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Dave Farina Criticizes Intelligent Design but Doesn’t Understand It

Günter Bechly
Photo credit: Günter Bechly.

Dave Farina, aka “Professor Dave,” is the popular YouTuber who “educates” the public, especially young people, about science, but at least in the case of intelligent design, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A case in point (Farina 2022) is his attack on Stephen Meyer and Dr. Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt. I have been responding to Mr. Farina’s video (no, he’s not an actual professor) in a series of posts. This is the fifth post in the series. For the rest, see hereherehere, and here. I have inserted timecodes throughout to track with Farina’s video.

[TC 27:18] Here, Farina produces another one of his red herrings: He asks what ID proponents mean to propose. He ponders some creationist notions and thereby misses the point of the design inference, which is fully compatible with common ancestry. After all, many ID proponents explicitly affirm common descent, as I have said already in this series. The crucial question is not common descent but whether an unguided process can provide a sufficient explanation for biological novelty in the history of life. Farina, it seems, is not interested in evaluating the actual arguments for ID but merely in knocking down straw men.

[TC 27:54] Farina triumphantly claims that ID has no model. This is incorrect on two levels:

First, ID does not need to have a model to successfully make a design inference. If we find a strange apparatus on Mars, we can infer design by an alien civilization without having any clue who they are, how they did it, or how the apparatus functions and what purpose it serves.

Second, ID indeed does have several possible models (e.g., Winston Ewert’s Dependency Graph, my own Quantum Computation model, and the Matrix hypothesis).

Farina’s claim that there is nothing to test is also wrong: for example, if population genetic models can show that the genetic changes required by the Cambrian Explosion can be accommodated in the available window of time, then the design inference can be considered as refuted.

[TC 28:10] Farina maintains that ID follows a two-step strategy:

  1. “Ignore any data I don’t like.”
  2. “My conclusion: God did it!”

This is total nonsense. ID theory is an established method of reliably inferring design that is entirely uncontroversial in fields like archaeology, forensics, medicine (e.g., was Covid-19 made in a lab?), detection of plagiarism and voter fraud, or the SETI project. ID theorists apply the same method to empirically infer design in nature. ID theorists also emphasize over and over again that, from the evidence of biology, they CANNOT say that God did it. The method can identify the signature of design but, in the biological context, not the identity of the designer. It is certainly true that many ID proponents who are theists do interpret the design inference in terms of evidence for divine design, but they do so for other reasons. If this made the design inference a religious enterprise, then Big Bang cosmology, which is likewise interpreted by many theists as evidence for divine design, would qualify as mere religion too.

[TC 28:18] Farina says: “This is why intelligent design, truly, fundamentally, and undeniably isn’t science.” I have already debunked this complete nonsense in a previous article responding to Farina (Bechly 2022a). The only thing that is truly, fundamentally, and undeniably the case is that Farina is as ill-informed about science as he is misleading in misrepresenting intelligent design theory.

Returning to the Cambrian Explosion

[TC 28:33] Farina now moves on with the Cambrian Explosion itself. He suggests that the classical Ediacaran communities were outcompeted and replaced by the newly evolved biomineralized animal fauna of the latest Ediacaran wormworld (Schiffbauer et al. 2016) that I have already discussed.

He mentions the evidence for predation boreholes in Cloudina fossils, which I addressed in my article on Cloudina (Bechly 2020a), and in increased bioturbation. He discusses increased oceanic oxygen levels and its implication for food chains as a possible driver of the Cambrian Explosion, leading to an evolutionary arms race. This is of course all smoke and mirrors that has nothing to do with the real problem of the Cambrian Explosion, so that there is no sense in my wasting time on that stuff.

[TC 31:00] He elaborates on ichnotaxa but misses the point, while even in the diagram of Mángano & Buatois (2014) that he shows there is a clear cut at the Ediacaran-Cambrian boundary, which is not called the Cambrian Substrate Revolution for nothing. Farina misunderstands the whole point of the scenario of two stages of the Cambrian Explosion, which only refers to the evolution of feeding strategies, but not to the first appearance of the body plans. After all, most of the Cambrian animal body plans such as arthropods (Sena et al. 2020), molluscs (heliconellids), echinoderms (Yanjiahella), and scalidophorans (Shao et al. 2020) and other ecdysozoans (Liu et al. 2014) as well as large annelid-like worms (Zhang et al. 2017) etc. appeared during the earliest stage of the Cambrian, the Fortunian, which debunks the whole point of his tirade. Even Mángano & Buatois (2020) themselves admit in a more recent study: “Regardless of this increase, a dramatic rise in trace fossil diversity and disparity took place during the earliest Cambrian, underscoring that the novelty of the Fortunian (539–529 Ma) cannot be underestimated.”

[TC 33:25] Based on the three stages (Fortunian, Cambrian Stage 2, Cambrian Stage 3) proposed by Mangano & Buatois (2014) Farina claims that much of the Cambrian Explosion was gradual and lasted 27 mya from 541–514 mya. He says that this documents evolutionary causes not supernatural ones. First of all, as we have just seen in the previous paragraph, the authors of this study have affirmed six years later that Early Cambrian evolution of trace fossils was not gradual but had its main pulse in the Fortunian. Furthermore, Farina’s claim is rubbish, as ID neither necessarily disputes common descent nor necessarily implies supernatural causes. ID is just an inference to design as the best explanation of the empirical data, and from the biological evidence alone does not and cannot identify the nature of the intelligent cause, which could have been natural or not.

[TC 33:54] Farina wants to drive home his point in mentioning the Zhuralev & Wood (2018) paper on the two phases of the Cambrian Explosion: Phase 1 lasting from 560–513 mya and being dominated by non-bilaterian animals such as poriferans, ctenophores, and cnidarians, as well as stem-bilaterian lineages. Then at 513 mya the Sinsk Extinction event occurred that wiped out the stem lineages, after which the crown group lineages of bilaterian animals dominated in phase 2 about 513–485 mya. However, this whole point is based on another fallacy of equivocation of the Cambrian Explosion sensu stricto, which brought forth the different body plans, and a later diversification that was never included in the original concept of the Cambrian Explosion, neither by mainstream evolutionists nor by Darwin critics. But Farina is also guilty of several factual errors.

[TC 34:50] For example, he claims that Cephalopods and Bryozoans first appeared after the second phase. This is wrong. In fact Bryozoans appeared in the early Cambrian (Zhang et al. 2021) and the oldest cephalopods appeared already 522 mya in the early Cambrian as well (Hildenbrand et al. 2021). This refutes Farina’s claims and strongly supports the case for a sudden Cambrian Explosion. It also shows Farina’s sloppy research and ignorance of modern scientific literature, which is quite ironic as this is exactly what he accuses Meyer of.

[TC 35:02] Farina concludes that Meyer only used obscure technical language to pretend to be an expert but presented false facts to “trick a lot of people.” This sounds a bit like psychological projection.

[TC 35:20 ] Farina shows a list of the scientific papers he discussed before and claims that Meyer relies on your never checking this literature. Well, on the contrary, our fact-checking revealed many errors on his side.

[TC 35:30] Farina maintains that “after looking at dozens of studies that profoundly contradict everything [Meyer] says, it becomes clear that everything about the Cambrian Explosion … perfectly matches what we expect from evolution” and that Meyer’s book is “complete and utter garbage.” On the contrary, we have now seen that an unbiased and careful evaluation of the modern scientific evidence vindicates all of Meyer’s main points in Darwin’s Doubt.

[TC 35:51] Again and again, Farina attacks a straw man by confusing intelligent design with creationism. He says that the first occurrence of sponges, ctenophores, and cnidarians followed by stem bilaterians and then a diversification of crown bilaterian makes no sense under the intelligent design hypothesis. This argument is simply absurd, because the evidence at best suggests common descent, which is not the issue for intelligent design at all. Once again, there are many prominent intelligent design proponents who endorse universal common descent. The real issue is not common descent but the question of what kind of process and what kind of causes best account for the abrupt appearances and rapid transformations documented by the fossil record. ID theory disputes that an unguided mechanism can adequately and sufficiently explain this pattern and suggests instead that the evidence points towards an infusion of new information from outside the system.

[TC 36:04] Farina again claims that there is “no ID model for any of this.” I’ve already dealt with this falsehood above. I recommend to him again my own suggestion of a kind of quantum computation on the level of entangled genes (Raatz & Bechly 2019; also see my homepage).

[TC 36:20] Farina concludes that Meyer’s book is “complete and utter garbage” and cites a few critical reviews of the book such as Cook (2013)Prothero (2013), and Moran (2014). All of these have been addressed and debunked years ago (see Klinghoffer 2015CSC 2019Luskin 2013bLuskin 2013c). By the way, none of these reviews were written by an expert on the Cambrian Explosion: Prothero is a specialist on Tertiary ungulate mammals, Moran is a biochemist and anti-ID blogger, and Cook is just a journalist from The New Yorker with a typical biased agenda (see AllSides).

[TC 37:11] Farina claims that Meyer “lies about every other era he attempts to discuss” and that every one of his claims is wrong. This point of course is dear to my heart, as the numerous discontinuities, explosions, and abrupt appearances in the fossil record of all periods and all groups of organisms are one of the main arguments from my own field of expertise that convinced me (Bechly & Meyer 2017Bechly 2021e) that something is deeply wrong with Darwinian storytelling.

[38:23] Concerning the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event or GOBE Farina claims that it occurred in two phases (Deng et al. 2021), but at least admits a sharp increase around 460 mya. Nevertheless, his presentation is still misleading, as the word “phases” suggests prolonged gradual events, while in the technical literature of the GOBE it is generally spoken of three discrete pulses of diversification (Webby et al. 2004). The terms “pulses” clearly refers to relatively abrupt events with the main pulse occurring about 470 million years ago in the Middle Ordovician / Darriwilian, when the global marine biodiversity was tripled (Webby et al. 2004Servais et al. 2010Harper et al. 2015Deng et al. 2021).

Stigall et al. (2019) recommended a restricted definition for the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE) to indicate the short interval of rapid diversification and environmental change during the Darriwilian age (Middle Ordovician), and to use Sepkoski’s term “Ordovician Radiation” for the sum of diversifications that occurred over the entire Ordovician Period.

Experts Change Their Minds

It was just recently, and apparently unknown to Farina, that two of the GOBE experts indeed changed their minds on this issue (Harper et al. 2020 and Servais et al. 2021). They reconsidered the evidence from paleobiodiversity data and suggested that GOBE was not a single event and that “a short, dramatic event that triggered major biodiversity pulses of all fossil groups at a global level at a particular time interval is an oversimplification.” Of course, this new view requires more studies before it can become the new consensus paradigm. In any case, Meyer cannot be blamed for basing his case on the scientific consensus at the time and not being able to look years into the future. It must also be noted that other recent studies still consider the biodiversification to have “occurred primarily during the Darriwilian” (Stigall et al. 2020) as the main pulse (Deng et al. 2021).

There is a reason why the GOBE was called Life’s Second Big Bang in an article in New Scientist (O’Donoghue 2008), which even said that this “was the truly momentous event in animal evolution” rather than the Cambrian Explosion. Many experts considered the Ordovician radiation and subsequent mass extinction to be one of the most spectacular events in Earth’s history (e.g., Sheehan 2001).

Sometimes several distinct phenomena are distinguished within GOBE, such as the “Ordovician plankton revolution” (Servais et al. 2016), “Ordovician substrate revolution” (Harper et al. 2019a2020), and “Ordovician bioerosion revolution” (Wilson & Palmer 2001, 2006). Such events were called revolutions because they were abrupt events. Continuous developments are never called revolutions, neither in political history nor in natural history.

In general, we observe in the Ordovician a transition from microbialite reefs to metazoan skeletal reefs (Adachi et al. 2011), and from benthic marine organisms to planktonic marine organisms (conodonts, graptolites, radiolarians, acritarchs, and chitinozoans) (Vecoli et al. 2005a2005bNowak et al. 2015Servais et al. 2016). This greatly changed the marine ecosystems and created novel niches for many further animals.

[TC 39:11] Farina says that GOBE does not fit well with Meyer’s idea of phylum-level design. This is an absurd argument as no ID proponent including Stephen Meyer ever claimed that intelligent design is restricted to the phylum-level. The Cambrian Explosion is just often highlighted as one of the most important of many examples of such sudden appearances in the fossil record (Bechly & Meyer 2017Bechly 2021e).

[TC 39:27] Farina defines disparity as differences between clades and diversity as variations within clades. This is a bit strange and non-standard definition of these terms. The more common definition is this: “Disparity is a measure of the range or significance of morphology in a given sample of organisms, as opposed to diversity, which is expressed in terms of the number (and sometimes ranking) of taxa” (Wills et al. 1994Minelli 2016).

At least, Farina correctly understands that the Cambrian Explosion generated biological disparity and the Ordovician biological diversity. Of course, this does not imply that intelligent design was not required. On the contrary, the up-side-down pattern of disparity preceding diversity is exactly the opposite of what is expected from Darwinian evolution, which should first create diversity and then slowly develop into disparity. Also, this does not imply that no new body plans originated during GOBE, such as Nematoda, Nemertea, Acoelomorpha, and Platyhelminthes (Knaust & Desrochers 2019), Chitinozoa (Liang et al. 2020), vasculate land plants, and gnathostome vertebrates (Sansom et al. 1996), as well as enigmatic metazoans with freak body plans like Siphonacis parva and “Keurbosia susanae” (Hoffman & Nitecki 1987, Aldridge et al. 2001Male 2015Gabbot et al. 2016) that could not be placed into any known phyla. Farina obviously misunderstands GOBE as a mere increase in species diversity, while it was instead an increase of diversity on the family level, which is of course an arbitrary category but shows that more than just speciation was going on.

[TC 40:30] Farina finally quotes Fan et al. (2020) as evidence that GOBE was just an extension of the Cambrian radiation and took almost 30 million years from 497.05–467.33 mya. This is far from representing the scientific consensus on this issue, but is mainly based on a single dissenting view by Alroy et al. (2008), who claimed to have found evidence for a more continuous increase of biodiversity in a Cambrian-Ordovician radiation instead of two separate explosions, so that the Late Cambrian “Furongian Gap” that seems to separate the aftermath of the Cambrian Explosion and the GOBE would have to be considered as a sampling artifact. However, according to Harper et al. (2019b) it is still unclear if this gap is only apparent or real, and the study by Rasmussen et al. (2019) revealed “a stepwise biodiversity increase with distinct Cambrian and Ordovician radiation events that are clearly separated by a 50-million-year-long period of slow biodiversity accumulation.”

It is also completely irrelevant whether GOBE is or is not a kind of extension of the Cambrian radiation. The crucial point is a sudden increase of diversity, which required significant new genetic information to originate in a biologically very short time (this is the waiting time problem). Those who doubt that significant new information was required should read the recent book about epigenetic mechanisms of the Cambrian Explosion by Cabey (2020), who wrote the following: “The erection of the metazoan structure, as an improbable structure, requires an immense volume of information, compared to which the information contained in even the most complex genomes represents but a negligible fraction.” Hear, hear!

[TC 40:54] Farina ridicules Meyer for saying that the first winged insects appeared without predecessors and muses “what does he mean by this”? He briefly talks about totally moot points of general arthropod phylogeny and then claims that Rhyniognatha represents the oldest insect fossil and possibly a winged insect from the Lower Devonian about 412 mya. This claim is based on a paper by Engel & Grimaldi (2004), which is once again cherry-picked obsolete science. Rhyniogantha is just a fragment of a head capsule, and I always thought that it looks rather like that of a myriapod. Lo and behold, a more recent and much more thorough study by Haug & Haug (2017) suggested that Rhyniognatha was misinterpreted and indeed represents an early centipede. Of course, this is not relevant anyway, as Farina simply avoids the crucial point, which should not be that hard to understand: Darwinian evolution would predict a gradual stepwise origin of insect wings from wingless ancestors via thousands of transitional forms. However, the oldest fossils of winged insects have perfectly formed wings and we lack any plausible transitional forms that show how insect wings came into being. Farina says “without predecessor” is a nonsensical claim because insects share the same body plan with crustaceans. One may wonder if this is a sign of total ignorance, because it is hard to see how anybody could fail to grasp that “without predecessors” refers to transitional forms in the development of insect wings. Mainstream paleoentomologists fully recognize that winged insects appeared abruptly on the scene and the leading textbook on insect evolution by Grimaldi & Engel (2005: 160) admits that “an insect equivalent of an Archaeopteryx remains elusive but certainly existed.”

[TC 42:30] Farina mentions evo-devo studies like that of Clark-Hachtel & Tomoyasu (2020) as evidence for wing evolution. However, such works only suggest homology but do not explain how the new information could originate in such a short time and how a transition could happen gradually in a Darwinian way, when one precursor of wings is a static outgrowth of the terga and the other a mobile leg homologue. Unlike Farina, I have published actual primary research on this issue and very early discussed and supported a dual origin of insect wings in a scientific study that described the new insect order Coxoplectoptera (Staniczek et al. 2011). However, there is one fatal problem with this hypothesis: it is impossible to formulate a plausible evolutionary scenario that involves the fusion of a stiff tergal outgrowth with a mobile leg appendage to form a dorsal mobile winglet (or a serially homologous abdominal gill plate). The only conceivable way would be a saltational hopeful-monster-like macromutation, which would immediately raise the question of intelligent design. It is not for nothing that Darwin (1859) insisted that “natura non facit saltus” (nature does not make jumps). He knew, just like Richard Dawkins (1996) with his metaphor of “climbing mount improbable,” that such jumps would be improbable and impossible miracle-like events. Therefore, big changes have to be explained with an accumulation of many probable small changes over long periods of time to allow for an unguided mechanism as a reasonable causal explanation.

Last but not least, the question of wing origins is far from settled in the scientific community (see Smith & Jockusch 2020Akst 2022). Even though several studies (mainly by the research team of Tomoyasu and Clark-Hachtel at Miami University) supported the dual origin hypothesis, there are also new studies that support one of the single-origin scenarios, such as the recent Nature papers by Bruce & Patel (2020), who suggested “that insect wings and body walls evolved from ancient leg segments,” or by Ohde et al. (2022), who suggested “the wing origin from lateral tergum of a wingless ancestor.” Another recent study by Fisher et al. (2021) suggests that the evo-devo data “doesn’t favor either of those hypotheses about wings,” but rather, “what it says is we need other kinds of evidence” (Jockusch in Akst 2022).

Evolution of Amniotes

[TC 43:01] Next up, Farina moves on to the evolution of amniotes and by glossing over the most important issue implicitly suggests that the origin of the amniote egg was no evolutionary problem. However, this very question troubled biologists for decades as an unsolved mystery (Kohring 1995), without much progress since the seminal paper by Alfred Romer (1957). Even the most recent study by Starck et al. (2021) can offer not much beyond hand-waving speculation concerning the origin of the totally new and unique structures of the amniote egg, such as the amnion membrane and the two extra-embryonic membranes (chorion and allantois). 

Anybody, who looks at the fundamental differences in the construction of an amphibian egg and a reptile egg would have to be totally ignorant not to be puzzled by the problem of how this crucial transition may have been accomplished, especially since “no extant vertebrate egg is structurally intermediate between those of amniotes and non-amniotes” (Skulan 2000). The amniote egg is rather a shelled embryo and much more complex that many people realize (Packard & Seymour 1997; also see this TED video), so that it is not for nothing that its origin was generally considered as the fundamental step in the terrestrialization of vertebrates. Skulan (2000) is a rare dissenter from this view and suggested that there are “no theoretical reasons to assume that the evolution of terrestrial egg-laying was difficult, or required a structure as elaborate as the amniote egg,” which would make the origin of the amniote egg even more mysterious.

[TC 44:05] Farina goes on about early dinosaurs and claims there is no evidence for ID but just slow and gradual change. Well, better tell this to the authors of this recent study in Nature Communications on the origin of dinosaurs (Bernardi et al. 2018), who found an “explosive increase in dinosaurian abundance” and commented in the press release from the University of Bristol (2018) that “Dinosaurs ended — and originated — with a bang!” They said, “It’s amazing how clear cut the change from ‘no dinosaurs’ to ‘all dinosaurs’ was.” This doesn’t sound slow and gradual at all, and the senior author of this study was no less than renowned paleontologist Michael Benton, one of the world leading experts on the fossil record. I suggest this trumps the unsubstantiated claims of a YouTuber without scientific credentials who never published a single scientific paper in his life.

[TC 44:10] Farina then mentions turtles and quotes the study by Schoch & Suess (2015) on the alleged stem turtle Pappochelys. Farina, who knows little about fossils, uncritically lists alleged and highly controversial fossils such as EunotosaurusPappochelys, and Odontochelys as “exquisitely documented” evolution of the turtle body plan. I recently addressed this issue in an article for Fossil Friday (Bechly 2022d) and described two fatal problems with the phylogenetic study by Schoch & Suess:

First, the Middle Permian “reptile” Eunotosaurus is generally considered to belong to an unrelated primitive group of sauropsids called Parareptilia (Ruta et al. 2011). As highlighted by Lee (2013), a turtle-relationship of Eunotosaurus arguably would place turtles firmly in the anapsid Parareptilia, which would of course conflict with other evidence for a diapsid relationship of turtles and a diapsid alleged stem-turtle like Pappochelys.

Second, Schoch & Suess placed turtles in a clade with lepidosaurs (lizards and snakes), even though the general consensus in modern vertebrate phylogeny considers turtles as members of the archosaur clade (together with crocs, dinos, and birds). This archosaur relationship is supported by unique anatomical characters (see Mickoleit 2004) as well as strong molecular evidence from multiple phylogenomic studies (Chiari et al. 2012Crawford et al. 2012Fong et al. 2012Shaffer et al. 2013Wang et al. 2013Field et al. 2014Green et al. 2014).

But even more importantly, a more recent and more comprehensive phylogenetic analysis (Lichtig & Lucas 2021), co-authored by eminent vertebrate paleontologist Spencer Lucas, indeed confirms that neither Eunotosaurus nor Pappochelys is a close relative of turtles at all. Boom! There goes the “exquisitely documented” evolution of turtles.

Next, “Educating ‘Professor Dave’ on the Fossil Record and Genetics.”