Test Yourself: Sifting Natural from Designed Is Harder than You Might Think

Test Yourself: Sifting Natural from Designed Is Harder than You Might Think August 1, 2020

The last few posts have responded to a book chapter from Christian apologist Jim Wallace. With a list of tests that claims to separate natural things from designed things, he hoped to show that bacterial flagellar motor couldn’t be natural and thereby overturn evolution (part 1).

How dependable was that checklist? Did he exercise it with hundreds of test cases, some of which were obviously natural or designed, plus many in the gray area? By all indications, he didn’t. I suspect it was created backwards, starting with the interesting features of the flagellar motor to create a test that the motor couldn’t fail to pass.

Testing the very small

The first micro test case that this list tackles can’t be the flagellar motor, since that’s the punch line of Wallace’s argument. There are hundreds of cellular structures and mechanisms that could be tested—maybe the citric acid cycle (Krebs cycle), or the various steps in how DNA makes proteins, how DNA copying errors are repaired, or how enzymes work.

But there’s the problem: to me, any component within a cell is there because of evolution, and evolution is natural. But Wallace is just trying to illustrate what he already assumes is true, that evolution is crap. I’d label all these micro test cases as natural, and he’d label them all designed.

I rarely get into the evolution vs. Creationism/ID controversy because it’s easier and more reliable to point out that evolution is the overwhelming consensus of biologists. Evolution is our best theory for why life is the way it is. Case closed.

That means that it may be impossible to create an objective checklist that both sides will accept. But set that aside, and we still have an interesting project.

Revisiting those tests—are there more?

I’m not impressed with the eight tests in Wallace’s list, the giveaways that something is designed rather than natural. Maybe we need to add more rules like the following. The object in question may be designed if it:

  • has strict size tolerances on parts (for example, the dimensions of ball bearings must be precise to minimize wear)
  • has interchangeable parts such as screws
  • contains language (such as instructions or warnings) or a picture equivalent (an arrow to indicate “up”)
  • maintains time (such as a wristwatch or cell phone) or is otherwise adapted to the movement of heavenly bodies (such as the Antikythera mechanism or possibly Stonehenge).

I propose these rules only as idea fodder. Our goal should be an ageless list, and I’m probably reflecting my period in history. Traits like precision machining or interchangeable parts were important to the Industrial Revolution, but who knows if they’ll seem as fundamental in a thousand years. Or a million years.

Crowdsourcing would be the next step, where smart people would toss in their ideas, and these would be sharpened or discarded by the group.

Test cases

We need test cases to stress the rules. In particular, we need tricky ones in the gray area—crude or unskilled designed things and precise or elegant natural things.

  • Think of rules to reliably distinguish these stone objects as designed or natural: an ugly or uninteresting rock, a geode, a primitive stone mortar and pestle, rough-cut marble flagstone, a simple stone tool, a waste flake from the process of making a stone tool, and a shaped stone spearpoint. Then categorize natural diamond, synthetic diamond, and imitation diamond.
  • This gray area fools us, too. Pareidolia is when we see intelligence that isn’t there—faces in clouds, voices in static, or Mary’s face on a grilled cheese sandwich or as a 60 feet tall iridescent outline on the side of a building. How do you tell which ones are real? And how do you reliably distinguish undesigned pareidolia people from designed but abstract ones, like Pablo Picasso’s cubist painting Three Women?
  • How do we avoid calling delicate crystals (like the bismuth crystal we saw before) designed, and how do we avoid calling a hand-shaped clay lump or sand pile natural? How do we avoid calling weird clouds, sun dogs, or other atmospheric optics designed, and how do we avoid calling a tree moved to make a bridge or Jackson Pollock’s Number 30 natural?
  • How do you separate a striking Christo art project (examples: Valley Curtain, Wrapped Trees) from a striking natural site (examples: slot canyon, Zhangye badlands)? How do you separate sponge cake from fungi?

Again, you may have no problem separating natural from designed in these examples, but that’s cheating. You can’t override the process by saying, “Okay, I know the checklist scores this particular item as 6 out of 10 natural, but I happen to know it’s designed, so I’ll call it designed.”

You may already know these examples or things like them, but for this test to work, it must be brainless. It must guide a medieval scholar or an intelligent alien as reliably as it would an objective modern human.

We could make a long list if specific examples (“If it’s a painting, that’s designed; if it’s a crystal found in nature, that’s natural; . . .”) but now we’re cheating again. We might as well use an encyclopedia. The whole point of this exercise is to create a tool to determine natural vs. designed for things we honestly don’t know ourselves.

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

There are no rules of architecture
for a castle in the clouds
— G. K. Chesterton

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Image from Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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