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Intelligent design

Intelligent design

The concept of Intelligent Design is being proposed as a replacement for the theory of evolution by natural selection, a group of ideas first put forward by Charles Darwin. The chief criticism that proponents of Intelligent Design make of these ideas, the modern synthesis of which is often called neo-Darwinism, is that it fails to explain certain common observations. The key criticism is the assertion that is impossible for many of the complex features which are found in natural organisms to have arisen as anything but as a complete structure. An incomplete eye, for example, would serve no useful purpose; and so could not have been shepherded into existence by neo-Darwinian forces. Proponents of Intelligent Design contend that there must therefore have been a designer, a force which purposefully sets about making eyes and antlers.

Many people feel that natural selection is an extremely powerful notion, one which equips people with a "thinking tool" comparable to concepts about political liberty, economic rationality and social responsibility. To replace this with the ideas of Intelligent Design would, therefore, be a major step. This paper looks at what would be needed for Inteligent Design to work as described, and it is for the reader to decide whether they prefer these structures to the statistical, information-based entities which operate in the scehems proposed under Natural Selection.


Intelligent Design accepts that organisms operate through mechanisms that are described in terms of biochemistry and physiology. It also accepts that, on a day to day basis, the genetic instructions within a given organism drive these operations. Where it parts ways with the mainstream of biology is in its insistence that the complexity that is embodied in life is too great for it to have arisen from anything but a process which entailed active design, acts undertaken by undefined agencies.

By contrast, most biologists believe that complicated organisms have arisen from more simple ones. This is possible because the genetic code on which the organism relies is both an instruction set and a record, and when new instructions are added, then the record builds upon what is already there in order to make something more complex. Instructions are added in many ways, but there is no ordering force behind this, save those of proximity, affinity and physiological possibility. What gives the process order is the filter of competition - for resources, for mates - in which those instructions which convey success are disproportionately represented in the record on which future development is to be based.

Intelligent Design denies that this dynamic has the capacity to create the complexity which we observe in nature. Equally, it is unhappy with the evolutionary explanation of the differences which are encountered in the natural world.

The diversity of nature is by no means fully understood from the perspective of the mainstream of biology. There is no clear explanation as to why the humid tropics are as diverse as they are, for example, or why diversity and land area - on islands, for example - have the tight relationship that is observed. However, the basic principles are easily understood. Competition is waged on many levels, and success comes from various "strategies": wearing a shell like a tortoise, or being able to run rapidly like a rabbit are two ways in which small grass eaters can avoid themselves being eaten.

The option of being a heavily-shelled rabbit is not a strategy to commend itself. Strategies consist of ways in which an organism can allocate bodily resources, where doing one thing lessens the resource available for another. Plainly, those strategies which allocate resources to create the greatest ability to survive, compete and reproduce are those most likely to pass themselves on to the next generation.

A given type of organism, one which faces one kind of environment at one end of its range and something quite distinct at the other end of it will find that strategies have different pay-offs in different places. For example, similar plants which grow across a range that has, nevertheless, a great difference in rainfall from one end of it to the other will face different challenges. Plants that grow at the "dry" end of the range may do best if they focus their resources on achieving on drought resistance, whilst those at the "wet" end may do better by, for example, avoiding insect damage. As each such focus carries costs - just as spending money on dressing well lessens the money that you have for other things - so there is a tendency to drop that which has cost but no benefit. Consequently, after a considerable period the plants which grow at one end of this range will be different in appearance, flowering period and the like. Insects that pollinate the one will not visit the other, or their follower period may not coincide; and as a result, they stop interbreeding. The two groups are now free to drift away from each other, becoming distinct species.

Intelligent Design is not happy with this explanation. It denies that such a simple set of forces could create the differences and apparently sharp boundaries which are found in the natural world. A daisy is not a buttercup, and one does not find intermediates between them. They do not cross breed, showing that intermediate states are shunned by nature. Such divisions and distinctions cannot have arisen from random flows, as intermediate states would be everywhere.

Intelligent Design is not, however, Creationism, in which the biological world is held to have been set up all of a piece, with species as the building blocks of a Divinely-created nature. Rather, it accepts that the Earth is an ancient structure, subject to gradual geological change. Geological sections contain a partial record of the conditions which pertained when they were formed, and reflect to subsequent factors, such as weathering. These changes show that there was a time when there were no vertebrates, and then there were. There was a time with no flowering plants, and then they appeared. There was a time of no grasses, and then grass came to dominate the open ground.

These entities were, therefore, brought into existence in a gradually-unfolding process of improvement. The machinery by which new capabilities are installed does not, therefore, operate all at once, but over time. Improvements occur at a molecular level - as with the much-cited bacterial flagellum, the eye and a blood clotting - and also at the level of the organism, where a coherence around 'species identity' (the daisy, the duck) is conserved. Thus the same mechanisms is thought to operate at the level of 'better feather oil' and 'better mallard'. That which operates at the species level is somehow conservative of what makes a species, in that one species does not spontaneously give rise to other species.

The best analogy to what is thought to occur is that of selective breeding. Everyday experience shows us that plant breeders, or indeed animal breeders, can select amongst parents so as to produce progeny - Petunias or Chihuahuas - that cannot cross breed with their ancestors. Intelligent Design advocates do not suggest that wholly new species are created de novo by the design process: that is, it is agreed that the grasses had something to do with what existed before they came into being. Extant species - for example, primate monkeys - can only bud off descendent species if the Intelligent Design process operates upon them in the manner of a dog breeder upon dogs.

This has set out the Intelligent Design shop, and shown its views in contrast to those of Neo-Darwinism. However, just as natural selection requires a mechanism by which to operate, so Intelligent Design requires machinery. There are at least two such mechanisms that must be put into place. The first of these is a 'design solution finder', a system which seeks out new and better design solutions and the second a 'solution encoder', by which these design solutions are embodied in the genetic code.

The "Design Solution finder".

Creationism has a simple solution finder: it is the hand of the deity, indication what is good. However, this will not do for Intelligent Design, insofar as it admits to geological time, the gradual emergence of complexity and the punctuated nature of change. A deity that undertook this course would evidently not know it own mind, tinkering with Ammonite design all the way up a cliff face before abandoning the model altogether.

The nature of a solution finder is easy to describe. Imagine a person who is undertaking a simple, repetitious task. In the realm of this task, he or she has a limited range of options as to how well this is done. If the task is the assembly of unit A and unit B, for example, they can put out all the As and then add all the Bs to them, or they can try a sequence of A-B linkages. They can decide check the quality of their output after each action, or they can have a grand check at the end. Following these strategies, they produce fewer or more successful outcomes in a given time period.

This commonplace experience creates a very useful diagram, widely used in commerce. One can make a diagram, with the assembly strategies organised on one side of a square, and the checking strategies (which are quite independent of this choice) along the other. Any combination is this represented on the square. The outcome - how many good assemblies are created per hour, for example - can be shown as a height above this point, rather like a canopy. The peak on this canopy - represent the best solutions, those which generate the best outcomes.

Intelligent Design requires a mechanism by which these peaks are found. However, Intelligent Design asserts that one cannot approach these peaks gradually, by climbing "uphill" from wherever one happens to be in the combination of checking strategies and mechanisms of assembly that one has chosen to use. That is what evolution asserts, and what Intelligent Design denies. Rather, the machinery by which Intelligent Design is carried out needs to be able to perceive these optima directly.

There are some issues that have to be addressed in respect of this. First, the canopy that lies over combinations which have not yet been explored does not yet exist. That is, it cannot be perceived directly. Therefore, these combinations need to be simulated in some way: 'imagined' by something. (Even) more esoteric models as to how this can be done have forms called back in time from the future; or appeal to a life force, which somehow struggles to instantiate itself in matter. An early French theorist of evolution, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, believed that organisms acquired characteristics by striving after goals - thus gaining hard feet by running on rough ground, or a long neck by stretching after leaves. These characteristics were passed onto their progeny, perhaps as hooves and the neck of the giraffe, being "acquired" through such striving.

There is, therefore, a profound issue of mechanism that is raised by Intelligent Design, which is what it is that is being "Intelligent", or indeed a designer. However, it is also not at all clear against what such design is to be undertaken, for what constitutes a good design? Presumably something that offers advantage to the newly designed organisms, or to nature as a whole.

The concept of "advantageous" is a difficult one. What is to be the beneficiary of the change? A better flagellum for a Trypanosome, for example, is not "better" for the animals on which it is a parasite. A lion which is made faster, brighter or otherwise more deadly is, of course, individually better off in the short run from this. However, a species so endowed would run down more prey, breed more of its kind and exhaust the carrying capacity of the veldt. The implication is that the Intelligent Designer needs to take what are in effect political judgements amongst the interests of all of the entities potentially affected by a change.

It therefore needs to have its own value system, attributable to no one agent amongst which it works. In essence, it needs to be able to say that "That seems to me a better balance" than whatever is the case. However, as mentioned above, there are protected periods where no changes are made to organisms, or when they changes are minimal, and others in which great bursts of alteration sweep through the ecology of the time. Some of these are plainly attributable to alterations in the climate, whilst others are due to the internal dynamics of the ecology: for example, the emergence of the grasses and the animals which fed on them. Whilst Intelligent Design can be thought of as coping continually with the first type of change - climatic change, for example - it plainly has to be seen as having "brainwaves" in regard of the second.

The mechanism of Intelligent Design has new ideas that had not previously occurred to it, which prove to be 'good', in the sense of creating new, more complex ecologies. The expansion of the flowering plants over the mosses and ferns is one such change. Some of the ideas are, however, tried and swiftly abandoned, whilst others persists but present themselves to the dispassionate eye as innately poor design choices: examples being the birthing large-headed humans through a restricted pelvis, anal veins that (uniquely) lack semi-lunar corrugations and so give rise to haemorrhoids, the obesity-diabetes-arteriosclerosis complex; and so forth.

This makes the 'design solution' engine of Intelligent Design an odd sort of mechanism to envisage: it is neither deity nor a dispassionate, ceaseless natural force; but rather more like a fallible inventor or like competition amongst companies.

The "Solution encoder"

The nature of the problem-solving aspect of Intelligent Design generates problems for which it is not easy to envisage answers. Following computer practice, let us call it a daemon and, for present purposes, take its activity as read. We therefore need a mechanism by which the solutions which the daemon finds are encoded in biologically meaningful ways, so that an organism can make use of them. We assume that either there is only one such daemon active - although there is nothing in Intelligent Design which demands this - or that if there are multiple daemons at work, then they are of a co-operative nature. (A multi-daemon, uncooperative model would, of course, explain many of the difficulties which were noted above. But this would take us too close to Natural Selection to be comfortable.)

There are two problems that have to be solved. First, the daemon, having envisaged a solution - such as swifter lions - needs to redefine this in terms of the engines of cellular physiology. Plainly, a lot of things need to happen simultaneously - to the lions vasculature, its energy storage and mobilisation, to its motor cortex, perhaps even to its socialisation - but it is in this co-ordinated response to complex challenges that Intelligent Design excels. Each of these responses needs to be scripted down to the level of molecular and cellular architecture. These, in turn, depend on the dance of the genes during development and maturity, some of the genes new, some in new locations, some under new controlling structures. Finally, when all of that is in place, the requisite changes need to be made to the genome, all at once, replacing the former structure with the new. This is accomplished by some physical mechanism, unspecified by the exponents of Intelligent Design but perhaps due to a local quantum fluctuation. The hundreds of degrees of freedom innate in such a change makes any such fluctuation extremely, fantastically improbable, implying a very special nature to the daemon that brings this about.

However, there is a further problem that has to be solved. If a change is made in only one organism, then this has to pass its newfound complexity on to others. Perhaps it breeds with them, and passes on its genes. These do well because it is a better lion, or grass, or bacteria; and so are able to raise more offspring, mate with more . but wait! This is all alarmingly like Darwinism! Further, and much worse in the eyes of many of the proponents of Intelligent Design, it forces species to give rise to descendent but distinct species: as with primates delivering themselves of Intelligently Designed H. sapiens, for example.

How else might the products of the Intelligent Design daemon and its roll-out partner find their way into the ecology? Well, perhaps an entire sub-population are altered all at the same time. The aim is to create not one newly minted H. sapiens amidst the apes, but rather a group of them, altered so greatly that they are distinct from what went before as a daisy is from a buttercup. Not so much descended, as transmuted from a leaden stock.

Frankly, if the daemons have to go to all this trouble, why not start from scratch? Start with basic biological clay, and fashion a garden in which all of ordained perfection can be dropped, one by one. Perhaps one should allow for a period in which the daemons get the backdrop right - put fish in the seas, birds in the air - and finally, bring on the masterstroke of humanity last of all. Seven days should about do it.

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