Thursday, October 8, 2009

Harris On Beetles

In the last post, I quoted Sam Harris (in Letter to a Christian Nation) as follows...
Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.
I tried to help him out, tried to turn this into an argument, by supplying the missing premise. That missing premise, however, turned out to be pretty silly when articulated... "Persistence is the test of whether or not something is designed." One can think of any number of things that were clearly designed but which are no longer used or in existence.

But perhaps this is not what Harris was driving at. The alternatives (as we saw) are no better, however. He may have been making a very subjective and straw-man argument... "If I were God, I'd have created once and once only, and had every species last forever." This, too, is hard to take seriously. The Judeo-Christian God is more creative than that, and reserves the right to create and destroy life as He wills. Moreover, the 99% of living things that have died and gone extinct have served innumerable purposes, including becoming the fossil fuels upon which modern technology depends. More importantly, much of previous life played critical roles in preparing the Earth for later life. But taking into account such things as evidence (especially when it goes against his view) seems beyond Harris.

The remaining alternative is that Harris simply wasn't making an argument at all, but merely stating his own opinion. In this case, one wonders why anyone would really consider it. Another example of Harris' 'reasoning,' and in this instance I have to assume it's mere opinion (because I cannot begin to fill in the missing but necessary premises), is the following...
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." One would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.
Let me first point out that, while arguments can be devastating, mere observations cannot. But Harris' choice of the word 'observation' tells me that (at least subconsciously) he recognizes that Haldane's remark does not constitute an argument or even the conclusion of an argument.

I cannot imagine how the existence of 350,000 species of beetles counts as evidence against God having created living things. Recounting all the ways in which coleopterans are useful and important to their various ecosystems is a task of which no one (but the Creator Himself) is capable. Beetles are found in virtually every ecosystem where any living things are found. They are prey, predator, parasite, symbiont, decomposer, scavenger, garbageman. Open up a rotting log, a decomposing carcass, or a week-old cowpie and you'll find beetles busy at work, in greater numbers and variety than flies or any other creature. Forests, deserts, ponds, tidal flats, arctic tundra, mountain streams, and every other life zone on Earth (with the exception of deep oceans) are home to beetles, every species of which is perfectly adapted for its time and place and role.

Maybe Haldane and Harris don't like beetles. They certainly don't speak as experts who understand (or have given even a moment's thought to) them or their place in the amazing pageant of life that makes Earth such a fascinating--indeed, unique--place. As with the rest of Letter, Harris' rhetoric here turns out to be nothing but empty, ignorant opinion, completely irrelevant to the thesis he is supposed to be supporting.

While we're on the subject, I was thrilled yesterday to discover a species of beetle I had never seen before. It was a largish scarabid beetle, and one would have been tempted to call it a "June Beetle" but for the fact that adults appear to take wing with the first snows of October.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for the remider to look for the unspoken premise. Both of these men appear to have axes to grind against God and probably even more precisely, Christianity. They want to jump to the devestating conclusion wihtout doing any of the real work. One wants to eradicate God, the other wants to do the same for creationism. They are not making logical arguments. They are making emotional arguments that make themselves feel better.Sam Harris makes no bones to hide his antipathy for Cristianity. I would not be surprised to learn that they both subscribe to Dawkins view that those of us who believe in God are deluded and dangerous.

David Dore'

Mariano said...

It is fascinating that while I mused upon this with regards to likewise statements made by Hitchens there has been commercials on the radio for a local mechanic urging people to have their car brakes serviced as such service is meant to "replace parts that are meant to wear out."

I suppose that car brakes were not designed since they wear out.

Yet, if human designers design parts to wear out why could not an intelligent designer/creator do the same?

This is the same fallacy into which Gould fell so long ago with his critique of the Panda's thumb. How could you criticize a design without knowing its purpose?