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Saturday, March 28, 2015
Health / Nutrition ... History ... Spirituality ...

The human body is a wonderful thing, from an engineering perspective. It is amazingly designed, as proven by how much it can do and how adaptable it is to a wide variety of operating conditions. The body is an extremely complicated machine that can perform a whole lot of different functions, and for the most part it does them very well. The brain of course is the crowning peak of complexity, but the rest of the body is pretty incredible too; everything below the eyebrow is still more complex and well-engineered than say the Space Shuttle or an aircraft carrier.

I’m not going to get into the whole thing about whether or to what degree such design reflects an intentional theological authorship. I accept the existence of a natural process of biological evolution, along with the concept that it is driven by random variation and environmental feedback loops stemming from DNA inheritance and natural selection. I further accept that given the right conditions and enough time, such a process can “blindly” author a masterpiece like the human brain and body system. I don’t believe that any sort of divine transcendent power had a pre-packaged blueprint for the human race, and somehow impressed such an “intelligent design” mandate upon the Earth’s biosphere This is not to say that a beneficent deity does not exist; nor that a conceivable deity would have nothing at all to do with the dynamics that allowed our universe and the world we know to come into existence. But I don’t look at such a deity as a master designer with huge rolls of blueprints in arms, specifying every detail of the human body.

Because if you did imagine that, you might have to conclude that this deity isn’t so smart and perfect after all; the human body has some significant flaws in its design. In various ways, you can see that it is a “work in process”, which makes sense from the evolutionary perspective. I just finished a short article in the March, 2015 issue of Scientific American that unintentionally provides a very good example. The article is not about evolution (although SciAm does frequently publish articles about that topic), but about knee injuries, and what scientists are trying to come up with in order to help heal such injuries. Knee injuries are a big deal for athletes, but knee degeneration is generally becoming a growing problem for modern populations that are living longer. And even worse, for populations that live longer but at higher and higher body weights. For people over 60 in the US, the obesity rate went from 23.7% in the 1988-1994 period to 41.8% between 2007 and 2008.

The SciAm article made some interesting points about our knees. I found two of those points rather astonishing. First, the blood flow to tendons, ligaments and cartilage in the knee is rather poor. And blood flow is critical in the healing process. Thus the injured knee doesn’t heal that well. Second, there is a substance called synovial fluid in our knees that acts as a lubricant for the rubbing parts. Problem is, when something gets torn, this fluid interferes with the clotting process, which is critical to setting up a structure by which new tissue is grown to mend the tear. Wow, that situation would really flunk out in an Engineering Design 101 course! But from the evolutionary perspective, it isn’t so surprising. Humans are a relatively recent adaptation from older species that used both their arms and legs for ground mobility (and also relied a lot upon the arms to get around up in trees).

Walking upright all the time is a relatively new thing in the grand sweep of biological evolution. Remember, with evolution, you are always building upon an existing design (i.e. adapting it for new challenges). You can’t just start afresh in nature (although Biblical literalists claim that God did just that with Adam and Eve). So, you can take an ape or chimpanzee-like creature and give them a better brain and nervous system, as to let them balance themselves on two legs instead of four. And you can build up their leg muscles and feet a bit, to provide support and stability. But those darn joints, i.e. the ankle and the knee — they are almost as complicated as the eyes, and evolution takes a very long time to improve really complex things like that. So, maybe you have to knock out a “1.0” version and hope that random variation and natural selection will eventually find a good fix for the fact that monkey ankles and knees are now doing things way beyond what they were originally designed for (more accurately, “evolved for”).

It didn’t work out too bad when humans lived under near-starvation conditions and didn’t last too many years past the point of producing some children for posterity, and maybe getting them to adolescence (when they no longer needed parental protection for survival in the wild). But in the past 50 to 100 years, human society has made advances and changes that have pushed the knees way past their design limits. E.g., tennis and the NFL. And living into the 70s and 80s while enjoying the benefits of cheap and abundant food supplies. So, the knees are a very good example of a human system that has some serious engineering flaws and weak spots, flaws that limit its adaptation to these new conditions.

Actually, there are a variety of similar engineering weak-spots in the structure and operation of the human body. Here is a good list. It includes the fact that we breathe and eat thru the same tube, making us vulnerable to choking; the strange loopy layout of the male urinary tract, causing all of the problems that guys have with the prostate gland (like the knees, another old-age thing); the too-narrow human birth canal, which hasn’t fully adapted to the increased size of the big-brained human head; the lower back — like the knees another structure that doesn’t hold up well as you age or gain weight; the fact that we can’t make new teeth in adulthood; and a variety of other things that often mess up our eyes, feet, ears and various other components way before our hearts stop beating.

Some atheists go so far as to cite these factors in their arguments against the existence of God. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far; this is one of those arguments against God (and there are a lot of others like it) that are rather whiny in nature. E.g., if there was a God and God is inherently perfect and completely benevolent, that God would never create intelligent sentient beings and make them face all the pains and imperfections that we do. I mean, come on, would you really want a cotton-candy-world God? What about the “no pain, no gain” idea? Yea, admittedly, it often seems like there is too much pain in our lives; but on the other side of the coin, what would we be without some flaws, challenges and struggles? Would you want a God that treated us like we treat our pets? I wouldn’t. I want to be taken seriously, even though it costs a lot.

And it’s not like God left us entirely helpless. We can do a lot about pain; that was the main point of the SciAm article, i.e. that scientists are making continual progress in finding ways to mitigate or make up for the body’s inherent flaws. If we can eventually find a good way to socially share these advances (Obamacare is something of a political equivalent to the biological evolution of the human body; a big advance, but still lots of flaws and weaknesses that need to be addressed), humankind might show some progress after all. For now, though — try to take it easy on those knees.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:08 am      

  1. Jim, Interesting post. Your point about the human body (specifically the knee and the other points you mention) not passing Engineering 101 is something I’ve never tho’t of, but I can see you are right on the mark with your point.

    I have always suspected there was some reason why knee surgery and knee problems were such an issue – and there you found it in Sci Am and specifically explained why that is the case.

    Another thing I have never really understood is why it is that such athletic endeavors as running are supposed to be “good” for the human body. As far as I’ve been able to find out, running is vicious on one’s knees, legs, feet (to say nothing of shoes, but I digress here). I’ve always found that the “running is healthy” issue vs. the “knee problem” when it comes to running to be a contradiction in terms.

    If humans are going to be living longer, I find some other problems that I think will need addressing. I’m 80, soon to be 81 and find some questions arising in my own mind about the “live longer” issue. Specifically:

    I would say some improvement is going to have to be made in the emotional and/or psychological “parts” of the human being, more respect is going to have to be allow/given to older people in our society (right now nobody seems to care what/if an older person might have to say about anything at all). Living longer seems to be a goal of so many people, but I find as I get older that I’ve “played this game before” and I find it difficult to do a second time.

    For instance, problems that one dealt with initially in life, found a challenge, and learned from seem to come around a second time. Only this time, these issues seem to be more difficult to deal with because one knows the “route” the problem takes and sees it taking the same route again. The person cannot either stop it or make it better: One just has to watch the same thing happen again, perhaps with some small changes, but basically, the same difficult thing in life that one has learned from already, playing over again.

    True, one could likely learn *more* from the second time around; but I don’t find that happening as one really has no control over these issues and thus cannot change the pattern of the situation or the outcome or the situation. One might say it’s all boring if some of the issues involved did not involve people one loved and would hope to help but find there is nothing to do to change, improve, or ease the situation.

    Perhaps it’s a peculiarity specific to me; then again, I look at individuals who are living to be 100 and I really do not find them all that thrilled with living long. I think of George Burns who lived well into his 90s. He said (I paraphrase), well, I wake up in the morning and say, I’m still here. That about sums it up, as I see it.

    Outside of my own approach to your “humans have failed Engineering 101” post (with which I have no argument) I would think that humans need to have a little sense, quit doing some of the “healthy exercises” that ruin one’s body (and playing some “games” [such as football] that ruin completely one’s entire body), and find those that do not hurt one’s body but are equally effective in the health department, say something like Yoga. Not necessarily the kind of Yoga where one contorts one’s body into a pretzel and stands on one hand, but the simple kind of Yoga that exercises every muscle in a healthy way and aids meditation.

    Another point keeps nagging in the back of my mind: I wonder how long it’s going to take humans to realize that in many things *they* are the creators. Thus, denying “a god” is tantamount to denying themselves. I think of cloning, the many efforts to save living space for animals (here humans work as “god” in two ways – destroying the environment animals live in and also finding ways to preserve animals close to extinction). What about the many ways humans have found to save people who would be long dead if not for advances in medicine? Are not all these examples of humans acting as “God”?

    As I say, maybe it’s just me; but I find myself wondering about these things. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 29, 2015 @ 10:31 am

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