by a loving omnipotent God?" extends "into the previously unexplored molecular realm".
After a first historical chapter, Avise introduces us, with great accuracy, to the new discoveries on the human genome, showing how science can disclose new perspectives to theology and religion.
In the first chapter Avise chronicles the history of the attempts to account for the existence of evil and flaws in a world created by an almighty God and the relationship between science and religion. Although at the beginning scientific inquiry was devoted to find traces of God in the complexity of reality, it ironically led to questions conflicting with some traditional Christian views. The paths of science and religion gradually divert one from the other. A fundamental step in this process was the Darwinian revolution, which brought on the scene a new character: natural selection. Thanks to it, "no longer, it seemed, were nature's design in general, and human makeups in particular, to be interpreted solely as the direct artisanship of almighty God". There was accordingly a reversal in the relationship between science and religion: science had no more to find its place in a world dominated by religion, because the contrary was now the case. Obviously this couldn't avoid several attempts to explain the complexity of life appealing to God, just as do the Creation Science and the Intelligent Design, whose origins are told by Avise.
From the second chapter to the forth one we are led to the discovery of an anything but a perfect DNA. All these chapters have the same structure. First of all, Avise presents a particular kind of flaws in each of them and then asks: "why would an intelligent designer have crafted the innermost machinery of human life to be error prone"? Every time the question results rhetorical. After that he has shown why the Intelligent Design fails in giving any answer, he shows that science can afford an explanation appealing to evolution.
In the second chapter we learn about the malfunctions and mutations occurring in the processes involving our genes and the oft-fatal diseases that they can cause. In the third one we know introns, that are non encoding DNA sequences, and mitochondrial DNA. We discover that there seems to be no special reason for the existence of these elements, that nonetheless can cause serious abnormalities. Finally, in the fourth chapter, Avise explains us that "the vast majority of human DNA exists not as functional gene regions of any sort but instead consists of various classes of repetitive DNA sequences, including the decomposing corpses of deceased genes". Again, these sequences can be at the origin of diseases and death.
It is important to remark that Avise's aim "is not so much to trumpet the power of evolutionary explanations for genomic features … but rather to raise consciousness about some logical problems with biological inferences based on the precept of ex nihilo intelligent design". The significance of the evolutionary hypothesis is that it stems from a scientific and critical inquiry, contrary to a lot of arguments of the Intelligent Design.
These central chapters are sometimes very technical, but it is easy to follow Avise in his explanations because of his clear prose and his look always turned to the readers. He wants the readers -"with diverse educational and philosophical backgrounds"- to follow him, in order that they can acknowledge by themselves the cogency of his arguments. Giving to the them his same arguments, in fact, he wants them to realize that if we are guided only by critical thinking we cannot but agree with the results of science. The book is thus a good example of the critical and scientific thinking that Avise recommends and that is the best weapon against a dogmatism that is unfortunately too much widespread.
In the fifth chapter, Avise draws his conclusions. Recalling the arguments of the previous chapters and considering the objections of one of the proponents of the Intelligent Design (M. Behe), he confirms that evolution can be a better explanation for the numerous flaws of the human genome. Unlike an intelligent designer, in fact, it is "a sloppy tinkering process, constrained by happenstance and historical precedence and guided with respect to adaptations by a mindless directive agent (natural selection)".
This doesn't mean to accept an atheistic point of view nor to deny or to diminish the beauty and complexity of our nature. According to Avise, in fact, an evolutionary explanation of our flaws discloses new perspectives to theology and religion. Science is not incompatible with them but only with every dogmatic approach such as the one of the proponents of the Creation Science and the Intelligent Design. It can help to get rid of the difficulties of the Intelligent Design, returning "religion to its rightful realm -not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence, but rather as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritual-ness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity".
© 2011 Silvia Di Paolo
Silvia Di Paolo is a Ph.D. student from the University of Rome La Sapienza. Her main fields of interests are logic, philosophy of logic, and history of logic. In the past few years, she has been focusing on the work of Frege. She is now concerned with Brandom’s reading of Frege as an inferentialist