Intelligent Design

Biologists Are Not Design Experts

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Biologists are not design experts. In fact no scientists are design experts. Engineers are design experts. The crew at Panda’s Thumb ought to follow their own advice and step aside where they have no expertise. Complex specified information is digitally encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule. Are biologists information experts? Nope. Information science is a branch of mathematics. Evolutionary biologists should stick to putting the phylogenetic tree in the proper order. Lord knows they still have their work cut out for them with just that.

27 Replies to “Biologists Are Not Design Experts

  1. 1
    Aquinas says:

    “Biologists are not design experts. In fact no scientists are design experts. Engineers are design experts.”

    Yes, engineers are design experts–in a sense. But you seem to be equivocating being able to design things well (i.e. being an engineer) with being able to determine if something must have been designed for it to come about (as opposed to coming about through E+NS), which is not the same thing.

  2. 2
    DaveScot says:

    It takes one to know one. This is an ancient meme that has withstood the test of time. Write that down. :mrgreen:

  3. 3
    Joseph says:

    Yes it is true that some scientists can also wear the engineer’s hat. Just as it is true that some engineers can wear the scientist’s hat. Think of these people like Certs… 😉

    Approaching Biology From a Different Angle is an article that (perhaps?) supports what DaveScot originally posted.

  4. 4
    mattison0922 says:

    While Biologists might not be design experts, it is often the evidence or data from biologists that is used in design arguments, etc. Whether or not they are design experts doesn’t disqualify them from being able to comment or speculate about the meaning of data… especially if they generated it, or otherwise have some expertise in the field.

    Furthermore, the inference of design is limited to evidence strictly from CSI. A good deal of design inference comes from the idea of Irreducible Complexity. To my knowledge, pretty much all the data related to IC is obtained by biochemists, molecular biologists, etc. The bacterial flagellum and other systems alleged to be IC haven’t been studied by engineers… except for maybe bioengineers, which is a relatively new field.

    Finally, my own personal interest in Design Theory comes from my experience as a biologist… not as an engineer. I can barely put something together with detailed instructions, but it doesn’t prevent me from inferring design when I see a system like photosynthesis.

    Gathering data is repetitious grunt work and does not confer or require expertise in the subject area. It’s usually done by junior level staff. Surely you must be aware of that. Interpreting data or finding practical application for it is where the senior people come into play. Furthermore, data obtained from public funded effort is owned by the public. The gatherer has no more exclusive right to it than anyone else. -ds

  5. 5

    The overall point is that their discipline isn’t the discipline of figuring out design. They may be smart enough to be able to knowledgably talk about the topic. But that doesn’t derive from their discipline per se.

  6. 6
    Joseph says:


    Francis Crick once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved.

  7. 7
    mattison0922 says:


    I’m not sure if I understand your point. Are you pointing out that Crick was philosophically married to naturalism? Or are you pointing that as a biologist, I am obligated to see things from an evolution perspective, and not a design perspective.

    Francis Crick’s opinion notwithstanding, when I study a system like photosynthesis, even the simplest example. I see a finely tuned antenna/energy conversion apparatus, not the product of random forces.

    Can you clarify your point, please? Thanks.

  8. 8
    Fross says:

    This post would be better for another thread.

    But the title of the article is:
    “NASA images offer details about design of the universe”

  9. 9
    Joseph says:

    The point is IF (yup big IF) biologists have to remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved, then those biologists are not going to detect intentional design even when it is right in front of them.

    IOW their a priori view of the data suggests “biologists are not design experts”.

    Are biologists wed to what Crick stated? Reality demonstrates they are not. However what Crick stated does appear to be the consensus. And that is the crux of the issue-

    What is it that prevents tried & true design detection methodology from being used in biology?

    That is the question to ask those who deny the design inference…

  10. 10
    bFast says:

    My impression is that Dave Scott’s statement is far too strong, especially in light of the fact that people have more than one skill.

    However, once I apply the exaggeration factor, I also see truth in the statement. I, as a software developer, look at DNA with different eyes than the biologist does. I believe that my view has the potential for seeing something that others simply don’t see.

    For instance on the ISCID’s brainstorm forum, I have an active discussion of what is CSI. The discussion has led me to the conclusion that my understanding of what CSI is is somewhat different, and broader than Dembski’s. In the discussion it is clear that science has no good definition for that “je ne sais quoi” that is the common factor between DNA and computer software, that “we have detailed instructions hiding in the order of a single string of information” factor.

  11. 11
    DaveScot says:

    Keep in mind this is a response to a Panda’s Thumb article saying scientists ought to stay within their expertise. They of course are directing it specifically at mathematicians like Dembski and Berlinski telling them to butt out of biology, plus non-specifically to any of the scientists on the Dissent from Darwinism list that aren’t biologists. I’m just giving them a taste of their own medicine. If they really believe it then they should stay out of talking about design. So my response is in the tone of “physician, heal thyself” or “practice what you preach”.

  12. 12
    Freelurker says:

    “It takes one to know one.”

    As an engineer myself, I like the implication that we engineers use godly powers. (I know; you didn’t say it, I did.)

    But seriously,

    In the engineering sense, you don’t have a design of a system unless you have identified the system’s subcomponents and have identified the interactions between these components.

    I suggest that whenever one of my fellow engineers “recognizes” a design in nature that is different from the design “recognized” by scientists, then you should describe it so that all may benefit. Describe your version; tell everyone what are the subcomponents that you see and describe how they interact. Show that your model fits the observations better than the models produced by others.

    I have described it innumerable times. Search on my name and ribosome. -ds

  13. 13
    mattison0922 says:


    Thanks for the clarification. Just again to clarify, in my life as a biologist I [i]do[/i] see evidence of design…


    Thanks for the clarification… I understand where you are coming from.

  14. 14
    Scott says:

    Thanks for your post, mattison. It’s always encouraging to hear when biologists are honest about the design they observe in living systems. 🙂

  15. 15
    mattison0922 says:


    Thanks for your reply. I did want to briefly comment on some of your points.

    “Gathering data is repetitious grunt work and does not confer or require expertise in the subject area. It’s usually done by junior level staff. Surely you must be aware of that.”

    I am not sure what your definition of ‘junior level staff’ is, but – and this could be my personal bias, I don’t necessarily consider post-docs, and Ph.D. candidates to be ‘junior staff,’ especially the former… the latter is arguable. Post-docs are perfectly capable of interpreting their own data and deciding how the data fits in own their own. The same [i]should[/i] be true of an advanced candidate. My own personal experience with lab work and data analysis has been a matter of ‘sink or swim,’ so to speak.

    When I use the term ‘biologist’ I am generally considering those with Ph.D.’s or those about to receive Ph.D.’s. Lab techs were not included in my definition. I probably should have clarified this.

    “Furthermore, data obtained from public funded effort is owned by the public. The gatherer has no more exclusive right to it than anyone else.”

    I don’t think I claimed anyone had any ‘exclusive right’ to any data. I merely pointed out that commenting on systems that were either in one’s area of expertise, or commenting on evidence based on methodology you are familiar with is only natural, and makes sense.

    Finally, why are we debating this amongst ourselves? It’s fairly obvious from my statements that I [i]disagree[/i] with the position taken by Panda’s Thumb, and I inferred from your statements that you believe more-or-less the same thing.

    Overall, it would [i]appear[/i] that we’re in agreement… so why the rebuttal?

    Post-docs aren’t just junior staff, they’re entry level. A technician in the same field with 10 years experience will run circles around them. You must not have much experience yourself. Obviously I didn’t entirely agree with you. -ds

  16. 16
    bFast says:

    [quote]I have described it innumerable times. Search on my name and ribosome. -ds[/quote]
    I tried. I assume that ds = Dave Scott, and googled Dave Scott ribosome. I didn’t get what I was hoping for. I also tried Freelurker ribosome and got nothing at all.

    What search should I use?

    Click me.

  17. 17
    aldo30127 says:

    Crick is often mis-quoted. Or rather, what he said was taken out of context. Here is the above quotation, in context:

    “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved. It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening now. To figure out exactly what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary achievements can be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much. It is all too easy to make mistaken inferences unless the process involved is already very well understood.”

    It is very clear that Crick is warning scientists not to put too much stock in their own precisely reasoned evolutionary pathway hypotheses. That is, we’re human and just because we would have made system X evolve one way, doesn’t mean that that is how it actually happened. Often we look at something in biology and go, well that seems inefficient or stupid; I’d better look for a better way. Well, nature/God doesn’t think like you, stupid scientist. You’re not the one designing the system.

  18. 18
    mattison0922 says:


    “Post-docs aren’t just junior staff, they’re entry level. A technician in the same field with 10 years experience will run circles around them. You must not have much experience yourself. Obviously I didn’t entirely agree with you. -ds”

    This isn’t a question of ‘who will run circles around whom,’ it’s a question of whether or not someone is capable of evaluating/interpreting data for themselves. That a technician with 10 years experience is capable of interpreting data isn’t in question.

    A post-doc, an advanced candidate, etc., are certainly capable of interpreting data for themselves. This is perfectly demonstrated by the fact that post docs and candidates, author papers, grants, etc.

    So are we to assume that in your mind the only people capable of really evaluating data are people with Ph.D.’s and say more than 10 years experience over and above their graduate education? What exactly are the criteria YOU believe are necessary to capably interpret data?

    My level of experience isn’t entirely relevant, as were not talking about me specifically, but ‘biologists’ in general. I merely added my own personal opinion, which for some reason seems to be really annoying to you. Is there something I’ve done/said in particular to instigate this vague ad hominem attack re: my expereince, or is this what everyone should expect?

    Industry standard is one year work experience in a specific high tech field is equivalent to one year of education in a relevant discipline. First two years of college are general education that no one in high tech cares about but it counts anyhow (go figure). Techs usually have two years education in the field. So a tech with two years experience is equivalent to a fresh BS with no experience. Add two years for a masters and two more for a PhD. Industry is really concerned with a proven track record performing a job. That’s because getting good grades is different from getting results in the real world. Why do you think PhD’s (unless it’s a lawyer or a doctor) don’t get paid a lot more? -ds

  19. 19
    Freelurker says:

    It has always struck me as odd when engineers who are ID proponents claim “design recognition” as an engineering talent. I am a degreed engineer and have been involved in all phases of professional engineering and I have never heard (outside of ID discussions) of engineers performing “design recognition.”

    To see if my experience is unusual, I did a lot of Google searches on “design recognition” and on “recognize design” together with “engineering,” “AIAA,” and “IEEE,” and I did not find any mention of “design recognition” as an engineering activity. I’m sure I didn’t reach the entire web, so help me out here. (Hint: It helps to filter out “award.”)

    If you can find a professional engineering society or an engineering educational institution that has discussed engineers performing “design recognition,” (or the same thing under a different name) then please let me know.

    If you were really an engineer you would have solved this problem. Try this. -ds

  20. 20
    DaveScot says:


    I did a lot of googling on “equation recognition”, “formula recognition”, “number recognition” and I couldn’t find any professional mathematical societies mentioning these as a mathematical pursuit (eliminating handwriting, optical, and scanning helps). Applying your logic to this situation I must conclude that mathematicians are not expert in recognizing numbers, equations, and formulas.

    In a simlar manner I tried finding if scientists are experts at science recognition and if biologists are experts at life recognition. Guess what I found? These aren’t science activities.


  21. 21
    Joseph says:

    To Mattison0922-

    Truthfully I don’t understand how any biologist (or anyone who understands biology) can look at a living cell, in the detail we can, and not come to a design inference.

    Just take the basic DNA replication. There is an existing stockpile of nucleotides inside the cell that is called upon. We know that nucleotides just don’t form willy-nilly. What would blind, purpose-less processes do with a stockroom?

    The “unzipping” process- a search for T’s & A’s (a clue the designer is male) along the double-helix is initiated because the bond between T’s & A’s is slightly weaker than the bond between G’s & C’s, thus better facilitating the unzipping process.

    However pre-existing proteins are required- therefore the RNA World.

    Knowing technology as I do, understanding data communications- initiating signals to prepare for data transmission and reception, headers that include destination & source adresses, data format, packet length, yada, yada, yada- the computer language correlation- the parallels with biology are unbelieve-able.

    IMHO the ONLY way to deny the design inference is to be an hardened atheist or a pawn of atheists.

  22. 22
    mattison0922 says:


    Thanks for your reply. I sympathize with your feelings. Surprisingly most biologists DON’T see design, or at least deny that they see evidence of design.

    I kind of didn’t get your point about pre-existing proteins and the RNA world… if the point was important, please feel free to elaborate.

    DNA replication is an intricate process, agreed. The bio-processes that really drive the point home for me though are systems like Photosynthesis. The entire pathway appears to be a monument to IC. In fact, each individual protein, with it’s essential assoicated co-factors, that must be precisely aligned within the proteins tertiary-quaternary structure, and futhermore precisely located within the membrane, seems to be a monument to IC.

    Take one of my personal favorite examples, the ATP Synthase – a biological rotary motor. Not only does the protein itself require at least 6 proteins to assemble a functioning enzyme. But the protein makes pretty much zero sense outside of the context of the other electron transport/photosynthetic proteins.

    The other reason I think PS is such a great example, is because it’s likely one of the most ancient pathways. Cyanobacteria like fossils have been located that are like 3.8 BYA, given the age of the Earth, and the periods of heavy-bombardament, etc. It doesn’t really give too much time for PS develop…. just a couple of hundred million years.

    You seem to be confusing “design” with “purpose” in what biologists admit they see. Any biologist that doesn’t see design is either a simpleton or a liar. They play it off as an illusion so that they can avoid the implication of purpose that goes with design. Richard Dawkins talks about it here. -ds

  23. 23
    Joseph says:

    I kind of didn’t get your point about pre-existing proteins and the RNA world… if the point was important, please feel free to elaborate.

    It’s not really important- the point is “the RNA World” was developed because “DNA first” is a classic chicken/ egg scenario. IOW DNA replication requires everything to bve in place- classic IC, more so than PS (which is also a great example). Therefore scientists went to the RNA World- to reduce the obvious IC of DNA first to something hopefully more manage-able.

    And as you pointed out, using standard dating practices, with life showing up just when the Earth was allegedly cool & hospitable enough to support it, the timeline for any biological innovations is rather short.

    The problem with an RNA world is that RNA is extremely unstable compared to DNA. The chemistry behind an RNA world is simply and irretrievably implausible. No one has come up with even a fanciful chemical environment where nucleotides can concentrate enough to polymerize into strings capable of anything interesting and because of the instability of ribonucleic polymers even if they could find a natural way to get a concentrated solution the polymers fall apart as quickly as they form due to instability outside the strictly controlled environment of a living cell. -ds

  24. 24
    DaveScot says:


    I forgot to thank you for registering at Uncommon Descent with your email address. I verified that you are indeed a post-doc biologist at a major university. Some of the dipthongs at questioned whether you were really a biologist and it reminded me that you had fulfilled my request. You are who you claim and I thank you for affirming it.

  25. 25
    mattison0922 says:

    Dave Scot, I didn’t get your point about design vs. purpose. Perhaps you can elaborate.

    I completely agree with your statements about RNA. I worked with several organic chemists who were doing RNA synthesis full time. They were NOT happy people. It’s really tough to synthesize an RNA polyer of more than like 80 bases with any reliability. I would have to completely agree with your assessment. Of course such a synthesis requires pretty much ideal circumstances, and a whole bunch of protecting and blocking groups that need to be systematically removed. In short RNA synthesis is a nightmare pretty much under ideal conditions.

    No problem on the identity thing. I know it’s tough for people to realize that an educated person actively involved with science community could support ID. I don’t see how an educated person couldn’t.

  26. 26
    DaveScot says:



    Note the various definitions of design may or may not include purpose. Thus when one says they see design in a living cell it could be (for example):

    3: something intended as a guide for making something else; “a blueprint for a house”; “a pattern for a skirt”

    : a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (especially a scientific experiment);

    Anyone familiar with the DNA molecule (biologists especially) knows either of these two definitions fit a coding gene quite well.

    However, note that many of the definitions of design include purpose or intent. So much so that it’s impossible to say “design” without risking an implicit understanding of conscious creation being part of the design.

    The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details: the aerodynamic design of an automobile; furniture of simple but elegant design.

    2: design something for a specific role or purpose or effect; “This room is not designed for work” 3: create the design for; create or execute in an artistic or highly skilled manner; “Chanel designed the famous suit” 4: make a design of; plan out in systematic, often graphic form; “design a better mousetrap”; “plan the new wing of the museum” [syn: plan] 5: create designs; “Dupont designs for the house of Chanel” 6: conceive or fashion in the mind; invent;

    Many if not most biologists (certainly a large majority of those with NAS membership) will reject this definition of design in living organisms because they believe there is no planning, intent, or mindful purpose in the machinery of life.

    The problem is that a majority of non-scientists see design so they’re stuck with acknowledging that there’s at least an appearance of design then go on to say that the appearance is an illusion. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living biologist in the world today, goes to great pains to acknowledge the appearance of design and also explain the appearance is an illusion. He’s been doing this for a long time.

    So I wondering if you were perhaps confusing design with purpose as every biologist should know that a gene fits a basic definition of design but not necessarily a teleologic definition. If you’d said that most biologists do not see purpose (instead of don’t see design) then it would be unarguably true.

    As an aside, an interesting thing to check out is how often biologists use the term cellular machinery in published peer-reviewed papers. “Machine” certainly carries a heavy purposeful design inference with it. The appearance of design in cellular machinery is overwhelming. The more you learn about it, the more science discovers about it, the more human engineering is found to have been anticipated by organic machinery, the more overwhelming it becomes. This is the great problem for unintelligent evolution – the more science discovers about the life the less it appears it could have happened entirely or even mostly via random mutation + natural selection.

  27. 27
    Joseph says:

    A few things-

    1) DS- I agree with you on the RNA World. I am just saying that is “their” only hope as any “DNA first” world is inconceivable without intelligent causation. Also has anyone ever told you how it was determined the design is illusory? I have asked but just get insults hurled at me…

    2) See my latest blog, Yes, Design is a Mechanism. Doppleganger is a biologist.

    3) mattison0922, Your posting over on ARN is a good thing. I can’t post there but I do visit there when time permits.

    Reality demonstrates natural selection is a conserving force. It eliminates the marginal and out-of-bounds and keep what works. Mutations can alter a trait- blue eyes, red hair, height- but a short, blue-eyed, red-head (an accumulation of mutations) is NOT on the way to becoming a novel species.

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