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The Giraffe: A Model of Intelligent Design

Image courtesy of Hans Hillewaert and Wikipedia.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe is one of Professor Jerry Coyne’s favorite pieces of evidence for evolution. It is also the topic of a recent post of his on Why Evolution is True. Professor Coyne is certainly right about one thing: the recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe is relevant to the debate on Intelligent Design. However, Professor Coyne’s argument (which has also been recently made by Professor Richard Dawkins) that the recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe is poorly designed has already been dissected and thoroughly refuted by Casey Luskin here, here, here, and here, and by the geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lonnig in his online article, The Laryngeal Nerve of the Giraffe: Does it Prove Evolution? so I will not comment any further on it here.

In today’s post, I’m going to briefly outline the evidence for intelligent design in the giraffe.

People who enjoy looking at giraffes in the zoo often fail to reflect what an exquisitely adapted animal the giraffe is. Since giraffes have long legs, they also need long necks for drinking water, as they have to bend their heads to the ground whenever they drink. That might look easy enough to do, but it requires a suite of adaptational features in the giraffe’s anatomy, to keep the blood vessels in the giraffe’s brain from bursting. As Professor William Dembski and Dr. Jonathan Wells explain in their highly readable Intelligent Design text, The Design of Life (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, 2007):

When a giraffe stands in its normal upright posture, the blood pressure in the neck arteries will be highest at the base of the neck and lowest in the head. The blood pressure generated by the heart must be extremely high to pump the blood to the head. This, in turn, requires a very strong heart. But when the giraffe bends its head to the ground it encounters a potentially dangerous situation. By lowering its head between its front legs, it puts a great strain on the blood vessels of the neck and head. The blood pressure together with the weight of the blood in the neck could produce so much pressure in the head that without safeguards the blood vessels would burst.

Such safeguards, however, are in place. The giraffe’s adaptational package includes a coordinated system of blood pressure control… Pressure sensors along the neck’s arteries monitor the blood pressure and can signal activation of other mechanisms to counter any increase in pressure as the giraffe drinks or grazes. Contraction of the artery walls, the ability to shunt arterial blood flow bypassing the brain, and a web of small blood vessels between the arteries and the brain (the rete mirabile, or “marvelous net”) all control the blood pressure in the giraffe’s head. The giraffe’s adaptations do not occur in isolation but presuppose other adaptations that must all be coordinated into a single, highly specialized organism. (p. 41)

In a figure on the same page, Professor Dembski and Dr. Wells also point out that increased muscle fiber in the giraffe’s artery walls toward the head allows greater control through artery constriction. Additionally, a complex system of heavily valved veins controls the return of blood to the heart.

Clearly, the giraffe is a wondrously adapted creature. Not one but several simultaneous fine-tuned adaptations seem to have been required, in order for a giraffe to evolve from a short-legged, short-necked creature. The difficulty for neo-Darwinists should be obvious. How could such an adaptational suite of features evolve as a result of a natural process that lacks foresight, especially when the components of the package are at best useless and at worst detrimental, until the whole package is in place?

The giraffe, far from being an embarrassment to Intelligent Design proponents, is one of our star exhibits in the animal kingdom. To knock it off its pedestal, neo-Darwinian evolutionists would have to adduce genetic or fossil evidence showing that the various components of the giraffe’s adaptational package of features actually appeared at different times in the past, and could therefore have evolved independently of each other. But as geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lonnig demonstrates in a 2010 paper entitled, “The Evolution of the Long-Necked Giraffe: What do we really know?” (see here for Part I and here for Part II), the long-necked giraffe appears suddenly in the fossil record: no intermediate forms have been found. Lonnig writes:

A conclusive mechanism for the appearance of the long-necked giraffe is thus far completely unknown.

His conclusion is well worth quoting:

Whoever, after a detailed study of the peculiarities of the giraffe, does not understand that it really is an animal species that is “altogether exceptional, novel, and specialized” is someone to whom Lord Acton’s words may apply: “The worst use of theory is to make men insensible to fact.”

Lonnig lists no less than four pages of research proposals inspired by Intelligent Design, relating to giraffes and okapis (both of which belong to the same family). So much for the common canard that Intelligent Design is anti-science!

I have seen many academic rebuttals in my lifetime, but Lonnig’s systematic demolition of the standard evolutionary narrative of how and why the giraffe evolved its long neck is simply devastating. No wonder the proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution don’t want to talk about his work.

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14 Responses to The Giraffe: A Model of Intelligent Design

  1. Your reference is to a self published article on the web?

    I’ll spend some time looking it over but . . .

    Also . . .

    “To knock it off its pedestal, neo-Darwinian evolutionists would have to adduce genetic or fossil evidence showing that the various components of the giraffe’s adaptational package of features actually appeared at different times in the past, and could therefore have evolved independently of each other.”

    Umm . . . probably the argument would be that all those characteristics evolved SLOWLY and simultaneously. NOT independently of each other.

  2. I’m sorry but really this kind of thing needs to be looked at by experts in the field to verify his assumptions and models. He might be right! If it stands up to scrutiny then great.

    But really . . . lets wait until it’s reviewed. It looks like it’s been around for four years with not much attention. Perhaps the author should consider submitting it to a journal??

  3. It looks like it’s been around for four years with not much attention. Perhaps the author should consider submitting it to a journal??

    Why? So it can be ignored for four more years?

    In this modern age of the internet “it’s only been published on the web, it hasn’t been published in a peer reviewed journal” is a weak argument indeed.

  4. Mung: On the contrary, anyone can publish whatever they like on the web. There is still a place for calm and considered review of research by people who are familiar with work in the field.

    I don’t know your background so I don’t know if you had the same kind of academic experience I did. But I can tell you when I was in graduate school most of my ideas were quickly and summarily trumped by my professors who knew the field better than me.

    We should be moving to a system of greater academic scrutiny, not less. I can’t personally judge everything I read on the intertubes for its veracity. But I can wait and see if there arises a consensus view.

    And there’s always the conspiracy approach . . .

  5. We should be moving to a system of greater academic scrutiny, not less.

    I fail to see how the web doesn’t contribute to just that sort of thing.

  6. Mung: There is no filter on the web. There is no way to automatically link reviews, spurious and otherwise, to material posted on blogs, forums and personal websites.

    If you read something on the Answers in Genesis website you have to go and look for dissenting opinions. Some people do that, others don’t. Peer reviewed journals generally (there clearly have been exceptions) only publish material which has already passed through a filter of professional scrutiny. This is not perfect or complete but it does clear out a lot of the dross at least. And it should be considered a necessary hurdle for anyone who is serious about their ideas.

    Look, if you’re in a loving, caring and supportive relationship you don’t make major decisions without clearing them with your spouse/partner. In academia, when you think you’ve got an idea worth promulgating, you would naturally run it by your colleagues and peers first to see if it made sense AND as a useful first test of its ability to have wide spread acceptance.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask that evidence, data and results should at least pass that basic level before we consider it solid. Even under that criteria lots of goofy and speculative notions get through. But it means we don’t all have to be experts. I haven’t got time. And I’m not that smart.

  7. I’ll consider it when all those academic and peer-reviewed journals are available for free online.

    There is no filter on the web. There is no way to automatically link reviews, spurious and otherwise, to material posted on blogs, forums and personal websites.

    I don’t understand the complaint.

    You mean there no way to ensure only the approved view gets published? I see that as a good thing.

    Is there’s an automatic link creation process for peer-reviewed papers?

    On the web, there are tags and tagging, and there may be more ways than that to generate links.

  8. Dr. Torley, You may enjoy this:

    Pillars of evolutionary theory: Trial and error
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_xGKq.....lution.jpg

    ===========

  9. bornagain77

    Loved the lion & giraffe photo. Thanks very much.

  10. ellazimm

    Thank you for your posts. You wrote:

    In academia, when you think you’ve got an idea worth promulgating, you would naturally run it by your colleagues and peers first to see if it made sense AND as a useful first test of its ability to have wide spread acceptance.

    Normally I’d agree. But what if they refuse to publish, because the idea you’re advocating is considered intellectually taboo?

    I’m no biologist, but Lonnig is, and he seems to have done his homework and thoroughly acquainted himself with the relevant literature. That, plus the fact that no-one on the pro-Darwin side has successfully critiqued his online paper, makes me think he’s probably onto something. And it’s refreshing to hear another perspective from the standard party line, that the giraffe’s anatomy is a kludge.

  11. OMG, it’s a harmonic convergence. First of all, the answer to Dawkinsharrismyers is easy. The target of the vagus nerve is the heart, where it regulates the heart rate, not the larynx. It is not headed to the larynx because the talk box is not the most important organ in the body—although our Darwinbods clearly are conflicted about this. The nerve that travels from the heart to the larynx is a branch. There are many branches from the vagus. That’s called economy. Ask your electrician. Is he going to send an individual wire from the power box to every single outlet? Not unless he’s crazy. He’s going to economize and use one wire to serve several outlets.

    But here’s the convergence: the vagus nerve plays a key role in the very syncope problem discussed in your post—the complex blood pressure engineering required in order for giraffes to raise and lower their heads safely. It is heart rate along with blood vessel expansion and contraction that control for syncope. The cholinergic nervous system slows the heart rate and dilates the arteries; the sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate and constricts blood vessels. The two must work together with a great deal of precision in order for the giraffe to lower and raise its head at will without syncope.

    By the way, that’s another sign of design in the magnificent giraffe: irreducible complexity. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are highly complementary. Just how did Mother Nature design such a complicated interactive feedback system? Did she know, when she was lovingly crafting the vagus nerve from nothing, like the potter at her wheel, that she needed a sympathetic system as well? Oh, I forgot. She just kept fooling around until it happened.

    Lucky girl!

  12. VJ:

    “I’m no biologist, but Lonnig is, and he seems to have done his homework and thoroughly acquainted himself with the relevant literature. That, plus the fact that no-one on the pro-Darwin side has successfully critiqued his online paper, makes me think he’s probably onto something. And it’s refreshing to hear another perspective from the standard party line, that the giraffe’s anatomy is a kludge.”

    Well, you and I might agree that he seems to have done his homework but I’d still like to see what other biologists think about it.

    Some will refuse to spend time on a paper that has not been submitted for proper scrutiny. And, I suspect, most of them are not even aware of this particular missive.

    I’m all for dissenting views being aired. I’m very likely to accept those dissenting views after they’ve been scrutinised and examined and verified by others.

    There’s no conspiracy of materialism. Dr Behe has had peer reviewed papers publish since he wrote Darwin’s Black Box. Dr Dembski has chosen to teach theology instead of mathematics. Dr Sternberg was not shut out of the Smithsonian. Dr Crocker was not rehired probably owing to her inclusion of ID topics in her lectures. (As as George Mason spokesman said: ” . . . teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach, and intelligent design belonged in a religion class, not biology. Does academic freedom ‘literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no.”) Dr Gonzales was not granted tenure after his publication record dropped off and he promoted ideas as science which most astronomers consider to be not credible science.

    I would never dream of going to a religious group claiming that my view of their theology should be included in their liturgy. They’d rightly show me the door. On the other hand, if I humbly went to a local priest or vicar and talked with him about some ideas I had, listened to what he and others thought, did some research, talked to some others, floated questions in online groups and forums, tried to answer the questions that were posed, re-examined my evidence, tried to make my arguments stronger . . . . well, eventually I just might get a hearing.

  13. I would never dream of going to a religious group claiming that my view of their theology should be included in their liturgy.

    I dream of this all the time.

    I regularly mail letters to the Pope.

    Thanks for confirming that Darwinism is a religion!

    ;)

  14. Mung:

    “Thanks for confirming that Darwinism is a religion!”

    :-P

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