Intelligent Design in Action: Archaeology - Evolution News & Views

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Intelligent Design in Action: Archaeology

Archaeology is the study of artifacts that have been designed for a purpose. Our uniform experience of intelligent causes allows us to make inferences about design, even without knowing the identity of the designers. Since ID principles are used in archaeology as they are in various other sciences, what's the problem with applying the theory in biology?

New intelligently designed research tools are allowing researchers to ask questions about human intelligent action in the context of past civilizations, questions that were not even thinkable before. For instance, consider a cuneiform inscription on a clay tablet. The focus has usually been on deciphering the message, but now, through X-ray imaging, scientists can study the technology that ancient people used to create the tablet itself. This was explained in an interesting press release this month from Western University in Canada by Paul Mayne, "Redefining Archaeological Research."

One of Western University's strengths is X-ray CT scanning technology, specifically of objects up to 40 cm in size. This is perfect for digitizing artifacts the size of clay tablets. With the university's microCT scanner, researchers such as Andrew Nelson can render the exterior -- and interior -- of any object.

With the touch of a button, the object was scanned, reconstructed and fully rendered using more than 3,000 individual images, allowing for high-quality visualization and inspection.
A digital database of archaeological artifacts can thus be made available to researchers around the world -- a huge improvement over storage in warehouses. Speaking of warehouses, the university has intelligently designed that, too. In association with McMaster University and the Canadian government, Western's "Sustainable Archaeological Repository" (SAR) can store 90,000 boxes of artifacts in its 18,000 square foot facility. Digitizing some of the millions of objects catalogued thus far will open these boxes to the world, allowing "anyone at home ... access" to the history of civilization.

Several aspects of this upbeat story are interesting. First, obviously, is the demonstration that intelligent design is already being used in science. Contrary to what critics of ID in the media and academia may say, ID is not some foreign intrusion that certain people with an "agenda" are trying to sneak into science. It's already there -- in archaeology but also in forensics, cryptography, biomimetics and SETI. The debate is not whether the methods and inferences of ID are legitimate, but whether the same methods and inferences are applicable in biology and cosmology.

Well, why not? In the press release, Dr. Neal Ferris, principal investigator for the SAR, noted circular patterns in a piece of pottery. From these he was able to infer the technique the designer used -- even the specific decisions the designer made.

"With the scans, we'll be able to cut sections of the object to see how they were constructed, to see the materials used to make it," he said. "Anything that is ceramic, like the clay tablet or a ceramic vessel, you can now tell how it was made by the image. The tablet looked like there were circular motions to it. It gives us clues into the actual actions of the person and the decision-making process the person is going through. It adds really unique personal dimensions to this object.

"It is no longer a static object, it's the end product of a series of decisions that this individual has made." [bold text added in all quotations.]

Dr. Ferris was able to make such a statement about design decisions without knowing anything about the identity of the designer or that person's religion. And clearly, Dr. Ferris himself had no religious agenda in making the inference. In fact, he believes inferences about intelligent causes can be extended even further:
"You're scanning, for example, a thousand-year-old earthen vessel a woman made in a village during a completely different way of life. You'll get to reveal the entire craft in making the pot," he said. "We're going to be constantly scanning this sort of stuff, so imagine what happens when we have 2,000 of these pots scanned. We'll likely be able to track the history of a particular artisan."
The technology is applicable to intelligent and natural causes, as Nelson made clear:
Nelson said other applications for the microCT scanner are possible. For instance, he has a graduate student interested in primate evolution and primate facial morphology; the Earth and Planetary Science team is interested in scans of their meteorite collections; and a luthier from Sudbury is interested in scanning violins to look at what makes a Stradivarius different from a garden-variety violin.

"This is unbelievable," Nelson said. "To have access to a unit like this, that we can really push to the limits of imaging in the archaeological context, is extremely exciting and will really this facility on the map. There are lots of other applications that we are only really beginning to start exploring."

In short, ID is alive and comfortably at home in science; it's at the cutting edge of new discoveries.

Follow-up thought experiment: If the Earth and Planetary Science team scanned a meteorite and found a message or a molecular machine performing a recognizable function, would they be justified in making a design inference?