In a recent column at Slate.com Christopher Hitchens displays his ignorance of the issues at stake in the intelligent design/Darwinism debate on several different levels. He flatters himself to think that he has discovered a novel argument against intelligent design when in fact the argument he has stumbled upon has been around for at least a century:
It is extremely seldom that one has the opportunity to think a new thought about a familiar subject, let alone an original thought on a contested subject, so when I had a moment of eureka a few nights ago, my very first instinct was to distrust my very first instinct. To phrase it briefly, I was watching the astonishing TV series Planet Earth ....Various creatures were found doing their thing far away from the light, and as they were caught by the camera, I noticed-in particular of the salamanders-that they had typical faces. In other words, they had mouths and muzzles and eyes arranged in the same way as most animals. Except that the eyes were denoted only by little concavities or indentations. Even as I was grasping the implications of this, the fine voice of Sir David Attenborough was telling me how many millions of years it had taken for these denizens of the underworld to lose the eyes they had once possessed.
Hitchens believes that he has discovered a powerful refutation of intelligent design:
But what of the creatures who turned around and headed back in the opposite direction, from complex to primitive in point of eyesight, and ended up losing even the eyes they did have? Whoever benefits from this inquiry, it cannot possibly be [intelligent design advocates]. The most they can do is to intone that "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Whereas the likelihood that the post-ocular blindness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to constitute a near certainty.
Of course, only someone completely ignorant of the issues in the debate between Darwinian evolutionists and intelligent design theorists would suggest that functionless eyes in cave salamanders is an argument against intelligent design. The only thing that Hitchens has stumbled upon is an argument against the doctrine of fixity of species which no one has held for over a hundred years anyway.
Everyone acknowledges that organs can lose their function and atrophy through disuse. Mutations that would diminish the ability of the salamander embryo to produce functional eyes would be eliminated in a lighted environment via the death of the young salamander, but they would not necessarily be eliminated in a dark environment where eyes are of little use anyway. Thus there'd be no selective pressure in a cave environment to retain eyes. Not even the most stalwart special creationist disputes this.
The challenge is not in explaining the degeneration of biological organs and machines, it is explaining through random genetic drift, mutation and natural selection their origin.
Hitchens has great fun ridiculing the ID folks, but his ignorance makes him look like a buffoon. He'd do better to approach matters beyond his competence with a little more humility.RLC