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Real Design in Nature - a credible idea?

This month we carry an item from Prof David Galloway MD FRCS(G) FRCS(Ed) FACS, FRCP(Ed) who is the President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. He graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1977. His surgical training was focused in Scotland, London and New York City. He returned to Glasgow as a Consultant Surgeon in 1989 and built a tertiary referral practice in gastrointestinal surgery, advanced laparoscopic techniques and more recently bariatric and metabolic surgery. He was appointed Honorary Professor in the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow in 2015. He has recently made some extended visits to help provide surgical services in a remote mission hospital in North Western Zambia. He is also President of the Centre for Intelligent Design, succeeding the late Prof Norman Nevin

In the last few weeks I’ve had cause to re-evaluate seriously the discussion about whether the ‘apparent design’ in the universe and in the natural world is genuine or illusory. The underlying assumption, which now has increasing prominence in government policy for education, is that natural processes are sufficient to explain the origin of the universe and the living world without the need to invoke any outside agency, immaterial influence or metaphysical explanation. Is it indeed the case that actual design in nature is unsupported by evidence? Is it not rather the claim that design is only apparent which is at odds with an increasing body of scientific data? The answers to these questions have some far reaching implications. If design in nature is real, it calls for an explanation beyond that which is purely material and observable.

The debate about the origin of the universe and the origin and diversity of life remains a matter of enduring interest. Strong opinions are held on these matters with passionate appeals to various strands of evidence which purport to defy the claim that there is real design in nature. But much of this evidence is circumstantial at best. Where does the evidence really point? Clearly, a short article like this can do little more than touch the edge of some of these topics, but here are some areas to consider.


There is a tendency for many to conclude that the controversy about the source of the universe and physical reality has, to all intents and purposes, been satisfactorily resolved by theoretical physics. The recent bestseller by Hawking and Mlodinov and somewhat paradoxically titled ‘The Grand Design’, sets out to dispense with any need for an immaterial cause beyond observed physical reality. The idea that natural laws are enough to allow for the spontaneous creation of the universe sounds fine until you give it more than a moment’s thought.

Right off the bat, there is a sense of incoherence in the idea of some entity creating itself from nothing – and by mechanisms which, by definition, cannot represent nothing. Of all the physical laws, the one which is fundamental, universally accepted and entirely rational, is that no physical entity explains its own existence. To claim the opposite is fundamentally incoherent!

So where do we look for evidence of genuine design? Some of the best known examples are worth highlighting again. The incredible degree of fine tuning of the laws and constants of nature which is required to explain a life permitting universe is a good example. These ‘just right’ conditions are so improbable and so highly specified that the scientific inference leads to a designing input into the system. To attempt to explain away the fine tuning by an appeal to physical necessity will not work – there is no reason that these constants have to have the values they actually have. Furthermore the probability that such fine tuning is simply the way it is by sheer chance is not a wager I fancy at all! The clear inference is to a designing agency. This is cleverly demonstrated in a well presented 6 minute video which is freely available here

Cell biology

Recent discoveries in biology are increasingly suggestive of genuine design – not just its appearance. As a student I remember reading the evidence advanced for the enhancement of biological complexity as a result of the gradual accumulation of chance mutations and the filtering effect of natural selection. However, I was perplexed that to this mechanism was attributed the steadily advancing complexity and sophistication of life, while the vast majority of such genetic changes were disadvantageous – breaking functioning genes, degrading information and impairing function.

While this issue remains an elephant in the room – there is another mastodon in the same room also demanding some attention! At the biochemical level we have come to appreciate the importance of macro-molecular machinery. This include amazing molecular motors, gates, clamps, turbines, transporters, assembly and manufacturing systems, control mechanisms and, in addition, exquisite chain reactions of various kinds. These abound at the sub-cellular level and each has a clear function. Critically, however, these machines are frequently multi-component and to suggest that each component could be assembled step by step and in such a way that each modification would have an evolutionary advantage is a stretch of the imagination, to say the least.

Selective advantage resulting from genetic change would have to allow a modification to a component to persist within the organism and produce survival advantage. This is so hopelessly improbable that a gradual evolutionary mechanism is clearly an utterly inadequate explanation. Such multi-component functional arrangements are considered to be irreducibly complex. Remove a component and the device fails, partially or completely. The lack of functional improvement necessarily means no selective advantage which can be filtered into the future population. The biochemist responsible for developing this idea is Prof Mike Behe and while his ideas have been seriously, often aggressively, challenged they have never, at any stage, been satisfactorily refuted. See for example:


Here is another pointer to genuine design from an immaterial source. One of the most difficult and perplexing areas of neuroscience relates to the nature of consciousness. While physiology provides a comprehensive scientific description well within our reach, attempting to explain the nature of consciousness remains highly elusive.

The human brain is the most incredible device. It has around 100,000,000,000 (one hundred billion) nerve cells and somewhere in the region of a quadrillion synapses or connections! Our comprehension is strained to come to terms with these basics. So how, from such neurological meat does the quality of conscious experience arise? Neuroscientists refer to ‘qualia’ as being the qualitative experience of a particular mental state. It amounts to a recognition of what is it like to be self-aware or to experience emotion, beauty, justice and so on. How is it possible to make sense of this from an understanding of the basics or physics, chemistry and biology? Is it possible to explain the phenomenon of consciousness in terms of electrochemical brain activity alone?

Broadly, there are two competing types of explanation – each with significant relationships to opposing worldviews and implications for design. These are materialism and some form of dualism. The materialist position contends that the conscious mind is simply derived from neural activity in the brain. The dualist view holds that consciousness is, in some sense, not rooted in physical reality.

It is certainly possible to conceive of the relationship between the sensory world and the appreciation of that physical reality in the form of vision, smell, taste, touch, hearing and even imagination. These features can be mapped to particular portions of the brain and to particular neural pathways. It is, however, not clear how any link between such mental capacities as intellect, will, the generation of ideas, intentions or any sense of ‘aboutness’ or goodness, justice or truth might relate to either the physical world or be reducible to basic physics and chemistry.

In one sense it is clear that whatever happens within our conscious mind is related to brain activity. However it is not possible to explain how mental states such as self-awareness, intentionality, desire, and will, appreciation of beauty or ethical value can be generated by electrical activity in the brain. In his recent book, Mind and Cosmos, the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel is dismissive of attempts to explain these qualities of mental capacity by some attempt at reductionism. He argues that there is no adequate materialistic explanation for consciousness and subjective experience. In fact, he claims that beyond consciousness, the reductionist position fails to fully explain life or even the physical universe itself. This is not easily ignored - and it powerfully suggests a designing agency.

And here’s a final thought. It could be argued that the deep-seated sense of purpose which most people experience does reflect genuine meaning and is not simply a vague self-generated construct that we invent to provide a degree of personal fulfillment.

That’s enough to chew over for now –just a sample of the evidence for genuine design. Topics like the origin of life and the origin of biological information in the genetic code will need to wait for another time.

Prof David J Galloway
President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow
President of the Centre for Intelligent Design UK
March 2015
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