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Why the Conclusion that Life Is Designed Really Is Inescapable

Douglas Axe


My recent book, Undeniable, makes the case not just that life is designed but also that this is obvious — you need no special training to see it. And yet, as with other obvious truths, some people prefer to deny this one than to fully embrace the attending implications.

For atheists to be in denial here isn’t surprising. Short of recanting, they have no option. For theists to eschew the claim that life is designed is much more puzzling, though, because nothing seems to force them to adopt that counterintuitive stance.

Most people in this second group are fairly described as theistic evolutionists, in that they accept the standard evolutionary explanation for how Earth came to be home to all the living things we see around us. But considering the magnitude of the difficulties that confront this standard view, why do they stand by it? Why do they prefer an oblique version of God’s creative action — where the created order created us — when the more direct alternative ought to sit well with them?

Clear answers have been hard to come by, in my experience. That’s why I was pleased to enter into an extended dialogue with theistic evolutionist Hans Vodder. Even if our discussion doesn’t bring us to agreement, my hope is that we will at least pinpoint the cause of our disagreement.

A Recurring Theme of Probability

So far, it seems that our differences center on my use of probabilities to validate our intuitive sense that certain things can’t happen by accident. Citing a 2003 paper by Howard Van Till, Hans said previously that probabilistic arguments like mine typically require a host of special assumptions, none of which are realistic.

I keep saying the opposite: the math that validates our design intuition is “extremely robust.” Moreover, I keep providing examples to demonstrate that my reasoning doesn’t use the artificial assumptions Hans is concerned about.

Here is his most recent reply:

I should’ve been clearer about my objection. While I am concerned about imprecise probability values, my main worry lies elsewhere. Specifically, I contend that treating living things as if they were discrete combinatorial objects (discussed in the previous post; hereafter, DCOs) is a serious misstep, resulting in probability values which are irrelevant for assessing evolution. To see why, we should explore the implications of DCO-based calculations.

We might begin by asking what it means for a DCO to emerge by chance. There are several tacit assumptions built into such a probability assessment. First, we assume that the DCO will be a fully-formed individual: no points given for half a DCO, and the DCO exists independently of all others. Second, the chance appearance of a DCO is an instantaneous affair: its appearance is a synchronic event. Third, each of the DCO’s components is selected from a range of equiprobable alternatives. In short, the organism-as-DCO approach implies that organisms emerge, all at once, from scratch, in one fell swoop. 

We may contrast this with the simplified claims of Darwinism. The evolutionary picture suggests that organisms evolved in a stepwise, cumulative fashion as members of larger populations. It further claims that this happened over millions of years in a diachronic process. And instead of equiprobability, Darwinism posits a unique set of initial conditions subject to natural laws and processes. In short, the starting assumptions of DCO-based calculations and the claims of Darwinism are so different, it’s not clear that such calculations tell us anything (let alone anything definitive) about evolution, even if the word “chance” is used in both cases.

Alternatively, we might approach the same objection from a slightly different angle. DCO-based calculations would be more relevant if living things were indeed irreducibly complex, as Michael Behe has argued. Like DCOs, irreducibly complex things exist as all-or-nothing wholes whose parts emerge simultaneously in a coordinated fashion. There’s at least a superficial similarity here.

The trouble is, if we have to grant irreducible complexity for DCO-based probability calculations to be relevant, then we’ve already stopped talking about Darwinism and subtly begged the question in favor of Intelligent Design. It thus seems to me that Undeniable’s probability calculations, no matter how precise or fantastically improbable, simply do not accurately reflect Darwinism’s chances for success.

This helps me to see how you’re thinking, Hans. Thank you!

You have ideas about the conditions required for a probabilistic refutation of naturalistic evolution, but if we’re to make further progress, I need you to reconsider the argument I’m making without assuming it fits your prior conception.

Back to the Statue

In the two prior posts, I’ve applied the reasoning in Undeniable to a hypothetical weather-sculpted statue of a human figure. Intuitively, we know natural weathering can’t do this kind of thing; no unguided natural processes can do the work of a master sculptor. Contrary to your concerns, I’m claiming that the math that backs this intuition up is so simple and so robust that it can hardly go wrong.

As I put it previously:

A main point of Undeniable is that the making of any whole thing that does something clever requires a great many parts to be arranged in a complementary way. Taken individually, each of these parts is unlikely to be arranged correctly by chance, and this makes the accidental occurrence of the whole thing fantastically unlikely.

Crude math is perfectly adequate here. The hundreds or thousands of small fractions representing the individual probabilities inevitably multiply to a probability so small as to constitute an outright impossibility.

With one exception, I assume none of the things you think I must assume, Hans. Consider the following:

  1. Do I assume there is only one way to delineate the aspects of a statue? No.
  2. Do I assume all aspects of the supposed natural statue (however you choose to delineate them) must form simultaneously? No.
  3. Do I assume a brief window of time for all these aspects to be formed? No.
  4. Do I assume each aspect is strictly independent of the others in its formation? No.
  5. Do I assume there is only one acceptable state for each aspect? No.
  6. Do I assume a discrete number of alternative states for each aspect? No.
  7. Do I assume alternative states for each aspect must be equiprobable? No.

Keeping it Simple

You’re right that my reasoning applies to whole things (which living organisms clearly are). However, the point is to make a deduction about how a particular whole thing came to be, which is not at all the same as making assumptions about how it came to be.

The approach I’m advocating is much simpler than the one you’re critiquing, Hans. Without worrying about how the thing in question came to be, we merely consider what must be in place in order for it to do what it does. No detailed answer is needed. All we have to do is imagine the list of requirements that would constitute a complete specification — details of overall shape, material or chemical composition, internal structure, chemical or mechanical processes, connectivity, and so on. By recognizing that these conditions are too restrictive to be met by accident, we establish that accidental causes cannot have brought the thing into existence.

And that is made easy by the fact that it takes only a modest list of modestly improbable requirements for success to be beyond the reach of chance. Once again, the reasoning here is that small fractions multiplied by the dozens always result in exceedingly small fractions.

With respect to the hypothetical human statue, the only escape from this conclusion is to argue that a rugged outcrop of marble would have to be altered by weather in only a few reasonably probable respects in order to convert it into a sculpted masterpiece. But this is so clearly and demonstrably untrue as to close off that escape decisively.

Likewise, with respect to the claim that blind natural causes converted primitive bacterial life into oaks and ostriches and orangutans, the only escape is to argue that conversions of this kind require only a few reasonably probable alterations. But, again, this is so clearly and demonstrably untrue as to close off that escape decisively.

To look for any other escape is to miss the predicament, Hans.

Photo: An oak tree, by RegalShave, via Pixabay.

Douglas Axe

Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University
Douglas Axe is the Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, the founding Director of Biologic Institute, the founding Editor of BIO-Complexity, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. After completing his PhD at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre. His research, which examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems, has been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, BIO-Complexity, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.



assumptionschanceDarwinismdeductiondiscrete combinatorial objectsevolutionHans VodderHoward Van Tillintelligent designmathematicsMichael Beheorganismsprobabilitytheistic evolutionUndeniable