Common arguments against Intelligent Design

Table of Contents Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion

Evolutionists know perfectly well that they are unable to meet any of the challenges I put forward in Parts Eight and Nine above. They are unable to demonstrate that unintelligent natural processes are sufficient to bring about major evolutionary transformations. So typically they argue that we don't need to prove the adequacy of their unintelligent naturalistic mechanism (random variation culled by natural selection); we already have proof that it has worked in the past.

"Yes, but who designed the Designer?"

(a) We can recognize that an Intelligent Designer is the best explanation, without needing to explain the Designer

Atheists are apt to counter design arguments with the retort, "Who designed the designer?" But as Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig points out in a video entitled, "Who Designed The Designer? A response to Dawkins' The God Delusion by Dr. William Lane Craig", this argument commits a fundamental fallacy. What it overlooks is this: in order to recognize that explanation X is the best, you don't need an explanation of explanation X.

A simple illustration will suffice. Suppose that the human race was destroyed by a cometary impact tomorrow. Aliens landing on our planet 10,000 years hence, would surely be justified, upon seeing the stone carvings on Mount Rushmore, to infer that they had a designer. They would be justified in making this inference, even if they failed to uncover any fossilized remains of human beings, or any tools that humans might have used to carve stone. Any alien who attempted to argue, "It's a waste of time hypothesizing that those carvings were designed, because that only invites the further question: who designed the designers of the carvings?", would be the subject of ridicule and scorn from his peers. The carvings speak for themselves; they are obviously the product of design. That's the best explanation of their origin. We can all see that, even if we are totally unable to explain where the designers of the carvings came from. Likewise, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of biological complexity, you don't need an explanation of the Designer.

Lawyer Barry Arrington, who is also an Intelligent Design proponent, recently composed a short but brilliant post entitled, The "Who Designed the Designer" Argument Demolished in Three Easy Steps, which makes the same point regarding biological complexity. Barry Arrington's argument proceeds as follows:

Step 1: Assume that [biologist] Craig Venter succeeds in developing an artificial life form and releases it into the wild.

Step 2: Assume that a researcher (let's call him John) later finds one of Venter's life forms, examines it, and concludes that it was designed by an intelligent designer.

Step 3: John's design inference is obviously correct. Note that John's design inference is not any less correct if he (a) does not know who Craig Venter is; and (b) is unable to say who designed Craig Venter.

Now that was easy. Does it say anything about our the paucity and/or weakness of our opponents' arguments that they think the "Who designed the designer" argument is one of their best?

To recap: the question of whether the first living cell was designed by an intelligent agent is logically independent of the question of whether that agent was designed. Even if the answer turns out to be "Yes," that doesn't take away from the reasonableness of the first design inference.

(b) Richard Dawkins' argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would destroy science

In his video, Who Designed The Designer? A response to Dawkins' The God Delusion by Dr. William Lane Craig", Craig makes the further point that if, in order to recognize that an explanation is the best, you had to have an explanation of the explanation, you would end up with an infinite regress of explanations. Thus you would never have an explanation of anything - which would destroy science. Craig concludes that Richard Dawkins' principle, if adopted, would actually be completely destructive of science.

(c) Dawkins' retort: the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer of Nature lacks the virtue of explanatory simplicity. Craig's response.

But Dawkins is not finished yet. In his book, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, pp. 157-158), he goes on to argue that the hypothesis of a Designer of the universe is surely more complex than the complexity of the world that we are trying to explain. However, Dawkins contends, an explanation has to be simpler than the phenomenon it is trying to explain - otherwise it is a bad explanation. Hence to explain the complexity of Nature by positing an Intelligent Designer is a very bad explanation.

Craig, in his response to Dawkins, distinguishes between the Designer and the mental concepts which He employs in order to design Nature: the latter, he concedes, are indeed complex, but the Designer Himself, being an immaterial agent, is utterly simple and devoid of parts. Since the Designer is simpler than Nature, positing His existence is, after all, a good explanation of Nature.

(d) Why I find Dr. Craig's response unsatisfactory

With the greatest respect to Dr. Craig, I think that this argumentative move of his fails, for three reasons:

(i) if the Designer needs to formulate complex concepts in order to design Nature, then it isn't fair to compare the complexity of the Designer with the complexity of Nature. What we should do instead is compare the complexity of the Designer plus His concepts (without which He could not design Nature), with that of Nature. If we do that, then the hypothesis of a Designer of Nature doesn't posses the virtue of explanatory simplicity after all;

(ii) the possibility of an utterly simple Intelligent Being has not yet been established. At first blush, the notion seems profoundly counter-intuitive. For instance, if the Mind of such a Being has a multitude of complex concepts, then seems that it too must be complex, in order to contain these concepts. (I should point out that this is not a knock-down argument, Zack: indeed, I have already refuted it in an Uncommon Descent post (July 3, 2011) entitled, Two pretty good arguments for atheism (courtesy of Dave Mullenix).) However, it is certainly true that a simple Mind, if it existed, would be utterly unlike every other mind we have ever encountered. Thus Dawkins might reasonably argue that Craig's assertion that the Designer of Nature is simple and without parts, is an ad hoc stipulation, and a very desperate one at that - unless Craig can adduce independent philosophical grounds for supposing that there is in fact a simple Mind upholding Nature, in which case, he doesn't need the design argument anymore;

(iii) in any case, given the fact that the Designer of Nature is immaterial, it doesn't necessarily follow that He is simple, as Craig claims. The Designer might still have metaphysical (as opposed to physical) parts.

(e) A better response to Dawkins' appeal to simplicity

A much more effective response to Dawkins' appeal to the virtue of explanatory simplicity is simply to point out that it is not always true that explanations have to be simpler than the phenomena they are invoked to explain. To be sure, if we are searching for a purely mathematical explanation of a phenomenon, then we demand explanatory simplicity: we try to construct a few short axioms which can account for the phenomenon in question. But a design explanation is not a mathematical explanation. Designers are generally more complex than the phenomena they are invoked to explain: the carvers of Mount Rushmore were far more complex than the carvings they created, and even if Craig Venter one day succeeds in creating a new life form, it won't be anywhere near as complex as he is. Yet that does not prevent a design explanation from being a perfectly good explanation of some complex phenomena that we find in the world.

Still, Dawkins might object that we need to stop searching for explanations at some point. However, one apparent defect of the STOMPS principle (which I appealed to above) is that it appears to prevent us from ending our search for explanations, unless we make a gratuitous appeal to the alleged simplicity of the Designer - a move which I criticized above. For if the way in which Nature works is smarter than anything that our most promising scientists could ever come up with, it seems reasonable to suppose that the way in which the Designer Himself functions is smarter than anything that our most promising scientists could ever come up with. That would then imply that our Designer must have been designed. Or would it?

First, I would reply by arguing that the STOMPS principle, which says that anything composed of complex parts arranged in a stupendously clever manner must have had an Intelligent Designer, only applies in cases when the parts are capable of being separated from one another. To see this point, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that we found a staggeringly complex entity, whose parts could not be separated from each other by any known means. Bombs don't damage it; in fact, nothing even makes a dent on this entity. In that case, we might simply decide to take the entity's integrated complexity as a brute fact, and not bother trying to explain it.

Second, I would answer that the STOMPS principle only applies to entities whose parts are organized in a way which we can recognize as amazingly clever. However, if Nature had a Designer, and that Designer had parts, then it is doubtful whether we could recognize its parts at all, let alone appreciate the elegance of their design. Hence we would be in no position to apply the STOMPS principle to the Designer. We might reasonably decide to stop there, in our search for explanations.

To be sure, a metaphysician, for whom the existence of any kind of complexity is puzzling, would probably want to explore the matter further, but from a purely scientific perspective, we would have gone as far as we could reasonably hope to progress.

Only unguided, memoryless Markov processes are capable of generating nested hierarchies

An image of Brownian motion, one of the simplest random processes, done with three different step sizes. The hierarchical structure is clearly visible. The vector version of the image was made using Mathematica. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution commonly adduce the argument that the only known natural processes that automatically generate the nested hierarchies that we find when comparing the various kinds of living things are memoryless Markov processes, which certainly accords well with the neo-Darwinian claim that "random mutations plus natural selection" are responsible for the diversity of life on Earth today. Hence, the argument goes, the major transformations that have occurred in the history of life must have been due to "blind" (i.e. non-foresighted) process that did not require intelligent guidance.

The notion that the nested hierarchy of organisms is incompatible with creation is based, not on science, but on the unprovable theological assumption that if God created life he would do it in some other way. As biologist Leonard Brand explains:

The hierarchical arrangement of life illustrated in Fig. 9.6 has been used by Futuyma (1983) and others as evidence that life must have evolved. They believe that if life were created, the characteristics of different organisms would be arranged chaotically or in a continuum, not in the hierarchy of nested groups evident in nature. If we think of that concept as a hypothesis, how could it be tested? Actually, to state how a Creator would do things and then show that nature is or is not designed that way is an empty argument. Such conjecture depends on the unlikely assumption that we can decide what the Creator would be like and how he would function. (Brand, Leonard. 1997. Faith, Reason, and Earth History. Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, MI, p. 155.)

I would like to close with a quote by Mark Ridley:

Any set of objects, whether or not they originated in an evolutionary process, can be classified hierarchically. Chairs, for instance, are independently created; they are not generated by an evolutionary process: but any given list of chairs could be classified hierarchically, perhaps by dividing them first according to whether or not they were made of wood, then according to their colour, by date of manufacture, and so on. The fact that life can be classified hierarchically is not, in itself, an argument for evolution. (Ridley, Mark. 1985. The Problems of Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York, p. 8.)

Imperfect and Vestigial Organs

Some examples of alleged imperfections in organs

The fact that Darwinian evolutionists frequently cite imperfections in the organs of living things as an argument against Intelligent Design betrays their desperation. The argument from organisms' biological imperfections is a theological argument, not a scientific one:

That's quite a lot to assume.

Having said that, let's have a look at some of the alleged imperfections which are commonly cited in the literature.

(a) The vertebrate eye

Schematic diagram of the vertebrate eye.

Darwinian evolutionists have derided the vertebrate retina as one of evolution's "greatest mistakes," as the "inside out" vertebrate retina creates a blind spot. However, a recent study by researchers Amichai Labin and Erez Ribak at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa has found that certain cells in the vertebrate eye, called Muller cells, act as optical fibers, and rather than being just a workaround to make up for the eye's peculiarities, they help filter and focus light, making images clearer and keeping colors sharp. On the other hand, Professor Kenneth Miller, who is the author of several books on evolution, cautions that this doesn't mean that the backwards retina itself helps us to see, and describes the Muller cells as "a retrofit: a successful and highly functional adaptation made necessary by the original architecture of the retina, but a retrofit."

Let's dispose of the "blind spot" canard at once. Blind spots are never detected unless one eye is blacked out. Even then, the blind spot is "filled in" by the brain's software. The blind spot is not in the macula (the high visual acuity part of the retina) so when one is actually looking at something, there is no blind spot.

The proper end of the vertebrate eye is vision. Unless evolutionists can demonstrate that what they consider to be "the right way" of designing the vertebrate eye would actually enable it to see better than it does now, their criticism of the inelegance of the eye's design is beside the point, from a Thomistic standpoint.

Some evolutionists - including Dr. Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker - claim that the cephalopod eye, found in squid and octopuses, is superior, as it has nerves behind the receptor. However, cephalopods don't see as well as humans. They have no color vision, and the octopus eye structure is completely different and much simpler than our own. It has been likened to "a compound eye with a single lens."

(b) The laryngeal nerve of the giraffe

The recurrent laryngeal nerve.

But what about that most comical of anatomical imperfections, the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, cited by Dr. Richard Dawkins as excellent evidence for Darwinian evolution? Now, if the laryngeal nerve were just involved in controlling the larynx, then Dawkins might have a good point. The laryngeal nerve comes down from the brain and loops around the arteries near the heart and then goes back up to the larynx. In the giraffe, this seems like particularly bad design. However, the laryngeal nerve actually has several branches all along its length that go to the heart, esophagus, trachea, and thyroid gland. Thus it is involved in a whole system of control of various related organs. It would be very unintelligent to have a single nerve, controlling only the larynx. It would be more intelligent to have it control a lot of related systems all along its length (see this article .) Hence the laryngeal nerve, far from being a problem for intelligent design, actually vindicates it.

Creationist Dr. Jonathan Sarfati makes the same point in a recent article entitled, Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve, and adds that its position may have something to do with the development of the animal as an embryo:

Dawkins considers only its main destination, the larynx. In reality, the nerve also has a role in supplying parts of the heart, windpipe muscles and mucous membranes, and the esophagus, which could explain its route.

Even apart from this function, there are features that are the result of embryonic development - not because of evolution, but because the embryo develops from a single cell in a certain order. For example, the embryo needs a functioning simple heart early on; this later descends to its position in the chest, dragging the nerve bundle with it.

This is a fruitful Intelligent Design hypothesis, and a falsifiable one. If it is wrong, we should know soon enough.

Finally, a recent article by Dr. Jerry Bergman, entitled Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Is Not Evidence of Poor Design, in Acts & Facts 39 (8): 12-14, concludes:

The left recurrent laryngeal nerve is not poorly designed, but rather is clear evidence of intelligent design:

The arguments presented by evolutionists are both incorrect and have discouraged research into the specific reasons for the existing design.

Before I move on to my next point, I shall briefly discuss some other organs which are commonly cited by evolutionists as evidence of imperfect design.

(c) The male prostrate gland

Professor Jerry Coyne argues in his book, "Why Evolution is True" (Oxford University Press, 2009) that the male prostate gland is badly designed because the urethra runs through it, making men liable to enlargement and infection in later life. However, Coyne's argument open to question on empirical grounds. The risk of enlargement appears to be largely diet-related (see The Prostate Gland - is it 'badly designed'? by Jonathan Sarfati. Article at, August 1st, 2008.)

(d) The female reproductive tract

Professor Coyne also contends that the female reproductive tract would have been better designed if women gave birth through their abdomens. But this supposition is absurdly counterfactual: if humans did that, they wouldn't be human. In fact, they wouldn't even be mammals: all female mammals give birth through the pelvis. They would be some other kind of animal. In any case, Coyne's argument overlooks the fact that for at least some human beings, at least, the size of the birth canal would not have been a problem, as the pelvis was considerably wider (see the BBC article, Human ancestors born big-brained, 14 November 2008).

(e) Defects arising from sexual selection

The peacock's tail: a classic example of sexual selection.

There is, however, a different kind of maladaption that is common in the animal kingdom: that arising from sexual selection. Fortunately, it poses no threat to Aquinas' thesis of perfect design. Here is how Dr. Barry Sinervo describes it:

...Darwin viewed male sexual ornaments as a curious evolutionary puzzle that begged explanation. Natural selection tends to produce individuals that are well adapted to their environment. However, sexual selection does not adapt the individual to the environment but does enhance traits involved in mate acquisition. Moreover, sexual selection can produce individuals with such elaborate ornaments that they must be either energetically costly to develop, costly to maintain, or even lead to a direct survival cost for the individual that bears the ornament. In this sense, sexual selection has the capacity to evolve maladaptive traits. Darwin's theory of sexual gave a plausible explanation for the origin of many splendid if not bizarre ornaments. Darwin's theory was refined most recently by Trivers (1974) who observed that:

1. Females are the limiting sex and invest more in offspring than males and many females are unavailable for fertilization because they are carrying for young or developing young;

2. Because males tend to be in excess, males tend to develop ornaments for attracting females or engaging other males in contests...

Female choice is a striking example of maladaptive evolution. What is meant by maladaptive evolution? In the case of female choice and male ornaments, the average fitness of individuals in the population can decline as the frequency and intensity of the bizarre male ornaments increases in the population.
(Taken from Bio140 Behavioral Ecology Course Notes by Dr. Barry Sinervo, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCSC, 1997-2009. The above quote is from Chapter 3 - Adaptation and Selection.)

However, the maladaptive ornamental traits that have evolved as a result of sexual selection are not found in all members of a family of animals; rather, they are confined to certain species within a family. Since few if any Intelligent Design proponents would maintain that each and every species of living creature was intelligently designed, I fail to see how the presence of maladaptive traits in certain species of animals weakens the contention that (i) larger groups of organisms (e.g. families, orders or classes) were intelligently designed; (ii) the Cambrian explosion, which gave rise to complex animals, was caused by an Intelligent Designer; (iii) the first living cell was designed; or (iv) the first proteins were designed.

I conclude that the case for alleged "imperfections" in Nature in no way undermines the hypothesis of Intelligent Design. That leaves us with vestigial organs.

Vestigial organs

In my opinion, laypeople have been far too gullible in swallowing claims that this or that organ is imperfect, or that it is vestigial. It's high time that people fought back, like this:

"So, clever skeptic, you don't like the way the vertebrate eye is built? You think the inverted eye is a mistake? Very well; go and genetically engineer a better one in a vertebrate embryo, and while you're at it, please demonstrate that vertebrates with your new eye would not only see better, but suffer no harmful side-effects. What's that? You can't? Well then, quit attacking Intelligent Design, if you can't do a better job! You claim that pseudo-genes are useless? All right. Here's a challenge. Let's see you make just one perfectly functioning organism, of any species you like, with all its pseudo-genes removed. What's the matter? You can't? Well then, who are you to say that these genes are useless? And if you're so sure that a Designer would never have designed a whale with pelvic bones if He were starting from scratch, let's see you build a whale without them. Go on, try! What's stopping you? You don't know how to mutate the gene that codes for its pelvic bones, without adversely affecting the whale's embryonic development in other ways?"

I could say a lot more about the litany of "imperfect" designs and allegedly "vestigial" organs which Darwinian evolutionists constantly drag up, but the key point I wish to make is an epistemological one: without a complete understanding of how a creature's genes code for its embryonic development and produce its bodily organs, we are in no position to say it was poorly designed. In particular, before we can confidently declare a bodily organ in a creature to be "in vain," we first need to identify the genes that code for it, and ascertain whether they also code for any other useful organs or vital biological functions. If they do, then we will then have to find a way of mutating those genes to make the "vestigial" organ disappear, while keeping the creature's other organs and biological functions intact. The "vestigial" eyes of moles, which are hidden under their skin, serve no function; but if the genes that code for them cannot be modified to make the eyes disappear without rendering moles less biologically fit, then we have no right to invoke the eyes of moles as an argument against Intelligent Design.

I'd also like to make a brief comment on the current scientific definition of a vestige, from Part 2 of Dr. Douglas Theobald's 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: "A vestige is defined, independently of evolutionary theory, as a reduced and rudimentary structure compared to the same complex structure in other organisms." He goes on to point out that many vestigial organs still serve a purpose in creatures possessing them, but that even if they still serve some purpose, there are other purposes that they used to serve in these creatures' ancestors, but which no longer serve now. A few vestigial organs, however, serve no purpose whatsoever - e.g. wing stumps in kiwi birds, or blind eyes in cave fish.

Now, if someone is merely attempting to argue for common descent - which I personally accept - then Dr. Theobald's definition is fine. But if someone wants to use this definition to argue that a "vestigial" organ could not have been designed, then the definition is severely flawed, as it focuses exclusively on a single structure, rather than on the genes that code for its development. Since these genes also regulate a host of other structures in the organism, we need to be careful before invoking a vestigial organ as evidence of redundancy in Nature.

"But if the Designer is omnipotent, couldn't He have somehow produced all of these other structures in the creature, without making the vestigial organ as well?" Wrong question. What we first need to ask is: could the Designer have made a viable creature with the same set of genes, but with some of these mutated, so that all of the other structures would appear, but the vestigial organ would not appear? If the answer is "No," then the second question we need to ask is: how many genes would God need to add, delete or replace, in order to make a creature possessing the same bodily structures, but lacking the vestigial organ? The third question we need to ask is: would this creature be the same kind of creature, or a different one (i.e. a creature belonging to a different family, on the account I am proposing)? If the answer is, "A different one," then the argument that vestigial organs disprove the existence of a Designer is immediately undercut. For now the skeptic's anti-design argument is reduced to the feeble complaint: "Why did the Designer make a creature of type X, instead of a creature of type Y?" There is no need for Intelligent Design proponent to answer a question like that.

Ostriches flapping their wings. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are, undeniably, some needlessly ornate vestigial structures in Nature. The wings of the ostrich, described in Dr. Douglas Theobald's 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, are an excellent example:

For example, wings are very complex anatomical structures specifically adapted for powered flight, yet ostriches have flightless wings. The vestigial wings of ostriches may be used for relatively simple functions, such as balance during running and courtship displays - a situation akin to hammering tacks with a computer keyboard. The specific complexity of the ostrich wing indicates a function which it does not perform, and it performs functions incommensurate with its complexity. Ostrich wings are not vestigial because they are useless structures per se, nor are they vestigial simply because they have different functions compared to wings in other birds. Rather, what defines ostrich wings as vestigial is that they are rudimentary wings which are useless as wings. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

Another point that needs to be kept in mind is that the presence of a vestigial trait within a population of animals, or even within a biological species, does not imply that all members of that natural kind (i.e. family) possess that vestigial trait. For example, a recent article on the evolution of the blind Mexican cavefish, describes how changes in both behavior and genetics led to the evolution of the Mexican blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) from its sighted, surface-dwelling ancestor, which is still alive today. Interestingly, he ancestor is almost identical to the blind Mexican cavefish, except for the loss of eyes and pigment. The blind cavefish has evolved a trait (vibration attraction behavior) which helps it to locate food in their dark surroundings, but which would be a biological disadvantage if it were living on the surface, as it would expose them to the risk of predation.

Table of Contents Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion