Intelligent Design and Darwinian Gradualism

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The dispute, ‘Intelligent Design’ vs. Neo-Darwinism, is philosophical, namely whether the origin of biological forms is rational or random. The ‘ID’ side proceeds from the philosophical conclusion of biological design to the existence of a designer, namely God. However, each side wishes to have its argument viewed as scientific. One approach by the ID proponents is to take for granted that Neo-Darwinism is scientific, but then to demonstrate that it is inconsistent with certain empirical observations and thereby scientifically false.

In this approach (see minute 30:30), it is noted that Darwinian evolution cannot proceed by leaps and bounds, but must proceed gradually by stages, thereby generating all of the intermediate forms between the two drastically different biological forms represented at the beginning and the end of a leap. The ID argument is that there are some biological organs such as the ‘motor assembly’ of the bacterial flagellum, which by the Darwinian process, could only evolve by a leap. It would have to be in a leap because only the full assembly has any functional survivability. If by stages, the sequence of stages would terminate in the first stage due to natural selection. Since Darwinian evolution can only proceed by the gradualism of stages, the theory fails in such instances and therefore as a general explanation.

Dawkins states that the improbability of a leap is solved by the gradualism of sub-stages (The God Delusion, p 121). Further, he claims that evolution would be impossible to deny, if the intermediate forms that were generated by the gradualism of evolution had not become extinct.

Dawkins replies to the ID objection by characterizing it as only appearing to be too big a leap or too big a gap in the graduated sequence of biological forms in light of the present state of human knowledge (The God Delusion, p 125). It is not an objection to Darwinian evolution, but a lament over a gap in current scientific knowledge.

Both Sides Are Wrong

The fact is that both sides are wrong in their agreement in identifying the role stages play in Darwinian evolution. The role of stages is indeed one of gradualism. However, this gradualism does not generate all of the intermediate biological forms defined by a leap of evolution from a simple form to a more complex form. Rather, replacing an evolutionary leap with the gradualism of stages drastically decreases the intermediates, which are liable to be randomly generated in a single leap.

In other words, the role of gradualism of stages is one of efficiency in random mutation. Sub-staging eliminates the possibility of generating most of the intermediate forms defined by a one-stage leap of Darwinian evolution.

Dawkins Sets Things Right

Dawkins used an example of 3 mutation sites of 6 mutations each to illustrate the efficiency of sub-stages, where efficiency is achieved by eliminating the possibility of the generation of most of the intermediate evolutionary forms (see minute 4:25). The excellence of his illustration of increased mutational efficiency is not vitiated by the fact that Dawkins mistakenly thought he was illustrating an increase in the probability of evolutionary success due to natural selection. The net probability of success is unaffected by the introduction of sub-stages.

Dawkins’ illustration of mutational efficiency defines a set of 216 different graded mutations, i.e. 6 x 6 x 6 = 216. These mutations are the two end points and 214 intermediates. Let the 216 mutations of the graded spectrum be designated 000 to 555. Each digit position represents a mutation site, while 0 through 5 are each site’s six ordered mutations. In the following elaboration, single quote marks are used to highlight which of the three mutation sites is affected. If you look carefully at minute 5:15, you will notice that the YouTube video by mistake has seven mutations per site, i.e. 000 to 666 for a total of 7 x 7 x 7 = 343, but that is nitpicking. Also, the graduated spectrum begins with 062 and ends with 651, which introduces an unnecessary arithmetic complication.

For the sake of comparison, each base-pair site of a genome identifies four mutations, so that four base-pair mutation sites define 256 mutations, i.e. 4 x 4 x 4 x 4.

In a single stage of Darwinian evolution, all 216 different mutations of Dawkins’ illustration are liable to be generated randomly. Gradualism is achieved by replacing the single overall stage with a series of three sub-stages. Each of the three sub-stages in the series subjects only one site out of the three to random mutation and natural selection, independently of the other two sites. This entails only 6 different mutations per sub-stage. In the first sub-stage, the 6 mutations are between 00’0′ and 00’5′ inclusive. The 6 mutations of the second sub-stage are between 0’0’5 and 0’5’5 inclusive. The 6 mutations of the third sub-stage are between ‘0’55 and ‘5’55 inclusive.

There are 6 possible different mutations, which are liable to generation per sub-stage. However, in the second sub-stage, the mutation labelled 0’0’5, is a duplicate of 00’5’ of the first sub-stage. In the third sub-stage, mutation ‘0’55 is a duplicate of 0’5’5 of the second sub-stage. That yields only 16 different mutations in total, which are liable to random generation, not 18.

In a single overall stage there are no missing links or missing gaps in the spectrum of 216 mutations. All 216 are liable to generation by random mutation. These are 000 to 555.

In the first sub-stage of the illustration, all 6 graded mutations are liable to be randomly generated, i.e. 00’0′ to 00’5’. In the second sub-stage, the 6 mutations liable to be randomly generated are separated by gaps in the graded spectrum. The gaps are of 5 mutations each. The 6 mutations which can be generated in the second sub-stage are 0’0’5, 0’1’5, 0’2’5, 0’3’5, 0’4’5 and 0’5’5. The first gap comprises the 5 mutations between 0’0’5 and 0’1’5. These are 010, 011, 012, 013 and 014. There are 5 gaps of 5 mutations each, for a total of 25 mutations of the overall spectrum which cannot be generated in the second sub-stage due to the gradualism of sub-stages.

In the third sub-stage of the illustration, the 6 mutations which are liable to be randomly generated are ‘0’55, ‘1’55, ‘2’55, ‘3’55, ‘4’55 and ‘5’55. Between each of these mutations there is a gap of 35 graded mutations which cannot be generated due to the gradualism of sub-stages. For the first gap, which is between ‘0’55 and ‘1’55, the 35 are 100 to 154, inclusive. The total of different graded mutations, which cannot be generated in the third sub-stage, is 35 x 5 = 175.

The totals of different mutations for each of the three sub-stages are: Sub-stage one: 6 mutations possibly generated, 0 mutations in non-generated gaps; Sub-stage two: 5 mutations possibly generated, 25 mutations in non-generated gaps; Sub-stage three: 5 mutations possibly generated, 175 mutations in non-generated gaps. Totals for the series of three sub-stages: 16 mutations possibly generated, 200 mutations in non-generated gaps.

The Base Ten

We are familiar with counting using the ten mutations, 0 to 9, in contrast to using just six mutations, 0 to 5. For the sake of familiarity, consider 3 mutation sites of 10 mutations each, thereby defining 000 to 999. That is a total of 1000 different mutations liable to random mutation in a single Darwinian stage. Replacing this with three sub-stages of 10 mutations each, renders 10 + 9 + 9 = 28 different mutations liable to random generation. The second sub-stage has 9 gaps of 9 mutations each, e.g. there are 9 between 0’2’9 and 0’3’9, which cannot be randomly generated. The third sub-stage has 9 gaps of 99 mutations each, e.g. there are 99 between ‘5’99 and ‘6’99.

The total number of intermediates, which cannot be randomly generated due to the mutational efficiency of the gradualism of Darwinian sub-stages, is (9 x 9) + (9 x 99) = 972. Totals for the series of three sub-stages: 28 mutations possibly generated, 972 mutations in non-generated gaps.


Both its proponents and its critics assume that a key characteristic of Darwinian evolution is the generation of a complete spectrum of graded mutations. This shared view assumes that the generation of all mutations in this spectrum is facilitated by the gradualism of a series of sub-stages of random mutation and natural selection. This is false.

The Darwinian algorithm of random mutation and natural selection, applied in series, ensures that most of the mutations, defined by the overall graded spectrum, cannot be generated. The role of sub-staging in Darwinian evolution is to increase the efficiency of mutation via the non-generation of most of the mutations defined by the overall graded spectrum. This results in huge gaps in the spectrum of mutations actually generated.

Richard Dawkins cannot be sufficiently lauded for demonstrating this, even though he believes the opposite, namely that due to the gradualism of sub-stages, Darwinian evolution generates a gap-free spectrum of evolutionary forms approaching continuity. By the same token, the ID argument is not a valid criticism of the Darwinian algorithm. This yields the moral: false arguments, offered in support of the truth, should be avoided.

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13 thoughts on “Intelligent Design and Darwinian Gradualism”

  1. How is any normal person supposed to understand this article, lol.. Ironically, my wife has a Ph.D. in biology and completely gets it…I have a history degree, and don’t, lol..

  2. Speciation occurs at conception. This can be known by both Faith and reason; a human person can only conceive a human person. Every son or daughter of a human person can only be a human person.

  3. I’m glad someone is finally clear on this!

    Because I’ve been wondering, at which point in the past 3.5Bn years did we get our souls and did the Neanderthals go to heaven?

    1. Well Matt, it is really quite simple. Your soul was created at your conception. You were loved into existence at that time as with every human being. As far as the Neanderthals go, God and the others in heaven know. You will have this question answered when you transition into eternity.

  4. The recent Popes have tried to stress the strict harmony (rather than identity) between
    faith and reason arising from their proper methods. The Scriptures say: “Are not two sparrows sold
    for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s
    knowledge … So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Mt. 10:30-31).
    The Catholic Catechism says: “The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the
    solicitude of divine providence is concrete and
    immediate; God cares for all from the LEAST things to the great events
    of the world and its history … it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established”
    (#303) “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also
    makes use of his creatures’ cooperation.” (#306) “God is the first cause who
    operates in the through secondary causes …. Drawn from nothingness by Gods
    power wisdom and goodness, it can do nothing if is it is cut off from its origin,
    for without a Creator, the creature vanishes (#308). Thus, our faith teaches
    that there is an Intelligent Designer to everything – human history, natural history,
    etc. Reason may not be able to illustrate this, but right reason will never be
    able to show that intelligent design goes contrary to reason, though it may instead
    be able to give evidence that intelligent design is reasonable and even
    necessary. The Philosopher Pope, Saint John Paul II, who had to deal with
    Marxists (and other philosophical errors) during his early years has put a
    brief chapter in his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” with the title “Whatever
    Happened to the History of Salvation?” (as I recall). There, he labels the God
    of the Deist tradition (the hands off God) as “The God outside the world.” He
    sees this as one of the big errors of our modern times


  6. Falsifiabily is not the only criteria for science. Otherwise cosmology and a half dozen things currently called science would not be science either because falsifiabily is impossible or unethical.

    But WRT Intelligent Design being a since, it depends on what you mean by Intelligent Design. If by Intelligent Design you mean I don’t see how “this couldn’t have been evolved, therefore God made it”. Yes, it might be true, but it’s not science. But if by Intelligent Design you mean information theory, then you have the beginnings of a budding science. A geologist has no problem concluding that cuneiform markings expressed a language long before they knew what they meant. They didn’t conclude “they were random marks”. If you saw a rock with the greek words for “Hi there” you would not conclude they were geological formations even if you knew no Greek. You’ve discerned information content created by an intelligent being. SETI wouldn’t be a joke if this discernment were impossible.

    Once this budding science has being proven (it will be), Intelligent Design grounded in information theory would then look at things such at DNA sequences, background radiation, and other objects in creation and be able to come up with a probability whether they had come from intelligent life or from random chance. It could point to, for instance, to life on our world being engineered rather than having by random chance. That would not prove it was engineered by God (after all, even Richard Dawkins accepts the possibility of life on Earth being engineered by a higher intelligence…as long as it is not God), but it would be a sign.

    1. Science is the study to determine the mathematical relationships among the measureable properties of material reality. The distinction of one science from another is philosophical, e.g. chemistry focuses on
      properties involved in substantial changes, while physics typically focuses on properties which are not. No one is going to object to jargon, such as medical science, forensic science and sports science, which makes distinctions according to the motivation for employing scientific methodology. I am inclined to concur in the argument that information science is not science but a topic within the subject of logic. Probability is another subject.

      Probability has two disparate meanings. Mathematical probability is the fractional concentration of an element in a logical set. Probability is also one’s personal certitude of the truth of a proposition. Probability theory typically refers to an algorithmic convention for characterizing personal certitude, rather than to identifying the mathematical probabilities of a population of sets, where the definition of the population is based on the probabilities of a source set.

  7. Bob, I enjoyed your article, but I will have to chew on the numbers to see what they entail. In any event, I’m all for “Intelligent Design”, if that is interpreted to mean that evolution is not random, but ultimately part of God’s creative intelligence.
    However, Intelligent Design is not science, because there is no way to set up experiments or measurements that would falsify it. The closest approach to a scientific verification of “intelligent design” or, more generally, the strong anthropic principle is Hoyle’s prediction of the excited nuclear energy levels of carbon-12, that enable the syntheses of the elements in star cores. But that still isn’t sufficient. So, Intelligent Design and the Strong Anthropic Principle are metaphysics, not science, even if one does believe in them.

    1. I agree. “Intelligent Design’, which is philosophy masquerading as science, is not helpful. In contrast, I really appreciate Richard Dawkins, not for his conclusions, but because he has definitively identified Darwinian evolution as a mathematical algorithm.

    2. It’s not even that. You’re confusing the Argument from Design, which is philosophical, with ID, which is at best bad science. The Argument from Design can take into account notions that are meaningful but not quantifiable, such as fittingness, the fact that the universe is (at least to a large degree) intelligible, and the fact that the universe is remarkably beautiful — so much so that it is easier for us to imagine how it might be ruined to make a Hell than perfected to make a Paradise. ID, on the other hand, tries to make probabilistic arguments, and it fails on those grounds. They talk about “specified complexity”, but their specifications and their test cases are not independent. They make a mistake similar to that invovled in the Torah Code.

      As for Darwinism not being science — sorry, it has correctly predicted the existence of transitional forms like Archaeopteryx and Ambulocetus, and it provides the explanation for the emergence of different viral and bacterial strains, something that ID doesn’t even, so far as I know, pretend to do. It provides us with the insight that giving low doses of antibiotics to chickens is a REALLY stupid thing to do; ID doesn’t know. As much as you want them to be comparable, they really are not.

    3. The OP was not a general evaluation of ID vs. Darwinism. It highlighted one point of agreement about Darwinism, namely that the role of stages is to generate a full spectrum of graduated mutations. ID bases one of its critiques on this role. Dawkins quite lucidly has demonstrated that the role of stages is one of mutational efficiency by eliminating the possibility of the random generation of most of the graduated mutations. The result is large gaps in the generated spectrum.

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