Monday, October 10, 2005


Intelligent Design in a Nutshell

(I apologize for the length of this post. I am trying to give as accurate an account of the case for Intelligent Design as is possible. In a future post, I will analyze what it means.)

John Calvert, founder of the Intelligent Design network gave St. Paul's the nutshell version of the case for intelligent design. We invited him as part of our "Stay at the Table" series exploring controversial issues.

Before we began, Mr. Calvert and I discussed the format of the class in general terms. I indicated he would have around 45-50 minutes to talk and we preferred 10 minutes or so of questions and answers. I regret to say I may have been a little vague.

We began at 9:40 a.m. I introduced our speaker and the topic and sat down.

Mr. Calvert used a PowerPoint to introduce his organization. In a nutshell, the Intelligent Design Network (IDN) wants to end state support of "naturalism." Naturalism is the idea that everything is explicable in terms of physics and chemistry. (As my old philosophy professor used to say, "matter and matter in motion.")

The "mechanistic consensus" is the predominant thinking of the age, the general agreement that all meaningful explanation relies on strictly naturalistic means.

Mr. Calvert brought up the book, The Purpose Driven Life, and said the mechanistic consensus denies the thesis of that book. The premise of the book is that every life has a purpose. Under the mechanistic consensus, any particular life is merely an occurrence, a combination of random happenings. Thus, the idea that lives are meaningful is an illusion.

Mr. Calvert knows that each and every human being was conceived in the mind of God before being conceived in the world.

He quoted from the Book of Romans: "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: ..." Mr. Calvert said this passage shows that God reveals himself through the awesome splendor of creation.

(It's as if he went to last week's sermon - where Pator Jim showed us NASA photos of objects in space.)

Mr. Calvert said "You cannot see purpose, but you can understand it." He went on to define design as "A pattern of events arranged by a mind or some form of intelligence for a purpose."

Design is contrasted with "occurrence," which is an "event that just happens." As noted above, under the prevailing mechanistic consensus, we are all mere "occurrences."

Design can be detected. Moreover, a little thought reveals how this might be done. A few commonplace examples will do the trick.

But first, lets take a moment to ponder a little epistemology. (The study of how we know what we know.)

Any and all events are explained in three ways:

  1. Design
  2. Natural law
  3. Chance

To demonstrate this, Mr. Calvert obtained a coin from a member of the audience. He held the coin between his two hands and then dropped it. He then elicited responses from the audience to show:

1.) He dropped the coin on purpose: by design.

2.) Gravity pulled the coin down: Natural law.

3.) It landed on tails: chance.

Mr. Calvert then showed us slides of jets hitting skyscrapers. He explained when he heard of the first airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, like many other people, he concluded it was an accident. Explained by chance. The second impact, though, changed his mind. Because of the pattern, he realized the strikes were done on purpose - explained by design.

Formal design detection, as a scientific process, consists of three main steps:

1.) Does the event to be explained appear to have a purpose? An event can be screened out as having no discernible purpose simply by an examination on the face of it.

2.) Is the event fully explained by a material cause? For example, a salt crystal under high magnification reveals a beautiful, intricate and orderly structure. Since the structure is fully explained by material causes, i.e., natural laws: design is absent.

3.) Is the event fully explained by chance? Like the coin landing heads or tails.

Next Mr. Calvert showed us a slide of a non-descript looking fractured pebble. He said the discoverer of the rock claims it is a kind of arrowhead; an artifact. The pebble was found in 50,000 year-old strata located in the Carolinas. What makes this claim controversial is it would establish human presence in the America's some 36,000 years earlier than the generally accepted 13,500 years.

He asks, can we accept this claim based on a single example? No. But what what if we had a bucket full? If we had a large number, then we would be convinced.

We then saw a slide of the somewhat famous "face on Mars." This is an image of a mountain or hill on Mars taken by a NASA orbiter. It appears to be a human face - in the photo, it projects the illusion of design. Later pictures of the same formation showed it to be simply a pile of rocks.

These examples are meant to show how gathering more data that shows an event or occurrence can be accounted for by natural causes rules out design.

He then went on to talk about the movie Contact. The story involves a scientist working on the project to discover intelligent signals in radio emissions from outer space. This project, called "SETI" for "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence" has carried on for many years, with no positive results. In the movie, the scientist hears a signal that sends her scurrying into the lab. After extensive analysis, they decode the signal and discover it's the prime numbers from one to one-hundred one. They conclude no natural process could account for the sequence of numbers. Therefore, it is the product of a mind; it was designed.

This conclusion was reached at the 500th character; at that point they absolutely ruled out chance.

Mr. Calvert then illustrated how difficult it is to produce a meaningful pattern by mere chance with the following example.

Suppose you were given a bag with one set of the characters of the alphabet, a blank and a dash and enough characters to total 55. The chance of drawing the letter "D" out of the bag first is 1/55. The chance of drawing an "E" next is 1/55 times 1/55. The slide looked about like this:

D - 1/55

E - 1/55 x 1/55

S - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

I - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

G - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55

N - 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 x 1/55 = 1/27,680,640,625

Mr. Calvert then said, "As complexity increases, probability decreases expotentially."

He then went on to ask how we can test DNA for design. The first test, "Does it the DNA pattern have a purpose?" he would answer "yes."

He then went on to point out similarities in Morse Code and DNA.

Morse Code -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --genetic code

2 symbols, dot (.) and dash ( _ ) ~~~~~~~4 symbols, A,T,C,G

dash dash dash ( _ _ _) = O ~~~~~~~~~~ATG = START

dot dot dot (. . .) = S ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~AGA = Arginine

. . . _ _ _ . . . = SOS ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~GGG = GLYCINE

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~TGA = STOP

Unfortunately, I derailed his argument at this point by saying we were running out of time and would he allow some questions?

He tried to hurry through the next part of the presentation, skipping a great deal of what he'd prepared for us. We saw impressive slides showing the remarkable resemblance a bacterial flagellum bears to a purely mechanical artifact. We saw snippets of video depicting the machinery of the cell. To me, this would have been the most fun part of the presentation; I just love looking at the marvels science has uncovered.

We saw a talking head, Michael J. Behe, who is a biochemist at LeHigh Unversity in Pennsylvania. Behe talked about how he came to question whether or not purely naturalistic causes can account for biological structures. He said the pictures of a bacterial flagellum moved him to question accepted science and look a little deeper.

I'm afraid I rudely interrupted Mr. Calvert to ask him to please allow some questions.

An audience member prefaced his question by observing one of the hallmarks of a scientific theory is the ability to make predictions. He then asked, "What predictions come from Intelligent design?

Mr. Calvart answered that "junk DNA" is not junk. Intelligent design predicts that all the DNA in a particular gene exists for a reason, to perform a function. I would like to add to his explanation a little. Not too many years ago scientists thought as much as 95% of DNA served no useful purpose. The actual functions of the DNA previously thought of as "junk" are now being discovered.

Another successful prediction, "Mutations are not random." We had no time to explore that one.

Another questioner asked, "How is intelligent design different from creationism?"

Mr. Calvert stated that intelligent design is not Genesis. Intelligent design does not claim to know who the designer is. Claims about the designer belong to the realm of religion.

Another person asked, "How does intelligent design explain extinctions?"

Mr. Calvert said simply look at a junkyard. Extinctions are analogous to discarded machinery.

At that point I had to interrupt and end the class as services were to begin in five minutes. The audience warmly thanked Mr. Calvert for visiting us and a few people remained to continue the dialog.

A point not fully developed but clearly implied by the presentation is the incredibly low probability of any particular sequence of genetic coding. Spelling out a simple word like "design" with 55 characters (why 55?) by random selection yields a very low probability after just a few simple calculations. Although the genetic code contains only four characters, the sequences run from hundreds to thousands and even tens of thousands of characters. We can safely rule out mere chance as the explanation for how any particular sequence of genetic coding came into being.

I came away with a much clearer understanding of the position and its appeal. Mr. Calvert did St. Paul's and the community a service by appearing and attempting to explain the ideas in a little less than an hour. I know I speak for the Sunday School class in thanking him.

Corrections and comments are welcome. To leave a comment, click on the comment button below. E-mail me at:

"Mr. Calvart answered that "junk DNA" is not junk. Intelligent design predicts that all the DNA in a particular gene exists for a reason, to perform a function. I would like to add to his explanation a little. Not too many years ago scientists thought as much as 95% of DNA served no useful purpose. The actual functions of the DNA previously thought of as "junk" are now being discovered."


Junk DNA?

First, it's not as if scientists thought that "junk DNA" didn't serve any purpose. It's that scientists didn't know what purpose the non-protein-coding segments of DNA served. "Junk DNA" was more of a question, than a statement.

Second, who do you think it is that is revealing the purpose of this "junk DNA"?

If you guessed *real* scientits, using a naturalistic approach to science, and developing their answers within a "naturalistic" context, you'd be right.

However, if you thought for one second that ANY scientist, anywhere in the world, was using the concept of "Intelligent Design" to glean information from the non-coding segments of DNA, you'd be very, very wrong.

In other words, real scientists are doing the work (using real science), and the proponents of ID would like to take credit for it, saying (basically), "See, we told you so!"

Um, no.

Lemme tell ya, the "prediction" that "junk DNA" would be found to have a purpose would be like my "prediction" that ID supporters have religious motivations.

Is anybody really surprised by this? Is it really revalatory?


Just to drive the point home, here is a more scientific "prediction": I predict that much of what we know in various fields of science will need to be revised in light of future data.

If that "prediction" leaves you feeling a little cheated...good. That's exactly how you should feel about the "prediction" that ID made in regards to "junk DNA".

ID is nothing more than a complaint. It's supporters go on and on about what evolution can and cannot do, without offering ANY alternative.

Don't think so? Well, then ask Mr. Calvert this question:

"Say John, how exactly does ID work? What is the MECHANISM by which it works?"

Don't hold your breath.

Evolution offers a heritable code (DNA) capable of being modified by natural forces.

What does ID offer as an alternative? A heritable code capable of being modified by SUPERnatural forces?


How can we test that John?
Just to make it perfectly clear,
when I said, "I would like to add ..." that was me, the author of this report, not Mr. Calvert.

I have linked to a news report that describes what biologists previously thought about "junk DNA" and a recent article that explains some of the latest scientific discoveries.

I am merely reporting, to the best of my ability, what was said. I plan to publish my own thoughts later.
As a biologist (MS degree) my self I can attest to the fact that when we talked about "Junk DNA" that is exactly what we were saying. We were saying these sections of DNA have no function. It was described as similar to our appedix. What I took this point as was not that ID would have brought scientific data to discover the function of these DNA segments but to show that the evolutionary theory is not perfect. Also, that there is evidence that the theory does have flaws.
Thank you for your input. As a science buff, I have followed the general outlines of developments in genetics for the last 30 years. And, yes, the popularized version clearly showed that's what people working in the field thought.

Whether or not the claim of a successful prediction holds is another story. Very often priority of discovery is difficult to establish in science. I would be interested in particulars of publication date and venue.

Think about Alfred Russel Wallace. His fascinating story is too long to tell here, but there's a wealth of material on him on the web.
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