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Where Design Explains, Darwinism Explains Away


Look at the photos in an article on Live Science. They report: 

Hundreds of stone structures dating back thousands of years have been discovered in the Western Sahara, a territory in Africa little explored by archaeologists.

The structures seem to come in all sizes and shapes, and archaeologists aren’t sure what many of then were used for or when they were created.

Immediately you know these structures were designed. How should you know that? How did the scientists know that? The discoverers didn’t know who made them. They didn’t know why they made them. No obvious purpose for the structures came to their attention, yet they knew someone made them intentionally. 

A new book documenting hundreds of rock structures in the Western Sahara has been published: The Archaeology of Western Sahara: A Synthesis of Fieldwork, 2002 to 2009 (Oxbow Books, 2018). The article explains that the region has long been too dangerous for research because of a state of war between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Because of that, this region remains mysterious and largely unknown, and research has been “extremely limited.”

Like the archaeologists, people living in the area intuitively knew the structures were designed. (See additional photos in a slide show on Live Science.) Rocks on their own don’t arrange themselves like these ones are put together.

The stone structures are designed in a wide variety of ways. Some are shaped like crescents, others form circles, some are in straight lines, some in rectangular shapes that look like a platform; some structures consist of rocks that have been piled up into a heap. And some of the structures use a combination of these designs. For instance, one structure has a mix of straight lines, stone circles, a platform and rock piles that altogether form a complex about 2,066 feet (630 meters) long, the archaeologists noted in the book. [Emphasis added.]

We’ve seen other design inferences like this in Brazil, Jordan, Israel, and Arabia. After concluding that structures are designed, archaeologists often pursue additional questions. The makers must have had the ability to mobilize many people to do the work. Perhaps powerful rulers drove their subjects to make elaborate tombs or grave markers. In some cases, structures can be correlated with rock art. A design inference does not, therefore, stop the science. It stimulates additional questions for investigation. And it is falsifiable: something originally thought to be designed can turn out to be a natural phenomenon.

The Design Inference

Books by intelligent design leaders clarify the nature and extent of the design inference. Douglas Axe, in his book Undeniable, explains why our intuition that things are designed is corroborated by biochemistry. Stephen Meyer, in his books Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, shows that intelligent design uses the same form of explanation Darwin and Lyell used to appeal to causes known from our uniform experience. William Dembski, in The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, provides mathematical rigor to the design inference. The point is that, while intuitive, the design inference can withstand all the rigor necessary for scientific reasoning. 

Darwinism Explains Away

While intelligent design explains the origins of things by reference to causes known to be in operation, Darwinism usually explains things away. All Darwinians accept the appearance of design, but they have limited themselves to undirected causes by embracing methodological naturalism (MN). They may as well limit themselves to wind and erosion to explain the structures in the Western Sahara — or Mount Rushmore, for that matter. Insistence on MN often leads to very counter-intuitive stories. For instance, when similarities appear in species that Darwinians insist are unrelated, they posit that the species evolved the similarities independently. 

Argument by Assertion

MN takes the rigor out of biological explanation. Since Darwinian scientists limit themselves to undirected causes, and MN disallows intelligent causes, there’s only one category of explanation in the toolkit. Darwinians, therefore, can feel satisfied with argument by assertion: whatever it is, it evolved. For example, in news from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, the biologists say that “Desert ants have an amazing odor memory.” The article describes the odor memory in detail, but when it comes to explaining where it came from, here’s the answer: “Desert ants have evolved impressing abilities to survive in the salt pans of the Tunisian Sahara, which are pretty barren habitats.” End of story. The desert ants are far more complex than the Saharan archaeological finds, but that’s all you get: the ants’ impressive abilities “have evolved.” 

Argument by Extrapolation

Another method Darwinians use to explain away the appearance of design is argument by extrapolation. With this technique, they provide examples of biological change by “evolution” that would not worry an ardent young-earth creationist. Then, they extrapolate their claimed success to the whole natural world. It’s like saying, “Butterfly wings change color; therefore, humans evolved, unguided, from bacteria.” 

An example of this technique got lots of fanfare recently. Science Magazine took a case of coat color in mice and made a mountain out of a molehill. Harvard University, on Phys.org, trumpeted this as “Evolution, Illustrated,” calling it “one of the clearest pictures yet of evolution in vertebrates.” What evolved, actually? Very little. Under controlled conditions, some fur in one species of mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) changed shade from light to dark or vice versa, to fit in with the background:

What do you get when you put together several tons of steel plates, hundreds of mice, a few evolutionary and molecular biologists and a tiny Nebraska town near the South Dakota border?

Would you believe one of the most complete pictures ever of vertebrate evolution?

This demonstration of evolution took years in the field, we are told, which is to say years of intelligent design. All kinds of things went wrong during the experiment. As Ed Yong at The Atlantic remarked, “Nature itself seemed eager to select against the team.” But in the end, they got the results they wanted: the mice that fit their background survived better against predators, and showed a change to one gene, named Agouti.  Yong turns this episode into a colorful story of success against great odds: determined evolutionists brave the cold and wind to (at long last) vindicate Darwin.

That’s another reason evolutionary explanations work: Darwinians are great storytellers.

But let’s take stock of this claimed success, “The Wild Experiment That Showed Evolution in Real Time.” The experiment began and ended with one species of mice. Nothing evolved. Many mammals already show variation in coat color. A litter of dogs can have multiple coat colors, depending on the parents. This is simple Mendelian inheritance. Is it any wonder that owls picked off the ones that were easier to see? 

As for the Agouti gene, variations exist in many genes. But proving that the variants in this gene caused the owls to not prey on them? That’s a stretch. What they really say in the paper in Science is, “we find allele frequency changes at the Agouti locus consistent with selection [as opposed to neutral drift], and thus, patterns at the genetic level parallel the change observed at the phenotypic level.” And thus, humans evolved from bacteria. If this sounds like a new peppered mice story, it is: and about as rigorous and overblown, too. Why didn’t they consider epigenetic effects? Why could not the variations in Agouti represent pre-programmed variation for survival, like in the adaptive immune system, or in the quasispecies concept? Why must it be explained by natural selection?

The design inference is clear to all, even to Richard Dawkins, who said, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” Intelligent design explains design with references to causes now in operation that we know from our universal experience are necessary and sufficient. Doug Axe used his rigorous research into biochemistry to show “How biology confirms our intuition that life is designed.” Darwinians must explain away that intuition, using clever methods of assertion, extrapolation, and storytelling.


The article in The Atlantic reveals that 160 years after The Origin, common people still maintain their design intuition. When the locals in the sand hills heard about what the researchers were up to, the researchers had to walk on eggs.

Roughly a third of Nebraskans believe that living things were created as they are now. Another third think that evolution occurs, but through God’s design. Given those beliefs, I asked Barrett whether he ever encountered resistance when talking to his new friends about his work. “In the early trips, when first meeting people, I would talk generally about genetics and natural selection. I wouldn’t use the E word,” he said. “It’s one of those trigger words where, in certain parts of the U.S., people just stop listening to you.”

A little storytelling helped put the locals at ease:

But he added that all of them comprehended the essence of evolution, even if they explicitly rejected it. “A lot of them are farmers, who have a very good understanding of inheritance, and genetics,” he said. “A lot of them hunt, so they’ve got the survival-of-the-fittest thing down. They understand variation, and they know that a slow deer is easier to shoot than a fast deer. Inheritance, variation, fitness … all the pieces are there.”

There you go: slow deer are easier to shoot than fast deer. Survival of the fittest is proved. And humans evolved, unguided, from bacteria.

Photo: Designed or natural? A structure similar to those found in the West Sahara, by Chandrasekharpatnaik5 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.