Alexander Nussbaum vs Intelligent Design

The debate over the design of a watch in relationship to a design in nature has been quite fascinating. Bacteria for example, is the simplest form of life known to man with it’s own highly specialized complexities which include having a ticking clock inside of it.

The biochemical machinery underlying a circadian oscillator can be reconstituted in vitro with just three cyanobacterial proteins, KaiA, KaiB, and KaiC.  These proteins interact to promote conformational changes and phosphorylation events that determine the phase of the in vitro oscillation. The high-resolution structures of these proteins suggest a ratcheting mechanism by which the KaiABC oscillator ticks unidirectionally.

Nussbaum attempts to refute that nature was intelligently designed by stating the following…

“Watches are a poor analogue for living systems, as they bear one characteristic that is common in products of intelligent design but absent from the products of biological evolution. Watches tend to be engineered for performance far beyond what is needed in use. Evolved living systems never display this kind of overdesign except, arguably, in certain characteristics used for sexual selection.”

I agree with Nussbaum with his equivocation of the watch. By isolating the argument with just one characteristic is not the greatest analogue rather one can point to not only the watch but other characteristics that resemble intelligent design. Bacteria like E. Coli is able to perform calculus when its sensors for the chemotaxis detect changes in attractant/repellent concentrations! Interesting to note, Newton invented calculus a few hundred years ago which continues to be taught to students all over the world and here we  observe many years later, bacteria performing it in nature! Wow, it’s simply amazing!

So the cell’s machinery is capable of conducting calculus operations which clearly comes from intelligence not by a mindless process.  Claiming that a mindless process is responsible is like saying Newton didn’t have to think about inventing calculus, rather the math would just appear in his brain for him to write down because the bacteria in his body already knew how to do it.

Nussbaum then tries then to predict what a designer would or would not design despite the fact he doesn’t believe in God’s existence nor does he even know God.  In the Watchmaker analogy there are unrecognized elements in the design due to current technology but later could be revealed through future advancements in operational science (not evolution) that shows human technology which mirrors the cell’s existing technology.

The bacterial flagellum is the “poster child” for the modern intelligent design movement. The proteins of the flagellum form a literal rotary motor which again resemble intelligently designed motors. The similarity is striking and not surprising because both come from minds! God has a vastly superior intellect than any human which is why nature is so very complex and why scientists are just scratching the surface on how it works.

Nussbaum’s argument on whether or not how a designer would create nature goes back to Darwin where he tried to rationalized that if designs were created by God in nature they would be purely unique rather than like an assembly line which contain some similarities. However, there are similarities with such intelligent designs such as cars, the type of car can be different but generally you can tell if it’s a Ford or a Buick, or an Oldsmobile. If evolutionists didn’t know cars of different brands were made by people would they consider them evolved by natural processes?

So the debate over the design of a watch in relationship to a design in nature has been quite fascinating and with advancements in operational science (not evolution) the watch maker analogy is stronger than ever but even stronger when you include other characteristics!

10 thoughts on “Alexander Nussbaum vs Intelligent Design

  1. daniel,

    Using isolation as ambiguous would be a bit confusing, the explanation of what I meant by that followed…:)

  2. Failure of grammatical parsing is only part of the problem, danielwalldammit. Michael doesn’ know what the word “equivocation” means. We regulars have come to expect such ignorance.

  3. danielwalldammit, if you think that sentence was incomprehyensible, try parsing the one that follows it.

    These persistent errors are indicastive of a muddled thought process, induced by creationitis of the prefrontal cortex.

  4. I’m no English linguist, and even I know what “equivocation” means.

    Hey, Michael, in Spanish, the word “equivocacion” (look familiar?) is translated at “mistake,” or “error.”

    Does that help? Lol

  5. So the cell’s machinery is capable of conducting calculus operations which clearly comes from intelligence not by a mindless process.

    Now that’s just not true. I asked a number of my own cells to find dy/dx of y=e^x, and none of them had a clue.[1] You couldn’t want an easier calculus problem than that, but they all failed miserably. And my cells are as smart as anybody’s.[2]

    Michael, your statement quoted above may be the stupidest thing you’ve come up with in a long time. It even beats out the one where you called zinc a “complex organic compound.”

    Should we laugh or cry at such benighted claptrap?


    [1] Although one of the taste buds could calculate the volume of a cylinder of mozzarella with radius Z and height A. It came up with V=PI*Z*Z*A

    [2] Excepting the residents of the Isles of Langerhans, which long ago forgot how to manufacture insulin, thus requiring its importation at great expense from Novo Nordisk.

  6. Bacteria for example, is [sic] the simplest form of life known to man with it’s [sic] own highly specialized complexities which include having a ticking clock inside of it.

    Here’s a simpler one: Mix together potassium bromate, cerium(IV) sulfate, propanedioic acid and citric acid in dilute sulfuric acid. All readily available simple compounds. The colorless solution will turn yellow. Then it will return to colorless. Than yellow. Then colorless—well you get the idea.[1]

    A “ticking clock” of four readily available simple compounds. Although it cannot perform even very basic calculus operations, so perhaps God did not design that particular reaction.

    Sorry to disappoint, Michael. Biochemical oscillators (“ticking clocks”) are one of the simplest devices known to biology. They govern processes as different as the chirping of insects and the stripes of zebras..

    That’s the problem with total ignorance, Michael. You have no idea what is unremarkable and what is truly complex.


    [1] Look up “Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction,” discovered in the 1850s There are many more where that one came from. Also, reactions such as Briggs-Rauscher are self-organizing and can be synchronized with light.

    Ah;. The BZ reaction brings to mind another difference between life forms and human-designed artifacts. Perhaps the most important distinction of all. Ready?

    All human artifacts operate at or near thermal equilibrium. But all life-forms—every one, without exception—functions far from equilibrium, just like the BZ reaction described above..

    Humans intentionally stay close to thermal equilibrium, because it has many advantages for design. Evolution, not having to rely upon design, can—and does—run far from equilibrium.

    I would not expect Micheal to understand this, but it is a fact withal. Had Ilya Prigogine lived a few more years, he would have expanded upon this theme.

  7. I would disagree with Nussbaum that a “overengineering” of designed artifacts is a major difference from evolved systems. You can’t look at a cheap toaster and say that it is overdesigned. On the other hand, preadaptation in a biological organism is a type of overdesign.

    There are so many other major differences between designed artifacts (DAs) and living organisms (LOs) that this difference is inconsequential—even were it a defining difference. Each of the items below is not only a significant difference, but is also a characteristic difference. That is, it is either necessary for design or evolution, or is overwhelmingly found for one but not in the other.

    ++++ Every living organism (LO) can reproduce itself. No designed artifact (DA) does this. Although it is theoretically possible to design a machine to reproduce itself (Von Neumann theorem), there is no point in it. If you manufactured and sold a toaster that reproduced itself in the purchaser’s home, low long would you stay in business?

    ++++ Characteristics of each individual are inherited from another individual (possibly with variations). Any similarity between successive models of DAs are due entirely to an external agent—the designer. LOs, on the other hand, pass down all traits by means of an internal process, not requiring any outside agency.

    Also, redesign of a DA requires redesign by an external agent of many of its components. Even a slight change in a car model requires design from the ground up of new body panels, wiring harnesses, fascia, and so on.

    ++++ New variations of DAs come out as discrete “models,” whereas LOs change smoothly by steps small enough that they are individually not readily discernible.

    A new toaster model may not have many new parts, but all individuals of the old model have the same components, and all individuals of the new model have the same components. In LOs, changes appear in some individuals of a species, then spread to other individuals, so that the proportion of the old and new forms changes. A designer would be fired for making every individual different.

    ++++ Individuals of the same LO species vary among themselves, whereas DAs are as uniform as possible. Imagine going into a car dealership and asking for a VW Jetta, but 4 inches longer than the one in the showroom. Good luck. But then go into a pet shop and select one of the pups which is 20% bigger than the rest of its litter mates. Happens every day.

    Such individual variation is, of course, the mechanism which enables evolution, and which is absent in designed objects.

    .++++ All LOs are constructed of modules (cells) all of the same kind, whereas DAs employ components of many disparate types. Each module contains a complete set of instructions for building an entire individual. DAs do not carry instructions or plans in each component–or in fact in any component. To do so would be redundant, wasteful, and prohibitively expensive.

    Yet it is precisely this feature that allows LOs to reproduce themselves by constructing entire new individuals without requiring an external agent (manufacturer). And to allow the necessary variation among individuals to enable evolution.

    ++++ All DAs are assembled from components by and external agent (manufacturer or computer programmer). LOs, on the other hand, are built up from a single module by self-assembly, without any external agent.

    When DAs are assembled, each part assumes its final form upon assembly. LOs, however, begin with a single module and develop (“grow”) into their final form. The individual parts of DAs do not change during assembly, whereas the cells of LOs begin all of the same type, then differentiate into cells of different types as needed.,

    ++++ Each component of a DA must be specified in the design. In LOs, some components influence the development—or even the existence—of other components. (For example, transplanting a new leg in an insect embryo causes the embryo itself to route appropriate nerves and muscles to the new leg. Adding a room onto a house, however, requires specification of all new plumbing, wiring, etc., by the designer.) That is, many aspects of evolved systems are automatic—one part influences other parts.

    ++++ LOs are built from a highly restricted range of materials. The ‘big six” (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and oxygen) micronutients are common to all LO structures. Human artifacts—and presumably other DAs as well—use a wide range of materials. Metals, ceramics,plastics, etc., are utilized in wide combinations.

    Meanwhile, LOs, being evolved from a restricted set, have added few other materials (such as calcium shells) over billions of years, even though a number of other elements are widely available—aluminum, iron, silicon, and others., And there are design reasons to incorporate more materials—animals make do with slow, error-prone organic nerves, when copper wires would be much more efficient, and able to carry much more power. Animals are forced to employ high-leverage muscles because the available materials can contract only by small amounts. Designed artifacts, on the other hand employ more versatile pulleys, electric motors, compressed air, magnetic attraction, and many other means, each better suited to its intended purpose.

    ++++ LOs are more complicated than DAs for a given level of function. Whereas a designer can aim straight for an ultimate purpose or configuration, evolution takes a wandering path, accreting small changes, and has no specific goal or function—only success in the marketplace of reproduction, however that may be achieved in its environment. This same factor is evident in human-designed genetic algorithms, even when the are selected to evolve to a predetermined function. Sometimes even their own designers have trouble figuring out how they work.

    Also, while many DAs are complicated, few are complex. A watch, for example, has many interconnected parts, but it does not exhibit the characteristics of a complex system: adaptation of the parts, robustness against damage to a component, or tipping points. In fact, designers prefer to avoid complexity, since it makes operation of the system unpredictable. (I used to work on character-recognition systems. Although engineers could build complex, self-learning machines, IBM decided not to. How would service technicians repair such a product? They wouldn’t know how it was supposed to operate after it had modified itself!) Designers also prefer to avoid complex systems because, while normally robust against damage, individuals are prone to occasional catastrophic failure.

    Many of the few DAs that are complex do in fact evolve. Successful economies, for example free-market capitalism, exhibit evolution in the same manner as LOs. Designed economies, such as communism, however, have universally failed—i.e., gone extinct.

    All LOs exhibit complex behavior, in the mathematical sense.

    ++++ As noted previously, all LOs operate far from thermal equilibrium, while all human-designed artifacts operate at or near equilibrium. While normally stable, far-from-equilibrium (FFE) systems are not only unpredictable at the present level of human knowledge, they are unpredictable by any intelligence. Human designers desire predictability, and know how to analyze such systems. But even very simple FFEs lie beyond the ability of technology to analyze.

    LOs, on the other hand, utilize FFE operation successfully. Not being goal-oriented, evolution thrives on variations from the norm—selection picks out the successes, and discards the failures. Even among successful species, many failures crop up: about 20% of all human pregnancies terminate in abortion of the fetus. This is usually at an early stage, due to failure of a basic function, such as a metabolic process. What human designer would tolerate a 20% reject rate in a manufactured product?


    The differences noted above all pertain to characteristics of systems that evolve, versus those that to not evolve. Even factors such as the limited range of materials is significant: Designers would wish to use a wide range of materials, in order to attain the best functionality. Evolved systems, on the other hand, are limited by availability of alternatives from their initial states, and by selection pressure crowding out even some available alternatives.

    There are so many characteristic differences between all living organisms and all human-designed artifices that it is difficult to imagine that living organisms were designed,

  8. As noted earlier, living organisms are characterized by a limited palette of materials, and make no use of others which may well be better suited to perform their function.

    Recently, several scientists have reported alternatives to DNA and RNA which are capable of replicating and mutating.[1] From the abstract—

    [W]e show that genetic information can be stored in and recovered from six alternative genetic polymers based on simple nucleic acid architectures not found in nature (XNAs). We also select XNA aptamers, which bind their targets with high affinity and specificity, demonstrating that beyond heredity, specific XNAs have the capacity for Darwinian evolution and folding into defined structures. Thus, heredity and evolution, two hallmarks of life, are not limited to DNA and RNA but are likely to be emergent properties of polymers capable of information storage.

    Were any of these polymers ever used by primitive life forms?[2] Can other such molecules be synthesized? Further research is opened up by this discovery. Meanwhile these new molecules offer applications in the emergent field of assembling non-living nanostructures for various purposes using DNA strands as elements..

    Without evolutionary biology, these compounds would never have been attempted, nor the research undertaken.


    [1] Pinheiro et al., “Synthetic Genetic Polymers Capable of heredity and Evolution” Science 336:341-3

    [2] At least one of them, theose nucleic acid (TNA) is a plausible candidate. See the accompanying news article, “Toward an Alternative Biology” id., pp. 307-308.

  9. A recent article on the applications of synthetic biology: “Bits and Pieces Come to Life,” Nature 483:S12 (1 Mar 2012).

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