Denton’s argument for intelligent design by himself

In a recent discussion here at PS, several contributors asked @Eddie to summarise Denton’s argument for intelligent design. As this is a cumulative argument, it is a difficult task, so Eddie referred them to Denton’s last publications. For those interested, there is an alternative, which is to watch this seminar by Denton himself. Enjoy!

Thanks but that was really quite terrible. What Denton appears to be doing can be succinctly summarized as having realized that the outcomes of history depend on prior events, laws, and initial conditions.

He says the entire cosmos seems to be designed for us because hadn’t there been all these facts of the matter that support our existence such as it is, then we wouldn’t have been here and been able to do all the things we do.

He neglects to consider that this would be true for anything no matter what the laws and initial conditions of the universe were like, and that all the facts of the matter he invoke to infer that the universe is designed for us can be invoked to infer that the universe has been so arranged so as to cause the existence, history, and behavior of a particular carbon dioxide molecule on some distant planet in some distant galaxy. There is no objective reason to suppose we are the intended goal of reality any more than that carbon dioxide molecule. Change anything about the laws of nature and initial conditions of the universe, and that carbon dioxide molecule would behave otherwise, have a different history, or possibly not even exist at all.

Now we can proceed to put our universe as it is aside for the moment, and imagine a different reality. A universe with radically different laws of physics, that began with very different initial conditions. That universe is going to have it’s own unique history, it’s going to contain it’s own unique phenomena, and there are going to be contingent outcomes of history in that universe that in every way depend on the conditions and laws of that universe. Regardless of how complex or interesting those phenomena might seem to us, that is going to be true of that universe. Whether it contains life, a vacuum of just ionizing radiation, stars that never produce anything heavier than lithium. That universe is going to have something unique to it, and that thing is going to have a unique contingent history. Pick any phenomena you can think of, such as a particular pattern of radiation that occurred at some period of time. A cloud of gas. A rock surface of some particular shape. That universe can now, by Denton’s reasoning, be inferred to have been designed to produce that specific result. Only that particular set of laws and those initial conditions would lead to that outcome.

And so we come to realize that ad-hoc rationalizations like this can’t constitute meaningful evidence for intelligent design, because it can be applied to all imaginary situations. No matter how interesting or boring we might find them. Universes that are empty, universes that disappear again shortly after they appear. They’re all unique in their own special way and their existence and behavior as they happened to happen would depend on their exact laws and initial conditions.

The end.


Thanks for posting this, Giltil. The talk gives a good summary of main themes in his recent books, on Fire and Water and Light (the most recent one, on the Cell, is not covered). Of course the books give much more technical detail, and what may seem to specialists like a very sketchy argument has much more data and reasoning behind it. The talk was designed for a general audience, not an audience of picky scientific specialists. If anyone here finds the talk lacking in sufficient detail, they can turn to the books themselves. The full force of his argument comes out when one sees the number of interlocking facts of nature that he discusses.

Well that was a load of codswallop. Thankfully, the refutation video is far shorter and far more entertaining:

If one is interested in a more extended I response, I would suggest Daniel Dennett’s latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, in which he makes his own case for teleology in nature. He points out that when we ask a “why” question, there are two distinct meanings that could be entailed. If we ask “why” the earth is round, the appropriate response would involve nothing more than a description of the physical forces that resulted in the earth taking that shape. However, if when asked “why” a ball bearing is round, one responds with a description of the manufacturing process by which ball bearings are produced, it would miss the point of the question. In this context, the “why” pertains to how the round shape allows the ball bearing to fulfill its function in the mechanical device in which it will be utilized.

Dennett goes on to argue that in the prebiotic world, only “why” questions of the first type pertain. Everything that existed then could be fully accounted for simply by describing the physical and chemical processes leading to its coming into being. However, once life arose on earth, this was no longer the case. Instead, there now existed biological structures and systems whose existence can only be accounted for by the function they serve in permitting an organism to thrive. Chemical and physical processes alone no longer suffice. Instead, one must also include the processes of evolution. This, he argues, is teleology, but without a designer or any intelligent being.

Denton’s error is in mistaking the first form of “why” for the second. And the fine tuning he misperceives is actually accounted for by the unguided teleological processes that Dennett describes.

As an aside, there is one moment in the lecture that I found puzzling:

The Fitness of Nature for Mankind featuring Biologist Michael Denton - YouTube

At 29:37, Denton quotes Nick Lane as saying without particular characteristics of the oxygen molecule “we could never have accumulated oxygen in the atmosphere or crawled out of the ocean.” Denton then sheepishly adds “Forgive me, he is an evolutionist.”

If, as has been repeatedly asserted, Denton is an evolutionist who accepts common descent, for exactly what is he asking his audience’s forgiveness there?


Absolutely. And the talk can be seen as an aperitif whose function is to whet the appetite for the main course, in this case Denton’s books.

Or once the more discerning diner realizes the appetizer is utterly inedible he can cancel the rest of the meal, rather than risk spending the rest of his evening crouched over the toilet.


They are always trying to have their cake and eat it too. One has to wonder how Denton can make the presentation he does in the video, and yet simultaneously endorse books by Michael Behe.

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Hi Faizal,

Thanks for sharing this useful way of talking about “why” questions. The one thing I would add is that the range of relevant function for humans far exceeds passing on our DNA, IMO. Why do we appreciate poetry, art, beauty, and science? We do have concerns for justice and truth? To me, these functions point to God as designer in the same way that the shape of the ball bearing points to a purpose envisioned by a human engineer. A famous African Christian said it this way:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” - Augustine of Hippo

I recognize that this is an argument from analogy, so it is not scientific reasoning. Hope you don’t mind that! And I hope you find what I said interesting and worth thinking about.

That’s a good question for @Eddie.



What is the problem?

I would say those are all off-shoots of the massively complex brain with which evolution has endowed us. Much as the great pleasure a cat seems to derive from chasing a ball of string is a redirection of his instinctual hunting behaviour, we enjoy exercising our minds, and seeing the minds of others exercised towards goals that do not themselves enhance our chances of survival but which utilize the same abilities that enhance them.

Because we evolved as social beings and so need to figure out the best way to coexist with one another.

Those are my best guesses, anyway.

But what purpose could we possibly serve? And if there is one, would you find your life more meaningful if you knew you were basically just someone’s ball bearing?

That Denton appears to be arguing that life’s evolution and it’s resulting in Homo sapiens is built into the very structure of reality, while Behe argues that life’s evolution without intermittent intervention to produce complex adaptations is effectively impossible.

Please don’t pretend you don’t see this obvious, obvious conflict between their two views.


Well designed.

Needs constant intervention by God.

Pick one.


Don’t sell @Giltil short. He has worked very hard at being blind to any of the many contradictions in his worldview. It’s probably 2nd nature for him by now.

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That’s a fair question, as Denton’s remark might easily puzzle people. I’ll try to clarify.

First of all, a general remark. I have noticed that on these blog sites, when particular scientists or thinkers are being talked about, the people with science training, especially the atheists, tend to zero in on statements made by people, out of context, and try to assess their rightness or wrongness in isolation. The whole training of Arts people is different. We study thinkers rather than statements, and we examine individual statements in the light of the overall thought of a thinker, not as detachable items. When we interpret a statement by Descartes or Augustine or Aquinas or Kant, we interpret it in light of masses of things written by the thinker. And when we read the Bible, it’s the same. The idea is to avoid “proof-texting” and to come up with a judicious and balanced interpretation of a statement in the light of a rich acquaintance with a thinker’s thought.

So when I look at a statement by Denton, I look at it in light of his overall thought, as found in the totality of his books and articles. Taken by itself, the statement by Denton in the talk could easily make it seem as if Denton did not accept evolution, whereas Nick Lane did, but taken in context, things are more complicated than that.

First, we have to realize that in all of Denton’s books except the first, the endorsement of descent with modification is clear and unambiguous. Only in his first book are there occasional statements which could be taken as indications that Denton opposed or doubted descent with modification. Denton, aware of this misinterpretation of his first book, dealt with it in his third book, Chapter 6, page 111. He confesses to blurring the distinction between “evolution” and “Darwinian evolution” or “Darwinism”, and makes clear that he regrets his unclear usage, because he never meant to indicate any doubt about common descent.

Second, Denton himself is on record as (1) accepting descent with modification, all the way back to unicellular creatures; (2) eschewing any “miracles” or “interventions” in the process. (On the last point, there is no appeal to miracle or intervention in any of his books or in the lecture we are talking about. He sees miracles, special creations, etc. as examples of the kind of mechanistic thinking that is found in Darwin and most modern evolutionary theory, and he is trying to revive an older conception of evolution as driven by laws of form, or the like.)

In light of this background, what does his remark about Lane most likely mean?

I would take it that by “evolutionist”, Denton is speaking in shorthand for “evolutionary theorist who works from the usual mechanistic set of assumptions” that we find in Darwin, neo-Darwinism, and so on. Denton, of course, does not work from those assumptions, since he is trying to revive an older model of evolutionary thought. Yet Denton is not implying that he is a “creationist” against Lane. He is not backing down on his acceptance of either descent with modification or natural causes. He is not introducing miracles or interventions. But, unfortunately, his ambiguous use of the word “evolutionist” in his throwaway remark (and it is a throwaway remark, not necessary to the overall argument of his lecture) raises the same sort of confusion that he raised by his ambiguous usage in his first book.

Someone who has not read widely in Denton (e.g., Faizal) and who has a prior prejudice against Denton (as someone affiliated with ID) would of course immediately seize upon an isolated, throwaway remark like Denton’s, and try to make something out of it. But we must remember that thrown-in remarks in a lecture are often not premeditated and not formulated carefully, especially when they appear to be motivated by the desire to get a bit of a laugh or at least a smile out of the audience. All of us who have been teachers are aware of the temptation to toss in off-the-cuff remarks in a lecture. I would not want my overall thought interpreted in light of clever remarks that I decided at the last minute to throw into a lecture, remarks that, if presented in an essay or book, would be more carefully phrased and might even have explanatory footnotes.

In short, I do regard the remark of Denton as confusing, but I don’t regard it as an indicator of any change in his overall thought. Having read all his books, I see nothing in the lecture that is not completely in line with the trajectory of his thought since Nature’s Destiny.

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Nice try, but no. It is obvious that the part of Lane’s comment to which Denton expressed discomfort was the part about us having “crawled out of the ocean”, since the rest of the quote supports Denton’s thesis, which is why he went to the trouble of quoting it. And by saying “we crawled out of the ocean” Lane endorses nothing more than common descent, with no implication of any particular mechanism underlying this.

So what are the options to explain Denton’s discomfort?

  1. Denton is the sort of creationist who denies common descent, even though he denies this in his other writings. As a psychoanalyst, I can easily understand that the offhand remarks we make spontaneously may be truer reflections of our actual thoughts than the carefully crafted statements we create for public consumption.

  2. Denton recognizes that most of his paying audience is made up of the sort of creationists who deny common descent, and he wished to leave them the impression that he is a fellow ideologue. Hence his disavowal of Lane’s endorsement of UCD, even though (according to “Eddie”), Denton endorses this himself.

Either way, this just reinforces my opinion that Denton lacks any intellectual integrity whatsoever.


This post may at first appear not directly related to the topic above, but its relevance will be clear eventually.

A work I have found handy lately is the two-volume, 1200-page reference work, Encyclopedia of Evolution (Oxford, 2002). The Editor in Chief is Mark Pagel. On the editorial board is Richard Lenski, among others. Listed as Advisors are I. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Richard Leakey, John Maynard Smith, and Edward O. Wilson, among others.

The Encyclopedia works on the principle of expertise. Each article is written by someone regarded as having expert knowledge in the particular area of evolution that the article is about. Thus, the article on Speciation is written by Douglas J. Futuyma, the article on the Peppered Moth is written by Michael Majerus, the article on the E. coli long-term experiment is written by Richard Lenski, the article on the Galapagos finches is written by the Grants, the article on Homology is written by Gunter Wagner, etc.

Guess who co-wrote the article on Protein Folding?

Drum roll…

Michael Denton.



No. Denton has no trouble with the view that life crawled out of the ocean. He does have trouble with the view that the process was driven exclusively by the sort of processes that Lane allows. That’s the kind of “evolutionism” he opposes. Anyone who has read his books knows this; those who haven’t read them, don’t. But around here, not having read something creates no barrier to opening one’s mouth and saying uninformed things.

… apparently is not shared by the editorial board of top evolutionary biologists who hired Denton to write an article for their Encyclopedia of Evolution, unless they routinely assigned articles in that work to people who “lacked any intellectual integrity whatsoever.”

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More operationally, each article was written by someone who either volunteered or could be talked into writing it.

Hired? How much was Denton paid?

He obviously does. We have the video evidence. The exact nature of his trouble is not clear, but a lecturer does not typically beg his audience’s forgiveness for saying something which he does not believe to be problematic.

My claims are based on things Denton has written and said himself. It is not necessary to read every single word someone has written to form a well-supported opinion regarding his views. I would have thought someone with as extensive an education as you claim to have would not need this explained but, as always, I am happy to oblige.

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What is his problem with it?