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“Oldest Known Drawing,” and More Cases of Intelligent Design at Work in Science

Science as a routine matter expects to be able to differentiate between the results of natural and intelligent causes. Sound familiar? Several illustrations from recent news will help clarify.

Crayon Drawings on Rock

It would be fair to call this an inference to intelligent design. It’s being reported widely from a South African cave: red markings on a rock. Are they natural marks, or were they intelligently crafted? The BBC News is among news sources calling this the “oldest known drawing,” made by choice and intent, not just for survival.

The drawing is about 73,000 years old, and shows cross-hatch lines sketched onto stone with red ochre pigment.

Scientists discovered the small fragment of the drawing —  which some say looks a bit like a hashtag — in Blombos Cave on the southern coast.

The find is “a prime indicator of modern cognition” in our species, the report says.  [Emphasis added.]

The researchers feel that the fragment in their hands is just part of a larger work that was “probably more complex” in its entirety. “The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface,” says one. That’s a bold design inference from just a few scratch marks! 

The paper in Nature uses that ID word “intention” again: “We conclude that the ochre crayon was intentionally used to produce a cross-hatched design.” Lo and behold, the word “design” shows up six times in the paper! Whatever the drawing meant, it represented “abstract and depictive representations produced by drawing” far earlier than previously known. The Editors of Nature go further, stating that “The earliest known drawing in history sends a message through 73,000 years.” Watch them overtly use design reasoning:

So, were these Palaeolithic hashtags actually designs intended to convey meaning, or mindless graffiti? Some might have been the unintentional result of another action, such as cutting food items, just like the scratches left on a chopping board after slicing a loaf.

A drawing, by contrast, is much harder to dismiss. To be sure, the one from Blombos is as cross-hatched as the engravings, but it could not have been created as the accidental by-product of another process.

If evolutionists want to deny that the conclusion of this paper supports intelligent design, and argue that drawing abstract patterns is just a natural behavior that our species does from time to time, then fine. Let them argue the same for published scientific papers!

Cut Marks on Bird Bones

Meanwhile, also at the BBC News, Helen Briggs tells how scientists just deduced that humans arrived on Madagascar 6,000 years earlier than thought. 

Prehistoric humans are under suspicion of wiping out the largest birds that ever lived after fossilised bones were discovered with telltale cut marks.

According to scientists, it’s evidence that the elephant birds of Madagascar were hunted and butchered for food.

Evolutionists might argue that humans are just animals, doing what animals do: acting like predators against these birds. But the “telltale cut marks” imply use of designed tools for hunting. The paper in Science Advances lists “purposefulness” as one of the criteria for determining that humans hunted these birds. “These marks are consistent with kerfs made by single-bladed, sharp lithic tools and multiple cutting actions intended to” cut the bones apart for consumption.

Fast Radio Bursts

Flush with a $100 million grant from Russian benefactor Yuri Milner, SETI scientists in the “Breakthrough Listen” project are seeking to understand mysterious flashes of light in deep space. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are usually one-off events coming from various directions in the sky. As such, they most likely have a natural cause, but intelligent causes cannot be ruled out arbitrarily. 

The source and mechanism of FRBs are still mysterious. Previous studies have shown that the bursts from 121102 are emanating from a galaxy 3 billion light years from Earth, but the nature of the object emitting them is still unknown. Theories range from highly magnetized neutron stars, blasted by gas streams near to a supermassive black hole, to suggestions that the burst properties are consistent with signatures of technology developed by an advanced civilization.

Look at the effort that went into this design-detection exercise:

In search of a deeper understanding of this intriguing object, the Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center observed FRB 121102 for five hours on August 26, 2017, using the Breakthrough Listen digital instrumentation at the GBT. Combing through 400 TB of data, they reported (in a paper led by Berkeley SETI postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar, recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal) a total of 21 bursts. All were seen within one hour, suggesting that the source alternates between periods of quiescence and frenzied activity….

Whether or not FRBs themselves eventually turn out to be signatures of extraterrestrial technology, Breakthrough Listen is helping to push the frontiers of a new and rapidly growing area of our understanding of the Universe around us. 

Publish and Perish

Here’s an unusual case of the design inference that is somewhat reminiscent of Dembski’s illustration that a ballot fraud incident demonstrated intent to bias an election. In that case, the candidate for one party appeared at the top of the ballot more often than could be attributed statistically to chance, possibly to subconsciously influence voters to choose the first name they saw.

John Ioannidis is an unusual scientist; he researches research. He looks for unusual patterns in publication that suggest unethical behavior. In Nature, his team posted a surprising headline: “Thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days.” Unless these scientists are supermen, that seems highly suspect!

Ioannidis and his co-authors went out of their way to examine possibilities other than fraud. They listened to some of the “hyperprolific authors” who tried to explain their publishing records. They considered extenuating circumstances, such as being listed simply as a member of a large team, or as a token author who supervised another’s work. They even considered the possibility that the authors really are supermen:

Overall, hyperprolific authors might include some of the most energetic and excellent scientists. However, such modes of publishing might also reflect idiosyncratic field norms, to say the least. Loose definitions of authorship, and an unfortunate tendency to reduce assessments to counting papers, muddy how credit is assigned. One still needs to see the total publishing output of each scientist, benchmarked against norms for their field. And of course, there is no substitute for reading the papers and trying to understand what the authors have done.


We’ve seen cases in archaeology, astronomy, and publishing where research depends on the ability to distinguish natural causes from intelligent ones. That, of course, is what ID is all about. Actions speak louder than words, we all know. Some scientists may denounce “intelligent design” as a movement, but they find its practice very useful.

Photo: Blombos Cave, South Africa, by Magnus Haaland, via University of Witwatersrand/EurekAlert!