Looking under the hood of intelligent design

Creationist bumper sticker

There is a cultural debate going on, intelligent design versus the theory of evolution.  But some are adamant that it’s a scientific debate.  Is it?  Let’s look at the details.

What is evolution?

The theory of evolution was initially proposed in 1859 by Sir Charles Darwin in his book “On the Origin of Species”. The theory was co-discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, but Darwin receives the lion’s share of the credit; indeed, some people refer to the theory as Darwinism. Though the theory is fascinating, its details are outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that this scientific theory lays out an extremely elegant explanation for the diversity and complexity of life forms, all without the need of a creator.

The theory of evolution forced humans to see themselves as animals for the first time, on an equal footing with all other organisms on the planet. Not God’s special project. That rubbed many people the wrong way. Each religion has its own creation story, an explanation of how some great creator brought the world, and everything in it, into existence. Creation stories explain the complexity and diversity of life as the intention of an intelligent being. Belief in these creation stories is called “creationism”.

What is Intelligent Design (ID)?

According to the Discovery Institute,

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

That is, an intelligent designer (eg. God) is a more likely explanation for life and the universe than any natural process.  How do they reach that conclusion?

Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act.

In other words, ID adherents study the properties of things they know are designed (by humans).  They refer to this ensemble of properties as “complex and specified information”, or CSI.  Thus, if something is designed, it has CSI, a sentiment echoed on the same web page,

Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI.

Then these scholars look for other non-man-made objects or systems that have CSI.  When they find them, they conclude that the objects were designed.

When ID researchers find [CSI] in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.

This conclusion pops up repeatedly, like here

… specified and complex information is known to be a reliable indicator of design.

Problems with ID

Here we run into our first glaring problem with ID.  Here is the logic of that argument.

  1. All designed objects exhibit CSI.
  2. Natural object X has CSI.
  3. Thus, X was designed.

This is what we call a non sequitur, a conclusion that does not logically follow from the argument.  Here is another more familiar version of the same logical argument.

  1. All rapists are human.
  2. You are human.
  3. Thus, you are a rapist.

No, I didn’t think you were.  The conclusion doesn’t follow.  Just because every designed object exhibits CSI, it doesn’t mean that everything that exhibits CSI is designed.  Here is a graphical way of understanding the logic error.  Notice that X is an object with CSI, but is not designed.

The X indicates a human who is NOT a rapist.

Not all ID arguments follow that faulty logic.  Others focus-in on objects that exhibit CSI, and try to convince you that the object could not have arisen from natural, unguided processes. In essence, it’s the reverse of (1) above, that is, “All objects that exhibit CSI are designed.”

Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University has argued that so-called irreducible complexity fulfills this role.  An irreducibly complex system consists of interdependent parts such that if any one part was removed, the system would fail to function.  According to Behe, one such system is the bacterial flagellum, a tiny hair-like structure that rotates like an outboard motor to propel the bacteria cell.  Other examples include the eye, the wing, blood coagulation, and species symbiosis.  Behe says that if you take away one component from these systems, the remaining subsystem will have no function and have no purpose or benefit.  And if that’s true, then how could these complex systems have arisen by the process of evolution that requires only advantageous traits get passed down the generations?  Behe states that they can’t, so the only other alternative is that these systems did not evolve, but were instead designed by an intelligent agent.

The problem with that argument is with the assumption that an incomplete system has no benefit.  Each alleged case of irreducible complexity is soon discredited by scientists in the peer-reviewed literature (for a small list, see this).  It turns out that Behe couldn’t think of how an incomplete system could be beneficial, so Behe concluded that it must have been designed.  This is called the argument from ignorance, also knows as the “god of the gaps” argument.  Not being able to explain something does not mean it’s not explainable. This is the most fundamental error in the ID argument.

Not that it’s relavant at this point, but another leader of the ID movement is William Dembski, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He claims to have worked out an objective way to measure CSI, able to distinguish between the complexity generated by randomness and the complexity generated by intelligent design.  It can’t. Dembski’s publications are not peer-reviewed by the scientific community, and have been thoroughly discredited in the scientific literature by Elsberry and Shallit.

So, why doesn’t ID avoid those fallacious arguments, and instead put forward a serious scientific theory?  The answer to THAT is in the definition of science.

What is science?

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, science is

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Another source defines science as “systematically acquired knowledge that is verifiable.”  Or, in the words of Richard P. Feynman, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.” It’s a methodology for how to go about gathering knowledge about the world in an objective fashion. That methodology is designed to avoid the pitfalls of subjective human perception.

I’d like to draw your attention to two key points about science:

  1. Scientific claims have to be falsifiable.  That is, there must be an experiment that could – at least in principle – refute or disprove the claim.
  2. Anyone is able – at least in principle – to repeat the experiments.  Results are only valid if they are reproducible.

People come up with some pretty out-there claims about how the world works (water memory, quantum physics, iridology, relativity).  How does one convince skeptics that they’ve got a valuable piece of knowledge?  Answer: They demonstrate it.  This is exactly where we get the notions of falsifiability and repeatability.  Science takes beliefs and either demonstrates that they are false, or turns them into objective knowledge.  As a consequence, science is objective and self-correcting.

Is ID science?

Many ID proponents bemoan the fact that science explicitly excludes the supernatural. That’s true, it does. Why?  According to the Oxford Dictionaries,

supernatural adjective
(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature

That is, “supernatural” is defined as everything outside of science.  There’s a good reason for that.  If we can’t test it and observe it, then what good is it? If I claimed that a miracle occurred, how does that help us understand how the universe behaves?  As soon as ID plays the supernatural card, they exclude themselves from science.

ID evangelists claim that ID is an important theory because it provides a framework through which scientists can make hypotheses… based on the design principle.  That is, scientists benefit when they approach a complex system as though it were intelligently designed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What ID theory gives us is a list of systems that we label as designed, but since those systems did not arise by natural processes, we can’t form any scientific conclusions from them.  All we can do is try to decipher the intention of the designer; hardly a useful exercise.

More importantly, phenomena that were once considered supernatural are today understood as science. God doesn’t hold the stars up; they follow trajectories well understood by physics.  Lightning isn’t Zeus getting angry; it’s an atmospheric discharge of electricity.   Things are unexplained until they are explained. The question is, what do you do with things that aren’t explained yet?   ID would have you believe that God (or some other intelligence) did it.

Then why is ID popular?

There was a pre-scientific time when people lacked a formal system for establishing which claims were true, and which claims were false. In that era, saying that the stars were lights on a black sheet probably seemed more reasonable than huge glowing balls of gas billions of kilometres away. But there was no systematic way to separate the right from the wrong; people had only their intuition.

In those days, religions offered the most satisfying explanations of why the world is the way it is.  Intelligent design, and other forms of creationism, trace their roots back to religion (though ID proponents will deny this until they turn blue in the face).

We even have scientific hypotheses, based on the theory of evolution, that explain why humans have a tendency to detect intelligent agency.

It’s not at all surprising that religious world views still abound.  And it’s relatively easy to confuse people about theories that have complex ensembles of evidence.  The theory of evolution can be quite subtle, but it has mountains of evidence from many fields of science (for a good recent survey, read The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins).  ID advocates use grossly simplified and incorrect versions of the theory to persuade religious people to suspend their disbelief until the next sermon.

Science can be hard to understand.  Our brains didn’t evolve to untangle the complexity and nuance of all the laws of nature.  It’s natural that we should prefer a simplistic world view.

But these cognitive challenges do not excuse us from reality.  Almost all species eventually go extinct, and humans are no exception.  Our best hope for long-term survival is to use our strongest asset, our brains, to understand who we really are, and where we fit in the cosmos.

15 Responses to “Looking under the hood of intelligent design”

  1. Jennifer Barclay says:

    Thank you for this article. I hate to admit it but I find some of these arguments hard to get my head around. I have a degree in Fine Arts, not Science. However, I am interested in understanding and being informed. I found your article straight forward and interesting without a lot of that inclusive jargon that I sometimes don’t understand. So thank you.

  2. Alex says:

    Good article. Your “Elsberry and Shallit” link is broken, though.

  3. Haefen says:

    Most interesting article, gets one thinking.

    It seems pretty obvious to me that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause. If it wasn’t for the caveat excluding natural selection I would have no problem with that definition and would call myself an IDer.

    Nor would I have a problem with claiming that all CSI objects are designed, in fact I think all objects show CSI. To me even a simple atom looks complex, I mean how da hell does that electron stay in orbit? Turns out to be rather complex. I think there is a design there and judging by the results it was intelligent.

    So I think that all designed object show csi and that csi shows they were designed, intelligently.

    I find myself differing only on the nature of that intelligence.

    As to the faith being exhibited in science I am equally uncomfortable in the confidence and certainty being professed. It reminds me too much of the past, too much of religion, it reminds me of the many times we have felt so confident and been so wrong.

    It seems to me the suggestion that science claims have to be falsifiable and testable (repeatedly) is too old school and does not take into account modern advances in our understanding of the universe. Old school science cannot be directly applied in many fields but yet I still accept the results from those fields. I even call them scientific, the best we have.

    Not unlike the idea that there are turtles all the way down the ideas we are working with in those fields are the best we have and we have to start somewhere. The turtle idea incorporated all knowledge of the time, was consistent with modern thought, and with science of the time and thinking people accepted it. (BTW I’m not really talking about turtles but the many ideas once accepted that are today rejected, such as the geocentric theories of Aristotle and other top scientists)

    Rather than put my faith into an older understanding of science I’d rather put my faith in the ability of us to work beyond its limitations. Sure much science is subjective but it still has as a goal “objective and testable” and that works for me, for now. As a result I am not one of those who reject all things supernatural.

    Good thing because the vast majority of my universe is beyond scientific understanding of the laws of nature. Most matter/energy (exchangeable in my understanding) is not understood and poorly theorized. Yet I have faith, I’d even like to think we are getting close but it is mostly faith based on past results.

    That faith also suggests that much or everything I now accept as science is likely going to be thrown on to its head. Just as the discovery of nuclear forces made so much of what was once known (and known with certainty!) to be just ancient theories I expect our future discoveries will rewrite our understanding of things we today insist is fact.

    Hence I am not a Modern Skeptic. I know there is a God, I can see many of the affects, fancy architectural buildings, reports of positive feelings, and strong attachments to ancient documents. I live in a world where there is much supernatural material and many effects (the equivalent of fairies and little people) and I am certain of very little, maybe nothing.

    It appears to me that being certain, particularly as certain as Modern Skeptics are, requires a level of dogmatism I do not have. A level that rejects the theory of ID without seeing the equivalencies in one’s own theories….of course I could be and am likely completely wrong. Oh to have enough faith to be certain, that would be so comforting.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      I think you’re missing many pieces of information regarding the structure of the universe, or the makeup of an atom. As Jeff pointed out, this is the argument from ignorance: just because *you* can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. Indeed, the structure of the universe is not as mysterious as many would claim.

      As an added point, there is no such thing as “old school” science and “new school” science. There’s just science.

      I have a proposition that I usually put to people who support either Creationism or Intelligent Design: What piece(s) of evidence would it take for you to reject that theory? Remember, a lack of an existing explanation is not evidence.

      When I put that question towards myself about evolution, I can think of an answer pretty quick: For me to reject evolution, I would need to see fossils of different ages at different strata in the earth’s crust (ie: older fossils should not appear to be more shallow in the earth than younger fossils) and different species would have to be shown to have drastically different genetic profiles (in descending order, we’re genetically closest to bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons. These apes also have very similar genetic (not to mention anatomical) structures to New and Old world monkeys, which then have similar genetic profiles to lemurs, tarsiers, lorises and bush babies (and so on).

      Until I see such evidence, I have little choice but to accept evolution as the *best* model we have at the moment.

      Your charge of dogmatism does not, I’m afraid, hold water, and I think it’s based on a common misconception of science. Science does not claim to have absolute certainty about anything. Science is about explaining something based on the best evidence we have at the time. If you, Dembski, or anyone brings forth convincing evidence that conclusively disproves evoltion, I’d happily change my mind.

      Im the meantime, I cannot accept “Thing X is too complicated to have arisen naturally” as evidence. It’s merely an arguement, and a highly flawed one at that.


      • CrushU says:

        1) Fossils have been found out of order in geological strata. This has been explained by evolutionists as folding or shifting of the strata, and is plausible in most cases. From http://www.rodsgarden.50megs.com/evolution.htm: “In order to explain the fossils being out of order in Europe, geologists have suggested that a mass of rock thick enough to contain the entire Matterhorn somehow moved onto Europe from northern Africa. The movement of such a large mass of rock would certainly cause a lot of rubble but there is no sign of anything like that at the boundary between the rock layers. They fit tightly together.” (Regrettably, he doesn’t appear to have a source for this.)

        2) Species are already known to have drastically different genetic profiles, this is what defines the term ‘species’: Two different species cannot breed. I think I may be misunderstanding you?

        3) One common ‘reason to reject evolution’ is a young earth. I’m surprised you didn’t list it.

        To reject Creation, I would say it would require evidence of a species becoming a new species such that it couldn’t interbreed with the old. The fossil record does not provide this, as there are numerous ‘missing links’ that Darwin himself stated there should be an innumerable number of.

        TO THIS END: I’m aware of one counter-example. There is a breed of fish up north somewhere (Arctic?) where they were demonstrably the same species until temperature changes caused the body of water they occupied to become separated. Over time, natural selection caused two populations in each pool, one that favored feeding at the top, one that favored feeding at the bottom. The body of water was recombined, and fish that were in the same separated pool could interbreed, even top/bottom interbreeding, but could not breed with fish from the other pool, top or bottom.

        One example out of thousands of species is not terribly convincing. This should be common.

      • Kim Hebert says:

        “Species” is a relatively nebulous and sometimes controversial biological term, with many definitions. They aren’t necessarily distinguished by “drastically different” genetic profiles and breeding isn’t necessarily limited by “drastic” differences (the limitation could be environmental, physical, etc).

        “To reject Creation … would require evidence of a species becoming a new species such that it couldn’t interbreed with the old.”

        What does that even mean, though? Define “old”. Species are always changing and adapting to their environments, but very very slowly. Technically “new” lifeforms are always interbreeding with “old” lifeforms, constantly being molded by their ecological niche. Organisms best adapted to their niche produce offspring more likely to also survive (and reproduce) in that niche, compared to more poorly-adapted organisms. Lather, rinse, repeat -> change.

        Your fish example exemplifies pretty much every species on the planet. Take a species, widen their ecological niche as they grow in population and seek resources, consider natural environmental differences between groups separated among geological resource areas (or maybe a change is introduced, such as climate), then wait. Over time, adaptations eventually speciate the organism.

  4. terry the censor says:

    > The theory of evolution was initially proposed in 1859 by Sir Charles Darwin in his book “On the Origin of Species”. The theory was co-discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace

    Why should I invest time in this long article when the very first fact — and a big one too — is wrong?

    Evolution was proposed well before Darwin. His innovation was the theory of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution. Wallace had been considering the same type of mechanism.

    I am disturbed that few supporters of evolution have ever read Origin of Species. It is a fascinating (and surprisingly well-written) book, especially the demolition of special creation in chapter 14.

    I am concerned self-described evolutionists get their scientific information only from blogs and word-of-mouth. We can do better.

    • Jeff Orchard says:

      As a matter of fact, I HAVE read “On the Origin of Species”, and I agree that it’s excellent, albeit long. But I don’t really see the point of your e-mail. The fact that people tossed around the word “evolution” before Darwin seems insignificant in the context.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      I’d hardly categorize that as a “big” mistake. The Germ Theory of disease is not dependent on Pasteur. The Theory of General Relativity is not dependent on Einstein. The Theory of Gravity (yes, it’s a theory, not a law) is not dependent on Newton.

      Yes, Wallace had the notion before Darwin. But Darwin was the first to publish a convincing case for it. They were both working on the same thing at about the same time, but Darwin spent decades on his work. For fear of being scooped, he cobbled his work together and was the first to publish. That’s what matters here: the context.

      I’m curious as to why you assumed that Jeff did not read Origin of Species, or why you’re accusing him of getting his “scientific information only from blogs and word-of-mouth”. Sure you didn’t come right out and explicitly say it, but the accusation was pretty clear.


      • anti_supernaturalist says:

        If you must parade, make sure it is not your ignorance strutting around

        Indeed, context matters. But you don’t have a context to stand on — not in history of science, not in philosophy of science, nor in using English as tool for clarification. You just muck about.

        • You have not read any modern biography of Charles Darwin. Wallace did not have priority for the theoretical engine of Darwin’s work: natural selection. Wallace acknowledged that Darwin established the centrality of natural selection at least 14 years before him. Wallace and Darwin published jointly in the same journal at the same time.

        You can scan ‘On the origin of species’ in its first edition. You’ll find that Darwin nowhere uses the word ‘evolution’; only at the very end of the text does he use the word ‘evolve.’ ‘Evolution’ already enjoyed a bad reputation based on its use in speculative pseudo-biology, for example, in a book entitled ‘Vestiges of creation.’ ‘Evolve’ affirms the Victorian habit of using a latinate word for a perfectly respectable anglo-saxon one, ‘arise.’

        • Also, if you must toy around with highly ambiguous words like ‘theory’ and ‘law’, you must specify which meaning you intend to use. You have ended up in a conceptual muddle.

        You dare not trot out specious arguments based on right-wing christians’ notorious and deliberate lack of clarity. That is, the rhetorical tactic of muddying the waters. They deliberately confuse ‘theory’ with ‘hypothesis’ — you certainly don’t intend to claim that gravitational theory (in its Newtonian form) is a hypothesis.

        Let’s see, how about the ‘inverse square law of universal gravitational attraction’? From this law, the theory which contains it can demonstrate logically that planetary orbits must be ellipses with the Sun at one focus. Thus Kepler’s patient labors over the orbit of Mars get a rousing theoretical account. ‘Theory’ refers to a highly successful overarching set of related models — in this case a large-scale model of the universe.

        Typically, the word ‘law’ in physical science refers to a single mathematical statement. Thus Einstein’s overly famous law of the equivalence of matter and energy forms just a part of his Theory of Special Relativity (1905). Now, is the equivalence law, which follows as a logical consequence from SR say anything about the relative significance of the words ‘theory’ and ‘law’. Nope.

        • Priority as a fact. Counterfactual conditionals as fiction.

        Again words trip you up. The verbal phrase ‘depend upon’ can occur in many contexts — logical and mathematical, historical and genealogical, explanatory and causal.

        One aspect of great theories goes beyond extraordinary explanatory power to the shock value each had within science, the scientific community, and culture in general, including popular culture. Newton, Darwin, and Einstein are names to conjure with and to rail against. Myth and misunderstanding surrounded their work when published and misunderstanding and myth continue today.

        All historical facts are contingent. Something else might have happened instead. In that sense your comment about GR not being dependent on Einstein is true, but only trivially true.

        • You needed to falsify the historical relationship between Wallace and Darwin and the theoretical and experimental grounding common and not common to each. Do you want to claim that if Darwin had not developed his “theory of descent with modification”; then, Wallace would have done.

        A plausible argument can be made that neither Wallace nor TH Huxley would have convinced Victorian scientists by announcing his own version of natural selection. Only Wallace presented the concept of natural selection based on existing work in population growth leading inexorably toward intensive ecological pressure leading quite blindly to descent with modification of ancestor populations.

        Wallace completely misunderstood the powerful analogy by which Darwin argued that humans had themselves created new species through artificial selection — in pigeons, in dogs, in cattle. Wallace claimed that artificial selection resembled natural selection not at all. Without having earned an esteemed reputation as a “gentleman” engaged in advanced studies who published the best in non-speculative empiricism and observation, Darwin’s ideas would have gone nowhere.

        If you imagine that the universe is filled with facts just waiting to be discovered, you’ve got the wrong model of scientific discovery. Best to sit down with Steven J. Gould’s essays and monographs and learn.

        the anti_supernaturalist

  5. anti_supernaturalist says:

    ID, short for IDiot

    The nonexistence of an “intelligent designer” is proven by the existence of those who can believe in one.

    Darwin profoundly de-deified (secularized) western culture

    Long after ‘On the origin of species’ became a treasured historic relic, fundies still claim 151 years later that Modern Evolutionary Theory must collapse. They quote some fictional divinity or utter gibberish about “survival of the fittest” being a circular argument. Two Big-Lies.

    In criticizing Darwin, they will no more refute MET than their attacking Newton would refute classical mechanics. Darwinism and Newtonianism are among the most impressive of human artifacts based on their cultural value alone, with far wider and more positive effects than xianity. But as guides to nature they have long been superseded.

    Steve Gould exposed the merry fraudsters years ago. He will convince all but the obtuse. They can never forgive Darwin. He broke the iron rice bowl of intellectually respectable supernaturalism. Ever since Darwin, western religion was left to crackpots, the brainwashed, and seditious politicians and media liars, like G. Beck and S. Palin.

    ‘design’ and ‘purpose’ belong only to culture

    As long as scientists insist upon using ‘machine’ and ‘mechanism’ in explanations of nature — they too will support a fiction of extra-cultural purpose and design. Of course physical entities express mechanical and geometrical principles abstracted by humankind’s geniuses, but there are no divine schematics or instruction manuals. All concepts, including scientific theories are human artifacts. Nature is silent.

    Darwin’s master conceptual engine, natural selection, forever abolished from biological explanation the “teleological cause” of Aristotle and the “ideal forms” of Plato. Purpose and Design are dead. These cultural “murders” are but two unmaskings of God. They form only a fraction of Nietzsche’s multifaceted cultural critique: God is dead.

    As a youthful Darwin tartly remarked in an unpublished Notebook [M (entry 128)]: “Plato says . . . that our ‘necessary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul. [They] are not derivable from experience — read monkeys for preexistence.”

    In print, Darwin deliberately forbade himself provocative language. He found the sober text of ‘Origins’ sufficient.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  6. Thopter says:

    I would like a Creationist/ID supporter to answer this question for me.

    You claim that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory. As stated in this article, “Scientific claims have to be falsifiable. That is, there must be an experiment that could – at least in principle – refute or disprove the claim.” In fact, supporters of ID have asserted that the Theory of Evolution cannot be science because (they claim) it cannot be falsifiable.

    So I would like to know, how is Intelligent Design falsifiable (and thus science) in the mind of a Creationist/ID supporter? I would like a Creationist/ID supporter to describe an experiment (that they would accept) that could show Intelligent Design to be false.

    If you cannot show that the theory of Intelligent Design is falsifiable, then stop trying to call it science.


  • Jeff Orchard

    Jeff Orchard is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has degrees in mathematical nerdism from Waterloo and UBC, and got his PhD in computing science from Simon Fraser University in 2003. Jeff is 99% atheist, 1% agnostic, and is passionate about teaching critical thinking. One of his research goals is to understand how the brain works (and then use that knowledge to take over the world). He has published academic papers in image processing, and is also an evolution buff.