whimsical design

by Adam Johnston

I believe that any man who has looked at himself, naked, in a full length mirror, can’t believe in “intelligent design.” Intelligent design is creationism with a new jacket and a shiny pair of shoes. The notion I don’t have problems with necessarily, although I fight it in public spheres and in preparing teachers. When it gets infused into discussions of science, the premise is no longer merited. Science unravels the Natural world, so seeing into the mind of the Supernatural is out of bounds. Moreover, you shouldn’t insult your god by suggesting that we can.

But there’s more to it than just the philosophical, epistemological basis of science versus non-science. There’s the naked man standing in the mirror. Because, that is one of the funniest things we should ever have to face, eye to eye, man to man — symmetrical yet baggy, hairy but not furry, upright but hunched as though there’s an evolutionary memory of some ancestor without the opposable thumbs. And we’re not alone in our absurdity. There’s the platypus, volcanic pumice, the banana slug, music, lava tubes, brine shrimp, sandstone arches, sea cucumbers, hail, tides, viruses, pi, gray whales, and love. It’s all ridiculously improbable, and if you try to convince me that there’s intelligence, planning, or logic behind any of this I scoff. Again, I’m not sure I’d want to insult the intelligent of whatever deity you’d subscribe to.

Last week in my class, a science teaching preparatory course, one of my biology students brought up the fact that, of all the cells actually inside the human body, perhaps a tenth of them are human cells. The rest, the vast majority, the ruling party who could surely outvote the rest of my body in any kind of democratic decision, are microbial. We are mostly bacteria. They’re helping us, and us them, though mostly I think we just make the best of it. We’re a convenient hull in which they have a constant temperature, and they don’t kill us immediately. What kind of a crazy idea is this? Surely, if you really wanted to design something, especially something as “highly” evolved as the human, you could imagine something much more independent, less reliant and hospitable to foreigners.*

I think about places I love like Arches National Park, and a jaunt into Fiery Furnace in particular, and I’m fascinated and moved. Red stone walls give way to slots that we navigate in single file. Rock formations like “Surprise Arch” and “Kissing Turtles” emerge out of quiet, seeping water, and geologic time. The arid desert and sterile cracks give way to a slot where water collects to host a garden of poison ivy, surprising the visitor who was only wary of rattlesnakes, sheer drop offs, and heat stroke. There’s the immensity of the stone, sharply contrasted with the ridiculousness of individual grains of sand, responsible for the staggeringly slow pace of the grain by grain drip by drip process of it all. It creates something that is not only explained by a story but pours out the subjects and imagery of the theater. From kissing turtles to craggy juniper to sheer red walls reaching up into blue space, it all seems to smile back at me. It’s as though it were all there just waiting for it to be seen.

To me, all this is waiting, not intelligently designed, but whimsically designed. It isn’t there to do something, but to be laughed at and to laugh back at us.

It’s the same whimsy as that in the eyes of a visitor looking up at Sand Dune Arch, just north of Fiery Furnace, or the whimsy of my daughters playing in the sand there that forgives the rock for trapping it, climbing on the sandstone that was built grain by grain. This sandy chasm between fins is a destination of choice when I’m here with my family. Each visit we make is a bit of a return to some Mecca, where we stare at a thin ribbon of stone that spans the sky. Eventually, though, we find ourselves playing in the sand, climbing on the rocks.

It’s fun to imagine the creator behind sandstone arches, the result of sand eroded out of stone that was cemented out of sand. Too, there’s the Teddy Bear Cactus, cuddly looking but with needles that pierce tender flesh, green and bulbous with water in a place void of the stuff. There are things with scales, things with slime, things with venom, and things with whiskers. And then there’s brains. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in Galapagos: “I am still full of rage at a natural order which would have permitted the evolution of something as distracting and irrelevant and disruptive as those great big brains . . .” A natural “order,” or perhaps it’s the natural disorder of things. We have the intelligence to be just aware enough of ourselves to imagine where we come from.

It’s ironic that we are a product of whatever source of the design there may have been. Intelligent enough to be able to imagine some intelligence in the design, and then even go so far as to look for it. Of course, this just won’t work. It just isn’t what science does. It seems that we’re just intelligent enough to fool ourselves. Some whimsical source of it all is laughing, not with us, but at us. If only we got the joke, it would be pretty funny. There is so much around us and within us that simply defies intelligence, and in attributing an architecture to a logical and planful designer, we’re looking for the wrong author of it all. The designer is a poet and an artist, but not a scientist. That’s our our own job. And that’s fine with me.


* I can imagine political implications: How do we consider the issue of illegal immigration if we, our very physical independent selves, are hosts to completely alien species?


4 responses to “whimsical design

  1. The idea that nature has more whimsy than intelligence behind it is something I first thought of when leading some teachers (along with Carl Porter) through Arches N.P. I’ve kept coming back to the idea, but even now I never feel like I really do it quite right.

  2. I think the anthropomorphizing of Nature is interesting. Here, the idea that Nature can be whimsical, or in my case where I write as if Nature actually *cares* about us (as the Hulk might say, “Puny humans!”). All in all, is it necessary for us to give Nature an identity in order for our little brains to be able to understand it? We do this even with small aspects of science. When I talk about an electron near a proton, it is the most natural thing in the world to ask “What does the electron want to do?”. Maybe it is just inadequacy of language that ot naturally pushes us toward anthropomorphication, though this is certainly *not* what the ID people think. While I don’t like to think I ascribe human character to these things, I have always taken Feynman’s lead — he insisted on capitalizing Nature and the Universe, as a sign of his respect for his scientific adversary, from whom he was trying to wrest answers!

  3. It’s funny because anthropmorphication (spell check has no idea what this word is, but I believe we’re smarter) is something I try to point out and question in classes, especially science ed. But then I wonder if we do the opposite in science? I like how you point out the capitalizing to Nature, etc., and I like to use the pronoun “her” when I’m talking about Nature. I don’t know if this means something, or if I’m just trying to be whimsical myself. In this piece, I’m trying to walk the line between making fun of the notion of design and suggesting that any Designer may be taking poetic license, rather than scientific. I’m not sure if I really believe that, but it’s a fun idea to tease about. I think it’s part inadequacy of language, as you suggest, but also just plain old inadequacy to conceptualize. I guess that’s why we’re prone to metaphor and analogy.

  4. It’s unclear to me that the assumption we make about intelligent design—that it’s purposeful, thought out in advance, monotonically improving—applies to either human design or nature. When I look at an example of early human design, say my fine french chef’s knife in it’s wood block, I do not see something that was thought out in one piece. Instead it evolved, in a sense, from a sharp rock found on the ground, through the creation of a sharp rock from a round one, through the invention of a handle and a tang and purified meteorites and the digging of ore out of the ground. The french chef’s knife no more sprang full-formed from the mind of man than armadillos did. I am not sure who’s getting more credit than they deserve from the ID people, but I suspect it’s us.

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