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Ahead of New Book Edition, Geoglyphs and Natural Features Test Dembski’s Design Inference

Photo credit: David Coppedge.

With William Dembski and Winston Ewert’s new edition of The Design Inference coming out next week, it’s a good time to exercise the ability to infer design in real world examples. The key to detecting design is to infer the intentional acts of a mind possessing foresight and purpose. When designed things occur “hidden in plain sight,” this is not always easy to do. Glancing at some forms of modern art or witnessing one event in a complex Rube Goldberg performance can look accidental.* 


Recent surveys of Amazonia with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) have spurred a paradigm shift. The Brazilian rainforest is not an Edenic pristine wilderness we have long been taught to think. The land, and even the ecology, have been significantly altered by ancient people.

A few years ago, I shared reports of some of the first geoglyphs (monumental structures) that were emerging from LIDAR’s capability to visually strip away the dense overgrowth, giving scientists a look at the topography. Now, Science Magazine expands our knowledge of intentional modifications of the rainforest with the startling estimate that “More than 10,000 pre-Columbian earthworks are still hidden throughout Amazonia.” 

A team of 230 researchers led by V. Peripato of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has continued aerial surveys of the vast region.

We report the discovery, using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) information from across the basin, of 24 previously undetected pre-Columbian earthworks beneath the forest canopy. Modeled distribution and abundance of large-scale archaeological sites across Amazonia suggest that between 10,272 and 23,648 sites remain to be discovered and that most will be found in the southwest. [Emphasis added.]

The aerial surveys have been corroborated by ground-based investigations of forest species.

We also identified 53 domesticated tree species significantly associated with earthwork occurrence probability, likely suggesting past management practices. Closed-canopy forests across Amazonia are likely to contain thousands of undiscovered archaeological sites around which pre-Columbian societies actively modified forests, a discovery that opens opportunities for better understanding the magnitude of ancient human influence on Amazonia and its current state.

Philosophical naturalists might reject a design inference by encompassing human influence into the “natural” category. Humans are no different from beavers in that regard; they modify their environments, too. That response embeds some ramifications that naturalists might not like: namely, that LIDAR and scientific investigations are also natural activities, as blind and unguided as human evolution. Worse, they would lose out on the ability to criticize modern human burning of the Amazon forests. Wouldn’t that be natural? They won’t go there. To maintain their moral outrage, they need to conclude that the pre-Columbian modifications of the rainforest were intentional, purposeful, and designed.

Nature-Assisted Design: The Sphinx

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan at New Scientist was not claiming last month that wind possesses creative powers when she wrote, “The Great Sphinx of Giza may have been blown into shape by the wind.” Rather, she meant that human sculptors used existing rock formations that made it easier to carve lion bodies with human heads into them.

As rock is carved by the wind, it can take on a sphinx-like shape, meaning the Great Sphinx in Egypt may have been partly formed through natural processes.

Experiments at New York University, she reports, lend credence to a 1981 suggestion that the sculptors “knew a good thing when they saw it.” In the NYU lab (see photos), they tested the suggestion.

They saw miniature versions of lion-like landforms emerge from lumps of clay immersed in flowing water. Their tiny, water-carved “mud lions” point towards a mechanism by which wind could sculpt similar shapes out of desert rocks.

This is one of many cases where human engineers and artists have taken advantage of natural formations to create things for a purpose. Gutzon Borglum chose Mount Rushmore to carve the heads of four U.S. presidents. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear chose a granite outcrop for the Crazy Horse Memorial. Something as simple as a pile of stones gathered locally can become an intentional signal marking a trail.

On the flip side, people can wrongly infer design through the pareidolia illusion: imagining face-like structures on mountainsides, animal figures in hoodoos, the Man in the Moon, the Face on Mars, stellar constellations like Orion the Hunter, and many more. You can use these as examples to illustrate the design filter and its requirement for specified complexity as a criterion for intelligent design. If chance and natural law have a high enough probability to create the effect, they get the nod.

Archaeology and Design

Archaeology distinguishes natural structures from engineered ones. It can also inform the extent of design. Live Science reporter Tom Metcalfe wrote about an elaborate system of underground aqueducts built by the Garamantian kingdom of North Africa 2,000 years ago in a region now occupied by southwestern Libya. The discovery of this “major feat of ancient engineering” that took advantage of a high water table promoted the reputation of the Garamantes from a minor group to a powerful kingdom thriving in the midst of a desert.

Fairy Circles Remain Puzzling

I’ve reported in the past (hereherehere) about puzzling arrays of circular bare spots dubbed “fairy circles” (FCs). They most certainly are natural, because for what purpose would any sentient being cover vast landscapes with meaningless circles? Natural explanations, however, have eluded scientists for decades. The termite theory was gaining ascendancy before similar patterns were found far from Namibia and Australia where they were first described. 

Recently, Emilio Guirado and European colleagues published the discovery of hundreds of fairy circles around the world on three continents. In PNAS, they wrote,

Multiple hypotheses have been proposed to explain the formation of these vegetation patterns, which have fascinated scientists for decades. These include the action of climate [e.g., high interannual variability and narrow range of mean annual precipitation], nests of social ants or termites, complex and scale-dependent vegetation-ecohydrological feedbacks, presence of allelopathic Euphorbia species, soil characteristics such as sand and nutrient contents, or the integration of several of these factors. However, predictors of FCs are often evaluated in isolation of each other, and in most cases, each hypothesis proposed is valid only when explaining FC formation locally. Together with the limited number of known locations of FCs to date, this has hampered our ability to understand where FCs occur at a global scale and what drives their distribution.

Cataloging FC locations is a start. (Incidentally, they missed the ones I photographed in Utah; photo here.) Is there a single unifying explanation, or do differing causes converge on similarities? Unlike the crop-circle craze, which was quickly resolved by catching human perpetrators at work overnight, the cause of the FC phenomenon remains unresolved. 

Commenting on Guirado et al.’s work, Xiaoli Dong writes in PNAS that it provides a real-world test of spatial self-organizational principles. The work is complicated because of at least eight proposed factors whose interactions and relative contributions are unclear.

The new global-scale FC-like patterns revealed by Guirado et al. present an exciting opportunity to elucidate mechanisms for dryland vegetation pattern formation, especially if empirical analyses are supplemented with theoretical modeling.

Guirado’s paper mentions “fascinating” three times, showing that the design inference can motivate research and understanding of nature.

And Now for Something Really Different

Want to push your design filter to the ultimate? Check out this idea from a physics professor at the University of Portsmouth. He concocted a new law of physics that he says can support the idea that we live in The Matrix. Yes, his Second Law of Infodynamics is a mashup of entropy with information theory and evolutionary biology, taking design inference to the outer limits.

Since the second law of infodynamics is a cosmological necessity, and appears to apply everywhere in the same way, it could be concluded that this indicates that the entire universe appears to be a simulated construct or a giant computer.

There are some caveats. “Further studies are necessary before we can definitely state that the second law of infodynamics is as fundamental as the second law of thermodynamics,” he says. “The same is true for the simulated universe hypothesis.” But if it is a “cosmic necessity,” is that natural? Hold off on the red pill for now, but he has a book you can intelligently design for use as a doorstop.

*News from Harvard says of Jackson Pollock’s artistic style, “To the untrained eye, his technique may seem haphazard, but Pollock always claimed he had complete control over the flow of the paint.” Some researchers are reverse engineering his “drip painting” method for new purposes. “Researchers combine physics and machine learning to use Pollock’s drip paint technique for quick and accurate 3D printing,” the article states. Pollock’s random-looking art is a challenge for the design inference, showing that the design filter is resilient against false positives, but not false negatives.