December 22, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

When Is Design Just Natural?

Some recent stories provide exercises in differentiating intelligently-caused designs from complex patterns that can arise from natural law.  Here are some examples of designs in science reports; the commentary will discuss criteria for deciding which arise spontaneously without purpose and intent.

  1. Saturn hexagon:  The north pole of Saturn shows an odd hexagon-shaped pattern in the clouds that has persisted since at least the Voyager flybys.  Jet Propulsion Lab issued a press release with a new picture of it emerging from the winter darkness.  It was posted as the Dec. 14 Astronomy Picture of the Day.  There’s no good explanation for it yet.  “Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes the hexagon, where it gets and expels its energy and how it has stayed so organized for so long.”
  2. Cell cybernetics:  Science reported on Dec. 11 that “A Simple Cipher Governs DNA Recognition by TAL Effectors.”  We normally think of ciphers as a human-based technology.  Moscou and Bogdanove wrote, “Our finding represents a previously unknown mechanism for protein-DNA recognition that explains TAL effector specificity, enables target site prediction, and opens prospects for use of TAL effectors in research and biotechnology.”
  3. Genes in 3-D:  Science Daily reported that a “3-D View of Genes-at-Work Is Paradigm Shift in Genetics.”  Scientists from the Babraham Institute are getting glimpses of the 3-D organization of chromosomes in the nucleus.  It’s causing a “paradigm shift in our understanding of how the genome is spatially organised in relation to gene expression.”  There were 14 references to “transcription factories” in the short article.  For example:

    Highly coordinated chromosomal choreography leads genes and the sequences controlling them, which are often positioned huge distances apart on chromosomes, to these ‘hot spots’.  Once close together within the same transcription factory, genes get switched on (a process called transcription) at an appropriate level at the right time in a specific cell type.  This is the first demonstration that genes encoding proteins with related physiological role visit the same factory.

    In fact, the article continued, DNA itself is proving to be the most mobile thing in the nucleus, moving the genes to the hot spots where transcription occurs.  The genes almost seem to do a purpose-driven dance: “Having a common goal, such as producing all the components needed to make haemoglobin, could be a factor behind genes gravitating to a particular factory.”

  4. Golden Ratio:  The irrational number 1.61803… seems to pop up everywhere in nature: in animal proportions, the pyramids, artichoke heads, conch shells, spiral galaxies, the Mona Lisa and the Parthenon, to name a few.  Science Daily claimed that Adrian Bejan of Duke University knows why.  The ratio “describes a rectangle with a length roughly one and a half times its width.”  Bejan in his “constructal law” claims that “the eyes scan an image the fastest when it is shaped as a golden-ratio rectangle.”
        The article continued: “For Bejan, vision and cognition evolved together and are one and the same design as locomotion.  The increased efficiency of information flowing from the world through the eyes to the brain corresponds with the transmission of this information through the branching architecture of nerves and the brain.”  Bejan, who believes that “vision and cognition evolved together and are one and the same design as locomotion,” said something that almost sounds new-age:

    It is the oneness of vision, cognition and locomotion as the design of the movement of all animals on earth…. The phenomenon of the golden ratio contributes to this understanding the idea that pattern and diversity coexist as integral and necessary features of the evolutionary design of nature.

    This explanation seems to beg the question of why galaxies and conch shells, which lack vision and cognition, follow this ratio, or why cognitive beings would have converged on the Golden Ratio, and what makes it golden, or satisfying, to the human spirit.  It also fails to explain from a naturalistic or evolutionary perspective what initial conditions in a big-bang explosion would have led to the ubiquity of the Golden Ratio.
    Update 01/07/2010: Does the Golden Ratio extend to the quantum scale?  PhysOrg reported that resonant modes of scattering neutrons display the same Golden Ratio “famous from art and architecture.”  The article added, “Such discoveries are leading physicists to speculate that the quantum, atomic scale world may have its own underlying order.”

  5. Histone code:  “Scientists Take a Step Towards Uncovering the Histone Code,” reported Science Daily.  This refers to protein tags on DNA that affect transcription and are apparently heritable and provide instructions apart from genes.  “Many biologists believe the modifications on histones are a code, analogous to the genetic code,” the article said (see also 07/26/2006, 02/17/2004).
  6. Urchin crystal power:  Sea urchins have a remarkable ability to build crystal teeth with perfectly aligned crystals.  PhysOrg explored this tantalizing phenomenon, opening with the teaser, “It’s as if grains of salt were spilled on a rug, yet instead of landing randomly, all wound up with exactly the same angle and rotation.”  The sea urchin begins with an amorphous mass of calcium carbonate like a ball of mud, and ends up with a perfect structure that is the envy of nanotechnologists.  This is achieved through crosslinks that Pupa Gilbert (U of Wisconsin-Madison) said “look exactly like Roman bridges, with long decks, and arched piers.”
        What caused this remarkable order?  The article offered its explanation: “Evolution has crafted a clever means of forming hard, complicated crystals, yet the control mechanism remains to be explored.” Gilbert “still expresses wonderment at the biological solution she has observed,” the article noted.  She said, “Maybe one day we will have solar panels inspired by the lowly sea urchin.”

1.  Moscou and Bogdanove, “A Simple Cipher Governs DNA Recognition by TAL Effectors,” Science, 11 December 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5959, p. 1501, DOI: 10.1126/science.1178817.

How does one distinguish intentional design from accidental or natural design?  Your answer probably depends on your worldview.  The above examples find patterns in everything from molecules to galaxies.  An animist or ancient Roman might explain them with references to spirits or the gods.  A materialist will only find intentional design in the Parthenon, the Mona Lisa, and other artificial creations, and ascribe everything else to chance and natural law.  But we are often confronted with puzzles.  Is this rock an arrowhead or an accident of nature?  Is that odd-shaped cloud skywriting?  Non-atheists have additional questions about which phenomena involve God’s intervention.  The fever that afflicted Peter’s mother might have worn off over time; we would consider that a natural healing process.  But when Jesus healed her instantly, that’s a miracle.  Atheists, of course, have no patience with any of this.  Yet their explanations based on chance border on the miraculous sometimes (see article on ICR).  They can go so far as to give a rational person cause to accuse them of holding to their world view in spite of the evidence (12/13/2009).
    Intelligent design theory seeks to elucidate the scientific basis for inferring intelligent causes.  It recognizes that many complex patterns can arise in nature without intentionality.  Probably no one except devotees of late-night talk shows about alien conspiracies believes the Saturn hexagon was intelligently designed, even though scientists cannot explain it yet.  Most trust that science will explain it in due time.  But why do they trust science in that case, and not in the case of Parthenon?  Is it only a question of whether humans are involved?  And what is human design, anyway, if humans alone are capable of intelligent design, but arose from non-intelligent causes of chance and natural law?  What do we mean by “natural”?
    The core of the intelligent design approach is to look for complex specified information, using the explanatory filter described by Dembski in his books (for synopsis, see article at the IDEA Center).  Only when chance and natural law have been excluded via a rational criterion of plausibility is intelligent design considered.  This presumes, of course, that we can agree on the meanings of chance and natural law.  Sometimes a “natural law” is floated around too loosely.  Is it fair to apply a term like “constructal law” to the ubiquity of the Golden Ratio in nature, or is that a post-hoc fallacy?  That might be like watching a chess game and ascribing the movements of the chess pieces to a natural law we might arbitrarily name the “Checkmate Law” which states that chess pieces converge toward the elimination of the King from the board.  Inventing a law after the fact and calling it “natural” explains nothing.  It’s an anti-explanation.  In the case of the chess game, it ignores the primary cause of the phenomenon – intelligence.  Laws like “natural selection” can be similarly critiqued.  Subjective verbal phrases like “survival of the fittest” lack the mathematical precision of laws in physics.
    How, then, do we explain non-artificial patterns like the histone code, and perfectly-aligned crystals in an urchin tooth, and the Golden Ratio spiral in a conch shell?  Each of the words in the phrase complex specified information is significant.  It has to be complex enough to exceed the threshold of chance.  It has to be specified to match an independent pattern.  And it has to be information – perhaps the trickiest word.  Information in one context can be gibberish in another.  Even apparent randomness can be intentional – as in a white-noise generator or some abstract art.  Do we call the DNA code information in the same sense as text in a novel?  Do we call the choreography of the chromosomes information in the same sense as ballet?  Are these just figures of speech?  When are the differences more significant than the similarities?  What is being communicated – and to whom or what?  The Saturn hexagon has no semantics, for instance; it conveys no message, performs no function.  Forces in the atmosphere – perhaps resonances or standing waves – will undoubtedly be found sufficient to explain the pattern once all the factors are known.  The hexagons in a beehive, though, perform a function – they create breeding cells with the maximum volume per packing space, using minimum materials.  Thus we see that information can be semantic or functional.  In either case, it requires foresight and intent to bring component parts together.
    We know that intelligence acts with a goal in mind, and organizes parts to fit the goal.  Evolution and “blind nature” lack the ability to foresee ends, or to organize parts toward a goal.  Can we say this consistently?  Does gas and dust conspire to build a star?  Does water and rock and heat conspire to build Old Faithful geyser, in the same sense that calcium carbonate crystals and bridges conspire to build an urchin tooth?  Stars and geysers are improbable natural phenomena, too.  But in those cases, we see a clear continuum of simpler phenomena.  With stars, we see dust clouds of various levels of density, Herbig-Haro objects, and bodies of every size from brown dwarfs to supergiants.  With geysers, we find fumaroles, mudpots, and active hot springs of all sizes up to the great regular spouters.  Each of these falls within the range of chance and known physical laws of thermodynamics.  They also don’t “say” anything; there is no communication between parts, no information shared, no long-range goal that pulls together disparate parts to share a message.  They are like clouds, not skywriting; like ripples, not hieroglyphics.  Even the most elegant natural phenomena, like snowflakes, display the repetitive outcomes of natural laws applied to matter without conveying any meaning.  In a living cell, though, we find aperiodic coded information that is stored and retrieved, and then translated into a separate molecular coding convention (proteins), all with clear observable function as a result.  The coded information has no necessary connection to its medium.  The same information could conceivably be stored in other molecules – in the same sense that a human message could be sent via paper or email (computer geeks will appreciate George Gilder’s explanation of this point on ID the Future).  This means that information is not material.  It is independent from the medium that conveys it.  Moreover, the DNA translation system includes numerous component parts that must all work, or else function stops.  Even though the parts themselves are not intelligent, they show the hallmark of intelligent design – just like we might watch a robot made of metal and plastic using electricity on a factory assembly line and rightly infer it was intelligently designed for the purpose of assembling automobiles.
    In Signature in the Cell (06/27/2009 Resource of the Week), Stephen Meyer delved deeply into the problem of how complex specified information – functional information – could have arisen in the molecules of life.  Only after the most rigorous elimination of all possible non-intelligent causes did intelligent design emerge as the best explanation.  But once chance and natural law (or combinations of the two) have been eliminated, and intelligent design accepted as the best (or only) explanation, new questions emerge.  If the apparent intention, foresight and purpose in life points to intelligent design, should we not look at the rest of nature with new eyes?  Why is the Golden Ratio so ubiquitous in nature?  Why do the constants of physics conspire to work together, out of a seemingly infinite range of contingent possibilities, to allow stars, planets, and life to exist?  Why is the Earth so well suited for life?  The Creator that Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Haeckel and all the others sought to exclude from scientific explanation has been there all the time.  Secular scientists only chose to look the other way.
Exercise:  Look for complex specified information in the 6 examples above.  If intelligent design was involved, when and where was it involved?  Which of these operate robotically without God’s intervention?  Which emerged according to natural laws – and what are the laws?  Which might have started out by intelligent design but become modified naturally over time?  Which imply intelligently-designed initial conditions only?  Try your reasoning on these other patterns in nature: sand dunes, flying seeds (12/03/2009, 10/21/2009), iron filings on a paper over a magnet, a virus packing motor (10/18/2001), planetary rings, binary stars, toxins, river meanders, cilia in the windpipe, wind waves on a field of grass, honeycomb, parallel rock strata (are they fractal? 03/05/2004), meteor showers, the solar cycle, glaciers, volcanoes, dust devils on Mars, Cepheid variables, barred spiral galaxies, a perfect solar eclipse, stalactites, streaks in a cloud chamber, crater chains, ant mounds, woodpecker holes, a packrat midden, an Indian midden, a Venus flytrap, a beaver trap, the musical pattern in wind chimes, bird song, phyllotaxis.  Think of more on your own.

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