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Is the design explanation
Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D., F.M.
© 2001 J. Sarfati & Creation Ministries International All Rights Reserved.
Adapted from the Book “Refuting Evolution.” Reproduced by Permission.
eaching about Evolution [an “educator’s guidebook” published by the so-called National Academy of Sciences (NAS)] frequently dismisses creation as ‘unscientific’ and ‘religious.’ Creationists frequently point out that creation occurred in the past, and cannot be directly observed by experimental science—and that the same is true of large-scale evolution. But evolution or creation might conceivably have left some effects that can be observed. This article discusses the criteria that are used in everyday life to determine whether something has been designed, and applies them to the living world. The final section discusses whether design is a legitimate explanation for life’s complexity or whether naturalistic causes should be invoked a priori.
How do we Detect Design?
People detect intelligent design all the time. For example, if we find arrowheads on a desert island, we can assume they were made by someone, even if we cannot see the designer.
There is an obvious difference between writing by an intelligent person, e.g. Shakespeare’s plays, and a random letter sequence like WDLMNLTDTJBKWIRZREZLMQCOP. There is also an obvious difference between Shakespeare and a repetitive sequence like ABCDABCDABCD. The latter is an example of order, which must be distinguished from Shakespeare, which is an example of specified complexity.
We can also tell the difference between messages written in sand and the results of wave and wind action. The carved heads of the U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore are clearly different from erosional features. Again, this is specified complexity. Erosion produces either irregular shapes or highly ordered shapes like sand dunes, but not presidents’ heads or writing.
Another example is the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This would be pointless if there were no way of determining whether a certain type of signal from outer space would be proof of an intelligent sender. The criterion is, again, a signal with a high level of specified complexity—this would prove that there was an intelligent sender, even if we had no other idea of the sender’s nature. But neither a random nor a repetitive sequence would be proof. Natural processes produce radio noise from outer space, while pulsars produce regular signals. Actually, pulsars were first mistaken for signals by people eager to believe in extraterrestrials, but this is because they mistook order for complexity. So evolutionists (as are nearly all SETI proponents) are prepared to use high specified complexity as proof of intelligence, when it suits their ideology. This shows once more how one’s biases and assumptions affect one’s interpretations of any data.
Life Fits the Design Criterion
Life is also characterized by high specified complexity. The leading evolutionary origin-of-life researcher, Leslie Orgel, confirmed this:
Living things are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals such as granite fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.
Unfortunately, a materialist like Orgel here refuses to make the connection between specified complexity and design, even though this is the precise criterion of design.
To elaborate, a crystal is a repetitive arrangement of atoms, and so is ordered. Such ordered structures usually have the lowest energy, and will form spontaneously at low enough temperatures. And the information of the crystals is already present in their building blocks; for example, directional forces between atoms. But proteins and DNA, the most important large molecules of life, are not ordered (in the sense of repetitive), but have high specified complexity. Without specification external to the system, i.e., the programmed machinery of living things or the intelligent direction of an organic chemist, there is no natural tendency to form such complex specified arrangements at all. When their building blocks are combined (and even this requires special conditions), a random sequence is the result. The difference between a crystal and DNA is like the difference between a book containing nothing but ABCD repeated and a book of Shakespeare. However, this doesn’t stop many evolutionists (ignorant of Orgel’s distinction) claiming that crystals prove that specified complexity can arise naturally—they merely prove that order can arise naturally, which no creationist contests.
The design criterion may also be described in terms of information. Specified complexity means high information content. In formal terms, the information content of any arrangement is the size, in bits, of the shortest algorithm (program) required to generate that arrangement. A random sequence could be formed by a short program:
- Print any letter at random.
- Return to step 1.
A repetitive sequence could be made by the program:
- Print ABCD.
- Return to step 1.
But to print the plays of Shakespeare, a program would need to be large enough to print every letter in the right place.
The information content of living things is far greater than that of Shakespeare’s writings. The atheist Dawkins says:
[T]here is enough information capacity in a single human cell to store the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it, three or four times over.
If it’s unreasonable to believe that an encyclopedia could have originated without intelligence, then it’s just as unreasonable to believe that life could have originated without intelligence.
Even more amazingly, living things have by far the most compact information storage/retrieval system known. This stands to reason if a microscopic cell stores as much information as several sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica. To illustrate further, the amount of information that could be stored in a pinhead’s volume of DNA is staggering. It is the equivalent information content of a pile of paperback books 500 times as tall as the distance from earth to the moon, each with a different, yet specific content.
Machinery in Living Things
On a practical level, information specifies the many parts needed to make machines work. Often, the removal of one part can disrupt the whole machine, so there is a minimum number of parts without which the machine will not work. Biochemist Michael Behe, in his book Darwin’s Black Box, calls this minimum number irreducible complexity. He gives the example of a very simple machine: a mousetrap. This would not work without a platform, holding bar, spring, hammer, and catch, all in the right place. If you remove just one part, it won’t work at all—you cannot reduce its complexity without destroying its function entirely.
The thrust of Behe’s book is that many structures in living organisms show irreducible complexity, far in excess of a mousetrap or indeed any man-made machine. For example, he shows that even the simplest form of vision in any living creature requires a dazzling array of chemicals in the right places, as well as a system to transmit and process the information. The blood-clotting mechanism also has many different chemicals working together, so we won’t bleed to death from minor cuts, nor yet suffer from clotting of the entire system.
A Simple Cell?
Many people don’t realize that even the simplest cell is fantastically complex—even the simplest self-reproducing organism contains encyclopedic quantities of complex, specific information. Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, containing 482 genes comprising 580,000 base pairs (compare 3 billion base pairs in humans, as Teaching about Evolution states on page 42). Of course, these genes are functional only in the presence of pre-existing translational and replicating machinery, a cell membrane, etc. But Mycoplasma can only survive by parasitizing other more complex organisms, which provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. So evolutionists must postulate a more complex first living organism with even more genes.
More recently, Eugene Koonin and others tried to calculate the bare minimum requirement for a living cell, and came up with a result of 256 genes. But they were doubtful whether such a hypothetical bug could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment.
Molecular biologist Michael Denton, writing as a non-creationist skeptic of Darwinian evolution, explains what is involved:
Perhaps in no other area of modern biology is the challenge posed by the extreme complexity and ingenuity of biological adaptations more apparent than in the fascinating new molecular world of the cell… To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity.
Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which—a functional protein or gene—is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man? Alongside the level of ingenuity and complexity exhibited by the molecular machinery of life, even our most advanced artifacts appear clumsy…
It would be an illusion to think that what we are aware of at present is any more than a fraction of the full extent of biological design. In practically every field of fundamental biological research ever-increasing levels of design and complexity are being revealed at an ever-accelerating rate.
For natural selection (differential reproduction) to start, there must be at least one self-reproducing entity. But as shown above, the production of even the simplest cell is beyond the reach of undirected chemical reactions. So it’s not surprising that Teaching about Evolution omits any discussion of the origin of life, as can easily be seen from the index. However, this is part of the ‘General Theory of Evolution’ (molecules to man), and is often called ‘chemical evolution.’ Indeed, the origin of the first self-reproducing system is recognized by many scientists as an unsolved problem for evolution, and thus evidence for a Creator. The chemical hurdles that non-living matter must overcome to form life are insurmountable, as shown by many creationist writers.
Can Mutations Generate Information?
Even if we grant evolutionists the first cell, the problem of increasing the total information content remains. To go from the first cell to a human means finding a way to generate enormous amounts of information—billions of base pairs (‘letters’) worth. This includes the recipes to build eyes, nerves, skin, bones, muscles, blood, etc. In the section on variation and evolution, we showed that evolution relies on copying errors and natural selection to generate the required new information. However, the examples of ‘contemporary evolution’ presented by Teaching about Evolution are all losses of information.
This is confirmed by the biophysicist Dr Lee Spetner, who taught information and communication theory at Johns Hopkins University:
In this chapter I’ll bring several examples of evolution, [i.e., instances alleged to be examples of evolution] particularly mutations, and show that information is not increased. … But in all the reading I’ve done in the life-sciences literature, I’ve never found a mutation that added information.
All point mutations that have been studied on the molecular level turn out to reduce the genetic information and not to increase it.
The NDT [neo-Darwinian theory] is supposed to explain how the information of life has been built up by evolution. The essential biological difference between a human and a bacterium is in the information they contain. All other biological differences follow from that. The human genome has much more information than does the bacterial genome. Information cannot be built up by mutations that lose it. A business can’t make money by losing it a little at a time.
This is not to say that no mutation is ‘beneficial,’ that is, it helps the organism to survive. But as pointed out in previously, even increased antibiotic and pesticide resistance is usually the result of loss of information, or sometimes a transfer of information—never the result of new information. Other beneficial mutations include wingless beetles on small desert islands—if beetles lose their wings and so can’t fly, the wind is less likely to blow them out to sea. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the origins of flight in the first place, which is what evolution is supposed to be about. Insect flight requires complicated movements to generate the patterns of vortices needed for lift—it took a sophisticated robot to simulate the motion.
Would any Evidence Convince Evolutionists?
The famous British evolutionist (and Communist) J.B.S. Haldane claimed in 1949 that evolution could never produce ‘various mechanisms, such as the wheel and magnet, which would be useless till fairly perfect.’ Therefore such machines in organisms would, in his opinion, prove evolution false. That is, evolution meets one criterion Teaching about Evolution claims is necessary for science, that there are tests that could conceivably prove it was wrong (the ‘falsifiability criterion’ of the eminent philosopher of science, Karl Popper).
Recent discoveries have shown that there are indeed ‘wheels’ in living organisms. This includes the rotary motor that drives the flagellum of a bacterium, and the vital enzyme that makes ATP, the ‘energy currency’ of life. These molecular motors have indeed fulfilled one of Haldane’s criteria. Also, turtles, monarch butterflies, and bacteria that use magnetic sensors for navigation seem to fulfil Haldane’s other criterion.
I wonder whether Haldane would have had a change of heart if he had been alive to see these discoveries. Most evolutionists rule out intelligent design a priori, so the evidence, overwhelming as it is, would probably have no effect.
Other Marvels of Design
The genetic information in the DNA cannot be translated except with many different enzymes, which are themselves encoded. So the code cannot be translated except via products of translation, a vicious circle that ties evolutionary origin-of-life theories in knots. These include double-sieve enzymes to make sure the right amino acid is linked to the right tRNA. One sieve rejects amino acids too large, while the other rejects those too small.
The genetic code that’s almost universal to life on earth is about the best possible, for protecting against errors.
The genetic code also has vital editing machinery that is itself encoded in the DNA. This shows that the system was fully functional from the beginning—another vicious circle for evolutionists.
Yet another vicious circle, and there are many more, is that the enzymes that make the amino acid histidine themselves contain histidine.
The complex compound eyes of some types of trilobites (extinct and supposedly ‘primitive’ invertebrates) were amazingly designed. They comprised tubes that each pointed to a different spot on the horizon, and had special lenses that focused light from any distance. Some trilobites had a sophisticated lens design comprising a layer of calcite on top of a layer of chitin—materials with precisely the right refractive indices—and a wavy boundary between them of a precise mathematical shape. The Designer of these eyes is a Master Physicist, who applied what we now know as the physical laws of Fermat’s principle of least time, Snell’s law of refraction, Abbé’s sine law and birefringent optics.
Lobster eyes are unique in being modeled on a perfect square with precise geometrical relationships of the units. NASA X-ray telescopes copied this design.
The amazing sonar system of dolphins was discussed in chapter 5. Many bats also have an exquisitely designed sonar system. The echolocation of fishing bats is able to detect a minnow’s fin, as fine as a human hair, extending only 2 mm above the water surface. This fine detection is possible because bats can distinguish ultra-sound echoes very close together. Man-made sonar can distinguish echoes 12 millionths of a second apart, although with ‘a lot of work this can be cut to 6 millionths to 8 millionths of a second.’ But bats ‘relatively easily’ distinguish ultra-sound echoes only 2 to 3 millionths of a second apart according to researcher James Simmons of Brown University. This means they can distinguish objects ‘just 3/10ths of a millimeter apart—about the width of a pen line on paper.’
The neural system of a leech uses trigonometric calculations to work out which muscles to move and by how much.
From my own specialist field of vibrational spectroscopy: there is good evidence that our chemical-detecting sense (smell) works on the same quantum mechanical principles.
Why Should Design be ‘Unscientific’?
The real reason for rejecting the creation explanation is the commitment to naturalism. As shown previously, evolutionists have turned science into a materialistic ‘game,’ and creation/design is excluded by their self-serving rules. Therefore, although Teaching about Evolution dismisses creation science as ‘unscientific,’ this appears to be derived more from the rules of the game than from any evidence.
Even some anti-creationist philosophers of science have strongly criticized the evolutionary scientific and legal establishment over these word games. They rightly point out that we should be more interested in whether creation is true or false than whether it meets some self-serving criteria for ‘science.’
Many of these word games are self-contradictory, so one must wonder whether their main purpose is to exclude creation at any cost, rather than for logical reasons. For example, Teaching about Evolution claims on page 55:
The ideas of ‘creation science’ derive from the conviction that God created the universe—including humans and other living things—all at once in the relatively recent past. However, scientists from many fields have examined these ideas and have found them to be scientifically insupportable. For example, evidence for a very young earth is incompatible with many different methods of establishing the age of rocks. Furthermore, because the basic proposals of creation science are not subject to test and verification, these ideas do not meet the criteria for science.
The Teaching about Evolution definition of creation science is almost right, although creationists following biblical assumptions would claim that different things were created on different days. However, Teaching about Evolution claims that the ideas of creation science have been examined and found unsupportable, then they claim that the ‘basic proposals of creation science are not subject to test and verification.’ So how could its proposals have been examined (tested!) if they are not subject to test?
The historian and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer concluded:
We have not yet encountered any good in principle reason to exclude design from science. Design seems just as scientific (or unscientific) as its evolutionary competitors…
An openness to empirical arguments for design is therefore a necessary condition of a fully rational historical biology. A rational historical biology must not only address the question, ‘Which materialistic or naturalistic evolutionary scenario provides the most adequate explanation of biological complexity?’ but also the question ‘Does a strictly materialistic evolutionary scenario or one involving intelligent agency or some other theory best explain the origin of biological complexity, given all relevant evidence?’ To insist otherwise is to insist that materialism holds a metaphysically privileged position. Since there seems no reason to concede that assumption, I see no reason to concede that origins theories must be strictly naturalistic.
References and Notes
 Ken Ham, How Would You Answer? Creation 20(3):32–34, June–August 1998. An expanded version is available in his booklet Is there Really a God? (Answers in Genesis, 1998). [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Example of a random sequence from the atheistic evolutionary propagandist R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), p. 47. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 W. Gitt, God and the Extraterrestrials, Creation 19(4):46–48, September–November 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 L. Orgel, The Origins of Life (New York: John Wiley, 1973), p. 189. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 J. Sarfati, Origin of Life: The Polymerization Problem, TJ 12(3):281–283, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 An extensive discussion on information and thermodynamics, order and complexity, is found in C.B. Thaxton, W.L. Bradley, and R.L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1984), chapter 8. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Information can be defined mathematically in a way that distinguishes randomness, order, and specified complexity. In terms of signal transmission, a receiver may exist in a large number of possible states (Ω0); after a message has been received, the number of possible states drops to Ω1. The information content of the message I1 = k ln (Ω0/Ω1), where k = Boltzmann’s constant. From M.W. Zemansky, Heat and Thermodynamics, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), p. 190. Note that the definition is consistent: with a repetitive sequence, there is a restriction of possibilities, so Ω0 is low, so the information is low. Random sequences also contain little information, because there are many possible random sequences (so Ω1 is almost as large as Ω0). [RETURN TO TEXT]
 R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), p. 115. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 W. Gitt, Dazzling Design in Miniature, Creation 20(1):6, December 1997–February 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M.J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, (New York: The Free Press, 1996). [RETURN TO TEXT]
 C.M. Fraser et al., The Minimal Gene Complement of Mycoplasma genitalium, Science 270(5235):397–403, 20 October 1995; Perspective by A. Goffeau, Life With 482 Genes, same issue, p. 445–446. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 W. Wells, Taking Life to Bits, New Scientist 155(2095):30–33, 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M. Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Chevy Chase, MD: Adler and Adler Publishers, Inc., 1986), p. 328, 342. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 G.A. Kerkut, Implications of Evolution (Oxford, UK: Pergamon, 1960). Kerkut, an evolutionist, wrote on p. 157: ‘There is the theory that all the living forms in the world have arisen from a single source which itself came from an inorganic form. This theory can be called the "General Theory of Evolution" and the evidence which supports this is not sufficiently strong to allow us to consider it as anything more than a working hypothesis.’ [RETURN TO TEXT]
 G. Easterbrook, Science and God: A Warming Trend? Science 277(5328):890–893, 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 S.E. Aw, The Origin of Life: A Critique of Current Scientific Models, TJ 10(3):300–314, 1996; J.D. Sarfati, Self-Replicating Enzymes? TJ 11(1):4–6, 1997; C.B. Thaxton, W.L. Bradley, and R.L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1984; W.R. Bird, The Origin of Species: Revisited (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1991), Vol. 1, Part 3. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 L. Spetner, Not by Chance (Brooklyn, NY: The Judaica Press, Inc.), p. 131–132, 138, 143. See review in Creation 20(1):50–51, December 1997–February 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 C. Wieland, Beetle Bloopers, Creation 19(3):30, June–August 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M. Brookes, On a wing and a vortex, New Scientist 156(2103):24–27, 11 October 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Dewar, D., Davies, L.M. and Haldane, J.B.S., (1949). Is Evolution a Myth? A Debate between D. Dewar and L.M. Davies vs. J.B.S. Haldane, Watts & Co. Ltd / Paternoster Press, London, p. 90. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 J.D. Sarfati, Design in Living Organisms: Motors, TJ 12(1):3–5, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Turtles—Reading Magnetic Maps, Creation 21(2):30, March–May 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 J.H. Poirier, The Magnificent Migrating Monarch, Creation 20(1):28–31, December 1997–February 1998. But monarchs only use the earth’s magnetic field to give them the general direction, while they rely on the sun’s position for most of their navigation. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M. Helder, The World’s Smallest Compasses, Creation 20(2):52–53, March–May 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Osamu Nureki et al., Enzyme Structure with Two Catalytic Sites for Double-sieve Selection of Substrate, Science 280(5363):578–82, 24 April 1998; perspective by A.R. Fersht, Sieves in Sequence, same issue, p. 541; J.D. Sarfati, Decoding and Editing Design: Double Sieve Enzymes, TJ 13(1):5–7, 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 J. Knight, Top Translator, New Scientist 158(2130):15, 18 April 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 K. Towe, Trilobite Eyes: Calcified Lenses, Science 179:1007–11, 9 March 1973; R. Levi-Setti, Trilobites: A Photographic Atlas (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975). See also C. Stammers, Trilobite Technology, Creation 21(1):23, December 1998–February 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M. Chown, X-ray Lens Brings Finer Chips into Focus, New Scientist 151(2037):18, 6 July 1996. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Simmons was cited in the appropriately titled article, Bats Put Technology to Shame, Cincinnati Enquirer, 13 October 1998. His research paper is J.A. Simmons et al., Echo-delay Resolution in Sonar Images of the Big Brown Bat, Eptesicus fuscus, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 95(21):12647–12652, 13 October 1998. See also P. Weston, Bats: Sophistication in Miniature, Creation 21(1):28–31, December 1998–February 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 R. Howlett, Simple Minds, New Scientist 158(2139):28–32, 20 June 1998. The editorial on p. 3 of the same issue displayed its materialistic bias by asserting, without the slightest evidence: ‘The leech’s nerve cells arrived at trigonometry by an obviously random and undirected search—evolution, whereas humans seem to have acquired maths by intellectual effort.’ [RETURN TO TEXT]
 L. Turin, A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception, Chemical Senses 21:773, 1996; cited in S. Hill, Sniff’n’shake, New Scientist 157(2115):34–37, 3 January 1998. See also J.D. Sarfati, Olfactory Design: Smell and Spectroscopy, TJ 12(2):137–8, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 C. Wieland, Science: The Rules of the Game, Creation 11(1):47–50, December 1988–February 1989. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 M. Ruse, editor, But Is it Science? Science at the Bar—Causes for Concern, by L. Laudan and The Philosopher of Science as Expert Witness, by P.L. Quinn (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 351–355, 367–385. Ruse was the philosopher of science who most influenced American judges that creation is ‘unscientific,’ and Laudan and Quinn, themselves evolutionists, refute his fallacious arguments. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 J.P. Moreland, editor, The Creation Hypothesis, The Methodological Equivalence of Design and Descent: Can There Be a ‘Scientific Theory of Creation?’ by S.C. Meyer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 98, 102. [RETURN TO TEXT]
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