At a Loss: How Can Critics Still Not See That ID Research Programs Exist?

Original Article

In Salvo 16, I introduced some of the scientific research being conducted by leading proponents of intelligent design (ID), particularly scientists affiliated with the Biologic Institute. When confronted with this growing body of ID research, a typical response from critics is simply to deny that it exists.

For example, in March 2011, journalist Lauri Lebo, a science writer who covers the debate over evolution for anti-ID outlets like Scientific American, blithely declared that “as we all know, there is no such thing as ID research.”1 In the last issue of Salvo, my article provided ample documentation to refute Ms. Lebo’s claim. Let’s add some more weight to this pile.

Natural Selection Breaks Down

In his Origin of Species, Darwin admitted that if “any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” My previous article discussed work by Douglas Axe and Michael Behe that confirms that many complex structures in biology are beyond the reach of natural selection. These theoretical studies found that Darwinian processes would be unlikely to produce “multi-mutation features” that require multiple mutations to function (see Sidebar).

In 2010, research published by molecular biologist Ann Gauger of the Biologic Institute, Ralph Seelke at the University of Wisconsin–Superior, and two other biologists provided empirical backing to the claims of Axe and Behe.2 Their team started by breaking a gene in the bacterium Escherichia coli required for synthesizing the amino acid tryptophan. When broken in just one place, random mutations in the bacteria’s genome were capable of “fixing” the gene. But when two mutations were required to restore function, Darwinian evolution could not do the job.

Such results show that it is extremely unlikely for blind and unguided Darwinian processes to find rare amino acid sequences that yield functional proteins. In essence, functional proteins are multi-mutation features in the extreme. But Drs. Axe, Gauger, and Seelke are by no means the only scientists to observe the rarity of functional amino acid sequences.

A leading pro-evolution college-level biology textbook states that “even a slight change in primary structure can affect a protein’s conformation and ability to function.”3 Likewise, evolutionary biologist David S. Goodsell writes:

[O]nly a small fraction of the possible combinations of amino acids will fold spontaneously into a stable structure. If you make a protein with a random sequence of amino acids, chances are that it will only form a gooey tangle when placed in water.4

Goodsell goes on to assert that “cells have perfected the sequences of amino acids over many years of evolutionary selection.” But if functional protein sequences are rare, then natural selection will be unable to take proteins from one functional sequence to the next without getting stuck in some maladaptive or non-beneficial stage.

Running out of Functions to Lose

In 2010, Michael Behe published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Quarterly Review of Biology that helped explain why we don’t observe the evolution of new protein functions. After reviewing many studies on bacterial and viral evolution, he concluded that most adaptations at the molecular level “are due to the loss or modification of a pre-existing molecular function.”5

In other words, since Darwinian evolution proceeds along the path of least resistance, Behe found that organisms are far more likely to evolve by losing a biochemical function than by gaining one. He thus concluded that “the rate of appearance of an adaptive mutation that would arise from the diminishment or elimination of the activity of a protein is expected to be 100–1,000 times the rate of appearance of an adaptive mutation that requires specific changes to a gene.”

A hypothetical situation may help explain the implications of Behe’s paper. Let’s start with a hypothetical order of insects, the Evolutionoptera, which, we’ll say, has one million species. Let’s also suppose that ecologists have found that the extinction rate among Evolutionoptera is 1,000 species per millennium, while the speciation rate (the rate at which new species arise) during the same period is one species.

At these rates, every thousand years, 1,000 species of Evolutionoptera will die off, while just one new species will develop—a net loss of 999 species. In 1,000,001 years, there would be no species of Evolutionoptera left on earth.

If Behe is correct, molecular evolution faces a similar problem. If a loss (or decrease) of function is much more likely to occur than a gain of function, then logic dictates that an evolving population will eventually run out of molecular functions to lose or diminish.

Behe’s paper suggests that if Darwinian evolution is at work, then something else must be generating the information for new molecular functions. Where does that information come from?

The Evolutionary Informatics Lab

Another ID lab is focused on answering that precise question. According to the website of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, computer programming “points to the need for an ultimate information source qua intelligent designer.”

The lab’s founders, William Dembski and Robert Marks, have impressive credentials. With Ph.D.s in both mathematics and philosophy, Dembski is one of the leading lights of the ID movement. Dr. Marks is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University and has over 250 scientific publications to his name, including many in the field of evolutionary computing.

Their lab got off to a rough start in 2007 when Baylor University administrators learned that Marks was doing ID-friendly research on the campus. A Baylor dean promptly emailed Marks and ordered him to “disconnect this [lab’s] web site immediately.”

Before the thought police at Baylor were finished, the administration forced the Evolutionary Informatics Lab not just to remove its website from university servers, but also to return a five-figure grant. Universities aren’t usually known for turning down free money, but apparently ID opponents at Baylor would rather not have $30,000 for research if that money might be used to support ID.

Despite the setbacks, the lab carried on. It has attracted graduate-student researchers and has published multiple peer-reviewed articles in technical science and engineering journals.6 Its work has developed a system for studying evolutionary algorithms—computer programs that purport to simulate the evolution of digital organisms.

ID critics claim that these simulations show that Darwinian processes can create new information. Dembski and Marks disagree. They have been able to quantitatively measure the amount of “active information” smuggled into these simulations by the programmer, and their analyses support “no free lunch” theorems—the notion that without intelligent input there can be no gain in complex and specified information.

Thus far, Dembski, Marks, and their team have identified sources of active information in programs such as “Avida” and “Ev”—two programs that are widely touted by Darwin theorists as refuting ID. The work of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab shows that these evolutionary algorithms do not model truly blind and unguided Darwinian processes. Instead, the simulations “cheat” in the sense that they were pre-programmed by their designers to achieve their digital evolutionary goals.

Just as the lab’s website predicted, research shows that even the best efforts of ID critics cannot escape the fact that intelligence is required to generate new information.

The Zero Concession Policy

Lauri Lebo continued her attack by claiming that ID “has not yet produced one single legitimate peer reviewed paper.” Yet just this brief introduction in Salvo 16 and 17 has covered pro-ID research published in peer-reviewed journals such as Protein Science, Journal of Molecular Biology, BIO-Complexity, Quarterly Review of Biology, and the Journal of Advanced Computational Intelligence and Intelligent Informatics. There are many additional peer-reviewed pro-ID papers published in mainstream scientific journals.7

At what point can we ask whether ID critics like Ms. Lebo really believe what they are saying?

The purpose of ID research programs is not to convince unconvincible critics like Lauri Lebo, who proudly boasts in her book The Devil in Dover that she has the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” tattooed on her hip. William Dembski has aptly called her approach the “zero concession policy” of ID ­critics.

Rather, the purpose of ID research is to engage open-minded scientists with credible, persuasive, peer-reviewed, empirical data supporting intelligent design. And as more and more ID research is being published, more and more heads are turning in the scientific community. The refusal of diehard critics like Lebo to acknowledge such progress cannot impede it.

Key Websites for ID Research:


  2. Ann K. Gauger, Stephanie Ebnet, Pamela F. Fahey, and Ralph Seelke, “Reductive Evolution Can Prevent Populations from Taking Simple Adaptive Paths to High Fitness,” BIO-Complexity, vol. 2010 (2).
  3. Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece, Biology, p. 84 (7th ed., 2005).
  4. David S. Goodsell, The Machinery of Life, pp. 17, 19 (2nd ed., Springer, 2009).
  5. Michael J. Behe, “Experimental Evolution, Loss-of-Function Mutations and ‘The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution,'” Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 85(4) (December 2010).
  6. A list of these can be found on its website:
  7. For partial listings, see and http://­

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.