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The good design of bad things

From a human perspective, questions immediately arise about why there are so many lethal organisms in our world.

ZOE AUTOR 102/Antonio_Cruz TRADUCTOR Roger Marshall 14 DE MAYO DE 2023 11:00 h

Many living things cause repulsion or fear because of the danger they represent. The poison of certain spiders, scorpions and snakes, the stings and bites of ticks, wasps or mosquitoes, the toxicity of the skin of tiny multicoloured frogs or the sharp teeth of the great white shark are examples of an array of organs and structures that seem designed for nefarious, evil purposes. In addition to these organisms, visible to the naked eye, there are the vast number of bacteria, microscopic fungi and viruses with the power to end our lives. From a human perspective, questions immediately arise about why there are so many lethal organisms in our world. Has this fight to the death for the survival of the fittest always been a feature of life on our planet, or have changes occurred in the nature of living things that have ushered in this reign of natural terror? This is an important question which seems to have more to do with philosophy and theology than with the experimental sciences.

All that science can determine is whether these nefarious organisms could have appeared by chance, or rather require an intelligent cause as the explanation of their origin. It is not a question of the morality of such a cause, but of its undeniable reality. This can better be understood by invoking the example of computer viruses. These viruses, as everyone knows, are programmes that are capable of destroying or copying the infrastructure of a company or of a nation. Despite their obvious malignancy, they are usually so well designed that they can elude the most proficient computer experts. There is a very high level of intelligence behind such programmed viruses. This is precisely the claim of intelligent design in relation to the organisms, structures and chemical reactions – “irreducibly complex”, to quote Michael Behe – that species use to hunt and to survive in the biosphere.

Something so tiny and apparently simple as a mosquito can transmit, through its saliva, infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, zika, chikungunya, yellow fever, western Nile fever, to name but a few. Mosquitoes are responsible for 750,000 deaths every year. They can detect the carbon dioxide that we exhale when breathing and are also attracted by sweat and other body odours, as well as by perfumes. Their larvae can thrive on just a small amount of water, in puddles, on leaves, in cracks in tree bark, cans and drums, cisterns, canals, lakes and wetlands. However, just like every other living organism, mosquitoes perfectly play their role in maintaining the natural balance. They act as pollinizing agents, enabling millions of plants to reproduce effectively, and they constitute a vital food source for birds, bats, reptiles, frogs and fish.

The latest scientific studies on the flight of mosquitoes, assisted by high velocity cameras and digital analysis, show how these tiny insects manage to stay in the air and move with great speed and precision. Apparently, their wings can describe an angle of 40 degrees, and reach a speed of 800 beats per second. This is four times faster than most insects.1 By means of digital cameras capable of recording 10,000 photograms per second, it has been discovered that mosquitoes use three different aerodynamic techniques while flying. Besides the front vortex that all flying insects possess, mosquitoes have a posterior vortex and another rotating one. The posterior vortex generates subtle and precise wing movements at the end of each wing-beat, not unlike the flight of the humming-bird. However, mosquitoes or not in any way related to the humming-bird. Is this another miracle of “convergent evolution”? What is more, their rotating vortex enables them to land with great precision, from any special position.

How did mosquitoes learn to fly like this? Who taught them these exquisitely timed aerodynamic twists and turns which human engineers have only been able to grasp theoretically? Does any scientist really understand how such aerial inventions could have evolved? It is obvious that these animals were designed to do what they do, as is demonstrated by the swelling they produce on our skin. It is the females that bite, as they need the protein obtained from blood to feed their eggs. The males, by contrast, feed on the nectar and sap which they get from vegetation. Hence, it is the females that land with precision on the seemingly most unlikely corners of our skin, whatever we do to protect ourselves from them. And, when we succeed in crushing one of them with a flick of our hand, we would do well to remember that each of these nasty whining insects has compound eyes, articulated limbs, a breathing apparatus, a reproductive system, a digestive tract, jaws that serve as precision drills, saliva with anticoagulant proteins so that the victim’s blood flows easily, as well as a whole range of sensors to detect smells and tastes. To be precise, at the end of each limb they have hairs by means of which they can taste everything they touch as if they were tongues. 

However, the question of the harm they inflict on human beings remains open. What kind of intelligence would design insects like these? According to evolution, it would be logical that in a world where the fittest survive, mosquitoes would pursue their own interests, just like every other species. What matters to them is to pass on their genes to their descendants, even if it means killing humans or other species. Natural selection would therefore favour the most cruel and selfish species. It is common knowledge that every time humans have behaved in this way the consequences for humanity have been catastrophic. But human reasoning finds no moral satisfaction in this explanation for the existence of evil. What kind of God would have created a world like that?

It has also been suggested that in the biosphere, in the global ecosystem of our planet, each biological species plays an important role in enhancing the wellbeing of all living things. It could even be argued that some good original designs were spoilt or degenerated in the distant past and became malignant, as is dramatized in certain futuristic films in which, for example, robots become irrational and rebel against their human designers. It is true that there are harmful microbes which become beneficial when their environment is changed. This is the case with many of the bacteria that inhabit our intestine.  

We could also put forward religious arguments, such as we find in the book of Job and other parts of the Bible, for all evil having its origin in human rebellion against the Creator. From this perspective, all evil, pain, suffering and death itself are the consequence of human sin, but God never desired such things to occur, but allowed them to come about in anticipation of the consummation of his eternal purposes. Nevertheless, these considerations, related to theodicy, though it is important to reflect on them, lie beyond the scope of intelligent design. The mission of intelligent design is to identify evidence of real design in the natural world, not to find moral justification for the actions and motivations of the designer, or to determine his identity. This is the task of philosophers and theologians. 

All that science can say about mosquitoes is that they seem to have been very well designed, just like the vast majority of the species on our planet. We may not like them because of the harm they do to us. From the point of view of design, however, they are close to perfection. 



1 Bomphrey, R. J., Nakata, T., Phillips, N. & Walker S. M., 2017, Smart wing rotation and trailing-edge vortices enable high frequency mosquito flight, Nature, volume 544, pp. 92-95. 






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