Hard SF : Evolution : Intelligent Deisgner Theory

Intelligent Designer Theory

The theory of an "Intelligent Designer" in competition with evolution seems to have a couple of basic flaws. These flaws are not necessarily proof the theory is wrong, but rather issues as to whether the theory has a foundation to be considered more than interesting speculation. Individuals are free to choose to spend their own time on interesting speculations, but neither society nor individuals should feel any obligation to do so.

First, the Intelligent Designer theory is based on the belief that evolution provides an improbable explanation for the complexity of life forms. An Intelligent Designer is suggested because the complexity is thought to be beyond unintelligent processes.

This is somewhat like saying to the best of our knowledge, the people living in the area at the time Stonehenge was erected lacked the necessary disciplines, skills and tools to carry out the construction. Therefore, there must have been an Outside Engineer involved. This Outside Engineer may have been from a generally ignored technological human society (such as mythical Atlantis), visiting extraterrestrials or a supernatural power.

For the theory of an Outside Engineer to be more than simply speculation, we would need certain facts. First, on the technical capabilities of the people living there at that time. Our best understanding is based on deductions made from archeological evidence. This is the closest approximation to the facts that science can reconstruct. While these are reasonable starting assumptions, we can't treat them as absolute. Assuming archeology suggests the local people lacked the ability, we have tentatively met this part.

Second, we would need some evidence of intervention by others at Stonehenge. The lack of evidence that the local people were capable of building Stonehenge is not much better proof that someone else built it than the lack of evidence of involvement of others is proof that the local people did build it. Without evidence of a particular Outside Engineer, we can't have much confidence in the theory. To the extent we have significant evidence of outside intervention, we will probably have clues to narrow down who the Outside Engineer would be because we have some information about him. If we lack enough evidence to be more specific, we probably don't have a firm foundation to consider the theory to be fact.

Similarly, any weakness in the theory of evolution is not much better proof there was an Intelligent Designer than the lack of direct evidence of an Intelligent Designer is proof of evolution.

The theory of an Intelligent Designer begs the same kinds of questions Creationism does. Just as the theory the universe was made by a Creator begs the question where the Creator came from, the theory of an Intelligent Designer begs the question who designed the Designer. To be an Intelligent Designer, both intelligence and capability of sophisticated action are required. If single cell organisms are so complicated that we can't believe they came into being by unplanned forces, how could something with this intelligence and sophisticated capabilities come into being without a prior Intelligent Designer?

If the Intelligent Designer is an extraterrestrial being, then life began somehow on that other planet. The only way out of this regression is to accept undesigned origin of an intelligent life-form somewhere else or to assume at some point going back an Intelligent Designer existed eternally (presumably supernatural). I would say that the probability of non-living chemicals making an unplanned transition into early life-forms and later into human life-forms is no less than that of an entity, without the trial and error of natural processes, coming into being on the first try as superior to humans.

But evidence is more important than what seems probable to me. Is there evidence there is such an entity that is superior to humans? The theory of an Intelligent Designer answers this in an indirect way. It merely deduces such existence on the basis its proponents consider natural processes unsatisfactory. If there was evidence specifically supporting the existence of such an entity, they would not be postulating some vague unknown Designer, they would not be pointing to a lack of other satisfying explanations for the complexity of life -- they would be pointing to specific evidence of this entity.

The theory lacks evidence directly in favor of their concept. If evolutionists only argued that evolution must be true because none of the other theories were satisfying, evolution would not belong in our public school science classes either. It, too, would just be interesting speculation. However, extensive evidence has been provided which seems to favor evolution of early life-forms to modern life forms. Very little evidence is available for exactly how billions of years ago the earliest life-forms became life-forms. We don't know a specific natural process that will do it, but we do know there are natural processes that effect organic chemicals and organisms. To credit a natural process rather than a hypothetical source for which we lack evidence is the more logical choice until there is new evidence.

Interesting speculation has its place in universities, books, etc. It just doesn't deserve to be mixed in with fact-based information being given to young school children who are not yet sophisticated enough to fully appreciate the distinctions between the two areas.


One of the arguments given by Intelligent Design advocates is that complexity is self-evidently designed. First, "self evident" is not a phrase much associated with science. Generally, they do not define complexity in a way that provides a clear standard to distinguish "complex" from "not complex" that would justify their equation complexity = designed. Some have tried to establish a logical "irreducible complexity" standard. Unfortunately, organisms do not actually fit the definition. (For more on this use link to Natural History article at bottom of page.)

Should we believe that each snowflake was "intelligently designed" because it is complex? That every mineral crystal was "intelligently designed"? Creationists may argue that snowflakes are not individually designed by God, but that God designed the universe so that each snowflake would be unique and elaborate. I used the example of snowflakes and crystals because those are familiar things that look more like designed objects than most things in the universe. If we were to randomly select nouns from the dictionary and see how many of those (for items not made by humans) look "designed", it would not be so impressive. Rocks, mud, clouds, etc. don't look "designed". Are we to believe God designed snowflakes but not rocks? The fact that a few things like snowflakes are elaborate does not mean it was planned.

When radio astronomers first detected pulsars they got the nickname LGM (little green men) because some thought the pulsar's radio signals were broadcasts from intelligent beings. The pulsar was sending out radio pulses with extremely regular timing. As it turned out the radio bursts were natural results of the spinning of a neutron star.

Complexity, regularity and similar attributes that can be associated with intelligence can also be produced by unintelligent forces.

Scientists have learned from experience that it is not enough to establish this kind of "self evident" equation. Things are not always as they seem, especially when people want to believe something. For instance, doctors found that to identify a truly effective medication for a disease their experiments had to compare the new medicine with a "placebo". A placebo is a pill with no known inherent medical value. However, when a doctor tells a patient the pill will help him, the patient's belief in the doctor and pill can lead to at least temporary improvement. "Patient improvement after pill = good medicine" once was a "self evident truth". But once this assumption was put to proper scientific testing it was found to be flawed.

Some other assumptions that were once considered self evident are:

  1. The sun rises in the east, moves across the sky towards the west, sets in the west, rises in the east, etc. Therefore, the sun must move around the Earth.
  2. Heavier objects "pull harder" towards the ground, so they will fall faster than lighter objects.
  3. Water is softer and more fluid than rock. Moving water goes around a rock. Therefore, water cannot wear away rock.
  4. The moon shines light down on the Earth, so it must be producing light by some means.

These assumptions are not entirely irrational. They are simply based on flawed premises. Basing theories strictly on such assumption does not make good science.

Similar To "Watchmaker" Analogy

The Intelligent Designer theory reminds me of the old "watchmaker" analogy. It seems to me they both fail to consider the basic error in the idea. Both assume the presence of complexity requires planning by a skilled being, without considering there is necessary complexity and unnecessary complexity.

Suppose you come across a highly complex contraption. After studying it, you discover it is a vehicle powered by the rider. It can be used for the kind of purposes a bicycle would be used for. However, this contraption has 12 wheels of various sizes, multiple pulleys, gears, spiral inclined planes, ratchets, etc. To make a right turn it is necessary to squeeze the right handle with your hand, press your right elbow against a lever, press a button with your left knee and move your right foot backwards. And so on. Maybe it would be reasonable to consider the contraption was built by a first-year engineering student. But does it make sense to suggest a top-notch master engineer made it? I don't think so.

So consider the human body. It is made of organs. The organs are made of cells. The cells are made of organs. The organs are made of molecules. The molecules are made of atoms. The atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons. The protons and neutrons are made of quarks. The quarks and electrons seem to be made of something else, perhaps "strings". Etc. All this complexity simply is not necessary for the Designer, if the Designer created the universe. A Creator could make any laws of physics he wanted and therefore was free to make them simpler.

If we assume the Designer of humans is not a Creator of the universe, and the universe came into being without a Designer/Creator, why is it less plausible life could develop without a Designer/Creator? If the Designer is the Creator of the universe, he must have made the universe (and the resulting humans) with all that unnecessary complexity in the laws of nature and structure of things. How plausible is it that the Designer/Creator is a first-year engineering student rather than a master engineer that would have made the universe simpler?

Beyond the question of complexity, do we really believe the human body is "designed" in such a way there is no room for improvement? I don't see why it should not be possible for a human body to have a more effective immune system to protect it from disease. Creationists may suggest that humans were created with flaws because the challenges of life on Earth are important parts of the purpose for putting humans on Earth. Such articles of faith can neither be proved nor disproved. However, I find it hard to accept that a human body with flaws is more suggestive of being made by a designer than suggestive of unintelligent processes.

See also Watchmaker article.

There is also a "theological" issue in attributing planning and design to life on Earth. Click here for article.

Much of the Intelligent Designer theory involves doubt whether evolution can explain life. There is a big difference between whether life may be unexplained and whether Intelligent Design provides a real explanation. See article on science and the unexplained.

Too Little Time For Evolution?

Some proponents of Intelligent Design have claimed that it would take life too long to evolve to its current level within the time the Earth has existed. Presumably, this claim can't be true and also the current scientific scenario of evolution. Perhaps this claim is inaccurate. Even if it is not, Intelligent Design may not be the only alternative. Perhaps the Earth is older than scientists currently believe and it is old enough for life to have evolved. Perhaps life developed on Earth by some other unintelligent means besides what scientists now conceive of as evolution. Perhaps life came to Earth (by unintelligent means) from some other planet that began its evolution billions of years before the Earth was formed, and then life finished evolving here.

It is also possible that the Designer/Creator put life somewhat simpler than we have today on the Earth 3.5 billion years ago and since then it has evolved to its current level. In this case, life did not evolve from non-living chemicals on Earth, but humans did evolve from primates. Depending on how much simpler the life placed on Earth could have been, it is possible that eyes and some of the other things sometimes called "too incredible" did actually evolve here.

(It is pretty safe to say the Earth is at least millions of years old. Take the Grand Canyon. Science suggests it took the river millions of years to carve the canyon. Some creationists claim it was quickly carved at the time of the Biblical Flood. Even if that were true, the walls of the canyon are sedimentary rock, which science indicates is built up over a period of millions of years by geological processes. So one way or the other, the Earth seems to be at least millions of years old. At the science-estimated age of the Earth of 4+ billion years, even at 1/1000 the evolutionary pace scientists believe, there would have been time for created pre-humans to evolve into humans.)

Also, consider the nature of the age argument. Not that evolution isn't feasible, but that it is too slow. How slow is "too slow"? That is a matter of degree. That is not as serious an obstacle as whether or not physical processes are capable of producing new species from old ones.

A Designer Does Not Exclude Evolution

Although "Intelligent Design" is an inherently vague theory (no details about the Designer, when or how the designing was done, where the Designer went, etc.), it tends to assume evolution never happened if there is a Designer. In as much as there are no details known about the Designer or designing process, this seems to be jumping to conclusions. Suppose a Designer made the universe in such a way to make natural processes lead to life. Suppose a Designer made the earliest living organisms on Earth and let natural processes evolve the rest. How can one know a Designer did not leave some essential foundation after which evolution took over and finished what he began if one is unable to do more than infer "there must have been" some sort of designing entity?

You may also be interested in the following links:

Reprint of article from Natural History magazine with three presentations by Intelligent Design advocates followed by responses by evolutionists.

PBS debate pn evolution

Article by physicist Victor Stenger on physics evidence and "intelligent design"