Intelligent Design

A Time-Travel Thought Experiment

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It’s 1859 and Charles Darwin has just discovered a modern computer, transported back in time to his era. He turns it on.

With a microscope he discovers a Core i7 920 CPU. Upon more investigation he discovers that it has approximately 781 million transistors.

The computer has a terabyte drive, with an operating system that was compiled from more than 50 million lines of intelligently designed computer code.

In my time-travel thought experiment, Darwin is transported into our contemporary era. Much to his amazement, he discovers that modern science has revealed that the simplest living cell is far more complex and sophisticated than the computer he discovered in 1859.

What would Darwin do?

39 Replies to “A Time-Travel Thought Experiment

  1. 1
    linzel says:

    A thought experiment defines parameters to actually allow some type of output that has meaning. Your thought ‘experiment’ does not fulfill the requirements.

  2. 2
    NickMatzke_UD says:

    Guess who wrote this?

    Finally, the power of propagation possessed by each separate cell, using the term in its largest sense, determines the reproduction, the variability, the development and renovation of each living organism. No other attempt, as far as I am aware, has been made, imperfect as this confessedly is, to connect under one point of view these several grand classes of facts. We cannot fathom the marvellous complexity of an organic being; but on the hypothesis here advanced this complexity is much increased. Each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm – a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.

    The idea that Darwin thought the cell was simple is another anachronistic invention of the ID movement.

  3. 3
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Dr. Matzke,

    With the greatest respect, I think that the quote you have provided, which comes from Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication Volume II (Chapter 2.XXVII – Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis), actually proves the opposite of what you claim.

    First, a bit of background for UD readers. Pangenesis is defined as follows in The Dictionary of Botany :

    A now disregarded theory formulated by Charles Darwin that suggested a mechanism by which acquired characteristics may be inherited. He postulated that there were particles (pangenes) carried in the body fluids from all the organs of the body to the reproductive cells. These particles then influenced the gametes that in turn influenced the characteristics of the succeeding generation. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

    These particles of inheritance, or pangenes, were also referred to by Darwin as gemmules. Here’s what Darwin biographer E. Janet Browne writes about them in Charles Darwin: A Biography, Volume 2: The Power of Place (Knopf Publishers, 2002):

    Individual gemmules did not contain a complete microscopic blueprint for an entire creature in the way that Herbert Spencer or Carl von Nageli described.’ (p.276, emphasis mine – VJT.)

    Hmmm. Sounds like Darwin’s evolutionary contemporaries were ahead of him in their thinking. They at least recognized that the information for making a whole creature needed to be stored somewhere – even if they mistakenly thought of this information as a blueprint, instead of a recipe (which we now know to be a more appropriate metaphor). Darwin didn’t see this. He thought that the information for making each part of the body was autonomous in its own right, and that the information for making the various body parts somehow collected in the gametes of sexually reproducing animals. In short: Darwin’s approach to organismic complexity was a piecemeal one, which failed to do justice to the integration of the whole organism. I would suggest that this approach colors his whole thinking on the subject of complexity, and it reveals a blind spot on Darwin’s part.

    And now at last we come to the full paragraph, from which you quoted a small excerpt. Here it is:

    The units of the body are generally admitted by physiologists to be autonomous. I go one step further and assume that they throw off reproductive gemmules. Thus an organism does not generate its kind as a whole, but each separate unit generates its kind. It has often been said by naturalists that each cell of a plant has the potential capacity of reproducing the whole plant; but it has this power only in virtue of containing gemmules derived from every part. When a cell or unit is from some cause modified, the gemmules derived from it will be in like manner modified. If our hypothesis be provisionally accepted, we must look at all the forms of asexual reproduction, whether occurring at maturity or during youth, as fundamentally the same, and dependent on the mutual aggregation and multiplication of the gemmules. The regrowth of an amputated limb and the healing of a wound is the same process partially carried out. Buds apparently include nascent cells, belonging to that stage of development at which the budding occurs, and these cells are ready to unite with the gemmules derived from the next succeeding cells. The sexual elements, on the other hand, do not include such nascent cells; and the male and female elements taken separately do not contain a sufficient number of gemmules for independent development, except in the cases of parthenogenesis. The development of each being, including all the forms of metamorphosis and metagenesis, depends on the presence of gemmules thrown off at each period of life, and on their development, at a corresponding period, in union with preceding cells. Such cells may be said to be fertilised by the gemmules which come next in due order of development. Thus the act of ordinary impregnation and the development of each part in each being are closely analogous processes. The child, strictly speaking, does not grow into the man, but includes germs which slowly and successively become developed and form the man. In the child, as well as in the adult, each part generates the same part. Inheritance must be looked at as merely a form of growth, like the self-division of a lowly-organised unicellular organism. Reversion depends on the transmission from the forefather to his descendants of dormant gemmules, which occasionally become developed under certain known or unknown conditions. Each animal and plant may be compared with a bed of soil full of seeds, some of which soon germinate, some lie dormant for a period, whilst others perish. When we hear it said that a man carries in his constitution the seeds of an inherited disease, there is much truth in the expression. No other attempt, as far as I am aware, has been made, imperfect as this confessedly is, to connect under one point of view these several grand classes of facts. An organic being is a microcosm – a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and numerous as the stars in heaven.

    Darwin’s gemmules were thus tiny and numerous but they were not very complex. Indeed, the whole point of hypothesizing that they were tiny and numerous was to remove the need for them to be complex. What’s more, according to Darwin, inheritance is just like growth, and is no more remarkable in an animal than in a bacterium. I leave it to my readers to decide whether this piecemeal, reductionistic approach to genetic inheritance does proper justice to the internal complexity of organisms.

  4. 4
    AAAM says:

    My experience tells me that the argument against design would go a bit like this:

    Not knowing how a computer is made one could point towards the very natural process of crystallization to explain the silicon, what they call “transistors” only appear to be designed, we must guard against projecting our own ideas onto the facts. The reality is that there are no transistors: There are just some accidental pollutions – flaws really – in an otherwise perfect crystal. (Why are there these flaws if it was designed? Wouldn’t a designer make it perfect all over?)

    Most of the other parts of the computer are also naturally occurring compounds or could be produced from naturally occurring processes. It’s a bit difficult to say at the moment how exactly all these parts just happend to come together but there is no need to assume a supernatural designer, there is nothing special about it that could not be explained by natural processes acting by chance and necessity. Just show me any part that requires a supernatural designer.

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    Great thought exercise, Gil.

    I’d love to see some Sci Fi essays on it, a version on H G Wells’ Time Machine.

    What happens when CRD sees a modern computer in his time, then what happens when he — in company with Alfred Russel Wallace, Bishop Wilberforce and Haeckel, visits a modern molecular biology lab as a guest of Craig Venter and Francis Collins as well as visiting Gonzalez’s new observatory, then sits down to a 3-hour magazine format live roundtable on Fox News, with Lennox, Berlinsky, Meyer, Richards, Dembski, Wells, Craig, Dawkins, Scott, P Z Myers and Matzke.

    I’d love to see some suggested dialogue!

    This could have the makings of a book, on the lines of the Dialogues of old!

    GEM of TKI

  6. 6
    Joseph says:


    That was from 1875, just 8 years before Darwin died.

  7. 7
    goodusername says:

    From all I’ve seen from Darwin, I don’t think he would be the least bit “amazed” that the “unfathomably complex” cell is more complex than anything humans have created.

    And I don’t think he’d view the kind of complexity seen in the cell as an argument against his theory:

    “The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”

  8. 8
    NickMatzke_UD says:


    There aren’t really that many ways to understand the statement:

    We cannot fathom the marvellous complexity of an organic being.

    …but by all means, keep on with the defend-every-poorly-researched-statement-by-some-ID-fan-at-all-costs. This guarantees ID will never improve, which is fine by me.

  9. 9

    Darwin über alles!!! and you guys better shut up for he has the final answer on evolution!!! You IDiots!!!

  10. 10
    kairosfocus says:

    Try this as a handy 101, and kindly provide a substantial — not dismissive — answer.

  11. 11
    vjtorley says:

    Dr. Matzke,

    The crucial sentence which you cited wasn’t written by Darwin, as far as I can tell. Here’s the sentence:

    We cannot fathom the marvellous complexity of an organic being; but on the hypothesis here advanced this complexity is much increased.

    I don’t know where you got this sentence from. Have a look here at this online edition of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication Volume II and scroll down to Chapter 2.XXVII – Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis. You won’t find it there.

    I think you may have been deceived by a popular online misquotation of Darwin – unless perhaps Darwin added those words in a later edition of his book.

    Even if the sentence should prove to be genuine, the critical question is this: is the complexity of the cell reducible or irreducible? Darwin’s pangenesis theory shows clearly that any complexity he attributed to the cell he viewed as reducible. And that’s just the opposite of what modern biology is discovering.

    See here:

  12. 12
    Petrushka says:

    page sequence 419) Book: Darwin, C. R. 1868. The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London: John Murray. 1st edition, first issue. Volume 2

  13. 13
    Matteo says:

    Indeed. The irony is that for some, Darwin has become the new Aristotle, and the new Ptolemy. He substantially had it all figured out 150 years ago, and there is nothing left for us Medievals but to footnote what the Master has told us.

  14. 14
    GilDodgen says:


    Get a grip and try to calm down. You’re attempting to defend phlogiston theory after Lavoisier. The only reason you and your cohorts have been as successful as they have is that you and they have the power to destroy the lives and careers of those who challenge you, even when those challenges are based on perfectly rational and evidential grounds.

    Your priesthood is in decline, and will eventually collapse as a result of the transparent desperation of its arguments and evidence.

  15. 15
    goodusername says:

    It was in the first edition (1868) here:

    But at some point disappeared. Quite a few parts were drastically rewritten over time.

    For some reason I couldn’t find an edition number or year of publication within the version you linked, but I see citations within that edition for things that were published in 1875.

  16. 16
    bornagain77 says:

    Gil, I think you will be thoroughly impressed by this brand new video that is based on Don Johnson’s ‘Programming In Life’; The Animation is very good:

    Programming of Life

    This short 8:00 minute clip is particularly interesting:

    Programming of Life – DNA

  17. 17
    bornagain77 says:

    Or perhaps this is more to your taste Gil;

    Programming of Life – Biological Computers

  18. 18

    Nick, give it a rest with your revisionist history, under which Darwin, His Holiness, was an unparalleled genius, as have been his disciples after him, and all falsehoods relating to biology have been propogated by those evil deniers.

    It’s OK to admit that neither Darwin nor anyone of his era had the faintest idea about the detailed workings of the cell (shoot, we’ve barely scraped the surface), which is part of the reason their ideas have turned out to be so wildly wrong.

    Also, you provide a quote about the complexity of an organism and then try to apply it to the cell. Did you misread the quote you provided, or are you deliberately equivocating?

  19. 19

    “And I don’t think he’d view the kind of complexity seen in the cell as an argument against his theory:”

    Of course he wouldn’t. Any careful reading of The Origin will quickly reveal that Darwin’s *main* argument (which continues to be the primary argument of evolutionary proponents today) is a purely philosophical/religious argument: namely, God wouldn’t have done it this way. The facts are servant to the theory, not the other way around. If the man thought eyes, wings, hearts, lungs, whole body plans and structure could come about through blind natural processes, why should the complexities of the cell be any different?

  20. 20
    butifnot says:

    In the same sense had the tools advanced to the point of revealing the inner workings of the cell, prior to Darwin’s time, ‘evolution’ never would have been. The discovery of the microscopic world should have marked a scientific turning point and been the end of ‘evolution’.

  21. 21

    I don’t see the point behind the question.

    Unless the assumption is that scientists are Arguing From Authority with regard to Darwinism, which is not the case.

  22. 22

    Why? On the contrary, it provides us with the mechanisms that Darwin lacked.

  23. 23
    Joseph says:

    They sure as heck are not arguing from the evidence…

  24. 24
    Petrushka says:

    The best argument against design is the one Darwin actually used: that living things vary from individual, that variation is heritable, and that some variants more success in reproducing.

    Once you have that principle you have a research program and can work out the details.

    I haven’t seen the ID research program. I haven’t seen the list of research projects that would be perused if ID people weren’t expelled.

    I’ve looked. I look at Bio-Complexity, and I’ve looked at half a dozen of its predecessors.

    One would think that the resources of the Discovery Institute could at least produce conceptual outlines of research projects that might produce positive evidence for ID. Physicists do this all the time, discussing hypothetical research for which funding is not available.

  25. 25
    Joseph says:

    And those mechanisms have never been observed to do what evolutionists require.

  26. 26
    kairosfocus says:

    The triumph of the absolute a priori, no matter how counter-intuitive [to the evidence and otherwise known best causal explanations] . . .

  27. 27

    In my view you are both wrong.

  28. 28
    Petrushka says:

    Darwin’s pangenesis theory shows clearly that any complexity he attributed to the cell he viewed as reducible. And that’s just the opposite of what modern biology is discovering.

    Would that include the flagellum, for which there are dozens of examples of motile and non-motile bacteria having subsets of the genes used by the iconic e.coli?

    I’m kind of curious what the current definition of irreducible is.

  29. 29
    Chris Doyle says:

    Ha! As if an atheistic evolutionist has any choice about adopting that ‘view’.

  30. 30
    Joseph says:

    That’s fine Elizabeth. Unfortunately for you you don’t have any evidence that demonstrates we are wrong…

  31. 31
    thud says:

    It is creationists and the IDists that keep on bringing up Darwin, trying to shame him as a false god. The rest of us recognize the man’s achievements as well as his errors. He is not a “master” to anyone of any sort.

    Darwin is easy for you to pick on because you know as well as the rest of us that he wasn’t perfect. The best you can do is attack 150 year old science. Why don’t you stay focused on the present?

  32. 32
    Eugene S says:

    Have there been any new species produced in a test tube to date? I am amazed by the strength of belief on the part of evolutionists. It really is amazing.

  33. 33
    ScottAndrews says:

    Yes, Darwin Day was our idea.

  34. 34
    GilDodgen says:


    As you know, I was once Dawkins and Matzke, only significantly more obnoxious and prideful, if such a thing can even be imagined.

    But my interest in, and passion for, legitimate science eventually trumped all. In addition, I eventually came to realize what a pathetic, fallen, sinful, unworthy creature I am.

    The first realization led me to design. The second realization led me to Christianity.

  35. 35
    AAAM says:

    A hypotheses for you this think about: “No non trivial algorithmic/computational utility will ever arise from chance and/or necessity alone.” (David Able’s The Law of Physicodynamic Incompleteness)

    This hypothesis is consistent with everything we currently know about reality; No refuting evidence has ever been observed. It might very well be taken as a law. But you are free to try to disprove it.

    The key to understanding the boundary is quite simple and yet most people just don’t see it: While natural processes might (self) order matter, natural processes can not (self) organize matter. Self-ordering is not equivalent to self-organization. There is no evidence for any kind of self-organization.

    The only known source of organization (or any kind of non-trivial algorithmic utility) is from an intelligence that creates something that would not have existed otherwise, like a computer or a car or even a self-reproducing machine.

    The problem is this: For your principle to work you need to assume that natural variation must be some kind of oracle which (intelligently) generates exactly the right kind of variations at the right time to be tested for their reproductive succes.

    In actual observed reality we have however discovered that there are quite hard limits on what naturally occurring variation could generate, exactly fitting within the bounds that the hypotheses above would allow.

    Note that even with design one would expect to see evidence of evolution: We clearly see an evolution in the design of cars, computers, etc. Evidence of evolution does not disprove intelligent design, for that you need to show actual evidence of natural evolution; In fact disproving that intelligent design was the cause.

  36. 36
    AAAM says:

    Another of those funny things people tend to overlook when thinking about life is that if life has actually been designed by an intelligence then biological life is in fact an artificial artifact, there would be nothing natural about it. We humans would in fact be the prime evidence that artificial intelligence is posible.

    Something to ponder: Perhaps even the whole of our reality might have been created, perhaps it’s not natural at all but just as artificial as we are.

    We keep using the world “natural” but maybe it does not mean what we think it means?

  37. 37
    Petrushka says:

    The problem is this: For your principle to work you need to assume that natural variation must be some kind of oracle which (intelligently) generates exactly the right kind of variations at the right time to be tested for their reproductive succes.

    Evolution does have an oracle — seletion.

    I demonstrably does not produce the right variations at the right time. Ninety-nine percent of all species known to have existed are extinct.

    Your’re confusion evolution with some hypothetical system that has foresight.

  38. 38
    Petrushka says:

    Too many typos. Sorry.

  39. 39
    AAAM says:

    Selection can only select that is available. It’s a filter, it can preserve; It can not generate anything at all. Selection can not solve the problem of generation.

    All known natural processes are incapable to generate anything beyond the trivial. (Don’t agree? Just try to give me one clear counter-example!)

    I’ve never observed designers at work without also observing non-trivial evolution in the designs they generate. Then testing them out in real life and continue work on the once that show the most promise. Evolution of design is clearly a feature of continued design over time.

    However, I’ve never observed non-trivial evolution without an designer generation them. Natural processes can’t generate non-trivial evolution, only in the most trivial, strictly with in chance and necessity, but never resulting in any kind of non-trivial utility.

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