Doing the IDers’ Research for Them

In Pinker’s How the Mind Works, there’s a brief passage on artifacts (pp. 327-329 in my copy) that caught my eye because of its connection with creationism.

Artifacts come with being human. We make tools, and as we evolved our tools made us. One-year-old babies are fascinated by what objects can do for them. They tinker obsessively with sticks for pushing, cloth and strings for pulling, and supports for holding things up. As soon as they can be tested on tool use, around eighteen months, children show an understanding that tools have to contact their material and that a tool’s rigidity and shape are more important than its color or ornamentation. Some patients with brain damage cannot name natural objects but can name artifacts, or vice versa, suggesting that artifacts and natural kinds might even be stored in different ways in the brain.


  • Brown, A.L. 1990. Domain-specific-principles affect learning and transfer in children. Cognitive Science, 14, 107-133.
  • Hillis, A.E., & Caramazza, A. 1991. Category-specific naming and comprehension impairment: A double dissociation. Brain, 114, 2081-2094.
  • Farah, M.J., 1990. Visual agnosia. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

(Emphasis added, and list of references expanded from endnotes and

This seems to me to have a direct bearing on creationist arguments like William Dembski’s Mount Rushmore example:

Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence.

It seems to me that if Dembski et al. were really interested in researching questions like “How can we detect design?”, “What sorts of things look designed, but aren’t, and what sorts of things are designed, but don’t look like it?”, “Does design imply an intelligent designer?”, “Given a design, what can we infer about the designer?” (yes, I realize that they quite pointedly don’t ask this last question, but it seems to follow naturally), etc., then the first thing they would do would be to see what research has been done in this area.

The reason I spelled out Pinker’s list of references, above, is not to show off that I can look stuff up in the endnotes, but to show that pertinent research has been available for years. Yet as far as I can tell, this research has been largely ignored by ID “researchers”. Why is that?

The difference between a natural object and an artifact is intent: a rock is just a rock, until it is thrown, at which point it becomes a missile. A log becomes a bench once someone sits on it. More interestingly, as with Dembski’s Mount Rushmore example, I can go digging through a dump, find some piece of machinery, and know that it was designed for some purpose, even if I can’t tell what that purpose is.

But how do I know this? That I couldn’t tell. There are some telltale signs, such as the fact that the machinery is made of iron, has cogs and axles and so on, which I know that humans do in order to make artifacts like watches and car engines. I know that humans like to make representations of other humans, even if I can’t imagine how Mount Rushmore was carved. Other artifacts are more ambiguous: without a frame, I couldn’t tell a Jackson Pollock painting from a painter’s drop cloth.

It’s possible to set up experiments to see what sorts of things appear designed and which ones don’t. So why isn’t the ID community performing them? As the film A Flock of Dodos points out, ID takes some intuitively-obvious ideas and draws conclusions from them, without ever trying to formalize intuition into something objective and testable.

The reasoning behind Paley’s watchmaker argument (and its remakes, like the bacterial flagellum) appears to be: A watch is for telling time, and it was made by an intelligent watchmaker in order to tell time; an eye is for seeing, and therefore was made by an intelligent eyemaker in order to allow creatures to see.

One flaw in this reasoning is that evolution is opportunistic: the question to ask about a given structure is not “what is this for?” but rather, “what can you do with this?” A bluejay’s wing is supremely good at flying, and so it’s tempting to say that it is an artifact for flight. But wings can also be used to protect eggs and chicks from rain and cold, for balance when running, or to attract mates. Human eyes are quite good at seeing, but we also use them to communicate: we roll them to indicate annoyance, and pay attention to other people’s eyes to follow their gaze and find out what they’re interested in (the whites of human eyes are more prominent than those of other great apes, making it easier to tell what humans are looking at without moving their head). My favorite illustration of this opportunism is the scene in Cast Away in which Tom Hanks makes rope out of videotape and a fishing net out of lingerie.

In short, there’s all this research out there that’s pertinent to cdesign proponentsists’ alleged research interests, yet they’re ignoring it. More evidence, if any was needed, that ID isn’t a research program but apologetics for a preordained conclusion.

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One Response to Doing the IDers’ Research for Them

  1. Pingback: Making ID science? « Further thoughts

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