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In Explanations Reported by Mainstream Science, Design Inference Continues to Factor

Photo credit: David Coppedge.

Intelligent design continues to make news, even if not by that name. Mainstream academic journals continue to disparage ID while, at the same time, finding it useful. This is not to say they are entertaining the God Hypothesis, at least so far. But the Design Filter does not require theology, revealed or natural. It simply tries to distinguish among purposeful activity, natural law, and chance. ID is a rigorous application of the intuition we all engage in daily whenever we try to figure out if a phenomenon was intentional or if it just happened. Here I will update several categories I’ve reported on before.


The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) does not require atheism, but in practice, many of its adherents are fervent in their philosophical naturalism and their embrace of Darwinian evolution. If life evolved here, they reason, it must have happened in many other locations throughout the universe where conditions are suitable for advanced life. 

We should distinguish SETI from astrobiology and UFOlogy, because SETI is concerned with intelligent life. And despite all the news about UAPs (“unidentified anomalous phenomena” — the new term for UFOs), most SETI advocates discount the notion that space aliens have traveled from the stars to Earth in physical craft. Sociologist Barry Markovsky from the University of South Carolina discounts the “UFO buzz” as due to psychological traits among believers. At The Conversation July 17, he urged readers to trust the real scientists.

For a scientist familiar with the issues, skepticism that UFOs carry alien beings is wholly separate from the prospect of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have a number of ongoing research projects designed to detect signs of extraterrestrial life. If intelligent life is out there, they’ll likely be the first to know. [Emphasis added.]

Any being that could build vehicles that do what they are alleged to do, violating laws of physics as we understand them, would certainly pass the design filter if verified. But since UFOlogy remains outside the mainstream, we will focus only on serious SETI that looks for signals or artifacts indicating purposeful activity by intelligent minds. At its basis, SETI relies on the design inference, even though its leading advocates would denounce intelligent design for philosophical reasons.

At Universe Today, Brian Koberlein declared, “Now SETI Researchers can be Sure” that signals came from space, not from Earth. The design inference can be seen in his intuitive discrimination of natural and artificial signals.

In radio astronomy, there are lots of natural radio signals to observe. The glow of hydrogen gas, the swirl of electrons along a magnetic field, or the pop-pop-pop of pulsars. These signals usually have a very naturalcharacter to them, so astronomers can distinguish them from the artificial chirps and chatters of terrestrial sources. But when you’re looking for the signals of alien civilizations, things can get more tricky. They should have an artificial character similar to the radio signals of humans. So how can astronomers distinguish between the distant artificial signal and the local ones?

It’s not an easy challenge. Even natural signals can be confused with artificial ones.

He reported on a new method determined by the Breakthrough Listen project to rule out interference from our home planet. The ability depends on discerning signals with which we are familiar: those intentionally sent by the activity of minds.

Robert Sanders at UC Berkeley engaged in the same “discriminatory” thoughts, “distinguishing a signal from ET” so that we are not “spoofed” by a one-off event. As principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen, Andrew Siemion came up with a technique called scintillation to identify signals emanating from the interstellar medium (ISM) far from Earth. Some local sources of radio interference have fooled SETI researchers before.

Siemion and his colleagues realized, however, that real signals from extraterrestrial civilizations should exhibit features caused by passage through the ISM that could help discriminate between Earth- and space-based radio signals. Thanks to past research describing how the cold plasma in the interstellar medium, primarily free electrons, affect signals from radio sources such as pulsars, astronomers now have a good idea how the ISM affects narrowband radio signals. Such signals tend to rise and fall in amplitude over time — that is, they scintillate. This is because the signals are slightly refracted, or bent, by the intervening cold plasma, so that when the radio waves eventually reach Earth by different paths, the waves interfere, both positively and negatively. 

At Live Science, David Delgado Shorter worried that contact could result in genocide against earthlings. That inference came from the history of human conquest. It depends on ascribing similar “ethics” to other minds.

Hexagons Update

Last year I evaluated whether hexagons in nature imply intelligent design. The answer was, “sometimes.” When bees make hexagonal lattices out of beeswax, I said, that had to be driven by coded information. This becomes even more apparent when scientists observe the ability of honeybees and wasps to adjust the diameter of the hexagons, and join them together, to accommodate size differences from one side to the other. Based on findings from Auburn University, Science Daily says,

The researchers found that wasps and bees used similar building techniques at the transition between small and large cells: if the size difference was minor, the insects built intermediate-sized hexagonal cells in between, but when the size difference was more pronounced, they built pairs of five- and seven-sided cells at the join. A mathematical model of the hexagonal comb structure generated a similar pattern of intermediate-sized and pentagonal/heptagonal cells at the transition between different cell sizes, indicating that the observed structure is based on fundamental geometric rules.

Whether one wishes to accept the “convergent evolution” tale to explain this is another matter. The authors of the scientific paper in PLOS Biology, though evolutionists, agree that the insects’ “architectural tricks” look like amazing “architectural solutions to nest-building problems.” 

Fairy Circles Update

Causation is important in science. Instead of chalking up phenomena to chance, scientists seek to understand the causes behind them. For over four decades, scientists have been trying to figure out what created equally spaced circles in the Namib desert. Intelligent design was unlikely; one would have to invoke the aforementioned space aliens to explain that and the debunked crop circle craze. Two leading theories have competed: natural self-organization (here), or the work of termites (here). 

Score another win for the termite theory. This month, researchers at the University of Hamburg claim to have “confirmed” that termites are the cause of the fairy circles in the Namib Desert. After observing sand termites in 1,700 fairy circles in Africa, Norbert Jürgens and Alexander Gröngröft “now refute the central arguments” of the self-organization theory, showing that the termites organize the sand grains to hold water for long-term storage. 

“The horizontal water transports over metres in a few days assumed by the representatives of self-regulation are physically impossible according to current knowledge. The debate about opposing interpretations of a biological phenomenon is thus surprisingly decided by physics, in this case soil physics,” says Jürgens.  “The soil moisture measurements on the fairy circles and the soil hydraulic properties of the sand found in the laboratory thus rule out the self-regulation hypothesis as an explanation for the fairy circles. The cause for the formation of the fairy circles is thus clear – it is the sand termites that secure a considerable survival advantage through soil moisture storage.”

No response from the opposition has been seen yet, so it’s not known if they will call their bluff or acquiesce to the new causal explanation. If the termite theory wins, then ID still has a role — not to allege that termites are capable of conscious thought — but as Eric Cassell argues in Animal Algorithms, instincts that show purposeful activity for function imply programming just as much as robotic activity does. These termites may not be thinking about organizing sand grains for water storage. Their collective behavior, though, shows them acting with foresight and intention as if programmed to do so.

Speaking of regularly spaced circles, I observed something similar in southern Utah from a helicopter in 2019 (see the photo at the top). If any aspiring ID researcher wishes to practice the design inference and determine if they are natural or artificial, the coordinates are 37° 0’55.92″N, 112°20’2.67″W.