Why Not Intelligent Design?
Updated: 6 days ago
“Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in the volume, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite of mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” etc., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory.” ~ C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species. Chapter XIV
"I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with a notion of a divine and benevolent creator".
~ Sir David Attenborough [Loa loa, African Eye Worm]
Life seems so amazing and intricate, why does it not point to intelligent design, with the implication of a creator? There are several critical reasons in my opinion. Some examples of unintelligent design best explained by evolution will be discussed, in addition to why ID (intelligent design) is not science.
1. There is too much unintelligent "design" in life
that can only be explained by evolution. People have noticed this and there are several books that have even been written detailing all the workarounds by natural selection. First, ID supporters are in general confusing complexity with design; it is very, very complex to the point of being mind blowing. A logical fallacy that is common is confirmation bias - looking at only items that support your views rather than the entire picture. To the creationist, and ID is a form of creationism, function is everywhere and since in their view evolution (“macroevolution”) cannot have occurred there should be a function for just about everything. Apologists will retort that design doesn’t mean optimal design necessarily. Here are some examples of adaptations that are best or only explained by evolution.
a. The recurrent laryngeal nerve. There are four nerves that come off the vagus nerves (one of the cranial nerves) that innervate the larynx or voice box, two on top (superior) and two on the bottom (inferior). The two superior laryngeal nerves branch off and go directly to the voice box. But the two lower nerves instead go all the way down to the heart area, wrap around and then come back. It’s like driving in America from San Francisco to Seattle through Wyoming first. This occurs in all tetrapods. Look at the giraffe. Think what a wasteful design this would be in a dinosaur.
From: Wikipedia commons (top) From: kilpartz.com (top)
From: Presumed course of RLN in Sauropods From: zoology-ubc-ca. Bio 336 Lectures
Why would any engineer bypass where the nerve needs to go (the inferior side of the voice box) and then come back to it? Creationists will claim that it is needed for functions - either it supplies branches off the long course or is a developmental constraint of the organism. Notice here something that I will write about in another section. “Possibility” is enough for them. This is how we get so many religions and religious sects, and if you consult bible commentaries about “difficult” passages they will often list multiple possible explanations and that’s enough for the religious conservative scholar. No attempt to test which if any are valid. Any one will suffice. But science coalesces around truths by ruling out possibilities (hypotheses). How can you test their rationalizations? What would invalidate this “must be” anatomy? How about people born without recurrent laryngeal nerves and they do just fine? Google it! All swans are white until you find a black one. So, what is the evolutionary explanation? It goes back to what would be our fish ancestors. Fish don’t have necks but when amphibians evolved and moved onto land the inferior laryngeal nerves were trapped between certain gill arches and natural selection can only work with what it has. The nerve does take a direct route in fish. Hence a workaround for later tetrapods. Here we see the fossil record and human anatomy coming together to support evolution. The recurrent laryngeal (inferior) nerves’ journey is not a constraint for development or function. It’s a result of our past evolution. A medical student studying anatomy can’t truly understand their subject without evolution (see my blog on evolutionary medicine). It’s a constraint alright - an evolutionary historical one but not developmental.
b. The outer part of our ears, the auricles, are held to the head by vestigial ear muscles rather than other attachments such as connective tissue. Look at your cat, deer or other mammals as they move away from you. They can rotate their ears nearly 180 degrees to listen behind them. Since we evolved from distant ancestors that had that function it makes sense we’d still have vestigial muscles there. If we were designed from the beginning, no reason for useless muscles.
Yes you can wiggle your ears slightly, but nothing like what other mammals can do. Below are the vestigial auricle muscles. They now can somewhat add to facial expression. But recall in my whale presentations vestigial can mean loss of function or loss of original function. And yes, it’s always had that definition.
c. Human males and breast cancer. Men not only have breasts with nipples, but they have breast tissue for producing milk. At the time of this writing, just under 3,000 men in America are diagnosed with breast cancer yearly and it is as deadly as in women. If you were a designer, would you give men tissue for making milk they would never use? In the Abrahamic religions, was not Adam created first? Adult men rarely can also lactate if testosterone is lowered. Men in an African pygmy tribe called the Aka have been seen breast feeding their children.
Also, it’s not uncommon for people to have vestigial nipples (supernumerary) on their upper abdomen. Once you point it out to them, they agree that they are not like the other “moles” they have. And these nipples always form along the “nipple line” in humans. I have had a patient who had to have an armpit (axillary) developing breast removed from her left armpit. The nipple line is best explained by our evolutionary past.
From: DermNet, New Zealand. R. Suhonen From : Wikipedia: Mammary Ridge
Common use permitted free use.
d. The Kiwi bird - has vestigial flight wings. Yes, they can be used for secondary uses but why have stubs of vestigial wings that indicate they once performed flight? The original function has been lost, satisfying the definition of a vestigial structure.
e. Many beetles with wings under fused elytra (coverings) over their thorax. And under these fused elytra some have no wings but some have wings that they can never use to fly. In Cyclotrachelus for example, the wings are present but reduced (brachypterous). This occurs in many beetle species. Why would a designer make beetles with wings they will never use?
f1. Humans have genes for making egg yolk that are mutated into non-functional pseudogenes. But we still produce the yolk sac during embryonic development.
Fair use attribution.
The empty sac acts as an early embryonic blood supply and is eventually absorbed into the gut of the embryo. It has a function temporarily, but it’s not the original function because we know there are dead genes (ancestral vitellogenin-encoding genes) we have for producing egg yolk that we no longer use. Our yolk producing three pseudogenes (VIT1, VIT2, and VIT3) were so degraded they had to be found by looking for functioning genes around them that were known from the chicken. The human pseudogenes were located at the same "DNA address" as in the chicken.
Fair use attribution.
If you watched my whale evolution video Part 1 recall that vestigial can mean without function or loss of original function and this definition has been in use since at least the 1960s. The creationist cry of functions is appropriately applied only to the yolk sac as a vestigial organ, best understood through evolution. The Young Earth Creationist organizations ICR and AIG came out swinging against the human egg yolk pseudogene because in their view there cannot be pseudogenes, just like they will also deny any possibility of transitional fossils. “Evolutionists Lay an Egg”, “Do Humans Have Genes for Laying Eggs?” [yep], and “Does Biologos Have Even More Egg on Its Face?” [no]. These are two of the three major YEC organizations who think that the earth was made in 6 days, that the universe is less than 20,000 years old, that snakes and donkeys can talk, that there was a Global Flood and that an Ark floated around for a year, that different languages started at the base of a cursed Tower instead of developing over deep time that can be hierarchically nested, that there was an actual Exodus involving millions or hundreds of thousands who wandered around an area the size of West Virginia that can be walked across in 6 days, and finally that women have terrible pain and often had death in childbirth before modern medicine because of a curse initiated by a tricky talking snake - rather than via the evolution of bipedalism.
The exchange occurred between YECs and Biologos. It’s detailed but instructive. Have a read: Vitellogenin and Common Ancestry
Loss of Egg Yolk Genes in Mammals
f2. Recently, a study was published in 2023 detailing the finding of mutated pseudogenes that humans have for producing a full coat of hair/fur. The best explanation is evolution. A Designer who created humans separately would not put in dead genes for making a full coat of body hair if we never were covered with such. The creationist may respond that the dead genes for making hair "possibly" may have another function. But here again is the "possibility poison" that keeps them from testing and progressing. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/01/230104135604.htm
f3. TP53 Gene - Some animals live long lives relative to others their size. This includes Bowhead whales, naked mole rats and elephants. In the case of naked mole rats they secrete hyaluronan, a substance between cells that prevents mutated cells from reproducing. Humans make it also, but a different variety and in lower amounts so we are not as protected. Bowhead whales have genetic mutations that protect them from cancer, although the specifics are unknown.
Elephants have 20 copies of the tumor suppressor gene TP53 which produces the protein p53. Humans only have one copy. This protein guides the cell with damaged DNA either to repair the damage or stop the cell from dividing and to undergo self destruction (apoptosis). So, the Creator liked elephants better than humans because 2 people thousands of years ago ate some fruit suggested by a talking snake from the wrong tree?
g. Goose bumps are created when a small muscle pulls at the base of a hair raising the hair and producing a small dimple (arrector pili muscle). In mammals with fur it can help with defense to make an animal look bigger (your cat arching its back and raising its fur; when you sense danger or are cold the “hair on the back of your neck stands up” is the saying). Likewise birds use the same mechanism to fluff up their feathers to trap air to help with warming. In humans the goose bumps are vestigial activations but still might help slightly with increased sensation. They sure don’t make you warmer or bigger looking.
h. The vertebrate eye is poorly "engineered". The retina is inverted due to evolution compared to eyes that are not inverted. Notice the diagrams below. The vertebrate eye on the left has the light sensing cells not only pointing away from the incoming light but light needs to go through multiple layers of tissue before it even reaches the photoreceptors (see eye comparison diagrams below). This would be like placing a radio antenna or TV dish in front of a dense forest, degrading the signals before they reach the antenna or dish. There's a reason we put antennas on roofs with unobstructed views of the sky. The octopus eye on the right does not have this limitation; the rods and cones are logically placed so they receive light directly and don't produce a blind spot the brain must create an estimated image of.
"In vertebrate eyes (left), the nerve fibers route before the retina, blocking some light and creating a blind spot where the fibers pass through the retina. In cephalopod eyes (right; no blind spot), the nerve fibers route behind the retina, and do not block light or disrupt the retina. 1 is the retina and 2 the nerve fibers. 3 is the optic nerve. 4 is the vertebrate blind spot."
From: Wikimedia Commons: From Wikimedia Commons: Caerbannog - Own Work, based on Image: Evolution_eye.png created by Jerry Crimson Mann 07:07, 2 August 2005 UTC (itself under GFDL).
Fair Use Attribution
Notice that the photoreceptors in the above diagram are not only on the far side pointing away from light entering the eye but there is a tremendous number of support cells and wiring that the light must pass through to reach its final destination, the photoreceptors. Only nerves are shown; there is also a dense network of blood vessels and support cells that interfere with light transmission. This is not present in the cephalopod eye structure which evolved separately from the vertebrate eye.
Creationist objections The photoreceptors need nutrients and have a high metabolism so they need to be in close proximity to the retinal pigment layer (RPE - #10) that has all those blood vessels. The RPE can also act as a cooling mechanism. If the photoreceptors were like the octopus eye, the RPE would be directly in front of the light entering, causing a severe obstruction.
Answer: Recall with the RLN example (1a in the section above) that the crazy route of this nerve was not due to some purposeful "design" or "developmental constraint" but because of evolution. It's a constraint alright, an evolutionary constraint. The nerve was trapped in the evolving neck and natural selection had to do a "work-around" resulting in an amazing compromise (see dinosaur diagram).
So here also, the extra blood vessels in the RPE (#10 above diagram) and in the layers in front of the photoreceptors was what natural selection had to do because of the inverted nature of the rods and cones. How do we know? Because the cephalopods don't have this problem and don't create a blind spot with their better arrangement. Furthermore, another vertebrate eye with this same problem has a solution and work-around that is even better than the one in humans. In all birds they have an organ called the pecten oculi (conus papillaris in reptiles) that satisfies the nutrient needs and does not need an RPE. This organ acts like a giant radiator, pushing nutrients into the vitreous for the cells, and reducing the blood vessels and other obscuring support cells in front of the photoreceptors. It is there as a solution to a problem and bad design created by having an inverted vertebrate eye. This reduces the blood vessels and support cells in front of the bird photoreceptors, providing one reason why birds have better vision than we do. Humans evolved the RPE; birds have a pecten oculi. Both are to solve a design problem of the inverted retina.
From: Jfbleak. 2008. Updated 2013. Fair use attribution. Bird eye.
In Michael Behe's book, Darwin Devolves, he mentions that the human eye is beautifully designed because it also has some cells that act as a "fiber-optic cable system" to channel light to the photoreceptors of the cell that are deep in the retina from the surface of the retina receiving light. That the retina has this is rather proof that there is a problem to be addressed. There is significant obstruction going on and natural selection has another work-around demonstrated here to get past the problem. Rather than a "neat" design, this is another example of a poor adaptation (inverted photoreceptors buried in the retina and pointing in the wrong direction) that needs help.
Still another solution to the inverted eye problems and loss of light is found in the tapetum lucidum. Nocturnal animals have an even worse problem at night if light is degraded before it reaches the photoreceptors as it is with the present vertebrate eye. So these animals have a reflective layer behind the retina to amplify light coming in. This is why cats, dogs, and deer for example have eyes that shine at night if we put light on them from cars or flashlights. Humans being diurnal do not need this adaptation 'patch'.
Thus, the pecten oculi in birds, the conus papillaris in reptiles, the "fiber-optic cables" and RPE in humans, and the tapetum lucidum in many nocturnal animals are all different work arounds by natural selection in the vertebrate eye to solve problems of reduced light caused by an inverted retina instead of what cephalopods have. All of these point to a vertebrate eye evolutionary constraint, solving problems by natural selection, and hardly point to intelligent design. It's just the opposite. If we had eyes designed with everted retinas we would not see all these work-arounds by natural selection in various animal species.
i. The malevolent "Intelligent" Designer?
Is God Good?
"I go into a lab and create a unicellular eukaryotic organism that will kill millions
I infect flying insects to serve as the delivery system
If I release it, would I be evil? Without exception every theist I asked replied yes
I then ask then to explain malaria."
~ Author unknown. Attempting to deflect this with "The Fall", won't work. Who created the very complex parasitic Plasmodium species? We are told by creationists that nature can't increase complexity or add new information. If not God, who or what? Who did then? Did it "de-evolve"? How? What happened? From what? What are the steps we can reconstruct in it's DNA?
2. The ID movement is another religious attempt
to insert supernatural beliefs into science. Who says? Actually, they do and so has the scientific community and even the courts. For example, the origin of the modern ID movement is the Wedge Document (1) with its 5 and 20 year plan to “destroy” evolution and Darwin that was the founding document for the ID movement and the Discovery Institute, the main proponent of ID. This was leaked online in the late 1990s and specifically outlines the motivation and how their goals would hopefully succeed.
Here is look at the exact text of the Wedge Document: https://ncse.ngo/wedge-work
This is a conservative religious attack on science because science has found evolution to be true. There appears to be no planning or goals, no supernatural needed. Some religious persons with advanced degrees can’t stand that thought. 99.9% of all species have gone extinct. There is no planning, no goal found in the history of the earth written in the rocks and our DNA. Huge lava flows wipe out most species with the Siberian Traps and a rock from space kills millions of species including all the dinosaurs except bird ancestors and leaves open niches for mammals to radiate into, for example. There have been five mass extinctions.
Intelligent Design has failed an important court case.
Update - the attempt to make Intelligent Design an academic discipline with respect in the biological sciences appears to be failing. The Discovery Institute has shut down its "Biologic Institute". May, 2021: https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2021/05/biologic-institute-closes.html
January, 2023: https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2023/01/08/intelligent-design-nearly-down-the-drain/
Of course, for many people who look at the complexity of life even without a religious context, ID appears to be intuitive. Those persons I posit are not aware of all the evidence from biology that life is actually a product of natural processes and certainly not an Intelligent force given all the unintelligent work arounds by natural selection. If a God used evolution to create, it's incompetent, indifferent, or malevolent and not worth worshipping nor putting an afterlife hope towards.
3. Attempts by ID proponents to find examples of life that cannot be explained,
or never will be explained by natural processes alone have failed. Examples include the flagellum and the clotting cascade. When these were addressed by biologists, the ID proponents moved on to other attempted examples. This of course results in a never ending wack-a-mole regression and reveals the true religious motivations of the ID advocates and their rationalizations. What is even more interesting is that at least one of the major proponents of ID, Michael Behe of the Discovery Institute, even admits evolution, “macroevolution”, is true but attempts to show that natural selection is insufficient to drive it. God evidently needs to constantly tweak His creation.
ID is a big tent approach, but inside the tent Young Earth Creationists, Progressive Creationists, various Old Earth Creationists and Theistic/Evolutionary Creationists usually hold mutually exclusive approaches to origins but rarely expose these differences and their fights to outside audiences. Everyone who is considering ID should definitely watch the documentary of the 2005 Dover Trial, when ID proponents tried to get their textbook and teaching into a school system (2). The judge was a conservative Republican and wrote a scathing report about ID.
Here PZ Meyers addresses the ID claim of "specified complexity" and why it fails. Also, what should ID do to demonstrate that it's true?
4. Calls to “teach the controversy” are hollow appeals
because there is no controversy in science about evolution; it is settled science (biology, geology, paleontology, biogeography, developmental biology, geochronology, plate tectonics/continental drift, evolutionary psychology, etc). The Theory of Evolution is overwhelmingly supported by multiple independent fields of science. It is in the same category as Gravity, Cell, Germ and Relativity scientific theories; all are both fact and also theories that will never be overthrown although they can be modified. It has withstood testing for more than 150 years. It makes predictions that have come true. We talk about the fact of gravity and also Gravitational Theory. Yes, for many it’s not intuitive. But the false impression that the earth is flat, stationary, and that the sun goes around us needed strong evidence for many people to realize the opposite is true, even though initially counter-intuitive. Pilots when undergoing instrument training must learn to trust their instruments and not their false “gut” feelings since it is easy to be fooled. Science is basically a method not to be fooled. Evolution is counter-intuitive for most but our scientific “instruments” tell us it is true. We don’t teach astrology in astronomy nor alchemy in chemistry for the same reasons we don’t teach ID, creationism, or “scientific creationism” in biology, geology or paleontology.
As an academic movement, The Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are worse than we thought.
Dr. Jonathan Wells (PhD) of the Discovery Institute. Everyone needs to know his background and with him as a staff fellow of the DI, do we really need to take the DI seriously? Important - please watch this short video.
There are many reasons why ID is not science and just a new iteration of religious creationism. ID proponents have failed to prove their points in a court of law and have failed to provide evidence that can’t be explained with natural process or future research. Their founding document is a religious manifesto against well established science and they have failed to produce any useful research. Finally, there are just too many examples of “unintelligent” design better explained by evolution. For decades they claimed that the Designer did not need be a God, but in recent years even Steven Meyer has come out and said that it was God all along - The Return of the God Hypothesis. And of course it was the Abrahamic God if you watch videos of ID proponents speaking at religious gatherings. Meyer for example is still beating the same drums - that the universe had a beginning therefore God, and of course the Cambrian Explosion. Newer views indicate that the universe could be infinite after all . We have found many fossils in the layer before the Cambrian so the Cambrian fossils did not get zapped into existence without precursors. Meyer ignores all the incredible DNA evidence for evolution including shared ERVs, human chromosome 2 fusion, that our genome is made up of at least 50% old parasitic viruses (strange way for a Designer to create), and the thousands of dead genes called pseudogenes that we share with the other great apes. These are all slam dunk evidence for evolution by an objective searcher.
Dr. Moran in a 2023 post about ID, How Intelligent Design Creationists try to deal with the similarity between human and chimp genomes, writes that: "But in addition to being mere speculation based on the presumption of a designer, there's one other problem with this model. The differences between genomes aren't just due to specific modifications that create distinct species as the designer model predicts. Instead, the evidence shows that they are mostly concentrated in parts of the genome that are not under strong selection. What this means is that most of the mutations are effectively neutral and thus the affected DNA should be evolving at the neutral rate, which, according to population genetics, is equivalent to the mutation rate. This prediction turned out to be correct and changes at the neutral rate are what gives rise to the approximate molecular clock.1 (See Calculating time of divergence using genome sequences and mutation rates (humans vs other apes).)
What this means is that our current understanding of evolution has enormous explanatory power. It satisfactorily accounts for the data on genome differences in a way that no competing model can. If Intelligent Design Creationists expect to be taken seriously as scientists then they have to do more than come up with hand-waving arguments about the possible motives of the designer. Instead, they have to explain why those differences just happen to fall in line with known mutation rates, which then give times of divergence from common ancestors that just happen to correlate with the fossil record."
Evolution often leads to atheism with its inevitable determinism and materialism. This is Meyer's real fight with science. If the supernatural is out there, Meyer and other antievolutionists should present their great evidence and collect their Nobel prizes for the greatest demonstrated discovery in human history. So many scientists especially in America are theists; they would be delighted.
“… ID offers no descriptions of the design process or the designer. In fact, proponents do not even agree among themselves as to which biological phenomena were designed and which were not. Ultimately, this “theory” amounts to nothing more than pointing to [supposed] holes in evolution and responding with a one-word, unceasingly repeated mantra: “design.” But unless ID advocates fill in the details, there is no way to scientifically test intelligent design or make predictions from it for future research. In short, it is not valid science.” (3)
I strongly urge you to read some source material exposing ID as another manifestation of fundamentalist religion and is not scientific. Some sources are listed under References.
Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. 2008. Kenneth R. Miller. Penguin Books. 244pp. [author is a Christian and was a witness at the Dover trial]
Human Errors: A Panorama of Glitches, From Pointless Bones to Broken Genes. 2019. Nathan H. Lents. First Mariner Books. 233pp.
The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not. 2015. Abby Hafer. Cascade Books. 229 pp.
Why Darwin Matters: the case against Intelligent Design. 2006. Michael Shermer. Owl Books. 199pp.
The Big Tent and the Camel’s nose. 2001. Eugenie C. Scott. Executive Director of the National Center for Science Eduction (NCSE). [ID is not testable]
Bipedalism and other human oddities. 2022. Pievani, Telmo https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/bipedalism-and-other-evolutionary-oddities/ Adapted from his book - Imperfection: A Natural History. 2022. Pievani, Telmo. MIT Press. 176pp.
7. The Discovery Institute Exposed:
Part 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRxq1Vrf_Js
Part 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Akv0TZI985U
A simple challenge to the DI:
8. Evolution Gone Wrong: The Curious Reasons Why Our Bodies Work (Or Don' t).
Bezzerides, Alex. 2021. Hanover Square Press. 384 pp. Professor of biology at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, where he teaches a wide range of biology classes, from human anatomy and physiology to entomology. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a PhD in neurobiology and behavior.