The Problem of Waste

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A while back, Stephen Colbert had biologist Ken Miller, who teaches at my alma mater (although I never took a class with him), on his show to talk about evolution and intelligent design. Miller is known for being a devout Catholic who supports the scientific consensus of contemporary evolutionary theory. It's a a strange interview. One of Miller's main points is that people who deny evolution can't explain why we need flu shots every year, since the flu virus evolves to the point that old vaccines won't cut it. This is, of course, a terrible straw man argument, because even the most vehement critics of evolution don't deny evolution within a species, what they call microevolution.

But one argument struck me as particularly strange. Miller seems to think waste is a problem for intelligent design, since God designed things that went extinct. Oops! Fossils show God's mistakes. Miller thinks he has a higher view. God set in motion a process that gave rise to everything on this planet, and it shows God's greatness that he used evolutionary processes. So he has a theological reason for favoring the non-ID model.

But wait a minute. Doesn't the theistic evolution model have the same problem? Aren't there all these things that resulted from the process that God initiated that got left behind? If God set in motion the processes that lead to evolution of more complex species, you still get species that result from that process that die out. You get waste. Did God intend that result? If so, then the same problem arises for Miller. Something God designed died out. If not, then we seem to have a denial of God's purposes in creation. Is this the idea common in deism that God sort of set things up but didn't concern himself with the details of how it turned out? That's not very Catholic of Miller, who claims to be a pious, orthodox Catholic. But those seem to be his only options. Either there are forms that were designed by God that no longer exist, or those forms were not designed by God and do not fall under his plan of providence.

So it turns out that this is really an argument against theism and a doctrine of providence, not an argument against intelligent design. This is just puzzling. I don't know Miller's views on providence, but it seems to me that his argument is misdirected either way it turns out, and it should apply as well to any theistic evolutionary view that holds to the theological positions of the Roman Catholic Church. It's really just a particular case of the problem of evil, and I don't really know his views on that issue either. But whatever else is true, this isn't a problem for ID any more than it is for theistic evolution.

Update: Check out the excellent comments on Ted Poston's Prosblogion post on this subject. I'm in full agreement with almost all of the comments to this point (7:42 EST Aug 1, 2007), and some of them are making some of the points I wanted to make in this post but in a much better way. There are also some considerations there that hadn't occurred to me at all but seem right.


The term "waste" implies that we can judge God's intentions and purpose. That's because waste implies extra effort to accomplish a task. Unless we know what God was trying to accomplish we can't tell whether there was waste or not.

I'm skeptical of arguments that require reading God's mind.

The arguments on both sides are fallacious because they presuppose that there is something wrong or unworthy of God in what they call "waste". God's resources are unlimited, and he is by no means constrained to do everything in the most efficient way. If he chooses to create species (whether by theistic evolution, ID, or direct creation) and then allow them to become extinct, that is his right and part of his character. It is something reflected in us humans as created in his image, for children love to build things and then knock them down, and adults love to create homes and gardens and then a few years later remodel them for no better reason than that they have the creative urge to do so. This is not a flaw in God's character or him correcting his mistakes, this shows his glory and his greatness.

Interesting post. It sounds to me like he's putting an awful lot of weight on efficiency as a divine attribute (as the first two comments point out), and I wonder what grounds he could bring forward to support that. I think you're in a bad position scientifically if you have to appeal to God's attributes (and novel ones at that) to adjudicate between rival hypotheses.

Another problem Mr. Miller would have to address would be all the waste in history. Are the great civilizations and cities that have grown up and died out evidence that God hasn't ordained, governed, or at least overseen what has come to pass? That would be a stretch. Or the waste in our personal lives, such as the personal knowledge that we spend our lives acquiring but that goes with us to our grave?

He doesn't think the scientific evidence is lacking. In fact, he thinks it's decisive. As far as he's concerned, the evidence in favor of contemporary evolutionary models is so firm that anyone who questions it is either ignorant or irrational. That's not the issue here. He's arguing not against creationism per se but against a particular model of which things God intended for which purposes. The problem is that the argument, if good, applies to his own model of which things God intended for which persons as much as it applies to the one he's criticizing.

Beware of debating Dr. Miller; he is easily one of the smarted people I know. That said, I have little doubt that if you, as an alum and a Christian, dropped him an email, he would reply. Though he might just tell you to read his book (or he might make a plug for his forthcoming one).

As I understand it, Dr. Miller's argument about waste generally goes as follows (though his version probably has fewer holes than mine):
ID1) According to ID, God created all species personally, purposefully and intelligently.
ID2) However, some species die out.


ID3a) they died out for no reason, in which case,
ID4a) They were not created purposefully. (Contradicts ID1)

ID3b) they died out because they were badly designed, in which case,
ID4b) They were not created intelligently.(Contradicts ID1)

Thus the created species that die off are a waste, either mistakes or else just completely unnecessary.

However, in theistic evolution, deaths and extinctions are necessary, indeed fundamental, to the process of evolution. Thus, you can't lay the charge that there is the same problem of "waste" in TE, since death and extinction are, in a certain sense, the fuel of evolution, not the byproduct of it.

It's interesting you use the term "fuel", Wink.

Some species that went exist fulfill the purpose of petro-fuels in our modern world. Or at least their remains do.

Of course many of these species couldn't have co-existed with us.

So to say a species that went extinct served no non-evolutionary purpose is serious reaching.

I don't see how ID1 is fair to the ID proponents. For one thing, ID arguments do not claim that design is present in everything. They claim that design is detectable in some things, and they think that's good evidence for concluding that there is a designer. That's consistent with any of the following:

1. the designer not intending everything that happens for specific reasons
2. the designer intending everything but not because each species form is intrinsically good and thus worth preserving
3. the designer intending transitional forms in evolution for the exact purpose of having them evolve to later forms (Miller's own view)

My point is that Miller's argument isn't really about ID. It's about a fourth possibility, one that some ID proponents might hold but that doesn't follow from ID. If God intended these forms but didn't intend them as waste (and they're not waste), then there's no problem. If God didn't intend them, then it's a low view of God's sovereignty, which raises different worries, but that's not his worry. If God intended them but not as waste (and they are waste), then it's a problem. But only certain views would say all those things. I don't think all ID proponents who deny standard evolutionary theory would say that, and I know ID proponents who accept standard evolutionary theory would say it. It's the latter mistake that I think is really driving this, making it not an argument against ID but an argument against the view that intrinsically valuable species that served no instrumentally good purpose died out tragically. It's pretty easy to accept ID arguments and deny that. It's also easy to accept theistic evolution and affirm that, since not every form that occurs serves an evolutionary purpose.

Your version of the argument is better than one he presented on the Colbert Report, but I think it still has the above problem.

I probably shouldn't have even put forth his argument since it was largely beside my point, which is that regardless of how Miller counters ID, TE is largely immune from the charge of "waste".

You had said "You get waste. Did God intend that result? If so, then the same problem arises for Miller. Something God designed died out." My point was to show that that really isn't a problem for TE.

You rightly point out that Miller views ID somewhat monolithically. If I may be so bold, let me categorize the IDers into 2 camps, the political IDers (who try to get Creation Science, I mean, ID into the classrooms and who charge all who believe in evolution as atheists), and the philosophical IDers, like yourself. (Of course, I am already overgeneralizing, but hopefully you will bear with me.)

The political camp is much louder and more worrisome than the philosophical camp. While it may not be appropirate to not know of the philosophical camp's existence, it should be pretty understandable that the philosophical camp gets ignored--espcially inasmuch as the philosophical camp fails to distance itself from the political camp.

So my defence of Miller is that it is at least understandable that he ignores the philosophical IDers (or pretends that they don't exist), especially since much of his time was spent facing the political camp in court (the Dover case).

(To make a bad analogy: yes it is true that there are some drunk drivers who drive safely. But you'd understand if a parent who lost a child to a drunk driver acted like that class of drunk drivers didn't exist.)

Waste is a problem for theistic evolution if you also hold the view that individual forms, no matter what, are so intrinsically valuable that it would be wrong to have them serve no purpose. Ones that evolve to other forms that are better serve a purpose. Ones that don't don't. So if you hold that thesis, it's a problem.

Now most theistic evolutionists don't hold that thesis. Perhaps none do. But my point is that ID doesn't require that thesis either, and that means that the argument isn't against ID but against a particular form of it. I don't think it's a form of it that Behe, Dembski, Johnson, Meyer, and the rest even hold. So I don't think distinguishing between people like me and people like them will help, since they don't hold it either. Dembski makes it clear that many ID arguments are compatible with theistic evolution, and I think he'd agree with me on this.

I do agree that there's a difference between people who think some of the ID arguments have something going for them philosophically and people who are merely seeking a political agenda. But I don't think wanting ID arguments taught in schools requires holding an unsophisticated version of ID arguments, even if many in the political movement do, and I don't think the main proponents of the movement hold such unsophisticated versions that they're subject to the Miller objection.

If God wished for us to see Him, he could have simply written on each tree, “Made by God”. If God wished for us to see the design, why, then did He hide it inside a cell? Why did he only show proof of his design in nature’s most complex elements, and not it’s simplest? Why isn’t it just as apparent in a drop of water as it is to look at a cell. It seems silly to argue that 5 things in nature prove God’s existence. Why doesn't everything? My answer is, because,we know God by faith alone. If we found the tree that said “Made by God”, we would not need faith

If I ran into a tree that said "made by God", I'd assume some human being wrote it there as a joke. If there is going to be some design hidden in creation, it's got to be the sort of thing human beings couldn't do themselves.

For the record, I think God's design is evident in a lot more than things like the complexity of cells. It's evident in the beauty of landscapes. It's evident in the simplicity of some of the laws of physics. It's just not evident in the same way that people like Behe and Dembski think it's evident in irreducible complexity.

They don't claim that anything in nature proves God's existence, by the way. That's a straw man of their argument that the anti-ID crowd likes to cart around. They merely claim that the best explanation of irreducible complexity is God. That's nowhere near considering it a proof.

As for faith, I think you're running together two separate issues. The point of faith is that it's trust in a person for very specific things. That's compatible with thinking there are good reasons to believe in God's existence via philosophical arguments.

The difference, I think (and I'm oversimplifying this) is that the theistic evolution model holds the premise that scientific inquiry about nature does not tell us anything about God. OTOH, intelligent design insists that the universe must have been designed, that the designer was intelligent, and that the designer left clues in nature pointing to the designer's existence.

If Michael Behe wants to insist that the bacterial flagellum tells us about God -- sorry, about the designer -- then why cannot another scientist insist that mass extinctions tell us something about the designer? What parts of nature are allowed to hold clues about the designer?

That's a question that causes difficulty for intelligent design, IMO, but is not relevant to theistic evolution.

The difference, I think (and I'm oversimplifying this) is that the theistic evolution model holds the premise that scientific inquiry about nature does not tell us anything about God.

No, it doesn't. The theistic evolution model tells us nothing about whether scientific study can tell us about God. Some theistic evolutionists, e.g. Ken Miller, think science can tell us nothing about God. But others endorse ID arguments, and there's no conflict in accepting both claims.

OTOH, intelligent design insists that the universe must have been designed, that the designer was intelligent, and that the designer left clues in nature pointing to the designer's existence.

ID arguments claim that the best explanation of the data is design. That falls a bit short of saying the universe must have been designed. But that's a minor point. The key issue is that what you've said here is entirely consistent with theistic evolution.

If Michael Behe wants to insist that the bacterial flagellum tells us about God -- sorry, about the designer -- then why cannot another scientist insist that mass extinctions tell us something about the designer? What parts of nature are allowed to hold clues about the designer?

A scientist can insist on such an argument, but it better be a good argument, i.e. the conclusion that's supposed to follow better be the best explanation for mass extinctions. Perhaps Miller's explanation is the best. If so, then the scientific consensus is the one we should accept as the best scientific conclusion. But that's entirely consistent with thinking that there is irreducible complexity in the human eye or in the living cell and thinking the best explanation for such things is a designer. The two views are entirely consistent, which means Miller's argument is not against ID at all but against something else.

My pastor once put it this way: We generally think that it is a waste for a good man to die to allow an evil man to live. What can we say, then, that the infinite, perfect God of all creation suffered and died for finite, sinful mankind? Is that not wasteful?

That's really all the evidence you need that God does not view "waste" as an evil. So, I guess, God's wastefulness does tell us something about him.

(I'm not arguing, by the way, that we can be as wasteful as we want. We have to be good stewards of finite resources. But overflowing generosity, unwarranted and "wasteful," is a common theme in scripture.)

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