Essays - Intelligent Design "Theory"

Although its adherents would deny it, literal Biblical Creationism is dead. No one in the general population takes it seriously, because its fallacies are so ridiculously easy to point out. The notion of the universe being a mere 6,000 years old is so easily refuted that only the most ignorant and radical Christians will seriously propose it in public. The use of the Bible as a source of scientific data is such a gross misrepresentation of Biblical-era storytelling methods that some of the loudest critics of this practice have been not atheists, but Christians (including Pope John Paul II). It is for these reasons that creationists devised a fallback position: the "intelligent designer" theory. Its proponents (such as Dr. Behe, author of the widely quoted book: Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution ) freely accept that the Bible has no scientific validity, and in Dr. Behe's case, he even accepts that life evolved over billions of years, from a common ancestor. But rather than weaken their argument, this paradoxically strengthens it in the minds of many, because the resulting vaguely defined theory no longer presents a single, well defined target for criticism. In order to criticize a theory it must first be explicitly defined, and "intelligent designer" theory is not. It abandons Young-Earth arguments and Biblical inerrancy, and it even accepts that evolution does occur, thus discarding most of its intellectual baggage. It only suggests that wherever we find gaps in our understanding of the entire process from start to finish, we should assume that an "intelligent designer" was responsible.

The primary justification is the notion of irreducible complexity. This is the idea that some structures are too complex to have evolved naturally, so they must have been deliberately designed. Its proponents gloss over the fact that no one arrives at this conclusion unless they just happen to have been raised in a Judeo-Christian religious environment. They also gloss over the fact that it is flawed on philosophical grounds: it presumes that if we cannot easily find an explanation for a phenomenon, then there must be no rational explanation at all, thus requiring divine intervention. And finally, they are deliberately circumspect about the identity of this "intelligent designer", because they want to insinuate this "theory" into the school system in defiance of constitutional church/state separation guarantees, even though everyone knows that the "intelligent designer" is just a "nudge nudge, wink wink" name for God.

The idea isn't new. Darwin's opponents upheld "irreducible complexity" as a disproof of macroscopic evolution in the 19th century, but their ideas were demolished in numerous public debates. These debates were so devastating to their case that they caused them to retreat entirely from the scientific forum and into the political forum, where they attempted to influence scientifically ignorant politicians and the court system. After this failed as well (most notably with the Scopes trial), they went underground into the world they occupy now, where they take their case directly to laypeople who are neither knowledgeable enough to easily see through their arguments (unlike scientists) or duty-bound to invest time and effort seriously investigating their claims before coming to a judgement (unlike the court system). While the logic of "irreducible complexity" was shown to be invalid more than a hundred years ago, creationists know that people have short memories, and a century of underground activity has allowed them to hone their propaganda techniques to a fine edge.

The "intelligent design" argument is by far the most clever and insidious Creationist attack, because it takes advantage of the "reasonable doubt" concept in the court system. That concept, which has thoroughly infiltrated popular culture, creates a mindset in which people tend to crystallize situations into an adversarial battle between prosecution and defense. The "intelligent design" people make no effort whatsoever to explicitly define their theory; they cannot explain how this designer might have conducted his work, what mechanisms he might have used, or how we are to determine who he was. But they know that they don't have to explicitly define their theory: they paint themselves as the defendant, and the scientific community as the prosecution in a legal trial. Therefore, rather than having to demonstrate that their theory is well defined and fits the facts more closely than evolution theory, they need only generate reasonable doubt about evolution theory and they have won an apparent victory for their vaguely defined alternative! This would not work in a real courtroom because only a criminal trial must demonstrate its case "beyond a reasonable doubt", and any judge would recognize that. But in the world of Joe Sixpack sitting in his mobile home in Tornado Alley, these arguments are as convincing as anything the mainstream scientific community has to say.

Therefore, arguments for intelligent design are invariably not positive arguments defining its predictions and showing how well they agree with observation, but rather, they are negative arguments, attempting to generate "reasonable doubt" about evolution under the pretense that the explanation for all unsolved mysteries should automatically default to divine intervention. Dr. Behe (whose book was subjected to some absolutely devastating critiques, two of which you can find here and here) expressed his idea of "irreducible complexity" as follows:

"By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution."

Dr. Behe then goes on to describe the enormous complexity and inter-dependency of numerous biological structures, en route to concluding that life is too complex and easily broken to have evolved naturally. This is actually nothing more than a well-written and cleverly deceptive update on the easily refuted "found watch" analogy used by creationists since the 19th century. As with the "found watch" analogy, it is very seriously flawed for numerous reasons, which I will briefly outline here.


Dr. Behe obviously doesn't suffer from low self-esteem. In fact, he seems to believe that he is omniscient! I say this because he apparently believes that if he can't personally figure out how a system could evolve gradually (or be reduced in complexity), then it must have been impossible for it to do so!

Even those "intelligent design" proponents who lack Behe's personal hubris subscribe to a more generalized version: they assume that if the scientific community at large has not yet figured it out, then it must be impossible, thus requiring divine intervention. Of course, their assessment of the state of scientific understanding is often over-pessimistic, as they routinely declare that scientists have no explanation for phenomena which in fact were explained years or decades earlier. In fact, Dr. Behe himself boldly declared that scientists were mysteriously "silent" about numerous phenomena in which published papers already existed and a great deal of research was underway, thus indicating that he had not done his homework, and that he was subscribing to the ludicrous "world-wide scientific conspiracy of silence" argument common to fundamentalist creationists.

The fallacy of this argument can be most easily exposed by applying it to the dawn of scientific inquiry. At that time, we understood very little about our universe. Applying Behe's mentality at that point would have led to the conclusion that since we couldn't figure out how anything worked, it must have been impossible to explain through naturalistic laws, so we should abandon the attempt and resort to divine intervention. In other words, Behe's assumption would have discouraged any further inquiry into science as a whole!


Suppose you demonstrate to an "intelligent design" adherent that a system which he thought to be "irreducibly complex" is actually not irreducibly complex, and that it actually can function with a missing component? What will he say?

You probably already know the answer to this one. He will admit that the previous system was not "irreducibly complex", but the new one is. He will then challenge you to find a way to reduce it. And if you succeed? The third system will now be "irreducibly complex", and he will challenge you to find a way to reduce that one too. Repeat ad nauseum.

This is a classic example of an unfalsifiable theory, because it is completely impossible to refute. Each time you demonstrate that an "irreducibly complex" biological system is actually not irreducible, they simply shift to a lower stage of evolutionary development or even an entirely different system, and demand that you also prove that to be reducible, or they win by default. One could literally disprove the "irreducibility" of a thousand separate biological systems in a row, and the "intelligent designer" adherent would continue to claim victory if you couldn't quickly come with an explanation for #1001!

In fact, the use of this gradual, step by step fallback technique has been carried from the outer reaches of the evolutionary "tree" all the way back to its root. Having seen their arguments for "irreducible complexity" successively demolished by fossil evidence for species after species, organ after organ, structure after structure, the creationists finally found themselves with their backs to the wall. In fact, Dr. Behe freely admits that the physical evidence overwhelmingly supports evolution theory. But there is a region between abiogenesis and the first cellular organism in which creatures would not leave fossils. This is where the creationists have chosen to make their stand, because this time, even though they are still using the same fallacious argument they used before, they know that no damning fossil evidence will be forthcoming.

Dr. Behe attempted to put a pseudoscientific face on the fallacy by arguing that while we understand evolution on a macroscopic level, we don't understand the sub-cellular, molecular evolution that would have led from the first simplistic organic self-replicator to single-celled organisms. Ergo, (despite numerous viable theories to describe this process), we must default to divine intervention!

No Predictive Capabilities

Science is a descriptive enterprise. Its laws are actually descriptive models which also have a predictive capability. Does "intelligent designer" theory have a predictive capability? In a word, no.

In fact, while evolution theory easily predicted the emerging resistance of bacteria to antibiotics as well as the devastating effect of introducing foreign organisms into an environment in which no natural predators have evolved to combat them, "intelligent designer" theory has always been incapable of prediction! That is because it discards naturalistic mechanisms in favour of the mysterious and unknowable intent of a divine being, whose motivations, plans, and methods are inscrutable. If it can be argued to predict the same things that evolution theory predicts, it can only do so to the extent that it accepts the occurrence of evolutionary processes, thus making the "intelligent designer" a completely redundant term (see Occam's Razor).

In other words, its lack of predictive abilities disqualifies it as a legitimate scientific theory. It is incapable of predictions, so its predictions cannot be compared to new or existing observations. Therefore, it cannot be tested in even the most superficial way. And while the difficulties inherent in testing sub-cellular evolution theories are primarily of time, scale, and technology, the difficulties inherent in testing "intelligent designer" theory are of basic scientific philosophy: a theory must have some predictive capability in order to be tested or even vaguely supported, so even from a purely theoretical sense, "intelligent design" is a useless theory.

Intelligent designer or mindlessly stupid designer?

Scientists (including Catholic biochemists such as Dr. Behe) are not trained in the methodology of design, and quite frankly, when the question turns to one of design, they are not the best people to call upon. In fact, design falls within the purview of engineers rather than scientists. Therefore, some would claim that since the "intelligent design" theory is actually quite popular among engineers (for whom every design required a designer), this bodes well for the theory.

However, as an engineer myself, I would strenuously object to that assumption, because most of the engineers who support this theory have either been brainwashed from birth (thus giving them an intellectual "blind spot" where their religion is concerned) or they simply haven't studied biology in enough detail to know whether we and our ecosystem are the sort of system which indicates a methodical design approach (ie- "intelligent design") rather than a haphazard trial and error approach (ie- evolution). The "intelligent design" proponents take advantage of this fact to sell them on the idea that the ecosystem is perfectly designed, and many engineers take the validity of that claim on faith. Therefore, they proceed on this invalid assumption to conclude that it must have been designed by someone.

However, if you investigate this claim beyond the surface, it becomes blatantly apparent that it is completely false. "Intelligent design" is predicated upon the assumption that the ecosystem is a well designed system, with all of its various parts optimized to perfection and working in perfect harmony. They state this assumption as fact, and quickly move on to its ramifications. But if we hit the brakes and take a good look at the assumption, we will find that it has no basis. What possible justification is there for the claim that our ecosystem is well designed or highly optimized?

Dr. Behe and others believe that the necessary justification can be found simply by taking note of the enormous complexity and interdependency of the subsystems in a typical organism. He also notes their instability: if you so much as remove or degrade one little piece, the whole thing fails, therefore it must have been "intelligently designed". But as an engineer, I am absolutely appalled at the common acceptance of this false and groundless connection, even by some of my peers. In reality, which for me is the mechanical world of hydraulics, linkages, metallic structures, cooling systems, and electronic controls, the intelligent designer always creates the least complex, least interdependent, least unstable system to perform any given task. Occam's Razor isn't just a philosophical principle; it is an engineering axiom, and it is the incompetent designer whose designs are extremely complex and interdependent. And take note of this: the most complex, interdependent, inscrutable, and easily broken systems of all are invariably the ones that were designed not from the ground up, but by subjecting an existing system to repeated, haphazard, jury-rigged modifications!

Those familiar with computer software design will instantly recognize this phenomenon: the most convoluted, cross-wired, easily broken, metastable, bloated code is invariably that which incorporates a lot of "legacy baggage" rather than that which was designed from the ground up. Anyone familiar with basic engineering or computer programming theory, method, and practice should realize that far from disproving evolution theory, the enormous complexity of the biosystem and its life forms shows quite clearly that it could not have been intelligently designed! If we go with Dr. Behe's analogy of biochemical "machines", these machines are jury-rigged contraptions that were obviously based on legacy designs.

In fact, the enormous complicated biosystem and its complex, seemingly related, easily killed life forms are precisely what you would expect from a "trial and error" design methodology. Numerous questionable or just plain bad design aspects of living organisms are the obvious result of a sequence of repeated, haphazard, jury-rigged modifications upon a common ancestor. In other words, evolution.

Symptoms of jury-rigged design

Consider the following pieces of evidence supporting the theory that biological organisms are the result of trial and error, jury-rigged, evolutionary design rather than deliberate, "intelligent" design:

Creationists open a dangerous can of worms when they suggest that we consider biological structures as engineered designs. Any engineer can examine the entire "product line" and see widespread evidence of massive, inexplicable incompetence. Dangerous, potentially lethal design flaws are mindlessly propagated through entire product lines, design improvements are mysteriously confined within product lines, manufacturing yields are horrendous, and every design has been cobbled together from previous designs, and new features are often jury-rigged from old ones instead of being added as genuinely new systems. Any engineer who takes a serious look at biological organisms from an engineering standpoint (as opposed to mindlessly accepting creationist propaganda about its "perfection") will have no choice but to conclude that there was no intelligence whatsoever behind it.


The fossil record is full of species which are now extinct. More than 99% of the species in the history of this planet are now gone. This is extremely easy to explain with evolution theory, which predicts that changing environments and ruthless competition will drive some species into extinction while making others thrive.

But does "intelligent design" theory predict this? Absolutely not. Unless this "intelligent designer" is incredibly incompetent, it is hard to imagine why he would devote so much time to so many badly designed creatures, and then let them live for so long before creating competitive species that would wipe them out.

What explanation can be given? That the "intelligent designer" wasn't particularly good at his craft, so he had to keep tweaking and improving his initial designs? If so, then how does that differ from evolution theory, apart from the apparently redundant term that is our "intelligent designer"?

No major revisions

An intelligent designer will occasionally make the effort to discard legacy design considerations. Sometimes, we'll recognize that a design has become so convoluted that it would be better to start from scratch, rather than continuing to tweak the existing mess. Other times, we'll carefully pick through a design, replacing certain sub-optimal components with redesigned parts and eliminating wasteful redundancies or weak points.

Does the imaginary "intelligent designer" responsible for our biosystem do this? Not exactly. In fact, there is not one example anywhere of fresh starts, new ideas, sudden left turns, or any of the other kinds of occasional major revisions that are typical of real large-scale, intelligent design. Instead, this "intelligent designer" appears to be the most unimaginative designer in the universe, having never once, in billions of years and millions of species, created a biological structure which didn't resemble a modification upon some kind of antecedent!

One might try to argue that our intelligent designer, being omniscient and omnipotent, designed his first cellular organism so well, with such foresight that no sudden and dramatic design revisions were ever required. But that flies in the face of the countless wrong turns taken in the evolutionary history of this planet (eg. extinct species), not to mention the severe debilitating effect of "legacy hardware" in our biological "design". In other words, if he were so damned smart, then why did he screw up so many times, and why aren't we better designed?

There are countless examples of sub-optimal design in the human body. For example, the aforementioned examples of our breathing apparatus and our eyeball design are obviously sub-optimal. Also, why is the skull so thin (particularly in the temples), even though this greatly increases the probability that a blow to the head will damage the vulnerable brain inside? There are, in fact, a huge number of sub-optimal design characteristics found in nature (see the Jury-Rigged Design FAQ at for examples).


"Intelligent Design" proponents are fond of claiming that "evolutionists" always approach the data with the wrong mindset (ie- not the "design" mindset). However, if we do approach it from an engineering mindset as they suggest, and we apply due diligence in that analysis, we will quickly find that the biological "product line" is such an egregious example of jury-rigged, half-assed design that no one in his right mind would ever attribute it to an intelligent designer, never mind one who is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and infallible.

Last updated: July 29, 2001