Our genome won't win any design awards and doesn't speak well of the intelligence of its 'designer', as Philip Ball explains.
: They do say that man was created by God.
Domin: So much the worse for them.
This exchange in Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R., which coined the word “robot”, is abundantly vindicated by our burgeoning understanding of human biology. Harry Domin, director general of the robot-making company R.U.R., jeers that “God had no idea about modern technology”, implying that the design of human-like bodies is now something we can do better ourselves. Whether or not that is so, the human body is certainly no masterpiece of intelligent planning. The eye's retina, for instance, is wired back to front so that the wiring has to pass back through the screen of light receptors, imposing a blind spot.
Now John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California at Irvine, has catalogued the array of clumsy flaws and inefficiencies at the fundamental level of the genome. His paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA1, throws down the gauntlet to advocates of Intelligent design, the pseudo-scientific face of religious creationism. What Intelligent Designer, Avise asks, would make such a botch? Occasional botches are, by contrast, precisely what we would expect from Darwinian evolution, which is blind to the big picture and merely tinkers short-sightedly to wring incremental adaptive advantage from the materials at hand. Just as in technology, this produces 'lock-in' effects in which strategies that are sub-optimal from a global perspective persist because it is impractical to go back and improve them.