A Second Look at Design

A large gear found in the woods – natural occurrence or a designed item? Author’s photo, 2019.

I recently heard a skeptic dismiss out of hand the idea that there is evidence of design in nature that supports the existence of God. He considered it an already-refuted argument that could be safely ignored. Can it? Let’s work through that today.

Despite the dismissals of skeptics, the argument for God’s existence based on evidence of design persists. Why is that? Perhaps it’s that detection of design is so intuitive. Design tends to stand out to us because we can recognize the twin hallmarks of design: choice and purpose. We can see that something is a certain way instead of an alternate way; and even when we can’t recognize the purpose of something, we can still often recognize that something has a purpose. If you’ve ever cleaned out an old storage shed and found some unidentified antique tool, you might have thought to yourself, “I can’t imagine what this was used for, but it clearly was made for some specific task.” We also see this in archaeology when people find artifacts and don’t assume they are natural formations. We see it in games of chance where we become suspicious when someone “happens” to make all the right choices and achieve the very beneficial purpose of winning lots of money. We begin to suspect a designed – or “rigged” – outcome. Crop circles were another instance of rightly suspecting design, whether you believe them to be of alien or human origin.

Recently, I was walking in the woods behind an old abandoned industrial facility, and came across the artifact in the picture above.  Although it was in a wooded area, half-buried amidst tree roots and rocks, and partially covered in moss, I recognized it as definitely not being a natural element. Like William Paley and his famous watch example, I recognized the large metal gear as being the product of intelligent human design. Why is that? It didn’t fit in with its surroundings, but it was more than that. A piece of lava rock or ocean coral would have both been out of place in those woods, but still natural. Rather, it conformed to an independent pattern (that of gears) that are the result of design.

But then what do you do when you find the same obviously designed structure (gear teeth) serving a similar function to what humans often use gears for (synchronizing motion), yet in something clearly not designed by humans? There’s a fair bit of precise design required to make gear teeth mesh well and not interfere, but how do you explain that amount of specified information content in something that predates any human invention of gears?

Gear teeth on legs of a planthopper nymph, viewed with a Scanning Electron Microscope. Photo Credit: Malcolm Burrows, FRS, University of Cambridge.

Here is a picture of the gearing used by the Issus coleoptratus nymph to synchronize its powerful hind legs when it jumps. In fact, Cambridge researcher Malcolm Burrows notes that the 10-12 gear teeth on each leg synchronize the 2 powerful legs more precisely than signals from the nervous system could. If one wasn’t told beforehand that it was part of a living insect, one would reasonably assume it was something man-made. Even if one noticed the 20 micron scale in the photo and realized how small the gears pictured were, one would be quite justified in thinking the photo was of some exciting development in human-designed nanotechnology. And yet it’s not. In fact, unlike biomimetics, where humans make useful inventions by copying nature, the human invention of gearing and this naturally-occurring gearing are completely independent. Yet man-made gears are assumed to involve careful design, while the planthopper’s gears are assumed to be the result of gradual development over many, many successive generations. However, gearing is something that is particularly difficult to imagine developing gradually. One gear is not only useless, but rather a hindrance. Poorly formed pairs of gears can lock up, which would hardly be a survival advantage. For these gears to really be useful, they need to function well as a system from the start, and that leads us back to those hallmarks of design: choice and purpose. There are a lot of wrong ways to make gears, but the right way seems to have been chosen. Moreover,  the gears on its exoskeleton are only used for one stage of the planthopper’s life cycle. Once it matures and develops wings, it no longer needs the precise coordination of intermeshing gears to control its jump trajectory. They have served their purpose and are discarded with the final molt.

We recognize design by intelligent free agents by its traits of choice and purpose. We look for these things when we search for the remains of ancient cultures buried in the sand, or when we sift through surveillance footage looking for cheating gamblers, or even when we analyze radio signals searching for aliens. And yes, we can apply the same tactic in searching for God. Rather than a safely-ignored argument, evidence for design in nature consistently and relentlessly points us to the Master Designer, who has left His calling cards everywhere for us to find, if we are open to follow the evidence where it leads.

See the original LiveScience article from Sept. 12, 2013 here:  https://www.livescience.com/39577-insects-with-leg-gears-discovered.html.

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