J. Warner Wallace’s eight attributes of design

Christian apologist (and former atheist) “Jim” Warner Wallace knows quite a lot about design, having earned a bachelor’s degree in design from California State University and a master’s degree in architecture from UCLA. Wallace also worked as a homicide detective for many years, in a job where he had to be able to distinguish deaths that were intentional from deaths that were not. Wallace writes well, and his Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013) is an apologetic masterpiece. So naturally, when I came across a post over at Evolution News and Views, featuring his views on Intelligent Design, I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

In his interview with Center for Science & Culture research coordinator Brian Miller, “Jim” Warner Wallace listed what he referred to as eight attributes of design. Wallace emphasized that a strong case could be made for saying that an object was designed, even on the basis of its possessing only a few of these attributes, but that when taken together, they constitute a case for design which is certain beyond all reasonable doubt. The cumulative nature of the case is what makes it so strong.

Without further ado, here are Wallace’s eight attributes of design:

1. Could random processes (i.e. chance alone) produce this object?
2. Does it resemble something that you know is designed?
3. Does it have a level of sophistication & intricacy best explained by design?
4. Is it informationally dependent – that is, does it require information to get it done?
5. Is there evidence of goal-direction?
6. Can natural law get it done?
7. Is there any evidence of irreducible complexity?
8. Is there evidence of decision, or choices, that were made along the way, that can’t be explained by chemistry and physics?

I’d like to offer my own brief comments on Wallace’s eight attributes:

1. Could random processes (i.e. chance alone) produce this object?

By itself, this attribute doesn’t yield the inference that an object was designed. It needs to be combined with attribute 6, which rules out natural law as an explanation for the object. But even if 1 and 6 are both true, it still doesn’t follow that law and chance working together could not produce an intricate object which neither of them could generate alone.

2. Does it resemble something that you know is designed?

Resemblance to a designed object does not justify the inference to design. Wallace’s attribute trades on an unfortunate ambiguity here, confusing (a) a resemblance in structure between an object known to be designed and one which looks designed, with (b) a resemblance in causal history between the former object and the latter. The point of Darwin’s argument in his Origin of Species was that resemblances of type (a) do not warrant justified design inferences, in and of themselves, and that two objects with wildly different causal histories may end up looking alike. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was intended to provide a causal history that was capable of generating objects that look designed, but which have no designer.

3. Does it have a level of sophistication & intricacy best explained by design?

I have to confess that emotionally, my sympathies are very much with Wallace here. Back in the 1980s, the breathtaking level of sophistication that can be found in even the simplest living cell made a vivid impression on biochemist Michael Denton, who wrote:

Molecular biology has shown that even the simplest of all living systems on the earth today, bacterial cells, are exceedingly complex objects. Although the tiniest bacterial cells are incredibly small, weighing less than 10-12 gms, each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the nonliving world.(Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Adler & Adler, 1986, p. 250.)

However, critics will object that the complexity of a city or a factory is not irreducible: cities, like factories, can be constructed one step at a time. That being the case, they say, there is no reason in principle why blind (or non-foresighted) processes are incapable of producing these complex structures.

Even so, I cannot help wondering whether the cell is in a special category of its own:

4. Is it informationally dependent – that is, does it require information to get it done?

The three tricky questions which leap to mind here are: (a) what kind of information; (b) how much information; and (c) how should the quantity of information be properly calculated, anyway?

5. Is there evidence of goal-direction?

Goal-direction, or teleology, is of two kinds: intrinsic (directed at the good of the entity itself) and extrinsic (designed purely for the benefit of some other entity). Teleology of the latter kind obviously implies design. However, in order to show that even intrinsic teleology indicates design, one needs to appeal to a philosophical argument rather than a scientific one. As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, Aristotle’s own view was that goal-directedness does not require a mind which consciously intends the goal. By contrast, the Scholastic philosophers argued, in the Middle Ages, that the very fact that unconscious things exist whose natures direct them towards certain goals can only be made sense of if there is a Divine Intelligence which orders the world. (Feser outlines the Scholastic argument in an essay titled, Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide, in Philosophia Christi, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010. See also his blog article, Atheistic teleology?, July 5, 2012.)

At any rate, the point I wish to make here is that goal-direction, taken by itself, cannot be said to constitute scientific or forensic evidence for design, unless the goal is an external one.

6. Can natural law get it done?

See my remarks on attribute 1 above.

7. Is there any evidence of irreducible complexity?

It is worth noting that Professor Michael Behe has never said that irreducibly complex systems cannot evolve naturally; rather, his point is that their evolution by a roundabout route (exaptation), while theoretically possible, is practically impossible for any system containing a large number of parts.

In his interview, “Jim” Warner Wallace made much of Behe’s example of the bacterial flagellum. However, the following passage from an article in New Scientist magazine by Michael Le Page (16 April 2008) reveals the weakness of Wallace’s case:

The best studied flagellum, of the E. coli bacterium, contains around 40 different kinds of proteins. Only 23 of these proteins, however, are common to all the other bacterial flagella studied so far. Either a “designer” created thousands of variants on the flagellum or, contrary to creationist claims, it is possible to make considerable changes to the machinery without mucking it up.

What’s more, of these 23 proteins, it turns out that just two are unique to flagella. The others all closely resemble proteins that carry out other functions in the cell. This means that the vast majority of the components needed to make a flagellum might already have been present in bacteria before this structure appeared.

It has also been shown that some of the components that make up a typical flagellum – the motor, the machinery for extruding the “propeller” and a primitive directional control system – can perform other useful functions in the cell, such as exporting proteins.

…[W]hat has been discovered so far – that flagella vary greatly and that at least some of the components and proteins of which they are made can carry out other useful functions in the cells – show that they are not “irreducibly complex”. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

Nick Matzke’s 2006 article, Flagellum evolution in Nature Reviews Microbiology, over at Panda’s Thumb, is also well worth reading. Intelligent Design advocates have often claimed that the bacterial flagellum contains a large number of unique components. As Matzke convincingly shows, they’re wrong, period.

Of course, this is not the end of the story, and Professor Behe discusses what he views as further evidence for the design of the bacterial flagellum in his book, The Edge of Evolution (The Free Press, New York, 2007, pp. 87-101) – namely, the intricacies of intra-flagellar transport and the precisely co-ordinated timing required for the construction of a single bacterial flagellum. However, the point I want to make here is that the assertion that irreducible complexity, in and of itself, constitutes evidence for design is factually mistaken, as Dr. Douglas Theobald’s elegantly written article on the subject at Talk Origins illustrates so aptly.

8. Is there evidence of decision, or choices, that were made along the way, that can’t be explained by chemistry and physics?

If there were any positive evidence for choices being made in the four-billion-year history of life, then I would certainly regard it as evidence for design. However, in order to infer the existence of a choice, it is not enough to rule out physics and chemistry as explanations; one must also rule out chance. Why, for instance, is life left-handed instead of right-handed? Is this a choice made by life’s Creator, or an accident? Who knows?


I don’t mean to speak disrespectfully of “Jim” Warner Wallace, as I have enjoyed reading his writings. His recent book, A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, which I have not read yet, appears to have been favorably reviewed and looks intriguing. However, I have to say that Wallace’s eight attributes of design need a lot more work, in order to refine them.

What do readers think? And how would readers modify Wallace’s criteria for design? Over to you.

252 thoughts on “J. Warner Wallace’s eight attributes of design”

  1. phoodoo

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  2. OMagain

    phoodoo: Omagain says the only thing that is evil in this world, is support for people like me!

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