Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat Oct 17 2009 - 02:13:31 EDT


I'm not sure I understand you yet. I mean, I understand your bare words
about the construction of a car, but I am not sure what you are driving (no
pun intended) at. Or rather, perhaps what is puzzling me is that you
specifically addressed me on this thread, when I've really never offered any
thoughts on reverse engineering. If you were simply curious to know what I
thought, that's fine, but I certainly claim no deep understanding of either
engineering or reverse engineering.

What I do like about engineers and engineering, however, is their very clear
understanding that complex integrated systems don't (as far as we know) come
into existence without design. Simple systems might -- planets orbiting a
sun in accord with basic natural forces -- but complex integrated systems
are another matter. Thus, a claim that the first cell came into existence
without design may well, from an engineer's point of view, be regarded with
suspicion. Perhaps not close-mindedness or hostility, but suspicion. And
the same should be true for Darwinian evolution. An engineer might very
well regard its claims with great reserve, and his doubts might be all the
more heightened by the absence of detailed discussion of steps and of proof
that the steps were possible given the known powers of the mechanisms
postulated; for in the engineer's own field, such steps have to be spelled
out and individually verified.

I'm not of course saying that there aren't thousands of engineers who accept
Darwinian evolution. I don't even deny that there are many who support it
enthusiastically. However, we must keep in mind that most scientifically
trained people, at least these days, are socially trained to defer to other
specialists, and an engineer who hasn't studied biology since 10th grade,
and doesn't feel confident in the face of specialist jargon, may well either
(1) assume that the biologists have the same level of detailed argument for
how a zebra is built that he has for how a television is built, and trust
them, or (2) hold back his dissent, or grunt a weak assent, because he
doesn't feel that he has enough background to give articulate voice to his
reservations. But however that may be, I don't think it's an accident that
many of the supporters of intelligent design, especially the non-Christian
ones, and those (Christian or not) of the younger generation (many of whom
aren't yet in the public limelight), are trained in engineering or related
fields like computer programming, where end-directed processes are central
to the intellectual work.

If you are asking me to re-cast ID as a "scientific theory", in the sense of
an efficient-cause narrative of how a cell or zebra might be built up from
some earlier arrangement of matter, by a designing intelligence, as a human
being builds a car, I cannot do that. First of all, if God made some things
directly and whole, no such explanation would be possible for those things.
Second, if he made some things by tinkering directly with older things, then
a partial explanation would be possible, but only a partial one, because his
manipulative action would be invisible and in part incomprehensible. It
would be like the case of Dawkins's static sequence of steps for the
development of the eye -- we could see how each snapshot marks an increase
in integrated complexity over the other, but we wouldn't know how the
transformations were effected and could not characterize them in any detail.
Instead of "mutation and natural selection caused the light spot to back up
into a recess", it would be "God pushed the light spot back into a recess";
the explanation is scientifically superficial in both cases. Only if God
tinkered with older things and made them into newer things exclusively
through naturalistic mechanisms -- as in Denton's account -- would it be
possible to give steps that would be completely analyzable and confirmable
by the methods of modern science. If the latter is what you are asking for,
then I think Denton is the place to begin, but Denton's account is only a
preliminary sketch, and will be nowhere near satisfying from your point of

To do what you are asking requires a much greater knowledge base than
evolutionary biology currently has, and a combination of different bodies of
knowledge -- genetics, developmental biology, biochemistry, and
engineering -- which is rare, given scientific specialization. Presumably
such an account would require the teamwork of many specialists who were
open-minded to the contributions of other specialists. And it is not likely
to get under way soon, because ID-sympathetic people at present are
systematically barred from acquiring biology positions, and hence gaining
access to the necessary time and lab space and research grants, unless they
conceal their ID sympathies until they are very senior and influential
professors. If such a project does get under way any time soon, I predict
it will start in the engineering, computer science or math departments, not
the biology departments. (And any independent-thinking biologist who
participates in it will be reviled by his departmental colleagues.)

Speaking personally, and not for Behe or anyone else, I will say that I have
never felt impelled to argue, as some ID people do, that ID is a "scientific
theory" in the normal sense, i.e., a statement of a particular set of causal
mechanisms and steps explaining how living things got into their present
shape. Rather, I have thought of it as a "scientific inference" (using the
word "scientific" more broadly than many people here do, to include an
empirical science informed by teleological perspectives). In other words, I
think one can plausibly argue that the cell's design is a "scientific"
inference (in my sense of the word), without arguing that there exists a
"scientific theory" of ID, with general laws that are testable, alleged
particular past events which are testable, etc.

And indeed, I think one has to abandon the notion of a "theory" of ID, as
long as ID's "big tent" is not limited those who hold to Denton-like
naturalism, but includes many people who believe that the creation of life
and species require discontinuities. If there are discontinuities, then any
"scientific theory" will be highly inadequate to explain what has happened
in the evolutionary past, because "science" of any kind, even in my looser
sense of the word "science", requires the strict continuity of nature.
Without continuity, an ID theory would alternate between steps involving
natural causes, and claims that "and then a miracle happened".

I don't know what happened in the remote past, e.g., during the Cambrian
explosion, and I can never know it. I cannot rule out the possibility of
one or more breaks in the natural laws during the course of evolutionary
development. Nor can I rule out the possibility that evolutionary
development was entirely natural, with no miraculous interventions involved.
And I don't see any way, scientific or philosophical or theological, by
which I can establish which of the two possibilities actually happened. So
the most that I can safely do is to avoid all claims of miracles and divine
intervention, and limit myself to a design inference, i.e., "this did not
happen by chance" or at least "chance factors were not the predominant cause
of this", and therefore that "there is design here". And I'm content with
that. If you want more than that, if you want ID to be a scientific theory
in the proper sense, rather than just a scientific inference, I don't object
to that, but I am not competent to build up such a theory, nor do I know of
anyone who has done it yet. You need to find someone with gifts greater
than mine, an engineer-biologist of a very high order.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Powers" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
Cc: "asa" <>
Sent: Saturday, October 17, 2009 12:08 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

> Cameron:
> I won't at present address the second issue, but will remark on the first.
> What do you, or perhaps better, what does ID take the construction of a
> car to be? Or perhaps even better, what does it take the invention of the
> car to be?
> It seems to me that it is very difficult to account for by any
> neo-darwinian mechanism, although I am certain that neo-darwinians would
> hold to it none the less. It does appear to entail the intervention of a
> designer, indeed even an immanent one. So, at it is at least possible to
> see that the invention of the car would not fit the notion of those IDers
> who were interested in a "natural" "reverse engineering."
> So, the invention of the car could be seen as something else. What else?
> Well, maybe that is not wholly clear. It seems to me, not only possible,
> but almost necessary that in some way the causal nexus is broken or
> disrupted. Whatever one might think it seems that such an event would
> fit, and has been said to fit, IDer's notion of ID.
> Yet I can tell you how to construct a car. The actual process of
> constructing a car can be programmed, albeit a very complicated program.
> But let us presume it requires no "intelligence." It is the invention of
> the car, the design of the car from the natural world, that requires
> intelligence.
> The intelligence, the design, we might suppose to be miraculous. Yet we
> could still describe the steps, the recipe, for the construction of the
> car, a construction that might require no intelligence.
> It is this that I am asking for, or at least suggesting might be possible.
> Take a single celled organism. What physical steps might be performed to
> make it a multiple celled organism? Can this be accomplished on a living
> single celled organism? That is, through out the process can the organism
> live.
> Such a description, it seems, might not be very different from what an
> unguided evolutionist might suggest. But in establishing a procedure,
> even an intelligent procedure, one can begin to assess the probability
> that it might occur at random.
> As I think Behe was trying to get at in a recent article reviewed here,
> the evolutionist would like to find a pathway in which the organism is
> benefited at each step. The intelligent designer is not so contrained.
> So if it is reverse engineered, I do not think we need think of a distant
> engineer, but one immanent and immediately involved, just like our own
> engineers.
> bill
> On Fri, 16 Oct 2009, Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> Bill:
>> On your first point, about reverse engineering: I take it that you mean
>> that we could in principle back-reason from the set-up of living things
>> to deduce the steps by which the intelligent design was implemented, just
>> as Darwinists back-reason from a chromosome to a "fusion event" in our
>> primate lineage. If that isn't what you mean, you will have to clarify.
>> Assuming I understand you correctly, I would answer that the wide
>> variation between ID proponents makes it impossible for ID as a whole to
>> give a consistent response. For example, some ID proponents accept the
>> notion of miraculous interventions, in which the chain of causality is
>> broken. If that is in fact what happened, then reverse engineering, in
>> the sense I am using the phrase, would be impossible at all such points.
>> Engineering depends upon the uniform working of natural laws.
>> On the other hand, some ID proponents (including a few of the Christian
>> ones, though more of the agnostic and Deist ones) are very interested in
>> the possibility that the whole process of evolution may be entirely
>> naturalistic, without any intervention by a designer, but planned by a
>> designer. Such ID people would try to "reverse engineer" back to what
>> happened by trying to establish that the genetic code is like a giant
>> computer program, set up to produce certain outputs at certain points in
>> time. This would involve showing that much of the apparently "unused"
>> DNA is really part of the massive stored program. Michael Denton has
>> broached this possibility, and, while he has no proof for it yet, he's
>> quite serious about it.
>> Obviously this kind of reverse-engineering, to be successful, will
>> require much more knowledge than we have now about how the evolutionary
>> process unfolds, how the DNA could be set up in an anticipatory way, etc.
>> But then again, neo-Darwinian evolution is in the same bind: it can't
>> reverse its way back to the primitive genetic events that first started
>> the evolution of the camera eye. We simply don't know enough about how
>> the eye is produced, even from a developmental point of view, in human
>> beings today, let alone how it could have been built up by steps over
>> evolutionary time. All the Darwinists have provided in 150 years is a
>> series of qualitative "still pictures", of light spots and recesses for
>> the light spots and lenses made of thickened translucent membranes and so
>> on, plus a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the reader to turn it into an
>> animated cartoon in his imagination. They have no authentically causal
>> narrative showing how all the pictures can be joined together by known
>> Darwinian mechanisms at the genetic and developmental levels.
>> So the short answer is: yes, some ID people will be interested in
>> reverse-engineering, while others will say that the effort is fruitless,
>> because science won't be able to explain the discontinuities attendant
>> upon miracles. But even wholly naturalistic forms of ID are nowhere near
>> being able to provide a detailed causal account.
>> On your second point, it depends upon the degree of the "tilt". Some
>> "tilts" might be very minor, not much off 180 degrees, so that most of
>> the work would have to be done by Darwinian mechanisms alone, and what
>> would emerge would be very unpredictable -- Gould's remark about
>> rewinding the tape and replaying it, and everything turning out very,
>> very different, provides the appropriate image here. But some "tilts"
>> might be close to 90 degrees, so that life and even man just spills out,
>> as it were, from the elements manufactured in the hearts of stars, in
>> which case Darwinian mechanisms, though still operative, would be merely
>> the "errand boy" of the cosmic tilt. To use Gould's image again, you
>> could replay the tape as many times as you wanted, and you would get very
>> nearly the same thing each time. The "chance" mutations would be, for the
>> most part, no longer "wild cards" that life suddenly has to cope with, on
>> a sink-or-swim basis, but contingencies foreseen long in advance, and
>> prepared for by the set-up of the DNA in the earliest organisms. (Just
>> as one might set aside a bit in one's budget for replacing flat tires or
>> to pay for library fines or parking tickets, not knowing exactly when
>> they will occur, but knowing that it is highly likely that they will
>> occur within, say, the next 12 months.) In the latter scenario (the
>> scenario with an 89-degree tilt, or even a 75-degree tilt or 60-degree
>> tilt), where the universal constants and properties of elements can be
>> shown to have made human life virtually inevitable, design would be the
>> inescapable inference, unless one were willing to go with (a) the
>> multiverse; or (b) astounding good luck, against odds involving numbers
>> on the order of a hundred digits long. All of this is well-explained in
>> Michael Denton's second book, Nature's Destiny, a work which I think
>> should be mandatory reading (so to speak) for members of this list,
>> because it is in some ways a perfect synthesis of ID and TE minimum
>> requirements (real and detectable design in nature and criticism of
>> neo-Darwinism from the ID side; unambiguous affirmation of macroevolution
>> and seamless naturalism from the TE side).
>> Cameron.
>> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
>> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
>> Cc: "asa" <>
>> Sent: Friday, October 16, 2009 9:21 AM
>> Subject: Re: Peer review [ was: Re: [asa] Atheist finds God thru Behe's
>> books....]
>> Cameron:
>> A couple of points.
>> 1) In some recent posts I have tried to instigate a dialogue on what ID
>> could and should do. It seems to me that IDers ought to be as
>> interested in conceptual mechanisms as neo-darwinists. They ought to be
>> at least
>> interested in reverse engineering of certain features given "initial"
>> resources. The reverse engineering must be "physically" possible,
>> perhaps even explaining the physical (e.g., viable) steps employed and
>> tools, etc. In other words, it can't be a instantaneous creation. What
>> are the "minimal" requirements of such an engineering project? Having
>> suggested such a mechanism, one they perhaps suppose requires
>> intelligence, a neo-darwinian could comment on it. Suggesting, perhaps,
>> that these steps require no intelligence. Then issues of probability
>> would arise. It is one thing to say that a certain feature could not
>> arise by physical law and chance; and another to provide a procedure
>> that could not be accomplised by those means. It is easy, it seems, to
>> do this for a car. It seems very difficult to argue that a car could
>> have arisen by means of law and chance. And yet, isn't that exactly
>> what a neo-darwinist has to argue? The IDer could demonstrate how a
>> human
>> puts a car together from raw materials. The neo-darwinist has the
>> difficult task, I suppose, of being able to demonstrate how
>> "intelligence"
>> has arisen by natural, unintelligent means. Is this "intelligence"
>> subject still to these natural, unintelligent mechanisms? The task
>> appears daunting.
>> 2) I don't see how having a cosmos that is "tilted" towards biology
>> undermines neo-darwinism. The "tilt" would simply be inferred as lawful.
>> It is difficult to understand the nature of this "tilt." Is it a
>> stochastic tilt? If so, it seems to be expressible in terms of law plus
>> chance. Our present understanding of possible protein forms may be wrong.
>> That merely entails that we misunderstand the probability space. So how
>> exactly is it that neo-darwinian mechanisms are undermined by these
>> "teleological" perspectives?
>> thanks,
>> bill
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sat Oct 17 02:14:38 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sat Oct 17 2009 - 02:14:38 EDT