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Report on Intelligent Design Debate

On Friday, February 15, 2002, the Atheist Community of Austin was invited by the "Helping Austin Area Schools" (HAAS) group to attend a debate on creation and evolution at the University of Texas. More specifically, the contention of the debate was: "What is the best explanation for biological life on this planet: Intelligent Design or Darwinian evolution?"

Speaking for Intelligent Design (ID) was Mr. Kirk Durston,who has a BS in Physics, a BS in Engineering, and an MA in Philosophy, all from the University of Manitoba in Canada. He was also listed as the "National Director of the New Scholars Society." The NSS has a home page at; it appears to be a code name for a Christian group.

Speaking for evolution was Dr. Sahotra Sarkar, a UT professor of Philosophy of Science with a BA in Mathematics, Philosophy, and Physics; an MA in "Conceptual Foundations of Science", and a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Sarkar’s home page is at

DISCLAIMER: I make no claim or pretense to be an unbiased observer. I am writing as a representative of the Atheist Community of Austin; I am firmly on the evolution side and feel that Intelligent Design "theory" amounts to little more than a bunch of academic hand waving. This slant will undoubtedly come through in my account of the debate, for which I do not apologize.

Initially, the Atheist Community of Austin was contacted to co-sponsor the event, but we declined. Unsurprisingly, other sponsors turned out to be primarily Christian groups: the MBA Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade for Christ. Also, the local Omni hotel let the creationist stay with them for free, so they were considered a sponsor as well. The debate took place in a lecture hall at UT. The hall was filled with about 100 spectators, of whom roughly 20 were ACA members, and the rest were mostly young people who could have been either students or church groups or both.

Kirk Durston - First presentation

The first speaker was determined by a coin flip, which Kirk Durston won. He began his first speech by immediately trying to wave off as futile any attempt to use evolutionary processes to explain life. He said, "Regardless of what process was involved, I will show that Intelligent Design was needed to help that process." Durston went on to explain that he would use "a scientific method" to prove the need for ID. His "scientific method" for detecting design at first appeared to be a declaration that he’d know it when he sees it. As an example, he talked about finding a ring of stones arranged like a campfire in the woods. He’d know that this had some intelligence behind it, because it had a certain amount of what he referred to as "functional information."

All information, explained Durston, can be expressed in bits, as with computer data. Then Durston went on to say that natural processes are incapable of producing more than 70 bits without the aid of intelligent design. Why? This seems to be the focal point of his entire argument, and yet Durston never seemed inclined to justify it. He just said it was so. At the core of his argument are a whole bunch of equations, which he attributes to mathematician Claude Elwood Shannon, about the nature of information theory. He spent most of his time presenting these equations at a blinding speed that defied anyone’s ability to copy them down. Indeed, it almost appeared that his presentation was intentionally designed to blindside the mostly lay audience with math that they wouldn’t follow, so that they would trust that he was smart enough to be completely accurate. Yet he never did spend any time justifying how his equations related to his real world claims, except to say that we’ve never seen 70 bits of information generated naturally.

It seemed to me that this claim was begging the question. If the information in the genetic code was generated by natural selection, then we have in fact observed such information content being naturally generated. By declaring that we haven’t, Durston was able to declare evolution a sham without backing up his claim. Of course, you can easily generate much more than 70 bits of information without the use of intelligence. Just take 70 dice and roll them; the result is 6^70 possible configurations. This sort of argument was brought up to Durston several times during the debate, but he dismissed it by saying that the information is not "functional information." If he presented a mathematical definition of "functional", I must have missed it.

Durston did show a nice 3d graph that he claimed was representative of the mutation space of living species. The graph was in the shape of a large low flat expanse with an extremely steep circular plateau in the center. The implication of this was that species can maximize their position as long as they remain on the plateau ("microevolution", phenotypic changes within species), but they cannot get off the plateau because there is that wide open expanse between species where survival is impossible. Again, this came across as a blunt assertion with not much to justify it.

Durston then brought up the chestnut that mutations are nearly always harmful, and alluded to a "3.3*10^-141 probability of crossing the sequence space" by mutation. He concluded by stating that ID is required to produce information on a large scale.

Sahotra Sarkar - First Presentation

Sarkar began by giving a brief history of evolutionary theory. He covered names such as Linnaeus, Lamarck, Darwin, Weismann, Mendel, and Haldane - names most freshman biology students should already know, while those who are disinclined to learn biology would not care about. Sarkar gave a whirlwind tour of the theory, bringing us up to date on some recent developments and explaining how evolution solves the three problems of how and why adaptation, speciation, and extinction (all observed events) occur. He was careful to emphasize the fact that this was macroevolution that he was talking about, so that Durston could not accuse him of not addressing the issue (even though Durston did that later anyway).

It appeared to me that Sarkar might not have been entirely prepared for the concessions that Intelligent Design advocates have already made to evolutionary theory. In fact they usually claim (as Durston had in his opening speech) that it doesn’t matter whether evolution is true or not; ID is still required to get over the tough spots and we can "recognize" when design has occurred. Of course, ID proponents are talking out of both sides of their mouth, simultaneously throwing darts at evolution with some of the same familiar arguments that the likes of young earthers Morris and Gish have always used, while also hedging their bets by saying "Even if evolution turns out to be true, there’s still a designer."

The best way to effectively counter this double assault is for the evolutionist to go on the offensive and point out that ID is not science because it is unfalsifiable and has no real support apart from some fuzzy math like that which Mr. Durston presented. Due to the rules of the debate, Sarkar was not allowed to directly respond to Durston’s speech right away, but I do think he could have been prepared with a general case against ID that wouldn’t require it. After all, Durston spent most of his time arguing against evolution. In any case, despite these minor issues, on the whole I feel that he did a fine job of providing the basic framework of support for evolution.

Sarkar wrapped up by presenting the news story that appeared last week on real examples of macroevolution in the lab that introduced major changes to the body type of brine shrimp and fruit flies via small changes in the genetic code. He went a little bit over his allotted time and could not make the strongest showing of tying his ideas together, as he was rather rushed.

Kirk Durston – Rebuttal

As I expected, Kirk Durston began his second presentation by highlighting the claim that "We agree on how powerful (micro)evolution can be, and I have no problem with much of what you said... but intelligent design is still evident." He also repeated that microevolution is proved, macroevolution is not.

He spent a fair amount of time in the rebuttal talking about the shrimp story. Obviously he’d seen this before the debate and wanted to be ready in case it came up, because he had PowerPoint slides already prepared on the subject. He claimed that the shrimp was an example of changing the body type by turning off information that was already there, in effect "going in the wrong direction." He said the real mystery is still how evolution can create MORE information. He then did more of his pages filled with equations, and stated that changing the information in a shrimp involves only 61 bits of information, below his 70 bit threshold. (Not that he ever explained how he arrived at that number, nor had he backed up his arbitrary limit of 70 bits, or any limit at all for that matter.)

Durston stated that it takes intelligence to write the "software" of genes, but it is trivial to "mess up" the software, as he claims is being done in the case of the shrimp.

During this speech, Durston also attempted to further his claim of having a scientific theory by pointing out that the existence of more than 70 bits of information is a "prediction" of intelligent design. However, he failed to explain how the absence of 70 bit patterns would falsify this theory, so I couldn’t help wondering if this was really a legitimate test. This came up later in the question and answer period.

Sahotra Sarkar - Rebuttal

At this point, Professor Sarkar came out swinging and stated that he was going to explain in this speech why Intelligent Design is a hoax from a scientific perspective. He went after Durston’s math, pointing out that the Shannon equations that were the cornerstone of Durston’s argument were actually mathematical definitions rather than theorems. They have no predictive power.

Sarkar also brought in his own equations, indicating that natural selection is able to introduce an average of .29 bits of new information with each generation. In order to generate the total amount of information found in human genes today, this would require an average of less than one year per generation. Now, said Dr. Sarkar, this may sound strange to humans, who have a generation time on the order of 10-20 years, but we should bear in mind that our ancestors were mostly a lot smaller and therefore had shorter generation times. For instance, E Coli has a generation time of 15 minutes.

Sarkar then went on to challenge Durston’s repeated claims that a certain number of bits cannot be generated without intelligence. Sarkar offered a thought experiment as follows: suppose there are about 100 people in the room, and each one of us had been requested to bring in a deck of cards to the debate. Sarkar now asks every person in the room to draw one card. He pointed out that whatever combination of cards might have been obtained, the odds were less than 1 in 10^150 that this particular sequence could come up.

To further highlight this level of improbability occurring "in nature", Sarkar at this point put a slide on the projector showing a recent news story. The headline declared that 11 people were killed by lightning at a soccer match. According to the story, all 11 were on the home team. "What are the odds of THAT?" asked Sarkar. His point was well taken. The audience laughed and applauded appreciatively. Sarkar left the story up for about 10 seconds, just long enough to read that the score at the time the lightning struck was 1-1.

KirkDurston - Closing statement

During the second rebuttal, Mr. Durston worked on emphasizing the differences between macro- and micro-evolution. He addressed Professor Sarkar’s card analogy, stating that it was meaningless because it does not take into account the difference between functional and non-functional information. (Okay, what is the difference?) And finally he responded to Sarkar’s attacks on his math with counterattacks on Sarkar’s math, including a statement that equations developed by Motoo Kimura were flawed. Overall, he stressed that Sarkar did not have a sufficient appreciation or respect for the importance of probability calculations.

Sahotra Sarkar - Closing statement

During his final speech before the cross examination period, Sarkar made a point of emphasizing that we do not know everything yet. Evolutionary biology does not yet have all the explanations, he said; that’s why it’s still such an exciting field. But just because our knowledge is incomplete does not mean that a made up explanation such as "intelligent design" has any actual facts to offer us in the same way that the already discovered facts of biology do. Sarkar further suggested that many of the "problems" that Durston claimed to have found were actually problems with the way he chose to express himself; Durston’s equations are simply a reframing of his representation of reality.

Also, Sarkar pointed out that Durston’s understanding of his own Shannon equations are flawed. There is an extra term in there, representing the initial condition, which had conveniently disappeared from Durston’s slides. Without knowing the initial conditions, Durston’s equations reduce to mere assumptions.

At this point, there was a fifteen-minute break. Audience members were asked to write questions for each debater on color-coded note cards and hand them in. Meanwhile, some discussed the arguments with each other, while others went up and talked to the debaters or the panel of college professors who were going to be asking the questions.

I wrote the following question on my note card: "If nature had no sequences of more than 70 bits, would that prove there was no designer? If so, how? If not, what else would falsify intelligent design?" I was hoping to pin him down on his understanding of falsifiability within the scientific method. My question did not get selected, but one of the professors asked a very similar question and I was satisfied with the way he posed it.

Questions and Answers

The Q&A period was divided into two parts: first the aforementioned panel of professors posed their own questions to the debaters, and then they read pre-selected questions from the cards that the audience had given them.

I won’t transcribe the details of every question that was asked, but I will give a few highlights.

Durston disputed Sarkar’s claim that he’d dropped a term in his equations. Sarkar insisted that he’d copied down what was on the PowerPoint screens. Durston argued against this quite vigorously, but he didn’t put those screens back on the overhead.

One of the professors asked Durston whether he accepted the proposition that humans are related to any other species, since it had never been addressed in the entire debate. Durston hedged for a while and tried to avoid an answer, but eventually admitted he stated that it was "possible, but unlikely." Going off on the fossils and genetic evidence supporting such relationships would have been a whole other debate; naturally, it wasn’t discussed in much depth during a two-minute response period.

Sarkar was asked if ID was incompatible with his position. Sarkar replied that it was not incompatible, but it was not a necessary hypothesis, because everything can be explained with physics and chemistry. Durston’s response in a nutshell was, "Nuh uh!" (Less concisely, he referred back to his 3d graphs of the plateaus and said that natural selection cannot cross "non-functional gaps". Again, he didn’t see a need to provide a rigorous mathematical definition of "functional.")

A professor then asked for the audience’s permission to explain the scientific method. He did so, emphasizing the need for falsifiability, and then asked: "What kind of results would show that Intelligent Design is incorrect?" Durston responded that, if it could be shown that nature CAN produce sequences of information longer than 70 bits, then ID would be "unnecessary." This was a rather sneaky way of dodging the question, since "rendering unnecessary" is not the same as "falsifying". What sort of evidence would point to the conclusion that there is no designer? Durston did not answer the question, but he made it sound like he had, and he was allowed to get away with it. This is especially interesting because, in light of a later answer, it appears that Durston would offer an "a priori" rejection of any lab experiment that could generate such information. More on this later.

This was the last of the questions by the panel. They then proceeded to read the note cards submitted by the audience.

Dr. Sarkar was asked whether he could prove that there is no intelligent designer. He said no, there is no way to disprove it, but there is no reason to believe that it exists without evidence and so it’s highly unlikely. Durston responded by saying that the more we find out, the less we realize we actually know, and therefore the farther we get from a naturalistic answer. Therefore, the only alternative is ID.

Kirk Durston was asked: "What could have motivated the Intelligent Designer to design the world in the way that he did, rather than another way?" I didn’t write down what his answer was, since I was a little put off by what I considered a "slow pitch" question that merely invited Durston to wax poetic about his "theory." To his credit, Sarkar responded by emphasizing the fact that Intelligent Design is religiously motivated and not scientific.

Sahotra Sarkar was asked: "Can evolution be proved or only supported by circumstantial evidence?" He replied by pointing out that a scientific theory is always based on circumstantial evidence, but there are aspects of evolution that are observable facts. Thus, some aspects are proved and other aspects are not provable. In general, we can reconstruct evolutionary history in the same way we reconstruct any other type of history; we can never be 100% certain but we can have a high degree of confidence in our findings.

Sarkar was asked two consecutive questions about abiogenesis, the first one asking "Didn’t Pasteur prove that spontaneous generation is impossible?" Sarkar correctly pointed out that this is a field of ongoing study, and that there are many plausible scenarios, but we don’t know which is right yet. His preferred version is the "hypercycle" theory of self-perpetuating chemical cycles. However it really happened, said Dr. Sarkar, he predicts that scientists will generate life from non-life within our generation. Durston retorted that "we" can generate life because "we" are intelligent beings, so there is no limitation on what information we can generate. Nobody seemed to catch the fact that this is an a priori rejection of ALL lab experiments, which directly contradicts something that Durston said earlier. He claimed that if it could be shown that more than 70 bits of information can be produced without intelligent intervention, then it would falsify ID. But if he is not willing to accept any lab experiment, then what does that leave as a potential falsifier? Once again, it would seem that we are forced to conclude that ID is unfalsifiable and therefore not scientific.

Mr. Durston was asked: "Do you believe that Intelligent Design is ongoing, or was it only present in the beginning?" His answer was a bit of a surprise. He said he believes that the designer created life initially but has since then stopped interfering. The evidence, he said, is that defects have accumulated in the design over time. This seems like a remarkably deistic attitude. Sarkar pointed out something that had been obvious for a while: that Kirk Durston had not even defined "Intelligent Design" throughout the debate, and we don’t even really know what it is in any meaningful way. In reply, Durston brandished his laptop computer and said "This! This is intelligent design! Look, my grandmother may not understand how this thing works, but if she saw it then she would know it was designed." So much for a scientific or mathematical definition.

The final question directed at Kirk Durston was submitted by ACA member Jeff Dee. The question was: "How many bits of information would be required to define this hypothetical intelligent designer?" Durston hesitated for a moment before replying that information theory postulates that the designer must be more complex than the designed thing, and we can’t really say that we know anything more than that. We don’t know exactly what the designer is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The final question for Dr. Sarkar was whether the massive extinctions that are evident in the fossil records could be considered evidence of intelligent design. Sarkar replied that extinctions are due to "bad genes or bad luck," and they don’t have any particular relevance to the question of ID. Mr. Durston repeated his earlier statement that Intelligent Design is not still operative today, as shown by the gradual decrease of information that he says we see today.

Sarkar wanted to say more on this subject, but his question time was up. The moderator informed him that he could continue speaking, but this would be considered part of his closing statement. Sarkar agreed, which may have been a tactical error on his part. As it was, the result was that Kirk Durston got the first and last word in the debate.

Sahotra Sarkar - Final speech

Professor Sarkar reiterated his enthusiasm for the mysteries that still exist in evolutionary biology. He said that mysteries are what make the field so exciting, and we are learning more all the time. He went on to level a few more criticisms at Intelligent Design theory. ID, said Sarkar, is just the latest game that creationists are playing, since the young earth group has not made any progress in the educational or scientific arenas. ID says that "something else must be out there", but it makes no attempt to either define or identify that "something else". It truly explains nothing, and therefore it does not qualify as science.

Kirk Durston - Final speech

Once again, Mr. Durston repeated that "natural processes cannot produce more than 70 bits of information." We’re not saying that Darwinian evolution isn’t possible, he stressed; just that ID is needed to help it along. And even if body plans can be adequately explained by natural selection, we need to look at genetics and see how complex that is. This was the end of the debate.

Post-Debate discussion

One other thing that is worth mentioning is that after the debate, several ACA members got involved in a rather heated discussion with some creationist supporters in the audience. ‘Manda, Jeff Dee, Martin Wagner, and David Clark argued with these people in turn. The main point being made was that Durston’s answer to Jeff’s question (how many bits of information are in the designer) was not only unsatisfying, but it was in fact self-defeating. Jeff argued that Durston’s entire argument rested on the premise that Intelligent Design must win by default, because there are too many questions that evolution leaves unanswered. In a nutshell, the more unanswered questions that your theory has, the worse it is, according to Durston himself. And yet if ID is true, then this "theory" creates one giant unanswered question, which is larger than the entire universe. By the exact same logic that Durston used against evolution, his ID hypothesis destroys itself because the questions that it creates are larger and more impenetrable than the problems that it purports to solve.

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