In the past couple of weeks, I received two requests to address Richard Dawkins' claim that the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the modern giraffe provides proof of evolution. To hear and see this claim, go to this YouTube video. The heart of Dawkins' argument is that the unnecessary length of the giraffe's recurrent laryngeal nerve is an example of an imperfection that is the sort of historical accident that one would expect if there is no intelligent Designer. Here's my response...
Since I don't know you, I can't simply respond to Dawkins' claim without first making sure that you understand the larger picture, which is the bankruptcy of Dawkins' overall view, neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE).
Twenty years from now, no one will seriously be defending the form of evolution in which Dawkins believes. His critics, whether theists or fellow-evolutionists, rightly accuse him of living still in the 19th century. Stephen Jay Gould (the leading paleontologist of the last several decades) said that "neo-Darwinism, as a theoretical paradigm, is effectively dead." Geneticist James Shapiro (like Gould, committed to some form of evolution) last year told a packed auditorium in Chicago that "Richard Dawkins is a man who lives in fantasy."
And the reason Dawkins' pet theory is dead is because there is no evidence supporting it. The fossil record was contrary to Darwin's theory when he proposed it, and years of looking for his predicted transitional intermediates have only made the situation worse (for evolution). The apparent heirarchical look of living things remains intact, despite efforts to turn it into a continuous tree. Every life form that has ever lived appeared in the fossil record fully formed, fully functional, and fully adapted to its time on earth and its role in the ecology into which it was created. Every life form has remained unchanged throughout its tenure in earth's history. The only ancestors of Dawkins' modern giraffe for which there is any evidence are modern parent giraffes.
The only other evidential argument for evolution--similarity among living things--suffers from a number of problems. For one thing, similarity among living things is equally well (or better) explained by the view that there is a single Creator (one who repeatedly uses efficient designs rather than make each living thing according to entirely new plans and with entirely different materials). Thus the evolutionist argument is viciously circular: its starting point--that similarity only arises from common ancestry--is the claim that is at issue, and cannot be assumed in order to prove itself.
There are numerous other modern discoveries that make evolution surpassingly implausible, but which are completely ignored by Dawkins. These include the discovery that the universe did indeed have a recent beginning (13.7 b.y., whereas Darwinism assumed an eternal universe, such that natural selection had a nearly infinite amount of time at its disposal), the vast complexity of even the simplest living cell (greatly increasing the gap between non-living chemistry and first life), the information content of DNA, the fine-tuning of the universe for life on this one planet, etc, etc.
It is therefore in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that Dawkins offers the 'proof' of evolution in the form of the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe. Really?! Really?!?
This is an example of a class of arguments for evolution that involve identifying seemingly 'bad,' imperfect, or suboptimal designs. This line of reasoning is unconvincing--or even downright refuted--for several reasons.
1) It assumes a God-like understanding of the anatomy in question, an understanding that neither Dawkins nor anyone else possesses. Further research is likely to discover good reasons that the nerve in question does not take a more direct route between the brain and the larynx.
2) In all of the more well-known examples, this form of argumentation has indeed been seen to involve ignorance. For a long time, it was the inverted retina (in the human eye) that was lauded by evolutionists as poorly designed, until further research discovered the elegance of it. ("Oops, let's not use that example any more! Let's try the length of the giraffe's laryngeal nerve.")
3) There will never be empirical proof that such a design does not serve an elegant (albeit yet undiscovered) purpose. That is, this argument can never be more than a "seems-to-me" sort of argument. Good science is generally thought to be more rigorous and empirical than this.
4) Even if it could be proved that such a thing constituted a bad design, it is a non-sequitur to conclude that there was no design involved. There was a period during which the Ford Pinto had a rear-end fuel tank problem, which led to numerous explosions, lawsuits, and recalls. But no one concluded as a result that the Pinto arose naturally. The premise of poor design does not yield the conclusion of no design.
[As an aside, it is the obviously fallacious reasoning so frequently employed by Dawkins (as in this case) that causes even atheist philosophers to be embarrassed by him, his books, and his public appearances.]
5) At the outset, Dawkins begins with an statement that is oxymoronic. He says that evolution "would expect" or "would predict" such an arrangement. This involves a problematic mixing of tenses. Now if evolutionists had at a certain time predicted the discovery of such an arrangement, and that prediction was subsequently borne out, then there might be some scientific validity to such a claim. But that, of course, is not what happened. No, however Dawkins may try to spin it, he is not here documenting the predictive success of his theory but rather claiming after the fact (of discovery) that it was the sort of thing that evolution... what? "could have predicted?" "should have predicted?" "might have, but just never got around to predicting?" I trust you see the problem.
6) Again assuming for the sake of argument that the laryngeal nerve in the giraffe is either a poor design or even undesigned, the argument for evolution (and against a Creator) depends upon our believing that there is NO design in the universe. That is, if Dawkins is right, then not only the giraffe's laryngeal nerve but the giraffe, and not only that but all living things, life itself, Earth, the solar system, the universe, everything is undesigned. Indeed, on Dawkins' worldview, even the Ford Pinto was not truly designed because the engineers working on it were merely carrying out the completely deterministic programming of their evolutionarily-derived brains. And it is at this point that Dawkins' beliefs require far more faith than the contrary belief--the default belief of nearly everyone throughout Western history--that things appear so exquisitely designed because they are in fact designed. It is at this point that Dawkins' worldview is most readily seen as that of the Fool of Psalm 14:1.
I know that Dawkins' 'arguments' can seem well-packaged and present a superficial challenge when first encountered. But neither this nor any other of his alledged evidences for evolution can withstand even a little bit of serious scrutiny.