For God So Loved the Whales

In her book, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not (2016), Abby Hafer gives a by turns amusing and horrifying account of numerous obvious goofs in the human body that any competent designer would fix. (Or be sued by the victims.) These are all elegantly explained by evolution, and count as evidence for it. Since evolution typically proceeds by small increments of genetic change, which are often as small as a change to a single nucleotide, the corresponding changes to the phenotype are also often small adjustments to what is already there. Evolution cannot "see" that a better solution may be far away in the design space, requiring large-scale modification of the genome at many positions simultaneously. What's worse, these modifications would have to occur in multiple individuals at the same time, to maintain a breeding population! For more about the evolutionary design space, see Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995).

An egregious example of bad evolutionary "design" is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which is a bad-enough mistake in humans, but reaches comical proportions in giraffes. As all tetrapod vertebrates have a similar arrangement, it would have been even more comical in the longer-necked sauropod dinosaurs. The nerve would have been as long as 28m (92 ft) in Supersaurus, almost all of which was an unnecessary detour.

Other popular books on evolution mention this remarkably bad design, including: Why Evolution Is True (2009) by Jerry Coyne; The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009) by Richard Dawkins; and Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008) by Neil Shubin.

But I'll focus on whales today, specifically their superhuman resistance to choking and cancer, two serious killers of humans. 
Hafer explains how whales have two completely separate tubes for breathing and swallowing, respectively. Humans, in contrast, breathe and swallow through a shared tube, the pharynx, and must correctly route air, food, and liquid to the proper branch (the trachea which sends air to the lungs, and the esophagus that sends food and drink to the stomach). A moveable flap of cartilage called the epiglottis stops food from entering the larynx. That is, when everything works. But it's very easy for people to accidentally inhale food, causing them to choke. Without some prompt means of clearing the airway, the choking human can rapidly suffocate and die. Whales don't have this problem; they can't choke on anything entering through their mouth. They'd have to introduce foreign objects into their blowhole. That isn't a typical risk for a whale, whereas humans court death with every meal. According to Bard, "an estimated 5,057 people died from choking in the United States in 2020. Of these deaths, 78% were adults aged 65 years or older. Food was the most common cause of choking deaths, followed by small objects such as toys and coins."

Hafer mentions cancer in other contexts, but she doesn't mention Peto's paradox. (I first learned about that by reading Principles of Evolutionary Medicine (2016) during my book version of pandemic doomscrolling. Incidentally, emerging fields of science such as evolutionary medicine, evolutionary psychology, etc., show that science creates actual value - there are no creationist counterparts.) According to the English Wikipedia, Peto's paradox is "the observation that, at the species level, the incidence of cancer does not appear to correlate with the number of cells in an organism. For example, the incidence of cancer in humans is much higher than the incidence of cancer in whales, despite whales having more cells than humans. If the probability of carcinogenesis were constant across cells, one would expect whales to have a higher incidence of cancer than humans. Peto's paradox is named after English statistician and epidemiologist Richard Peto, who first observed the connection." Also see Bard's take on cancer in humans and whales. Whales apparently have several different adaptations that make them far more resistant to cancer than humans are. Researchers are trying to figure out the whales' advantage, with the goal of giving humans what God neglected to give them. Cancer is considered a disease of aging, in that cancer rates tend to increase rapidly with age, although cancer can strike humans of any age, including, cruelly, children. (Theodicy is a whole 'nother challenge for folks who believe in an omni-God, addressed in other blog posts and in John W. Loftus' books, but I'll stick to whales here.) Some whale species have long lifespans, with the bowhead whale able to live for over 200 years. For a whale to live that long, it must have robust and durable systems for resisting cancer, far outclassing the human's endowment.

Before modern science, human thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle flattered themselves with their scala naturae ("Ladder of Being"). The notion was further developed by medieval Christians as their great chain of being. That is "a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought by medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. The chain begins with God and descends through angels, humans, animals and plants to minerals." Further, "the higher the being is in the chain, the more attributes it has, including all the attributes of the beings below it."

Well, whales have some desirable attributes that humans clearly lack, such as their vastly superior resistance to choking and cancer. This is another example of how faith fails. Modern science began around 400 years ago, based on the radical idea that people should test their claims against evidence. It was radical then, and is still radical to a lot of people, although much of the educated class at least pays lip service to the idea. Before modern science, even educated people had some strange views of Man's place in the universe. Jennifer Nagel explains how modern thinking is very different than medieval thinking. However, large chunks of medieval thinking persist in the faith community, which has become an odd chimera of the two. On the one hand, most persons of faith lead modern lives, consuming the benefits of technologies made possible by scientific thinking. At the same time, they function like cognitive fossils, bringing a medieval perspective where it suits them. It is both a strength and weakness of science that almost anyone can consume the benefits of science, including science deniers.

In any case, the next time you hear a person of faith claiming to have been "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14) and presenting their own rockin' body as evidence of God's love for us, you can point out that when it comes to choking and cancer, God apparently loves the whales more.