Intelligent design and "design detection"

I have noticed recently the repeated claim that Intelligent Design is, at least intellectually, an endeavor aimed at “design detection”.

This raises a number of questions:

  1. What are the methods of design detection that ID is promoting?

    (Parenthetically, if one of these “methods” is Behe’s “Purposeful Arrangement of Parts”, what is ID’s method for detecting “purpose” – without which this ‘method’ would be incomplete and thus vacuous.)

  2. Where have these detection methods been validated, including measurement of their rates of false positives and false negatives?

  3. How does the vast majority of ID’s output, which appears to focus far more on debunking Evolution than on detecting Design (with titles that near-ubiquitously include either “Evolution” or “Darwin” – Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Darwin on Trial, etc, etc), fit in? Are these works merely part of ‘ID as social movement’?


Yeah I’ve always wondered if it was a theory of design detection and a good one at that, why isn’t it being used in archaeology?

It wasn’t used on covid either.

Yes. I wrote about that here:

Bill Dembski has thoughts about COVID-19 (

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One might, if one was cynical, suspect that ID has no interest in “design detection” in any context that did not involve debunking evolution.

From what I have seen, their method is

  1. A subjective opinion that something looks designed.
  2. Their refusal to believe that evolution could produce it.

In recent memory, Winston Ewert has come the close to putting a model together. The “Dependency Graph Model” (DGM) essentially argues that if design is true then we should see numerous and obvious violations of a nested hierarchy that fit more closely to the environment/niche of the species. He attempts to do this using gene annotations which are notoriously inconsistent and incomplete. The obvious next step would be to use sequence instead of annotations. Given that Ewert has not done this, nor any other ID proponent, tells me that the idea just doesn’t work.

For example:

Does anyone actually think there are many genes shared only by the zebra finch and the zebra fish? Are these not found in other fish and other birds, or in other vertebrates? How long would it take to blast those genes and find out? It is interesting that I can’t find any reference in Ewert’s paper as to what these genes are. You would think that such a stunning find would make it into a supplementary table, but I don’t see it.

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It seems to me, however, that that would be more a test of common ancestry than of design, per se. No?

I think it is more than just an argument against common ancestry. Ewert tries to tie module use to the needs of the species in a given environment. He mentions echolocators (i.e. cetaceans and bats) which suggested that they share genes that other mammal groups do not. However, he quickly waters this down to shared amino acids in different proteins that are shared between all mammals. So he quickly goes from presence/absence as the way of detecting modules to individual amino acid residues in shared genes.

So I will give some credit to Ewert for doing more than just arguing against common descent. There are some nascent ideas of how to get ID to stand on its own feet, even if they are doomed to fail.

Before we get to that, what is design? It seems that being designed is a property of an object. An object is designed if it was created by God or a living thing.

How do we detect that? There is no discernible characteristic that all designed items share, so that’s out.

Is there some characteristic that only (even if not all) designed items have? That’s what ID is a search for.

Behe’s first try was irreducible complexity: if an object is irreducibly complex, it has to have been designed. How to tell if something is IC? If it has a function, is made up of multiple parts, and ceases to function if any of the parts are removed. While this has some surface plausibility, it turns out that there are obvious ways for IC to arise without design, notably scaffolding. Behe seems to have recognized this and retreated to a weaker definition incorporating whether step-wise changes involved would be positively selected, which requires knowledge of the selective environment at the time the object was coming into existence.

Dembski’s main try was specified complexity. If something has a function, it is specified. If the likelihood of it appearing in the absence of design is sufficiently small, it is complex. This merely shifts the question to how unlikely something is. Because that likelihood is pretty much impossible to determine with respect to any of the objects of interest in biology, this is not helpful.

That’s the TL;DR version of ID methods. And they both boil down to, as taquaticus said, “that looks designed”.

I think Winston Ewert’s module hypothesis was that a designer might have used “modules” in designing various objects, and that the genetic result of such a method might have been mistaken for a nested hierarchy if the evidence was not properly considered. He devised a method for properly considering the evidence, and has pretty much not been heard from since. Which suggests that the results of his consideration were not particularly comforting.

Any Intelligent Design supporters willing to answer Tim’s questions about their favored hypothesis?

Or correct any errors in my summary?


I would describe ID as a search for a means of injecting antievolution rhetoric into school classrooms.

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I think you are being too generous to ID.

Behe’s Irreducible Complexity was expressly an argument against evolution.

Dembski’s “Complex Specified Information” means only that all other explanations for the “specified” pattern are too improbable to be considered. Even then, evolution was the target of Dembski’s rhetoric, and when Dembski tried (and failed) to use his method in anger the target was evolution. Indeed, it seems likely to me that the use of a purely negative argument was because CSI was intended to support creationism from the first.

So, all we see here is attempts to bring down evolution, not to build a theory of design detection. Developing a theory of design detection really shouldn’t start by going after evolution - that should wait until ithe theory has been well developed on less complex and less contentious examples.

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Well, that is an even briefer way to put it, but I was trying to channel an honest ID supporter.

And immediately after I hit post I remembered two more, perhaps related, hypotheses.

  1. Information (by some definition) can only be created by a designer. DNA (or biological entities generally) contain information. Therefore they are designed. This doesn’t work because no one can calculate the information in a biological object. If they could, a mutation in DNA would presumably either increase or decrease the amount of information. But since a mutation could always be reversed, information can be created without design.

  2. What I think of as Upright Biped’s “Semantic” hypothesis. UB was an energetic proponent, at the late and mostly unlamented Uncommon Descent, of the proposition that DNA instantiates a code that contains “semantic information”, and such a thing could not arise in the absence of design. I don’t recall whether he ever came up with a reason why it couldn’t, other than “I don’t see how it could happen.”

The self-assuredness of the IDers always astonishes me. Personally the more I live the more I realize there is that I don’t know about the world around me. But these folks are sure that they know what could not have happened four billion years ago on an earth very different from the one they are familiar with.


That was a major problem. If reducible complexity can evolve then it’s not that difficult to get to irreducible complexity by removing the unneeded parts, something which Behe thinks evolution definitely can do. So his argument really boils down to “evolution will have a hard time evolving complex stuff that functions”. Not that impressive.

Boiled down to “if evolution can’t do it then it is designed” followed by “but we can’t tell you what that is”.

Ewert pretty much claimed that there isn’t a nested hierarchy, or at least there are massive and numerous violations of a nested hierarchy to the point that common ancestry can’t be evidenced. I don’t think he ever explained why no one else has ever noticed this, or why the scientific community continues not to see this.

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Especially unimpressive since it entailed completely ignoring neutral evolution. Also pretty funny given that Behe is one of the heroes of a frequent poster who has allegedly been well-read in evolutionary theory.

Irreducible complexity (and similar ID arguments) also run into the problem that it is not directly detecting the presence of design, but merely inferring design from the purported lack of a viable evolutionary explanation.

A more accurate description of IC (and similar ID arguments) would therefore be “design deduction”, rather than the “design detection” (that has been repeatedly asserted, most recently on this thread, but also on a number of other occasions on this forum, going back as far as 2018).

This indirect method of leading with a claim of a purported lack of a viable evolutionary explanation also runs into the issue that it renders ID indistinguishable from creationism – which likewise has anti-evolutionism as a core tenet. This difficulty-to-distinguish is exacerbated by the fact that many ID advocates identify ID’s “designer” with Christianity’s creator God.


Some ID sources cite archaeology as an example of “Design Detection”, though that claim is not reapeat so frequently as it once was. The obvious flaw here is that archaeologists assume humans are the designers of artifacts - they do not infer the existence of humans from the artifacts.

The argument itself does make me giggle. ID proponents argue that archaeologists are using design detection, and the result are the artefacts we see in museums. Strangely enough, our museums aren’t full of earthworms that archaeologists find as they are digging through the dirt. Guess they aren’t designed?


Yes. It is interesting to note that, until the 18th century, flint arrowheads and other such tools were considered to be naturally produced during thunderstorms and were called thunderstones. It was, in part, thru uncovering historic records of such tools being created by the indigenous people of the New World and of artifacts stored, but forgotten, in museums that their artificial nature was determined.

It is probably also relevant that one reason this was denied for so long was that there was no mention of stone tools in the Bible, which was considered to be a reliable historical record.

I disagree. The design detection that archaeologists routinely do is to test hypotheses regarding who, what, where, and when. These would all apply to ID, but IDcreationists run away from all of them.


It also runs into the problem that the purported “Design Detection” done in archaeology (and also SETI) shows no evidence of use of ID’s purported methods and techniques of “Design Detection”.