Intelligent Design

The design of lightning and thunder

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An objector to ID posed the following question to a friend of a friend:

“According to Michael Behe’s view of ID (as developed in Darwin’s Black Box), it seems right to say that the system by which thunder and lightning is generated (composed of the sun, water on the ground to heat up and evaporate, thundercloud, air, ground) would qualify as “designed.” After all, it is, a la Behe, a system of several well-matched, separate, interacting parts accomplishing a function beyond the individual components and in which removing one piece does away with the function. But since it obviously wasn’t designed, the method of design detection given in Behe’s book is fundamentally flawed and gives many false positives. Is this an incorrect use of irreducible complexity, and if so, how?”

There are lot’s of problems here: (1) IC (irreducible complexity) presupposes a basic primary purpose/function of a system — what is the basic purpose/function here? (making loud noises, illuminating the earth, generating heat, …); (2) the question confuses the necessary conditions for a system existing at all with its parts (the sun is no more “part” of lightning and thunder than water is “part” of the bacterial flagellum); (3) IC needs SC (specified complexity) to nail down design, which means that the parts coming together have to be highly improbable — ignoring the last point, what is the probability of the sun, the earth, the evaporation of water, etc.? Do they not, on materialist principles, follow by necessity from deeper physical-chemical processes and laws? (4) Where are the independently given patterns — specifications — that allow the explanatory filter to operate and thus, according to my theory, implicate design?

22 Replies to “The design of lightning and thunder

  1. 1
    Deuce says:

    It looks to me like the person in question is actually deconstructing the whole idea of biological function. It seems if you take the objection seriously, you would need to conclude that, say, the origin life wasn’t even a problem that needs to be solved, much like the origin of any particular lightning bolt. After all, isn’t the fact that it consists of “several well-matched, separate, interacting parts accomplishing a function beyond the individual components” the reason life needs an explanation in the first place? Ditto for all other biological functions. The person here is emptying biology of anything to explain. This cuts across both Darwinism and design.

  2. 2
    pk4_paul says:

    The reason abiogenesis is studied and the results used as an explanation is an attempt to link cause and effect. The cause and effect for the thunder and lightening are explained by the interplay of natural forces which can be defined and quantified. We are unable to explain the cause of life by reference to results of abiogenesis research. We cannot cite a generating mechanism. A cause devoid of intelligent input has not been identified. To the contrary actual scientific data indicates it will not be found by limiting our causal search to unguided natural forces.

  3. 3
    rockfish says:

    Lightning serves a very useful purpose or function in the ecology of forests and plains. Certain plants depend on fire to release their seeds, which will not have suitable habitat to germinate unlesss the brush has been cleared off by the fire, as well. Without fire, typically provided by lightning in natural environments, these plants are not able to reproduce.

    Gravity serves a very useful purpose too. Without it there wouldn’t be any air for those plants to breathe and they’d die. So what exactly was your point? -ds

  4. 4
    jacktone says:

    This kinda reminds me of the question that inevitably comes up in 9-10 year old Sunday School classes: “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?”
    I realise it’s not really quite the same thing, but the question itself tends to distract one away from the fundamental fact that it is really just nonsense. C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that nonsense doesn’t cease to be nonsense just because you put the word “God” in front of it.

  5. 5
    great_ape says:

    “It looks to me like the person in question is actually deconstructing the whole idea of biological function. It seems that if you take the objection seriously, you would need to conclude that, say, the origin life wasn’t even a problem that needs to be solved, much like the origin of any particular lightning bolt.” –Deuce

    In a way, this is precisely what the consensus view of biological function is: there is no teleology or “end goal” of a system or the components that constitute it. Mayr argued differently, but most darwinists, when you get right down to it, don’t accept “function” as commonly understood (i.e. in the engineering sense). The parts are there because they *likely* did something, either individually or in conjunction, to allow the organism (as a whole) to persist until now. I say likely because there are also historical/structural issues to be considered. Darwinism hold there is no outside specification or plan in their arrangement. This frees the various components to have been arranged together by *any* historical/natural pathway whatsover, and not in order to accomplish what currently do. The fact that they do accomplish this now may be why this ensemble persists, however, or why individual components may have been tweaked in some way or another. There is definitely a sense in which evolution deconstructs biological function as perceived by a concious “goal-directed” observer.

    In engineering we have similar situations to Darwinian evolution. Normally we are confronted with problems that need solutions. Occasionally we have the reverse where we have a solution in need of a problem. The solution in the latter case is usually something that’s stumbled upon by accident. Like Teflon. The Darwinian view of evolution is one of solutions in need of problems. It can’t be otherwise because finding solutions to problems is teleological and you can’t have any of that sneaking into your church of chance worship. So you get these randomly generated solutions that through serendipity hang around long enough for a problem to crop up that they solve. If you believe that I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. -ds

  6. 6
    bFast says:

    I only hope that “the objector to ID” has no education beyond highschool. If this “objector” is in any practical way a “biologist” then no wonder NDE has survived so long.

  7. 7
    great_ape says:

    It does make it sound ridiculous that a bunch of biological solutions are waiting over evolutionary time for problems to be solved. Clearly they are not “solutions” until the problem emerges. They are just there. And a given pre-solution/thing (biological structure) probably won’t last forever without changing (or being lost entirely) unless it has some role to play in the organism’s persistance. But when they do hang around long enough, and the occasion does arise, things are exapted. They are commandeered because they prove useful–via whatever mechanism involved–in accomplishing the one ultimate mission objective a biological system has: to persist through reproduction. And even that is not so much a goal as a prerequisite for the organism being there to observe. So instead of ultimate goal, let’s call it the minimum motivational mandate.

    Ok, now about that bridge. How much were you looking to spend? -ds

  8. 8
    todd says:

    This argument seems a bit facile to me. The cause of lightning and thunder can be demonstrated by physics and chemistry alone. The cause of information within biotic life cannot (at this present time).

  9. 9
    Jon Jackson says:

    Actually it is modern man and his mania for saving nature by removing any percieved threat (a very feminine characteristic if you think about it) that has made it necessary for lightning to set off fires to clear off forest debris. More primitve peoples often set the fires themselves to prevent the out of control wildfires that annually threaten huge tracts of land and to improve the productivity of the land. Prehaps it isn’t simply biological subsystems that are designed but the whole of nature. If so prehaps man had a role to play in caring for nature by, for example, clearing off underbrush so a lightning strike or a windblown cinder doesn’t burn down the entire forest.

  10. 10
    Zero says:

    Bill,IMO, the best proof of ID is symmetry, not IC.
    Sciene has never found two snow flakes alike, although 100 % have, by chance, symmetry, like every living thing.
    Science has never found two grains of sand alike nor do any have, by chance, symmetry.
    In 100 % of my observations, chaos is natural. Order is mind made. So I accept that as truth.
    Btw, did you know, two sour apples make a pair?
    If I can be of help in this matter E me.


  11. 11
    DaveScot says:

    If lightning reproduced and operated according to instructions encoded in billions of bits of digital code in an organic information storage molecule we would be justified in asking if it were the direct result of intelligent agency.

    Chance worshippers are SO obtuse sometimes…

  12. 12
    jerry says:


    Consider the pre-solution state of an “IC” systems. Why are the parts there? They cannot be just there as you say waiting for a solution. These systems consists of some highly complex parts that in order to exists each one must have a function. You know better than I or most of us here how complex these proteins are and how unlikely they are to exist by some unguided naturalistic process. They just don’t pop-up out of no where by some fortuitous chemical process or “Shazam” we got some magical mutations all at one time to each or most of the parts. So each must have a very important function at each pre-state. And how many pre-states must there be, hundreds or maybe thousands, maybe more. Also each of these pre-processes require some elaborate assembly instructions in order to make them function. Where did these come from? Because without the assembly instructions each part would mutate away since they perform no function.

    You can exapt all you want but until there is a plan nothing will happen. “Exapt” isn’t even the Darwinists equivalent to “Shazam.” Because “Shazam” included the assembly instructions. Just mixing up the available parts does not make a system. The hard part is knowing what to do with each of the parts.

    By the way what would have happened to Billy Batson if he said “Exapt” instead of “Shazam?”

  13. 13
    great_ape says:

    ds, I will require photographs of your bridge before negotiations can proceed.

    “Because without the assembly instructions each part would mutate away since they perform no function.” –jerry

    Agreed. Given enough time, the parts would disappear if there’s no function. The idea is they’re there for some other purpose initially. Then, if that purpose is no longer necessary (or, more likely, made redundant)they get co-opted to do something else *before* they disappear via mutation. There is a window of time, depending on the taxa mutation rate, popsize, etc, anywhere up to several million years before erasure would occur. And new windows open all the time. Gene duplications, which happen quite frequently, provide a continued source of raw redundant materials of considerable complexity to begin with. As far as IC is concerned, it is only irreducible in terms of someone’s perception of the current “purpose” of the system as a whole. In truth, we usually have little to no understanding of what utility various partially constructed versions of the system may have had along the way. That does not, in my mind, allow one to conclude that there was no such utility. It’s simply a mandate to dig deeper. I’m not saying we have solid evidence for the above scenario occurring for what are called IC systems. I’m only saying that, given what we do know about biology, it’s not as implausible a scenario as many would like to make it out to be. Evolutionary theory compels us to dig deeper and find the connections and transitions between things. In the process, we can and have discover many new and potentially useful things along the way. ID suggests those complex systems were simply designed that way. Once you discover how the machine works, determined the specification, what then?

  14. 14
    kathy says:

    Does anyone care to clarify what Jon Jackson is trying to say about the feminine propensity to remove perceived threats (I never heard women get credit for this before 🙂 ) and lightning setting off fires because people aren’t? Very interesting ideas, but I’m not tracking…

  15. 15
    Chris Hyland says:

    “Agreed. Given enough time, the parts would disappear if there’s no function. The idea is they’re there for some other purpose initially. Then, if that purpose is no longer necessary (or, more likely, made redundant)they get co-opted to do something else *before* they disappear via mutation. There is a window of time, depending on the taxa mutation rate, popsize, etc, anywhere up to several million years before erasure would occur.”

    Or they arise through duplication.

  16. 16
    jerry says:

    Great Ape,

    This my second post of this. The first was several hours ago. So I hope it doesn’t come up as a duplicate post especially since I have changed it a little since my first post.

    I would assume most of the IC systems (using Behe’s examples) appeared during the Cambrian Explosion. Did the bacterium flagella appeared before this time. I don’t know if it requires a host. Certainly the eye appeared quickly in several different forms and no new forms since. Are you saying that the phyla back then did not have any other current systems which Behe would call IC? Or that if they did, they developed in the short time prior to when they made their initial appearance in the fossil record during the Cambrian Explosion? Or that most of these systems developed at later times in other species? I don’t know if you know any of the time lines for these things. I just assume you know most thing relevant to these issues.

    If the method for producing these IC systems is gene duplication, then wouldn’t the new genes/proteins be very similar to the initial gene/proteins and as you say remain pretty much the same but only change slightly over time. Thus, the proteins from when they came should be easy to identify. If they do not mutate much, then how do they provide a supposedly new IC system. Or did they mutate a lot and if they did mutate a lot then why didn’t they disappear or essentially become random sequences? Sometimes I have a hard time following the logic. Some things are conserved for millions/billions of years which to me implies a function for the code while other things mutate quickly and are essentially random useless DNA waiting for some miraculous final mutation to make it useful. I understand the basis of gene duplication is that the new gene is free to mutate but what are the odds of anyone gene mutating into another? And then there is the assembly instructions. Is the only real answer is that it somehow happened?

    Also some systems have existed since the origin of the phyla and the time horizon for development of these systems is very short while others you are saying developed millions of years later and could have taken several million years to develop. Is there any good source that lays out the origin of these various systems?

    Is there any good sources that discusses the many ways that gene duplication has added to the genetic code and provided different functions and also provides some specific examples? I am aware of the hemoglobin example but what others are there.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that terms like gene duplication and exaptation are terms that are pulled out of one’s back pocket when you get stuck for an answer. So I would like to read more about it, the less technical the better. I would also be interested in how much of this is just guesses at the most likely underlying mechanism based on the axiom that it must have evolved somehow and this is the most plausible way. Versus how much has hard research to back it up.

    I enjoy your inputs, they help clarify the issues.

  17. 17
    great_ape says:


    those are fair questions. I’m short on time tonight–working on a manuscript due last week–but hopefully I can find at least a few references for you soon. I know good reviews exist for gene duplications. As for a blow by blow account of an IC system evolving via the path I described, no such account exists. I doubt it ever will, but hopefully someone proves me wrong. It’s all inference based on far less impressive things. So yes, in the end, it’s about plausibility for some evolutionary scenarios. We simply aren’t able to go back and verify these things or live within a timescale that’s sufficient to watch similar things happen. But there are little things we can witness or deduce from bones or sequence data. And for some of us those little trivial things make the bigger things seem just plausible enough that we don’t throw in the towel and declare that there’s no way such and such could have occurred through blind natural processes.

  18. 18

    Here is the most important paper on the subject of exaptation, by Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould:


    In it, Lewontin and Gould do exactly what Deuce suggested: they deconstruct the classical Darwinian concept of adaptation. Evolutionary biologists reacted with horror (at first), but as time passed, the logic of Lewontin and Gould’s argument has eventually carried the day. That’s why in my summer evolution course I have spent almost a week discussing it, and why it is a central paper in the Cornell Evolution and Design course.

    And BTW, the “thundercloud” example was presented by me during one of our class discussions, although not in anything like the Bowderlized version listed at the top of this post. And indeed, if the concept of “function” is fatally undermined by Lewontin and Gould’s concept of “exaptation,” then indeed there is quite literally nothing more for EBers and IDers to argue about.

    Exaptation. Mooning somebody would be an example of that, right? -ds

  19. 19
    leebowman says:

    “According to Michael Behe’s view of ID … , it seems right to say that the system by which thunder and lightning is generated … would qualify as ‘designed.'”

    jacktone intoned “… C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that nonsense doesn’t cease to be nonsense just because you put the word “God” in front of it.”

    … or, as the critiqued poster alleged, trying to shoe-horn an illogical syllogism into a logical hypotheses to which it doesn’t fit. This overly simplistic syllogism sounds like something Richard Dawkins might posit.

    But it’s no sillier than comparing ToE to the ToG (Theory of Gravity), or alleging the ID advocates would argue that things fall because God wills it. Of of stating that ID violates Occam’s Razor.

    1) ID advocates have never compared ID theory to the theory of gravity.
    2) Godditit is not an argument for ID.
    3) Occam’s Razor should never be used to justify or falsify a scientific hypothesis.

    And now they’re added,

    4) ‘Design Detection’ methods are flawed since they don’t explain thunder and lightning??

  20. 20
    jerry says:

    Allen MacNeill,

    Thank you for the reference. I will look at it, hopefully tonight, and if I have any questions I will post them tomorrow. Maybe we can have a discussion on it here.

  21. 21

    Hi, Jerry:
    That would be grand. We have been discussing it in several of our Evolution and Design seminar classes, and I think folks here might find it very interesting.

  22. 22
    great_ape says:


    sorry for the delay in getting back to you. There are several good reviews on gene duplications–particularly if you have access to Annual Reviews and Nature Reviews Genetics, etc. Unfortunately, many of these articles are not available without subscriptions. I’ve tried to find a couple of things that are publicly accessible.

    –this has conceptual coverage with a couple of examples:
    PLoS Biol. 2004 Jul;2(7):E206. Epub 2004 Jul 13.
    Gene duplication: the genomic trade in spare parts.

    –this is an example:
    Genome Res. 1999 Jul;9(7):629-38.
    The evolution of trichromatic color vision by opsin gene duplication in New World and Old World primates.

    there are certainly better examples, but these are the freely accessible things I could find in a pinch. As for the questions you raised about the rapidity of various complex systems evolving in cambrian phyla, etc., this is quite outside my area so I’m reluctant to say much. My current understanding of the Cambrian explosion is that the phyla associated with it had a much deeper history than was originally thought based on the fossil record. (compared to the way Gould depicted it in Wonderful Life, for instance). This was gleaned from the protein divergence data for existing phyla.

    Again, I fully admit that the majority of what we discuss concerning complex system development during evolution consists of speculation. I’m sympathetic to the ID claim that ET hasn’t provided airtight cases for the genesis of biocomplexity. (it is, however, a very tall order.) So evolutionists have no reason whatsoever to be smug about origin of life questions or some of the systems Behe and others address. But we do have some simpler things documented that appear to have arisen through mutation and selection. This is the microevolution many of you accept. And common descent is an airtight and closed case IMO. Throw in speciation biology, and that’s the bulk of evolutionary theory. The things everyone argues about (OOL, core biocomplexity development, etc) are the things none of us have solid evidence for or against. We simply don’t know enough to say what could or could *not* have happened. It just so happens that most scientists, when placed in this conundrum, wish to err on the side of naturalistic (blind) explanations. They’ve worked so far, why not keep at it… I think many (most?) of us biologists would be happy to admit our profound ignorance concerning OOL, etc. Even admit in the textbooks, discussing alternatives. But what’s terrifying is the notion that some would use that as a door to ultimately undermine teaching of common descent, microevolution, molecular population genetics, etc. (the actual *content* of evolutionary biology). That would truly be a step backwards into the dark ages. I think that’s the fear underlying much of the passionate response against ID.

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