A scene near the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey shows astronauts on the moon investigating a mysterious box-shaped monolith about four meters tall. The edges appear to be perfectly square, and the surface is uniformly black. Imagine coming across this for the first time. Is this natural or made by an intelligence?
Further study shows the proportions to be precisely 1:4:9 (1 unit deep, 4 units wide, and 9 units tall), but these numbers are all squares. That is, 1:4:9 = 12:22:32. What do you think now—is it natural or artificial?
In general, how do you differentiate things made as the result of simple natural laws from those made by an intelligence of some kind—from insects to humans to super-smart aliens?
A Christian offers 8 attributes of design
Christian apologist Jim Wallace in God’s Crime Scene tackles this problem by listing eight attributes of design. His eventual goal is to use these attributes to evaluate the motor that drives the bacterial flagellum (the spinning tail that some bacteria use to travel) and, with a little luck, find that it must have been designed, thereby overturning evolution.
He demonstrates the method using a bloody garotte found at the scene of an actual murder (he picks examples like this because he was a police detective). A garotte is a simple weapon—a wire with wooden handles at each end, used to strangle a victim—and so might be simple enough to land in between obviously undesigned things (rocks, rivers, sand dunes) and obviously designed things (cars, computers, pocket watches). The idea is that the more of these attributes that apply to something, the more likely it was designed.
The original list was created to make the acronym DESIGNED, but I’ve ignored this because by shoehorning the list into an acronym, it sacrificed understandability. I’ve rewritten the titles, grouped a few together, and changed the order, but I’ve hopefully summarize each attribute fairly.
1a. Unlikely from chance
Designed things aren’t explainable by chance, and two pegs attached to a wire aren’t likely to have come together by chance.
1b. Unexplainable naturally
Nothing in the natural laws of chemistry and physics alone would have led to the existence of this device.
2. Similar to known designed objects
Does the object in question fit into a known bin? In this case, the two pegs and a wire, covered in blood, obviously falls into the “garotte” category. Wallace even noted that the police officer who discovered it was not only familiar with the weapon as you might imagine any police officer would be but had seen it used in the movie The Godfather. We’re going into this analysis with no doubt what the object is and that it was designed.
3. Sophisticated and intricate
A garotte is sophisticated compared to (say) a vine. The handles were identical in shape and dimension, and the wire was attached to each with the same knot.
4. Information based
The murderer used information (in this case, written instructions) to guide the creation of the weapon.
5a. Goal directed
Similar devices are used to cut clay or cheese, but the larger size of this one made it not optimal for those purposes. However, that did make it suitable for the goal of strangling someone.
5b. A choice between alternatives
The murderer could’ve evaluated a number of potential weapons in planning the crime: a gun (efficient but noisy), a crossbow (quiet but hard to come by), poison (efficient and quiet but probably detectable), and so on. The garotte came out on top after his evaluation.
6. Irreducibly complex
Something is irreducibly complex if it couldn’t be any simpler. That is, it would fail if any piece were removed. Each of the pieces of the garotte are required, and none could be merged or discarded for the device to perform its function.
A nice try
I have a nagging feeling that this list came from someone looking at the bacteria flagellar motor (which I will discuss in more detail in future posts), listing the reasons it looks designed, and using that as the universal sieve for deciding designed vs. undesigned objects. I’d prefer to see the list come from an unbiased organization based in science, not religion.
But ignoring that, the question of how we can tell designed from not designed is a worthwhile challenge. At the very least, it’s a fascinating science fiction thought experiment. For example, in Contact, an alien intelligence contacted the earth. What simple technique could they use to say, “We are intelligent, and this message can’t be explained naturally”? They used pulses of prime numbers.
Or turn this around: how would we communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? We’ve sent spacecraft beyond the solar system. That alone said that we’re intelligent, but we’ve done more. Pioneer 10 and 11 (launched in 1972 and ’73) held a plaque, and the two Voyager spacecraft (1977) had phonograph records. In 1974, we sent a message, a 73 × 23 pixel bitmap, from the Arecibo radio telescope.
We’ll revisit that list and see how objective a filter it is next time.
He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution.
He’d be out of business if there was any competition.
— Carl Sagan, Contact
Image from Wikimedia, CC license