Teleology and peer review: A thought experiment


If you would please bear me with me, I would like to propose the following thought experiment and hear how you would react.

Imagine that you are an evolutionary microbiologist who is asked to review a research paper for a mainstream microbiology journal. The paper concerns a group of bacteria which have a specific molecular structure, which we will call Structure X. The exact nature of Structure X doesn’t matter to this thought experiment. However, the widespread consensus, shared by every researcher who has studied Structure X, is that it represents a case of “poor design”, because it lacks a specific feature, which we will call Feature Y.

Now, the paper you are asked to review makes the following argument: The author believes Structure X to be intelligently designed. He argues that for the designer to design life, they must be at least as intelligent as humans, and would therefore not have designed something which we would recognize as “poor design”. From this argument, the paper derives the prediction that Feature Y actually exists but hasn’t been discovered yet.

The paper then goes on to describe how the author tested his prediction and indeed found Feature Y, along with an explanation why previous researchers hasn’t found it.

The paper doesn’t argue that natural selection couldn’t have produced Structure X or Feature Y.

Other than the unusual source of inspiration, you find nothing objectionable about the paper. The finding is novel and interesting, the evidence for the existence of Feature Y is solid, and the experiment design is good.

Now for the question: Would you recommend this paper for publication? Why or why not?

A follow-up question: Would the concern that the Discovery Institute (a pro-ID think thank) might refer to the paper as an example of “peer reviewed ID research” influence your decision?

(Stephen Matheson) #2

As a journal editor, my role is to determine whether the paper should go for peer review, and then whether to publish it once I have the reviews. An unusual or even ridiculous “source of inspiration” would not influence the decision to review the paper, at least not for me, by itself. And since you have stipulated that there is nothing in the paper to suggest that its findings are poorly supported by the evidence or that the data are flawed, then a sentence or two of drivel in the Introduction is not going to be a significant concern.

I do think that the machinations of unspecified superbeings are not suitable for discussion in a primary research article (at least not in biology), so I think it unlikely that the author’s fondness for such characters would survive peer review. But by itself, on principle, for me, the drivel would not affect the decision to review or publish. I must emphasize, strongly, that I speak only for myself.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #3

How can someone say that an organism is poorly designed?

If it were poorly designed then it would be dead or dying.

(Phil) #4

Of course, something very similar to what you imagine was described by Darwin, when he noted a weird orchid (structure X), and predicted a yet undiscovered moth (feature Y) to pollinate it. However, it supported evolution rather than intelligent design.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #5

No, it supported ecological selection rather then survival of the fittest.

(Stephen Matheson) #6

Great point! Moreover, I think that in @Krauze’s scenario, we’re not far at all from reasoning that is standard in science: “It is peculiar/unexpected to see X but not Y, so we sought Y and found it.” One can reason in this way without adding on superbeings or other epiphenomena.


Thank you for your response. And I have a suspicion that you’re correct that such a paper would likely not survive peer review.

Evolutionary biologists routinely describe biological structures as poorly designed. Here, for example, is George C. Williams on the blind spot of the vertebrate eye:

“There would be no blind spot if the vertebrate eye were really intelligently designed. In fact it is stupidly designed, because it embodies many functionally arbitrary or maladaptive features, of which the inversion of the retina is merely one example. These features are there, not for functional but for purely historical reasons.” (George C. Williams, 1992, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges, Oxford University Press, p. 73)

Indeed, as Stephen J. Gould argued, it is the imperfections of life that provides evidence of history and evolution:

“Evolution lies exposed in the imperfections that record a history of descent. Why should a rat run, a bat fly, a porpoise swim, and I type this essay with structures built of the same bones unless we all inherited them from a common ancestor? An engineer, starting from scratch, could design better limbs in each case.” (Stephen J. Gould, 1983, “Evolution as Fact and Theory”, in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, W.W. Norton
p. 258)

Indeed, evolutionary biology leads to testable predictions.

Would you like to give the thought experiment a crack? Would you recommend the paper for publication?

(GJDS) #8

This is any interesting hypothetical - one of my roles is to review papers in my area (not biology) so while I would not be asked to review such a paper, I will respond for the sake of discussion.

Generally, if an author proposes an idea that challenges the current paradigm, I for one would encourage such work, but I would also insist on a very rigorous discussion, including attempts to quantify his prediction(s). My overall impression is that ideas in biology are often very difficult to quantify or examine mathematically (I can be corrected on this), so perhaps (if this were the case) I would not reject the paper, but decline to review it.

An important criteria is the quality and thoroughness of the data and if it can be reproduced by other workers in the field.

(Stephen Matheson) #9

Oh, sorry, you misunderstood (and/or I was unclear). My sentence is meant to say that the “sentence or two of drivel” would not survive peer review. It is common for editors and peer reviewers to require authors to rewrite sections of a paper for various reasons. I would be surprised if those inane sentences sunk the paper entirely in the hands of other editors or reviewers. Again, for me, and speaking only for myself, they wouldn’t.


Thank you for the answer. As for quantification, biology is the study of very complex systems, and evolutionary biology compounds the difficulty by being a historical science, where the events in question can’t be repeated in a laboratory, but have to be pieced together from the evidence left behind.

A follow-up question for you (and for @sfmatheson, should he wish to take a crack at it): Does it factor into your evaluation that the author in question hasn’t distinguished his views from conventional evolutionary biology by ruling out natural selection as a possible cause of Feature Y?

A fair point, thank you for the correction. I should have written that the paper as described (i.e. with the teleological inspiration for the experiment) probably wouldn’t survive peer review.

We can imagine a scenario in which the author submits a paper detailing the same finding, but leaves out the fact that teleological considerations motivated him to look for Feature Y. We can further speculate that leaving out this piece of information would make for a smoother review process.

In this scenario, imagine that the paper has been published (sans the teleological “drivel”), and that the author publicly announces (maybe in an interview or a book) that his views on teleology were what really motivated the experiment, and lays out his reasoning why. The Discovery Institute promptly starts pointing to the article as an example of peer reviewed ID research.

Now, would it be a stretch of the imagination that the researcher would be accused of duplicity for not divulging his motivation to the reviewers, instead sneaking them into the article like a Trojan Horse?

(Stephen Matheson) #12

I’m not sure I understand the question, but I should say that the scenario you are describing is just not realistic. It’s really not true that biologists make a big deal out of whether they think something is “poorly designed”; that’s one thing that makes the scenario a tad silly. (In fact, biologists in my experience are more prone to what Lewontin and Gould called the Panglossian Paradigm than they are to any serious claim of “bad design.”) So, there’s only one interesting question here, IMO, which is whether a few sentences of silliness in the Intro of a paper would or should be a sticking point during initial evaluation and/or peer review. I have already answered that question.

Whether or not an author holds odd views (many clearly do, since some significant proportion of biologists believe in gods who can change the natural world supernaturally) is simply not germane to the evaluation of a scientific paper. I don’t know how else to answer you.

I can imagine that. I don’t know why it should matter.

They already do this for papers that were not linked (by the authors) to ID. So?

Yes. It would.


The natural process of evolution would also drive systems towards higher fitness, so you would need a way to differentiate design from evolution which I don’t see in the rough methodology you have described. There also needs to be some statistical modeling so that there is some objectivity in the method. As the paper stands, it is entirely subjective. As someone told me many years ago, the difference between science and an opinion is measurements. If you don’t have numbers and measurements (and error bars) you don’t have science.

Not at all. Scientists have been encouraging ID proponents to put forward original scientific work for decades now.


Ford Pinto Rule: The Ford Pinto was intelligently designed, but poorly designed. Poor design does not necessarily rule out intelligent design.


What is stopping anyone from doing that with the thousands of papers already published? There are tens of thousands of papers in biology that are the first to describe the interaction between two proteins or two biomolecules. ID proponents could cite every paper and say “it was designed that way”. The problem is that they don’t have any science to back these claims.

(GJDS) #16

I am struggling with the prediction the paper has made - from your remarks I would reject the paper for not backing his prediction with scientific data.


I was asking whether the author would have to rule out natural selection as a possible cause of Feature Y (as @T_aquaticus below holds that he does).

George C. William wrote about the poor design of the vertebrate eye (see my quote above), and he wasn’t shy about invoking selection. (As Gould writes about him in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: “Williams begins by characterizing adaptation as an ‘onerous’ concept that should be invoked only when all other simpler explanation fails. We should then become all the more impressed when we find that we need to invoke adaptation so often!”)

Gould himself famously wrote about “the highly inefficient, but serviceable, false thumb of the panda.” Jerry Coyne has written about the recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, which he calls “One of nature’s worst designs” (Why Evolution is True, 2009, p. 87). The list goes on.

So you would reject the paper because it doesn’t show that natural selection couldn’t also have produced Feature Y, and because it doesn’t contain numbers, measurements, and error bars. Got it, thank you for your answer.

None of the authors of those papers have said that their research was motivated by teleologically-derived predictions (to my knowledge, at least). The author of the paper in my thought experiment did. That’s the difference.

The prediction of the author is that Feature Y exists. In the thought experiment, the evidence for the existence of Feature Y is solid, and the experiment design is good.

(GJDS) #18

Taken at face value from this comment, if the paper contains data that can be scrutinised, I would review and most likely approve it for publication - however if the paper claims to ‘overthrow’ the current paradigm, I would examine it in great detail. If I find the data and experiment convincing, I would give it a high rating - but notice the many ‘ifs’ in my comment.


Thank you for the answer. And no, the thought experiment paper makes no claims about having overthrown the current paradigm, unshackled the chains of naturalism, or anything of the sort. :slight_smile:

(Stephen Matheson) #20

Your responses seriously miss the point. It’s not in dispute whether commentators have discussed examples of “bad design.” They have, and such examples clearly exist. The conversation I thought we were having is about whether it is realistic to picture a scenario like the one you discussed, as though there are pervasive undercurrents of assumed “bad design” in the scientific literature. (In the microbiology literature, in your example.) I am trying to get you to look beyond a pretty narrow and inaccurate view of how design is and isn’t considered by professional scientists in the technical literature. If you spend some time looking at that literature, you will no longer wonder whether microbiologists are prone to writing or thinking about “bad design.”

My point about the Panglossian Paradigm, which you seem to have ignored, is that some scientists (including me), are critical of the very opposite of what your scenario envisions. Microbiology is an area where this is likely to be more pronounced than, say, in animal development, for reasons we can discuss if you are interested. The critique is made most famously and eloquently by Lewontin and Gould, but has been reiterated in somewhat different and more intense terms by Michael Lynch. The ongoing debate pits “adaptationists” against those who think that there can be, at least in some cases, too much emphasis on the prowess of selection in ascending fitness peaks.

All of this is to say that your scenario is unrealistic. I will then reiterate that this critique of mine is largely irrelevant to the more interesting question of whether the editorial process is prone to bias against authors who hold silly views about “design” or Athena or reincarnation.


That’s a long ways from supporting teleology.