Rediscovering Intelligent Design

by Kieran Healy on July 19, 2007

Here is a likely poorly-specified question for biologists, prompted by wanting to buy Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and then reading a story about genetically modified mice. Weisman’s book asks how the world would change and what of us would survive if humans were all wiped out overnight or just disappeared by something (a virus, the Rapture). The premise is unlikely (something that kills people—all people—but leaves the rest of the world standing) but intriguing.

So I wondered, what if, long, long after our disappearance, some other species arose on earth at least as intelligent as us and eventually started doing evolutionary and molecular biology. Let’s say they have a working theory of evolution much like our own. Now say for the sake of argument that a bunch of transgenic organisms produced by humans have survived and prospered in the interim. So our future biologists find things like a bacteria that produces insulin, or a plant that secretes insecticide, or rice that is high in beta carotene, or more exotic stuff as needed.[1]

I’m wondering, would such organisms even present themselves as empirical anomalies? (That is, how much would you have to know about genomes and evolution for them to seem odd?) And if they did seem odd, how would they be explained? That is, would the evidence of their intelligent design by a previous, now-extinct species be clear? You can see that I’m just irony-mongering here. Would some Arthropod-staffed functional-equivalent of the Discovery Institute point its claw at some of these organisms, saying they were anomalies that could only be explained by the intervention of a divine intelligence? Would Charles Crustacean find a story that could account for their evolution by natural selection? I’m particularly interested in whether the artificial provenance of transgenic organisms would be clear on internal evidence alone. I don’t know anything about this stuff, so probably the answer is “Yes” for reasons obvious to experts. But if it weren’t …

From the sound of Weisman’s book, though, internal evidence wouldn’t be all that was available. Our putative Arthropod successors would likely be able to conjecuture as follows: “The lost civilization who did this is probably the same one responsible for leaving those giant goddamn piles of steel-belted rubber rings and miscellaneous plastic items piled around the place.” To which someone would no doubt reply, “Come off it, no organism that spent its time making rubber tubes and piling them up in giant mountains would have ever been smart enough to figure out genetic engineering.”

[1] It occurs to me that rice requires a lot of cultivation to prosper, but there aren’t any humans to take care of it. Hence, “insert example as needed.”



Barry 07.19.07 at 6:41 pm

I’ve referred this to PZ Myers, at Pharyngula.


LizardBreath 07.19.07 at 6:52 pm

I don’t know much about this stuff, but I can think of at least one case where I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Plants engineered to produce Bt toxin as an insecticide are going to be showing up with a gene that otherwise shows up only in bacteria. I’d say a toxin produced only by bacteria and plants useful as crops, and absent from closely related plants not useful as crops, would look like clear evidence of monkeyshines.

(But I don’t really know. Plants are more likely to hybridize than animals are — how far would the Bt-producing genes spread, how fast? I’ve got no idea.)


"Q" the Enchanter 07.19.07 at 7:00 pm

Even if the anomalies are easily identifiable by contemporary biologists, I’d say they’re still likely to remain entirely obscure to the average “functional-equivalent of the Discovery Institute” — for the obvious reasons.


Barry 07.19.07 at 7:09 pm

Some very amaturish guesses:

a) Genes which don’t appear in otherwise closely-related species.

b) Genes which (from the study of preserved specimens) appeared very suddenly in a species, which don’t seem to be modifications of ancestral genes.

c) Similar gene anomalies being spotted in several very different species (e.g., when a certain useful gene was transplanted to a number of crops).


John M 07.19.07 at 7:10 pm

Without any more than an high school education in biology, my guess is going to be “no.” Because in the time it would take for this future species to evolve, all these genetically engineered species are going to evolve, cross-pollinate, etc, etc and it won’t be as simple as locating one species of really awesome corn or some such. Any trace of genetic interference by some intelligent designer will likely be erased over the millions of years it would take for the next human-ish species to come around.


DILBERT DOGBERT 07.19.07 at 7:11 pm

The thing that would puzzle them most would be those white ceramic bowls that were found in the rubble of that ancient civilization.
Many many many years ago when my late wife was attending the U of Cal Biserkly one of her readings was about the Naciremas that were being studied by the future anthros and the theories developed by the anthros to explain those white ceramics. Funny.


Steve LaBonne 07.19.07 at 7:21 pm

Really depends on just how “exotic” they actually are. There’s a huge amount of horizontal gene transfer that goes on naturally (especially in the prokaryotic world where it has been going on at such a clip since the origin of life that molecular taxonomists have pretty well given up on being able to draw a “tree of life” with a single root; it’s more like a very complicated mesh.) Thus the kinds of examples you give of organisms with a single “exotic” transgene might not raise the future intelligent being’s equivalent of eyebrows that much.

There’s actually something more interesting embedded in the question, and that is the idea that “intelligent” beings would once again evolve after our demise. Being the vain species that we are we like to kid ourselves that the appearance of the trait we most value is somehow inevitable. But it’s quite possible that our big and intermittently functional brains are a one-off evolutionary accident (and perhaps dead end.)


Kieran Healy 07.19.07 at 7:28 pm

and that is the idea that “intelligent” beings would once again evolve after our demise.

Actually in the original draft of the post I had parenthetically inserted “(ignore the long chain of contingencies required for this to happen)” but then deleted it because there was too much qualification and hedging already, and I’m just asking a question rather than trying to defend a position here.


Drm 07.19.07 at 7:32 pm

That sort of thing happens all the time in evolution. Horizontal gene flow is not uncommon.

On the other hand, if vanity genomes were to become all the rage, design might be inferred from sequence data alone. I.e. sequences that encode “Healy was here” or other non-biological information. Of course, there would have to be a lot of it cropping up in genomes in order for it to be recognized that such sequences carried non-biological information in the absence of external knowledge of the encoding language. Some genomes might be recognized as carrying a unique class of information. However, without a biological function and selection the information wouldn’t stick around very long. In which case the tires would probably still be around as well.


cjb 07.19.07 at 7:39 pm

Kieran, I’ll pass this along to my biologist better half.
In the meantime, your question sounds equally inspired by the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.


PZ Myers 07.19.07 at 7:43 pm

Well, for one thing, there wouldn’t be much evidence of the tinkering. Most of the species that have been subject to transgenic work are either lab-bred (and doomed if they were to escape) or agricultural (requiring careful tending). It’s going to be nothing but an occasional weird exception that won’t obscure the nested hierarchy of relationships at all.

But for another, nature does this stuff all the time! We’ve got viral inserts in our genome, for instance. Here’s an example of a paper describing horizontal transfer of a transposable element from the squamates (lizards and snakes) to the ruminants (cows and that sort of thing) that occured 40 or 50 million years ago.

We really aren’t surprised to see that sort of scrambling of DNA on a small scale, and we don’t see that and assume aliens visited earth and were trying to generate snake-cow hybrids*. Future intelligences who found the fragmentary evidence of our dabbling in genomes would certainly assume similar natural causes.

*Although, if they did, this would explain where snow comes from. Or cake.


Kieran Healy 07.19.07 at 7:46 pm

Future intelligences who found the fragmentary evidence of our dabbling in genomes would certainly assume similar natural causes.

OK, cool.


LizardBreath 07.19.07 at 7:47 pm

9: Yeah, I was thinking of a gene complex showing up only in a set of unrelated plants whose common factor was not that they were related but that they were useful. Bt in corn by itself wouldn’t tell you much, but Bt in corn and cotton and strawberries, but not in close relatives of corn and cotton and strawberries seems like it would be a tipoff.

But this relies on ‘corn and cotton and strawberries’ or whatever, still being identifiable, and the Bt gene not having moved too far from the plants we engineered it into.


LizardBreath 07.19.07 at 7:48 pm

Or I could just listen to PZ Myers.


Ben 07.19.07 at 8:23 pm

PZ Myers is right that most artificially produced GM varieties would probably die out or lose their unusual genes to natural selection (lactating silk proteins is not going to help transgenic goats survive after the Fall of Man; crop plants would be supplanted by the natural climax community flora in the area, and so on) or just random genetic drift.

However, I suspect that, if some GM varieties did survive, future molecular biologists would be tipped off by irregularities in the gene sequence around the insertion site. I’m not up on the latest methods, but many certainly used to use a “marker” gene or gene sequence that is transferred along with the gene you are actually interested in inserting.

For example, you would put an antibiotic resistance gene next to your insulin gene when inserting it into a bacterium, because that provides you with an easy way to select for modified colonies. In mice I believe they use a sequence with an unusually high frequency of recombination to help insert genes at a particular site.

I think a smart molecular bio-archaeologist might be able to detect the results of genetic engineering. As you point out, I think the actual old-fashioned archaeologists might find the layer rich in plastic to be a bit of a clue; not to mention all the stuff we’ve left on the Moon.


Steve Reuland 07.19.07 at 8:34 pm

To try to answer your question…

1. It is very unlikely that any transgenics would survive in their present state millions of years into the future. The genes they’ve been given are almost never of any benefit to the wild-type organism, and they’d probably be lost.

2. Assuming that #1 didn’t occur though, transgenic organisms have signs of having had their genes inserted. There are actually companies out there whose job it is to detect transgenic organisms by looking for these signs (in places where transgenics are banned, for example). Assuming those signs haven’t been swamped out by noise, a future intelligent species might reasonably infer that a past intelligent species (us) did the insertions.

3. In the absence of any knowledge of the past intelligent species or what it was capable of, transgenics would probably be written off as anomalies. They’d just assume it was a freak case of horizontal transfer (which in a sense, it was). Chances are they wouldn’t assume the existence of a past intelligent species without independent confirmation just to explain an anomaly that could more easily be explained by other means.

4. The problem with ID is that all of the above reasoning has been chucked out the window in favor of an epistemology in which actual knowledge about causal agents is irrelevant. Knowing about past intelligent species and what they were capable of would be absolutely critical to support an hypothesis of “intelligent design” among putative transgenics. But the modern day ID movement has not only declared that they don’t need this knowledge, they’ve even gone as far as to say that it’s unscientific to speculate on the nature of the Designer. Not only is this nonsense, it results in a so-called theory that is theoretically empty. There are no models or hypotheses to test if the proposed casual agent cannot be understood, studied, or even identified.


Matthew Gordon 07.19.07 at 9:08 pm

So, I will posit an experiment that I have considered for a long time, that is somewhat related. If anybody ever steals this and does it, please let me know, and at least acknowledge me (better yet, if somebody wants to collaborate…):

In brief: Take an FPGA. Come up with a problem for it to solve. Evolve a solution to the problem using a genetic programming technique. Also, design a solution to the problem. Repeat a lot. Now, use network measurement metrics like network radius, connectivity, etc, to find simple metrics that can be used to distinguish designed from evolved objects. Now apply similar metrics to biological objects. Voila! We can now determine whether biological objects are designed or evolved (assuming that such metrics exist, and we look for them in the right ways). To zeroth order, this is a test of intelligent design. But, more usefully, it is a way of determining what sorts of properties of evolved objects make them different from designed objects, and perhaps give them some of the neat-o properties that we like in evolved objects (like robustness.)


Drm 07.19.07 at 9:30 pm

Well, if I were going to design biology – I guess I’d use evolution because of all the neat-o properties built in. Hence, the I in ID has always puzzled me.


Kenny Easwaran 07.19.07 at 9:37 pm

Why consider genetic engineering? Wouldn’t it be obvious to future biologists that cows, chickens, corn, cotton, marijuana, artichokes, dogs, and all sorts of other crazy improbable plants and animals were in close co-evolution with some other species? Just as we’ve been able to infer the existence of North American cheetahs in the recent past from the speed with which pronghorns run, these creatures would be evidence of our existence. Whether they’d be clearly distinguishable from things like rats, raccoons, and pigeons (not to mention cane toads and the like) in terms of having been at least somewhat designed for their characteristics, is less clear.

I would think that transgenic things, if they survived, would probably be even slightly more obvious, once you look at the actual gene sequence, but I don’t know about that.


Kenny Easwaran 07.19.07 at 9:40 pm

Also, check out the story “Oceanic”, by Greg Egan, which considers life on a planet with both designed and evolved creatures:


abb1 07.19.07 at 9:44 pm

What if they analyze some cabbage gene and find a video of Hitler opening the 1936 Olympics encrypted in it? And they have no knowledge of the previous civilization. Now what?


Jon H 07.19.07 at 9:57 pm

Steve wrote: “The genes they’ve been given are almost never of any benefit to the wild-type organism, and they’d probably be lost.”

Only if maintenance requires energy expenditure or otherwise makes carriers less fit than non-carriers.

There are plenty of innocuous genes that neither help nor hinder, and there’s no evolutionary pressure to drive them out of the genome.


Drm 07.19.07 at 10:04 pm

That would be a big gene. The problem for the perpetrators of that sort of cosmic joke would be making the genetic encoding sufficiently stable to last a while. They could build in some sort of error-correction mechanism and couple it redundantly to some essential biological process.


Steve Reuland 07.19.07 at 10:39 pm

jon h wrote:

Only if maintenance requires energy expenditure or otherwise makes carriers less fit than non-carriers.

There are plenty of innocuous genes that neither help nor hinder, and there’s no evolutionary pressure to drive them out of the genome.

True, but the organisms themselves would probably go extinct, given that they’re domesticated and they lack genetic diversity. They would need to interbreed with wild populations in order for the transgenes themselves to survive, and then the transgenes would most likely be eliminated by drift, since they’d be very small in number.

Additionally, since most transgenes are being rigorously transcribed (having them expressed being the whole point sticking them there in the first place), they do indeed carry an energy cost. That could be alleviated by silencing them, but until that occurred there would be selective pressure (albeit probably pretty weak) to eliminate them outright.

So all in all, I think the chances of any given transgene surviving for millions of years without humans around to propagate it is very small.


slanted tom 07.20.07 at 12:57 am

Wasn’t it O.E. Wilson who thought that genes are the dominant life force on Earth and that species are evolved to meet the changing conditions of our environment? The genes will carry on in whatever living container that can survive a constantly changing (over hundreds or millions of years) set of ecological parameters. It wouldn’t be survival of species that matters, it would be survival of the genes.

Just another way of looking at the problem.


bakho 07.20.07 at 1:47 am

An example of this is corn. We infer that corn had to have been produced by human plant breeders only because it is not viable on its own. (Note that corn would not be around for future sentient beings).

We can know from the genomes that Modern Corn was produced from Teosinte. Modern corn looks nothing at all like the Teosinte that the ancient American corn breeders are believed to have used to develop the original Indian Corn. However, the exact changes and when and where they were introduced is speculative. There is no proof or molecular biology evidence that humans bred corn from Teosinte. It is an inference based on the observation that corn was cultivated and bred by native Americans, the lack of viability of corn that is not cultivated and the close relatedness of the Teosinte and Corn genomes.

Most of what we do is not really “designing species” but making modifications in existing species. We have changed species far more by animal husbandry and plant breeding than by genetic engineering. BT corn still looks like corn and has a genome that is 99.99999% the same as corn.

There are somewhere around a million species of insects alone with genomes that are far more different than corn and Teosinte. The idea of a sentient being manipulating the genomes of a million insect species to a degree of at least a million times more manipulation than what we might typically do with a crop plant would be quite an undertaking.

We could certainly postulate a sentient species doing all that genetic manipulation. However, we have known mechanisms that can create the same degree of genetic divergence without the intervention of sentient beings in the same time frame.


mijnheer 07.20.07 at 3:45 am

I have no reason to doubt that evolution on this planet has been a purely natural process, at least until the advent of genetic engineering. However, I wonder what evidence most Darwinists would accept as falsifying the thesis that there has been no intelligent design in the past — apart from the by-now tiresome fossil hominid in the Precambrian. From Popper’s standpoint, the falsifiability of a theory doesn’t depend simply on its making just any old testable predictions (including predictions of what won’t be found); these have to be risky predictions, and modern creationists of the ID variety, like Michael Behe, no more expect to find fossil hominids in the Precambrian than Richard Dawkins does. The temptation will always be to rule out ID on principle and simply say, “Well, this structure must have resulted from natural selection somehow or other.” I think most Darwinists would, in the end, much rather opt for space aliens or inhabitants of Atlantis than some god. And they might be right to do so. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that this particular universe is a virtual reality game created by human beings (à la eXistenZ) — but how would we know? At the end of Carl Sagan’s Contact, irrefutable evidence of intelligent design is found buried in the number pi. Would it take something like that to convince everyone?


Dmitri Petrov 07.20.07 at 4:28 am

Hi Kieran–

I think it is a great question. My intuition is that it will be impossible to say that something was “designed” by an intelligent designer. Horizonal gene transfer from species to species happens all the time and viruses and some such have extremely sophisticated means of invading genomes and making them “transgenic”. I believe that what Darwin showed was how a natural process can generate an appearance of design. However, he didn’t show that appearance of design must always be due to natural selection and not to design by a designer.


Andromeda 07.20.07 at 11:12 am

Also not a biologist, but in re horizontal gene transfer muddying up the picture:

Surely future intelligent species, if as intelligent as we are, would be able to come up with models of how fast these things happen, and project how far in the past the common ancestor of plants (or whatever) containing our inserted gene was (while, possibly, being puzzled that these plants did not otherwise seem to share a common ancestor). Surely some future-biologist, knowing this date, would run across a future-archaeologist who said, gosh, that date is the same as with all these rubber piles we have.

Biology wouldn’t be the only evidence of our existence, and the dating “coincidences” would eventually get obvious.


apthorp 07.20.07 at 12:32 pm

The answers here seem to focus on the first part of the question “would such organisms even present themselves as empirical anomalies”, with a consensus around no. Of course that takes the interesting question of “could you tell” off the table.

Archeology seems to be pretty good at answering very similar questions, even if on the much simpler material of mud and stones. If we allow the future being could distinguish the sphinx from a pile of stones, it would be a very interesting result to claim that a molecular sphinx could not be similarly distinguished. Boundary cases, such as “was this cleaved rock a tool” and “was this bone fragment chewed or broken” may be unresolvable, or may depend on a more sophisticated understanding of “non-designed”, natural processes to distinguish.

Note that a case that wouldn’t show up as an anomaly at all was the clever fellow who started a rock slide to get more rocks at the bottom of the mountain and dam up the stream. A thousand, or a million years on finding fingerprints of the guy who pushed the first stone and distinguishing that from a case where a smaller stone washed away in a rain storm and destabilizing the larger stone would be difficult. But then if there is no anomoly, no one is likely to notice.


Steve LaBonne 07.20.07 at 1:00 pm

The temptation will always be to rule out ID on principle and simply say, “Well, this structure must have resulted from natural selection somehow or other.”

Ah, no, that’s not what biologists do AT ALL. They seek to find, and to support from observations and experiments, actual pathways by which “this structure” could have evolved. You’re confusing them with IDiots, who DO in fact throw up their hands and claim things were “somehow” designed by a who-knows-what that we’re not even supposed to ask questions about.


Barry 07.20.07 at 1:01 pm

mijnheer, the problems for ID are that (1) the past century-and-a-half has been nothing but an accumulation of evidence in favor for evolution, (2) the past century-and-a-half has seen massive success in figuring out how many very complex structures did evolve or could have, and (3) ID’s total failure to accomplish anything scientifically.

The first two have resulted in Paleyism walking steadily backwards, giving up ground; the third means that Paleyism not only has failed to defend or to counter-attack even little (scientifically), but doesn’t even have a plausible method of doing so.

That’s why Paleyism has 99.99% resorted to political attacks – they’ve failed utterly, since the mid-1800′s.


Michael Mouse 07.20.07 at 2:12 pm

@matthew gordon:
Go for it!

I personally regard the FPGA evolutin stuff as pretty compelling (indirect!) evidence for evolution as the main force behind living organisms’ present form.

A friend-of-a-friend (no really!) did some stuff on evolving FPGAs to do relatively simple tasks, and it was a nightmare – you had to keep cycling the designs from one FPGA to another, or it’d evolve a design that critically depended on array-specific properties and so would only work on the board it’d evolved on.

When he tried to unpick how the evolved designs were working, it was a total mess of half-useful, half-bonkers kludges all on top of each other that somehow magically combine to produce a system of breathtaking complexity that does what it needs to.

At the time I was a neophyte biochemist getting my head round metabolic pathways, and the similarities in design style were painfully striking. No intelligence would, or could, design something like that.

(Except by getting evolution to do it for them, of course … which is the omphalos argument.)


Michael Mouse 07.20.07 at 2:18 pm

Oh, and to answer Kieran’s query … my guess is it wouldn’t be totally slam-dunk, but so long as it wasn’t so far in the future that intact DNA was irretrievable from contemporaneous samples, they’d suss what’d been going on. (Although they’d have the same arguments with the future-ID crowd.)

So many examples of horizontal gene transfer, all at the same period, often of the same gene complexes … biologically implausible to say the least. The obvious guess would be that some intelligent sort had been a-tinkering in just this way. And as others point out, there’d be plenty archaeological evidence for our existence so I think Occam Cockroach’s Razor would point them in our direction.


Steve LaBonne 07.20.07 at 2:33 pm

At the time I was a neophyte biochemist getting my head round metabolic pathways, and the similarities in design style were painfully striking. No intelligence would, or could, design something like that.

Larry Moran recently discussed a nice example on his blog.


Clay Shirky 07.20.07 at 2:56 pm

Note, by the way, that this situation exists today, because of _artificial_ selection — every human-bred strain of corn or wheat, and every odd shape of dog or koi is a result of genetic engineering, done the old fashioned way.

The likely case for all these species, and for many of the things we would engineer in the future, is that they would die out in a few generations without humans. Daschunds would cross-breed with dobermans, while Lhasa Opso’s would expire with the loss of their natural habitat, the lap. Similarly, a bacteria designed to produce insulin for our use would presumably shed those capabilities quickly when there was no evolutionary reward for continuing to do so.

When humans engineer life, as we have been doing since pre-history with dogs and cattle, we do it so that the life can flourish in a human-dominated environment. Without us, most of our experiments would revert to type or fail.


Ben M 07.20.07 at 4:01 pm

Without going into “Will the GM organisms survive in the wild”—suppose a packet of seeds ends up frozen in a glacier or something. The markers that many of y’all are talking about (evidence of actual gene-splicing trickery) have nothing in common with the “markers” that Behe et. al. claim to see.

IDers claim to see protein structures that simply look funny. They look at the flagellum and say, “whoa, there are, like, twenty pieces”; they look at the centrosome and say, “whoa, it looks sort of like a jet engine”. Humans may be designing our own organisms, but we are absolutely not designing custom proteins with irreducible mechanical arrangements. GMO proteins look and behave just like natural proteins … they’re the same blobby enzyme-y things with pokey active sites and inscrutable folds. For the most part, they’re developed, not by a Designer sitting around fitting parts together, but by mutation and selection—artificial, forced, or targeted mutation (sometimes!) and selection in a petri dish (usually!). I’m willing to bet that the “Round-Up Ready” gene produces some surface protein whose structure and modus operandi were not known until after it was found to cause Round-Up resistance. A future scientist looking at the structure of this protein would conclude, at best, “This gene evolved in a species which was exposed to thus-and-such a toxin; it evolved very rapidly, so must have been under intense selection.” He will not be able to say, “This thing has a totally different design principle than any other protein.”

The only artificial, engineering-like step is where the scientists decide to move the genes from one organism to another. If that’s detectable or not, I dunno—”this enzyme seems to be a trivial modification of an Icelandic hot-spring bacterium’s gene, including all of the translation-invariant choices. What the hell is it doing in wild North American cabbage?”. If there is any evidence of Behe seeing, or even looking for, such a thing, I’d love to hear about it.

Horizontal gene transfer might be invoked to explain one or two such oddities. If I were a a future crustacean version of Michael Behe, I might notice a systematic pattern of: lots of “apparent” horizontal-transfer events; all apparently under rapid selection, with sources (apparently) randomly scattered over the world but with targets concentrated in plains and pasture species; all occurring at about the same time (“Just before the late Holocene mass extinction”) as the peak of an ill-understood material culture. Weird.


Martin Bento 07.20.07 at 4:18 pm

Is there a rigorous way to distinguish organic, i.e. Darwinian, design from, to coin a term, imaginative, i.e. originating in one or more minds, design? They do seem quite different. Humans have not come up with an eye, even with an existing model, which nature did not have. OTOH, evolution did not produce the wheel, though one could see where it would have been useful, e.g., for escaping predators or being one. Is there work on distinguishing the two in there effects and analysing which problems each solves well?

I think there are political implications (inevitably). The market is design through a Darwinian process, the state is imaginative design. The corporation is also imaginative design, but works in a Darwinian environment, as does the state, though with less immediate breath of the grim reaper. Understanding which sort of problems are best solved by which approach could give insight into when and how to use the market vs. direct control to tackle problems.


Drm 07.20.07 at 5:14 pm

38. Evolved systems and networks tend to have “scale free” like statistical properties that might distinguish them from most designed systems.
Limbs are arguably more versatile than wheels. Rolling behavior has probably evolved many times.


Martin Bento 07.20.07 at 5:55 pm

drm, limbs may be more versatile, but wheels are much faster for the same energy, and it seems unlikely that the first consideration would *always* triumph, especially when an organism could have both limbs and wheels. Actually, the evolution can’t create the wheel is an argument I heard against the IDers. Evolution cannot create the wheel, the argument goes, because half a wheel is not useful, so there is no incremental path towards it (in contrast to the eye, where even a bit of light sensitivity confers an advantage). Since there are organisms that can roll somewhat as a side-effect of radial symmetry (various cylindrical bugs), I’m not sure this is true, but it seemed an interesting question.

As for “scale-free” properties, that may be a start. Human social networks also have this property, and live I suppose in a boundary zone between evolved and designed, as an emergent property of aggregate human intention.


Steve LaBonne 07.20.07 at 6:04 pm

See Michael Mouse @ #33. Evolution tinkers, it doesn’t “design” from scratch. Wheels could be ever so efficient, but if you can’t get there from here using the genetic toolkit present in ancestral tetrapods, they still wouldn’t happen.


Dan Simon 07.20.07 at 6:31 pm

Is there a rigorous way to distinguish organic, i.e. Darwinian, design from, to coin a term, imaginative, i.e. originating in one or more minds, design?

The answer is, “no”. The key word here is, “minds”, which should be a clear tipoff that notions like “design” and “imaginative”–and even “intelligent”–are purely subjective, and translate roughly to, “subjectively similar enough to our own behavior that we are willing to attribute analogs of our own familiar internal, subjective mental states to the perpetrator”.

Nature is full of creatures that create all manner of remarkable artifacts, from spiderwebs to birdsongs to whale songs and so on. If they were created by people, in a context that we found familiar and natural, we would have no trouble considering them demonstrations of the intelligence, creativity and design skill of their creators.

But because instead they are created by creatures that are very different from us, we have a great deal of trouble attributing to them subjective states such as “purpose”, “imagination” and “intelligence”–states that we don’t really understand in ourselves, and may for all we know have as little to do with the actual process by which we create our own artifacts as with the process by which birds and spiders create theirs.

In other words, the original analogy between the creators of living nature and pocket watches was pretty accurate–it’s just the conclusion that was off-base. We assume a watchmaker when we see a watch because we’re in the habit of associating watches with watchmakers, not because there’s any particular property of watches that necessitates a watchmaker. (Likewise, when we hear a voice saying, “hello, there”, we assume an English-speaking human, because we’re used to making that association–until we hear the follow-up, “Polly want a cracker”.)

Watches, transgenic plants, and the rest, are a product of evolution, as surely as spiderwebs and birdsongs are. The only difference is that we fancy ourselves special enough to be entitled to inject our own subjective experiences into the process, claiming them (based on nothing but our own intuition and self-regard) to be a vitally necessary ingredient in our achievements, while dismissing other creatures’ subjective internal states as either nonexistent or irrelevant.


Drm 07.20.07 at 6:51 pm

Dan Simon,
I’m not so sure. We are part of biological evolution to be sure, but that doesn’t mean our inventions can not have features or obey principles that distinguish them from other types of biological artifact. Statistical analysis has been used to distinguish forged from natural data for example. That doesn’t mean our artifacts are special, just constrained in ways that set them apart.


Drm 07.20.07 at 7:33 pm

Re. wheels. Dung beetles use them. Easier to make than evolve apparently.


Martin Bento 07.20.07 at 8:12 pm

Dan, there’s a difference between saying the brain is a product of a Darwinian process and saying that what the brain does is a Darwinian process. The computer I’m using right now is the product of an industrial process. The activity of the computer in acting as a medium for my thoughts is not an industrial process, but a cognitive one and a technological one on its (or cognitive, if you like to think of computers that way). Said cognitive process relies on biological material that given by a Darwinian process and skills (English, typing, etc.) given by a cultural one.

If cognition is a Darwinian process, this means the brain generates ideas purely at random, has some means of determining fitness, and the ideas that “survive” are the ones you have. There may be a bit of that going on. But Darwinism claims comprehensiveness – even Behe concedes that natural selection exists – so for it to be a Darwinian process, what I just gave has to be a complete description, albeit at a low level of detail. Cognition appears to have much more to do with the emergent properties of structure, than with competition among atomic units, such as species’ or genes. There is competition in the sense that, over time, neurons not much used get fewer connections that those greatly used, but this seems to be how habits of cognition are formed, not how specific instances emerge.

As for spiderwebs, whale songs, etc. I have no trouble regarding these as creative acts in the same sense as human creative acts – they are products of internal cognitive structures of those animals. Whoever this “we” is that holds human experience so special, I am not in it.


Do you think there are problems that minds can solve that Darwinian processes cannot, for example, because there is no incremental path to them? Certainly, evolved and written software seem quite different, and the latter so far better for most purposes. I don’t know if the fact that less complex species than humans can use wheels necessarily solves the problem; the dung beetle wheel is still the product of a cognitive structure, it’s just a less difficult problem than our “discovery of the wheel” trumpeting would suggest. Evolution never solved the basic problem of getting energy from the sun as efficiently as photovoltaics do, so it does seems that a cognitive apparatus can get you places random variation with selection cannot.


Martin Bento 07.20.07 at 8:52 pm

I should have proofed the first paragraph above. Here it is again:

Dan, there’s a difference between saying the brain is a product of a Darwinian process and saying that what the brain does is a Darwinian process. The computer I’m using right now is the product of an industrial process. The activity of the computer in acting as a medium for my thoughts is not an industrial process, but a cognitive one on my part, and a technological one on its (or cognitive, if you like to think of computers that way). Said cognitive process (mine) relies on biological material given by a Darwinian process and skills (English, typing, etc.) given by a cultural one.


abb1 07.20.07 at 9:19 pm

Incidentally, I understand that some adaptationists do argue that religion (and therefore the concept of intelligent design) is a product of a Darwinian process.


eudoxis 07.21.07 at 1:30 am

Future intelligent life forms will obviously be highly evolved cockroaches who will be highly suspcious when they find that they are all resistant to Demon and the Enforcer and there is none in the environment.


Keith M Ellis 07.21.07 at 2:19 am

Do you think there are problems that minds can solve that Darwinian processes cannot, for example, because there is no incremental path to them?

In my opinion, the “incremental path” argument against evolved wheels is flawed and inadvertently provides ammunition to ID proponents. Basically, I think the flaw is in thinking that we can reliably tell when something could not come about via an incremental path. After all, that error is essentially the entire opposition to evolution.

I’ve always thought that the real problem of an evolved wheel is that it’s such a weird structure, from a biological viewpoint. The wheel has to turn independently of its axis, which would be very complicated to achieve for living tissue. Alternatively, a wheel could be formed and then the living tissue could retreat to the axis. But then you’d have to ask exactly what kind of selective pressure could exist that would prefer this structure over others?

It’s not so much that there’s no incremental process that could allow the evolution of the wheel, it’s that it’s just so unlikely relative to others that would achieve roughly the same result. We humans are confounded by this example because we see the simplicity of the wheel and erroneously think that it is a simple solution to a simple problem in evolutionary terms. But it’s probably not.

And thus here I find I disagree with those who are saying that there’s really no way to detect the difference between designed and evolved structures. I agree that there’s probably not any strong qualitative distinction between the two (in terms of the structures, of course). But there’s a whole bunch of quantitative differences you can easily see. Designed structures have little general redundancy and they are usually “brittle”. That is, they easily fail completely outside of their intended environment. The key in that last sentence is to realize just how narrow “intended environment” is for designed objects as compared to biological structures. It may seem that an ecological niche is “narrow”, but not in the same sense as the “niche” in which an airplane operates, for example.

Arguably, however, these distinctions rely upon how an intelligent creature prefers to design! One can imagine a much more biologically-oriented worldview that both prefers explicit designs that mimic evolved biological structures, and/or prefers to use evolutionary processes for design purposes. In those cases, it would obviously be much harder to differentiate design from intelligence-independent evolution.

All of which argues that this notion of “design” versus “evolved” may be a bit of a red herring, distracting us from the qualitative distinctions that are more descriptive, as science should be. Creationism and ID really are regressive science because they explicitly embrace teleology. It’s not so much that teleology is essentially unscientific, as it is the case that teleology is so often unhelpful or misleading for scientific purposes. Just so with creationism and ID.


eudoxis 07.21.07 at 2:45 am

Many of the genetically engineered transformed products may have reduced fitness but not all of them. Anaphalos mosquitos that are malaria resistant are hoped to take over wild type populations. Plants are notoriously promiscuous with other species and hybridized wild type with transformed species don’t show reduced fitness. Besides, introduced genes are susceptible to the same transposon methods whereby DNA “jumps”, and it isn’t necessary that the whole functional engineered cassette be transposed. Whether this deliberate manipulation will be obvious to the cockroaches of the future, perhaps with lots of external evidence.


roybelmont 07.21.07 at 7:18 am

“I’ve always thought that the real problem of an evolved wheel is that it’s such a weird structure, from a biological viewpoint. The wheel has to turn independently of its axis, which would be very complicated to achieve for living tissue.”
Spend a lot of time in the woods and you’ll eventually see a tree that’s rotted from the interior out, and kept enough of its outer layers to be coherent, round and rollable. At least for a little while and distance.
All you have to surmise is finding something like that, rolling it around, not usefully as conveyance, but as a means of moving the wood itself, then eventually somebody jamming a large enough stick up the middle of something it and yoking the ends. The cylinder turns, the yoked axle doesn’t. Still not useful, really, but there’s your concept. We’re talking about people who spent all their time in the woods, generation after generation.
It seems pretty obvious the first wheels wouldn’t have been as two-dimensional as now, but cylindrical more. An axle wouldn’t be so bizarre in that context, especially after enough time and usage had occurred.


Martin Bento 07.21.07 at 2:30 pm


Are you under the impression that anything you said contradicts what I said? If not, and assuming you are, as it appears, responding to me, I don’t see the purpose of your comment. If so, you are about three steps behind the argument. *Of course*, evolution tinkers and moves incrementally without internally-determined endpoints. That is so basic a premise of what I am saying that I did not think it needed to be stated explicitly. However, human minds also design things, using processes such as working towards explicit goals, deploying abstract models, and evaluating counterfactuals without actualizing them that are not available to biological evolution. Hence, the two processes are different, and I’m inquiring as to whether a) the differences can be determined from the artifacts, which is pretty much the main topic of this post and b) what useful things we may be able to tell from looking at what sort of problems each approach solves well.


Whether the argument helps or hinders ID is an instrumental question and not really a legitimate consideration in evaluating scientific arguments. Nonetheless, if any possible type of design is consistent with either the Darwinian model or intentional design, then the evolutionist claim to establish Darwinism on the basis of the observed structure of the natural world is considerably weakened and very vulnerable to charges of unfalsifiability. Since we know from our own activity as humans that intelligent design exists, to establish that the structure of the natural world has another basis, one has to claim to be able to distinguish products of Darwinian processes from products of intentional design. As it happens, I do think such distinction is possible. Evolution does not give us cars, yet it is obviously possible for cars to exist. Yet humans have not invented an eye, even given a pre-existing model.

Consider what is probably the most basic problem of life: harvesting energy from the sun. Darwinism gave us photosynthesis. Billions of years of evolution with horizontal gene transfer, asexual reproduction, sexual reproduction, changes of stress from rapid environmental change, etc., have not significantly improved on this. The human mind invented photovoltaics, which were, I believe, even in the first generation more powerful than photosynthesis. If one looks at evolution as a computation process exploring a solution space – the premise of artificial life and such things – and looks at the mind similarly as a computational process, the computational resources given to this problem by evolution are vastly greater those given by the human mind, yet the mind, actually just a few people, though obviously drawing on previously-established cultural knowledge, vastly improved on the Darwinian solution. In fact, I see no basis for supposing that photovoltaics were a solution that Darwinism ever would have found; it doesn’t seem to have been approaching them. Because there is no incremental path? Perhaps, or perhaps because of other limitations of Darwinian processes. Freeman Dyson, in a recent NYRB, regards it as a mystery that evolution in no climate produced plants with black leaves to absorb sunlight more efficiently than green (a more modest, but also easier, enhancement than photovoltaics). But maybe there is no reason to assume that evolution will always find the best solution, or even as good a solution as the mind can devise; it often does, but its approach seems to us incomprehensively brilliant in some ways and stupid in others, which to me supports the notion that evolution traverses the solution space much differently than we do.

abb1, yes, I’m familiar with that. I liked David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, which is an argument along those lines.


Peter 07.21.07 at 3:39 pm

A significant portion of GMO crops contain a gene called “the terminator” and as a result the seeds are infertile (which helps maintain profit margins for the seed companies). I suspect that most of the plant transgenics will have disappeared by the time of your hypothetic new insect overlords.

Bakho points out that corn (maize for our foreign guests) is incapable of reproducing on its own. Several other crops are in similar situations. The varieties of bananas that we eat need human cultivation to spread (they lack seeds to begin with). I don’t expect any evidence of human tinkering with genetics to survive the first century after humans go poof, let alone survive to irritate future intelligent species.


Martin Bento 07.21.07 at 5:45 pm


Rereading your comment, I see that my first take oversimplified your position somewhat. It’s true that a different sort of intelligence may design differently. It is also true that Darwinian evolution would find different solutions given an entirely different environment, e.g., a different planet. It may be that on another planet, photovoltaics are a solution Darwinism would find. But it may not. Since we have no real data about speculative alternative types of advanced minds or speculative extraterrestrial evolution, we can only speak of such things to the extent that we have theoretical models of how they would work, and can only speak of how we could or could not distinguish the artifacts if we have models of how to make such distinctions. So we’re back to building models based on the evolution and the minds that we have.

I think brittleness has a lot to do with it. Also, streamlining, which is related. Things that really were created for a certain purpose tend to have all elements clearly directed towards that end (though the human propensity for decoration is problematic here, and may reflect an emulation of nature with its seemingly bottomless complexity and elements of no apparent functionality).


lofi 07.21.07 at 11:23 pm

I’m pretty sure if you engineered an organism so that one of its internal organs had pigmented regions such they read “hey, nerdlinger! suck my balls!” then the scientists of the future would be able to figure it out


John 07.22.07 at 3:02 pm

“I’m wondering, would such organisms even present themselves as empirical anomalies? (That is, how much would you have to know about genomes and evolution for them to seem odd?)”

Absolutely, if the examiners are aware of restriction endonucleases (bacterial enzymes that cut specific, usually palindromic, 6-base sequences in bacterial viruses) and are capable of DNA sequencing. Most of the vectors we use have a region called the “polylinker,” usually synthetic, that is chock-full of these restriction endonuclase sites, for insertion of the DNA to be expressed.


Ben Hyde 07.22.07 at 4:27 pm

How wide spread will engineered genetics be in 10, 20, 40, 200 years? If it grows at the rates the electronics industry has grown I suspect the foot print on the ecology will be much larger than the occasional natural horizontal gene transfer. Meanwhile, slightly off topic, I found the concerns raised regarding genetic engineering in the book Normal Accidents sobering.


Martin Bento 07.22.07 at 6:05 pm

“The wheel has to turn independently of its axis, which would be very complicated to achieve for living tissue. “

Can’t a ball and socket achieve this? My skeleton is full of them. Works better with lube, but biological systems make much use of that as well.


Michael Mouse 07.23.07 at 2:19 pm

Can’t a ball and socket achieve this?

Yes, in theory, but the kicker is that you’d still need some way of carrying fluid streams (with nutrients, waste and operational gubbins) across the joint. Otherwise the structure at the far end will die and rot in short order. A few hose-like structures would do it at a bare minimum. (Think blood vessels or xylem/phloem.) But those’ll get irretrievably tangled as the wheel rotates, so it’s not an option.

I reckon you could probably manage it with dead wheels, particularly if you could find some way of replacing them as they rotted. There’s a quadruped species in a Phillip Pullman novel (mulefa) that do something like this with a symbiotic plant, which is far-fetched but not, to my mind, biologically implausible in the way that living wheels *seem* to be. I stress ‘seem’ – I’m very wary of saying things are implausible – still less impossible – biologically.

This is a key point to bear in mind, whether you’re talking evolution or elsewhere. “I’ve never heard a good model of how it could possibly work” is very far from rock-solid proof that it it can’t, even with an added, “despite having spent happy hours with biochemists and biologists musing about how you could do it.” But it is jolly unlikely.

[Of course the obvious option - which you do find all over the place - is to turn the entire organism in to a single wheel. There are plenty of small, round organisms, and many larger organisms can form themselves in to a roundish shape and roll if the need arises.]


Dustin 07.23.07 at 3:06 pm

I think that the intelligent species will itself evolve out of the super corn.

“Those ‘scientists’ say your uncle was an EAR OF SUPER CORN! Hahaha! Are you gonna believe that?! Tell me then: why is there still super corn?!”


Martin Bento 07.23.07 at 5:41 pm

Is it unheard-of for living organisms to produce structures that are “dead” enough not to need nutrient streams? What about shells? What would be the fundamental obstacle to producing a hard inert substance, keeping in mind that it doesn’t have to last forever, just for the lifetime of the organism, so “rotting” is not necessarily a concern in the relevant timeframe. Calcium structures can do this, no? I realize that bones are living, but even when dead, they seem to persist an awful long time. I suppose this could be brittleness – if your wheel is dead, it will be harder to repair if it breaks. I also wonder why nutrients and waste could not pass between two lubricated mucous membranes for that matter, although to look at the question that specifically, we have to stipulate more specifically what we are talking about, I think, e.g. a large or a small organism, etc.

Agreed about never regarding ignorance, even expert ignorance, of how to do it as proof that it is impossible.


Gregamundo 07.25.07 at 12:26 am

Such a great discussion, I just can’t resist throwing in two cents.

In re: photovoltaics: as far as I can see, this idea was probably rejected very early in the design process, because it doesn’t meet a fundamental design requirement: flexibility. Obviously, leaves (and skin) would be more difficult to engineer with a rigid, yet fragile surface. Photo cells are just like most any other man-made design, which, as noted above, are known for their inability to adapt to changing pressures of any kind. The increase in efficiency is the result of a greatly simplified, and hence less-robust, architecture.

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