The Stratification of Design

 Integrated Design and its Proliferation

In the design versus evolution debate those in favour of design often cite numerous  examples from a range of natural phenomena, (Vandeman, Gish, de Groot, Gallagher and Walton 1992). It is possible, however, to extrapolate diverse and interconnected instances of design from any single natural phenomenon. Just as beam of white light can be passed through a prism to reveal a spectrum of different colours of light, so within any given instance of design in nature can be discerned multiple dimensions of design. As the layers of design increase, the instances of design proliferate. One design advocate who has extrapolated numerous dimensions of design from a single natural phenomenon is Professor Stuart Burgess.

 In Hallmarks of Design (2002) Professor Stuart Burgess focuses on the mammalian knee joint as an example of, “a mechanical mechanism that could not have evolved,” (2002: 11). In his analysis, specifically of the human knee joint (2002: 11-13), Burgess concentrates on showing this joint could not have come into existence by a series of, “numerous, successive, slight modifications,” which evolution implies (Darwin 1859, cited Burgess 2002: 11). He argues the information provided by the cell determines geometric characteristics, a phenomenon for which there is currently no scientific account, (2002: 17-18, 20-21). The features of the knee joint are, “specified by information in the genetic code,” (2002: 16). Burgess likens this code to, “a complete set of engineering drawings,” a copy of which is found in every cell of the body (burgess 2002: 16, Brand 1981:44).


Burgess maintains, “A living organism is continually reading instructions from DNA in order to carry out life’s processes, such as growth and repair,” (Burgess 2002: 17).  “DNA contains information in the form of a very long sequence of chemical ‘letters’,” (Burgess 2002: 16-17) A, G, C & T.  In the double helical structure of DNA, two ‘letters’ on one  helix line up with two on the other helix forming a string of instructions known as a “chromosome” which is a long list of letters that can be divided up into “genes” (Burges 2002: 17).  Genes are like paragraphs of instructions and chromosomes are like planner’s drawings (2002: 17).  This information is the result of design, Burges argues, because each gene is required simultaneously in order to produce a working knee.  If the information accrued step-by-step it would in theory produce one knee part and later another, but not a working knee.

Burgess refers to the “chemical units” (2002: 17) that make up the “tiny molecule of DNA” (2002: 16), (the acids adenylic A, cytidylic C, guanylic G and thymidylic T) as the  “Morse code” of all life (2002: 17): they are versatile in the extreme as well as highly sophisticated in their capacity to combine to produce code determining and effecting biological structures including DNA itself (Lennox 2009:139). Their sophistication is evident in the range of phenomena they instruct for, from brain cells to toe nails and from bird wings to orange blossom. The chemical units which make the code are themselves the raw material for information (2002:16-17).  These chemicals form the basis of information which not only determines the physical properties of organic features but also the means by which the organisms are assembled.

Assembly process

Burgess outlines planned processes by which actions are carried out.  For example, in human embryos the way information in the cell leads to the assembly of organs and limbs:  “the cell must specify how the knee will grow and become assembled,” (Burgess 2002: 19). There is a method by which the instructions from the cell are carried out in the forming embryo.  Burgess does not claim to understand the method by which instructions are carried out: “instructions are somehow given for the bone in the limb bud to separate,” and “instructions are also somehow given for the cruciate ligaments to form a cross,” (2002: 19). He says, “the self-assembly of the knee joint is so sophisticated that scientists do not know how it happens,” (2002: 20).  There is a method, or “mechanism”, by which the instructions arise and a method by which they are carried out, even though it “has still to be determined,” (Wolpert 1998, cited Burgess 2002: 20). The process by which instructions are enacted is a logistical operation moving component parts into place so creating body features. The operation is more complex still if the means of expediting this procedure is to be understood. 

The physical movements involved in assembling physiological features are highly organised, sequenced and mobile. In identifying the means of movement of parts into place as an aspect of design, Burgess notes, “A living organism is continually reading instructions from DNA in order to carry out life’s processes, such as growth and repair,” (Burgess 2002: 17, cf. Brand 1981: 44-46).  The movement of the molecules within the cell and the aggregation of cells to form parts of the body in the relevant place is expedited as these parts are “sent out” (Shorter Oxford 2007) to the designated location. The movement required in assembling components and parts is not the result of energy acting within or on cells, but is intelligently expedited. Not only are instructions coded for assembly, but also for the means of transporting cell components and cells into place. In addition to coding for the process and means of assembly, DNA also determines an organism’s structural geometry.

Geometrical design

Critical to the structure of the knee geometrical information implies a non-material design dimension determining for example, the exact location of condyles where the cruciate ligaments attach. Furthermore, Burgess argues, geometric characteristics, the shape of the object, are more important than the materials, for example watch cogs could be made out of a different material, because what matters most is the position and shape of the gear teeth (2002: 20). Likewise, the shape of bones matters more than the material.  Burgess complains, “Despite the critical nature of geometric characteristics, books on evolution virtually never mention them,” and concludes, “such information presents a major problem for evolution,” (2002: 20) because it necessitates trying to explain how new genetic information could arise to change the shape of a part of the body. He argues, “To prove the theory of evolution the evolutionist would have to show how a geometric characteristic, such as the attachment position of a cruciate ligament, could evolve.  However, this has never been done, and never can be done, because such a critical characteristic could not evolve in isolation,” (2002: 21). Such a characteristic would need to be integrated with the other features of the particular part of the body.  Therefore, “it is very misleading for evolutionists to give the impression that an organism needs only to specify proteins in order to grow and function,” (2002: 21).  For a change in body shape the cell would have to specify new geometric information co-ordinated with changes in the profile of other components which would imply organisation at a metaphysical level. Transcendent co-ordination is evident in the simultaneous presence of the components of the knee joint.

Integrated design

The irreducible, “all or nothing” knee joint requires all the parts to be in place simultaneously in order to function. As Burgess explains, “the knee joint to exist simultaneously and in precise assembly to be able to perform its basic function,” (2002: 14). Burgess continues, the interdependent parts “must always exist together to be of any use,” (2002: 14).  Continuing the watch analogy, each part is connected to the other parts.  The knee joint could not evolve by gradual stages from a more primitive joint because if a ligament, condyle or meniscus is absent the incomplete joint would malfunction. The process of growth and development is likewise irreducible.  

Developmental design

The genetic code produces not just components, but incorporates growth and development, which Burgess identifies as designed characteristics. For example the growth and development of the human knee joint in the womb entails the phased emergence and combination of the bones and tissues from clumps of cells (2002: 19).  As the constituent parts grow, the DNA determines how each feature changes, including bones, skin, muscles, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels developing in proportion to each other over weeks, months and years extending at the same rate, producing co-ordinated development. Growth and development are inextricable from reproduction so have not evolved but necessarily have been an essential feature of all living organisms throughout their history.

Mechanical design 

The knee is a mechanical design in so far as it combines parts to produce a physical motion, the bending of the joint. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines a mechanism as: “a system of mutually adapted parts working together (as) in a machine,” (Oxford 2007). Burgess argues, the constituent parts, “must not only be present but must also be precisely compatible with one another in order to produce the right physical motion,” (2002: 15). The joint has interconnected parts each with a definite function, such as to stabilize, to guide and to pivot. The hypothesis that the mechanical function of the knee has evolved would mean the range increased to a ninety degree bend as the joint itself evolved to allow this. However merely asserting the joint evolved does not explain all the required intermediate stages, but rather begs the question whether or not such processes occurred. The alternative to evolutionary processes is creativity underlying natural phenomena.

Creative design

Setting aside the evolutionary hypothesis on the grounds so far covered, the human body is not the product of deterministic natural processes, but the creation of a free will.  Rather than arising in nature from necessity, the human body with all its features, including the knee, may be construed as a novel artefact. Burges states, the knee was “created as a...mechanism,” (2002: 14). In this sense the knee is original and would not exist had it not been invented: it exhibits vision and ingenuity. It has no predecessor from which to adapt the blue print: it has its very own plan. The argument the knee has developed from other more primitive bone structures is countered by Burgess with the argument it is irreducible and highly organised (2002: 14). This organisation is purposeful, which is another design dimension.

Functional design

From the viewpoint of function the knee is required to be fully formed from the outset. As a “functioning mechanism,” (2002: 14) the knee serves designated purposes.  For example the human knee is constructed to “produce a motion” (Burgess 2002: 14) enabling sitting, crawling, standing, walking, running, swimming, climbing etc. It would not be able to fulfil any of these functions if it was in the process of evolving.  For example, if there was a single straight bone from the hip to the foot that had not yet divided into upper and lower leg, or if there were two sections of bone, upper leg and lower leg, which had not yet formed a mobile joint. In either of these hypothetical evolutionary scenarios the everyday functions enabled by the knee, as mentioned previously would not be possible. By analogy, it would be like a door lacking hinges so unable to open (Smart 2001: 78).  The functional purpose of the knee contributes to the evidence for that joint being a manifestation of over-arching design.

Overarching design

The over-arching design of the knee joint is evident in its integration into the body, its purpose in enabling activities (as discussed above) and its suitability for its environment. If the knee is considered with the rest of the body of which it is an integral part it can be seen to form a component of the overall plan of the body. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that bears an image itself but which is also an inseparable part of an overall picture, the knee is interconnected with the shin, ankle, foot, thigh, hip and upper body.  In all cases the nerves, blood vessels and muscles extend beyond any particular physical feature, respectively to the spinal cord and cerebellum, heart and the muscular-skeletal system (Smart 2001).  Through this intricate interconnectedness the knee exhibits planning in the context of the body as well as in itself (Smart 2001: 76-77). Each component is part of the whole, which is more than the sum of the parts: the “more” being over-arching design (Burgess et al 2017:163).

Compatibility with environment including gravity, walking surfaces and the availability of nutrition and oxygen demonstrates the, “presence of transcendent design,” (Dembski 1999: 224).  Dembski relates the concept of overarching design in the notion of a bigger context within which other designed phenomena feature, from bodies and plants to atmosphere and minerals.  While evidence of design in the human knee might be seen primarily in terms of function, its aesthetic qualities also exhibit elements of design.


Aesthetic design

Burgess argues just as beauty is a hallmark of design “in engineering and architecture,” this is also the case with “the beauty of the human body,” (2002: 9). The human knee, “can extend fully so that the leg can be made straight and the body upright.  In fact the human knee joint also locks in the upright position...In contrast, the knee joint of apes is not fully extendable and apes must always have bent legs,” (2004: 28). Burgess points out, “The upright stature of the human body is very elegant because it is unique and because it produces a very straight body,” (2004: 117). The knee contributes to this, as well as in some instances having fine skin, smoothness, curves, symmetry and ergonomic structure (2004: 112). The human form has been the perennial subject of painting and sculpture, as well as being a staple feature of advertising, indicating there is a great attraction to its appearance (Burgess 2002: 9). 


Burgess identifies different design characteristics within a single natural phenomenon:  the human knee.  These facets include: 1) the genetic code (instructions and plans) which cannot have gradually emerged piece by piece as the code is irreducible.  2) The logistical process by which cells go to form parts of the body, so implementing genetic information. 3) The geometric dimension of the design of the knee indicates DNA instructs not just where the various components go and how to get there, but also in terms of precise situation and orientation within that location. 4) The simultaneous coexistence of all the components of the knee integrated with precise compatibility of the components of the joint fitting together intricately and exactly. 5) The way the human knee grows in conjunction with the rest of the body shows growth is built in to the plan for the joint.  Growth could not evolve gradually for the knee or bit-by-bit across the body.  Growth evidences co-ordinated design to advance the knee and the rest of the body from the egg and embryo stage to the adult form. 6) The existential novelty of the knee joint: a creative design inexplicable in terms of natural necessity.[It is not necessary that there is something rather than nothing.] 7)  Function: the knee serves purposes which would not be possible if it was partly evolved.  A fully-operating knee is essential.  8) Mechanical design: the mechanism is a conjunction of components forming a mechanical unit carrying out its function. 9) The knee is incorporated within the design and plan of the body as a whole. Therefore at a higher level of over-arching design the knee is integrated with and dependent upon the materials, systems and functions of the rest of the body, including vascular, respiratory, nervous and skeletal systems (Burgess et al 2017: 163). 10) The human knee demonstrates ergonomic and aesthetic design, in so far as numerous components are integrated harmoniously maximising the occupied space.

These aspects of design are not isolated in different creatures, but coexist in any given example.  For instance, the bombardier beetle demonstrates irreducible complexity in the way it mixes chemicals to make an explosion, (McIntosh 2017: 84-87), but there are also micro dimensions of design at the cellular level as well as the muscular system, respiratory system, cardio-vascular system, eye-sight, antennae, nervous system, wings, the over-arching design of the beetle, the creative design, the functional design and the developmental design (Gabrielle’s Insects c2013).

Focusing on the range of aspects of design within any given natural phenomenon multiplies examples of evidence of design.  Furthermore, when Darwin’s tree of life, with its principle of all life emerging from a single common ancestor is replaced by the theory of a forest (Meyer 2014:135) the number of examples of design increases exponentially. With the forest analogy, although there is diversification and adaptation within species, for instance numerous varieties of dog descending from a single breed of wolf-like dogs (Back 2 Genesis 2020), or all horses descending from a single breed (Back 2 Genesis 2020), the species themselves do not have ancestors in common with other species (Back 2 Genesis 2020). This implies a phenomenon such as metamorphosis presents evidence of design in each species in which it occurs:  butterflies, moths, house-flies, lacewings, mosquitoes, dragonflies and so on (Biology dictionary 2019). In the forest analogy metamorphosis is not a phenomenon inherited by various species from a common ancestor, but rather a characteristic with no heredity beyond that particular species in which it occurs. This applies to phenomena such as sight and hearing, digestion, reproduction, flight, circulation and many other features common to numerous species. Each design feature of each species contributes separately towards the sum total of evidence. When the numerous aspects of design within each example are taken into account, the evidence proliferates.  Once the forest analogy replaces that of the tree the mass of examples of design proliferates exponentially: “a degree of complexity that’s almost unfathomable.  It’s complexity wrapped up in complexity wrapped up in complexity forming and endless panorama of labyrinths,” (Berlinski 2019: 3.20).

Mark Nicholls (uploaded 23.06.2024)


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