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Fairy Circles? The Design Inference at Work

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From time to time we point out illustrations of how scientists outside the ID movement use the design inference, demonstrating how natural and pervasive design reasoning is. Everyone, scientist or layman, uses such reasoning. It’s both valid, when correctly applied, and inescapable.

In Undeniable, Douglas Axe talks about the “common science” that even children engage in, employing what he calls a “universal design intuition” with which we are all born. Axe is careful not to take this too far, but he argues that it’s the default for human beings, even as materialists try to explain it away with question-begging Darwinian just-so stories.

In past articles, we’ve looked at scientists trying to understand the origin of rock piles under the Sea of Galilee or on a mountainside. We’ve talked about SETI. And we puzzled over curious lines of rocks in the Jordanian desert. We too have been careful not to jump to conclusions, as two examples failed the design filter, and perfectly natural things like sandstone arches can be quite symmetrical and artistic, but still explainable by natural law and chance. The examples show that one can infer design without knowing anything about the designer.

Today’s case study is a doozy. It’s most likely a natural phenomenon, but to this day, scientists have been unable to explain it. Some are not ruling out intelligent design. Megan Gannon at Live Science introduces the phenomenon:

“Fairy circles” are regular, repeating patches of dirt in remote grasslands that, when viewed from above, look like whimsical rings that were scattered across a landscape. Despite their fanciful appearance, the patterns have been a source of serious scientific debate for the last four decades. While some have argued that the geometric patterns are the work of termites, others have postulated that the circles form naturally as vegetation self-organizes in competition for scarce water and other nutrients. [Emphasis added.]

Adding to the confusion is the fact that these orderly rings have been found in Namibia and in the Australian outback, but may or may not have the same cause. Here’s a sampling of some recent literature on the subject. Notice the first article’s premature celebration.

  • “Mystery of Desert ‘Fairy Circles’ Solved, Creators Found” (Live Science)

  • “Are Namibian ‘Fairy Circles’ the Consequence of Self-Organizing Spatial Vegetation Patterning?” (PLOS ONE)

  • “Mysterious ‘Fairy Circles’ Not Explained by Termites, Study Suggests” (Live Science)

  • “Gradual regime shifts in fairy circles” (PNAS)

  • “Experiments Testing the Causes of Namibian Fairy Circles” (PLOS ONE, 10/28/15)

  • “Discovery of fairy circles in Australia supports self-organization theory” (PNAS)

  • “Are ‘Fairy Circles’ Just the ‘Ghosts’ of Termite Nests?” (Live Science)

  • “Fairy circles or ghosts of termitaria? Pavement termites as alternative causes of circular patterns in vegetation of desert Australia” (PNAS)

It’s hard not to chuckle at the talk of fairies in the august Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, knowing as we do that Richard Dawkins has often ridiculed the religious as believing in “fairies, goblins, hobgoblins, leprechauns” and other mythical creatures. But obviously it’s just a figure of speech here.

Unlike the crop-circle craze, which many suspected from the beginning involved human design (later proved by eyewitnesses and the increasing elaboration of the patterns), this one is not so obvious. The default explanation has been to infer something natural. But what? Until a natural cause is demonstrated, scientists were not able to rule out an intelligent cause.

The last paper, from PNAS, appears to have nailed the solution, at least for the circles in Australia. They are the remains of active or abandoned nests from underground termites. It took years of careful observation to arrive at that conclusion, however, passing through theories of self-organization, tribal artwork or farming patterns, hydrocarbon seeps, or products of carnivorous ants.

It’s still not clear that termites explain the Namibian circles. Even now, not everyone is convinced about the termite theory. The point is that the problem has occupied the attention of scientists from around the world, rightly so, who have published in leading journals. And so design science marches on. No apologies needed.

Photo: Fairy circles, Namibia, by Stephan Getzin (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

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