Quite a lot of people have responded, both negatively and positively, to Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s article Backwardly wired retina “an optimal structure”: New eye discovery further demolishes Dawkins. First, the author responds to Richard M., a persistent critic of this site, who argues based on confusing two different kinds of explanation, followed by refuting some fallacious arguments of P.Z. Myers made on his atheopathic blog. Finally, we print some positive comments. [Ed. note, 9 July 2014: see also the update on further benefits of this allegedly bad design.]
We agree on something at last Yet many atheopaths are still furiously defending this, as I show below.
Are you sure? Dawkins’s book The Greatest Show on Earth cites Helmholtz extensively on alleged eye faults, and I respond in The Greatest Hoax on Earth? and indeed addressed Helmholtz in my previous work By Design. But Dawkins gives the impression that his “backwardly wired” argument would have strengthened the hand of a “latter-day Helmholtz” armed with current knowledge.
We are discussing different types of explanation for something. The above expresses the means of producing the structure, not the reasons the structure is this way. It is like saying that the reason a car’s cylinder and piston are shaped the way they are is that molten metal inevitably follows the shape of a die, and the resulting solid metal is worn away by harder materials of the lathe’s and borer’s cutting implements.
To use the Aristotelian terminology of causes, this would be the efficient cause of the car’s engine components, i.e. that which produces or effects a result, and that is what you have described about the eye. But the final cause—the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something—of the car’s components, is a machine to convert the chemical energy of fuel into motion. Or, take a fancy boat-shaped shaped chocolate cake: the efficient cause of the shape is the way liquids (the batter mixture) follow the shape of the container, and the flavour permeating the cake is caused by diffusion from higher concentration to lower. But the final cause explaining why the cake is shaped and flavoured that way is that it’s your son’s birthday and he likes boats and chocolate.
Similarly, the final cause of the eye is vision. There is no reason that the efficient cause should be classed as “the real reason”, as you are doing, when it is only one of the four Aristotelian types of cause.
Indeed, that was the excuse of theistic evolutionist Ken Miller (see also refutations of his anticreationist books Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory). But this begs the question of whether this “backward wiring” really was a drawback at all. All we have is assertion, as well as appeals to ‘common sense’, which is sometimes not a reliable guide. Without the “backward wiring”, there would have been no Müller cells acting as light guides, filtering out scattered light and non-visible wavelengths and reducing chromatic aberration.
Yet as I note in my previous article: the computer simulation he touts as proof for eye evolution starts with the nerve behind the light-sensitive spot. The vertebrate eye has the nerves in front of the photoreceptors, while the evolutionary just-so story provides no transitions from behind to in front, with all the other complex coordinated changes that would have to occur as well.
Not going to happen, given that you presuppose evolution to argue for evolution.
And now to another critic—the self-described “godless liberal” P.Z. Myers. Readers will remember how he attended a Global Atheist Conference but wimped out of a debate, instead replying with the crudeness of a hyperhormonized government school teenager.
On his gutter atheopath blog, he shows that he’s still blind to the obvious flaws in his and Dawkins’ argument: since the retina is now called “an optimal structure” by experts in the field, precisely because of the “backward”wiring, it utterly fails as an argument from “bad design”. Much of Myers’ argument is similar to that of Richard M.’s in the above feedback, but more crudely expressed: again presupposing evolution to be true—since it’s a vital crutch for his atheistic faith—and then explains away how this supposed bad design becomes “an optimal structure”.
Myers also whinges at my comment that cephalopods, with their supposedly superior “forward wiring”, don’t see as well as vertebrates, making the absurd comment:
First, in my article, I said, “it is no accident that we say ‘eyes like a hawk/eagle’”, hardly the words of someone trying to hide good avian vision. I’ve also pointed out that humans are worse flyers than birds, but no, God is not avian—I guarantee that no bird will be discussing this article, for one thing.
Second, he should not whinge at me, but at the experts in cephalopod vision cited in Is our ‘inverted’ retina really ‘bad design’?:
Also, they have never shown that cephalopods actually see better. On the contrary, their eyes merely ‘approach some of the lower vertebrate eyes in efficiency’ and they are probably colour blind. Moreover, the cephalopod retina, besides being ‘verted’, is actually much simpler than the ‘inverted’ retina of vertebrates; as Budelmann states, ‘The structure of the [cephalopod] retina is much simpler than in the vertebrate eye, with only two neural components, the receptor cells and efferent fibres’. It is an undulating structure with ‘long cylindrical photoreceptor cells with rhabdomeres consisting of microvilli’, so that the cephalopod eye has been described as a ‘compound eye with a single lens’. The rhabdomeres act as light guides, and their microvilli are arranged such that the animal can detect the direction of polarized light—this foils camouflage based on reflection.
Finally, in their natural environment cephalopods are exposed to a much lower light intensity than are most vertebrates and they generally live only two or three years at the most. Nothing is known about the lifespan of the giant squid; in any case it is believed to frequent great depths at which there is little light. Thus for cephalopods there is less need for protection against photic damage. Being differently designed for a different environment, the cephalopod eye can function well with a ‘verted’ retina.
It’s interesting that some friendly as well as hostile feedback questions questioned whether cephalopods lack colour vision, yet Myers affirmed that they are colour blind, including cuttlefish, with the possible exception of a firefly squid. But then he calls colour vision a compromise, since it doesn’t work in dim light, although given its many advantages, it looks like he is still finding excuses to cling to his atheism.
Myers also said:
He fondly imagines that I am bothered by this. Yet I’ve written on the amazing eyes of other creatures, including the mantis shrimp, with 12 colour receptors. Much of my previous book By Design is about fascinating designs in the living world apart from humans. After all, God called his whole creation “very good”, not just humans. But as shown before, Myers is clueless about what creationists really believe, most likely willfully so (see also Evolutionary equivocation: My brush with P.Z. Myers at his anti-creationist talk in Minot, ND, by Greg Demme), just like his hero Dawkins.
Note again that the critics like Dawkins, Miller and Myers have no qualifications in ophthalmology or spectroscopy, while I am an expert in the latter, and cite experts in the former (Drs Gurney and Marshall above).
Update, 9 July 2014: Some of the same researchers have discovered further benefits of this ‘inverted’ retina:
Labin, A.M. et al., Müller cells separate between wavelengths to improve day vision with minimal effect upon night vision, Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4319, 8 July 2014 | doi:10.1038/ncomms5319:
Kevin Moritz, USA:
Martin vdW, South Africa:
Nigel C, South Africa:
Jeff S, UK:
Phil H., Thailand:
Kimbal B., USA comments on this article: