Best arguments against Design (refreshed)

What do people think are the best current arguments against Design? I’m using ‘Design’ as Joshua suggests: “Something that leaves a detectable signal of a Designer”. Now, one could say that providing a “step-by-step, validated model of abiogenesis via chemical mechanisms present on Earth a few billion years ago” would be a good argument against Design. But it’s not likely that we’ll know about that either way within our lifetimes. What I’d like to hear about are examples within range of current technology or likely advances in the next few years.

This is similar to asking someone like Mike Behe to describe the simplest IC system with the best historical record of a pre-IC, past state that he thinks couldn’t evolve via natural mechanisms. So, I guess I’d like to hear about Design proposals that have been challenged recently or ones that may reach resolution shortly.

So far, we’ve had threads on ‘bad arguments against design’ with ID proponents participating. I’m holding out the hope that we will see what proponents consider “good arguments against design”. The most common type I’ve seen are best classified into ‘good arguments for common descent and evolution’.

I keep coming back to the asymmetry, that the best arguments against design being good arguments for evolution. It’s largely an argument based on negatives. I think this arises because we don’t yet have a solid, positive theory of Design to evaluate. Instead, we have a ‘gappy’ collection of disjointed ideas about what natural mechanisms can’t do. Walter ReMine had a positive theory of Design with his Biotic Message idea. I don’t think it turned out to be viable because observations ran counter to criteria he’d established. Still, one could say that his proposal was testable, even if it ultimately failed after evaluation.

Similarly, Fred Hoyle had a hypothesis of virally-driven panspermia. It was an interesting hypothesis that made generally testable predictions. Again, subsequent evaluation argued against the idea, but it at least made positive statements about the world that didn’t require negation of common descent to demonstrate.

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The whole point of I.D. is that it assumes we can detect when God overrides natural law.

But how can this be accomplished as long as human consciousness is unable to know just when we know all natural law?

It’s an impossibility. And further, there are categories of Intelligent Design where it is impossible to gauge INTENTIONS!

If God zapped a DNA strand, right in front of us, and in front of all our equipment, so that we a bacterium population could have flagellum … we could conceivably do the following:

  1. we could determine if the “zap” was a normal cosmic ray or some other form of electromagnetic radiation.

  2. we could determine that the resulting mutation was within the realm of the possible (all the components were there to go from pre-mutation to the resulting mutation).

  3. we could see that the mutated DNA created flagella.

How would we know whether the mutation was God-induced or God-ignored?

How do you test for God’s INTENTIONS? It can’t be done.

This makes a good case against TE also.


No, not really. If a person’s faith tells him God created humanity for a certain purpose, and the scenario requires that humanity evolved to arrive at that target phenotype… then the logic requires that either all the evolution was planned from the very beginning (using purely natural causes) … or that evolution was planned from the very beginning using a combination of natural causes and miraculous causes.

To satisfy the scenario, it is not required to know which is which, only that they are both being used - - if one acknowledges non-natural miraculous events.

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I don’t think this is really possible to answer in general, especially because ultimately agree that God created us. None of the arguments you are putting forward unsettling my understanding of creation either. They are genuinely bad arguments against creation.

Perhaps this would be better to frame in a different way, “what is the best argument against the Irreducible Complexity argument?” (for example).

Are there specific arguments you’d want to focus on?

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To clarify, this isn’t a question about what you think of creation or distal causation. This pertains specifically to the Intelligent Design program and the proposal that certain events in the history of life contain evidence for Design, outside of ‘natural’ mechanisms. Behe proposed Irreducible Complexity (best called Version 1 to avoid confusion) as an tell-tale hallmark of such Design. That proposal seems to have largely fallen out of vogue, at least as a truely reliable sign.

I’m not interested in proposing specific arguments myself. I’m interested in what cases or details ID proponents consider are good arguments against Design. Another aspect, related but perhaps seperable, is what positive design arguments that don’t rely on ‘inability to explain by natural mechanisms’ are currently proposed. We could go over what went wrong with ReMine’s Biotic Message hypothesis, but that’s pretty old news and no longer generally pushed within the ID movement, as far as I know.

I’m a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think there are certain artifacts or other things that could indicate the presence of other intelligences on our planet in the past. A book or pictographic record that we might reliably date that depicted particular changes in species we can verify today would also provide rather solid evidence. This isn’t to say that a Designer necessarily would do this, but if it happened, it would make the work of ID a little easier.

This does have precedence with certain religious texts. For example, there are research programs today trying to validate events described in the book of Genesis.

Could I ask that we leave this thread open and uncluttered for ID proponents? This isn’t about what people who aren’t ID proponents think are good arguments against Design.

I don’t care about whether Design validates a particular religious belief or not. And let’s avoid diving too deep into metaphysics. I’d like to focus on specific, scientific arguments.

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If I may offer my 2 cents… I’ve concluded that the most compelling arguments against “intelligent design” are cases like a broken vitamin C gene that is shared with chimpanzees (because the gene broke in the common ancestral population from which humans and chimpanzees both derive - - while at the same time, all the other existing primates have working vitamin C genes.

I believe there are at least 2 more classic examples of “out-of-place” genes in the Human genome, for traits and functions that are shared in common with egg laying land animals. This is looking at the situation from the other viewpoint, which is the widespread presence of such genes (across the animal kingdom), despite the fact they no longer have a function. Unfortunately, I regret that I do not have enough working knowledge to describe them here.

Is I.D. able to cope with both sides of the coin? Can I.D. explain why just two groups of primates have a broken gene, while simultaneously explaining while dozens of animal groups have a working gene for a function that is no longer displayed or relevant?

And, as I’ve mentioned in other posts already, there is a definition problem in the I.D. camp. Much of what makes design Intelligent is the intention behind a purely natural event. A great many of the events that pro-Evolution Christians would accept as God’s design are implemented by admittedly natural processes!

If God wants to install a mutation in a population’s genome, and he triggers a desired mutation in a specific chromosome… how would we be able to determine whether the mutation occurred with the “touch of God’s finger” … or with a form of molecular energy that is fully within the expected range of natural events?

How do we go back to the time of the Dinosaur-killing asteroid and determine whether the asteroid hit “by accident”, or because God launched it towards earth a billion years ago?

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Well if you mean an argument against “design” as in how our scientists design new living things- by making non-natural (see we are getting to the point where I could almost use super-natural here) changes to the DNA of organisms to make something new, then I have an answer for you…

The best argument against such design would be an experiment which produced gains in genetic information and functionality over generations using mutations from random processes. Particularly if this could be demonstrated to occur at the fastest rate indicated by the fossil record.

That is to say, demonstrate that un-designed changes which increase information and complexity can not only occur through un-designed means, but occur at the rate necessary to explain the complexity and diversity of earths biota.

For example, if you could take some organism with a short life span and a high reproductive rate, such as a housefly, and subject them to radiation for decade after decade. Maybe take some of the changes which occur due to those random processes and keep that population alive by changing the environment to suit them, and then keep up the radiation so that more changes would occur.

The goal would be to turn the housefly into something else. Maybe not a beetle or a wasp, that would take too long even though this experiment would be expected to speed evolution along to the maximum rate possible without introducing design. Indeed one would have to be careful of the steps used to preserve creatures who lost functionality along the way in a manner consistent with some environment they could possibly find in nature in order to keep from invalidating the experiment by getting into the gray area between intelligent design and evolution. Maybe it would be something new that we don’t have on earth- but it would be different from just a mutated house fly.

That would be the best argument against design I can think of because it would experimentally demonstrate that design was unnecessary to increase complexity in a way that added new function at a rate necessary to explain what we see in nature.

Good start at an answer, but note the phrase “keep that population alive by changing the environment to suit them” and its incongruence with a lack of imposed intelligence. Keep trying.

Guy, I did keep trying. In the next paragraph…

So your concern has been addressed, yes?


This is not exactly how successive waves of natural selection works on a population. One might say that crocodiles and alligators have been bombarded with mutations for millions of years while these creatures have persisted in their rather unique, and relatively unchanging, environment: the margins between land and water (in swamps and rivers).

We can infer that the genomes for these reptiles must be much different today than it was during the days of the dinosaurs. But the overall shape and design is still relatively unchanged.

In contrast, to create a whale from a land mammal, requires millions of years of shifting environments … sometimes favoring shallow water… sometimes favoring deep water … sometimes favoring a fish-heavy diet… sometimes favoring zoo plankton… and so on.

Every time there is a major shift, large populations experience high loss of numbers, with dwindling population sizes mathematically encouraging rare allele configurations to become dominant within a small populations - - and thus leading to a recovery of population sizes.

These combinations literally require the entire planet to provide a broad spectrum of different combinations. So, if we use fruit flies and subject them to random and frequent changes in the environment that nearly extinguish any given population of a fly strain, at what point would you acknowledge that we now had something else?:

  • loss of wings?
  • developing predatory habits on other flies?
  • increased size, with hair?
  • increased size, with wild colorations?

Do a search on ‘the Darwin’ which is a unit of evolutionary change. My understanding that the rates (e.g. Darwins/time) actually observed in organisms tend to exceed the rates determined from the fossil record. It’s far from a perfect metric but at least it’s an attempt at quantifying the rate of change.

I’m very unfamiliar with Bayesian stats.

However, I wonder, does the observation that organisms seem to be connected historically via common descent affect the “prior (?) probability” so as to reduce the probability of Design?

While the environment of those who kept the same form has not changed much some populations were surely subject to alterations in environment during that time. If nothing has spun off from those critters in all that time that’s sort of a bummer for the power of naturalistic evolution, eh?

The experiment I outlined above has the scientists providing an environment suitable for the continuation of any hopeful monsters that may arise, so long as it is one reasonably available in nature. That really does deal with that objection because there is no environmental pressure to revert to the original type. If anything the opposite.

And if we ever find out that they are not, if the only difference was static, this would also be sort of a bummer for the power of evolution. I mean, why should they be immune from new copies of existing genes popping up and mutating out of function?

That sounds like evolution is as a practical matter scientifically unfalsifiable as an explanation for all biota. It takes an entire planet, this one, to test it and we don’t have another for control purposes.

Fruit flies? I said house flies but we can say fruit flies if you’d like.

Loss of wings is a loss of info and so obviously would not count.

Changing habits is not necessarily driven by a change in genes and so obviously would not count.

If the hair was constructed as mammalian-like hair and the original population did not have genes for such hair (if they did it is a big point in favor of ID) then this WOULD count.

Increased size or colorations would not count as we have done this with domestication of numerous animal breeds and this is done by simply narrowing the existing genes.

I’d be careful about unsound extrapolation of data since your unit is speaking in terms of a million years. You can’t safely assume that a small amount of change over a short amount of time can be extrapolated to a huge change in a large amount of time in a complex system. If the stock market drops 20 points today does that mean its value in five years will be zero? If the temperature rises 20 degrees between midnight and noon at my current location will it be boiling hot here next month? There are constraints on these systems which means that change cycles within parameters. Yes they can undergo vast changes in vast amount of time in both of these examples, but not because of anything you can measure in short amounts of time.

Our host told me on another thread that science has no way to quantify a rate for functional change in the genome, just overall change. Makes sense to me.

Depends on the model for Design. No way to compute this without knowing model of design.

Keeping the environment constant will not trigger the factors of Natural Selection to create a very different phenotype. Mutations that survive are likely to create relatively small changes in the biochemistry of the sample population - - rather than “grow wings” or “develop an extra set of legs”.

Do you follow that logic?

If you want to turn a hippo into a whale, you can’t keep the environment the same, and just bombard the DNA.


This is a very primitive notion about how to extrapolate. Different species, and different ecologies, support species with a characteristic rate of “imperfect replication”. This is a bio-chemical state of existence, rather than something that has to do with human appetites and free will (the volatile underpinning of any financial market).

So, species or genus specific rates of imperfection genetic replication is more like the characteristic rate of evaporation of different kinds of paint – which can vary due to temperature or humidity, but is not in itself volatile.

Since you are an Old Earther who rejects the global nature of the Biblical Flood, you don’t have to explain how millions of species fit onto the Ark. You are spared that kind of heartache.

But you really should do a “deep dive” regarding the natural history of Australian speciation. Australia is unique in that until humans arrived (presumably with a few dogs), Australia was devoid of placental mammals - - with the one exception being a flying placental mammal: bats! While Australia once had some placental mammals there, by the time Australia drift out into the ocean, the placental populations had died off; maybe the Australia’s climate was changing faster than the placental animals could adapt. In any case, this vast island only had a limited number of key marsupial “founder populations” when it found itself cut off from all the rest of Earth’s mammal populations.

This finite assortment of marsupials then began to radiate into every conceivable ecological niche offered by Australia. Marsupial grazing animals… marsupial predators on the grazing animals… marsupial tree dwellers… marsupial burrowing animals… every niche supporting a marsupial version of what in the rest of the world became occupied by a placental version. The American possum is one of those few outliers in North America; alas, no kangaroos.

I think all your statistical interests in “rates of change” and “one kind of population turning into another kind of population” can be addressed by a creative approach interpolation and extrapolation of genetic studies of all the creatures that are still, more or less, thriving on Australia.

Since you are an old earther, you will be able to ask yourself questions that you will probably be able to answer with only a little probing:

a) what were the types of marsupials marooned on the continent ?
b) if you were going to assign a “type” to each of these founder populations,
what categories would you assign ?
c) using some standardized “change rate” measures, what is the average distance in genetic configuration between 3 or 6 still-existing branches of one founder population?
d) repeat the same review for a different founder population.
e) compare these averages between founder populations.

I think you get the idea. Australia is one giant genetic laboratory. Exploit its uniqueness. And then you can probably make 2 or 3 YouTube videos on your findings!