Sure looks like design to me!

I attended a lecture by Dave and Mary Jo Nutting of the Alpha-Omega Institute, a creationist…well, I was going to say “think tank”, but it’s really just an apartment in a building that also houses a cleaning service, and is nothing but Dave & Mary Jo promoting themselves as speakers, and there isn’t much thinking going on. What is it with creationists putting pretentious labels on their homes?

Which reminds me…I’ve got to get that sign for the “Institute of Eight Legged Freaks, Departments of Mollusca and Arachnida, and the Academy of Pharyngula Studies” made up for my lawn.

Anyway, it was terrible. Godawful boring and repetitive. Two and a half hours long. Fucking dreadful, even for the low expectations I have for creationists. I sat through the whole thing, seething, until I erupted a little bit in the Q&A.

My wife doesn’t go to these things, but this time Mary came along. I think she wanted to make sure I didn’t misbehave. She doesn’t like to make a scene, so when I started chewing out these ignorant frauds, she was right next to me, drilling her elbow into my ribs. It was a bit uncomfortable, but I persevered. But ow, my side aches today.

Anyway, you probably don’t want to listen to the whole thing, even though I recorded it all. I can summarize it for you: Dave briefly shows an example of a scientific discovery, like the blood clotting pathway, or dolphin countercurrent exchange systems, or DNA repair mechanisms, and then announces, Sure looks like design to me! Over and over. He doesn’t actually address any of the mechanisms behind any of the phenomena, or discuss the evidence, or fairly present the evidence for their evolution — he relies entirely on the pretense that complexity and/or function are synonyms for design. So he throws up an abridged slide of the clotting pathway, and then slaps a label on it claiming it’s all evidence for creation.

It was a poorly attended talk, and I can understand why — they were utterly inane. The Q&A got a little more interesting, largely because every question was pushing back against their claims. If there were attendees who were pro-creationism, they were utterly silent the whole long evening.

At the end, in the Q&A, I rudely called bullshit on them. Look: complexity and functionality are outcomes of a process. We all agree that biological systems are functional and often complex. The question is about the nature of the process. Biologists say there are natural mechanisms that can generate those outcomes, and we have bucket loads of empirical evidence that allow us to explain how functionality and complexity are generated, to widely varying degrees of thoroughness. Creationists say there is one explanation, an explicit act of intentional creation by a designer, and have no evidence whatsoever for it, other than a Gomer Pyle-like expression of incredulity that revels in their ignorance of what the scientists have said.

When I pointed out this disconnect between evidence and their conclusion, and that they are falsely equating complexity with intentional design, Mary Jo denied it. Then she said it wasn’t just complexity, but the intricacy and interconnectedness of organization, which is just throwing out some new nouns and adjectives that say exactly the same thing: complexity equals design. They really have no idea about what they’re talking about.

This was demonstrated perfectly in the first question, at about 1:40. What is it exactly about finding a watch on the beach that tells you it is designed? The reply: I see organizational structure. I see function. A follow-up question was roughly, “if everything is designed, how would you recognize something that wasn’t designed?” To which they said there is also some randomness, giving them an excuse to babble about a tornado in a junkyard assembling an airplane.

The second questioner asks for a clarification: that they’re talking about these crazy complex systems to show that chance is insufficient to explain them. I believe things are too complex, so there must have been a designer. Then he asks about the possibility that design is simply an interpretation based on human bias and experience. They don’t seem to understand the point: Mary Jo goes on about how a building must have a builder. Dave’s answer is familiar: Based on what we see and know, it sure looks designed. Then he goes on to say it taxes credulity to think it could have happened by accident. Wooooooosh, way over his head.

The third question asks whether they understand the argument from ignorance, or the argument from personal incredulity. Nope. They had to ask him to explain it. In a follow-up, he points out that he can’t see the difference between their argument, and saying a magic pixie did it. Mary Jo counters by saying that they have to use other evidence, like historical evidence…by which she means the Bible.

She keeps talking. The talk was long-winded, their answers were equally long-winded. She starts off with the complexity thing again, saying that molecules bouncing around randomly can’t explain complexity.

That’s where I finally erupt and tell them they can’t do that — it’s an invalid argument to simply claim complexity is sufficent to justify the design explanation. (Warning: I come off very loud, like the voice of God, but it’s only because my recorder was sitting on the desk directly in front of me). She replies by saying it’s not just the complexity, it’s the ordered complexity. Jesus fuck, they are dense. Systems, machines, computers. Mindless buzzwords.

Another question: what about species that go extinct? Guess what the answer is?

Yeah, The Fall. The Flood.

A follow-up: Given the Flood, how did organisms repopulate the earth? Perhaps they hopped.

There was another question about biogeography after the flood. I felt like shouting, stop pandering to their delusions. There was no flood. It just gives them opportunity to meander on with Bible stories.

Next question: Why do you prioritize supernatural answers over natural ones, when we’ve never seen anything propely answered with supernatural explanations? The supernatural makes more sense to us. Also, an admission: we have no evidence.

Next: questioner brings up an example Nutting used, of a sea slug that eats anemones and recycles nematocysts for their own use. Did that happen before or after the Fall? They don’t know.

It came around to me again. I demanded that they show evidence for design other than reiterating the mantra of complexity. Their argument, after I told them that just claiming evolution relies only on chance is dishonest, was to argue that natural selection can only act on what is already there. I mentioned biology as a property of chemistry; they claimed that chemistry is evolution. What I didn’t bring up, and should have, is that they’ve just pushed back their unanswerable questions of evolution to prebiotic chemistry, which doesn’t fit with their claims of a 6000 year old earth and a global flood.

The next question is a conciliatory comment in which the questioner says he appreciates the sincerity of their beliefs. But then he asks a really good question. He asks how they explain that their position is becoming less popular. And that’s true: there might have been 20 people in the audience, and judging by the questions, almost all of them completely disagreed with the Nuttings.

Their answer is that all that’s taught at the university is naturalism. They also blame separation of church and state. You’ve been brainwashed, sheeple!

Next question: The Nuttings believe as they do because of personal experiences; the questioner accept the concensus of science. Do they believe personal experience over empirical evidence? They waffle pointlessly. They don’t reject empirical evidence (which wasn’t the question) they just…I don’t know what. So the question gets repeated. There’s way too much that indicates there must be a designer. Then he starts babbling about the Bible.

I count that as a total non-answer.

Next: it’s pointed out that science doesn’t work the way they claim. It’s not a collection of facts followed by interpretation, where every interpretation is equal. Science builds on progressive hypothesis testing; they put up slides of the end conclusions of a lot of work to giggle over, but that was all based on a lot of legitimate work that they didn’t show. Mary Jo offers vague agreement that there is a process of science, but claims it doesn’t tell us how it got there. I’d say it does; they just intentionally neglected to discuss it. In follow up, the questioner points out that invoking the supernatural basically kills our ability to address the question, and returns to the initial question of how you recognize undesigned organization. It’s mentioned that the hypothesis that the devil buried all those fossils is a supernatural explanation. The moderator says that their organization (Maranatha) doesn’t believe that — which misses the whole point. How do they know?

The next question hammers on a point that had been made a few times: biology doesn’t explain the world in terms of pure chance. So why do the Nuttings keep going back to this claim of nothing but random chance? Dave replies by asking, rhetorically, if he thinks protein folding is purely chemistry and natural laws. He then claims that natural laws…are not going to do that. It’s a folding machine. (Throughout the evening, “machine” was their magical word to imply a process was artificial.)

I will also remind you all that the title of the talk asserted a dichotomy, Grand Design vs Chance. This was a fundamental issue, and they didn’t address it.

And with that, I’d had enough. We left.

You can listen to the whole thing, if I haven’t sufficiently discouraged you.


  1. nomdeplume says

    Sounds like they have pucked up Ken Ham’s idiot list of things that are “complex” therefore god. On the list (a grab bag of chemicals, plants, animals, in alpabetic order!) is Broccoli, which, like Comfort’s banana is claimed to be too complex to have evolved, but which is, of course, the result of hundreds of years of human selection!

  2. brucej says

    an excuse to babble about a tornado in a junkyard assembling an airplane.

    I wonder if they’ve ever considered how incredibly complex….a tornado is?

  3. says

    I’ve got to get that sign for the “Institute of Eight Legged Freaks, Departments of Mollusca and Arachnida, and the Academy of Pharyngula Studies” made up for my lawn.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  4. willj says

    I have a brother who brings up topics like that at the dinner table. He claims bees could not have evolved, for reasons I can’t remember. Also flood stuff. But he can’t explain how the histories of six major world civilizations continue unbroken though 2400 B.C. Historians must be wrong too. He gets these things from some church newsletter – maybe Ken Ham. I used to engage him, but found that my time was better spent by bashing my head against the wall about 150 times. Achieved a similar effect.

  5. says

    Maybe they’re right – maybe there are elements of design. But what if it was Sithrak that was behind the design? That would explain a lot, actually.

  6. wzrd1 says

    @1, which variety of brassica? Aw, nevermind, I tend to love most of them. Some cabbages, not so much, the rest, yep!
    Alas, I’m restricted from them and a host of other fine, tasty green foods, for brassica, due to the presence of goitrogens, in others, an excess of iodine. I have a rather severe case of Grave’s Disease, my abdominal aorta is around 2.5 – 2.7 cm dilated, hit 3 cm, it’s urgent to surgically address, at 3.5 cm, a 95% mortality and morbidity rate.
    The reasons for that are complicated, so obviously, it’s someone’s dog or something. Not simply an autoimmune issue, due to a misidentification of an intruder’s proteins and my own, it’s that doggie!

    No wait, brassica, via broccoli, is God’s work, therefore, humanity is God!
    Yeah, now I’m moving from deist to atheist, for I wouldn’t believe in me in that case!

    As for protein folding, while my biochemistry is a bit weak, the understanding of concepts is quite fair. What is hydrophobic collapse again? With the idiots, it’s likely falling down out of fear of water, assuming they comprehend the root words, rather than a concept.
    What are molecular chaperones again? I know, the dog assigned each and every one of them!
    After all, how many angles can dance upon the head of a pin? Zero, angles don’t dance, they define.
    Because, as bad as I am at not knowing an alkyl from an alkane, at least I know that they exist and I understand pharmacological families and their underlying subgroups and interactions and leave the rest to those with a superior understanding to design such things.
    A craftsman needs not to understand how to engineer a drill, but if the craftsman wants to repair said drill, it sure is helpful to know the terminologies involved in naming failed components, how the bloody things interoperate together and what brand the blasted thing is.
    A surgeon needs not the ability to craft surgical steel from iron ore, but know how to order the correct tool for the surgery, order it properly sterilized and especially, how to wield such instruments.
    When I’ve prescribed medications, I knew the general biochemical family, biochemistry involved in the effect in block diagram notation (mental processing involved), what system of what was effected, side effects, off label uses, how those could go sideways and dosage, administration and method of administration (along with a veritable fountain of trivia around such drug classes). I gave a damn which specific part of a molecule was being damaged about as much as any physician didn’t give a damn.

    As for PZ’s kind warning, I’ll happily enjoy said warning. I remember having similar discussions back in the late 1970’s with people over “the pieces of a Swiss watch placed inside of a box and shake it, it’ll never come out as a functioning watch”, ignoring the real probability that it just might, in a few trillion years.
    So, given a choice between listening to that codswallop and masturbating with a cheese grater, honestly, the cheese grater sounds more gratifying.
    Nothing is worse than someone failing to Gish Gallop and fail, but stick to their candy bars, pretending they’re guns. Melts in your hands at least…
    But, at least Gish was good at two things, being a 40 watt bulb in a 100 watt room and knowing how, if he can’t dazzle with the brilliance, machine gun with the bullshit.
    These, dullards, who, since they can’t rise to the discussion, attempt to pull everyone down to their level of idiocy and defeat those smarter, better educated and capable of thought via their superior knowledge of being ignorant.
    Never fight an adversary on their “strong ground”. Never fight an enema with your ass, you’ll lose in both instances and the results will remain the same.
    Ignorance is mitigated via education, willful ignorance, best dismissed with contempt. They use appeal to emotion and ignore all facts.
    Need I drone on more?

  7. cartomancer says

    PZ, if I wanted to waste my Sunday morning listening to two and a half hours of painful idiocy then I would go to a church.

  8. Emu Sam says

    Isn’t the argument that God designed everything, and therefore the tornado, and the rocks found next to the watch, and everything unorganized like my desk, are products of design, too? What’s an example of something you can tell was not designed?

  9. John Morales says

    Emu Sam, indeed it is — everything but God itself is designed by God, and God is thus the example you seek.

  10. tarski says

    The argument from “it looks like design” never makes sense to me. I haven’t heard a version that doesn’t appear to undermine its own premises.

    If I find a watch in the sand, the watch stands out as different from the sand in ways that suggest it was designed by a human artisan. Therefore the sand is designed.

    There are distinguishing characteristics that differentiate designed things from the products of other processes. We know this because we have observed the differences. Therefore everything is designed, nothing is the product of other processes, and there is no differentiation.


  11. John Morales says

    tarski, your thinking is insufficiently religious.

    Everything is designed by God, but some things are designed by humans by virtue of God’s design — those things that are not designed by humans are natural things, those things that are designed by humans are artificial things.

    (And yeah, that leads to the issue of theodicy, which ends up being explained by God’s ineffable plan. cf. Candide)

  12. davidc1 says

    PZ Wrote” And with that, I’d had enough. We left.”
    Followed by the cry of” Who was that bearded guy ,and his trophy wife ?”
    I was a bit disappointed you were not thrown out kicking and screaming .

  13. imthegenieicandoanything says

    Some metaphors really deliver the goods, as in this case: these people truly have their heads up their own asses.

  14. DoctorBob says

    Good on you for being willing to subject yourself to this BS for 2 hours. The way I see it, you’re never going to convince people like Dave and Mary Jo that they’re wrong, BUT at least you’re exposing the other people there to another point of view. Some of them might even realize that your arguments make more sense than the creationist ones. Breaking into someone else’s echo chamber can be worthwhile, as long as it’s done thoughtfully and calmly, not aggressively and condescendingly.

  15. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Out of curiosity, did anyone ask Dave and Mary Jo why the “great designer” was so incompetent as to design the human back the way it did? Or put a blind spot right in the middle of our field of vision? Or allow our cellular reproduction to go so awry that it kills us with cancer? I could go on and on. I mean, these seem to be rookie mistakes. George Carlin’s take was that the “designer” really wasn’t that great. He was the Western Marketing Manager.
    I mean, this whole “Intelligent Design” bullshit is fine if you are willing to posit a designer that really wasn’t that intelligent…or beneficent, or industrious. Somehow, I think they might find that idea a little disturbing.

  16. curbyrdogma says

    Ah yes, the old tornado-in-a-junkyard and watch (or painting) on a beach tropes. It’s fun to explore those shopworn metaphors just to throw them a curveball:

    We observe that everything created started from more humble beginnings. Boeing 747s aren’t assembled in one fell swoop by a single creator. Many people are involved with their production — starting with the mining of raw materials that exist in the ground in the form of ore, petroleum and so on.

    Furthermore, modern airliners were not immediately conceived in their present form by the Wright Brothers. Aircraft design as it exists today went through an evolution of its own.

    So you find a watch on the beach. You immediately jump to a conclusion and declare this as evidence that Dr. Manhattan (fictional comic book character who made watches) exists. Whereas the watch was actually made by a factory in China and not by the entity you assumed made it.

    If these metaphors are supposed to imply that a supernatural entity was responsible for complex design, they’re actually arguments for a whole team of supernatural entities, not just one. And maybe not the one you’re assuming.

  17. angela78 says

    When dealing with “Intelligent Design” fanatics I’d be more interested in debating the “Intelligent” part.
    You know, the usual objections like “why don’t we have self-repairing knees”, “why teeth don’t grow back once they are damaged and fall”, “can’t we have a backup hearth” etc. All things very easy to put into a design from an omniscient, omnipotent being.

  18. Jason Nishiyama says

    It always amuses me when creationists trot out the tornado in the junkyard analogy, not knowing it was not an argument against evolution and for creationism, but an argument for panspermia against abiogenesis.

  19. hunter says

    Stray thought: one element that never seems to come up in these discussion is the influence of time. Granted, that means one has to accept the evidence of the age of the earth, but given the amount of time involved since the appearance of the first living organisms, all things are possible.

  20. wcorvi says

    They see design in everything they don’t understand. And since they understand almost nothing, they see design in almost everything.

  21. says

    20 hunter: Big numbers are beyond their comprehension. They’re beyond mine, too, but not so much that I’m not aware that they are, indeed, freaking big. Add to that the fact that their holy book thinks a thousand is practically infinity (and anything with sevens in it is extra impressive), and they’re not inclined to learn.

    Particularly as so many of them view “learning” itself without a paycheck at the end of it as suspect, if not evil.

  22. krakonos says

    This was the first time I have, at least in part, ever listened to a creationist talk about “intelligent design”. And I must say to me as a non-native speaker it sounded like they very elaborately talked about nothing. Too bad, they haven’t spent nearly as much time on studying evidence for and against evolution as they have practicing their talking skills. Basically, their hypothesis was “complexity therefore design”. And the “evidence” they presented was “complexity does exist”? That is the mother of all circular arguments. I really liked the question whether they don’t think that nature is just way too complex to be designed. Because it completely exposes their lack of evidence for anything. Maybe, one should ask for data instead of evidence because evidence is a more abstract term that they can more easily maneuver around by giving vague and meaningless answers?

  23. emergence says

    So they just relied on fuzzy rhetoric rather than even attempting to address the actual evidence for evolution? I think you should have confronted them with some of the research that actually shows how organisms evolve. Hopefully, they might get some inkling that they’re punching above their weight. Vague claims that the blood clotting system “looks designed” aren’t convincing compared to genomic analysis that shows how it evolved.

  24. mnb0 says

    So you didn’t enjoy yourself. Will you ever learn?
    Look, IDiots have nothing but “science can’t explain” and “looks designed to me, hence a Grand Old Designer”. So all they can do is collect examples of these two points. A YEC can add Global Flood and Holy Scripure.
    You already understood creacrap many years before I began to “study”. So why do you complain that it was boring and terrible? It couldn’t have been anything else and you knew it.
    Next time, for your entertainment, don’t ask serious questions (you won’t ever get serious answers) but funny ones. Like: why aren’t there kangaroo fossils between the Middle East and Australia? How is it possible that you reject slow evolution but accept hyperaccelerated evolution instead (different species all over the world descending from one “kind”)? Do you agree with this quote “The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger.” (After the expected “yes” add “thank you, I took the quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, chapter 11).
    And if you don’t think this approach funny (which would speak much in favour of your character) you better stay away, because this misbehaviour (your wife is right about it) is the only way to entertain yourself with creacrappers. As you already know, because this is what you do when celebrating Paul Nelson Day.

  25. says

    But…but the essence of good design is simplicity.
    As a developer looking at the complexity of life, I can only conclude that rather than an elegant watch it has the appearance of some really old program that has been kludged and patched and added to over the years and re-purposed so many times that nobody really knows it in its entirety and everyone is afraid to mess with most of it in case they break the bits that currently work (or at least don’t seem to have bad, or indeed any impacts on the system as a whole).

  26. Pierce R. Butler says

    Did anybody ever explain how Coca-Cola got its logo on the flyers for this uneffervescent event?

  27. says

    @Kip TW:

    Big numbers are beyond their comprehension. They’re beyond mine, too, but not so much that I’m not aware that they are, indeed, freaking big.

    One interesting way to test someone’s numeracy is to talk about invisibly small things measured in micrometers – maybe individual cells, small ones, not like muscle cells or neurons which have lengths measured in units that are visibly large – and provide the definition of a micron as a millionth of a meter. Then ask the person to hold up there fingers or hands to show, visibly, how long a distance they think a million microns would be.

    There’s a weird psychological barrier for many people that will prevent them from doing the basic math one million * (1/one million) = one. Psychologically, for many people, things that are invisibly small don’t ever add up to something visibly large – even though they themselves are made up of a conglomeration of many invisibly small cells. The point is not to second guess people on whether the distance they estimate is exactly 100 centimeters. Anything from 50cm to 150cm effectively communicates that they know that a million invisibly small microns do add up to the visibly large meter, even if they don’t represent a meter perfectly. The people who tend to fail will do so either by holding their fingers very close together or by just giving up and saying that they don’t know.

    Anyway, it’s a weird little thing about human psychology.

  28. says

    29 Crip Dyke: It seems almost corny, but I could see myself being taken in by that one, depending upon the presentation. (Confession: I once lost a game of Trivial Pursuit on a final question, “How many definite articles are there in English?”) (That’s two confessions: I once played Trivial Pursuit.)

  29. says

    You touch on something that has concerned me for a long time when you speak of rejection of empirical knowledge. Having read a fair amount of material from the rebirth of creationism in the fifties and sixties, I noticed the following: In the impoverished epistemology of Evangelicals, there are only two potential sources of knowledge; reasoning from empirical evidence and divine
    commands. There is basically no area of knowledge with more empirical evidence than evolution. By denying evolution, what they are actually doing is denying the possibility of empirical knowledge at all, leaving it to divine judgment (of course they are the only ones who can speak for God) to rule on every fact. The fight against evolution is, in fact, not a scientific nor even a religious one. It is all about power. They are claiming the sole right to state what is true and what is false, and therefore the right to dictate every facet of our existence.

  30. nomdeplume says

    Nicely put Green Eagle. It is human beings, now, who are claiming the “bible” as we have it now, is in total the “word of god” whatever that means. But to my knowledge there is no claim in the random collection of documents far removed from their originals, and subject to the vagaries of translation between several languages, that is referred to as the “bible” (which just means “book”) that this is all somehow the inerrant word of a middle eastern deity. That is a claim made by the likes of Ken Hamm (as is the similar claim about the age of the Earth – nowhere stated in the bible, which you would think god could have done had “he” known the age of the planet rather than leave it to an obscure religious leader a few hundred years ago to try to make some estimate involving the obviously wrong ages of some imaginary people), but it is just a claim.

  31. emergence says

    I’d like to add that I’m sick of these sorts of pseudo-philosophical back and forths in general. We should explain why they’re wrong about all of this design and chance crap by explaining the actual processes behind evolution in detail.

  32. John Morales says


    I’d like to add that I’m sick of these sorts of pseudo-philosophical back and forths in general.

    Epistemology is not pseudo-philosophy. Nor are creationists gonna stop forthing, so the best you will get is forth without back.

    We should explain why they’re wrong about all of this design and chance crap by explaining the actual processes behind evolution in detail.

    “We” have. It is futile.

    Besides, it’s a side-issue. True believers will believe what they believe, whether or not they accept the theory of evolution.

    (cf. (biologos), a fall-back position)

  33. DanDare says

    A good designer takes the complexity they find in nature and simplifies it.
    If its complex it’s either natural or badly designed.

  34. nomdeplume says

    Sorry folks, Kent Hovind is Broccoli Man – I always get him and Ken Ham confused. Must be their IQ levels and shared initials.

  35. Jado says

    All these people credit God. No one ever mentions that the possibility exists that Gandalf did it.

    There’s the same evidence for God and Gandalf. Why not Gandalf?