Real Examples to Puzzle Over: the Natural vs. Designed Checklist

Real Examples to Puzzle Over: the Natural vs. Designed Checklist August 4, 2020

The last few posts have poked holes in a checklist from Christian apologist Jim Wallace. His eight tests claimed to separate natural and designed things, and he wanted to use this list to label the bacterial flagellar motor as designed. (Hmm—I wonder who’s on the short list for being the Designer?)

The series begins here.

The underlying problem was that the checklist wasn’t the result of brainstorming from lots of science-minded people, sharpened by hundreds of tests, and made quantitative so that reasonably smart people would all get similar results. If that were its pedigree, Wallace would no doubt have made that clear.

We can help. We’ve gotten some of the vegetables out of the way with the previous posts, and now it’s time for dessert.

Test cases: let’s have some fun

Let’s move on to examples that you are less likely to know about. These should a bit more puzzle-ish. You’ll likely have additional examples, and you’re welcome to add them in the comments.

Remember that if the checklist is good for anything, it must teach us new things. If your response to every verdict of the checklist, whether it identifies something as natural or designed, is, “Oh, yeah—I knew that,” then the exercise is pointless. For example, this rules out an exhaustive list of every single thing we can think of. Such a list would be unable to fulfill its purpose, which is to correctly label something that’s completely new to us.

Some of the following items are tricky, and some are unknown (for example, maybe the cause is life or maybe it’s geology). Use the links to investigate ones that are new to you. As you read each one, consider whether it’s natural or made by some intelligence and think of the rules you’d need to put it in the correct bin.

  • Stones that move. A dry lakebed in Death Valley has heavy stones that leave tracks in dried mud. Apparently, they move after rain makes the ground slippery. What moves them? It can’t be gravity, because the lakebed is flat. Is it mundane natural action, or is some intelligence behind this? The mystery has been solved (here and here).
  • Mima mounds. There’s a prairie near Olympia, Washington covered in grassy mounds made of dirt and gravel. The biggest are two meters tall. What causes them? Natural causes like wind scouring or earthquakes? Or is it something intelligent like Native American burial monuments or thousands of years of gopher activity? More.
  • Other circular structures. Desert regions of Namibia and Australia have fairy circles and South Africa has heuweltjies (“little hills”). Arctic regions have frost heaves and pingos. Some of these might have the same cause as the Mima mounds. Are the actions of plants or animals a factor?
  • Solar system puzzles. The moon orbits the earth in a little over 27 days, and it also rotates once in the same amount of time. The result is that we always see the same side of the moon. Is this the hand of God or does it have a natural cause? Why do we see three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons orbit in lockstep, with Io making exactly two orbits for every one of Europa, and Europa making exactly two for every one of Ganymede? (More.) Have you wondered why earth has both lunar and solar eclipses? It’s because the sun is 400 times wider than the moon and the sun is 400 times farther from earth. Coincidence? Or not?
  • Carved faces. Rushmore looks designed, but so did New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain. If you’d said that its stone face had been carved, I would have believed it.
  • Atlantis. The Yonaguni monument is a structure in shallow water off the coast of a small Japanese island. It’s a rock formation with square corners that appears to hold steps, terraces, and roads. Is it a natural sandstone formation, or is it an elaborate manmade structure covered by rising seas after the last ice age? More.
  • Potholes. Exposed bedrock is sometimes cut by a pothole. Sometimes there’s only one (photo), and sometimes they look like lunar craters (photo). What causes them?
  • Heart-shaped features. Humans are gifted with (or burdened with) pareidolia, which means that interesting shapes seen in nature (like hearts) will stand out. Here’s a list of ten reefs, lakes, meadows, forests, and islands shaped like hearts. Some are natural, and some are manmade. Once you’ve got those sorted, scan these and see if you can spot any manmade ones. And now that you’re primed for patterns, here is an odd-shaped cluster of islands (more), and here is a curious pattern of trees (more).
  • Ancient pyramid. The Visočica pyramid in Bosnia is claimed by some to be manmade, though others say it’s natural. (More.)
  • Carved by water. Scroll through this post and you’ll find two terrain maps. They both show large geological features carved by water, but why are they so different in appearance?
  • Nuclear reactor. In 1972, a French mining company found the fraction of U-235 in a uranium sample mined in Gabon to be significantly lower than expected. Only a nuclear reactor could have caused this. (More.)
  • Math in nature. Cicadas are insects that live underground and emerge to mate, and one genus remains underground for a prime number of years—either 13 or 17. Sequential Fibonacci numbers can be found in plants. Chaotic systems can be deterministic and yet inherently unpredictable. Some say that the fact that nature can be described by mathematics shows the hand of God (more).
  • Pile of rocks. Cairns are manmade piles of rocks, and they have meaning to cultures across the world. Some are just heaps, some are shaped into cones, and the inuksuk is a stone marker in Inuit culture, often roughly shaped like a person. Remember our goal: the checklist must differentiate manmade cairns from rocks collected naturally.
  • And a few more. What formed the stone spheres of Costa Rica? What moves glacier mice? How do moss piglets (tiny eight-legged animals) survive dehydration, extreme temperatures, and radiation? What caused this artistic undersea sand pattern (more)? What do you make of hexagonal convection cells in miso soup (video) or the surprising Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction (video)? A cloud is natural, unless it comes from a power plant, in which case it comes from intelligence. So then a cloud that forms naturally over a city that wouldn’t be there except for the city is . . . what? An ecosystem can be incredibly complex, like the workings of a cell, but does being made of living things make it living?

What additional puzzling examples can you add?


If someone wanted to make a serious attempt at a checklist, step 1 would be to make a list of rules that correctly separates test cases into natural or designed. The list must reliably put the things you’ve just considered (in the list above) into the correct category. It should distinguish natural crystals from fake ones, snowflakes from snow angels, nebulae from jewelry, and a rainbow made by a storm from a rainbow made by a prism.

Step 2 is to revisit these examples (and myriad more) with naive eyes, imagine you’ve never seen them before, and use the list of rules without bias to see where it puts them. (By “naive eyes,” I mean that you must avoid, “Oh, this one—I know where this one goes” but rather do what the list tells you.)

The resulting rules would be debatable. That means that if the best possible list of rules only makes an educated guess for the tough novel cases, Wallace’s checklist is imperfect as well.

Continue: Sifting Natural from Designed Is Harder than You Might Think (2 of 2)

Further reading: the Skeptoid blog and podcast are excellent resources for understanding weird claims.

This is no time to be making enemies.
— Voltaire on his deathbed
(in response to a priest asking him to renounce Satan)


Image from Anne Nygård (license)

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