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Common sense and science – the argument from design – Stuart Burgess

August 2006 | by Stuart Burgess

A recent Royal Society lecture delivered by Steve Jones had an unusually blunt title – ‘Why creationism is wrong and evolution is right’. The purpose of the uncompromising title was, no doubt, to try to convince a sceptical public that evolution should be accepted as scientific truth.

A recent Mori poll for the BBC Horizon programme showed that only 48% of people in the UK believe the theory of evolution and that 44% think that creationism should be taught in science classes.

But it is not just among the general public that you find a stubborn belief in a Creator. I personally know many scientists and engineers who believe that there must be at least some involvement of a supernatural Creator to explain life on earth. I even know two biology professors who doubt many of the fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory, despite having to teach the theory to their students.

The watchmaker

One main reason for belief in a Creator is the simple deduction that design requires and reveals a designer. In 1802 William Paley famously expounded the ‘Design Argument’ by comparing the intricate mechanism of gears and springs in a watch with the intricate design of living organisms. Richard Dawkin’s book The Blind Watchmaker has done little to convince the public that the Design Argument is not valid.

Atheists like Jones and Dawkins try to convince us that the overwhelming evidence of design is just a big illusion. They claim that the Design Argument is based on ignorance and simply fills gaps in human knowledge with false supernatural answers.

However, from my own 20 years experience of hands-on engineering design (including rocket design) I know that the Design Argument is based both on common sense and rigorous science.

People look at the awesome intricacy of design in nature – such as the living cell, DNA, bird flight and the human body – and cannot help but come to the conclusion that there is a Designer. It is an irresistible conclusion. Cars and aeroplanes have designers, so surely the natural world has a Designer too.

Supported by science

The Design Argument is not just common sense – it is fully supported by fundamental science such as the second law of thermodynamics. This law describes how all systems ultimately follow a path of decay. One very reasonable conclusion from this law is that the creation of organic life required the input of intelligent design. The large annual rate of extinction of species supports this conclusion.

One of the main evidences for intelligent design is the existence of numerous ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms in living things. Such mechanisms are so-called because they require several components to exist simultaneously before they can usefully function (and thus be open to natural selection in the Darwinian scenario of origins).

When I designed spacecraft for the European Space Agency I had to design irreducible mechanisms such as robotic hinges. These consisted of many essential parts including linkages, actuators, wiring and a controller.

Such mechanisms can only come into existence with intelligent design because inventive foresight is needed to realise that certain combinations of parts can produce useful functions when joined together in a certain way.

Intense research

The natural world contains hinges far more sophisticated than anything humans have produced. For example, the mammalian knee joint has linkages (bones and ligaments), actuators (muscles), wiring (nerves) and a controller (brain). There is currently no explanation as to how the knee joint could have evolved step-by-step as proposed by neo-Darwinian evolution.

This is hardly surprising, given that there are so many interdependent parts in the knee joint – all of which would have had to come into existence simultaneously before natural selection could get to work to ‘fix’ this new and advantageous structure in an animal population.

A flying machine is another prime example of irreducible design, as demonstrated by the history of aviation. Engineers carried out over 100 years of intense research (and painful landings!) to create the first successful aeroplane. Why was this necessary? Because several unique, interacting and complex parts are needed for flight compared to land transport.

Exactly the same principle applies to birds. A bird uses many unique and sophisticated parts not found in land creatures – including wings for lift, a tail for aerial control and light-weight structures such as feathers and hollow bones.

The only answer

Intelligent design arguably provides the only answer to one of the biggest questions of all – the origin of the very first living system. Despite intense efforts using sophisticated equipment, no one has been able to produce self-sustaining life from lifeless chemicals.

The result of the classic Miller experiment in 1953, which created some of the building blocks of life from ordinary chemicals, represents meagre progress. The fact that there has been no progress on this front during the last 50 years makes it very difficult to believe that life emerged by accident in the first place.

Another compelling evidence for intelligent design is the existence of over-design in nature. Evolutionary theory is based strictly on fitness for survival. However, many organisms have beauty and sophistication far beyond what is needed for them to survive.

The brilliant peacock tail feathers, which produce their colours by optical interference, have a design of breath-taking precision. Yet their only function is to form an attractive display (and remember that most other birds get by without such optical displays!) The intricacy of peacock feathers, it is said, made Darwin feel sick when he looked at them.

Fossil evidence

Fossil evidence, like the recently publicised fish Tiktaalik roseae (supposedly a transition between fish and land animals), does little to convince for evolution. Such creatures were well designed for their particular environment – and the fact that they exhibit unusual combinations of features does not mean that they are necessarily ‘missing links’ between other kinds of creatures.

Only those already committed to a belief in evolution are forced to see them as evolutionary ‘links’ rather than well-designed creatures in their own right. Overall, the fossil record continues to provide more problems for evolution than support.

It is significant that many of the greatest scientists were enthusiastic believers in a Creator – including Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday. The last three of these scientists knew of the theory of evolution but believed in intelligent design and the biblical creation account. Anyone who believes in a Creator stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest scientists in history.

Believing in a Creator

The current fashion of ruling out any role for God in origins actually breaks a fundamental principle of science – namely, to be open-minded about ideas before there is concrete proof that they are wrong. No one has proved that God had no role in origins.

Because the origin of life is an unrepeatable event, it will never be possible to prove how life came into existence. Even if evolution were to be taught in schools for the next 100 years, the majority of people would probably still instinctively believe in a Creator.

The author is Professor of Design and Nature; Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Bristol University; and recipient of the 1993 Turners Gold Medal for engineering design