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

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Mon Oct 19 2009 - 03:39:56 EDT


I think we are coming toward the same conclusion from two different starting

First, I grant that engineers today design more complex systems than
Victorian engineers did. And I grant that modern systems include elements
in their designs, e.g., feedback mechanisms, which engineer's of Paley's
time did not.

Second, I grant that biological systems, even aside from the question of
evolution, differ from machines in that they are self-replicating, and that
this makes them different in kind from a watch, etc.

Third, I grant that it is conceivable that the potential for macroevolution
could be "built into" a biological system, so that it would be a system
capable of turning itself into a more advanced system, the latter being
capable of turning itself into a more advanced system, etc.

Here are a few points that occur to me in light of the above:

1. Paley himself asserted the superior complexity of organic beings to
things like watches. I think everyone does. Indeed that was part of the
strength of Paley's case, that if we cannot imagine a watch having come into
being by accident, then how much less can we imagine an eye, or an entire
animal, having come into being by accident. Hence, there is design. It
would further follow that, since we need an engineer to produce a watch, we
need a master engineer to produce an animal.

2. I think that part of your argument in your earlier post was that Paley's
argument is inadequate because it does not take into account the different
between organic and inorganic beings. Organic beings reproduce and their
offspring vary from the parents (in sexual reproduction, that is), and the
immense potential for variability poses the opportunity for an organic
system to transform itself over time, in a way that a watch cannot. And I
think you were arguing that an engineer of the modern type could imagine how
such an organic system might work, and set himself the task of understanding
it. I don't disagree with that, but I would note a couple of things.

3. First, though it is *possible* that with modern engineering insights we
might be able to figure out the nitty-gritty details of how a shrew turns
into a bat via Darwinian means, no one has *done* it yet. And as far as I
can tell, no one really trying very hard to do it. Whether that is because
the knowledge base (genetics, developmental biology) is not great enough yet
(which I believe is certainly true), or whether that is because biologists
take evolution for granted and therefore are under no pressure to come up
with details (which I believe is also true), or whether there are other
causes, or some combination of causes, I don't know. But I would think that
an engineer would throw himself into the task with gusto, because engineers
aren't accustomed to avoiding "how to" challenges. An engineer wouldn't be
satisfied with "general" explanations such as "mutation", "drift",
"selection", etc. An engineer would want to build working models of
"mutation", "drift", "selection", etc., good enough to test some inputs and
observe outputs. If we go back to the watch analogy, we could say that the
watch works by making use of "tension", "interlocking gears", and so on, but
that is purely general-level description, correct as far as it goes, but not
a set of instructions through which one could actually build a watch.
Darwinian explanations of evolution are like this. They cannot provide
anything even close to a set of steps for getting from one organic form to
another. I am saying that I cannot imagine an engineer resting satisfied
with such general-level descriptions. "Oh, if you throw in some mutations
of the right general sort, allow them to be sifted by natural selection for
fitness, and take into account the effects of drift, it's easy to explain
how a wolflike animal became a whale. Next question!" -- I've known many
engineers, and they don't talk like that.

4. Second, I think that even if we were to suppose that engineers had
"cracked the system", and figured out exactly how living organisms evolve,
so that they could understand the process which leads from any hypothetical
ancestor to any living form in terms of complex equations involving
stochastic processes, etc., I don't that would show that Darwinian processes
had invalidated the design argument. Rather, it would push the problem, and
the argument, a step back in time. For, even if the evolutionary process
can be fully explained on the basis of the combination of order and fluidity
that is built into the reproductive system, the question still arises: how
does it come to be that the first cell has exactly the biochemical nature
that it needs, not only to carry out all its own complex integrated
activities, and not only to be able to reproduce itself, but even to
reproduce itself with variations that are creative, generating still more
complex beings? If the watch needs an engineer, the original Paley argument
went, so the tiger needs a super-engineer; but if we say, no, the tiger
needed no super-engineer, because the marvellous capacities of reproductive
variation and mutation allow for the tiger to emerge without any design,
then surely the cell, in which those marvellous capacities reside, needs
explanation, and requires a super-engineer. So the design argument, though
moved to a context Paley could not have imagined, is still very much alive.

5. Michael Denton writes at some length about self-reproducing automata,
and his thoughts are worth reflecting on. He points out that the finest
modern engineers have not conquered the problem of self-reproducing
automata, and discusses some of the problems that would need to be overcome
in order to achieve it. And then, of course, he points out that life itself
represents the solution of this engineering problem -- the double helix, the
DNA-protein system, and all the rest, have accomplished what has eluded all
human ingenuity, and which may forever elude human ingenuity. It may well
be that this problem cannot be solved at the macroscopic level, and that the
microscopic solution exhibited by nature is the only one possible. If so,
that can only amplify our conviction of design; the very nature of the
fundamental elements (carbon, oxygen, etc.) seems keyed to make them fit to
build the only possible self-replicating automated systems.

Therefore, it seems to me that you are correct to say that the old way of
thinking about design, upheld by Paley and attacked by Darwin, is no longer
the right way to think about it. We must think now in terms of the
super-design of life that makes all later evolutionary change possible.
Without the right initial design, variations in reproduction would lead to
death or evolutionary dead-ends. It is interesting that in his new book
Stephen Meyer does not focus on Darwinian evolution, but on the design in
the cell. He brackets out, as it were, the question whether mutation plus
natural selection and so on can account for all the varieties of life, once
life is given. He asks whether non-design explanations can account for the
foundation of all evolution, the amazing structure of the cell, and of its
biochemical system, at the heart of which is DNA. And he suggests that the
answer is "No." Thus, one can accept evolution, perhaps even Darwinian
evolution in its entirety -- I'm not saying that Meyer does accept Darwinian
evolution, but only that his argument does not depend upon its being
false -- while still insisting upon the existence of a designer. Not a
direct designer of rabbits and carrots and cows and hay, but a designer of
the self-reproducing system which can generate rabbits and carrots and cows
and hay. And if it is tightly-packed complexity that excites our praise and
admiration, such a designer would be a designer more worthy of praise and
admiration than the one envisioned by Paley. So Paley may have been wrong
in detail, but right in his overall argument. He just didn't analyze the
right example. Not the eye or the lung, but the cell, understood as
implicitly containing the entire process of evolution, is the place to look
for the proof of fundamental design in living nature.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Sunday, October 18, 2009 7:44 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

> Hi Cameron,
> First, in the interests of fairness, I acknowledge what you say as regards
> the various claims you (and Behe) have been making - so where you make
> comments of the sort "I have never argued..." and "I haven't asked for.."
> and etc, let me say that nothing I said, or will say below, should be
> taken as implying otherwise.
> With that put to bed, there is one point I would like to explore, viz;
> You wrote:
>> I have never argued that living things should be explained ONLY in terms
>> of design. Nor has Behe. He grants the existence of contingent elements
>> in the evolutionary process. So do I. But classical neo-Darwinism
>> thinks ONLY in terms of contingent elements (albeit conditioned by
>> natural laws), and it intentionally rejects design.
> My understanding is that Darwinism (and I mean by this the speculations of
> Charles Darwin himself) are to be seen as an attack on precisely the sort
> of design theory implied by Paley's famous watch on the heath example;
> i.e. the notion that biological systems are analogous to an engineered
> artefact comprised of an assemblage of parts.
> Now, it strikes me that Paley's approach is precisely what we might expect
> from 18th-19th century Britons whose society, it has to be remembered, was
> basking in the glow of THE golden age of engineering. To Paley's
> contemporaries the steam engine was the peak of human technological
> achievement, and the pocket watch regarded with the same sort of awe we
> now reserve for achievements in nano-technology. And engineers were the
> technological gods of the age. So when Paley cast about for an analogy for
> biological systems it was natural that he appeal to the best imaginable
> example of a precision engineered artefact and it is natural that he would
> settle on the watch. For Paley the watch was THE pinnacle of human
> technological artifice, thus THE cutting edge of engineering technology.
> It follows that when Darwin set about constructing a theory that would put
> paid to the notion of design in nature, it was precisely Paley's
> understanding of engineering design that he set out to criti
> que.
> However, what should be readily apparent is that engineering has moved on
> somewhat since Paley's day. We now have engineering systems which are
> orders of magnitude more complex than steam engines and pocket watches.
> Contemporary engineering systems not only have complex feed-back and
> control mechanisms as per my previous remarks, but can even integrate a
> degree of "intelligence" thanks to inbuilt computer systems. What this
> means is that engineering design increasingly deals with self-regulating,
> even "self-aware", systems of a sort totally unimaginable to Paley or
> Darwin.
> Which gets me to the main point I wish to make; when it is argued that
> Darwinism (or neo-Darwinism) "rejects design" I cannot help but think that
> this is to presume a rather archaic notion of engineering design. It is to
> assume, in particular, that engineering design involves the sort of thing
> familiar to Paley and Darwin - entirely "dumb" systems, comprised of a
> simple assemblage of parts, with at best rudimentary feed-back and control
> systems, and certainly with NO "self-awareness" of the sort evident in
> biological organisms. In consequence, I meet with some reserve the idea
> that engineers might cast some light on the notion of design - not because
> I think the claim is wrong, but because the notion of "engineering design"
> had in mind seems to me, rightly or wrongly, to involve no more
> sophistication than the design of steam engines or pocket watches. And,
> believe me, engineers can say a whole lot more than this about design of
> *processes* which seek to achieve outcomes tha
> n non-engineers might imagine.
> This, I have to say, is one reason why I don't warm very much to the claim
> put by some that certain biological systems evidence design and couldn't
> have evolved. My response - as an engineer - is to consider that any
> person making such a claim simply hasn't thought through what is possible
> given a suitably complex process of the sort toward which modern
> engineering is trending. I can, I think, virtually guarantee that given
> the theoretical resources of modern systems engineering it would be
> possible to model a process of essentially the neo-Darwinian sort - a
> process which, at the level of outcomes, would show precious little direct
> evidence of design. But while the outcomes of such a system would *appear*
> to be little more than the contingent consequences of a rule set rather
> than the specific result of intentional engineering design, the entire
> system would most emphatically be designed through and through.
> What all this boils down to is this: I am quite unconvinced by claims that
> neo-Darwinism is inherently inconsistent with notions of design. I do
> acknowledge that such a claim is routinely made, and that many
> neo-Darwinists take very great pleasure in parading the apparent
> inconsistency of neo-Darwinian processes and design. I even acknowledge
> that there is something inherently proper in your objections to
> neo-Darwinism when it is taken to logically entail a "blind watchmaker."
> But what should not be overlooked is that such a claim actually has a
> particular sort of design in mind. In particular, it has in mind the sort
> of design characteristic of 18th and 19th century engineering, the sort of
> design whose greatest achievements were the steam engine and the pocket
> watch. In consequence, it is hardly overwhelming to point out that 150
> years ago Charles Darwin put paid to the idea that biological systems are
> constructed according to a rather 200 year old notion of engineering de
> sign which is, by contemporary standards, rudimentary in the extreme.
> If, then, people want to restrict themselves to debates about whether
> bacterial flagellum (or whatever) evidence design that's quite okay as far
> as it goes. But from an engineering perspective they are conducting an
> incredibly simplistic discussion - one which Darwin probably DID put to
> bed 150 years ago and one which I personally find quite uninteresting. Far
> more interesting is the question of whether neo-Darwinism - as a system
> which produces complex structures - is compatible with the sort of
> processes which engineers routinely design to carry out complex tasks
> WITHOUT direct intelligent input.
> I quite agree, I have to say, with your insistence that dumb processes
> don't substitute for intelligent design and there IS something inherently
> questionable about Christians accepting, without reserve, the sort of
> neo-Darwinist models put about by Richard Dawkins et al. But I hope you
> are at least able to appreciate this; neo-Darwinists of Dawkins' sort
> simply don't grasp just how smart a dumb process can be when that process
> is itself devised by an intelligent designer. So when I refuse to reject
> neo-Darwinism outright it's because I DON'T share Dawkins' archaic (I use
> the term advisedly) notions of "design" nor his rank ignorance of systems
> engineering. And that, I think, is my current bottom line: if anybody
> doesn't see design in the neo-Darwinian process, it's because they are
> looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.
> Blessings,
> Murray
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Received on Mon Oct 19 03:40:59 2009

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