by Manolis Spanakis

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Design for Living or Living for Design

Some logical fallacies of the Intelligent Design argument about the origin of species.

Michael Behe, American biochemist, author, and intelligent design advocate, published a letter in New York Times (2005) where he presents four claims of the Intelligent Design argument about the origin of species. Note that the four claims are not independent but are all rephrased versions of a single argument: we can recognize products of human design from their structural and functional complexity; because biological systems are also structurally and functionally complex, therefore, they must have been designed by an intelligent being.


My purposes:

  1. I am not going to discuss if there is an Intelligent Designer at the origin of life or not. This, nobody has, nor can, yet answer.
  2. What I will try to explain is this: If there were an Intelligent Designer, He would not need to design every detail of the universe, like a bacterial flagellum or other molecular machines. He only needed to set the initial conditions where life could be formed and evolve (by natural selection, self-organization or whatever). Of course, if there is no Intelligent Designer then, obviously, the ID argument is all false.
  3. I will also try to demonstrate several logical fallacies and contradictions in what the proponent of ID calls his "physical evidence" and "straightforward logic".
  4. Finally, I will argue that the ID hypothesis derives from an anthropocentric theory that makes no sense to an independent objective observer.

Here is my interpretation of Behe's claims and my objections:

Introductory paragraph

"intelligent design itself says nothing about the religious concept of a creator" = Let us first agree that there is a creator. My job is only to convince you that you need a Creator (in order to explain...). Then, I will send you specialized apostles (sales representatives) to propose to you the best Creator for your needs.

  1. If ID makes no assumptions about the creator, then, what is the theory about?
  2. The first four questions humans ask when they see a object are: What (what it is)? How (how it works)? Why (what it is for)? Who (who delivered it, made it...)? Obviously, ID theory is not concerned with the first 3 questions, science does pretty well there; its only subject matter and its very reason for being is the fourth question.
  3. From the pragmatic point of view, how ID will change our life if the religious concept of the creator were to be taken out? Would ID have added any more knowledge as to what? how? why? or, even, who? I am afraid, science would still have to do all the dirty job.
  4. Here we have a "scientific" hypothesis about the existence of a designer which refuses to predict who the designer would be. How could such hypothesis be tested?

"the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic" = I do not appeal to your metaphysical believes but to your Aristotelian or scientific logic. If you have any counterarguments, then, these should be stated in the same framework of logical terms.


So, there we go: It seems to me that the intelligent designer is conceived in the Image and Likeness of a human designer.

Claim 1:

"unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains." = plate tectonics (soil, movement, friction), erosion (wind, atmosphere, oxygen, water, rain, rivers) and physical forces in general (temperature, gravity, waves, light etc.) are unintelligent and therefore not designed.

  1. The unintelligent part of nature ultimately includes the entire abiotic earth with its materials and forces, the solar system and its laws, the universe.
  2. ID refers to biotic systems, life, only. We wonder who has made the rest; he must have been very unintelligent if not completely stupid.
  3. The Designer appears to have used unintelligent abiotic materials and forces for his intelligent design of life. Human designers also choose pre-existing unintelligent materials and forces.

"Yet they (the unintelligent physical forces) are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore" = neither are they enough to explain holes on the ground, like those that dogs dig to hide bones or like those the ants dig to live in.

  1. All living creatures, no matter how stupid they may look, can make something intelligent that the unintelligent forces cannot do.
  2. Intelligence is integral attribute of life.
  3. The Designer must be a living (biotic) creature; because if he were abiotic, he would be unintelligent.



The photograph shows perfectly circular formations that cannot be explained by unintelligent physical forces (plate tectonics erosion etc.), therefore, they must have been made by intelligent design. In this case, the designer is a crystal known as a bacteriophage, i.e., a DNA molecule, some 50Kb long, covered with some organized proteins. Unfortunately, we cannot tell if the bacteriophage itself is intelligently or unintelligently designed because it has no known function in the absence of bacteria (it is abiotic, presenting no sign of life). In fact, the circular formations correspond to areas of absence of viable bacteria (lysis). Nevertheless, the circumference of the circle could not have been designed by the bacterial lawn alone, even thought bacterial populations are much cleverer than individual bacteria, and individual bacteria are much cleverer than bacteriophages. We are forced to admit that the circles are intelligently designed by the phage-host ecosystem: it turns out that the simple ecosystem in the photograph is intelligent enough to design circles and, who knows, perhaps other things also.




Claim 2:

"the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology" = the physical marks of the Non-biotic (abiotic?) design, that is; because none of the physical marks of the biotic (human) intelligent design is present in biology and none of the physical marks of biological design is present in human (biotic) design. In simpler terms,

  1. We can all distinguish living systems from non-living drawings or constructions, whatever animal may have made them.
  2. All this is explained elsewhere.

"The 18th-century clergyman William Paley likened living things to a watch, arguing that the workings of both point to intelligent design." = Cleverer people would rather liken a watch to living things; because living things where there first and watches are only poor imitations (models) of living machinery, if they have anything to do with life at all.

  1. But Paley's, and his peers', brains are conditioned to put man in the center of the universe and everything else in man's Image and Likeness.

"Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved" (cited with certain irony) = DNA is a polymer.

  1. Polymers form spontaneously from chemical units binding together under appropriate physical and chemical conditions.
  2. Polymers can spontaneously grow and replicate (properties that are very close to "life" attributes and are absent from all known designed products of animal origin).
  3. Chemists who "design" polymers do not physically assemble the chemical units together but only "design" the conditions where the polymer can self-organize, grow and replicate.
  4. The "design" of the physical and chemical conditions is a process of trial and error: amongst the various conditions, the chemist selects those that give the desired properties to the resulting polymer (if any). The selection may be "intelligent" or natural.
  5. A polymer that resist water will remain polymerized, whereas other polymers will decompose, after the first rain.
  6. The intelligent scientist only reproduces (copies, imitates) natural selection by pouring some water into the test tube containing the freshly made polymer.
  7. Spontaneous, self-, assembly of chemical units is not restricted to polymer formation but is a fundamental principle of chemistry and applies to all molecules and molecular systems (complexes; "molecular machines") as well as to sub-atomic matter. For example, ozone is formed from oxygen atoms when unintelligent clouds produce unintelligent sparks under the climatic conditions of an unintelligent thunderstorm.
  8. Maybe, all the Intelligent Designer would have to design were the initial unintelligent physical and chemical conditions where the DNA could be formed, then, leave it alone to grow, replicate and evolve under the guidance of unintelligent natural selection or according to the physical and chemical properties of its building blocks and of the polymer itself.
  9. What Crick wrote is consistent with what we know about polymers, their properties, their usefulness and their survival, and does not really contradict the notion of a Designer.
  10. Since the formation of DNA, even the most stupid organism can re-design and make it. If the design is good, the product will self-reproduce; if not, it will decompose after the first "rain".

"the entire cell can be viewed as a factory with an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines" =  rather, for the non-anthropocentric observer, a factory can be viewed as a failed attempt of a (not so) intelligent designer to imitate a long pre-existing cell and/or its internal molecular machines.

  1. Failed, because neither does a factory assemble itself spontaneously, nor does it grow, reproduce and diversify without continuous intelligent management.
  2. This analogy obviously implies that the designer also has to intelligently and continuously manage not only men, but also every biological individual in the universe.
  3. However, every biological individual dies and death is inconsistent with intelligent management; rather, it is a fundamental concept in natural selection theory.
  4. Maybe biological individuals do not require continuous intelligent management because they can feed themselves, grow, reproduce and diversify alone; in which case, the Designer would only have to design the initial unintelligent conditions where the first living individual could self-assemble. The subsequent management could be undertaken by natural selection (reproduction balancing death) or other unintelligent mechanisms.


Claim 3.

"we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence" = Intelligence is a good explanation for the foundation of life.

  1. This is a typical example of a fallacy of informal logic long known as argumentum ad ignorantiam, or argument from ignorance. The fact that we may have no good evidence that life does not involve intelligence is not evidence that it does.
  2. Moreover, we have no definition for the concept of "Intelligence" other than that of a phenotypic characteristic of some forms of life, and only of life.
  3. Life does generate intelligence, that is uncontroversial.
  4. What is consistent with both historical evidence and straightforward human logic is this: the concept of an "intelligent designer" is a creation of human intelligence. As knowledge advances, the supernatural intelligence is pushed further, beyond the limits of human understanding.
  5. In contrast, an Intelligence that preceded life in time and, then, it generated life is beyond human perception and straightforward logic. Behe appears to agree that abiotic entities do not have intelligence in general.

"Scientists skeptical of Darwinian claims include many who have no truck with ideas of intelligent design" = We do not need to believe in ID in order to criticize Darwinism; falsification of Darwinism (or of a specific application of Darwinian theory) does not mean triumph of Intelligent Design (see argument from ignorance above).

  1. Darwinism has predicted heritable (genetic) variation and differential proliferation and survival (collectively called "fitness") of the variants.
  2. All these fundamental concepts have been sufficiently documented by experiment, empirical observation and mathematical modeling.
  3. This is why Darwinism has become so popular.
  4. Darwinism can only be replaced by a scientific theory that explains evolution (genetic variation, differential fitness and speciation) and predicts fossil record with more accuracy.
  5. The ID theory does not explain evolution, does not predict the fossil record with any accuracy and even fails (actually refuses) to properly define its very fundamental concept, the Intelligent Designer.
  6. ID is nothing novel but an ancient theory that Darwinism has successfully replaced.
  7. ID had not predicted (micro)evolution and it is now struggling to explain it as a degenerative process.


Claim 4.

"in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life" = In the absence of any convincing ID explanation, we are justified in thinking that design was not involved in life.

  1. This is the prototype of an argument from ignorance.
  2. Logic is necessary but not sufficient to justify a theory.
  3. Darwinism wins on the basis of a little bit of evidence that it explains (genetic variation, differential proliferation and survival, genomic phylogeny consistent with fossil record, etc.).
  4. ID is an anthropocentric hypothesis with too many flaws in its internal logic and, of course, it provides no explanation nor prediction about life history.
  5. Darwinism is a general theory and applies to obviously evolving systems other than organismic evolution such as organismic development, language, culture, knowledge or technology.
  6. ID predicts only entropic, regressive evolution and, therefore, it cannot be applied to (never mind explain) such progressive systems where complexity obviously arises from simplicity.
  7. If man knew everything and could communicate perfectly by language at its early times and tended to forget with the time, then, we might be led to think that language, knowledge and, by analogy, genomes were intelligently designed. The opposite seems to be the case.

"important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain, not the appearance of natural selection or the appearance of self-organization" = Everyone is laboring to explain "life" not the appearance of design.

  1. In this statement "design" is confused with "life", the effect with the cause, the theory with its object; a typical tautology according to Popper.
  2. I think this confusion is intentional, because I do not expect such phrasing from a biochemist.
  3. Design, natural selection and/or self-organization are alternative explanations of "life" (metaphysical, empirical or mathematical, respectively, and not mutually exclusive).

"if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck" = If it shares 99% of its genome with monkeys, then, we are 99% confident to conclude that it's a great ape.

  1. This statement is half valid: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck we have, indeed warrant to conclude it is a duck, with whatever confidence the macroscopic look, the walk and the quacks may provide.
  2. The other half of the statement is an argument from ignorance: if we have no compelling evidence that it is not a duck, we still have no additional evidence that it is a duck other than it looks, walks and quacks as such.
  3. Instead, the classification of man in the family of Hominidae by genome similarity is the evidence on which we base the hypothesis of common origin of man and monkeys. There is no reference to ignorance in this hypothesis


Immediate questions that the theory of intelligent design will have to answer:

  1. Intelligence and human intelligent design are themselves subjects of development and/or evolution by variation (trial) and selection (error). Does every intelligence and every intelligent design evolve by trial and error (variation and selection)?
  2. How many designers? is there evidence for the number of intelligent designers out there?
  3. How many original designs? is life a single concept or there are as many concepts as organisms in the universe?
  4. What level of detail (molecules, molecular complexes, genomes, cells, organisms, populations, ecosystems, universes) ? Does he design every individual or only prototypes (species)?
  5. Why so many versions for each essential conserved protein?
  6. Is he still designing? or was the design an instant event some time in the past?
  7. Does he tear up some designs?
  8. Does he tear up individuals? species?