The Egnor challenge, day 2

Yesterday, at the end of a post about the fallacious statements about evolution that Dr. Mike Egnor, a Professor of Neurosurgery, has been routinely serving up at the Discovery Institute, I made a challenge. I think I’ll repeat it daily for a while until we see if he’s up to answering it. It should be a very easy challenge for him to meet, given the number of times that he has made the two assertions that I plan to challenge him about.

Here are the two assertions that Dr. Egnor has made on more than one occasion, but most recently on Friday, and I’ll quote him directly:

In fact, most research and education in medicine involves the implicit assumption of design. The best medical research is the search for patterns recognizable as design, and the best teachers teach their students, implicitly or explicitly, to search for design and purpose in human biology.

On a podcast a couple of days before that, Dr. Egnor said:

The intelligent practice of surgery and the thoughtful practice of medicine is to look for patterns to look for things that are not chance and not random, so that the assumption of design, the assumption that there’s reason for the disease you’re treating, and you’re trying to unravel that reason and trying to correct it, means explicitly that you ought to keep Darwinism out of your thoughts. It doesn’t help you, it hurts you. The design inference is of great value in medicine. It actually has been an enormous help in scientific research in general and medical research. You’re a much better doctor and a much better surgeon if you assume that organ you’re working on was designed, understandably.

So, Dr. Egnor, I hereby challenge you to:

  1. Explain, specifically, how the design inference is “of great value” in medicine. Please go beyond your simple repeated assertion that it is, to help all us “fundamentalist Darwinists” to understand, since, this “fundamentalist Darwinist” has yet to be able to find any examples where the design inference helps me as a physician or a surgeon at all. Please support your description with concrete examples, preferably documented in the biomedical peer-reviewed literature that show how the design inference makes one a better physician or contributes to treatments for disease.
  2. Explain, specifically, how the design inference has been of “enormous help in scientific research in general and medical research.” Again, please go beyond your simple repeated assertion that it has been, to help all us “fundamentalist Darwinists” to understand, since, this “fundamentalist Darwinist” has yet to be able to find any examples where the design inference has helped our understanding of human biology and disease. Please support your description with concrete examples documented in the biomedical peer-reviewed literature that show “best medical research” that is based on the “search for patterns recognizable as design.” In other words, show us examples of medical research either based on or strongly influenced by the design inference, and how the design inference led to or facilitated the discovery of a better treatment for a disease or a better understanding of the pathophysiology behind a disease.

Given the number of times Dr. Egnor has made these two assertions, I would think that it should be child’s play for him to humor me and come up with a couple of examples to support each of the two statements of his that I’m questioning. He wouldn’t happen to be avoiding the question and going after arguments that he thinks he can attack without providing any concrete scientific examples, would he? You know, like arguing over what a tautology is?

Perish the thought! Dr. Egnor must know what he is talking about, right? After all, he is a neurosurgeon. Isn’t he just a little willing to educate us poor, deluded Darwinists with some concrete examples?

I’ll be reposting this challenge every day until either Dr. Egnor answers the two questions or I decide that I’ve made my point, which is that he won’t be able to do it.

Whichever comes first.

Anyone want to bet which will come first?

I’ll leave Mike Dunford to do what he sees fit with his own challenge to Dr. Egnor over the evolution of bacterial resistance, and, while you’re at it, you should read Mark’s reply to Dr. Egnor’s blather about tautologies.


  1. #1 quitter
    March 18, 2007

    Orac, I think the bigger issue isn’t evidence, it’s that he’s repeating the same old “random” canard about evolution.

    He seems to be saying that if a protein, or gene, or “pattern” whatever that means, shows a purpose, that’s evidence of designer. This is just retarded. I wouldn’t even give him the option of providing evidence of this idiot idea, because he’s going to assert everything is evidence of it, but it stems from a mischaracterization of how evolution and natural selection shape biological systems.

  2. #2 George
    March 18, 2007

    I understand this challenge, but since natural selection does in fact select for reproductive advantage, natural selection is a design agent. Yet, it would be very hard to argue in any sensible way that natural selection is an intelligent design agent.

    The definition of the design inference needs to be strictly taken in the context Dr. Egnor uses it, that is to mean by intelligent agency.

  3. #3 Doc Bill
    March 18, 2007

    Alas, poor Orac! I knew him well. A man of infinite jest. Using my ID-O-Scope (pat. pending) to peer into the future, I predict one or all of the following responses:

    From the Dembski School for Dilettantes: We will not stoop to your pathetic level of detail. Evidence shmevidence. Bite me.

    From the Behe School for the Willfully Ignorant: You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. Oh, by the way, nothing you could ever show would be good enough, at least until Jupiter is aligned with Mars.

    From the Egnor School of Lying for Jesus: I’m a doctor, Jim, not a golden retriever! Fetch your own references.

    Good luck in your quest, Orac!

  4. #4 mtraven
    March 18, 2007

    What guitter and George said. He’s creating a false dichotomy between ID and randomness, whereas the products of natural selection are neither — they are the products of a UD process — Unintelligent Design. This is a point that has to be made repeatedly and noisily, since it’s at the root of much of the confusion about evolution in the general public.

  5. #5 Lucas McCarty
    March 18, 2007

    I take it that when we use the term ‘design’ without ‘intelligent’ or ‘agency’ we mean like how a square bar of soap becomes round? So it alters in form to a design better suited for rubbing but no one ever planned this.

  6. #6 mtraven
    March 18, 2007

    Mm, not quite. Unintelligent design is the result of natural selection, which is quite a different process from rubbing a bar of soap, although both are natural processes. Natural selection produces all manner of complex mechanisms and structures with functional parts that look designed. And in a sense they are, they are designed by a very slow, wasteful, and stupid process.

  7. #7 Sastra
    March 18, 2007

    Well, if the human body and all of biology were the result of Intelligent Design, then there WILL be cures for disease out there, waiting for smart doctors to find them. If it’s all by “random chance,” then who knows? Maybe there is no remedy, so why bother with any research?

    The design inference is of “great value” in medicine because it specifically gives confidence that there IS a reason to carry on faithfully. It was all done intelligently, so there’s got to be a solution to any problem. Evolution got “maybe.” Yeah, right. Might as well go home.

    Think that’s his answer?

  8. #8 George
    March 18, 2007

    I cannot follow Sastra’s logic. I see no reason to assume a designer provides solutions to all disease any more (or less) than the natural world does. That is really just wishful thinking about a designer. Personally, I am glad we live in a natural world where we can determine the mechanisms and causes and thus we can apply the understanding to find solutions. The natural world makes sense, it fits together and there is no magic needed.

  9. #9 Darby
    March 18, 2007

    Doesn’t it amaze you that someone who works with the human body on a daily basis wouldn’t have noticed the many “design flaws” it has? This is a system cobbled together from the best combinations generation-to-generation, certainly not something one would plan out as an initial production model. Any halfway competent biomechanical engineer could whip up a much-improved human being on paper, even on a six-day deadline.

  10. #10 Sastra
    March 18, 2007

    I cannot follow Sastra’s logic.

    It’s the basic logic behind a lot of teleological thinking: that in a world that “fits together,” everything will fit together by working out. Working out for humans, that is, and not just working. In most spiritual views there’s a unity and harmony to the universe. Karma, yin and yang, and, of course, God guiding things for their purpose. Everything happens “for a reason.” God would not have allowed disease unless he provided a cure.

    It’s the same sort of belief which drives the popular trope that anything “natural” is inherently better for you, because Nature is on your side. I suspect that Dr. Egnor is tapping into the basic assumption which many religious people hold — God will provide. So keep looking for remedies, they *must* be out there.

    A “design inference” might be seen as being of enormous help in research for the same reason Christians often claim that science — yes, science — came out of Christianity. Christianity presumably provided the belief in a harmonious, regular universe which made sense, which was arranged and ordered by God, and that was the necessary foundation for the confidence needed to do science. Pagans presumably had no concept of that.

    Nonsense, of course, but this is the argument they make. I bet Egnor is aware of the “science came from Christianity” claim. I think it is hiding behind his “implicit assumption of design” stuff.

  11. #11 Justin Moretti
    March 19, 2007

    I think Sastra was parodying Egnor.

    One could look at ‘intelligent design’ in anything; the problem is that even when the design clearly is ‘intelligent’, for example, the developmental path followed by aircraft from the Wright Brothers to the modern day, it is shaped by the demands of the aircraft’s tasking, which in turn is shaped by its need to simultaneously obey essential facts regarding aerodynamics and gravity. Designs that don’t do that swiftly become obsolete; designs that manage to improve, by either creeps or leaps so to speak, continue on. Others, decades old, find a niche and soldier on for whatever reason. All designs look great on paper, but not all aircraft are successful when flown. Breakthroughs in aerodynamics or alterations to the design can be treated as mutations in the aircraft’s “genome”, with phenotypic (i.e. shape, weight) alterations visible to the hardware, but some of these ‘mutations’ will flop in the wind tunnel, somewhat akin to an early abortus, and others will creep through as insidious ‘inherited defects’ to spring themselves on crew (and sometimes, unfortunately, passengers), e.g. the cargo door design flaw that used to bring down so many DC10 airliners.

    Even in aviation, where the design is intelligent and there is a directing intellect, developmental pressure grounded in unavoidable aerodynamic, gravity-related and operational/commercial realities forces change, and the elimination of less fit designs. As far as I am concerned, that’s evolution, and it’s not just being driven by humans.

    It might be fun one day for an aeronautical engineer and a biologist to sit down together and create a true taxonomy of aircraft.

  12. #12 Robster
    March 19, 2007

    The best medical research is the search for patterns recognizable as design, and the best teachers teach their students, implicitly or explicitly, to search for design and purpose in human biology.

    In epidemiology, you look for patterns. The addition of “recognizable as design” is nigh to academic fraud, and may well be blasphemous (not that that bothers me).

    First, patterns in transmission and progression of any disease can be observed and quantified. Adding design to the mix, with no evidence to support it is very bad science. Claiming evidence where there is none, relying on hand waving and deliberate misinterpretation of data is highly unethical. Any claims of design are based on ascientific bias and ignorance of the wider scope of scientific knowledge.

    Second, as an example, what design is evident in Mycobacterium tuberculosis? That some designer hates children and the elderly? That those who live without access to modern medical care are less valuable to said designer? That the designer will get you if you don’t finish your antibiotics? This is getting into bogeyman material. While a big scary man in the clouds may be popular among some, the study of disease by design tells us one thing, and one thing alone. The designer hates us, wants us to suffer, and has done a spectacularly bad job of piecing together the human machine.

    Evolution via natural selection, on the other hand, explains all of this, sans designer. A population of organisms that are fit enough to survive and reproduce in numbers enough to maintain its numbers requires no design. It requires only unequal reproductive success, combined with competition for resources. No hand waving. No invisible men. No space aliens or deities.

  13. #13 George
    March 19, 2007

    To Sastra: Okay, I suppose nothing will surprise me about what Dr. Egnor might take as an approach.

  14. #14 paula
    March 19, 2007


    I think you’ll find this essay very interesting:


  15. #15 Inoculated Mind
    March 19, 2007

    I think Dr. Egnor’s fellow neurosurgeons must have drugged him, cut open his skull, and played a prank on him. It might be more productive to ask him if he has any unexplained scars on his head.

  16. #16 Calli Arcale
    March 21, 2007

    Sastra sez:
    “Well, if the human body and all of biology were the result of Intelligent Design, then there WILL be cures for disease out there, waiting for smart doctors to find them.”

    Not neccesarily. You are presuming that the intelligent designer would have to be benign. A cruel (or careless) designer might leave out the cures, accidentally or deliberately.

    As a Christian, I honestly find the idea of intelligent design theologically abhorrent for this very reason — it implies that God is very harsh indeed, which I do not think to be true. That said, the Genesis story suggests that early believers of this particular God attributed disease and things like that to divine punishment, so I have to admit that the spiteful God concept has some theological merit to it.

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