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A Scientific Method for Design Detection

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My first exposure to intelligent design detection in science took place during a summer job with National Defence Research in 1978 as an engineering student. It was during the Cold War, and my assignment was to write software that could detect Soviet submarines amidst the full range of background noise in the ocean. I successfully completed this project by utilizing, among other things, a fast Fourier transform applied to underwater acoustic signals to isolate the signature of Soviet subs.

Despite misconceptions in the popular media, intelligent design plays a major role in science. It does so in three different aspects:

  1. Design application: the application of intelligence to first principles in physics to produce a desired effect (e.g., a smartphone).

  2. Design derivation: the reverse engineering of a complex effect back to first principles of physics for the purpose of discovering the design process and application (e.g., one company or country reverse-engineering the technology of another company or country).

  3. Design detection: the analysis of effects to determine which required intelligence to produce and which could be produced by nature (e.g., searching for the acoustic signature of a submarine amidst the natural background noise of the ocean).

From the three categories noted above, a possible definition of intelligent design can be formulated as follows:

Intelligent design: an effect that required an intelligent mind to produce.

Examples of intelligent design that satisfy the above definition include smartphones, genetically modified plants, a text message, Beethoven’s Fifth, a flint spear point, and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

A Unique Signature of Intelligence

Design detection is firmly entrenched in science, including forensic science, defence research, SETI, archeology, and biology. In each area, a variety of methods are used, but the core aspect of all of them can be quantified in terms of functional information (defined in the literature by Szostak, Hazen et al., and Durston et al.). In layman’s terms, functional information is the information required to produce a desired effect. A testable, verifiable, and falsifiable hypothesis that is highly useful to design detection can be stated as follows:

Hypothesis: A unique property of intelligent minds is the ability to produce statistically significant levels of functional information as defined in the literature.

A key word here is “unique”; intelligence is the only thing with enough intellectual horsepower to produce significant levels of functional information. The above hypothesis is certainly testable and falsifiable. To falsify it, all we need is to verify a natural, mindless process that will produce statistically significant levels of functional information.

Almost anything, including dumping alphabetic characters out of a box onto the floor, can produce functional information at trivial or non-significant levels. However, if one wishes to produce significant levels of functional information one needs something else in addition. Right now, the only option science has on the table that is observable, testable, and verified is intelligence. Although there are other creative scenarios as to how large quantities of functional information can be formed naturally, our failure to verify them suggests that they should be more properly classified as science fiction.

A Scientific Method for Design Detection

The hypothesis stated above provides the basis for a scientific method to test any effect to see if it required intelligence to produce.

Step One: Evaluate the level of functional information required to produce the effect.

Step Two: Determine if the level of functional information is statistically significant.

Step Three: If it is statistically significant, then we can infer that intelligence was required to produce the effect.

Is This a “God-of-the-Gaps” Argument?

Oddly, I have people confidently assert that I have presented a “God of the gaps” argument, which clearly this is not. A “God of the gaps” argument always contains the following premise, either explicit or assumed:

“God of the gaps” premise: If we don’t know what produced “X,” then God did it.

The scientific method I presented above is obviously devoid of such a premise. We actually know what can produce functional information — intelligence. It is an observable fact. We do it all the time whenever we send a text, write an essay, or build something. It is the only empirically verified option that science has today; other scenarios still remain in the category of unverified science fiction. Functional information is a positive indicator or “fingerprint” of an intelligent mind.

What Happens When We Test Life?

My first step was to develop and publish a method to estimate the level of functional information required to code for protein families — an essential requirement for life. Applying that method to a multiple sequence alignment consisting of 30,176 sequences for the second PDZ domain reveals that this protein domain requires at least 140 bits of functional information.

To understand how significant that is, note that the probability that natural processes could generate that level of functional information is 1 chance in 10 with 41 zeros after it. Recent work by other scientists on the PDZ domain indicates that my method is quite conservative. But a conservative estimate is preferable to an overestimate, since I wish to avoid false positives (i.e., having the digital information for a protein test positive for intelligent design when it might not be the case).


The above example was for a protein domain only one third the length of an average protein. Using that result as a ballpark estimate, an average protein-coding gene will require very roughly 420 bits of functional information and even the simplest bacteria require hundreds of different genes.


The markers (fingerprints) of an intelligent mind are all over the genomes of life. Life tests positive for intelligent design when we utilize the scientific method outlined above. We can conclude, therefore, that DNA is intelligently designed.

Additional Reading

  1. For a fascinating summary of how well science is doing in attempting to answer the origin-of-life question, I recommend “Time Out,” a brief article by James Tour, an internationally distinguished synthetic organic chemist.
  2. For an excellent book relating to this subject, read Stephen C. Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.
  3. Darwin Devolves, by Michael J. Behe.

Image: A Soviet submarine, by U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

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