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A Design False Positive? Applying the Design Filter in Archaeology


Off the coast of a Greek island, snorkelers found structures that resemble human artifacts. Some look like pottery, others like pipes. There even appear to be paved courtyards. Were these treasures from a sunken ship, or remains from a town that became submerged after a tidal wave? Archaeologists from two universities went to investigate.

We’ve considered cases before (here and here) of odd formations that didn’t look designed but were judged by archaeologists to be man-made structures. Here’s a case of the opposite: features that look designed at the outset, but left room for doubt. Can William Dembski’s famous Design Filter rescue us from a case of mistaken identity?

Archaeology, as we have observed before, is an example of intelligent design science in action. Archaeologists do not rush to a design inference. Hardened pieces of clay in a dry riverbed might be mistaken for pottery shards, for instance. In this case, the symmetrical structures and patterns resemble archaeological stonework from the Hellenic Period. According to their paper in Marine and Petroleum Geology, the researchers came prepared to examine possible remains from the age of classical Greece. A funny thing happened when they took a closer look, according to news from the University of East Anglia:

When underwater divers discovered what looked like paved floors, courtyards and colonnades, they thought they had found the ruins of a long-forgotten civilization that perished when tidal waves hit the shores of the Greek holiday island Zakynthos.

But new research published today reveals that the site was created by a natural geological phenomenon that took place in the Pliocene era — up to five million years ago.

Lead author Prof Julian Andrews, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “The site was discovered by snorkelers and first thought to be an ancient city port, lost to the sea. There were what superficially looked like circular column bases, and paved floors. But mysteriously no other signs of life — such as pottery.” [Emphasis added]

As they gathered data, the geological explanation became clearer:

  1. The lack of other evidences of human artifacts was unexpected if this were a city port.

  2. The linear distribution suggested association with a fault line.

  3. The structures are composed of dolomite, a material unlikely to have been used by Greek artisans. It was known that anaerobic bacteria can precipitate this kind of dolomite from methane seeps.

  4. Isotopic data fit the theory that these were natural concretions.

  5. Though rare in shallow waters such as these, similar concretions are known from other parts of the world in deep waters, from hundreds to thousands of feet deep, nowhere near civilization.

For these and other reasons, the scientists rejected the design hypothesis and attributed these structures to natural causes. But before giving up entirely on intelligent design, consider these additional parts of the geological explanation:

Microbes in the sediment use the carbon in methane as fuel. Microbe-driven oxidation of the methane then changes the chemistry of the sediment forming a kind of natural cement, known to geologists as concretion.

“In this case the cement was an unusual mineral called dolomite which rarely forms in seawater, but can be quite common in microbe-rich sediments.

“These concretions were then exhumed by erosion to be exposed on the seabed today.

Here we find an important nuance that complicates a binary design/non-design inference. We hear about microbes taking the methane for a function of extracting energy. Their functional actions change the chemistry of the seawater. As a result, a rare mineral is produced that would not likely appear by geological processes alone.

While it’s true that the microbes did not design the overall shape of the structures, or their linear arrangements, the concretions might not have been produced without the complex specified information in the genomes of the microbes — information that constructs irreducibly complex molecular machines able to extract energy from methane. In addition, the outer shapes of the concretions were further modified by other sea creatures. Would the geological explanation work on a planet devoid of life, all things being equal? Probably not.

We need to subdivide this case, therefore, into two queries: the origin of the distribution of the concretions, and the origin of the material comprising them. The natural law explanation works for the former; the design explanation for the latter.

Here’s another interesting test case from some pictures sent along by our old friend David Coppedge. Along the shores of Lake Crowley in eastern California, he photographed a series of regularly spaced columns that look, for all the world, like the remains of an ancient temple. Quite amazing. See the photo at the top.

Each column is further composed of regularly spaced disks of stone. The width, spacing and regularity of these structures are remarkable.

We know these are not designed, however, for a combination of reasons.

  1. They are composed of the same volcanic tuff that occurs over a wide area.

  2. Columns in all stages of development can be found along the same cliff.

  3. Very few of the columns are as perfect as those shown above; many are slanted, and they come in no meaningful arrangement of heights and diameters.

  4. No native peoples in the area were ever known to build structures like this. Moreover, the space inside being shallow, they would have served no apparent function.

Additionally, geological theories exist to explain these formations by natural causes. They are known as “degassing pipes” from the Long Valley Caldera in which they are found. Rising gas under the lake when it was deeper likely cemented the material in the pipes, making it more resistant to erosion when the lake level dropped and the cliff began to erode. Broken remnants of collapsed columns, furthermore, are evident along the base of the cliff.

None of these reasons is alone sufficient for rejecting design, but according to Dembski’s design filter, a natural cause is preferred when available and when the amount of specified complexity is low.

One last example comes from Spain. Look at National Geographic‘s picture of “mysterious stone circles” found a thousand feet inside the entrance of Bruniquel Cave. Though not elaborate, the ring of broken stalactites contains sufficient specified complexity for archaeologists to infer design. They believe Neanderthals who inhabited the area built the structure for unknown reasons. According to the paper in Nature, and a summary also in Nature by Marie Soressi, scientists felt justified in inferring that the stones were placed deliberately by beings with cognitive abilities and acting with purpose. Natural law and chance were thereby rejected.

Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist from London’s Natural History Museum, said, “This discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves, where artificial lighting would have been essential.” Notice how he says this without ever having met a Neanderthal. His inference comes entirely from the artifacts that show the activity of a mind.

Archaeology is intelligent design in action. Archaeologists routinely distinguish between natural causes and intelligent causes. A design inference may be drawn with rigor, avoiding hasty conclusions. But if the paltry level of organization seen in a ring of stalactites is sufficient for a design inference, how much more the genetic code of a microbe, containing vast amounts of complex specified information?