Book Review: Dysteleology by Michael Berhow


One of the most common objections to the idea that biological life has been designed by a benevolent creator is the presence of biological systems that are less than ideal. This is the very objection addressed by Michael Berhow in his book, Dysteleology: A Philosophical Assessment of Suboptimal Design in Biology.

Berhow begins with a brief introduction to the topic of suboptimal design in biology. Strictly speaking, this is a critique of ID that points to less-than-ideal features of biological systems. One proposed example of suboptimal design is the presence of blindspots in the human eye. An omnipotent and omni benevolent being would never create such flawed creatures, and so many take this phenomenon to be a defeater of the existence of such a being. Others take it merely as a demonstration that this being did not deliberately design creatures with these features, preferring to believe that these features arose out of naturalistic processes, in which case suboptimal design is merely a defeater of ID.

Before diving into the discussion, Berhow lays the groundwork for this book as a comparison and assessment of two approaches to suboptimal design – one by Francisco Ayala and the other by William Dembski. This scope may be limited, but ultimately lends itself to an insightful analysis.

Dysteleology Presented

After laying the groundwork for the discussion, Berhow enters into an assessment of Ayala’s scientific critique of design in biology. Ayala’s argument contains five steps. First, he argues that the best elucidation of the design argument was that of William Paley and that Paley’s argument was overturned by Charles Darwin. Ayala’s second and third steps produce a scientific defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution in general and human evolution specifically. Steps four and five stand as direct critiques of ID. Berhow analyzes each step and ultimately concludes that while Ayala’s scientific defense of evolutionary theory is compelling, his critiques of ID are wanting.

Next, Berhow outlines why he believes Ayala’s critique of ID is problematic. First, Ayala assumes that any God with the traditional “omni-“ attributes would not employ suboptimal design. Berhow argues that this assumption is unjustified. Second, Berhow points out that there is no incompatibility between the existence of design in biology and the existence of suboptimal design in biology. Therefore, pointing out some examples of suboptimal design is insufficient to disprove ID altogether. Third, Berhow explains how Ayala’s theological critiques apply equally to his own theodicy as they do to ID.

Dysteleology Addressed

Berhow transitions from Ayala’s argument to that of Dembski. Dembski – one of the most prominent ID theorists – is most famous for his development of an “explanatory filter” for distinguishing between explanations of chance, necessity, and design. When chance and necessity can be excluded, one may justifiably conclude that design is the explanation. According to Dembski, this occurs when a low probability is conjoined with a degree of complexity that has independent significance (known as “specified complexity”). Berhow outlines some critiques of this filter – such as the suggestion that it is an argument from ignorance – as well as responses given by Dembski to those critiques. Ultimately, the big concern for Dembski is the inability of chance and necessity to generate biological information.

Moving forward, Berhow begins a philosophical defense of ID. His approach is to outline Dembski’s main arguments and respond to criticisms raised against them. While there are several points argued for, two stand out. First, given an undirected natural process – such as evolution – as the mechanism by which our brains are produced, and given that our brains are reducible to our brains according to naturalism, then there is no rational way to affirm any of our conclusions, including the conclusion that naturalism is true. So naturalistic evolution is ultimately self-defeating. Second, Ayala’s main theological critique of ID is that suboptimal design would require a cruel designer. But this objection requires cruelty to exist and design to be detectable, otherwise no claim to have identified a case of cruel suboptimal design could be justified. This, however, is not attainable if naturalism is true.

Berhow brings the book to a close with his final assessment of suboptimal design. Building off of Dembski’s position that information is the fundamental component of reality, Berhow argues that this gives reason to think moral facts exist. Furthermore, a teleological approach to human consciousness provides warrant for believing that humans are capable of discovering these moral facts – this cannot be said about chance and necessity acting alone. Given both of these conclusions, it follows that in order to appeal to evolution as a theodicy for apparent suboptimal design in biology – as Ayala does – one must first assume moral realism, which in turn requires an assumption of design in nature. To put it another way, Berhow agrees with Ayala that evolution can act as a valid theodicy for suboptimal design, but only if Dembski’s model of reality which makes design fundamental is correct.

In Conclusion

This is a short read, and it is narrow in scope. Nevertheless, Berhow successfully surveys the topic of suboptimal design in biology and advances the conversation further. Berhow demonstrates himself to be fair and nuanced where necessary, but still firm in developing his own conclusions. Ultimately, Dysteleology is an essential read for anyone involved in the evolution/ID dialogue, regardless of personal convictions on the matter.  

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