On Intelligent Design

If there are two words that stir people up more in the science and religion arena than “intelligent design”, I don’t know what they would be.  I do know something about the debate because I participated in it in the early 2000s. I was one of the contributors on a website called “Telic Thoughts”. It was a site dedicated to rationally debating the issues in evolution and intelligent design. The website is not up on the web anymore, but you can get a sense of it from the internet archive here.   Contributors included a biologist, IT professionals, a mathematician, a physicist, and engineers (myself included). I never really learned much about the religious or non-religious leanings of contributors because the site wasn’t about religion. It was about trying to dispassionately debate the issues of science and possible design inferences from it.

That was some 16 years ago and I hadn’t really thought about the debate much over the years. I do think a lot about teleology and have written about it many times, but I listened to a recent science and faith podcast that woke me from my slumbers a bit. It reminded me that there are misconceptions about what was going on with the debate.

In the podcast, a broad category of “anti-evolutionist” or “counter-science” was applied to those who challenged evolutionary theories. Certainly, there were groups that were anti-evolutionists like the young earth creationists but it is incorrect to apply that term to many critics of evolutionary theory. The prominent intelligent design proponents all accept that evolution has and continues to occur and that there is some role for natural selection operating on mutational changes. What they did claim is that the minimal step-by-step neo-Darwinian (Modern Synthesis) model isn’t adequate to explain what we see in organisms (more on this shortly). They also questioned that evolutionary processes are “blind”, as Richard Dawkins puts it in The Blind Watchmaker.  Instead, they believed the data suggests a teleology (purpose) at work. I agree and I’ll offer my perspective on this later in the post.

Second, since all Darwinian theory critics were lumped together, the podcast said that there were contradictions and specious arguments being made and that, instead there was an appeal to values instead of science-based arguments. This also paints a simplistic picture. It wasn’t that simple. Of course, many conservative evangelicals did appeal to values-as-an-argument because they viewed Darwinian evolution as an affront to their theology and its values. However, the reason the debate had such a fevered pitch was that intelligent design proponents made detailed, coherent arguments for design based on scientific empiricism and mathematics. This also showed up in the media.

An often-invoked criticism of intelligent design is that it is religious instead of being science-based. Now, as usual, social movements aren’t that simple. The same is true for intelligent design. The so-called “evolution wars” referenced in the podcast included a range from the young-earth creationists to the non-religious (I think) like David Berlinski. Roughly speaking, there we two main groups. There were those with religious concerns (like the conservative evangelicals) and those who were interested in making the case for design in nature. In the second group, there were academics like Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, and David Berlinski.   While most were Christians and all believed Darwinian theory as typically presented was wrong or inadequate, their arguments were not focused on a religious position. They were focused on the data and whether or not it indicates design in nature. To put it succinctly, their position is that “intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause.” These data included things like fine-tuning and the complexity found in biotic systems. That intelligence could be God or, to reference a current fad, “some extraterrestrial who created a simulation on a supercomputer somewhere.”

So, what’s the status of the debate today? The debate is not in the mainstream like it was when I was involved but there have been some remarkable changes. Folks like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyers continue to contribute to the debate with new books and discussions but there have also been significant changes in biology.  The Darwinian model and its Modern Synthesis are falling out of favor with prominent biologists. It’s not that they reject it, per se, but feel it is inadequate to explain evolution (as ID proponents also claimed).  The problem is that as biology has advanced, things have gotten way more complicated. There are many problems in evolutionary theory but here are few examples that challenge the adequacy of the modern synthesis.

It used to be thought that most of DNA was junk (a supposed counterargument for design)— nonfunctioning remnants from the past just hanging around. That turns out not to be the case.  Much of that so-called junk has been identified as needed for how genes are expressed.  These expression processes have now become much more complex involving the full gamut of DNA in the cell.

Also, it has been discovered that mutations aren’t fully random. Now this, in and of itself, doesn’t disavow natural selection operating on mutations but the term “random” usually put in the phrase has to be redacted to some extent. Why mutations aren’t fully random is still an open question and research continues on this issue but here again there is more complexity and questions about why.

Perhaps the greatest problem for the neo-Darwinian minimal step-by-step mutation and natural selection approach comes from the field of biology studying non-DNA elements within the cell. Here’s a link to a presentation from a genetic scientist that outlines what is called “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”. There is some remarkable stuff here. If Lamarck could speak from the grave he’d probably say “I told you so!”  What research in this area indicates is that environmental factors change the dynamics of elements in the cell called RNA to better react to environmental challenges. RNA is a factor in how genes get suppressed or expressed from the many ways they could be.  If the environmental factors change how RNA works, very significant changes in gene expression can occur. At first blush, one might think “So What?”, that isn’t inherited so it is not a factor in evolution. However, there are examples where this non-DNA stuff is inherited. How this happens is an area of research but there are examples where seemingly isolated changes in this little RNA find their way into the germline or soma-to-soma and are inherited by offspring. Lamark, you were probably right — the giraffe got its long neck because of non-DNA changes due to taller trees (tongue in cheek). It makes perfect sense that reacting to environmental challenges quickly (with inheritance) would greatly enhance the promotion of fitness. The question is “how could this great complexity have evolved?” These are highly complex interrelational systems and given time frames and population densities this challenges the blind (and chance) model for evolutionary processes.

All this is to say that as things get more complicated and interrelated, simple explanations like neo-Darwinism just don’t seem adequate. Now science, per se, is okay with that. I say “per se” because significant challenges to a theory are always met with resistance. However, when theories don’t seem compelling anymore, new theories are formulated that do or might explain the complications. And so, with biology, the research continues as it should. However, sometimes there can come a point where it looks like “you just can’t get there from here.” Can all this interrelated complexity have come about blindly with no intelligent input? With so many unresolved issues in play, this requires a judgment call. After all, these processes depend on how reality is constituted at fundamental levels. Like in quantum mechanics, we don’t know why a particular event happens when it does. This requires an inference or interpretation. Next, I’ll explain the basis for my judgment call that there is something teleological going on.

I’m not a biologist or mathematician so I’ll defer to them where they have expertise. However, I do have expertise in a relevant area that might inform inferences. I’m retired now but I worked as a design engineer for some 40 years designing machines, systems, and software.  So, my expertise is in the design process. For the first half of my career, I did mostly machine design. Some of those designs were complex. They had combinatorial dependencies. This is a well know issue in design and mathematics. Components in a design are highly interrelated. The design of a particular component affects what can possibly follow. To get a design that works as specified you have to consider the design as a whole and be forward-looking. If you aren’t, down the road you can get to an “Oh Shit!” moment where you realize you “just can’t get there from here.” You have to backtrack considerably and try again, hopefully, with better forward-looking.

To illustrate this with an example from biology, here’s what I wrote about combinatorial dependencies on the Telic Thoughts website concerning the poster child of intelligent design, the bacterial flagellum. Here’s a couple of representations:

The Motor Section

Let’s take a look at this in a little detail. First we have a passive pore that starts things off. Since this is the base of the eventual flagellum one has to ask is the pore the right size that the whip of the flagellum can provide the locomotion we see? If it is too small the resulting whip will not be able to handle the stresses from torsion and coupling. If it is too big the whip will be too bulky to be driven in any effective way by the motor. Then we add the secretion system. Is the pore the right size and of the right protein type for the existing secretion system? If not there will be no coupling of the two and no progress.

Ok now we have a selective pore and a secretion system but does it secrete proteins that will be right for the whip? The whip has to have the right protein shape. In engineering, the components of a flexible whip have to be designed to mesh correctly such that there is just the right combination of coupling, flexibility, and rigidity. They also have to be the right material. If they are too soft there will be galling. If they are too hard fatigue cracks will set in and destroy the whip. The same goes for clearances between parts. Too tight and it binds. Too loose and it wobbles and destroys itself. This is a goldie-locks situation. Things have to be just right or it won’t work.

Next we have to add the motor. Let’s assume we’re very lucky that a motor will fit and couple with what we have so far. However, the motor has to have the rpm and torque to drive the whip just right. If it doesn’t have enough torque we won’t get what we see. If the rpm is too fast the whip will destroy itself because of the hydrodynamic forces applied to it by the fluid. Then it and all the other components have to be sized just right to reverse or the torsional forces on the whip will rip it apart. Remember the diameter, materials, meshing of parts, fits, etc. in this Darwinian scenario have no idea what will be required later.

I could go on and on but I hope you get the idea of combinatorial dependencies. And things are really worse when you consider the problem of “you just can’t get there from here”. If one component violates the needed dependencies that must be satisfied, you can’t just mutate that one component because every component depends on the others. As any design engineer will attest from their mistakes, you just have to start over. In real design a computer program would probably be written to play what-if scenarios to match the torque required, the materials and configuration of whip components, the bearing size and thickness based on cell wall strength, hydrodynamic factors, torsional and coupling stresses, etc and etc. Also this doesn’t even take into account the assembly processes that are required. They also have their own dependencies.

The point is that simplistic just-so stories based on blind mutations just aren’t adequate from an engineering perspective. There’s entirely too much luck involved to be taken seriously. Darwinian proponents will have to do much better than this to convince anyone acquainted with real machines.

Why do complex machines like computers, space stations, automobiles, and the like work? Because they were intelligently designed by people and programed computers spending untold hours looking at dependencies and complex interrelations.

I’ve read many articles and books written by intelligent design proponents. (YouTube also has many videos on this) From a laymen’s perspective, they seem convincing. But just from my perspective as a design engineer, I’m convinced there is something teleological going on in evolution and life in general.