Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Intelligent Design

Why is it always 10 questions? Couldn’t they just ask one really good question? I’d prefer that to these flibbertigibbet deluges of piddling pointlessnesses that the creationists want to fling at us. I think it’s because they want to make sure no one spends too much time showing how silly each individual question is.

A few years ago, Jonathan Wells came up with his 10 questions to ask your biology teacher — they were largely drawn from his book, Icons of Evolution, and they were awful — they were only difficult to answer if you knew nothing of the science and accepted the dishonest pseudoscience Well presented as “scholarship”. NCSE has all the answers you need; I think they hoped to stump a few school teachers here and there by feeding students with a collection of questions the students wouldn’t understand, but that might hit a few gaps in the teacher’s knowledge.

Now Dembski and some guy named Sean McDowell have a new list of Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Intelligent Design. Once again, it’s mislead-and-confuse time.

1. Design Detection
If nature, or some aspect of it, is intelligently designed, how could we tell?

Design inferences in the past were largely informal and intuitive. Usually people knew it when they saw it. Intelligent design, by introducing specified complexity, makes the detection of design rigorous. Something is complex if it is hard to reproduce by chance and specified if it matches an independently given pattern (an example is the faces on Mt. Rushmore). Specified complexity gives a precise criterion for reliably inferring intelligence.

OK, so? Give me an independently specified pattern created by intelligent design to match against, say, a beetle. I can compare Lincoln’s face on Rushmore to photos, paintings, and death casts of the real person’s face, and can say that there’s sufficient similarity on all details to rule out the possibility that Rushmore is a natural accident. Where’s the design template for Odontolabis femoralis?

2. Looking for Design in Biology
Should biologists be encouraged to look for signs of intelligence in biological systems? Why or why not?

Scientists today look for signs of intelligence coming in many places, including from distant space (consider SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Yet, many biologists regard it as illegitimate to look for signs of intelligence in biological systems. Why arbitrarily exclude design inferences from biology if we accept them for other scientific disciplines? It is an open question whether the apparent design in nature is real.

Nobody says you can’t look for signs of design in biological systems; so do it already, creationists! Of course, you have yet to explain where you’re going to find that independently given pattern that specifies Odontolabis femoralis. You haven’t even explained yet what artificial/design mechanisms were used in the construction of that beetle. The natural explanation has the advantage that it only postulates mechanisms that we’ve seen to operate; we don’t have to imagine a magical gene lathe operated by an invisible man.

I wouldn’t encourage a grad student to waste his time looking for design in biology because the concept is so vaguely defined and so malformed to be useless. Productive science is about getting results, and I don’t see any path given to generate useful data from this design hypothesis.

3. The Rules of Science
Who determines the rules of science? Are these rules written in stone? Is it mandatory that scientific explanations only appeal to matter and energy operating by unbroken natural laws (a principle known as methodological naturalism)?

The rules of science are not written in stone. They have been negotiated over many centuries as science (formerly called “natural philosophy”) has tried to understand the natural world. These rules have changed in the past and they will change in the future. Right now much of the scientific community is bewitched by a view of science called methodological naturalism, which says that science may only offer naturalistic explanations. Science seeks to understand nature. If intelligent causes operate in nature, then methodological naturalism must not be used to rule them out.

Who? Man, these guys have got intent and agency etched deep into their brain, don’t they?

The rules of science are entirely pragmatic — we do what works, defined as a process that produces explanations that allow us to push deeper and deeper into a problem. That’s all we care about. Show us a tool that actually generates new insights into biology, rather than recycling tired theological notions, and some scientist somewhere will use it. We’re still waiting for one.

I am amused by the use of the word ‘bewitched’ to categorize people who don’t invoke magical ad hoc explanations built around undetectable supernatural entities, however.

4. Biology’s Information Problem
How do we account for the complex information-rich patterns in biological systems? What is the source of that information?

The central problem for biology is information. Living things are not mere lumps of matter. Life is special, and what makes life special is the arrangement of its matter into very specific forms. In other words, what makes life special is information. Where did the information necessary for life come from? Where did the information necessary for the Cambrian explosion come from? How can a blind material process generate the novel information of biological systems? ID argues that such information has an intelligent source.

We know that chance and selection can generate information. This is not a problem at all.

ID can argue that Bozo the Clown put the information there. It doesn’t make it true.

5. Molecular Machines
Do any structures in the cell resemble machines designed by humans? How do we account for such structures?

The biological world is full of molecular machines that are strikingly similar to humanly made machines. In fact, they are more than similar. Just about every engineering principle that we employ in our own machines gets used at the molecular level, with this exception: the technology inside the cell vastly exceeds human technology. How, then, do biologists explain the origin of such structures? How can a blind material process generate the multiple coordinated changes needed to build a molecular machine? If we see a level of engineering inside the cell that far surpasses our own abilities, it is reasonable to conclude that these molecular machines are actually, and not merely apparently, designed.

No, the molecules in cells do not resemble human-made machines, except in the sense that they use the forces of physics and chemistry to do work. I notice that our own machines do not require supernatural forces to explain them; why should cellular machinery demand them?

Notice the sleight of hand there: they say we see a “level of engineering” in cells, therefore they are designed. They beg the question. Cells are not engineered. We have an alternative explanation, that they are evolved, which does not require conjuring up unknown forces.

6. Irreducible Complexity
What are irreducibly complex systems? Do such systems exist in biology? If so, are those systems evidence for design? If not, why not?

The biological world is full of functioning molecular systems that cannot be simplified without losing the system’s function. Take away parts and the system’s function cannot be recovered. Such systems are called irreducibly complex. How do evolutionary theorists propose to account for such systems? What detailed, testable, step-by-step proposals explain the emergence of irreducibly complex machines such as the flagellum? Given that intelligence is known to design such systems, it is a reasonable inference to conclude that they were designed.

“Irreducibly complex” systems exist in biology. The catch is that they can be easily generated by natural processes, and IC does not imply intent or design. We explain complex organelles like the flagellum by looking in the cell for related structures that show potential paths to the structure; we know of natural processes, like gene duplication, cooption and exaptation, and coevolution that can produce features that exhibit irreducible complexity in the final state.

That last sentence is a classic non sequitur. We know that human beings build penis-shaped objects; that does not imply that Bill Dembski’s penis is made of silicone and has an on-off switch, let alone that someone made it in an injection-molding machine.

7. Similar Structures
Human designers reuse designs that work well. Life forms also reuse certain structures (the camera eye, for example, appears in humans and octopuses). How well does this evidence support Darwinian evolution? Does it support intelligent design more strongly?

Evolutionary biologists attribute similar biological structures to either common descent or convergence. Structures are said to result from convergence if they evolved independently from distinct lines of organisms. Darwinian explanations of convergence strain credulity because they must account for how trial-and-error tinkering (natural selection acting on random variations) could produce strikingly similar structures in widely different organisms and environments. It’s one thing for evolution to explain similarity by common descent–the same structure is then just carried along in different lineages. It’s another to explain it as the result of blind tinkering that happened to hit on the same structure multiple times. Design proponents attribute such similar structures to common design (just as an engineer may use the same parts in different machines). If human designers frequently reuse successful designs, the designer of nature can surely do the same.

Camera eyes evolved independently multiple times because there are a limited number of ways to build an image-forming light-detection device. An eyeball with a light-sensitive sheet on the back (a retina) and a lens in front is a natural way to do it. When we look at the octopus and human eye, though, we also see a host of differences: the octopus eye has a more efficient retina that puts the light collectors at the front of the light path, and instead of channeling all the outputs from the photoreceptors into a single point that creates a blind spot, the output neurons project in a diffuse array out the back of the eyeball.

They also use different molecular pathways to generate a response — we have ciliary photoreceptors, they have rhabdomeric photoreceptors. Why, it looks as if both lineages have been carrying out blind tinkering to produce something functional, and the there are deep differences under the superficial similarities!

So, why didn’t the designer use similar eyeball modules in humans and octopuses? You don’t get to argue that the designer used the engineering principle of recycling similar modules in different lineages while ignoring the fact that there are substantial differences between those two kinds of eyes.

8. Fine-Tuning
The laws of physics are fine-tuned to allow life to exist. Since designers are capable of fine-tuning a system, can design be considered the best explanation for the universe?

Physicists agree that the constants of nature have a strange thing in common: they seem precisely calibrated for the existence of life. As Frederick Hoyle famously remarked, it appears that someone has “monkeyed” with physics. Naturalistic explanations that attempt to account for this eerie fine-tuning invariably introduce entities for which there is no independent evidence (for example, they invoke multiple worlds with which we have no physical way of interacting). The fine-tuning of the universe strongly suggests that it was intelligently designed.

Oh, please. I’d be more impressed if the constants of nature were not calibrated for the existence of life, and we were here anyway. Now that would be eerie. That the universe has laws that are consistent with our existence does not in any way imply that it was designed.

9. The Privileged Planet
The Earth seems ideally positioned in our galaxy for complex life to exist and for scientific discovery to advance. Does this privileged status of Earth indicate intelligent design? Why or why not?

Many factors had to come together on earth for human life to exist (chapter 9). We exist in just the right place in just the right type of galaxy at just the right cosmic moment. We orbit the right type of star at the right distance for life. The earth has large surrounding planets to protect us from comets, a moon to direct important life-permitting cycles, and an iron core that protects us from harmful radiation. Moreover, the earth has many features that facilitate scientific discovery, such as a moon that makes possible perfect eclipses. Humans seem ideally situated on the earth to make scientific discoveries. This suggests that a designer designed our place in the world so that we can understand the world’s design. Naturalism, by contrast, leaves it a complete mystery why we should be able to do science and gain insight into the underlying structure of the world.

Isn’t this the same concept as ‘problem’ 9? We belong to a scientific/technological society; it is unsurprising that we live on a world in which that is possible. Again, I’d be more baffled if the features of this planet conspired against scientific discovery, but we made them anyway.

10. The Origin of the Universe
The universe gives every indication of having a beginning. Since something cannot come from nothing, is it legitimate to conclude that a designer made the universe? If not, why not?

For most of world history, scientists believed the universe was eternal. With advances in our understanding of cosmology over the last forty years, however, scientists now recognize that the universe had a beginning and is finite in duration and size. In other words, the universe has not always been there. Since the universe had a beginning, why not conclude that it had a designer that brought it into existence? Since matter, space, and time themselves had a beginning, this would suggest that the universe had a non-physical, non-spatial, and non-temporal cause. A designer in the mold of the Christian God certainly fits the bill.

Question begging again? Is this the only trick they know?

How do you know that something cannot come from nothing? Here, take an hour, and a physicist will explain that you can get a universe from nothing. Physics is stranger than creationists can imagine, and it’s always irritating to see incompetent ignoramuses like Dembski and McDowell think they can bamboozle us by invoking a physics they don’t understand.

(I showed this video before, so it may be familiar to you.)

The Christian god was a god-man who had a distinct and transient anthropoid form. I don’t see how the origin of the universe in some kind of quantum foam points to a dead Hebrew rabbi.

Ho-hum. Another collection of bad questions that assume what they intend to demonstrate, and another uninteresting exercise in tired apologetics from the Discovery Institute con artists.


  1. Chemical Engineer says

    The world does not pay for random engineering design (for obvious reasons!), but it is amazing how the world will pay homage to random engineering (of evolution) all to avoid God so they can be their own little god.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, OM says

    all to avoid God

    Well, where is the conclusive physical evidence for your imaginary deity. Evidence that will pass muster with scientists, magicians, and professional debunkers as being of divine, and not natural, origin. Claims lacking that evidence, like for your deity (which one of the 1000+ invented by man do you mean) above, are worthless.

  3. Caine, Fleur du mal says

    all to avoid God so they can be their own little god.

    Bzzt. Wrong. Very wrong. Evolution is a fact, no one pays homage to it; atheism is a lack of belief in gods, full stop. Nothing more. It’s religious types who can’t think outside of a god; no matter how ridiculous, they have to squish a god into things somehow. I don’t believe in gods, and I don’t think I am one either.

  4. Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse, OM says

    Simply amazing how some engineers seem to think that they can transfer the experience in design to biology.

    Would you like it if a biologist insisted that you got everything wrong in your field?

  5. Chemical Engineer says

    The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says all things decay in their orderliness. Only a Mind (as in God or yourselves) can bring orderliness out of nothing. God desires to download his code into you! God is love, enjoy the download and quit fighting it!

  6. Sven DiMilo says

    Zombie Thread! Returned to Life Again by an engineer who does not grok the SLOT.

    enjoy the download

    beg your pardon?

  7. Nerd of Redhead, OM says

    Only a Mind (as in God or yourselves) can bring orderliness out of nothing. God desires to download his code into you! God is love, enjoy the download and quit fighting it!

    This isn’t evidence for your imaginary deity, but rather a bad case of sophistry with presuppositions. And you are wrong about the second law of thermo. What god? What deity? Show some real physical evidence, like an eternally burning bush. Then you have something. Until then, quit showing your obvious ignorance to the world. You only embarrass yourself.

  8. Brownian, OM says

    God desires to download his code into you! God is love, enjoy the download and quit fighting it!

    Ha ha! Theology is fun!

    God desires to fill your crust with lemony meringue! God is pie, enjoy the slice and have some à la mode!

  9. Sven DiMilo says

    God desires to fill your XXXXX with XXXXX! God is XXXXX, enjoy the XXXXX and XXXXX some XXXXX!

    This is fun, even during XXXXXing Euphemism Week!

  10. David Marjanović says

    The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says all things decay in their orderliness.


    Instead, it says that the entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease. An isolated system is one that neither matter nor other forms of energy can enter or leave.

    Hint: the Earth is not an isolated system.

    Only a Mind (as in God or yourselves) can bring orderliness out of nothing.

    So, when water freezes, turning into ice crystals, that’s a miracle?

    No. It’s electrostatic attraction and repulsion. All you need to make order out of nothing is a force.

    God desires to download his code into you!

    Evidence, please.

    For both claims – that God exists, and that he wants to download stuff.

  11. Knockgoats says

    God desires to download his code into you! – Some loon

    Sounds to me like your “god” is a rapist.

    I’m getting seriously worried that my son wants to be an engineer: so many of them are complete fuckwits, either creobots, AGW denialists or whatever.

  12. Knockgoats says

    Chemical Engineer has obviously never heard of genetic algorithms, genetic programming, etc. What an ignorant buffoon.

  13. Sili says

    As a chemist, I would like to apologise for CE up there. I musta inhaled too many gases somewhere along the line.

  14. Feynmaniac says

    The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says all things decay in their orderliness.

    Arghhhh!!!! Do you honestly think we’ve never heard this lame argument before. Honestly, this is up there with “if we came from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?”.
    See here: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/11/entropy_and_evolution.php

    God desires to download his code into you!

    My firewall indicates that this is a virus.

  15. Caine, Fleur du mal says

    God desires to download his code into you! God is love, enjoy the download and quit fighting it!

    Eeuuwww, tell your imaginary friend I don’t do forced downloads, man. No means no.

  16. Jadehawk, OM says

    God desires to download his code into you!

    My firewall indicates that this is a virus.


  17. Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse, OM says

    Eeeeewwwww! Is the big sky daddy trying to have sexual intercourse with everybody. So much for heterosexual monogamy.

    Or is the big sky daddy the borg.? And you will be assimilated.

  18. JeffreyD says

    Chemical Engineer – let me get this straight, this is the same gawd who told guys they need to partially skin their dick?

    Check Please!

    Far from letting him download anything into me (is that what the RC priesthood has been doing, btw?), I plan to call the cops if the freak gets any where near me or the kids. I always find gawd botherer’s daddy fixation to be a tad spooky. Grow up, drop the daddy issues.

  19. Caine, Fleur du mal says


    Is the big sky daddy trying to have sexual intercourse with everybody.

    Engineer’s “enjoy the download and quit fighting it!” is creepily close to “if rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” Why anyone thinks that sort of sentiment would be convincing, I don’t know.

  20. Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse, OM says

    Yeah, here are the minions of Pharyngula, making light of rape yet again. Someone, quickly, inform the morality patrol at the Intersection. And an other person inform Kw*k that a religious person is being mocked yet again.

  21. Feynmaniac says

    Honestly, what’s with this Christian need to convert? They are like the freakin’ Borg.

    We are Christians,
    Lower your skepticism and surrender your free will.
    We will add your holidays and religious traditions to our own.
    Your culture will adapt to serve the clergy.
    Thinking is futile.