Stupid Design: Rube Goldberg Brains and the Argument for Evolution

If you think the astonishing complexity and functionality and internal balance of living things is sure evidence for our design — if you think living bodies are intricately- tuned machines that simply had to have been put together by a conscious hand — then how do you account for the parts of the machine that are just… well, goofy?

I’ve just finished this book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. Written by psychology professor Gary Marcus, this “evolutionary neuropsychology for the layperson” book explores how the human brain and mind evolved — not by looking at how the mind works, but by looking at how it doesn’t; by looking not at its astonishing achievements, but at its laughable failures. And along with being a fascinating and funny look at how the human mind works (always one of my favorite topics), it offers one of the best arguments for evolution — and against any sort of belief in intelligent design, or indeed any sort of interventionist god that tinkers with evolution — that I’ve read in a while.

The main point of the book: The human brain is a kluge.

And it’s a kluge because evolution is a kluge.

Pronounced “kloodge” (it rhymes with “stooge”), a kluge is an engineering term for an ad hoc solution that’s inelegant and imperfect but basically functional. It’s a solution that’s required because you can’t start over from scratch: you have to work with an existing design. You need more space in your house, say, and you don’t want to tear the whole house down and start over — so you stick on an extra room at the side. It’s clumsy, it looks funny, it doesn’t have good access to the bathroom… but it’s cheaper and less disruptive than tearing down the house and building a whole new one with an extra room. And it’s fine. It’ll do.

Evolution is a kluge. It’s the klugiest kluge that ever kluged.

The process of evolution happens gradually, with small changes being made on a previous arrangement. So it can’t wipe the slate clean and start again. It’s way more constrained even than an engineer. An engineer can say, “You know, it’ll be more expensive, but if you tear out these cabinets and move your stove to the other side of the kitchen, you’d have a much better setup. The basic shape of your kitchen is still gonna be weird… but it’ll be a lot better than if you leave the layout as is.” Evolution can only take the cabinets out one shelf at a time; it can only move the stove an inch at a time… and it can only do it if each step of the process, each removed shelf, each inch that the stove moves across the floor, confers a selective advantage over the previous step. (Or at least, doesn’t confer a disadvantage.) There are arguments among evolutionary biologists about exactly how big those steps can be (can the stove move one inch at a time or four inches at a time?)… but the basic principle is the same. Each generation is a modification of the previous one.

So if evolutionary forces are pressuring a four-footed species to stand upright, for instance, it’ll have to happen by gradual alterations to the all-fours setup. And if that means bad backs and bad knees and bad feet… tough beans, pal. (I am somewhat bitter on this point, having just turned 47.) Evolution is both callous and lazy: if you survive long enough to reproduce with fertile offspring who can also survive long enough to reproduce, then evolution doesn’t give a shit about anything else. There’s no evidence of any guiding hand coming in and fixing things so they work a little better. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.

And this isn’t just true of our knees and our backs and our feet. It isn’t just true of our eyes, wired backwards and upside-down; and our vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going; and our vas deferens (well, not mine, but you know what I mean), ditto.

It’s true of our brains, and our minds.

You have to read the book to get the full details. I’m not going to recount the whole thing here. But our memory, our language, our decision- making processes, our mental health, the way we pursue happiness and pleasure, the way we decide what to believe and what not to believe… none of these work optimally. We can remember a face from a 30- year- old yearbook, but we can’t remember what we had for breakfast yesterday. We make choices based on shoddy cost- benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and immediate satisfaction over long- term gain. Our languages are beautiful and expressive… but they are also imprecise and confusing, often wildly so, and sometimes with serious consequences. Our pursuits of pleasure and happiness are often not just counter- productive in the long run… they often don’t even give us much pleasure or happiness in the short run. Our mental health is fragile and easily disrupted.

And don’t even get me started on belief.

These systems work pretty darned well, all things considered. We wouldn’t be such a thumping evolutionary success if they didn’t. But all of them show clear signs of having been kluged onto previously existing mental systems. We are living in a complicated, highly technical, deeply interconnected civilization… with minds that evolved on the African savannah, to find food and shelter, and have sex, and escape from predators, and generally survive just long enough to produce the next generation. Our minds evolved to escape from tigers, not to prevent global warming. And the minds on the African savannah evolved from previous forms, which also evolved from previous forms. The human mind was kluged onto the mind of its monkey ancestors, which was kluged onto the mind of its tetrapod ancestors, which was kluged onto the mind of its fish ancestors, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Which brings me back to intelligent design. And indeed to theistic evolution: the idea that evolution proceeded the way scientists describe it, but that this process was and is guided by the hand of God.

The klugey, ad-hoc, cobbled- together, Rube Goldberg nature of so many biological systems — including the systems of the human mind — throws the whole idea of any sort of all- powerful, all- knowing, interventionist god into a cocked hat.

God half baked
If we really were designed by a perfect God, why would our bodies and minds be so klugey? If God is so magic that he can invisibly tinker with our DNA and make our legs just a skosh longer than our parent’s generation — or our minds just a skosh better at risk-benefit analysis — then why isn’t he magic enough to do a full-scale overhaul? Why wouldn’t God reach into the fetuses of the next generation and go, “You know, this generation isn’t having so much trouble with immediate survival, and at this point they really need better long-range planning abilities instead. Let’s just reach in there, and turn the volume way down on the short-sightedness. And while I’m at it, this vagus nerve is bugging me. I know it had to look like that for the fish, but… okay, there we go. Much better. And let’s seriously re-think those knees. For a quadruped, sure… but for a biped? What was I thinking? Makeover time!”

There is no evidence that this has ever happened. Even to the smallest degree.

There is, instead, ample evidence to the contrary. There is ample evidence for the idea that evolution is an entirely natural process: descent with modification, from one generation to the next, with each generation being a modification of the one before it.

And the klugey, Rube Goldberg, “work with what you’ve got” nature of our bodies — including the part of our bodies that produces our minds — is Exhibit A.

Stupid Design: Rube Goldberg Brains and the Argument for Evolution
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22 thoughts on “Stupid Design: Rube Goldberg Brains and the Argument for Evolution

  1. 1

    This has long been one of my favourite arguments against the ID/creationism crowd. If god is such a damn genius then why the hell did he make such a god-awful mess of our bodies? Everything from the basic structure to the plumbing is messed up beyond belief to the point that if I’d been in charge of the whole project I’d have resigned before it got past the design stage.
    Even when you eventually get past the endless design flaws there’s also the way we’re left to interact with the environment. This planet is two-thirds water, if you’re going to make us live here can’t we get a working pair of gills? No? Jeez, some god you are…
    Will have to pick up the book to add to my argumentative repertoire, thanks for pointing it out!

  2. 2

    Here here!
    Also I remember hearing that we’re only a few tweaks away from being able to make our own Vitamin C– something which many other animals can do but alas, we cannot.
    “Evolution is a kluge. It’s the klugiest kluge that ever kluged.”
    I need to use this somewhere, now…

  3. 3

    On a similar vein, I’ve always thought that conjoined twins were a great example of proof that there’s no God. Seriously, like anyone would do that on purpose? It’s a first-class biological fuck-up if I ever saw one.

  4. 4

    Not to mention the variety of developmental defects we’re prone to….
    TempestBrewer: In fact, “that “few tweaks away” suggests that an ancestral form could synthesize vitamin C, but our ancestors lost the capacity because we were getting enough of it from the fruit in our diet.

  5. 5

    Another excellent article – I envy your communication skills. I’ve had discussions where I ask how an all-knowing, all-powerful and loving God could create a world that looks and functions like this one we inhabit. “Our” God got to begin with a blank slate. It’s not as if “he” was brought in to clean up some other God’s mess while having restraints put on his powers.

  6. 7

    The only problem I had with this article was that I’ve had a professor named Kluge (which, being German, is pronounced kloo-guh) and I was briefly, enormously confused. But it beautifully sums up my own responses to creationists who like to point to the beautiful perfect awesome design that clearly exists.

  7. 8

    FYI this same case was made by Stephen Jay Gould (spelling?) in his essay “The Panda’s Thumb”. The evidence for evolution is not in the perfection of adaptation, it is in the imperfections. He gave the example of the Panda’s thumb, which is not a thumb, it is an extension of the wrist bone. The panda uses it to strip leaves off of bamboo, it works OK, but it’s a rotten thumb, inflexible and easily broken. Why doesn’t the Panda have and use a regular thumb? Because it’s bear ancestors lost their thumbs a long time ago, having no use for them. There are other examples- the legbones of whales, the wings of ostriches, vestigial organs generally.

  8. 9

    Hi Greta:
    Great blog but you missed the main point. THEY know we are a kluge but that is because some easily manipulated male listened to some hottie who was talking with a snake. Because of this we are now flawed and imperfect and must suffer thru life.
    Which isn’t too bad of a story for a bunch of goat herders to invent to explain the kluge.
    But THEY really believe this so the book you read will make NO impression on THEM.
    But I like you description enough to read it. It sounds like it will be a real hoot

  9. 10

    The phrase “intelligent design” just sounds to me like an advertising slogan for General Motors!
    You know, this summer will be the 40th anniversary of man’s first trip to the moon. Could we have ever accomplished that if the current (anti-) intellectual landscape, in which 45% of Americans apparently believe that the universe was built in 6 days, had prevailed in 1969?
    Great article and great thinking points too.

  10. 11

    Actually, CS, the modern conservative Christian mentality might have helped, rather than hindred, there.
    Like many hard-right lunatics, religious righters love weaponry, and they do nto mind spending any amount of money to develop it.
    The Space Race was in large part maintained for its possible use in the future as a source of advanced weaponry against the Soviets, so I don’t think it was that difficult to convince any religious right lunatics that may have existed back then that the Space Race was necessary; a mere mention of the Red Menace, and they’d be opening their wallets quicker than you can say “gay agenda”.

  11. 13

    Excellent post. I’ll have to add this book to my already long list. Thanks for your discussion of the gist of the argument. Kluge is a cool word that I’ll have to add to my vocabulary.

  12. 14

    This gets me to thinking about the episode of “My Name is Earl” where Joy tries to prove, or disprove, evolution by putting her fish in a tank with food out of reach on a rock. She figures that if the fish doesn’t grow legs and crawl up and get the food, that it will die, and this will prove evolution is fully of it… I never laughed so hard, probably just because I could picture fundagelicals trying this out at home.

  13. 15

    Just wanted to throw out another good book that shows how much of a kluge we are. I’m sure others have heard of it: “Your Inner Fish,” by Neil Shubin

  14. 16

    Teeth (2 non reparing sets only)
    Wisdom Teeth
    Eyes (its’ like the arial lead going through the TV screen)
    Prostate Gland (looking at 40 and worring)
    Testicles (why not design that enzyme to work at 37’C?)

  15. 17

    David Harmon “In fact, “that “few tweaks away” suggests that an ancestral form could synthesize vitamin C, but our ancestors lost the capacity because we were getting enough of it from the fruit in our diet.”
    Think of it more as some of our ancestors lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C, but since they got enough from their diet it wasn’t disadvantageous enough to make them “unfit” (and that “fit” is in relationship to the present environment and the loss of that ability freed up energy that would’ve gone to building/maintaining the structures to make vit C…potentially making them more “fit” versus their competitors who wasted energy making/maintain something for which there was no environmental pressure.
    Similar (but opposite of this loss) would be the gain of multicolour vision, with the same outcome, as it makes it easier to find ripe fruit…which in turn helped select out smell, which wasn’t all that useful for a lineage that wasn’t always on all fours nose-to-the-ground).
    Natural selection is a weird system of getting the “best” through ruthlessly efficient inefficiency (if that makes any sense at all).

  16. 18

    “You only need two words to argue against ID, external testicles.”
    I totally agree!
    I’m nearly done with this book, and I totally love it. There are so many implicit arguments AGAINST ID mentioned in this book that it would be easier to argue that we are a product of “Stupid Design” rather than intelligent design.

  17. 19

    Note also the discrepancy between the size of an infant’s head and a woman’s vagina: this large-brain idea comes with such a dangerous price tag it’s amazing our species survived.
    One consequent adaptation: If human fetuses developed as long in the uterus as do other primates, we wouldn’t be born until after 12 months of gestation. Mention that to any woman who’s given birth, and watch her wince or turn pale.

  18. 20

    I wrote a post several years ago on my blog along the same lines: looking for human design flaws.
    It was not as elegant or eloquent as yours, but hey. It’s nice to see someone else thought of it too!
    (I would say “great minds think alike”, but I know my mind.)

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