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The Design Argument, with Professor Stuart Burgess

I spent last night with a bunch of atheist/skeptic/humanists listening to a young earth creationist espouse the following argument:

  1. I am a designer, I see things which have been designed – I know there could be no other way of building them.
  2. I see things in nature which even more complex, and would need designing.
  3. So they too must have been designed.

And that was about the sum total of his argument. He backed it up with telling us all how clever he was,  that we wouldn’t understand the complex maths he used in his engineering designs and that neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett have any publications on design, whereas he has loads(?)  He made many basic biological errors, assuming that things which are common knowledge are mysteries. He even – and I had to pinch myself here – asserted that God had formed the banana perfectly for humans (really, he did!!)

In many ways Prof Burgess could be seen as dangerous for peddling such misinformation, and for undermining the critical faculties of our young – he does teach engineering students. But all I got as the evening wore on was a sense of sadness for him; at one point he said that ‘even a child’ could see that something which appears irreducibly complex must be designed. That had a few of us nodding, a child would certainly think that, just as humanity used to; and he seemed to me to be just like that child, and I felt sorry for him in his ignorance. So sorry, that I was gushing in my praise for his satellite solar array before I asked my question. Forgot to mention – we were treated to a ten minute film of the launch of the satellite he designed it for – so childlike.

Unfortunately things got worse. 3 questions were asked, all from our lot, and he managed to explain why some things don’t appear perfect. You see the world, and everything in it, is perfect. Because God made it. So it must be perfect. Except for the things that aren’t of course, and that’s because of the ‘curse’. We went and ate the apple and got kicked out of Eden and cursed. The apple, by the way, like the banana is perfectly designed, just the right size for the hand, juicy but doesn’t drip etc etc, but back to the story, so: if something’s OK, it’s because god is perfect, and if it’s not OK, it’s because we’re not perfect. Oh dear. And I still felt sorry for him, I genuinely think he believed what he was saying, It must be awful to have to contain the cognitive dissonance –he’s a professor, he must sometimes catch sight of his own stupidity. Sometimes?

But the point of the evening was the chatting to the group of kids in their 20s afterwards. Again, I felt sorry for the older people (any over 30!) they seemed so sweet and naive. But the kids had questions; they made mistakes and listened to the answers; they took us further back in time ,through simpler and simpler things, till we hit the big bang and admitted ignorance. I hope they gained something from it. We were thanked for our attendance, and we all stayed respectful and polite.

Thanks to Malcolm, aimee, Jonathon and Richard and the others, but especially to Morgan for rallying us all. It was a good evening, and the proximity of the Guildhall to the Bishop on the Bridge makes our equanimity in the face of such wilful ignorance quite admirable I think!

23 comments to The Design Argument, with Professor Stuart Burgess

  • It sounds awful. I’m not sure I could have remained respectful in the face of someone peddling such ignorance. Of course, ignorance itself is no crime, but deliberately spreading it ought to be.

  • Diego

    I was there too. My problem is that the evidence that Professor Stuart provided to support intelligent design was convincing. How can the four bar mechanism appear in nature, by accident? It’s too sophisticated. Show me evidence of a “transitional” four bar mechanism in the fossil record.

  • Off topic, but why is this blog not displaying spaces that come after commas? It seems to be happening in posts as well as comments (and FYI I put an extra space after “topic” in my first sentence here).

  • Diego

    ..or speech marks.

  • Clio

    Diego, the prof was certainly conniving that he could think of no other way of teaching a 4 bar mechanism except from scratch, but he is a designer and that’s how he thinks. in addition he has a starting point in that he has faith that God designed everything, so he won’t try looking very hard for other ideas.
    Here’s a link to not only how it is possible for the kind of 4 bar mechanism in fish jaws to evolve, which also evidence in the form of intermediate stages

  • Clio

    And here’s a link to a1938 paper in the journal of none and joint surgery describing the evolution of the knee joint
    If you are genuinely interested, please have a look. These are articles the prof could find easily. If he thought they were wrong he could have said so, not pretended that no-one has a clue.
    I suspect he believes what he says, but he can only maintain that belief by keeping his blinkers on. I think that’s quite sad.

  • Diego

    Thanks Clio. It will take me a while to digest that article and cross reference the detail. I’ll get back to you if I have any questions.

  • Clio

    i didn’t mean conniving – I meant convincing. that’s what comes of posting from a mobile!! sorry
    And it was meant to be BONE and joint surgery(!)

  • Andrew

    The banana thing is from creationist Ray Comfort. His infamous video is here.
    Richard Dawkins has something to say about it

  • Morgan

    Clio, I have to hold my hands up & say I think Jon clearly did the rallying & I deserve none of the praise that should be his.
    Diego, it is really great to see an interested, inquisitive, open mind exploring the facts around Prof. Burgess’ talk. I was really pleased to hear the young minds in the audience so willing to question. Skeptical enquiry is truly a wonderful thing.
    I hope that if you want to find out more, you’d drop us a line & we’ll gladly stand you a beer & answer any questions you have.

  • Richard Green

    If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it!


  • Jon

    The list of things I think he got wrong:

    Dawkins never promoted to a professor as a Biologist. He was already a published writer of popular books on Biology when he became the Professor of Public Understanding of Science. He was never a research type.
    Four Bar Hinge cannot evolve. Googled it:
    How do biologist explain how the Four Bar Mechanism evolved: “several unusual breakthroughs in skull function characterised the evolution of functional complexity in a broad type of fish.” Professor Burgess then interpreted this as “I have not got a clue”. That’s one sentence from one paper. There are hundreds (or thousands) of papers on the evolution of fish. Recently Bristols very own Prof Donoghue had a paper published in Nature about the evolution of fish jaws 400 Million years ago.
    Optimal Design in Nature.
    Archaeopteryx is 100% bird.
    Evolution cannot add Beauty for Beauties sake.
    Evolution cannot explain the Peacock.
    You need a degree in music to appreciate bird song..
    Common Design (e.g. Eyes) is evidence of a common designer.
    Marsupial analogues of placental mammals is evidence of a common designer.
    “Biologist/Evolutionists they CANNOT understand how these animals could be so much the same on the outside when all of them changed completely on the inside, it does not make sense”
    The Platypus: “It really confuses Biologist, they haven’t a clue how it could have evolved.”
    The atmosphere is ergonomically designed for man.
    The whole earth is designed for man. The Artic?
    Fruit! Wonderfully packaged for man.
    Banana perfectly designed packaging.
    Still the Banana: Just the right consistency, it’s soft enough to bite but stiff enough not to fall apart. The right size to hold it in the hand.
    The Orange even gives you fruit in little segments.
    The Apple is almost entirely juice but it’s held in these tiny cells so it doesn’t leak.
    Dawkins suggesting the mammalian eye is badly designed in The Greatest Show on Earth: Dawkins never suggests a better design
    On the Laryngeal Nerve and general disorder in the body; “Now I work with surgeons at Bristol University and they say that when they look inside the Human body it’s a marvel and a wonder of design”.
    His description of Eye Evolution.
    the suggestion that only an Octopus would benefit from the design of its eye
    Surgeons wouldn’t change one feature of the hand, head, spine.
    Nature is always perfect design.
    Your Sickle Cell gene thearpy Question. “There’s a lot of disease because of the fall” Interupted to be told Sickle Cell protects against Malaria. “When you look at the brilliance of Doctors, Biologists, Researchers.. reminds me of the brilliance of god.”

    The one thing he got right:
    “The way you argue can be more important than what you are actually saying.”

  • I did not feel sorry for Professor Burgess; i felt sorry for the impressionable young people there. They heard a character portrayal of atheists as arrogant offensive bullies, they were warned (indirectly) not to read Richard Dawkins, and they were told there would be no excuses on the Day of Judgement if they didn’t believe in the “evidence of creation”.

    This is perfectly brainwashing to young minds. You hear the arguments for creation, you hear contempt and disregard for people who believe otherwise, and you are warned against investigating and finding out the facts for yourself. This is why it took me some 28 years until i was finally able to get out of mystical nonsense land and embrace the beauty of science, logic and truth.

  • Jon

    I really don’t feel sorry for him. I think he’s wilfully ignorant, he works in a University with probably the best Biology department in the country (perhaps World) and it’s never occurred to him to take advantage of that?
    I’m sure any of the Biology professors would love to go through some basics with him but instead he’s content to sit back and call them confused bullies.
    Further, he seems committed to inflicting his ignorance on as many people as possible, particularly the young and impressionable students under his care.

  • Off topic, thanks to whoever fixed the issue with the missing spaces after punctuation! 🙂

  • Malcolm

    I’ve just realised… I’m an alabelist!

  • Sat through the same diatribe last Tuesday in Rugby at the Christian Fellowship Church, guests of the the Creation Science Group. This church boasts a spanking new visitor centre and has launched a series of lectures of which Burgess’s was the first. One could speculate on the source of the building funds, lecturers’ fees etc. and on the possible aims of the group’s sponsors. Can we see The Discovery Institute in the background and a Creation Academy looming ?.
    Time will tell.
    It will not go unchallenged and we hope to have a larger contingent of BHA supporters at the next meeting on March 13th. to hear Prof.Colin Garner of Loughborough. Norman Smith

  • Alan Champneys

    I should hold my hand up with this post. I know Stuart Burgess he is a colleague and a friend. But, I am NOT an intelligent design believer, nor a christian (I am an agnostic, like, I believe, all good scientists should be). I would say several things about Stuart burgess though. He is:

    1. incredibly brave – he knows whenever he speaks on his religious views he will be ridiculed on web sites such as this.
    2. a committed Christian who is genuinely kind, well liked by his colleagues and a decent man.
    3. amazingly thick skinned – read the abuse he gets on the web, much of which in my view is libelous, some of which is downright false, yet he chooses not to defend his reputation.
    4. someone who knows how to seperate his professional life and his private/religious life; yes he does mention his professional life in his religious talks, but I have never heard any suggestion that he has attempted to spread his religious beliefs in his professional life.
    5. Happy to debate with anyone. My understanding is that it is the Biology professors who don’t want to debate with him. He has never sought controversy at work.

    Could I put it to posters here that (like Richard Dawkins) they are just guilty of the “crimes” they are accusing Stuart of. At least he is more than happy to debate in public rather than post for the world to see e.g “here is a list of things I believe he got wrong”. I also found the faintly mocking tone of the opening piece in a faux louis theroux style to be somewhat inappropriate.

    Finally, consider this: Stuart Burgess is entitled to his opinions and because of his religion he would like to see these opinions shared and debated. I personally do not share his opinions. But he does not use his opinions in his professional life. There, he is a professor of design who teaches and researchers design within Mechanical Engineering (his mechanical insect for example, is very very clever).
    Contrast this with Richard Dawkins who is a professor of “public understanding of science”. i.e. “Pushing his opinions on the public”. I personally find it deeply offensive that Dawkin’s “God delusion” opinion should be called science, whereas Stuart Burgess’ opinion should be called “dangerous” or “laughable”….. In my view science and religion are two completely different things and atheism (as evangelised by Dawkins et al) is equally a religious point of view as Christian fundamentalism.

    roll on the debate…..

  • Clio

    Interesting reply Alan. I’m interested in your comment that all good scientists should be agnostic: given that over the centuries humans have created many gods, I wonder which ones we need to be agnostic to? Zeus, Thor, Isis and Yahweh come immediately to mind. To be a bit facetious, we should also be agnostic with respect to Russell’s teapot; after all, he asserted its presence and potential reality…

    To continue with your points though:
    1. People who speak out, expecting ridicule are certainly brave. That doesn’t make them right.
    2. I sensed some of what you described as his kindness – but he was appallingly rude about his students.
    3. Some of my friends have been threatened with rape online for their views, or for being gay/Jewish/female…I suspect he’s been spared that!!
    4. Prof Burgess is a member of ‘Truth in Science’. This advocates the teaching of creationism/ID in schools. He is not therefore keeping his religious beliefs out of his professional (an educator) life.
    5. I can understand why people can’t be bothered to debate with him…the phrase ‘better on your CV than mine’ comes to mind.

    My writing style is my own – as you could see from my other blog posts. I was not mocking him, although he deserved it. He may be happy to ‘debate’ in public, but ignores the evidence. There are links above describing the evolution of all the things he says could not possibly evolve because of their irreducible complexity. If he had been intellectually honest, he would have taken them on. He pretended the papers don’t exist “Scientists have no idea…” is the phrase he actually used – disingenuous is too kind a word for a professor who chose not to do a literature search.

    He is entitled to his opinions on evolution, as am I on design – but my opinions on design could be knocked down in a flash. I know what I’m expert on and what I’m not – he would appear not to understand his limitations.

    The God Delusion is not a scientific book – nor does it pretend to be. Dawkins has written many scientific books, but does not claim that this is one of them.

    Atheism is not a religious point of view; it is the lack of one. I can explain the difference further if you need it (not mocking, a genuine offer). Put simply though, ‘not collecting stamps’ is not a hobby.

    Apropos of my first statement: do you describe yourself as atheist with respect to Kali? and if so is this non-belief a religious position?

  • Jonathan

    Professor, thank you for replying. I think Clio has already covered the main points far more eloquently that I could have.

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with stating the points I think he got wrong, he’s welcome to defend his opinion. We had a list of questions to ask but he had a sore throat and so only answered two.
    I’m pretty sure he hasn’t updated his talk as a result of any corrections (according to Norman Smith’s comment on his recent lecture in Rugby). If he still thinks disease exists because of the fall he deserves all the ridicule coming to him.

  • Malcolm


    It’s not clear to me why you, an agnostic, should regard it as a positive that Prof Burgess is a committed Christian. If by “Committed Christian” you mean the humanistic virtues of treating sentient creatures with care and respect, I can understand. But I don’t understand why you should consider it virtuous when they add to that a belief in specific supernatural entities, or if they replace a moral conscience with an imperative to please and obey an all-powerful creator. Many high profile examples exist of committed Christians who use their religion to justify racism, homophobia, covering up child-rape, or threatening children with eternal torture unless they reject a scientific consensus on geology and biology.

    Prof Burgess is, I’m sure, (and he did stress this himself several times) a very talented designer. He sees design everywhere. You’ve heard the expression “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Add to that a religious belief that the earth was created in a week a few thousand years ago, and we see the problem. Biology is clearly not his forte, unless he was using poetic licence when misrepresenting the state of scientific research into the evolution of joints, and of the eye. Perhaps apologetics demands a lower standard of rigour than science? Prof Burgess is welcome to post here if he feels he’s been misrepresented. Which is more than could be said of either “Answers in Genesis” or “Truth in Science”, both of which name Professor Burgess as a close associate and both of which are run by believers in a 4,500 year old earth. Both these organisations seek to misrepresent very well established scientific theories to school children, arguing against those strawmen with slickly produced propaganda containing deliberately distorted and cherry-picked bits of the evidence.

    You say that religion and science are two completely different things. I think you should address that to Prof Burgess. In his case it is clear that it is his religion that interferes with his science.

    He uses his academic credentials and position in one area of engineering to lend an authority to his take on biology. You play the sympathy card when you say he’s ridiculed for his religious beliefs. Looking at those children in the audience listening to a mangling of science by an assumed authority – it is they who deserve your sympathy.

  • Don

    If you could give me just one evidence of one kind of animal changing into another then I will believe in evolution D. Henry

  • Don, animals don’t change into one another. No evolutionary biologist says such a thing. It’s a statement made by creationist proponents in order to mischaracterise the facts of evolution.
    What happens is this roughly speaking…
    Take a population of animals, they breed, adapt, and respond to changes in their environment. Then through natural movement of their herds or whatever we end up with a situation where a group of them, say 10% of the population, is now geographically isolated from the others. They keep on doing their thing but now the two groups are subject to different selective pressures. Say the smaller group now has to contend with the heat in a very hot area. So the ones that can’t cope with the heat die out, the ones that can survive get the chance to breed and pass on their genes to the next generation. The original group are just carrying on as they did, no differences for them say.
    The smaller group are gradually over many generations adapting to the high temperatures in their environment. They develop new characteristics through random gene mutations. Almost all mutations are irrelevant, some are deleterious (bad) and some confer a survival advantage to the animals. Let’s say that the temperatures keep rising in that area so the animals who can’t cope with these increased temperatures die and those who can survive do survive to breed and pass on their tolerance to heat.
    We have two populations of what were the same animal, one of which is as it was when we started this, and the other group who now have tremendous resilience in high temperatures. These two populations may have evolved to such a degree that they can no longer interbreed.
    Now let’s say there is an environmental catastrophe that affects both populations of animals, the originals doing their thing and the others with their increased temperature tolerance. Say this catastrophe is something that causes global temperatures to rise by a large amount.
    The original population of animals are not adapted to living with these elevated temperatures and they die out. The others who have evolved to cope with high temperatures also suffer, the less adapted die and those animals who are better suited to survive will live to pass on their genes.
    Now millions of years later when we’re looking at the fossils of these creatures we can see that the high temp ones look very similar to the original ones but they have characteristics that are different, we can see that they have changed. They have changed in comparison to the original animals. But the original animals have not turned into the high temp animals.
    It’s very clear that the high temp animals evolved from the low temp animals even though we can’t tell that they were adapted to high and low temps. We just know that one is different to the other and that one of them died out before the other did so we can put them in order. We can say that the original ones died out first and the second group died out afterwards because they are higher up in the fossil record. They have left fossils in younger rocks.
    So we know that the second group evolved from the first. The first did not turn into the second. No animal changed into another. It doesn’t happen like that. That’s not what evolution is. No evolutionary biologist says that one animal changes into another because that’s not what happens.
    The only people who say that one animal changes into another are those who do not understand what evolution is and how it works, or those who want to confuse people by mischaracterising the process of evolution.
    So there is no evidence that one animal changes onto another because that’s not what happens. Anyone who says it is what happens is lying to you.
    Ask them why.