Creationist Argument Refuted: Biological Cells as Complex Machines

We have had a good insight into the workings of creationists from the last post. Here is the core foundation to Angelo’s argument that I would like to take to task today:

  1.  It is known that complex machines and factories are intelligently designed
  2.  Biological cells are factories full of complex machines
  3.  Biological cells are intelligently designed

It’s a bit jumbled, but it essentially equates to:

  • A = C
  • B = A
  • Therefore, B = C

The whole argument rests on analogising, or even stronger synonymising biological cells with factories (full of complex machines), the B = A part.

This is where he goes wrong. Of course.

A factory is defined as:

1. a building or group of buildings where goods are manufactured or assembled chiefly by machine.

Whereas a cell is defined as:

2. the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism, which is typically microscopic and consists of cytoplasm and a nucleus enclosed in a membrane.

There is absolutely no prima facie synonymous relationship between the two. As a result, this means the creationist here is equating the function of the two things such that the syllogism (of sorts) becomes:

  1. Factories and complex machines do function X, and are designed (by humans)
  2. Biological cells also do function X
  3. Therefore, biological cells are designed (by something similar to humans but not humans)

You can see that, in reality, conclusion 3. is rather problematic anyway. It’s essentially an argument from analogy:

  1. P and Q are similar in respect to properties a, b, and c.
  2. P has been observed to have further property x.
  3. Therefore, Q probably has property x also.

(The creationist, however, turns “probably” into “certainly”).

About which Wikipedia states, interestingly using this exact teleological argument to exemplify criticisms:

The argument does not assert that the two things are large and very big, only that they are similar. The argument may provide us with good evidence for the conclusion, but the conclusion does not follow as a matter of logical necessity.[1][2][3] Determining the strength of the argument requires that we take into consideration more than just the form: the content must also come under scrutiny.

Strength of an analogy

Several factors affect the strength of the argument from analogy:

  • The relevance (positive or negative) of the known similarities to the similarity inferred in the conclusion.[2][3]
  • The degree of relevant similarity (or dissimilarity) between the two objects.[2]
  • The amount and variety of instances that form the basis of the analogy.[2]


Arguments from analogy may be attacked by use of disanalogycounteranalogy, and by pointing out unintended consequences of an analogy.[1] In order to understand how one might go about analyzing an argument from analogy, consider the teleological argument and the criticisms of this argument put forward by the philosopher David Hume.

According to the analogical reasoning in the teleological argument, it would be ridiculous to assume that a complex object such as a watch came about through some random process. Since we have no problem at all inferring that such objects must have had an intelligent designer who created it for some purpose, we ought to draw the same conclusion for another complex and apparently designed object: the universe.[1]

Hume argued that the universe and a watch have many relevant dissimilarities; for instance, the universe is often very disorderly and random. This is the strategy of “disanalogy”: just as the amount and variety of relevant similarities between two objects strengthens an analogical conclusion, so do the amount and variety of relevant dissimilarities weaken it.[1]Creating a “counteranalogy,” Hume argued that some natural objects seem to have order and complexity — snowflakes for example — but are not the result of intelligent direction.[1]But then just as the snowflake’s order and complexity itself might not have direction, the causes of the order and complexity might. So this would be an example of disproof by begging the question. Finally, Hume provides many possible “unintended consequences” of the argument; for instance, given that objects such as watches are often the result of the labor of groups of individuals, the reasoning employed by the teleological argument would seem to lend support to polytheism.[1]

So the function or property of factories as applied to cells. And so here’s the rub.

If I equate function or property, then we can get into all sorts of logical hilarities.

  1. Breastfeeding nourishes a baby, and is done by mothers
  2. Bottle feeding nourishes a baby
  3. Therefore, bottle feeding is done by mothers.


  1. Quidditch is a game played for enjoyment, and it is played by wizards
  2. Dogs chase balls for enjoyment
  3. Therefore, dogs chasing balls is done by wizards.

And we could backwards infer (from an evolutionary perspective):

  1. Badgers have hair to keep them warm, and they snuffle with their noses in the earth
  2. Humans have hair to keep them warm
  3. Therefore, humans snuffle with their noses in the earth

And so on. I can think of any number of nonsensical syllogisms and, yes, we might argue about reference sets. The point here is that very disparate things have similar functions, but you cannot always transfer properties of one thing onto the other on account of similar functions.

Let’s look further at the functions of a cell and a factory. You could say of each “It does stuff”, but then you would be able to transfer properties onto anything that “does stuff”. An issue here is the lack of specificity with the claim. How synonymous do the functions have to be? I could look for any conclusion that suits my ideology and look for shared function and draw the conclusion that suits me if the functions are suitably vague.

I might want, for ideological reasons, to treat toddler children in the same way that I do dogs. I look to find similarities between the two – say that dogs have the intelligence of two-year-old humans, or that they both have poor control of bodily functions, or are unable to play musical instruments. I then use this function or property to analogise them both and transfer a property about one onto the other.

  1. Dogs can’t play musical instruments, and dogs should be kept in kennels outside
  2. Toddlers can’t play musical instruments
  3. Therefore, toddlers should be kept in kennels.

Somewhere between “does stuff” and the most precise “contains cytosol, which itself contains more than 10,000 different kinds of molecules that are involved in cellular biosynthesis” is a function similarity that can work for the creationist. There is more than a little hint of disingenuousness at play here. They can’t look at the exact function using the very specified reality of both cells and factories, so they have to make it vaguer, towards the “does stuff” end of the spectrum.

Really, I need to know what Angelo’s functional similarity is that means that cells absolutely must have correspondence with a factory. Let me use this comment from Dan Tempas on the thread. Swap watch with factory or machine and you’ll get the point.

Imagine our watch and cell problem. At a fist glance, this seems to be a pretty good argument. They both look sort of alike. They are both complex. There must be a designer, right? But a quick look is nothing if not deceiving. Let’s really dig down at these two items and see what they are about.

Let us imagine we have many watches so we can test them (sometimes destructively) and still have more left over for additional tests. What do we find? We find that the watch is made out of highly refined metals, jewels, and plastic. On a microscopic level, none of these comes together on their own. As we look throughout the natural world, we don’t see any processes or conditions that would produce these specific materials in these shapes. If we look at the crystal structure of the metal, it will never grow into something like a gear. And it would rust long before that, and there is no environment where this would not be true. Inside the watch there is nothing that would self assemble the gears. There is no natural process that could possible end in this watch. So we can infer that this is a manufactured item because it defies any kind of production in the natural environment.

Let us then cast the same amount of investigative rigor at the cell. We see that the cell can exchange matter with its environment and has a lot of self assembly in its molecular structure. That suggests that it is a very different thing than the watch, but it does not show that it was not designed. But if we get enough intellectual horsepower (like 1,000 doctorates of Biology) and enough equipment (like billions of dollars worth of labs) a different picture begins to emerge. The cell operates on completely natural principles. Every molecular part of it can come about without outside interference in the natural environment. Indeed, with enough time and effort, we can trace all of the processes of the cell to non living precursors and only natural processes available in the environment. So the cell doesn’t have to be designed. It can come about naturally.

The problem here is that humankind has yet to place 1,000s of doctorates and billions of dollars towards this investigation. So the natural path that would prove the lack of design is not yet known. But some resources have been applied. And it is clear that the steps towards the development of a living cell that are understood are natural and, given the right circumstances, inevitable. The cell is nothing more than a fantastically complex snowflake, a natural outcome of Earth’s environment.

Of course, intelligent design advocates claim that because all of these raw material to cell steps are not understood, there had to be a god in those gaps to make the cell happen. But finding out if ID is really needed in biology is just a matter of time. And before that information becomes available, it is folly to suggest that life is designed.

So we know watches are designed because they cannot come about naturally. The cell is a different matter. We cannot claim the cell is designed because there is enough information to suggest that it doesn’t need to be. So to claim a cell is designed is extrapolation into the unknown, so that claim cannot be made.

This comment really plays into my point above and show that rather than being analogous, factories and cells are deeply, deeply disanalogous. You can see why creationists fall for it – it’s simple and without looking into it at all, can, to some, sound plausible – but if you take even the shortest moment to analyse it, you find it is worthless as an argument. It doesn’t work.

And finally…

I was going to save this for another post, but I will mention it now. Humans are natural. We are part of nature. So our designing factories is like beavers designing dams. It’s like any animal using tools. It’s all part of evolutionary competitive advantage. It’s all natural.

So when we find a watch on a beach, we really should say to ourselves, “Ooh, what an interesting natural artefact. Isn’tevolutiono and nature amazing!”

Everything is “designed” by nature – without agenticity at the macro level: humans, watches, factories and cells. All products of the natural world.

And that includes God and gods. They aren’t creators of the natural world, but products. Abstract ones, but products nonetheless.


As you can see from the comments below, Angelo is still kicking back. What is annoying is that he has not reacted to the logic and philosophy of my article in any substantive way. What he has done is said something pretty interesting (and not in a good way):

No analogy. Biological Cells ARE factories in a literal sense.

He says this is as if it is somehow important, but it’s not. We are talking about language and meaning, and to some degree, language can mean whatever you want it to mean as long as you are successfully communicating that to your audience. The problem here is that if I asked anyone to draw a picture of a factory, no one would draw a biological cell. And if I defined a cell, no one would give the word factory to sum up the definition. Apart from Angelo.

Here are the definitions for a factory as per Google, within my reply in the thread:

No. No they are not. You are LITERALLY wrong. You are LITERALLY using a METAPHOR.

Factory definition:
a building or group of buildings where goods are manufactured or assembled chiefly by machine.
“a clothing factory”
synonyms: works, plant, manufacturing complex/facility, yard, mill, industrial unit, business unit;

an establishment for traders carrying on business in a foreign country.
“he is chaplain to the British factory at St Petersburg”

You are analogising by metaphor based on the function and you are cherry picking the function by which you want to confer poroperties across words/entities.

You are WRONG.

Again, we have an issue of cherry picking. The creationist, here, cherry picks the functional similarity that he wants that allows him the metaphorical comparison, but ignores the dissimilarities.

I can tell you porous rock purifies liquid as it passes through. I can also say that the liver also does that. However, inferring properties from one onto the other doesn’t necessarily work. I can cherry pick what I want you to infer across, such as we are both made of atoms. But I can likewise choose ones that don’t work, such as we are both human, or rocklike or something. As Anri says below:

The analogy between a cell and factory is flawed simply because (among other reasons) leaving one factory around with a bunch of factory-making materials does not produce bunches of new factories. This is often not the case with cells.

The fact that the analogy is flawed means that the conclusions you base on the analogy – such as complexity or requirements of design – are also flawed.
If I can demonstrate that a raven is not really like a writing desk, than any conclusions based on the idea of a raven being like a writing desk are obviously incorrect.

I’ll ask, though: did your purported designer appear in a fully complex, intelligent state? Or did it develop from something less complex and intelligent?
I ask because the first allows complexity to spontaneously appear without a designer, and the second allows complexity to arise from less complexity without a designer.

And then Honey Crisis added:

they’re only factories if the analogy includes the staff of that factory.

this cuts to the difference between complicated and complex….

complicated and complex are entirely different things.

something that is complicated is full of discreet components that each operate deterministically. when one component fails (absent fail-over redundancy) it generally has wide ranging impacts on the whole. The thing can also be both engineered and reverse engineered in order to make sense of it.

A 747 is complicated. A car is complicated.

something that is complex consists of a great many components or agents – often millions or billions or more. These components don’t work in discreet predictable ways. It’s a series of interlocking rube goldberg contraptions. The system resists attempts to engineer or reverse engineer it. Even taking it apart all the way won’t yield a cohesive schematic for its functionality.

DNA is complex.

So what do creationist here needs to do is to tell you precisely the detailed function that a biological cell does that factory also does and show that, without any doubt, that function can only be arrived at by a mind like a human’s, whilst also explaining why all the other functions that don’t hold across the two entities are not relevant to invalidate the analogical argument. So far, he has not done this. At best, it looks like the divine fallacy. Indeed, he would need to show how it isn’t. Being incredulous about how something could work doesn’t mean it can’t. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law and imagine being an Aztec fighting the Conquistadors:

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarke’s three laws, of which the third law is the best known and most widely cited:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Angelo’s argument is that their muskets must be magic because there is no way he could understand how his present scientific understanding of the world could explain muskets and death from a distance.

Evolution, muskets. My analogy is better than his.

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