RNCSE 23 (5-6)

Articles available online are listed below.

The Textbook Choosers' Guide

[Science instruction in K–12 schools frequently depends strongly on textbooks that the school or district has approved for use in its curriculum. In this article we excerpt the main points from one of the brochures on the NCSE web site to help our readers to ask questions and be involved in the process of textbook selection in their own communities.]

Textbooks are frequently chosen or rejected for trivial reasons. Appearance often takes precedence over modernity, accuracy, and explication of the discipline. Textbooks frequently look better than they read. One must be concerned with what a textbook says and how it says it. Illustrations and other materials that accompany the text should be coordinated with the narrative and included to clarify a concept or a process.

Here are 10 points to consider when evaluating a science textbook.

Pedagogical points

  • Beware the encyclopedic text — the one that purports to “cover” every conceivable aspect of the discipline. No textbook can do so, and no student should be asked to memorize such a wealth of detail. Instead, consider whether the text fairly presents the major concepts of the discipline and provides examples to illuminate them. The adequate development of selected major principles is more beneficial to the student than are reams of details.
  • Beware of any text that emphasizes memorization of vocabulary. Students should learn new words as they become involved with a new discipline; selected useful and and meaningful vocabulary can be an inestimable aid in broadening understanding. However, avoid any book that substitutes concentrating on words for their own sake rather than as a support for a narrative of inquiry.
  • Beware of the text that does not read well — one written in short choppy sentences that develop detail but not a cohesive narrative. The text should provide a narrative of inquiry rather than a rhetoric of conclusions. It should build on previous information and serve to develop a basis for intellectual growth as the student proceeds through the book. A text should not be merely a passive reading experience, but should be designed to be interactive — eliciting responses from the student by requiring activity related to the subject under consideration.
  • Beware of the dogmatic textbook. Science is an ever-growing body of data constantly refined on the basis of new evidence. Texts that present the corpus of science as a fixed and unchanging mass of evidence do not prepare students to live in a world where change may be the only constant. However, texts should also present the settled areas of science as just that — they should not give students the impression that science is a body of untested hypotheses, guesses and ever- changing data.
  • Beware of the text as the sole source of scientific information. The textbook must be regarded as an introduction to science that provides a foundation for future learning. Activities should be included that will expand the student’s horizons and send students to other sources of information on the topic. The text should be teaching the student how to learn and should include activities for independent information gathering.

Content points

  • Beware of the text that does not explain the nature of science. One of the major reasons students take science courses is to become acquainted with science as a way of knowing. The processes of science should permeate the textbook and not be confined to an isolated section on what is erroneously referred to as the “scientific method”. Also avoid textbooks that present science as a process of uncertainty or include phrases such as “some scientists believe” or “many scientists agree”. Texts should make it clear that scientists reach their conclusions on the basis of currently available data, not based on personal belief or by vote.
  • Beware the text that does not clearly explain the role of controlled experiment, hypothesis formulation, and theory in science. These are basic research tools of the scientist, and their proper use has led science to its great contributions.
  • Beware of the bland textbook — the one written in such a way as to eliminate controversial or contentious issues and the one that presents the sciences simply as a fixed body of facts unrelated to contemporary issues. The nature of scientific controversy should be presented. Scientific problems currently unresolved should be discussed. Students should be encouraged to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate data collected in support of various hypotheses.
  • Beware the textbook that emphasizes only one aspect of the discipline — for example, a biology text that presents biology only in terms of morphology and systematics — and ignores other aspects of the discipline. No text can present all aspects of the subject, but acceptable texts should present some of the different approaches within the discipline — for example, in biology, topics such as ecology, genetics, growth and development, evolution, and behavior. Further, the interrelationships of science with social and technological issues should permeate the text.
  • Beware the classical textbook — the one that gives the student an impression that science is a historical study, not a vital, ongoing exercise. A textbook must deal in some measure with current areas of research and contemporary problems to prepare students for the issues they will face in the future as individuals or as voting citizens. It should emphasize how scientists are currently approaching and trying to solve contemporary problems in health, the environment, and so on.
About the Author(s): 
James P Barufaldi
The University of Texas at Austin
Center for Science and Mathematics Education
1 University Station D 5500
Austin TX 78712

James P Barufaldi is Ruben E Hinojosa Regents Professor of Education at the University of Texas, Austin. The late William V Mayer was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The Textbook Choosers' Guide
James P Barufaldi and William V Mayer
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Darwinism and Intelligent Design: The New Anti-Evolutionism Spreads in Europe

According to a 2002 poll of adult Europeans conducted by a professional institute (IHA-GfK, Hergiswil, Switzerland), only 40% of the respondents agreed with the statement that the universe, the earth, and all organisms of the biosphere are entirely the product of a natural evolutionary process. Twenty-one percent were adherents of theistic evolution, 20% believed that God created all organisms at one time within the last 10 000 years, and 19% answered “don’t know/ other opinion” (http://www.factum-magazin.ch/whats_new/news.cgi?v=news&c=Schoepfung&id=04073104514.shtml). Among the 20% who believed in a recent creation — mostly fundamentalist Christians who are biblical literalists — the highest percentage was in Switzerland (21.8%), followed by Austria (20.4%) and Germany (18.1%). Compared with the situation in the United States, where almost half of all adults deny evolution as a fact of nature (see for example Futuyma 1995; Gross 2002), the creationists in German-speaking European countries (Kutschera 2003) are still a minority that accounts for just one fifth of the population. Who are the conservative Christian anti-evolutionists in Europe and how are they organized? What role does the “intelligent design” (ID) argument play in the anti-evolution propaganda in European countries?

Creationism and ID in Europe

In March 2002, British newspapers revealed that Emmanuel College in Gateshead, a prestigious Christian-run secondary school that has been praised by Prime Minister Tony Blair, presented the creationist view as a “scientific” alternative to evolution (Gross 2002). After leading scientists, including Richard Dawkins, wrote to the Office for Standards in Education, and the bishop of Oxford intervened (“Evolution is a theory of great explanatory power … and not a faith position as the college in Gateshead alleges”), the teaching of creationism as a scientific alternative was suspended (Gross 2002).

In Switzerland and Germany, two societies, pro Genesis (http://www.progenesis.ch) and the Studiengemeinschaft Wort und Wissen (http://www.wort-und-wissen.de) are the dominant anti-evolutionist associations. They publish newsletters, distribute videotapes, and promote their viewpoint via two professional journals, factum and Studium Integrale Journal (Kutschera 2003). The most important production of the European anti-evolutionists is a book edited by the Wort und Wissen employee Reinhard Junker and the microbiologist Siegfried Scherer (a fellow of the Discovery Institute) entitled Evolution: Ein kritisches Lehrbuch [Evolution: A Critical Textbook] (2001). In the preface, the authors elucidate their aim: to present an alternative to the “concept of macroevolution”, which is, in their view, not supported by convincing data. Interestingly, microevolution (the origin of new species that display the same basic body plan) is accepted, but the occurrence of novel “types” in the fossil record is disputed and described as an unsupported claim of the Darwinists.

Junker and Scherer revitalized the Bible-based pre-Darwinian “theory of creation” as a theistic alternative to evolution. In order to circumvent logical problems concerning the documented continuum between micro- and macroevolution, the authors introduced a new “species concept”, the so-called Basic Types of life. Since, according to chapter 1 of Genesis, God created animals and plants after their own kind (microorganisms, fungi, and protoctista are not mentioned), these kinds must represent higher taxonomic groups. As examples, Junker and Scherer discuss the following Basic Types: Anatidae (ducks, geese, and swans), Canidae (dogs, wolves, and foxes), Triticeae (wheat, barley, and oats) and humans (one species, Homo sapiens). This novel “Bible-based theory” postulates that God created an in-built capacity for variation within a kind, but not between different Basic Types. Hence, what the Darwinists label as macroevolution is replaced by supernatural acts of the Creator, but microevolution (that is, the diversification of the Basic Types, with the exception of humans) is theistic–naturalistic evolution. This concept was introduced by Scherer several years ago at the Third International Conference on Creationism and at the European Creationist Congress (http://www.pages.org/bsc).

In the last chapter of their book, Junker and Scherer discuss the possibility that the Creator may communicate with the biologist via “design-signals”, which are expressed in the beauty of flowers, butterflies, and other creatures. On these pages, the designer is equated with the biblical Creator-God. This European version of modern “theobiology” has been classified as ID-creationism (Kutschera 2003).

The impact of the Junker and Scherer textbook is difficult to assess. Due its low price and its attractive design, many more copies have been sold than of academic textbooks on evolution. It has been translated into several European languages (Russian, Serbian, Finnish, and Portuguese), was awarded with a German textbook prize (sponsored by private conservative Christian associations), and is used in some public schools. However, the textbook is not accepted by the German Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs as an official schoolbook, in spite of several lobbying attempts by German creationists. Positive book reviews are largely restricted to periodicals published by Bible-educated Christians. However, the international journal Flora, which is edited by a team of respected plant scientists, published a positive review of this book (Weberling 2002). This fact documents that anti-evolutionism in German-speaking countries has already infiltrated some academic circles.

Darwin’s answer

The discussion concerning the argument from design is as old as evolutionary biology itself. In his autobiography, Darwin treated this issue as follows: “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man” (Barlow 1958). Indeed, modern scientists successfully explain the real world without reference to miracles, “intelligent designers”, or other products of human imagination. If we were to admit “intelligent designers”, “vital forces”, and other spiritual entities, modern science would soon cease to exist (Futuyma 1995; Mahner and Bunge 1997).This is the main reason that scientists reject the modern version of Bible-based creationism under the cover of the currently popular ID rubric.

Charles Darwin provided an appropriate answer to the claims of the creationists of his time when he wrote: “It should be well to bear in mind that by the word ‘creation’ the zoologist means ‘a process he knows not what’” (Darwin 1872). Likewise, the currently popular statement “the designer did it” is no answer, but a synonym for “we believe, but have no evidence”. For those who believe no proof is necessary, discussions between scientists and the dogmatic proponents of ID are difficult and usually do not lead to a consensus.


Barlow N, editor. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. London: Collins, 1958.
Darwin CR. On the Origin of Species, 6th ed. London: John Murray, 1872.
Futuyma DJ. Science on Trial, 2nd ed. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates, 1995.
Gross M. Red head: US-style creationism spreads to Europe. Current Biology 2002; 12 (8): R265–6.
Junker R, Scherer S. Evolution: Ein kritisches Lehrbuch, 5th ed. Giessen (Germany): Weyel Verlag, 2001.
Kutschera U. Designer scientific literature [letter]. Nature 2003 May 8: 423:116.
Mahner M, Bunge M. Foundations of Biophilosophy Berlin: Springer, 1997.
Weberling F. Buchbesprechung [review of Junker and Scherer 2001]. Flora 2002; 197 [4]: 490–1.

About the Author(s): 
Ulrich Kutschera
Institut für Biologie
Universität Kassel
Heinrich-Plett-Strasse 40
34109 Kassel
Darwinism and Intelligent Design: The New Anti-Evolutionism Spreads in Europe
Ulrich Kutschera
Institut für Biologie, Universität Kassel
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Eight Challenges for Intelligent Design Advocates

Thus far, "intelligent design" advocates have produced many popular books, but essentially no scientific research. (See, for example, Gilchrist 1997; Forrest 2001.) Future success for the movement depends critically on some genuine achievements. In this article, we provide some challenges for intelligent design advocates, particularly William Dembski.

1 Publish a mathematically rigorous definition of CSI

We challenge Dembski to publish a mathematically rigorous definition of "complex specified information" (CSI) and a proof of the Law of Conservation of Information in a peer-reviewed journal devoted to information theory or statistical inference, taking into account the criticisms in Elsberry and Shallit (2003) and elsewhere.

2 Provide real evidence for CSI claims

Here is a brief catalog of some of the things Dembski has claimed exhibit CSI or "specified complexity":
  1. 16-digit numbers on VISA cards (Dembski 1999: 159);
  2. Phone numbers (Dembski 1999: 159);
  3. "All the numbers on our bills, credit slips and purchase orders" (Dembski 1999: 160);
  4. The "sequence corresponding to a Shakespearean sonnet" (Dembski 2002: xiii);
  5. Arthur Rubinstein's performance of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" (Dembski 2002: 95);
  6. "Most human artifacts, from Shakespearean sonnets to Durer woodcuts to Cray supercomputers" (Dembski 2002: 207);
  7. Scrabble pieces spelling words (Dembski 2002: 172-3);
  8. DNA (Dembski 2002: 151);
  9. Error-counting function in an evolution simulation (Dembski 2002: 217);
  10. A fitness measure that gauges degree of catalytic function (Dembski 2002: 221);
  11. The "fitness function that prescribes optimal antenna performance" (Dembski 2002: 221);
  12. "Coordination of local fitness functions" (Dembski 2002: 222);
  13. What "anthropic principles" explain in fine-tuning arguments (Dembski 2002: 144);
  14. "Fine-tuning of cosmological constants" (Dembski 2002: xiii);
  15. What David Bohm's "quantum potentials" extract in the way of "active information" (Dembski 2002: 144); and
  16. "The key feature of life that needs to be explained" (Dembski 2002: 180).
We challenge Dembski either to provide a complete, detailed, and rigorous argument in support of his claim that each of the items #1-16 has CSI, or explicitly retract each unsupported claim. Any supporting argument should describe which of the two methods (causal-history-based or uniform probability; see Elsberry and Shallit 2003: 17-21 for further discussion) is used to estimate probabilities, and provide a detailed description of the appropriate probability space, the relevant background knowledge, the rejection region, and the rejection function.

3 Apply CSI to identify human agency where it is currently not known

Thus far CSI has only been used to assert design in two classes of phenomena: those for which human intervention is known through other means, and those for which a precise step-by-step causal history is lacking. We challenge Dembski or other intelligent design advocates to identify, through CSI, some physical artifact - currently not known to be the product of human design - as an artifact constructed by humans. After this prediction through CSI, provide confirming evidence for this conclusion, independent of Dembskian principles.

Along similar lines, apply CSI to identify a suspicious death, currently thought to be from natural causes, as foul play. Furthermore, also provide confirming evidence for this conclusion, independent of Dembskian principles.

We note that Dembski himself has stressed the importance of independent evidence (Dembski 2002: 91).

4 Distinguish between chance and design in archaeoastronomy

The Anasazi, or ancestral Puebloans, occupied what is now the southwestern United States from about 600 to 1300 ce. Several of their buildings - including those at Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, and Chimney Rock - have been interpreted as astronomical observatories, with alignments correlated to solstices, equinoxes, lunar standstills and other astronomical events (Malville and Putnam 1989). Using the techniques of The Design Inference, provide a rigorous mathematical analysis of the evidence, determining whether these alignments are due to chance or human design.

Similar challenges exist for the claimed astronomical alignments at Stonehenge (Hawkins 1965; North 1996) and Nabta (Malville and others 1998), and the enigmatic drawings at Nazca in southern Peru. Which of the proposed alignments were designed, and which are pure coincidence?

5 Apply CSI to archaeology

Another interesting question about the Anasazi is the presence of large numbers of pottery shards at certain ruins. Some archeologists have interpreted the number of these shards as exceeding the amount that could be expected through accidents. Use CSI to determine if the pots were broken through accident, or human intent (possibly in support of some religious ritual).

Archeologists have developed methods for determining whether broken flints cracked due to human intervention or not (Cole and others 1978). Attempt to re-derive this classification, or prove it wrong, using the methods of CSI.

Provide a useful means of applying CSI to distinguish early stone tools from rocks with random impact marks.

6 Provide a more detailed account of CSI in biology

Produce a workbook of examples using the explanatory filter, applied to a progressive series of biological phenomena, including allelic substitution of a point mutation. There are two issues to be addressed by this exercise. The first is that a series of fully worked-out examples will demonstrate the feasibility of applying CSI to biological problems. The second is to show that assigning small-scale changes to "chance" and "design" only is indicated for much larger-scale changes or systems already noted as having the attribute of "irreducible complexity". It is our expectation that application of the "explanatory filter" to a wide range of biological examples will, in fact, demonstrate that "design" will be invoked for all but a small fraction of phenomena, and that most biologists would find that many of these classifications are "false positive" attributions of "design".

7 Use CSI to classify the complexity of animal communication

As mentioned in Elsberry and Shallit (2003: 9), many birds exhibit complex songs. We challenge Dembski or other design advocates to produce a rigorous account of the CSI in a variety of bird songs, producing explicit numerical estimates for the number of bits of CSI.

Similar challenges can be issued for dolphin vocalizations, as in providing a definitive test of the "signature whistle" hypothesis (Caldwell and others 1990), and estimation of information of a dolphin biosonar click (to be compared to the information measure suggested by Kamminga [1998]).

8 Animal cognition

Apply CSI to resolve issues in animal cognition and language use by non-human animals. Some of these outstanding issues include studies of mirror self-recognition (Gallup 1970, 1982) and artificial language understanding in chimpanzees (Savage-Rumbaugh 1993), dolphins (Herman and others 1993), and parrots (Pepperberg 1993). We note the use of examples in Dembski's work involving a laboratory rat traversing a maze as an indication of the applicability of CSI to animal cognition (Dembski 1998, 1999, 2002).

These, we feel, are reasonable challenges that Dembski, or others who wish to pursue "intelligent design" as a scientific research paradigm, ought to be eager to meet.


We are grateful to Anna Lubiw, Ian Musgrave, John Wilkins, Erik Tellgren, and Paul Vitányi, who read a preliminary version of the longer paper from which this article is derived (Elsberry and Shallit 2003) and gave us many useful comments. We owe a large debt to Richard Wein, whose original ideas have had significant impact on our thinking.

[Adapted with permission from section 12 of Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit, "Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski's 'complex specified information'". Available on-line at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf.]


Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK, Tyack TL. Review of the signature-whistle hypothesis for the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin. In: Leatherwood S, Reeves RR, editors. The Bottlenose Dolphin. San Diego (CA): Academic Press, 1990. p 199-234.

Cole JR, Funk RE, Godfrey LR, Starna W. On criticisms of "Some Paleolithic tools from northeast North America": rejoinder. Current Anthropology 1978; 19: 665-9.

Dembski WA. The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Dembski WA. Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Dembski WA. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Elsberry W, Shallit J. Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski's "complex specified information. 2003. Available on-line at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf.

Forrest B. The wedge at work: How intelligent design creationism is wedging its way into the cultural and academic mainstream. In: Pennock RT, editor. Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2001. p 5-53.

Gallup Jr GG. Chimpanzees: self-recognition. Science 1970; 167: 86-7.

Gallup Jr GG. Self-awareness and the emergence of mind in primates. American Journal of Primatology 1982; 2: 237-48.

Gilchrist GW. The elusive scientific basis of intelligent design theory. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1997 May/Jun; 17 (3): 14-5.

Hawkins GS. Stonehenge Decoded. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Herman LM, Kuczaj SA, Holder MD. Responses to anomalous gestural sequences by a language-trained dolphin: evidence for processing of semantic relations and syntactic information. Journal of Experimental Psychology 1993; 122: 184-94.

Kamminga C, Cohen Stuart AB, de Bruin MG. A time-frequency entropy measure of uncertainty applied to dolphin echolocation signals. Acoustics Letters 1998; 21 (8): 155-60.

Malville JM, Putnam C. Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest. Boulder (CO): Johnson Books, 1989.

Malville JM, Wendorf F, Mazar AA, Schild R. Megaliths and Neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt. Nature 1998; 392: 488-91.

North JD. Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Pepperberg IM. Cognition and communication in an African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Studies on a nonhuman, nonprimate, nonmammalian subject. In Roitblat HL, Herman LM, Nachtigall PE, editors. Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives. Mahwah (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993. p 221-48.

Savage-Rumbaugh ES. Language learnability in man, ape, and dolphin. In Roitblat HL, Herman LM, Nachtigall PE, editors. Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives. Mahwah (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993. p 457-73.

About the Author(s): 
Wesley Elsberry
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1

Eight Challenges for Intelligent Design Advocates
Wesley Elsberry, Texas A&M University, and Jeffrey Shallit, University of Waterloo
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Evolution: Still Deep in the Heart of Textbooks

To watchers of the creationism/evolution controversy, the textbook adoption process in Texas is not only familiar but also important. Evolution is historically among the most contentious areas in the process. Moreover, decisions on textbooks in Texas affect far more students than just those in the Lone Star State. Because Texas is the second largest textbook market in the country, behind only California, textbooks adopted there will also be offered in states around the country. The stakes are high for the publishers, too: the state is expected to spend 570 million dollars on new textbooks, of which 30 million dollars is for biology textbooks.

As the adoption process for biology textbooks began in early 2003, the ranks of those vocally opposed to evolution education swelled. For decades, Mel and Norma Gabler’s Educational Research Analysts — “a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas” which places “scientific flaws in arguments for evolution” at the top of its list of concerns (http://members.aol.com/TxtbkRevws/about.htm) — has urged the Texas Board of Education to minimize evolution and even to include creationism in the textbooks adopted for use in the state (see, for example, RNCSE 1999 Jan/Feb; 19 [1]: 10). In 2003, the Gablers were joined by a host of homegrown creationists as well as by the Discovery Institute, the institutional home of “intelligent design”, in seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks under consideration.

Anti-evolutionists faced an uphill battle from the start

First, the state science standards, adopted by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in 1997, require students to learn about evolution. There is no mention of creationism or “intelligent design” in the standards. The state standards form the basis of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, which students must pass in order to graduate from high school. Consequently, teachers could compellingly argue that it would be counterproductive to minimize evolution, or to introduce creationism, in the biology textbooks.

Second, whereas in the past the board was allowed to edit textbooks for content, in 1995 the state legislature limited the board’s power. With regard to textbooks, the board is now allowed only to enforce three requirements:

  • they must satisfy each element of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards;
  • they must have good bindings;
  • they must be free of factual errors.
There were no complaints about the bindings. Anti-evolutionists were keen, however, not only to allege that the textbooks were laden with factual errors, but also to claim that the books failed to satisfy the TEKS standards — in particular TEKS requirement 112.43c(3)A, which states that students should “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.” The language of “3(A)” (as it became known) lent itself to anti-evolutionist calls to “teach the controversy”.

Such claims contradicted the assessment of a 12-member review panel commissioned by the Texas Education Agency, which in June decided that the textbooks were both scientifically accurate and in conformity with the TEKS standards. Anti-evolutionists, including board members David Bradley, Terri Leo, and Don McLeroy, were later to allege that the TEA incorrectly instructed the panel — perhaps intentionally, Bradley speculated (see, for example, the Galveston County Daily News 2003 Jul 20, available on-line at http://www.galvnews.com/print.lasso?ewcd=97dd2da2a536a818). Of course, the final decision on whether to approve the textbooks rested with the board.

Throughout the process, news stories as well as letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and press releases from all sides of the controversy filled Texas newspapers; for reasons of space they are not discussed here (although Alfred Gilman’s op-ed, signed by seventeen members of the National Academy of Science and/or the Institute of Medicine, including four Nobel laureates, is reprinted on p 8). Many of these pieces are archived on the web site of Texas Citizens for Science: http://www.txscience.org.

The July hearing

On July 9, 2003, at the first of two scheduled public hearings, nearly three dozen speakers addressed the board, almost all of them speaking in defense of the 11 biology textbooks submitted. (NCSE executive director Eugenie C Scott and postdoctoral scholar Alan Gishlick attended as observers.) “I’m here to keep outside forces from removing science from science books”, said David Hillis, Professor of Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, and president of the Society for the Study of Evolution (San Antonio Express News 2003 Jul 10; available on-line at http://news.mysanantonio.com/story.cfm?xla=saen&xlb=180&xlc=1023426).

Many of the speakers were reacting to a critique of the textbooks submitted by the Discovery Institute (http://www.discovery.org/articleFiles/PDFs/TexasPrelim.pdf). The critique, based largely on Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution (Washington [DC]: Regnery, 2000), graded the textbooks on their discussion of 4 “icons”: the Miller-Urey experiment, the Cambrian explosion, Haeckel’s drawings of vertebrate embryos, and industrial melanism in peppered moths. Only one textbook passed, with a grade of C–.

Two fellows of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture testified at the June hearing: Raymond Bohlin, executive director of Probe Ministries, and Francis J Beckwith, newly appointed as Associate Professor of Church–State Studies at Baylor University. Consistent with the Discovery Institute’s recent tactics, Bohlin insisted that he was not calling for “intelligent design” to be added to the textbooks or for evolution to be removed. Instead, he told CNN, “Every theory has its weaknesses, has its problems, and evolution seems to be the one theory in the textbooks that just isn’t treated that way” (2003 Jul 9). Steven Schafersman, president of the pro-evolution education grassroots group Texas Citizens for Science (see RNCSE 2003 May–Aug; 23 [3–4]: 9), was unimpressed: “They’re trying to get in anti-evolution material by calling it a weakness” (Houston Chronicle 2003 Jun 10).

A complete transcript of the July hearing is available on-line at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/july03transcript.pdf.

Between the July hearing and the September hearing, the BOE received reams of written comments on the textbooks, to which the publishers were required to respond. For example, in his critique of Biology, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Mark Ramsey of the newly formed anti-evolutionist group Texans for Better Science Education asserted that a recent article in a popular journal (RO Prum and AH Bush, “Which came first, the feather or the bird?” Scientific American 2003 Mar; 288: 84–93) “fully discredits the dino-to-bird idea.” The publisher replied that “[t]he hypothesis that birds evolved from dinosaurs continues to have strong support in the scientific community and has been strengthened recently by new fossil finds in China”, and noted that Prum and Bush accept the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, quoting the same article’s acknowledgment that “birds are a group of feathered therapod dinosaurs that evolved the capacity of flight” (http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/2003pubresponses.pdf). In the end, the publishers held the line, agreeing to no changes that would materially weaken the treatment of evolution in their textbooks.

The September hearing

On September 10, at the second public hearing, a standing-room-only crowd was in attendance. More than 160 people signed up to speak before the board, and the testimony continued into the wee hours. Supporters of quality science education, including members of NCSE, Texas Citizens for Science, and the Texas Freedom Network, which led the statewide organizing effort; scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and around the state; educators, including many members of the Texas Association of Biology Teachers; and concerned parents, clergy, and citizens in general were out in force — many wearing their “Don’t mess with textbooks” T-shirts. (The clever variation on the “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter slogan, which became the pro-evolution education movement’s unofficial motto, was due to NCSE’s Archives Project Director, David Leitner; see p 22.)

Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told the board, “The weaknesses of evolution alleged here today are founded on ideology, not science. ... There’s really no debate about any of this in the scientific community.” Her view was confirmed by the testimony of research biologists such as Andrew Ellington and Matthew Levy of the University of Texas at Austin, whose testimony was a devastating critique of the Discovery Institute’s assessment of the biology textbooks’ treatment of scientific research into the origin of life.

Steven Weinberg, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, addressed the common criticism that evolution is “just a theory” by remarking that his theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles won him the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. He added that the existence of phenomena unexplained by a given theory is not, in his view, a “weakness”. He also reminded the BOE:

[Y]ou’re not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, any more than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury. ... I think it’s clear that the reason why the issue was raised with regard to evolution is because of an attempt to preserve religious beliefs against the possible impact of the Theory of Evolution.
The Reverend Roger Paynter of Austin’s First Baptist Church testified, “It is my deep conviction that creation flows from the hand of a creator God. But that is a statement of faith and not something that I or anyone else can prove in a scientific experiment. To lead children to believe otherwise is a disservice to them.”

Creationists, for their part, were vocal, too. Mark Ramsey, of Texans for Better Science Education — who is also the secretary and a board member of the Greater Houston Creation Association — said, “I was indoctrinated, some would say brainwashed, to believe that evolution was as proven as gravity. ... Today, over two decades later, many of us now know better.”

Out-of-state witnesses, including several associated with the Discovery Institute, were not allowed to testify during the hearing; they were, however, permitted to make presentations to board members after the hearing adjourned and to submit written testimony. NCSE’s Alan Gishlick and Eugenie C Scott and NCSE member Robert T Pennock stressed the importance of a sound presentation of evolution in textbooks.

A complete transcript of the September hearing is available on-line at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/textbooks/adoptprocess/sept03transcript.pdf; the passages of testimony above are quoted from it.

Following the hearing, in October the Discovery Institute sent the textbook publishers and members of the board a document intended to support, reiterate, and extend its criticism of the textbooks under consideration. Literally hundreds of pages long, the document contained excerpts from scientific publications as well as the Discovery Institute’s interpretation of them. Evidently attempting to pre-empt criticism of the sort received by its “Bibliography of supplementary resources for Ohio science instruction” (see RNCSE 2002 Aug/Sep; 22 [4]: 12–18, 23–24), the document warned of the likelihood of critics “falsely accus[ing] Discovery Institute of misrepresenting the scientific literature by misquoting or quoting out of context.”

A less lofty appeal to the board came from Columbine Redemption, a nonprofit organization founded by Darrell Scott, whose daughter was murdered in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In a press release with the headline “Bad science produces bad consequences” (2003 Oct 13; available on-line at http://www.strengthsandweaknesses.com/D.Scott.Oct.13.PR.2.pdf), Columbine Redemption alleged that evolution education was responsible for the Columbine massacre and urged the board to “reject proposed Texas biology books that do not teach weaknesses of evolution as required by Texas law.”

The November vote

As the November vote approached, the publishers held firm, making only minor editorial changes, but none of the overhauls requested by anti-evolutionists. “In keeping with their commitment to provide students with the best possible science education, biology textbook publishers have stood up to political pressure,” said the Texas Freedom Network’s Samantha Smoot. The Discovery Institute, however, claimed that the changes were in response to its critique and vowed to continue to pressure the publishers. “We will be seeking more changes in the textbooks,” said John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (Dallas Morning News 2003 Oct 30; available on-line at http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dallas/politics/state/stories/103103dntextextbooks.10ff7.html).

Two public letters to the board that appeared in early November are of particular interest.

On November 1, the American Institute of Physics released a statement signed by more than 550 Texas scientists and educators denouncing attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the textbooks: “Any dilution in textbooks of the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution should sound an alarm to every parent and teacher.” In addition to the AIP, the American Geological Institute, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences and several of its member societies, also encouraged their members in Texas to sign the statement. The statement and a list of signatories are available on-line at http://www.txscience.org/files/texas-scientists.pdf.

On November 4, David Hillis and Martin Poenie, like Hillis a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, sent a letter to the board urging that all 11 textbooks be adopted without changes. Poenie’s co-authorship was noteworthy because his name appeared on the Discovery Institute’s “A scientific dissent from Darwinism” (see RNCSE 2001 Sep–Dec; 21 [5–6]: 22–3) and again, without Poenie’s authorization, on a similar statement entitled “40 Texas scientists skeptical of Darwin” and because he previously wrote a letter to the board arguing that “Darwinian (hyperdarwinian) mechanisms are not the only ones molding the evolutionary history of life and that we should be free to consider alternative non-darwinian mechanisms of change”. In his November letter, however, Poenie explained, “that letter was not intended to oppose basic evolutionary biology or to support poor teaching or coverage of that topic.” Hillis and Poenie went on to say, “We believe that all of the books conform to the TEKS standards and should be approved and placed on the conforming list of textbooks” (their letter is available on-line at http://www.txscience.org/files/ut-austin-profs2.htm).

On November 6, at the first day of a 2-day meeting, a motion to vote on the books individually was defeated 11–4, thwarting the plans of anti-evolutionist members of the board to approve only the textbooks that, in their judgment, presented evolution undogmatically (Fort Worth Star-Telegram 2003 Nov 6; available on-line at http://www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/7198627.htm). A majority of the board was evidently ready to end the discussion, the Los Angeles Times reported (2003 Nov 7):

The chairwoman of the board, Geraldine Miller of Dallas, was twice reduced to slamming her fist down as a conservative wing of the panel tried repeatedly to reject most of the books.

After tense arguments, a board member voting with the majority, Joe Bernal of San Antonio, urged Miller to simply stop recognizing people who were holding up their hands to speak. That way, he said, she wouldn’t “prolong this agony.”

Eventually, in a preliminary vote conducted on the same day, the board voted 11–4 to approve the books. In both votes, David Bradley, Terri Leo, Gail Lowe, and Don McLeroy were in the minority.

On November 7, the board conducted its final vote, approving all 11 textbooks for use in Texas’s public schools. (At the time of writing, the minutes of the meeting are not available, and it is unclear from the news reports what the exact tally was.) The vote, David Hillis said, “means we will be able to provide good quality biology textbooks to the students of Texas” (UPI wire, 2003 Nov 7). “This is great news for the children of Texas,” said Samantha Smoot. “The board sent a clear message that educational and scientific standards come first for Texas schools, not the ideological preferences of a few people” (Austin Chronicle 2003 Nov 14; available on-line at http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-11-14/pols_feature8.html).

The Discovery Institute, for its part, declared victory, in a press release with the headline “Textbook reformers see last-minute victory in Texas decision” (2003 Nov 7; http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=1634&program=News-CSC). Noting that TEA Chief Deputy Commissioner Robert Scott promised to address any remaining factual errors in the books before they arrive in Texas schools, the Discovery Institute implied that its criticisms of the book were still in play, and later a spokesperson was explicit: “[W]e were happy to hear ... Scott publicly pledge that publishers must address the errors that Discovery had previously identified” (Science & Theology News 2003 Dec; 4 [4]: 10). However, a TEA spokesperson explained that the sorts of errors that are corrected after a book is accepted are usually minor, involving such minutiae as dates, pagination, and punctuation (UPI wire, 2003 Nov 7).

Students in Texas’s public schools will learn their biology from textbooks in which the treatment of evolution is uncompromised. NCSE is proud to have worked closely with the dedicated Texans who helped to ensure victory, including not only NCSE members but also the members and staff of the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Citizens for Science, and the Texas Association of Biology Teachers. Thanks and congratulations.

About the Author(s): 
Skip Evans
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
Evolution: Still Deep in the Heart of Textbooks
Skip Evans
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

What Design Looks Like

You know, people think it must all be very easy, creating.
They think you just have to move on the face of the waters and
wave your hands a bit. It’s not like that at all. —Terry Pratchett, Eric

"Life looks designed" is a common refrain among a variety of creationists. The claim is intuitively appealing because we have experience with design. For most people, that is the only way they know for making a functional machine. Since design is the only explanation they can imagine, they naturally consider it the best explanation. To this extent, "looks designed" is just an argument from ignorance. But many creationists further claim that this appearance of design is objective, can be (and, some say, has been) demonstrated scientifically, and therefore is suitable for teaching in public schools (for example, Dembski 2001a). The little evidence they present, though, is maddeningly vague. In most cases, the supposed evidence for design consists simply of pointing to various examples from natural history and saying, "Look, can’t you see it?" Typically, this is accompanied by the usual creationist attacks on evolution and the claim, implicit or explicit, that design is the only alternative. Often there are vague analogies with human artifacts such as watches or writing, but never with objective standards of comparison. In design theory, "looks designed" has been left to the imagination of the believer.

When done properly, though, the "looks designed" method, or the method of analogy, is an effective method for detecting design. In fact, it is almost always how we recognize design in our daily lives. We learn through direct experience that some things are designed — by seeing the things made — or through testimony of the designers themselves. Most artifacts, though, we recognize as designed because they look like things that we already know are designed.

Analogy is used in science, especially in fields such as archaeology and forensics, to distinguish design from non-design. For example, archaeologists can tell whether a flint was broken deliberately or naturally because flints known to be worked by humans differ from naturally broken flints in features such as fracture angle (Cole and others 1978). SETI researchers, in searching for non-human design, use analogy by assuming human-like properties of extraterrestrials — namely, an interest in communicating and a desire to do so efficiently. And analogy is explicitly accepted, even promoted, by some creationists as a valid method of determining design (Moreland 1994; Thaxton 2001). Analogy to known design should be one way to detect design that evolutionists and creationists can agree upon.

Of course, the analogy method can only provide comparisons with designs produced by humans, since those are the only designs with which we have significant experience. Other design arguments suffer a fatal weakness: Without knowing anything about a designer, we cannot say anything about what to expect from one (Hume 1779; Sober 2003). Detecting a certain pattern does not indicate a designer until it can be demonstrated that the designer produces such a pattern, and this task would seem to be impossible when dealing with potentially supernatural designers. By assuming at least some commonality between humans and the unknown designer, we can avoid that problem. The analogy argument, despite the weakness of its assumption of human-like designs, is one design argument which leads somewhere other than in circles. To use this method, though, we must first say what design looks like.

Determining what design looks like is no trivial matter. A communications satellite, a drainage ditch, OPEC, a mathematical proof, a jelly bean, false teeth, a limerick, the controlled burn of a forest, and shampoo have little in common, but all are designed. Probably no single criterion can ever describe them all. Still, design does have some properties that are fairly general. I examine some of these properties below and consider how they compare with what we see in life. I also consider other properties that creationists claim as indications of design. There are some similarities and some differences between life and design, but as we shall see, even the similarities argue against design as a scientific theory.


Probably the most obvious aspect of designed things is an intermediate level of structural order. Unfortunately, this sort of structure is difficult to characterize quantitatively, but its quality is apparent. Almost all designs have an arrangement that is neither very regular nor very random, but instead is between those extremes. There are exceptions, of course; a brick wall is highly ordered, and a stew is very disordered. Most designs, however, are neither uniform nor random, neither regular nor chaotic. Such an intermediate level of structure arises as a consequence of design. Objects that are too highly ordered are limited in their applications by their simplicity. Objects that are too chaotic are generally more expensive to produce, or their disorder keeps them from fitting and functioning well with other designs.

An intermediate level of structure plainly exists also in life. It is probably the most important characteristic people have in mind when they say that life looks designed. It is related to concepts of information, so it may have inspired some creationist arguments about information theory. Since there is no commonly accepted word for this property, and since it is hard to characterize, it is not surprising that creationist claims about design are vague and ill-formed. Despite the lack of rigorous description, though, we can be fairly confident that having an intermediate level of structure is an important quality shared by both design and life.

This is not enough to conclude that life looks designed, though, because an intermediate level of structure can arise naturally, too. Such structure can be found in molecules, cave formations, the Northern Lights, and Jupiter’s atmosphere, to give just a few examples. Structure arises spontaneously from a variety of processes; in fact, it takes only a couple of seconds for structure to appear in a candle flame. With regard to life, there is evidence that structure not only can arise naturally from ordinary processes, but perhaps should be expected from it (Kauffman 1993; Adami and others 2000).


An underappreciated aspect of design is simplicity. Although many people associate design with complexity, almost all designs aim for maximum simplicity. (Complexity is another concept whose exact meaning is hard to pin down. As I use it here, greater complexity indicates that something is generally harder to understand; simplicity, of course, is the opposite.) Simplicity is important in design because simple designs are easier to invent, easier to implement, easier to modify, and usually easier to use. A good design is a simple design.

Of course, most designs require a certain amount of complexity. A home computer, for example, would not be able to do much if it consisted of nothing more than a solid block of silicon. (Although an advanced civilization could reputedly do a lot with a rectangular black obelisk.) It is in such seemingly complex designs, though, that the principle of simplicity is most important. A computer is actually a fairly simple arrangement of components — CPU, memory, various peripherals, and wires connecting them — with fairly simple interfaces among the components. Each of the components, in turn, is a simple arrangement of sub-components, which may themselves consist of smaller sub-components, and so on until the simplest level is reached. In this way, each component, at whatever level, can be treated as a separate, almost independent unit, making it relatively easy to understand. Without such a simply-connected modular structure, each piece would have the potential to affect any other piece, and considering all the possible interactions would be impractical to say the least.

Simplicity is not what we see in life. Although most life has modular structure — that is, organisms made up of organs made up of cells made up of organelles — the complexity of life is far greater than we see in design. The individual parts are still very complex, the interfaces between parts are very complex, and individual parts can usually directly affect a large number of other parts. This complexity is compounded by the fact that organisms change a great deal over their lifetimes. After decades of work, biologists have scarcely begun to understand how a human body works, much less how all the various organisms in an ecosystem work and interact. A good illustration of the complexity of life is the difficulty of designing a drug with no unwanted side-effects. But I need not elaborate; creationists themselves cite complexity as one of the hallmarks of life. Nothwithstanding disagreement over its source and significance, the complexity of life is another things that evolutionists and creationists can agree upon.

Although simplicity is a goal, complexity can still enter into design in some ways. One way that complexity enters into design is through the process of modification. If a change is made that renders part of a system obsolete, it is often easier to leave in some or all of the old parts, which then add unnecessary complexity to the design. Modification also adds complexity when changes are jury-rigged onto the existing structure rather than incorporated into the fundamental design. For example, some fixes to the Y2K bug involved checking the 2-digit year and trying to determine which century was intended, rather than the simpler and more correct, but much harder to do retroactively, fix of using 4-digit years. Such complexity is not necessarily bad design, either, since a frequent requirement of design is to get a working product out quickly, even if it is not as elegant as possible. Such complexity seems to appear in life, too, in the form of vestigial and jury-rigged features such as the appendix and the panda’s thumb. Evolutionists cite these as examples of poor design, which they may be from the standpoint of an omnipotent creator, but they are traits that life shares in common with our experience of design.

In summary, although creationists frequently cite complexity as evidence of design, simplicity would be the real evidence. Complexity can enter design through careless modification, but again such complexity can often be recognized as such, as with jury-rigged or vestigial parts. Besides, such complexity is what we expect from evolution.

Finally, design can become complex through evolutionary algorithms, which use repeated cycles of reproduction of initially random designs, selection from among them, and slight modifications and recombinations of the results (Davidson 1997). Such a design procedure does not need to minimize complexity because it always treats the design as a whole. The final design is extremely difficult to understand, but there is no need to understand it. The use of such a design method by humans is still in its infancy, but if it becomes widespread, we may then be justified in saying that life’s complexity looks designed. Of course, at that point "designed" and "evolved" become synonyms.


One of the defining features of life is that life reproduces itself. This is very different from designed things, which, with very few exceptions, are designed so that their production is separate from their other functions. A separate manufacturing process offers extreme benefits of efficiency for the simple reason that a manufacturing plant does not need to be built into each artifact. The few designed things that do reproduce themselves, such as computer viruses, can do so only because the production process and necessary resources are trivially cheap. And even the self-replicating human designs differ from life in that they do not go through the growth and development that living things experience before they can reproduce.

Let us suppose, along with Paley (1802, ch 2), that someone on a heath found a watch that "possessed the unexpected property of producing, in the course of its movement, another watch like itself." Paley said, "The first effect would be to increase his admiration of the contrivance, and his conviction of the consummate skill of the contriver." But would it? Such a watch, even with today’s technology, would be far too large to wear. Even if it were small enough, it would still be far larger than necessary. What’s more, the watch would need some way of obtaining raw materials, which would mean either the watch leaves its owner from time to time, or it manipulates its owner to bring it and the materials together. We could certainly admire the consummate skill of the contriver, but our admiration of the contrivance would be severely mitigated by the unnecessary impositions that reproduction would require. Reproduction may find some uses in design; for example, a self-reproducing factory for ordinary watches could conceivably produce an endless supply of useful watches with little requirement for labor. However, there is also a demand for non-reproductive manufacturing of designed items. Almost all designs that people are familiar with today would be useless if they had to include the capability of reproduction.

Repair of designed objects also has to come from the outside. The same economies that keep reproduction out of design also prohibit self-repair. Life forms, in contrast, include the ability to repair minor and in some cases extreme damage. This difference between life and design is so familiar that I need not go into further detail.

Form and Function

Another aspect of design is that form tends to follow function. A designer looking for a component to perform a particular function will, when possible, use an existing design rather than inventing a new one. When a useful innovation is introduced, it quickly gets applied to a wide variety of uses. This leads to the property that similar parts fulfill a common function even on very different products. For example, zippers of essentially the same design are found on clothing, tents, luggage, and other things. The same basic engine design can be found on motorcycles, motor boats, and lawnmowers. Some parts, such as screws, resistors, and software libraries, are even standardized so as to make it easy to use them in a wide variety of applications.

Life, in contrast, shows much less connection between form and function. Different taxa achieve similar functions with very different forms. For example, bats, birds, insects, and pterosaurs all have quite different wing anatomies. In different groups of insects, various forms of hearing organs are found in at least 11 different places on the body (Yack and Fullard 1993; Hoy and Robert 1996). And similar forms in life do not imply similar function. A human hand, a bat’s wing, a mole’s paw, a dog’s paw, and a whale’s flipper all have the same basic bone structure, despite their different functions of grasping, flying, digging, running, and swimming.

This difference between life and design is most apparent in the fact that life arranges naturally into a nested hierarchy, but design does not. With life forms, taxa defined by major features fall either entirely inside or entirely outside other taxa. This property led to the familiar hierarchical classification begun by Linnaeus. The hierarchy is not perfect, but it is a natural hierarchy in that there are enough common traits to make most of the groupings obvious. With designed things, on the other hand, overlap is the norm. Although it is possible to form a nested hierarchy of designed things (indeed, it is possible to arrange any set of different objects in a nested hierarchy), there is no natural nested hierarchy. Consider sports, for example. There are lots of different features one could consider in classifying various sports: team sports, sports played on a rectangular field, sports played with a ball, and so on. However one classifies them, though, the groups overlap. The category of sports itself overlaps with other categories such as combat, art, and fitness. No obvious classification scheme presents itself. In fact, the only classification scheme that is commonly used with designed things generally is alphabetical order.

Trial and Error

Creationists seem to think of design as a single event that is done quickly and is over with. Even those creationists who see creation spread over time seem to envision many individual creation events. Real design, however, is a process. Designs are rarely completed in one attempt. They must be tested and modified to account for unforeseen consequences. Testing is done at many stages, from the first conception to field tests of the final product. Entire industries are devoted to the testing of structures, vehicles, computer systems, and other designs. All of these tests (if they are effective) result in information that guides the subsequent design. Furthermore, designers draw upon the experience of previous designers. When an architect designs a simple bridge or building, the process may seem straightforward, but that design is based on an education that comes from literally centuries of trial and error by earlier architects and builders (Petroski 1982).

This last point raises another observable property of design. Because designs are so often built upon previous designs, designs evolve over time, with new designs appearing as modifications of previous ones. This, of course, is also a property of life, as the fossil record shows. However, because people can intelligently combine a wide variety of innovations and other features, designs can change rapidly over time. Very few human designs have been around for more than a few thousand years, and most do not last nearly that long. Furthermore, the more complex designs are generally the shorter-lived. Although life changes over time, it does not do so nearly as fast as we see in human-driven modifications in design.

Purpose and Function

Creationists often claim that purpose indicates design. But purpose is hard to specify without knowing the designer, and it is often conflated with function. Purpose, as I use it here, is what someone intends a thing to be used for; function is what the thing actually does. The intent is useless for determining design, because it can be whatever anyone proposes, and the same object can, and often does, have different purposes for different people. Purposes often conflict. For example, a lynx’s purpose for a rabbit is likely quite different from that of the rabbit itself. Undesigned things often have purpose. For example, a stone need not be designed for people to give it a purpose as a pounding stone. The designer of an object can design a purpose into it, but others can find their own uses, as any MacGyver rerun shows.

Function also fails to indicate design for many of the same reasons. People can find functions other than what the designer intended. And functions can change in a heartbeat, as when the muscles of the fleeing rabbit become food for the lynx. Most importantly, undesigned things can have function — in fact, we expect function to evolve (see below). In short, purpose and function are too variable and subjective, and do not discriminate designed items from undesigned items.


Dembski proposes to recognize some design through a property he calls complexity-specification. If a pattern is highly improbable and yet matches a specification that was given beforehand, then that pattern has complexity-specification and, he says, must have been designed (Dembski 1999). For example, if I deal a hand of 13 cards that exactly matches an example bridge hand you saw in the newspaper that morning, you can be confident the deal was designed to come out that way. To detect this sort of design, Dembski proposes an "explanatory filter" which, if it rules out regularity (natural law) and chance, finds design as the only alternative (Dembski 1998). But because complexity-specification is defined simply as the lack of known causes, it is nothing more than an argument from ignorance given formal mathematical form. It does not say a thing about the properties of design.

However, it is instructive to consider complexity-specification at greater length anyway. Specification means matching something that was given elsewhere. Complexity (in Dembski’s unorthodox usage) simply means unlikelihood of occurring by chance in its observed configuration. By these definitions, patterns of complex specification can be produced naturally, too, with chance providing complexity and regularity acting selectively to reduce it. Evolution proceeds in large part by random mutations causing variation and natural selection winnowing that variation according to constraints of the environment. The mutations produce a form of complexity, and natural selection acts as a specifier. Since evolution includes complexity (mutations) plus specification (selection), it is only to be expected that evolution would produce complexity-specification in evolved life.

It is because Dembski’s filter fails to consider this combination of regularity and chance acting together that it will inevitably group together the products of evolution with design. Dembski claims that natural selection cannot create complexity-specification, but he only argues against the straw-man of creating it de novo. Even he admits that natural selection can bring the specification in from the environment (Dembski 2001b). And this, after all, is what natural selection is all about.

Actually detecting the results of specification, though, can be a tricky business. Ideally, we conclude specification when an observation matches a complex pattern that was given earlier. This does not work, though, when the observation comes before we know what we are supposed to match it with. In such cases, the "specification" comes from finding a pattern in part of the object and seeing the same pattern carry through the rest of the object. (This is the general procedure that Dembski suggests. To the best of my knowledge, he has never provided a way of detecting complexity-specification in life that is objective and practical enough for two people to get the same results.) In other words, complexity-specification implies, in practice, some amount of regularity, but not so much that the word "complex" no longer applies. This just describes the intermediate level of structure discussed in a previous section. And since this property originates via both natural processes and design, it cannot be used to distinguish between them.

Functional Integration

Another property that has been taken to indicate design is functional integration, or multiple parts working together to produce a particular function or end (Lumsden, quoted in Alters 1995). This property seems intuitively appealing because much design consists of assembling parts to create a particular function. But functional integration may be claimed even when origins are known to be natural. For example, the climate of the Mississippi Basin is determined by the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, trade winds, and other factors. Since the climate is a functional end (it allows an ecology suitable for certain organisms) produced by multiple factors, it fits the definition of functional integration. And in fact this example was used as an argument for design by the 19th-century creationist George Taylor (Morton 2001). Obviously, though, any arrangement of physical factors, whether designed or not, is going to create some kind of climate. Since functional integration arises from non-design, it cannot reliably indicate design.

It may still be argued that functional integration that arises naturally is not necessarily very functional (the inland Antarctic climate is not terribly hospitable) or very integrated (we do not often think of trade winds, mountains, and a gulf as a single unit). Again, however, functional integration is a quality of evolution as well as of design. Evolution cannot proceed without units to reproduce. "Unit" already implies some integration, and reproduction is itself a function. Furthermore, survival entails many additional functions such as finding food and escaping predators. Natural selection would ensure that such functionality and integration are maintained. So functional integration indicates evolution at least as much as it indicates design.

Fine Tuning

Although it applies not to life but to the universe around it, the fine-tuning argument for design deserves some consideration here. This argument claims that many physical constants and other features of the universe fall in the only narrow range that would allow life to be possible — so many features, in fact, that the combination could not be explained by chance and must be designed (Barrow and Tipler 1986; Ross 1994). Others have shown the problems with this argument (Le Poidevin 1996; Stenger 1997). Of interest here is a prior question, namely whether fine-tuning indicates design in the first place.

Fine-tuning is an aspect of design, of course; the term even comes from engineering. Designing components to mesh well with other components or with the outside environment is a common necessity. However, designers are not entirely stupid. When they fine-tune, they tune the parts that are easy to change. If parts are added later that have not been built yet, they fit the new parts to the existing design, making the fine-tuning of the new parts part of designing them. Fine-tuning is done to malleable parts and parts that come later.

This is very different from the fine-tuning argument from "intelligent design theorists". The physical constants of the universe, to all appearances, are not easily changeable, if they are changeable at all. Life, on the other hand, is extremely adaptable. Furthermore, life appeared much later than the universe and exists in only a minuscule fraction of it. The universe we see is compatible with a universe designed in fine detail to support life as we know it (design theory is compatible with anything), but an argument based on analogy to design would claim that life is fine-tuned to the universe, not vice versa. The claim that the universe was fine-tuned for life is the very opposite of a design argument.


Table 1 ( p 34) shows a summary of the similarities and differences between life and design. Although there are a number of similarities, the differences are large and important. In particular, life’s growth and reproduction alone are enough, it seems to me, to place life and design in quite separate categories. Life’s complexity and its nested hierarchy of traits are also highly significant differences. The overall conclusion is clear: life looks undesigned.

Table 1. Similarities and Differences Between Life and Design
Intermediate level of structural complexityIntermediate level of structural complexity
Modular structureModular structure
Evidence of careless modification (jury-rigging, vestigial parts)Evidence of careless modification (jury-rigging, vestigial parts)
Change over time; new forms are modifications of previous formsChange over time; new forms are modifications of previous forms
Functional integrationFunctional integration
Blueprints, tools, and other evidence of the design processNo evidence of design process
Simple organizationComplex organization; intermodular interdependence
ManufactureReproduction, growth, and development
Generally repaired from outsideSelf-healing, at least in part
Form follows functionForms follows nested hierarchy
Rapid changeSlow change
It bears repeating that the properties of design that I have considered are properties of human design, and they do not necessarily apply to a supernatural designer. However, human design is the only model of design we have by which to tell what design looks like, to the extent that design can be said to look like anything. If it does not look like this, it does not look designed.

The reader has probably realized by now that most of the aspects of life that look designed are also evidence of its evolution. In the cases of evidence of careless modification and change over time, the connection is explicit. An intermediate level of structural complexity probably arises from the selection and recombination inherent in evolution. Functional integration is not necessarily evidence for evolution but is an essential aspect of it. Modular structure is the only other aspect that design has in common with life that is not also evidence for evolution, but it is at least consistent with evolution. Even fine-tuning argues for life’s changing to fit the environment.

To the extent that life looks designed, life looks evolved. This should not come as a great surprise, because the process of design and the process of evolution share some important commonalities (see also Shanks and Joplin 2000). Both processes build upon what has gone before, and both processes select the "good" features and discard what does not work. There are also important differences, to be sure, but the similarities in process should not be overlooked.

Creationists have been criticized for their misrepresentations of biology and other sciences. Their representation of design is no less faulty. They consider complexity to be a hallmark of design, while simplicity is typically the designer’s aim. They believe that design and chance are mutually exclusive, whereas trial and error is sometimes used in design and, in the long run, is an inevitable and invaluable part of it. Finally, they treat design as an event, when in fact it is a process — a process that itself can be designed. Such misconceptions not only make for flawed theology, they cannot be good for engineering practices, either.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that "intelligent design theory" is not about design at all. Since most of the people who espouse it seem to view the design as a sudden all-at-once event, their model (not surprisingly) seems to be that of the fiat creation described in the Bible and Koran, not the extended process that familiar design entails. If creationists want to describe a different mechanism than design, they should use a different label for it. I suggest "decree", which has the advantage of fitting the theological position that underlies their ideas.

In both science and engineering, precise specifications are important. Two hundred years have passed since Paley popularized "intelligent design theory" (Paley 1802), and creationists have not yet satisfactorily clarified what they mean by "design", much less suggested useful tests for detecting it. At best, "intelligent design theory" is undefined and thus wholly useless. At worst, taking the phrase "looks designed" at face value as indicating analogy to human design, "intelligent design theory" is contradicted by the evidence.


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About the Author(s): 
Mark Isaak
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What Design Looks Like
Mark Isaak
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