Respectful Insolence

Well, well, well, well.

I hadn’t expected it. I really hadn’t. After just shy of three weeks since I first made my challenge to Dr. Egnor to put up or shut up regarding certain claims of his that the “design inference” has been “of great value” in medicine and results in “the best medical research,” I had pretty much given up trying to get an answer out of him. I had come to assume that either (1) Dr. Egnor had been either unaware of my challenge (although I tended to doubt it, given how many echoed it, or (2) he was simply ignoring it in favor of posting some amazingly bad reasoning. To refresh your memory, I will point out that, intrigued by Dr. Egnor’s assertions about how useful the “design inference” was to medicine and biology, I asked him on numerous occasions:

  1. Explain, specifically, how the design inference is “of great value” in medicine. 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.” 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.

Those are two pretty reasonable questions, if I do say so myself, given how, with the supreme confidence of a surgeon who regularly cuts into people’s skulls to operate on their brains, Dr. Egnor had repeated his assertions of how useful the “design inference” supposedly is for science. And, after nearly three weeks, Dr. Egnor has finally responded with a post over at the Discovery Institute Whine Blog entitled, Orac’s Challenge: Do Scientists ever use the Design Inference in Biology? (Hmmm…let me think…)

My first reaction after reading Dr. Egnor’s post was that he should have thought for three more weeks–or three more months–if this was the best that he could come up with. Indeed, my initial reaction jibed very well with that of Kevin over at Dr. Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge and Mark over at The stupid, it burns. But, really, that was too snarky and not sufficiently Respectfully Insolent. Besides, Dr. Egnor actually refrained from whining about my blogging under a pseudonym and using that as an excuse to dismiss what I say entirely. That’s progress.Then I thought about it some more. Then I saw the light. Then I realized just how brilliant Dr. Egnor’s response was. After reading my post, hopefully you, too, will see the light and cast off all that atheistic Darwinistic baggage and join Dr. Egnor in the world where, when he says something, words mean exactly what he wants them to mean, nothing more, nothing less.

After repeating my challenge for his readers, Dr. Egnor begins:

It took me a while to answer, because there are so many examples of it that I was in the position of Buridan’s ass–I couldn’t decide what to pick first!

So I picked these guys. The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century–Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

My first thought, again, was that, if there were indeed so many great examples of the use of the “design inference” in biomedical research, why on earth did Dr. Egnor choose this one? But that’s just the Darwin-worshiping skeptic in me talking, almost certainly atheistic in Dr. Egnor’s eyes. Dr. Egnor is trying to show me a better way, so let’s hear him out:

Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.

Let them speak for themselves, in their famous April 25, 1953 letter to Nature:

It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.

Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms….

Furthermore, the design specifications revealed an elegantly simple method by which the genetic material could be copied:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

I’m certainly flattered that Dr. Egnor went to the trouble to look up Watson and Crick’s original report to find these little gems, but I have to admit that, upon reading them, I was still quite puzzled as to how these quotes meant that they had used any sort of “design inference” to elucidate the structure of DNA and how it might be copied and encode the structure of proteins based on its physical structure. After all, I don’t see Watson and Crick using the word “design” anywhere, and you know very well that if they had Dr. Egnor would have included the quote and put the word “design” in bold, underline, and italics, probably with flashing text added if he knows enough HTML to accomplish that. But, mere humble surgeon that I am (and not a BRAIN SURGEON, yet!) I hadn’t yet fathomed Dr. Egnor’s genius, which he revealed forthwith:

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Tarial cell computer that Orac is, he just can’t leave such genius alone. Sadly, I have to have the remaining temerity to point out to Dr. Egnor that he has put the cart before the horse, so to speak. He has assumed that biomolecules like DNA were “designed,” and that assumption leads him to conclude that Watson and Crick (and, apparently, every other biomedical researcher) used the “design inference” implicitly, whether they acknowledged it or not. Sticking to his specific example, I must sadly point out that Dr. Egnor failed to provide any evidence that DNA was “designed” in the first place. Indeed, he seems to be assuming that macromolecules can’t form regular structures without some sort of input from a “designer” without actually presenting any evidence that this is the case.

As I’ve alluded to before, when you boil it all down, Dr. Egnor seems to equate “order” and “complexity” (both of which biological structures have in abundance) with “design.” In fact, he seems to equate “structure” with “design” and assume that all design needs a designer. But there certainly is order in nature that doesn’t necessarily cry out “design.” The planets circle the sun in orbits that can be described with extreme mathematical precision; other examples include gravity, motion as described by Newton’s Laws, the speed of light, and the structure of crystals. There is also complexity in nature that doesn’t necessarily cry out “design,” including the orbitals of atoms, the behavior of waves, and relativistic effects that occur at velocities close to the speed of light. Of all the sciences, only in biology do creationists like Dr. Egnor automatically assume without good evidence that complexity must have been designed and could not have evolved through natural processes. They refuse to accept or grasp how many different lines of evidence converge from multiple different disciplines to support the validity and value of theory of evolution. When a theory is confirmed so elegantly through so many different disciplines, it’s hard to come up with more convincing evidence of the validity of that theory. It’s far easier to assume “design,” an assumption that, unfortunately, does not help science to progress.

Finally, Dr. Egnor decided to challenge me:

So, in reply to Orac’s challenge, I ask: Which inference played a greater role in the discovery of the structure and function of DNA: the inference to Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection, or the inference to design, applying the principles of reverse engineering?

The question is a nonsequitur, of course, for all the reasons I’ve explained above. Its premises are false. However, if I must answer, I would answer that Dr. Egnor’s version of “reverse-engineering” clearly played a role in elucidating the structure of DNA. However, without the background informed by evolution, scientists would not necessarily have realized that a molecule like DNA must exist to transfer information from organisms to progeny. They would have had a mechanism (natural selection) but would not know what the molecular basis for the traits that are subject to natural selection, which means that they would not know the smallest unit upon which selection operates. The discovery of DNA and the elucidation of the genetic code answered those questions. Similarly, evolutionary theory allows experimental techniques that would not be possible were it not for common descent, all the way from single-celled organisms all the way to humans and the existence of highly conserved proteins and genes (which are so conserved because they perform critical functions), techniques like the yeast two-hybrid screen, where it is possible to put the genes for human proteins into yeast, identify yeast proteins that bind to the human proteins, take that information, compare it to human gene sequences, and identify the human protein that binds to the protein of interest.

Sadly, I doubt that, even if Dr. Egnor had taken three more weeks, three more months, or even three more years to come up with his answer, he would have come up with a legitimate example of the “design inference” being “of great value” to biomedical research. Maybe my first impression of Dr. Egnor’s genius was incorrect, and perhaps Dr. Egnor should pick another example and see if he can do better next time.

I won’t hold my breath, though, as he appears to have moved on to abusing logic while whining about Mark Chu-Carroll again.

I’ll let Mark deal with that one. Orac’s work here is done–for now.


  1. #1 Doug
    April 4, 2007

    Man, that “response” is pathetic. Are we absolutely sure this guy isn’t a parody?

  2. #2 Ginger Yellow
    April 4, 2007

    Of course, someone like Dennett would agree with Egnor that Crick & Watson were reverse engineering an artefact of design. The only problem is that the “designer” is natural selection. The problem with ID, in this view, is that there’s no way (in biology) to distinguish between artefacts of “natural design” and “intelligent design”, and that by the contentless nature of the ID PR campaign, asserting “intelligent” design doesn’t get us anywhere.

  3. #3 anonimouse
    April 4, 2007

    Egnor basically starts with his conclusion (everything is designed) and works backwards. His entire post was “reverse engineered”. Too bad if he was an actual software developer, he’d probably be core dumping all over the place. And right now, I feel like I need to core dump.

  4. #4 Michael Suttkus, II
    April 4, 2007

    Scientists used a design inference to reverse engineer stalactites, discovering that they are designed by dripping water. Therefore, stalactites are intelligent designed and water is intelligent. Mayhap, water may even be God.

    This all seems eminently reasonable to me, but then I’m not an atheist EVILutionist.

  5. #5 Rich
    April 4, 2007

    Orac, no emphasis in your “emphasis mine” wiki-quote.

    Love the blog, though, & Blakes7.

  6. #6 SteveM
    April 4, 2007

    Watson & Crick did not assume a conscious “designer”, they assumed only that there is a “design” to the universe, that is, there are natural laws of physics and chemistry that govern how molecules form and how X-ray diffraction patterns infer molecular structure, etc. Egnor is deliberately confusing the meaning of “design” to require a designer, when it can also mean simply “structure”. W&C were looking for the structure of the DNA molecule, not really it’s evolution (or creation).

  7. #7 MiddleO'Nowhere
    April 4, 2007

    The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct–eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

    In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence. — William Dembski

    Dr. Egnor has made some blanket statements (unsupported) about design inference in biology. Orac rightfully points out that his statements about reverse engineering could be applied to all of science.

    Imagine the rock formation which Dembski says is obviously NOT designed. Now imagine a geologist examining this rock formation. S/He performs many of the same tests that Watson and Crick used (X-ray diffraction for crystal structure, chemical reactions to determine composition, etc.). S/He then makes a model of the structure or possibly even makes some in the lab. Tada! Design inference is used to advance science. Except that for Dembski, design is not needed to know anything about the rock. He readily admits that not everything needs to be designed. Only some things are designed.

    So which is it? Does the determination of the structure and makeup of the rock require design or doesn’t it? You can easily arrive at the right answer (the structure and composition of the rock or DNA) by using a flawed method (design inference). It reminds me of a recent SNL involving Peyton Manning. Amy Poelher had arrived at the right tournament bracket by a flawed method. That did not validate her theory. She was just lucky. It’s why Dembski has to limit ID theories to only some systems but not all.

    This illustrates the main issue of intelligent design. It lacks a rigorous method for detecting design which a true science would possess. It’s the reason that intelligent design activists are constantly coming up with conflicting and false examples of design.

  8. #8 Flex
    April 4, 2007

    Actually, I’m impressed with his progress.

    Egnor has rediscovered Thomism, or the idea that God is behind the fall of ever sparrow and the growth of all blades of grass.

    Unfortunately for him, the theory of evolution is an example of ‘reverse engineering’. So even if he wants to add an unnecessary deity behind the evidence supporting evolutionary theory, he still hasn’t shown how all the evidence supporting evolutionary theory is inaccurate. Nor has he shown how a ‘design inferance’ is a more powerful tool than evolutionary theory in modern medicine.

    But it is progress. Egnor has reached the 13th century. Now if only we can get Egnor to move from the apologetics of Thomas Aquinas to the parsimony of William of Ockham.

  9. #9 MartinC
    April 4, 2007

    Are you sure you have used the yeast two-hybrid technique correctly ?

  10. #10 Andrea
    April 4, 2007

    Just a nitpick: in the yeast two-hybrid screening system, both interacting members usually come from the same species (or, more rarely, closely related species), not from yeast (although spuriously interacting proteins from the yeast host can generate artifacts).

    The way the system works, a library of cDNA sequences from an organism/tissue is fused with part of the sequence for a transcription factor, generating a series of fusion proteins that bear the partial transcription factor sequence but are inactive. Then you take the sequence of your protein of interest, and fuse it to the other half of the transcription factor (“bait”), and introduce the fusion library and “bait” into yeast cells. When the protein of interest interacts with its partner, the two halves of the transcription factor are brought together and become competent to activate transcription from a marker gene, which allows the identification and isolation of the interacting partner.

    That said, the ability of proteins of one species to interact with the protein partners of its homologue in another species is used routinely in molecular biology and biochemistry, not to mention pharmacology (e.g. porcine and bovine insulin for the treatment of diabetes).

  11. #11 Infophile
    April 4, 2007

    Hmm, it would appear that someone *cough* has gone and deleted that particular line from the reverse engineering page of Wikipedia. See how easy it is to make his entire argument fall apart? Try finding a more reliable source, and not just play off of someone’s poor choice of wording.

    (And yes, I know that Wikipedia is often pretty reliable, but it relies on peer-review to keep it that way. I consider the deletion of that line to be part of this; it really is inaccurate to say that.)

  12. #12 Orac
    April 4, 2007

    Re: Yeast two hybrid screen

    Alright, alright already. It was late at night, and I haven’t done a yeast two-hybrid screen in a long, long time. Mea culpa. No doubt Dr. Egnor will focus like a laser on my little faux pas describing the two-hybrid screen and ignore everything else–although maybe not, given that I sincerely doubt that Dr. Egnor has ever done a yeast two-hybrid screen or even knew what it was. In any case, I’ll be a bit more careful next time. That’s what I get for adding unnecessary flourishes.

    How about this example, instead? Homeobox genes, where homeobox genes from mice often work quite well, allowing us to study their function, when placed into human cells, and vice-versa. Or how about DNA repair proteins? Heck, the study of DNA repair genes activated by radiation is one long example of evolutionary homologies between yeast and mammals used to work out the mechanisms and molecules involved in repairing radiation-damaged DNA.

  13. #13 Eamon Knight
    April 4, 2007

    So the “design inference” boils down to: “Since the damn thing demonstrably works, it must be put together in such a way that it can work”? And creationists claim that “survival of the fittest” is a tautology!
    If my head hurts after trying to understand an EgnorArgument, can I sue for malpractice?

  14. #14 rrt
    April 4, 2007

    “Of all the sciences, only in biology do creationists like Dr. Egnor automatically assume without good evidence that complexity must have been designed and could not have evolved through natural processes.”

    I’m not so sure. Seems to me many creationists still hold the basic premise that: “The Universe has laws; laws require a lawmaker; therefore God created everything, evolution/old Earth are false, and Everything Happens For A Reason.” Egnor’s “reverse engineering” argument seems to me to be a subset of this.

    Oooh, and I caught another possible error (Orac’s circuits need checking!):

    “obviously, the sun must have been “designed.” After all, it is a “machine” (in essence, a nuclear furnace).”

    I think you meant to say “a gigantic nuclear furnace.”

    You know…where hydrogen is built into helium. At a temperature of millions of degrees.

    …the sun is hot? The sun is…not…

    (runs away)

  15. #15 Pascal Leduc
    April 4, 2007

    Ohhh the temporality of Wikipedia. Egnor’s whole thesis is now wrong because the Wiki no longer contains that statement.

    I wonder who exactly added it in the first place, well it happend on the 13 september 2006 (so its probably not Egnor) And after looking at the other changes in the IP I found nothing of interest.

    He does seem to think that all that is not engineering is Reverse-engineering, he must take the latin definition of Research quite litteraly.

  16. #16 Orac
    April 4, 2007

    I think you meant to say “a gigantic nuclear furnace.”

    Oh, come on now. That’s getting too nitpicky even for me. Of course it’s gigantic. I thought that went without saying, given that stars are gigantic. ;-)

    I really have to stop checking in on the blog while eating lunch in my office. It only raises my blood pressure…

  17. #17 rrt
    April 4, 2007

    Re: Gigantic…well, to blunt the jokey nitpick a bit, it wasn’t so much about inventing silly reasons to nitpick as it was using the silly nitpick as an excuse to make an obscure musical reference.

  18. #18 Calli Arcale
    April 4, 2007

    As a software engineer, I can attest that not all software is intelligently designed, and in these situations it often requires reverse-engineering to figure out what’s going on when it breaks or behaves in an unexpected way. I don’t mean to say that some software designers are unintelligent (although browsing may leave one with that impression) or flawed designers. It’s that in a program of sufficient complexity, design choices will be made with no one consciously aware of the fact. These usually start out as some kind of unintended interaction between the work of two different developers, but can eventually get codified into intentional behavior because later developers don’t realize that the interaction was never intended in the first place. (It is a phenomenon remiscient of “cargo cult programming”, where a particular bit of code gets perpetuated not because anybody knows how it works and knows it’s important, but because nobody knows that it’s *not* important or is a bad way of doing something.)

    So even in actual engineering there are cases where reverse engineering is performed to unravel something which was not intelligently designed. In fact, in reverse engineering the “design inference” can actually be harmful, because you fall into the trap of thinking that somebody must’ve meant to have done it that way, so if you can’t see why it works, that must be your own failing and not a deficiency in the code.

  19. #19 anonimouse
    April 4, 2007


    I’d liken Egnor’s approach more to voodoo programming, but it’s probably six and one-half dozen of another.

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    April 4, 2007


    “Obscure” music reference? Am I that out of touch? Surely you jest!

  21. #21 mark
    April 4, 2007

    Man, I actually think I was being too nice to him now.

    I read that reverse-engineering thing, and thought, “surely Dr. Egnor isn’t saying that anything you can reverse-engineer has been engineered” and instead chose to mock the general idea that macromolecules can’t order themselves into patterns without being constructed. But I think it was such a stupid statement that trying to consciously mold it into something I could intellectually process would be like trying to shove the square block through the circular hole. It just whizzed right by me as I thought, “surely not, no one is that dumb.”

  22. #22 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 4, 2007

    If Egnor wants to play word games, it is really word against word of course. With a little bit of effort, and not because it would be practical but possible, we could use evolutionary methods such as GA’s to solve reverse engineering problems, for example to decide values for parameters.

    In fact, Egnors own reference mentions black-box reverse engineering, when the only thing known is the observed behavior but not the specific mechanism. (For example software without source code.) A design inference wont help here, so Egnor can’t claim it is a complete description of all cases of reverse engineering.

  23. #23 Blake Stacey
    April 4, 2007

    There’s a good chance that Francis Crick was experimenting with LSD while he and Watson were trying to beat Linus Pauling to the DNA structure. Should we then say that LSD is essential in understanding the “design inference”, that one cannot know the Great Designer without LSD, or perhaps that LSD is God Himself?

  24. #24 mark
    April 4, 2007

    Then there was reverse engineer Dr. Volvap, who discovered that when you make a dog ingest its own saliva, a bell rings.

  25. #25 Blake Stacey
    April 4, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson said:

    If Egnor wants to play word games, it is really word against word of course. With a little bit of effort, and not because it would be practical but possible, we could use evolutionary methods such as GA’s to solve reverse engineering problems, for example to decide values for parameters.

    We could even in principle use genetic algorithms to figure out the structure of DNA itself! Let a “gene” in the computer’s memory be the spatial locations of molecular units: sugars, phosphates, purines, pyrimidines — the small molecules which Franklin, Pauling et al. knew were the constituents of DNA. Then iterate the GA, using as fitness function a comparison between a calculated X-ray diffraction pattern and the X-ray images taken experimentally.

    Google Scholar returns oodles of hits “for genetic algorithm x-ray diffraction”, including a 2000 paper by Chacon et al. which reports finding structures at ~2 nm resolution for myoglobin, troponin C, spermadhesin PSP-I/PSP-II, chymotrypsinogen A, superoxide dismutase, ovalbumin, tubulin, nitrite reductase and catalase using a GA which explores a discrete search space of sphere-packing configurations.

  26. #26 Blake Stacey
    April 4, 2007

    Dang it, what is it with me and busting links today? Let’s try that oodles of hits thing again.

  27. #27 Zombie
    April 4, 2007

    Sounds like Egnor is recruiting naturalism for Jesus: anything you can study with the assumption of “methodological naturalism” apparently looks designed to him…

  28. #28 Jens Larsson
    April 4, 2007

    Egnor is Sokaling. It’s a hoax. It has to be. Please, sweet Jebus, tell me it’s a hoax.

  29. #29 Coin
    April 4, 2007

    What I find most interesting here is challenged to find some way design inference is of “value”, or is useful, in scientific research, he baldfacedly and openly alleges an example of a scientific researcher using the design inference without realizing they were using it. The design inference kind of just snuck in somehow, by means of hiding inside the practice of taking something apart to see how it works, i.e. “reverse engineering”.

    This is a most strange way of looking at “value”– considering Egnor is outright trying to get us to accept here that the design inference is just as useful in scientific research even if you don’t think about it or have never heard of it, as was the case in the Watson and Crick scenario he describes. To me, an idea that provides the same amount of utility whether or not you know it exists offers no “value” whatsoever.

    Meanwhile, never mind “Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection” for a moment. Although ignorance of the design inference did not hamper Watson and Crick at all in their work, it is hard to see how their work could have been done had they and their predecessors in analyzing DNA not had the awareness they did of Darwin’s theory of universal common descent– since this idea inevitably directly or indirectly informed the very idea of heredity of traits based on a common molecule universal to all life, which was one of the reasons nuclein was so important to study in the first place!

  30. #30 Alex Whiteside
    April 4, 2007

    Of course, when a chemist says sand is “built of silicon dioxide”, he really means that God sat down and assembled each grain from silicon, oxygen, and various impurities personally. And let’s not forget: we can reverse engineer sand, and make it ourselves using powdered glass, proving conclusively that all sand is intelligently designed.

  31. #31 Mark UK
    April 4, 2007

    Here’s another explanation:

  32. #32 Jeff
    April 4, 2007

    It seems to me that the IDers have completely forgotten about adaptionism, which, whether right or wrong, could easily explain away all their assumptions of design.

  33. #33 Brian
    April 4, 2007

    I think that the genetic code would have worked a lot better as a “design inference” possibility. We have 20 amino acids and an “alphabet” of 4 nucleotides to signify the amino acids. Each “word” (codon) encoding an amino acid then should have been three characters long – 64 possibilities. And we can build redundancy in there with this hypothesis – great for the “design inference” – we could have multiple codons for each amino acid, which would be good if there is a mutation. And stop codons to terminate the translational machinery. All well and good for the design hypothesis – this is exactly what we see.

    But we would also expect that there would be specific start codons, which there aren’t. The start codon is the same as that for methionine – the “start translation” signal thus has to be signified some other way. Which is kind of silly. We also see over-redundancy for some amino acids (e.g., 6 codons for Leu & Val). And the amino acids are not grouped by codon – a change in one nucleotide can change a polar aa (Cys) to a stop codon or a large, nonpolar aa (Trp). And, for some reason, the genetic code, which is shared by almost every organism on the planet, changes in mitochondrion. Of course God could have some fancy reason for doing it this way (that’s always the fallback position). But it makes far more sense that, once this code was set into place, it became far too difficult to change, except in things like mitochondrion, where the selective pressures are very low considering that there are multiple, clonal copies of the mitochondrion within another organism.

    I mean, if Egnor had gone this route, this would at least have been discussable (even though no “design inference” was used in working out what the genetic code actually is). But seriously, the structure of DNA? It’s just so stupid, that like you said, Orac, it burns.

  34. #34 James
    April 4, 2007

    he seems to equate “structure” with “design” and assume that all design needs a designer.

    Just about every ID or YEC argument against evolution is based on this error (except the ones that are arguments from final consequences). Basically they are Paleyists, they don’t recognise the concept of emergent complexity.

    I find this particularly interesting since many ID-ists advocate for free market capitalism, which is based on the idea that an emergently complex economy is superior to a planned (i.e. designed) one.

    But then I suspect many of them are really merchantilists or corporatists.

  35. #35 Ethan Romero
    April 4, 2007

    General question: how is it that some people see complexity and assume that it must be designed?

    My intuitive facilities (the same facilities it seems as though ID talkers are using) tell me that–if such a marker even exists–that simplicity and not complexity is a hallmark of design. For clarity’s sake I am talking about a properly defined complexity, one that can differentiate the complicated (having many pieces) from the complex (having many interactions among its pieces).

    There was an article in Scientific American a while ago about using simulated evolution to make circuits for stereo equipment. They showed a cartoon of a designed low-pass filter circuit and another low-pass circuit generated from series of randomly recombined motifs determined by the best low-pass ‘parents’. Indeed the evolved circuit worked better but, in comparison to its designed cousin, it was a monstrous Frankenstein of bits, some having no apparent function. Would an ID talker look at such a circuit and claim that the more complex circuit must have been designed because only an “intelligence” could generate something so profoundly complex?

    p.s. Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting that article, I’m only recalling in vaguely. If anyone remembers the article that I am talking about let me know. Thanks.

  36. #36 Interrobang
    April 4, 2007


    Friendly neighbourhood rhetorician here… Dr. Egnor, put down the semiotic entities before someone else gets hurt.

    He’s really hung up, I think, on misreading (deliberately so) the phrase “the conditions assumed in building it,” when referring to Watson and Crick’s model. It seems to me as though he’s playing a bit on the ambiguity of the quote-mine to suggest (or infer) that there were also assumed conditions in the formation of the genetic code to begin with, aside from the laws of physics, if you can interpret those as being “assumed conditions.”

    That’s kind of sneaky.

    As someone who’s heavily into metaphorics, I have to say I absolutely hate the “biological machine” trope that compares organic “machines” (in the sense of the word used in physics) with human-made “machines.” It’s absolutely ass-backwards, destructive, and reinforces that pernicious dualism one finds everywhere in the English language. Of course human-made machines resemble biological systems, you idiots, what do you think we modelled them on to begin with?!

    I swear, these people are closet Platonists. They must really honestly think there’s an Idea for everything lurking somewhere out there in a realm just behind the world of physical things.


  37. #37 Alejandro
    April 4, 2007

    Doh! Here comes the quote mine:
    However, if I must answer, I would answer that Dr. Egnor’s version of “reverse-engineering” clearly played a role in elucidating the structure of DNA.

  38. #38 Tracy W
    April 4, 2007

    Dr Egnor’s argument implies that someone must have designed the intelligent designer. After all, is not the intelligent designer presumably compled and shows some order? After all this ID got all these complex things working together.

    So who designed the designer?

  39. #39 Chris Noble
    April 4, 2007

    I’ll have to tell my colleagues that x-ray crystallography is all about inferring design.

    Does the designer intervene in the case of every NaCl crystal in my salt shaker?

    X-ray crystallography infers structure not design. The power of science is that we don’t need God personally arranging every Na+ and Cl- ion to explain how salt crystals form.

    Egnor’s argument has to be one of the stupidest that I’ve heard for a while.

  40. #40 JoeG
    April 4, 2007

    To Tracy W:

    To the rest of you:

    To refute ID all you have to do is substantiate your position. That is demonstrate that culled genetic accidents can do what you claim they did. Show us that sheer dumb luck can slosh chemicals together to get complex macromolecules like RNA.

    Because the bottom line is IF you could substantiate your position ID would go away.

  41. #41 Monado
    April 4, 2007

    So finding a pattern (in anything) proves that we’ve found a designer? I think Michael Suttkus must be right: the designer is water! Look at snowflakes! Ripple patterns! clouds! And, purest of all, the parabolic curve of a squirted water! It’s all PLANNED!

    Real design inferences: If everything were designed, we’d have efficient lungs the way birds do. Nothing would stop animals from appearing in the wonderful combinations found in photoshop contests such as “1,000 words”. Flagella would really have little engines instead of just being drawn that way in excessively schematic textbooks. The family trees of genes wouldn’t nest so convincingly in the family tree of organisms. Cave critters would all be well designed for their caves and would be similar good designs all over the world, instead of being versions of the local surface-living fauna. (Darwin thought of that one.) Human fetuses wouldn’t bother to develop, and then shed, a coating of hair in the womb.

  42. #42 Coin
    April 4, 2007

    Oh dear…

    To refute ID all you have to do is substantiate your position. That is demonstrate that culled genetic accidents can do what you claim they did. Show us that sheer dumb luck can slosh chemicals together to get complex macromolecules like RNA.

    So wait, are we talking about mutation & evolution (“culled genetic accidents”) or abiogenesis (“sheer dumb luck slosh[ing] chemicals together to get complex macromolecules”) here? You’re going to have to be specific what you’re asking for, these are quite different things…

  43. #43 Christian
    April 4, 2007


    I have had enough of morons today, and you are evidently one of those, linking to yet another.

    The post you linked to begins with the assumption that design inference is proven. It hasn’t been done. Please point us in the direction of a creditable publication that has done so.

    The metaphysics part is pablum, since the writer truly doesn’t understand physics, nor evidently sound reasoning. If I concede the possibility of a possible being that started everything, please provide me with reasonable proof of his existence or his stamp on the world. The only possible stamp could be the behavior of “natural” laws. By this I don’t mean no gays, since obviously homosexuality exists in more species than man, so trying to make the unnatural argument there really stinks. So, in a more precise meaning, “natural” laws are the way that the universe functions. Natural laws are repeatable, they work the same way every time under the same settings. We keep pushing back the limits of our understanding by creating ever more advanced theories to explain the results of our abilities to perform more advanced tests. So, a true design argument would be something that defies the way that “natural” laws work. We haven’t seen it yet, unless you count some amusing personal “revalations” that through the ages became our world religions. The problem is, that whatever deity that exists, hasn’t truly deigned to show it’s presence to us. Give me the rabbit fossil that dates to the Cambrian, and then I will give you intelligent design.

    Until you IDiots give me some sort of proof, please take your conjectures elsewhere. Preferably out of the public schools, and out of any sane discourse regarding biology.

  44. #44 MR
    April 5, 2007

    It’s amazingly simple once you see the light, particularly if you have a beer or two (or three or four) first.

    That’s odd… I am pretty drunk (seriously I go to Tulane) and it still seems like total shit to me. :drinks more: nope still bullshit, wait wait… no still crazy. Hmmm, I have to admit, these guys are just better than me at inhabiting a foriegn reality. I wonder if I could buy “stuff” from them….

  45. #45 Jud
    April 5, 2007

    I must agree with Dr. Egnor. He certainly looks to me to be in the position of Buridan’s ass – or perhaps it’s the north end of a horse traveling south I’m thinking of.

    BTW, the Wikipedia entry re Buridan’s ass is interesting on a number of counts. Buridan apparently helped spread the doctrine of heliocentrism, consigning the “privileged planet” to an orbit about the Sun.

  46. #46 Paul Power
    April 5, 2007

    Ironically, there is a Wiki page on “The survival of the fittest” ( which has an entire section on ‘Is “survival of the fittest” a tautology?’ Perhaps Egnore should have read that first .

  47. #47 Flex
    April 5, 2007

    Christian wrote, “So, in a more precise meaning, “natural” laws are the way that the universe functions. Natural laws are repeatable, they work the same way every time under the same settings.”

    That’s what I was getting at, only I think you said it better.

    It sounds like Egnor is trying to say that natural laws are evidence of god. His belief is that the mere existance of natural laws means that these laws *must* have been designed, and there must have been an deity which designed them. (Which does not logically follow, but IDiots are not known for their logical acumen, I submit JoeG’s comment above as evidence.)

    Okay, if Egnor wants to believe that, fair enough.

    It adds a level of complexity to a description of the universe, without providing any apparent feature to test, but it’s a position I can understand.

    However, if this is true then testable, explainatory, natural theories like evolution are also part of gods creation and designed. You can’t claim that Watson and Crick used the ‘design hypothesis’ in discovering the structure of DNA without also saying that Darwin used the ‘design hypothesis’ in formulating evolutionary theory. Both of these insights into reality are based on observable, natural laws.

    How can Egnor, or anyone else, make a logical distinction between the two?

  48. #48 dzd
    April 5, 2007

    I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that he’s still just citing Wikipedia and not Conservapaedia.

  49. #49 Coin
    April 5, 2007

    I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that he’s still just citing Wikipedia and not Conservapaedia.

    Well, he doesn’t really have much of a choice here; Conservapedia doesn’t have an entry on “reverse engineering”.

  50. #50 Brian Ford
    April 5, 2007

    I was recently provided with a resource website that I am pretty impressed by overall:

    There’s a specific section on refuting the claims of ID proponents as well as miscellaneous other Creationist babble, with various references as applicable.

  51. #51 Prometheus
    April 5, 2007


    You have a problem with the “design” part of intelligent design – I have a problem with the “intelligent” part. What sort of intelligent designer would do the following:

    [1] Put a massive deletion mutation in one enzyme of the chain that makes vitamin C in humans and most (if not all) primates but leave all the others.

    [2] “Design” the mammalian retina with the blood vessels in front of the light-sensitive cells, while putting them behind the light-sensitive cells in the octopus (a mere mollusc).

    [3] Put a quadruped spine in a biped.

    [4] Spend so much effort to get all cells (but not viruses – maybe they weren’t “designed”) to use double-stranded DNA as their genetic material and then have a few bacteria and archaea that use “oddball” codons.

    I suspect that the good Dr. Egnor would explain this all away by saying that “The Designer” (AKA “God”) has priorities and understanding beyond our own.

    So, life doesn’t show design and, if it did, it wouldn’t be intelligent design.

    What’s left.


  52. #52 Lucas McCarty
    April 5, 2007

    By golly I’ve got it! You can start burning science textbooks now because I have the answer: the same principle that allows evolution to happen also catagorically says a Supreme Being must exist!

    Think of it like this, flip a coin and each side has a 49.9999%(to the power of a lot) chance of landing whilst the edge has a 0.0000%(to the power of a lot before we arrive at a 1). Flip a coin enough times over an even surface and eventually it will land on it’s edge. This would require an abundance of time and proberley coins seeing as the first won’t last the first ten billion tosses, having been worn to nothing. So if there is even the remotest chance of a coin landing it’s edge, then given enough time and enough coins, it proberley will.

    This is a variation on that theme of enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough ink theory and it sort of players it’s part in evolution. But what prevents it working with mythical and supernatural things? No one can be 100% sure that there is no chance of them existing somewhere at some point in time!

    Erm, this has a bit of a problem for religious people though: if it makes their religion true, it makes all other religions true too. So if the ‘One true God’ is real, then so are the ‘many untrue gods’ also, including the really cool Norse ones. In fact, Norse gods would proberley make religion exciting to a lot of people again: when you die you just get drunk and eat dinner for the rest of eternity.

  53. #53 wrg
    April 6, 2007

    JoeG, as Coin pointed out, you don’t seem to be aware that abiogenesis and evolution are not the same thing. ID won’t go away as long as people who are unwilling to learn even that basic distinction continue to pretend that they can speak authoritatively about biology.

    But, if I pretend that ID were principally aimed at abiogenesis rather than evolution, at least your “show us” challenge seems to allow Darwinists to use materials other than peanut butter. However, I rather doubt that you’re in any position to offer millions of years in a planet-sized lab, so how can you demand comparable results to abiogenesis on Earth?

    From your linked article, JoeG:

    Or consider the homicide detective who discovers a woman dead in her kitchen with a knife in her back. After studying the scene carefully, the detective concludes that she was murdered rather than accidentally bumping into a knife and then falling face down on the floor. Can you imagine the detective’s assistant protesting: “Oh, but you’ve explained nothing. Not until we know the murderer’s motive, the environmental and genetic forces that drove him to murder, stretching back to the first violent primate will we have explained anything!”?

    To me, that sounds like the old creationist objections to “missing links”. In fact, since ID really is presented against evolution rather than abiogenesis, it sounds very much like the challenge you just presented, demanding that evolution be justified by establishing abiogenesis.

  54. #54 axon
    April 6, 2007

    I think Dr Egnor may be becoming a liability for SUNY. No matter how good a surgeon, I would be very wary dealing with someone that has such a poor grasp of logic as Dr Egnor.

  55. #55 Phobos
    April 6, 2007

    So, W&C didn’t say that DNA was designed by someone and didn’t say that they “reverse-engineered” DNA to determine its structure. And yet, that is the crux of his argument. Interesting.

    To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance.
    Oh, look. A YEC Strawman to boot.

  56. #56 Science Avenger
    April 7, 2007

    JoeG said: … the bottom line is IF you could substantiate your position ID would go away.

    Says who? The roughly-spherical-earth theory has been substantiated, and yet there are still flat earthers. The holocaust has been substantated, yet there are still holocaust deniers. Deniers of substantiated positions is hardly rare. So why shouldn’t we consider evolution deniers as just one more variation on a theme?

  57. #57 LesserOfTwoWeevils
    April 7, 2007


    Even the first paragraphs of the article you link to are horrific blunders. They’re just straight-out crazy talk!

    Think, for instance, of Mt. Rushmore. It clearly gives evidence that it was designed–sculpted, to be exact. Would it make any sense for someone to protest, “Well then who sculpted the sculptor? Who designed the designer? Ha! Q.E.D.”

    That objection is ludicrous. We know Mount Rushmore was designed regardless of the identity or causal history of the sculptors, and we know it based on what we observe.

    First and foremost, No one says that about Mt. Rushmore because we know EXACTLY who designed its designer – His parents. And who designed them? Their parents. All the way back to our common ancestors with other species, however many million years ago. They don’t ask the question about Mt. Rushmore because we already have the answer, and it’s obvious to -everyone-.

    Second, we know that Mt Rushmore is designed based on what we observe, yes – because we know what HUMAN design looks like! No one has ever been able to point out something as ‘God-Designed’. How could we? No one yet has been able to point out clear evidence of God’s handiwork anywhere, how can we have any idea what the markers of God-design are?

    And Third, people ask ‘Who designed the designer?’ because of the creationist habit of saying ‘EVERYTHING that happens has a cause. Something must have caused the universe, therefore Goddidit. People ask ‘Who designed the designer?’ because it shows how stupid the idea is. If everything HAS to have a cause, who or what caused God? If he gets a pass on that rule, why not give the universe the pass instead? We KNOW it’s here, we have far less evidence of anything powerful and complicated enough to bring it all into being by an act of will.

    That article is just pitiful, man. Pitiful! Is that really the best you can do?


    The Lesser of TWO Weevils!

  58. #58 LesserOfTwoWeevils
    April 8, 2007

    Slight addendum to part three above: As well as dealing with the First Cause situation, people ask ‘Who designed the Designer’ because ID Proponents keep trying to claim that EVERY complex thing is designed. “How do we know life was designed? It’s complex!” If that’s the case, then who or what created the complex designer that created life?

    It goes round and round in circles, and oddly enough, has absolutely nothing to do with Mt. Rushmore and who designed it. We know exactly who created Mt. Rushmore. We know how humans create, we know the marks of human tools, we know the types of shapes that humans tend to create. We even have pictures and eyewitness accounts both from the builder and from others who were there as Mt. Rushmore was carved.

    We have approximately NONE of those things when it comes to the ‘design’ of life. When we look into it, we constantly find signs that point to evolution over time and by small changes, descent from common ancestors, adaptations of pre-existing structures for other uses, and of organs and features that could easily be better-adapted if they’d just been designed for their task in the first place, and not co-opted for a task completely different from the task that they evolved originally to do.

    Why has no one ever been able to pin down ANY of what should be the unmistakable signs of ‘God-design’?


  59. #59 Scott Simmons
    April 17, 2007

    “In fact, if you take Dr. Egnor’s apparent view to its logical conclusion, the whole of science is nothing more than the “reverse engineering” of all of nature, and all scientists, whether they know it or not, whether they admit it or not, must implicitly be using the “design inference” …”

    Bet you thought you were joking.

  60. #60 Blake Stacey
    April 17, 2007

    Scott Simmons:

    That hurt. I dashed off a response entitled, “Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar“.

  61. #61 Bronze Dog
    April 18, 2007

    Something that would get me to consider ID:

    Human creations leave signs of the tools used in creating them.

    If someone found a nanoscopic wrench attached to a grape gene labeled “Property of Bacchus. If found, return to 502 Party Dr., Olympus”, I would be much more amendable to ID.