Right off the bat, I want to apologize for the title of this post. I do not usually swear nor use this type of language, but this is exactly how if feel whenever I read or hear the phrase “Intelligent Design” (ID). I do not want to antagonize or insult anyone who may think this is a good alternative to science (however misguided), but I just cannot reconcile this idea with what I know about science, nor can I reconcile it with my life as the father of a child with autism.
The scientific arguments against ID have been extensive covered elsewhere, so I will not touch upon that here. Instead, let me tell you why I have an issue with ID at the personal level. Nature is not benevolent; it is neither evil. It is entirely indifferent. When my boy was conceived, he got half of his genetic material from me and the other half from my wife, both halves formed by the ever-famous DNA
In scientific terms, this genetic endowment is called the genotype, essentially, his biology, which interacts with the environment to generate something called the phenotype.
In other words, the genotype is the individual’s genetic endowment and the phenotype is the expression of that genetic information, which is largely determined by the environment. The phenotype is usually associated with appearance (blue eyes, brown hair, lack of hair (:-)…. etc.), but also includes many other characteristics, like how do you react to medications or how sensitive you are to certain smells for example.
By the way, please keep in mind that I am not talking about the environment in the usual ecological sense. Any external influence that affects an organism is by definition, environmental. For example, your genetics will dictate whether you get a headache because you got a stuffy nose which in turn you got because of a cold virus, which came from someone else. Also, your choice of medicine (which you chose precisely because you know it works for you) is also determined by your genes, which control how your system handles chemicals.
Ok so far?
Have you heard about the debate about what is more important, nature or nurture? Well, it is neither and it is both, one is not more important than the other. Let me give you one of my favorite examples. Let’s say that a child has in his or her genes the capacity of being very tall, very strong, very smart or all of the above. So far, so good, right? Now let’s suppose that, sadly, that child is raised under abuse, malnutrition, or is exposed to toxins or pathogenic organisms at any point of his or her development. That genetic potential will only be realized when the genes are present in a favorable environment. In this example, the incomplete fulfillment of the genetic potential is the best-case scenario.
Sadly, even in these best-case scenarios, we may find that even when the child survives, the quality of life will be negatively affected in some ways. In the worst case scenarios, pregnancies (in fact, most pregnancies) fail to go full term precisely because the genetics of the fetus in the context of the environment itself is incompatible with life.
Nobody knows exactly what causes autism. Personally, I compare it to cancer; yep, cancer (please PLEASE pretty please, before yelling at me about the previous statement please find out my reasons for hating autism). As you probably know, cancer is not a single disease. Rather, cancer is a series of diseases that share a specific trait, namely uncontrolled cell division with various degrees of severity. Similarly, I believe that autism is a series of diseases that share similar outcomes (hence autism spectrum disorders). Several gene candidates that seem to be related to autism have been proposed, as well as several types of environmental factors, but I hope that I have convinced you that it is actually both, genes and the environment. We need research in BOTH of those areas if we ever hope to truly understand autism.
Anyway, this means that at some point in my boy’s life, “something”, a toxic metal, a virus or something entirely different as yet unidentified, interacted with his nervous system at some level due to a genetic predisposition, changing it enough so a series of phenotypes, which we classify as “autism” were expressed in him.
This was not evil nor benevolent. It was no punishment, and I do not think that it was to teach me a life lesson. It was genetics and the environment, no more, no less. This is why, every time that autism affects negatively my child in any aspect of his life, what comes to my mind as a matter of course is: “Intelligent design my ass”…
**Warning: Unscientific rant alert!**
How could I believe that nature , especially biology, is exquisitely fine-tuned or beautifully designed when, if it not were for my wife, myself or some of his teachers (not all of them for sure, but that’s a story for another post) our sweet boy would have been harmed or worse a long time ago? Mind you, he is very, very smart, sometimes he surprises us with his insights and whenever we realize that he knows exactly what is going on in certain situations; however, he could walk into traffic without giving it a second thought, so, Intelligent Design my . . . well, you know…
**End of unscientific rant**
That being said, as a practicing scientist I still think that nature is majestic. Biology in particular is incredibly mind-boggling. When I think that a “normal” human brain has about 100 billion nerve cells (100,000,000,000), each one with an average of 30,000 connections (this translates to 3,000,000,000,000,000 connections, which in scientific talk is termed “a whole freaking lot“) it is not surprising that mental conditions exists, what is surprising that there is not more of it.
Nature, especially life, is majestic all right. I truly think so…
However, autism is happening to MY child (note that I did not say “happened”; autism happens to my boy every single second of his life) so I don’t have to be happy about it, majestic nature or not.
And by the way, I absolutely love my boy, but as I said, How much do I hate autism? (read the post before yelling at me)…