Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design:

Research Showcases Intelligent Design Principles


One of our responses to critics of ID is that scientists use it every day. If intelligent design were not scientific, we would have to throw out forensics, archaeology, cryptology, informatics, optimization theory, engineering and SETI. Here are some instances of ID in action that recently showed up in the journals. The principles for inferring design are similar. If some of these examples seem weak for inferring design, it makes our favorite cases stronger when we argue for design in the genetic code, molecular machines or the fine-tuning of the universe.

The Jungle Book

What is etched in the landscape of Amazonia? Something strange and unexpected has come to light. For decades, the rainforests of Brazil exemplified wild, untamed nature. Its few human inhabitants, portrayed romantically as noble savages, carried on their simple lives in harmony with nature as a rebuke to us European-American polluters and ravagers of the planet. This was Darwin’s world, a land of competition and cooperation producing ecological systems by unguided natural law (especially the “law” of natural selection).

Under the forest canopy, though, bizarre structures have now betrayed different forces also at work: intelligent forces. Natural laws don’t usually create concentric circles and squares. Since 1980, earthworks called geoglyphs [“earth messages”] have come to light over a vast area between Amazon’s river systems. A new picture of this region reveals evidence of purpose, intent, and plan: i.e., intelligent design. A dramatic paper by researchers from the University of São Paulo and the University of Exeter, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, overthrows the paradigm of untamed wilderness.

Over 450 pre-Columbian (pre-AD 1492) geometric ditched enclosures (“geoglyphs”) occupy ∼13,000 km2 of Acre state, Brazil, representing a key discovery of Amazonian archaeology. These huge earthworks were concealed for centuries under terra firme (upland interfluvial) rainforest, directly challenging the “pristine” status of this ecosystem and its perceived vulnerability to human impacts.…

The notion of Amazonia as a pristine wilderness has now been overturned by increasing evidence for large, diverse, and socially complex pre-Columbian societies in many regions of the basin. The discovery of numerous, vast terra preta (anthropogenic dark earth) sites bordering the floodplains of major rivers, and extensive earthwork complexes in the seasonally flooded savannas of the Llanos de Mojos (northeast Bolivia), Marajó Island (northeast Brazil), and coastal French Guiana, are seen to represent examples of major human impacts carried out in these environments. [Emphasis added.]

— carried out, that is, by intelligent design. This vast region has been “extensively transformed by humans over the course of millennia,” they say. In news from the University of Exeter, lead author Jennifer Watling expresses how dramatic this change of thinking is:

Dr Watling said: “The fact that these sites lay hidden for centuries beneath mature rainforest really challenges the idea that Amazonian forests are ‘pristine ecosystems’.

We immediately wanted to know whether the region was already forested when the geoglyphs were built, and to what extent people impacted the landscape to build these earthworks.”

The team used multiple methods to infer design — important for making a robust design inference. Most obvious are the geoglyphs themselves. Additional inferences about their functions can be adduced by close examination of the structural details:

With ditches up to 11 m wide, 4 m deep, and 100–300 m in diameter, and with some sites having up to six enclosures, the geoglyphs of western Amazonia rival the most impressive examples of pre-Columbian monumental architecture anywhere in the Americas. Excavations of the geoglyphs have shown that they were built and used sporadically as ceremonial and public gathering sites between 2000 and 650 calibrated years before present (BP), but that some may have been constructed as early as 3500–3000 BP. Evidence for their ceremonial function is based on an almost complete absence of cultural material found within the enclosed areas, which suggests they were kept ritually “clean,” alongside their highly formalized architectural forms (mainly circles and squares) — features that distinguish the geoglyphs from similar ditched enclosures in northeast Bolivia.

Is it necessary to know who the designers were? Does ID require knowing their motives?

Surprisingly, little is known about who the geoglyph builders were and how and where they lived, as contemporary settlement sites have not yet been found in the region. It is thought that the geoglyph builders were a complex network of local, relatively autonomous groups connected by a shared and highly developed ideological system. Although some have proposed a connection between the geoglyphs and Arawak-speaking societies, the ceramics uncovered from these sites defy a close connection with Saladoid–Barrancoid styles normally associated with this language family, and instead present a complex mixture of distinct local traditions. Furthermore, it is likely that the geoglyphs were used and reused by different culture groups throughout their life spans.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Additional clues reveal that the ecology was intentionally modified by these unknown people. By studying charcoal, plant fossils and carbon isotopes, and by following patterns between geoglyph sites, the researchers inferred that the inhabitants transformed the rainforest to enhance the production of fruits, nuts and other plants they found useful. The team was also able to infer which species were modified and which were ‘natural’ for the climate, and even to determine how the people used fire for controlled land clearing. Not only that, they inferred that “the geoglyphs were used on a sporadic basis rather than continually inhabited.”

Rather than being built within largely “untouched” bamboo forest, our phytolith data suggest that the geoglyphs were constructed within anthropogenic forests that had already been fundamentally altered by human activities over thousands of years.

How can they be sure? “No natural explanation exists” for the patterns they found. Bamboo, they figure, is in its natural abundance, but fruit and nut trees show patterns of “agroforestry,” as if the inhabitants intentionally created “a kind of ’prehistoric supermarket’ of useful forest products.” The team even went so far as to estimate when the geoglyph sites were abandoned, and to tell whether the ecosystem had recovered or not since they left. From the phytolith data (silica deposits from plant remains) alone, they conclude that “legacies of pre-Columbian agroforestry still exist today within Acre’s remaining forests.” That’s a lot of design inference from silent remains!

Similar conclusions were reached by Levis et al. in Science Magazine. From plant patterns alone in the Amazon Basin, a large team of archaeologists concluded that “The marks of prehistoric human societies on tropical forests can still be detected today.” Erin Ross at Nature News concurs, “Amazon rainforest was shaped by an ancient hunger for fruits and nuts.” Scientists can tell that the rainforest is not in a natural state. Rather, “The trees that live in these populated areas may be relics of a vibrant past.”

Lest one argue that these marks of design are no different in kind than bird nests, termite mounds, beaver dams or any other animal structure that modifies the ecology, just turn the argument back on the researchers. Would it make any sense to state that a scientific paper in a journal is the work of unguided natural causes? Of course not. We all recognize the marks of intelligence. Humans are exceptional in that regard, forming unnatural structures for creative purposes that go beyond mere survival and reproduction. Whether beavers and birds obtained their abilities from a programming intelligence is a good question, but humans are under no obligation to build geoglyphs or automobiles, or to think up “ideological systems” that leave their marks centuries later. If humans are just animals, why did they shape the whole forest? Why not develop an appetite for bamboo, like pandas?

Mineral Clues to Design

Let’s expand the above reasoning to a case that is global in scale. Geologists and anthropologists are currently debating whether to name our time the “Anthropocene Epoch.” We’ve heard about the Eocene, Paleocene and other “natural” epochs, but the Anthropocene idea would be characterized by something unnatural. Defined in New Scientist as “a new geological time interval distinguished by the impact of human activities,” the Anthropocene differs from all previous epochs. Watch reporter Chelsea Whyte apply ID reasoning:

Think of large gem collections in museums. Those mineral samples wouldn’t occur naturally in close proximity, but they are likely to get be buried together and cemented in the record as neighbors.

Picture also places like Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. That ordered array of headstones isn’t likely to occur naturally, without human influence. The mineral record will reveal not only our technological processes, but also our culture.

What gets really interesting is how at least one ardent evolutionist uses the same reasoning to infer human intelligent causes from the mere existence of certain rare minerals:

The evidence of humans changing the planet is solid as rock. A new catalogue of minerals counts 208 that result solely or primarily from human activity, says Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US, who led the study.

Most minerals can be accounted for naturally, he says, but one can tell something unnatural has happened from observational evidence. Hazen has identified 208 minerals — about 4 percent of the 5200 some minerals catalogued — that are unusual. They had to be man-made. And that’s not the only evidence for human design.

It’s not just that these new minerals exist, but how they are distributed and how they will persist. Our activity has led to large scale movement of rocks, sediments, and minerals, thanks to mining, transport and infrastructure, as well as global redistribution of highly valued natural minerals such as diamonds and gold. And there are substances in things like cement and bricks that are rare in nature but are now widespread across the globe.

“These are mineral-like and they will form a marker layer for all geologic time,” Hazen says.

Unwarranted Design Inference

In contrast to these examples of legitimate design inference, let’s look at one that’s a bit on the loony side. The UK’s tabloid The Express posted a video clip by some unknown conspiracy theorist pointing to a “bizarre” object under the Pacific Ocean. He points to a straight pathway 41 miles long that he alleges was left by a circular object 2.5 miles in diameter that appears next to it. He claims it “looks man-made rather than natural” — maybe even made by space aliens!

It’s reminiscent of the Face-on-Mars craze that dominated late-night talk shows before spacecraft got a closer look. This just goes to show that design inferences require a minimum level of rigor. It doesn’t appear that these wishful thinkers ruled out chance or natural law as causes. If the object had flashing lights and carved out “Hello, world!” in English, we might be impressed.

Actually, the evidence for design in DNA and cosmic fine-tuning is far stronger than the evidence presented in the two prior citations about geoglyphs and Anthropocene minerals. They illustrate that common-sense reasoning about intelligent causes is alive and well in the sciences, published readily in leading journals — except when the implications might favor a certain world view.

Photo credit: Jenny Watling/University of Exeter.