An ID advocate writes in, claiming that the designer is behind every adaptation

September 13, 2022 • 9:15 am

I didn’t post on my website the comment you see below. For one thing, it had nothing to do with the post it was supposed to be under (“Mencken on nonexistent gods“). The name the reader wanted used was “Midhun”.  And he has a theory that is his (see my bolded bit below). The commenter’s writing is indented, while mine is flush right. Spacing is as in the original.

(This comment isn’t directly related to the thread. Sorry for that)I’m a college student studying biology. I became interested in the Evolution v/s ID debate during the pandemic lockdown & have been reading the publications from both sides of the debate. Found this blog in that process.

Now comes Midhun’s theory that is his. Here is his theory:

Finally I settled in a ‘hybrid’ model (that incorporates both Evolution & ID) as the most rational position.Sir, I know you are an ID critic. Thats why I’m describing my model here. I welcome healthy criticisms from you so that I can change my model accordingly.

If Midhun thinks I’m going to write a long response, he’s sorely mistaken. I’d normally respond, “Read my book” and add “there are plenty of criticisms of ID and your views already on the Internet and in papers. Do your homework.” But I see that my neurons are driving me to say a bit more.

Midhun goes on, limning the theory which is his and nobody else’s:

This is the brief summary of my model: The origin of life and other major innovations happened in the history of life (such as origin of photosynthesis, origin of eukaryotic cell, eyespot, origin of animal phylas during cambrian etc) had the direct involvement of Intelligent Designer. The reason I infer so is summarized in two points

(1)those events were accompanied with quantum leap in biological information.(2) In agreement with ID theory, I believe that Intelligent Design is the most rational explanation for the origin of large amount of biological information in a geologically short time period.

Unfortunately, Midhun doesn’t define what he means—I’ll assume Midhun is a male—by “a quantum leap in biological information”. If he means ONE HONKING BIG MUTATION THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING, that’s very unlikely, but if he means mutations themselves are “quanta”: one DNA base changes at a time (or, in some cases, we have an insertion or hybridization event which can change many bases in the genome) then that’s okay. But this isn’t what he means.  So his first premise is unevidenced and most likely wrong.  The concept of “macromutations” disappeared around 1940 for good reason: lack of evidence.

As for #2, we have explanations for all those phenomena in naturalistic terms. If he thinks that Intelligent Design, which involves a creator, is the most “rational” explanation for stuff like phyla and eyespots, then he’s obliged to tell us where the Designer came from. Was the Designer’s origin also through a quantum leap? And the answer, “The Designer was just there” is not sufficient.

Midhun goes on:

That being said, I do not think all traits that originated in life’s history need the direct involvement of designer.The explanation I have for the origin of those traits is:Organisms directly designed by designer have the built-in ability to evolve w.r.t changing environments. In other words, organisms are designed to evolve.The reason I say so is: Increasing number of scientific papers points to the active role of organisms’ pre-existing informational systems in the process of evolution.This is in contrast to the idea of passive role of organism in evolution that was implied by the classical darwinian mechanism of accidentally generated variation plus fixation.The informational systems within organisms have the potential to generate variations in an active way. In short, organisms have the built-in ability to generate variations.Examples are: Mutations generated by regulated biochemical processes during the time of non-lethal stress, stress induced gene amplification, stress induced transposition, recombination, epigenetic modifications, HGT, releasing cryptic variations during stress, alternative splicing during stress and other cell-mediated genomic rearrangements.In addition to that, variations generated by phenotypic plasticity- which is an intrinsic property of the developmental systems.A 2021 Bioessays paper calls the active role of organism in evolution as “biological agency”.This doesn’t mean organisms are intentionally or consciously generating variations. Rather, its a property of developmental and other cellular systems to respond to changing environments or stress.

The idea of “evolvability”, that organisms were designed to evolve by natural selection when the time was appropriate, is appealing to some, but there’s virtually no evidence for it, especially in non-microbial species. It is true that, in some mathematical theories, an organism can evolve to have a higher mutation rate during times of environmental change, but this happens only when environmental change is rapid and recurrent. There are two further problems:  most mutations are at best neutral and often maladaptive; very few are advantageous. A gene designed to jack up the mutation rate in bad times will, in general, be LESS fit than its alternatives unless the “mutator” gene somehow acts specifically on the genes “needed” to meet the environmental challenge.  We know of no such mutators. Further, the mutator gene, unless it is tightly physically linked on the DNA to the genes “needed” to change during environmental stress, will be separated from it, and then will be a generalized allele making errors all over the genome. That would also be maladaptive, and the mutator would be eliminated by natural selection.  Notice that Midhun adduces no evidence for the theory, because there is none, at least not in eukaryotes. (There is disputed evidence that a higher mutation rate has evolved under stress in bacteria, but it’s not widely agreed that this happens. Further, in bacteria a new mutation doesn’t often recombine away from other genes, as there is virtually no recombination.)

I don’t know why people like Midhun have to postulate a complicated and unevidenced mechanism for natural selection that requires an undescribed Designer. Not only is the Darwinian mechanism of variation plus selection more parsimonious, but we can actually see it happen in both the lab and the wild. When we map adaptations that have evolved in real time (either in flies or humans as in lactose tolerance), we find that they are based on simple DNA changes in structural or regulatory genes. They are not quantum leaps, nor are they generalized mutator genes. The last sentences that Midhun proffers, “This doesn’t mean organisms are intentionally or consciously generating variations. Rather, its a property of developmental and other cellular systems to respond to changing environments or stress”, are wrong.  We have no evidence of a generalized property of ability to respond to stress by increasing the mutation rate. (They can respond to stress via evolved responses, like rotifers growing spines when they detect the presence of fish in their lake. But that’s due to evolved plasticity, not a sudden increase in mutations.) While some factors, like exposure to mutagens or high temperatures, can increase the mutation rate, they do so only by passively increasing the error rate of DNA replication; there are no signs that these are anything other than the unavoidable effects of chemicals on nucleotides.

Midhun continues to expound the theory that is his:

Although the authors of all papers that describe the aforementioned mechanisms believe that the ability to evolve itself was evolved, they do not offer an explanation. In fact how can they?If evolution we observe today are actively mediated by various biomolecules, one cannot invoke the same process to explain the origin of those biomolecules in the first place. Doing so would be a logical contradiction.

But I thought Midhun was offering a non-Designer (i.e., straight neo-Darwinian) mechanism for some traits. Instead, he drags in the Great Designer to explain evolvability!  In fact, it’s God all the way down! And it has to be, for Midhun cannot see adaptation as a process that can occur naturally, even though we’ve seen it happen. Rather, to him it looks teleological and purposeful.

I believe that Intelligence is the most rational explanation for the origin of the informational systems that actively facilitates this mode of evolution.

This raises the question of what he means by “most rational”. I won’t make any disparaging remarks here, but will note that it’s not rational to posit a designer for which there’s no evidence whatever, and plenty of evidence for the classic evolutionary process of natural selection (or other evolutionary forces) acting on mutations that happen to be around, but which originate at “random”: through accidents of DNA replication that have nothing to do with natural selection.

Finally, coming to the classical darwinian mechanism, I believe that a strictly darwinian mechanism is incomplete and it alone cannot generate evolutionary novelties. As far as I know, no complex novelties have emerged through strictly darwinian mechanism.(By the term darwinian evolution, I mean the standard textbook theory)

Of course, he doesn’t define “complex”, which I’m sure he means “adaptations for which nobody can or has offered a Darwinian, gradualistic step-by-step process, which makes his claim tautological. We certainly know of fairly adaptations (e.g., antifreeze proteins in Antarctic fish) that have arisen this way, and we can also model the evolution of complex traits like the camera eye of molluscs and vertebrates by a Darwinian process with conservative assumptions. Such models create complex adaptations remarkably quickly. For one example using the eye, see here (or ask for a pdf) and here. Fortunately, Midhun is coming this his Big Finish:

Quoting the aforementioned 2021 Bioessays paper:“…key evolutionary innovations such as the vertebrate eye, the insect wing, and the mammalian placenta cannot be explained by selection on random genetic mutations per se.”(

That paper, though in a scientific journal, is simply an ID screed whose tenor is “anything whose evolution we don’t understand constitutes evidence for a designer.” But people used to say that about all manner of phenomena, like lightning, infectious disease, and earthquakes. If we didn’t know how they came about, it must have been God. Then, one by one, science provided the correct explanation. The BioEssays paper is dreck. 

As for complex adaptations like eyes and wings, I could explain Darwinian scenarios for their origin, but many others have already done so in print: Dawkins goes over the eye and the wing in previous books (see his latest, Flights of Fancy), and Googling will give you theories about how the placenta evolved via natural selection (i.e., see here and here).

Why do I waste my time refuting creationist nonsense like this, all of which is contradicted by the scientific literature? Don’t ask me—it’s the laws of physics, which have vouchsafed me a neuronal configuration that automatically responds to ID nonsense. Now I’ve wasted an hour.

38 thoughts on “An ID advocate writes in, claiming that the designer is behind every adaptation

  1. “the Evolution v/s ID debate”

    Oh, the “debate” fallacy. Everything is “debatable”, therefore there is “a debate”.

    I feel the need – the need for Feynman :

    “Probably the most powerful single assumption that contributes most to the progress of biology is the assumption that everything animals do the atoms can do, that the things that are seen in the biological world are the results of the behaviour of physical and chemical phenomena, with no “extra something’. You could always say, ‘When you come to living things, anything can happen’. If you accept that you will never understand living things. It is very hard to believe that the wiggling of the tentacle of the octopus is nothing but some fooling around of atoms according to the known physical laws. But when it is investigated with this hypothesis one is able to make guesses quite accurately about how it works.”

    -Richard Feynman
    The Character of Physical Law
    (Sorry, I don’t have the page number)..

  2. I can’t add anything to PCC(E)’s arguments, obviously, but on a tangential subject, I will just say that I wish no one were allowed to use the term “quantum leap” without describing the “ultraviolet catastrophe” and how it forced Planck to create the notion of the quantum and his famous constant, initially as a mere mathematical trick, then how Einstein showed that light comes in quanta, then describe the Bohr model of the atom, and then reproduce the Schrodinger equation and give a (rough) explanation of what it means. I’m not asking for the Dirac equation. But people throw in the whole “Quantum leap” notion as an impressive-sounding phrase, as if they think that means it’s a BIG thing…but a quantum leap is the smallest possible leap in energy. That was the whole point from the start, that energy couldn’t come in smaller amounts!! Otherwise blackbodies (NOT the CRT ones) would radiate with infinite energy (and many other issues, including the lifespan of an atom being vanishingly small)!

    Enough ranting by me. Sorry. I’m fighting a URI and have a slight fever. I hope I don’t give any of you a computer virus.

    1. You beat me to it. Whenever anybody uses the term “quantum leap” in relation to anything that is not quantum mechanics, it’s an automatic red flag for me. That includes even Scott Bakula.

    2. Thank you! I love any commentary about the abuse of the term “quantum”. I wonder how many other useful terms have been thrown out the window due to having been watered down in pop culture.

    3. It is misused. But I think the origin of its use was about the timing rather than the amount of energy. The transition of an electron in an atom from one level to the next higher one is instantaneous. It is never in between the two levels; it is never on its way. It is that all-at-once abrupt transition that got tagged as a quantum leap.

      1. It is misused. But I think the origin of its use was about the timing rather than the amount of energy.

        You’re wrong. Planck introduced the 2quantum” concept very precisely as a limitation on the lowest possible amount of energy that could transition within a system, as his way of avoiding the “Ultraviolet Catastrophe”. It included precisely no consideration of the time it took for the transition (except that it was short enough to be invisible to the hours- / days- / millennia- long time required for the system in question to come to equilibrium).
        After Einstein proposed that the photoelectric effect was an experimental validation of Planck’s “finite sized minimum packets of energy ” concept (in the process, earning a Nobel prize – I infer that Planck was dead by the time Einstein got his gong), it still took about 5 years before Bohr tried to relate it to electron transitions – and potentially introduced a time constant into quantum matters.
        The time issue in quantum transitions arose some 15 years after Planck introduced quantisation. It’s a distinct, and unessential, addition to Planck’s idea.

    4. It puzzled me for a while, but here is the context of the “quantum leap” expression:

      The first use of “quantum leap” to mean “really big” was in 1956, the OED says, in a discussion of the US-Soviet balance of power in a nuclear postwar world, where a writer described “The enormous multiplication of power, the ‘quantum leap’ to a new order of magnitude of destruction.”

      I guess we have to accept it as common expression for a big leap in quality, and only get nitpicky when someone also tries to science-up their assertions by Going Full Deepak (invoke the quantum science for the numinous).

    5. I completely agree. I made the same point perhaps a year ago, and some (engineer) contributor slagged me of for doing so.

  3. I think that Malevolence is a better explanation than Intelligence for evolution, given all the waste and suffering involved in getting from A to B. Neither is as good as natural selection.

    The BioEssays paper is unexpectedly like god-of-the-gaps apologetics. The argument from the Abstract is essentially:

    (1) Most traits are polygenic so it has taken much longer than we expected to understand how the traits develop in an individual and evolve over time;
    (2) There is a tiny tiny epigenetic component to inheritance, so we need something else (not just genes carried by the two gametes) to understand the totality of inheritance; and
    (3) Some novel complex traits (eyes, wings, etc.) have obscure origins.

    Therefore we need something numinous like “biological agency”. No consideration is given to the many relatively simple traits that are based on few genes and have relatively complete understanding. They focus on the small parts of most genomes that can have heritable epigenetic marks and ignore the rest. And they leave aside complex traits that don’t have obscure origins because people have actually figured them out based on their extensive fossil record or comparative distribution among lineages. Instead it’s mysterious ways, all the way down.

    1. BTW eyes and wings don’t have significantly obscure origins.
      > Opsin proteins, which are the key things for getting an electrochemical reaction to light, are related to other proteins of a far more ancient and general purpose. All other genes and cellular components of eyes are likewise not at all unique to eyes. Lots of proteins respond similarly to light besides opsins, so they are really not that special.
      > Wings, well they probably mean insect wings since their story has been slightly elusive. But it’s been suspected for decades that they are highly modified ‘exite’, gills, from aquatic arthropod ancestors. Now we know that insects descended from crustaceans, which have exite gills, and the cellular origins of insect wings are right where gills start in crustaceans — at the base of the legs, and then they migrate dorsal-ward.

  4. One concept that seems to be misunderstood and/or intentionally infused within deceptive I.D. musings is the timescales involved in speciation. The Cambrian “Explosion” was a period of time (occurring half a billion years ago) with a duration of about twenty MILLION years. Creationists’ tropes range from very extreme practices like training elementary school aged kids to chant, “How do you know? Were you there?” to much more complex rants about “…physicists and all those variables in their formulae… Blah blah blah… possible mistakes… Blah blah.. just one minor error in a calculation causes the entire solution to be so wrong….therefore the best answers are only to be found in Genesis”. My impression of these ” well intentioned” soul savers” is they want their audiences to think they’re sciencing better than scientists.

    1. Between the first occurrence of “Small Shelly Fauna” (the defining characteristic of the base of the Cambrian) and the occurrence of widespread skeletalised organisms is about 20,000,000 years, as you say.
      But the evidence for motile organisms (we’ll leave aside the mostly sessile Ediacaran Fauna) may extend half a billion years further back than that. The “fuse” to the “Cambrian Explosion” burned a lot longer than Wiley.E.Coyote could possibly put into his gunpowder barrel for taking out the last common ancestor of coyotes and road-runners.
      Of course, I’m forgetting the reasonably widespread evidence that some Ediacaran organisms were motile. folded-over Dicksonia, ichnofossils, that sort of thing.

  5. A “hybrid” model might appeal to those wishing to be scientific while at the same time leaving room for God, but one needs evidence. The term “Cambrian explosion,” referring to the period of time when many different body types evolved, confuses many. The amount of time—tens of millions of years—is sufficient to evolve a great deal of diversity via the well-known processes of mutation and selection. No supernatural deities need apply.

    Yes, the correspondent should read your book. I do think that the basis of his attempt to bring God into the picture is one of “personal incredulity” (to quote Richard Dawkins, I believe). He simply can’t bring himself to believe that life evolved without a plan. Of course, personal incredulity is not evidence. For every person who just can’t believe in a naturalistic explanation for life on Earth there’s another person who can.

    What one believes doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s true.

  6. Professor – when you feel powerless against your neuron masters, just keep repeating to yourself, “I *don’t* have to respond to ID idiots … I *don’t* have to respond to evolution deniers …”
    Embrace your free will – even if it’s only an illusion!

  7. What the ID’ers always leave out of their train of thought is: if their postulated “designer” is something that can form intentions and act on them effectively — that is, if it has a mind, then it surely must have a brain. Because as far as we can tell, and even as far as we can imagine, minds can only function as the work product of brains — and in this case, it would have to be a very big brain indeed! But brains can only exist as part of highly complicated life forms, and those in turn can, as far as we can see, only arise after billions of years of messy, wasteful, undirected evolution. So even if there were a “creator”, evolution is still true!

    Now he might answer, we don’t know everything — maybe there’s a way for a mind to exist without a brain! But now he’s proposing this “explanation” on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Except for the Bible, of course.

  8. By coincidence, just yesterday, while indulging one of my other hobbies, I watched a wonderful video presentation from The National Museum of Computing titled Breaking Historical Ciphers with Modern Algorithms, which described this same concept of the power of tiny, incremental changes in “DNA” (in this case, letter order in monoalphabetic substitution ciphers). Basically, if a cipher alphabet is the normal alphabet with the letter order mixed up, it can be “unmixed” by starting with a random letter order, scoring its “success” at solving the cipher, changing just a few letters, scoring that, and, if the new score is higher, making a small change to the new order (or, if it scores lower, reverting to the previous order, making a different change and scoring that) — and repeat-repeat-repeat. Eventually this will yield a letter order which cannot be improved on, and lo, it’s the correct one! [There’s a bit more to it, all fascinating.] In cryptology this is called “hillclimbing”, and it’s amazingly similar to Richard Dawkins’ metaphor for evolution by natural selection, “climbing Mt. Improbable”.

    [Of course, in codebreaking this exercise is teleological, i.e., there’s an end goal in mind from the beginning, which isn’t the case in natural selection. But I think it’s still a valid analogy since it uses the same concept of successive “improvement” through random, tiny modifications in the source material.]

  9. One of the fundamental mistakes that Midhun makes (which is copied from James Shapiro) is in assuming that mutations produced by biological processes are not random. Well, they are random with respect to fitness. Increasing the mutation rate in response to environmental stress is no different than someone buying more lottery tickets when they are going bankrupt. I think it is accurate to say that life has evolved to produce random variation, but that doesn’t make it a design process. It makes it a stochastic process.

  10. What is the German word for when you are laughing and yawning at the same time? Also, I thought that ID was the “compromise” position between creationism and the modern synthesis.

    1. ID is the trojan rabbit* that creationists use to seek to smuggle God into science. It’s not a compromise: there is no compromise. The modern synthesis is right and creationism is wrong.

      *It’s pretty much met the same fate.

  11. Well, Jerry, you haven’t wasted an hour as far as I’m concerned. That was a serious, learned and courteous put-down, which has filled in one or two of the many gaps in my understanding. Thank you.

    1. Yes, indeed. Those of us readers who are non-biologists, even when we have read books on evolution and your previous responses to IDers, find these clear, concise reminders of the way things really work a definite non-waste of time.

      And the comments of knowledgeable readers are also valuable.

  12. The Mencken post is an ironic place for a comment like this. I can’t match Mencken but …

    Where is the evidence for The Designer that originates and perhaps guides life? Where in the code of DNA will we see evidence for his (or her) scripture? Of what energy is a soul made of? If there exists a Designer for living things, surely there must also be a designer for other things that self-organize like crystals or hurricanes. Shouldn’t that also be true? Is there a designer for the raging efficiencies of fire? Mud drying in the sun will crack into geometrically regular patterns. Should there not also be a designer for mud?
    I am finding it hard to accept that there must be some special Designer, reserved only for squishy living organic matter that organizes, moves, grows, and reproduces, and not for other things that seem close to living that can also do much the same thing.

    1. I think some of the early religions did indeed have designer gods for some of the things you mention- lightning, fire, sunrise/set, moon, rainbows, water, etc. It seems humans have always created gods of the gaps. And this Midhun character is just filling in his personal gaps with his personal non-existing god.

  13. Back to the very first blunder. There is no ‘debate’between IDers and science, just as there is no debate between those who press to hang witches, and those of us who believe that we should leave in peace old country women with hairy chins and cats…

  14. “I don’t know why people like Midhun have to postulate a complicated and unevidenced mechanism for natural selection that requires an undescribed Designer.”

    Commenters here have focused on rational and content-based rebuttals to the theory of Midhun’s post.

    I focus on the “why”.

    The psychological dynamic behind “faith” is insecurity. The faithful have to postulate unevidenced mechanisms for their beliefs because uncertainty terrifies them.

    I think that deep-down, most of them know that their beliefs aren’t true. They have to spend a lot of energy holding onto their “faith”. They do this largely by staying within their philosophical bubbles, and when they do venture out, they do so with an agenda of convincing everyone else that their beliefs are TRUE. Notice that, if you spend time with most any of them, they frequently steer the conversation around to convincing you that they are RIGHT. And, a lot of times, this “my way is the only way” business applies not only to religion, but to lots of other things as well.

    Inside their bubbles, they demand ultra-conformity. And, if they ever get control of our society, they will demand that of the rest of us as well. This is evidenced by the fact that whenever they are faced with having to choose between sincerity and compliance, they always choose compliance over sincerity. That “god sees what’s in your heart” nonsense is just that, nonsense. They don’t care what’s in your heart; they want your outward compliance so that they don’t have to face the possibility that they are wrong. And they will do whatever it takes to achieve that compliance.


  15. There’s a whole lot of motivated reasoning going on in Midhun’s musings, an obvious response to the cognitive dissonance inspired by the confrontation with neo-Darwinian consensus. Why would a designer design such a cognitive process?

  16. Jerry, not only did you waste an hour writing this, but I wasted 10 minutes reading it. No evidence for an intelligent designer. End of discussion.

    1. Ladies and gentlemen, here we have a specimen: a newbie posting his first comment, and it’s a rude one. I could mount a defense about discussing what’s required to achieve evolvability, which is more than “no evidence for a designer”, but I won’t waste any more keystrokes on “David”, a person with whom I would never want to have a beer, and who’s killed his own chances of ever commenting here again. I always wonder whether these people are just clueless or truly want to insult me.

  17. I’m just now studying Quantitative Genetics and it is almost devoid of selection, as it relies on variance models.

    Anyway, it is evolution all the way if we trust trait phylogenies, since such unrooted trees now have their first split with geology [“The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor”, Weiss et al, Nature Microbiology, 2016]. The main reason is that half alive cells were unlikely to have selective importers at the outset and then imported all of the readily available biomolecules that have Midhun worried.

    The anoxic conditions of the Hadean promoted the chemistry of the self assembled metabolic mechanisms.

    By looking at the genes bacteria and archaea share, the researchers reconstructed the genome of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) of all living things, they reported in Nature Microbiology. Having LUCA’s genome was a key step in understanding how nonliving chemicals organized themselves into living organisms.

    Because each reaction needs a heat boost to get started, one reaction can feed the next, keeping a protocell’s metabolism going. “The energy for life is in life itself,” Martin says. “It’s unfolding in these reactions.”

    Those findings narrow the number of places where life may have gotten its start, says Shino Suzuki, a microbiologist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who was not involved in the study. A nonvolcanic hydrothermal vent on the ocean floor seems like a good candidate.

    [“Our earliest, ‘half-alive’ ancestor needed little boost from heat”, Science, 2021]

    Biogeochemists have recently reported that not only can the non-equilibrium conditions of the most hydrogen liberating vents in theory produce all the standard amino acids, but the free energy suffices to produce a modicum of random polypeptides. Apparently there was no lack of substrate biomolecules for early evolution to act on.

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