Intelligent Design

The nature of life and design detection

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A mechanic was removing a cylinder head from the motor of a motorcycle when he spotted a well known heart surgeon in his shop. The surgeon was there waiting for the service manager to come take a look at his bike. The mechanic shouted across the garage,

“Hey Doc, can I ask you a question?”

The surgeon, a bit surprised, walked over to the mechanic working on the motorcycle. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag and asked,

“So, Doc, look at this engine. I open its heart, take valves out, fix ’em, put ’em back in and when I finish, it works just like new. So how come I get such a small salary and you get the really big bucks, when you and I are doing basically the same work?”

The surgeon paused, smiled and leaned over and whispered to the mechanic …

“Try doing it with the engine running!”

So why can’t the patient’s system just be shut down the way a machine is turned off? Doctors can indeed place a person’s body on bypass, in a technical state of death, but they must in reality keep it alive. Once the cells die, the hope of recovery ends – and that is especially significant for brain cells. So the body cannot really just be shut off, the way a machine can.

From the pseudonymous Mike Gene’s The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues:

Over time, any design is going to decay. If one wants a design to persist over time, there are only two options: a) continually intervene to deposit replacement designs or, b) design them such that they self-perpetuate. The self-perpetuation of a design is called replication or reproduction. There are good design reasons for using this strategy. Daniel Koshland, a scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, explains the importance of reproduction:

“This is not the only way the living system regenerates. The constant resynthesis of its proteins and body constituents is not quite perfect, so the small loss for each regeneration in the short run becomes a larger loss overall for all the processes in the long run, adding up to what we call aging. So living systems, at least the ones we know, use a clever trick to perfect the regeneration process-that is, they start over.. Starting over can be a cell dividing, in the case of Escherichia coli“, or the birth of an infant for Homo sapiens. By beginning a new generation, the infant starts from scratch, and all the chemical ingredients, programs, and other constituents go back to the beginning to correct the inevitable decline of a continuously functioning metabolizing system. (emphasis added) [pp. 23-24]”

Reproduction is the means to forward a design into the future. Yet because of the inevitability of mutation, and its effects, replication over large spans of time will lead to evolution. It would thus seem that a good designer would take this “problem” and turn it into something to be exploited or used. This is just one example to illustrate that Intelligent Design and evolution may complement, rather than contradict each other. Lie itself could have been designed and evolution, by natural selection, would have subsequently followed. What’s more, life might even have been designed in such away that Darwinian evolution was recruited to carry out distinct design objectives, meaning that evolution could have been “rigged by design.” Or perhaps evolutionary mechanisms themselves may have been designed. How could we ever hope to address such fascinating possibilities?

How could we ever hope to address such fascinating possibilities? Well, we could try looking at the evidence.

Darwinian evolution would likely only work well in a living system or ecology if it is governed by an underlying mechanism that determines the desired end state (or, possibly, an acceptable range of end states).

For example, one might simulate Darwinian evolution for an airplane design – as long as we have ruled out outcomes like “wildly successful at replicating, but doesn’t fly, and spreads massive ecological destruction worldwide, everywhere it goes.”* The history of life on Earth suggests that something seems to inhibit such designs.

*And no, eco-nuts, don’t write to tell me that humans cause ecological destruction worldwide. Quite the contrary. Humans have greatly increased the diversity of species,subspecies, and varieties worldwide (for good or ill), and in any event are the only species that has ever attempted to prevent other species from extinction.

The only species (?) whose complete destruction we humans ever intentionally engineered was the smallpox virus. And about conserving the others, we are learning.

15 Replies to “The nature of life and design detection

  1. 1
    JunkyardTornado says:

    So why can’t the patient’s system just be shut down the way a machine is turned off? Doctors can indeed place a person’s body on bypass, in a technical state of death, but they must in reality keep it alive. Once the cells die, the hope of recovery ends – and that is especially significant for brain cells. So the body cannot really just be shut off, the way a machine can.

    Not sure to what extent this was merely illustrative and perpheral to your main point, However:
    There is a frog in a region of Australia where it only rains once every fifteen years or so. When it does rain the adult frog will come to life and burrow up from several feet from beneath the ground and spawn. Then as the ground quickly dries up it reburrows several feet beneath the earth where it will remain, completely desicated and lifeless, for another ten – fifteen years until it rains again. And what about seeds – are they alive or dead?

    And also, many machines cannot be turned off. You cannot turn off RAM without destroying it.

    As far as your larger point, I did read it (in case it doesn’t seem like I did), but just briefly – Those in the ID crowd that want to throw a bone to evolution will talk in terms of it all being a clever scheme that God dreamed up in advance to bring to fruition some specific or nearly specific plan that he could have accomplished by some completely different means if he had chosen to.

    To me, that’s not the only way of looking at it. What if we and the rest of the physical universe are in fact a manifestation of God? In other words what if the template we were created from is God and that template was merely duplicated or transmitted. So the starting point you trace everything back to is God and God has been merely duplicated by simplistic means. Of course, an Eastern perspective of Pantheism makes many in the West uneasy. But even Paul said, “We are God’s Offspring.” And presumably God didn’t have to create himself. And creating a duplicate of yourself doesn’t take much planning or design or work either.

  2. 2
    Reg says:

    Humans have greatly increased the diversity of species, subspecies, and varieties worldwide (for good or ill)

    Seriously? To permit you room to clarify, are you seriously claiming that Human influence means there are more species alive today than, say, 100 or 1,000 years or 10,000 years ago?

    The only species (?) whose complete destruction we humans ever intentionally engineered was the smallpox virus. And about conserving the others, we are learning.

    That is a very different claim, and one which I do not dispute.

    But really – do please present evidence that there’s a greater biological diversity today because of Human behavior.

  3. 3
    tragicmishap says:

    Your post seems rather disjointed O’Leary. I think you make a great point in the first half, and I will remember that story. The frog that JunkyardTornado references doesn’t diminish your point that human beings cannot be shut off and restarted at will. We do not have a problem with frogs that can be shut off and turned back on, since we believe frogs are qualitatively different than humans in that humans have a non-material component and frogs are entirely material.

    However I do not understand why the second half starting with the Mike Gene quotation is relevant to the first half. Perhaps you could explain further.

    In the meantime, the quotation of Mike Gene makes little sense to me.

    “The constant resynthesis of its proteins and body constituents is not quite perfect, so the small loss for each regeneration in the short run becomes a larger loss overall for all the processes in the long run, adding up to what we call aging.”

    Daniel Koshland acts as if we understand the aging process. We don’t. According to what we know, there is no reason why the body could not remain a young adult forever. Nobody has demonstrated that information loss due to cellular replication causes aging. What he calls “starting over”, i.e. cell replication leading to a new life, is the same process by which the body regenerates itself without reproducing. The only difference between a new life and normal regeneration of the body is the difference between mitosis and meiosis in certain organisms. In the broad context in which he is speaking, there is no relevant difference between mitosis and meiosis. Both are imperfect to a very small degree and therefore both processes can and do lose information over time. Furthermore, mutations in single-cell organisms and in the germ line of multi-cellular organisms affect the offspring just as much as the parent. Upon what basis is he stating that one process causes degenerative aging and the other causes progressive evolution? They are the same and both are degenerative. One just takes longer than the other.

    Mike Gene seems to be trying to say that somehow reproduction can magically create new information while normal cell replication that doesn’t lead to reproduction loses information. He is very confused. He says at the outset that “over time, any design is going to decay,” then begins musing about how it might not be that way. Which is it Mike? Either the design decays or it doesn’t. The only “design objectives” Darwinism can be “recuited” to achieve is prevention of information loss by killing off organisms that have lost too much information.

  4. 4
    O'Leary says:

    For Junkyard Tornado: Re the dry frog: “completely desicated and lifeless, for another ten – fifteen years until it rains again. And what about seeds – are they alive or dead? ”

    The general opinion has always been that the dead do not rise again in this life, apart from an apocalyptic miracle.

    So my best guess is that the dry frogs are like the dry plant roots in my cellar. Not dead, just waiting.

    If the frogs were really dead, their compounds, mixtures, and elements would quickly be claimed by other organisms = they would rot.

    In nature, there are always heirs, though not always your heirs.

    For Reg: Humans carry plants and animals all over the globe, thus introducing them to places they could never have reached on their own. That certainly increases biodiversity.

    There are certainly more species alive in North America today than there were ten thousand years ago, when the vast ice sheet was melting. We probably have examples of every important species in the world, tended by a large conservation-minded population.

    It is safe to say that if we do not have an example of a given species here, someone is trying to acquire it – or will try to acquire it when he learns of its existence.

    Wasn’t “Free Willy” discovered in a badly run Mexico zoo? Repatriating that poor creature to the southern hemisphere did not work, apparently, and he died. In my view, he should have been repatriated to a properly run aquarium in North America, as – given his history – he was not likely to become accustomed to a human-free environment.

    Humans also breed a vast number of varieties of species, by taking advantage of existing natural genomes (dog = bulldog, chihuahua, pekinese … )

    These breeds do not, of course, become separate species because, left to themselves, they would either die or breed back into the feral wolfhound type of dog that does nt need any human help.

    But the many dog breeds are certainly biodiversity, if you go by difference in appearance.

    Richard Dawkins even thought that the many dog breeds were some kind of argument for Darwinian evolution – obviously, they are arguments for design for specific purposes.

  5. 5
    Reg says:

    Humans carry plants and animals all over the globe, thus introducing them to places they could never have reached on their own. That certainly increases biodiversity.

    Erm. Hardly. Carrying plants and animals to new palces results in the incomers either dying off, or reaching some equilibrium with the natives (thereby producing no increase in diversity), or often results in an incoming species obliterating the natives.

  6. 6
    JunkyardTornado says:

    Denyse: I shouldn’t berate anyone for arguing from analogy as I do it all the time.
    However, I think yours breaks down. Many machines are designed to be run more or less continously – parts need to be lubricated, etc. The same sort of decay that affects a body not in use effects a machine not in use. Anything is healthier once a constant source of energy is supplied to it. Which is healthier – rapidly moving water or stagnant water? But I’m also thinking of a car that isn’t run for a very long time, or some huge piece of industrial machinery that once it is stopped, might take several hours or maybe days to be fully operational again. Even a building falls into decay without constant attention. All those historical landmarks of two three, or four centuries or even longer are just monuments to the continual attention necessary to maintain an edifice for that length of time.

    On the frogs, not to beat this to death, but as a lot of toads and frogs burrow underground and hibernate for varying lengths of time, it occured to me that my original claims might appear hyperbolic. This is the best I can do for now for documentation:

    “desert toads can reproduce in extraordinary numbers before entering again into their waterless torpor”
    “Desert toads can remain in a torpor underground for years until a rainstorm awakens them. ”
    “desert toads can tolerate great losses of water out of their bodies without dying…”
    (all from different sources)

    To the mods:

    You might consider taking me off of moderation. I posted continuously for three or four months without any complaints, until one day I was put on the moderation list for no explained reason. That was fine with me at the time, as it was an excuse to get away from it for a while. But now, not having posted for several months, I notice I still am on the moderation list. I will also probably be changing my moniker as well if thats allowed, as I was getting sick of it myself.

  7. 7
    feebish says:

    Mrs O’Leary, I don’t think you are correct that humans have helped increase biodiversity around the planet. Take your example of introduced species: The introduced species may destroy another species by predation, or by eating its food source. Other species which depend on the first species may then die as well. Look at, say, New Zealand. The introduction of land mammals has destroyed huge swaths of their native fauna. Flightless birds don’t do so well when confronted by a cat, for instance. Humans are also big on monocultures (agriculture) and with our swelling populations contribute to large habitat destruction. I think if you look into it you will see that human beings have decreased rather than increased the world’s biodiversity.

  8. 8
    Mark Frank says:

    Denyse

    Your statements about biodiversity are most unusual. It doesn’t take an econut to disagree. You can argue about how much it matters or the order of magnitude of the destruction but it is most extreme view to claim that we have reduced biodiversity.

    It is partly a question of how you measure diversity. An accepted definition of global biodiversity is total number of species on earth (subject to the usual problems about what is a species). Your measure seems to be something on the lines of how well the remaining species are spread about the globe even if there only a few representatives in captivity. It is a like saying there there is greater linguistic diversity even though there are less languages being spoken, because we have recordings of dying languages in libraries all round the world.

    Using the measure of total number of species on earth, there is an overwhelming case that we have been a destructive species from the Dodo to Passenger Pigeon. Wikipedia lists 190 species of birds alone that have gone extinct since 1500 and pretty much all of them are the result of human activity. We may not have often succeeded in intentionally destroying a species but have plenty of examples of destroying species where the proponents didn’t care much whether they went extinct or not (for example the complete genus – 6 species – of giant tortoises, Cylindraspis, found in the Mascerene islands).

    We have also created a few species – some intentionally and some accidentally – such as the Kew Primrose – see http://www.talkorigins.org/faq.....ation.html for a list of observed speciation including those created by man. But it is a far shorter list than the list of extinctions.

    New breeds of dog, as you point out, are not new species. I suppose it is possible that the diverse appearances of artificially bred animals such as the dog and pigeon increases the net diversity of physical appearance. But this is not a recognised definition of biodiversity and would be very hard to measure.

  9. 9
    Mark Frank says:

    Correction to above:

    “it is a most extreme view to claim that we have increased biodiversity”

  10. 10
    crater says:

    Wasn’t “Free Willy” discovered in a badly run Mexico zoo? Repatriating that poor creature to the southern hemisphere did not work, apparently, and he died. In my view, he should have been repatriated to a properly run aquarium in North America

    Not to be pedantic, but Mexico is part of North America. Maybe you meant a properly run aquarium in the English speaking part of North America. Of course, that would eliminate Quebec.

  11. 11
    O'Leary says:

    Re biodiversity, all:

    If humans have not increased biodiversity, I do not understand why

    a) the City of Toronto forbids private citizens from keeping a vast variety of exotic species. Presumably, that is because Toronto residents would otherwise keep them. After all, we have no similar by-laws against hiding space aliens … why not?

    b) the Province of Ontario has banned the continued breeding of a variety of dog (the pit bull) unknown to wild nature, and currently (controversially!) on a sort of “death row” here.

    c) many local gardening problems are caused by plants known to me as “European dooryard weeds” = Eurasian plants that favour disturbed soil. Because immigrants to North America from Europe have often cleared land to put up buildings or grow crops, this continent has been a splendid biodiversity opportunity for those plants. There are by-laws about them too, incidentally …

    d) humans have brought about the extinction of some species, but have saved others. Consider ginkgo biloba. It is a very ancient tree, apparently saved by Chinese gardeners. A couple of years ago, while wandering through the huge arboretum (= tree garden) of the Canadian government’s experimental farm in Ottawa, I happened across a gingko, growing outdoors. (I have seen them in Toronto, too, but we are about 250 km further south.)

    e) humans are probably saving a number of species from extinction just because we like them. Not many km from my home here in Toronto is a Lion Safari where, I am told, the lionesses have long been subjected to birth control pills, because their eagerness to supply North America with lions exceeds the suitable habitat. Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem for them if they ever got over the perimeter fence … (imagine … lions in suburban neighbourhoods!)

    On the whole, I think the least useful message for the environment movement is to wail about how humans promote extinction. A better message would be that we must manage* what we have been given.

    (*Alas, the message may be misinterpreted. An idiot neighbour might decide that the Almighty has instructed him to keep scorpions, and to let them stroll through the local park in the evening, while area residents exercise … oh well, it is an opportunity for Animal Control to offer some work to an invertebrate specialist.)

  12. 12
    feebish says:

    Your examples of A and C, and even D,are examples of introduced species. The fact that Canada regulates them is due to accumulated evidence that they are damaging to existing species.

    Your example of B is, as you state, about a variety of dog, not a new species. It’s neither here nor there, but I wish the government where I live would ban that breed, as Ontario has done.

    Your example E, and the previous comments about zoos and private menageries has some merit, but in almost all of these cases, the animals or plants being saved are being saved from extinction caused by humans. In any case, these saved species number in, what, the hundreds? But how many species are knocked out by the removal of a forest to grow wheat and corn?

    I agree that it is a good message that humans should manage what we have been given. Are we able to design new animals and plants to take their place? Until we can, we’d best take care of the other designer’s handiwork.

  13. 13
    O'Leary says:

    Hi all, it may depend on where you live, to some extent.

    Here in Canada, introduced species have not usually impacted local species fatally, perhaps due to the relative sizes of the areas in question. So the net effect of the migration from Europe over the last five hundred years has been a vast increase in the diversity of species that live in Canada.

    Consider, for example, the starling, the English sparrow, the Norway rat, and the feral cat. These imports compete for food with the native skunk, squirrel and raccoon around local dumpsters.

    It is vicious, but it does not seem to lead to outright extinctions.

    Meanwhile, in the apartment building beside my house, whose dumpster is these creatures’ chief source of food, my neighbours are keeping exotic tropical fish, ferrets, Guinea pigs, hamsters/various rodents – and probably also some creatures they would rather not talk about (because the City explicitly forbids them and they have obtained the creatures surreptitiously).

    If downtown Toronto were still a wilderness, I am quite sure that we would not have nearly the biodiversity that now exists.

    Please understand, I am NOT claiming that the world lacks serious ecological problems. But if the last tropical fish of a certain species died out in a remote ocean, I would hardly be surprised to learn that there was a breeding pair within a couple of metres of my house.

    Feebish is right, I think, in his last comment. We hear too much about the damage humans have done, and not enough about the vital role we can play in preventing extinctions, by promoting biodiversity.

  14. 14
    Tom MH says:

    It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to learn about invasive species in Canada, or species native to Canada that are on the Species at Risk Public Registry.

  15. 15
    O'Leary says:

    Tom MH, I am as well aware as you of these lists and their strengths and limitations.

    The critical question around here is, … and so now?

    For an understandng of Canadian ecology, I often recommend this article about assessing polar bear numbers.

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