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The “design” mistake

Back when Darwin was a student at Cambridge, he read, and almost memorised the Rev William Paley’s Natural Theology, and thereafter remained impressed by the obvious adaptiveness of the parts of organisms and their interrelations. As is well known, he gave an explanation differently to Paley’s external intelligence that designs all these facets of life – instead he claimed that natural selection, a process like Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” explanation for the functioning of economies, was enough to explain adaptation.

I have long thought that Darwin was too much in thrall to the traditions of the natural theology movement. It was, after all, an English tradition closely allied to the doing of natural theology by gentlemen scholars such as himself. The idea of design ought to be expunged from the vocabulary of biology, in my opinion, and be replaced with selectively favoured and disfavoured (and neither) heritable traits.

To reinforce my views, Ken Miller is going to bow to the intelligent design crowd and try to refurbish design as a biological concept. And why? I ask myself. There’s no need. Design in the absence of information about the manufacturers of an object is a totally otiose notion. Even Dawkins’ “designoids” are unnecessary concessions to natural theology. It’s is not the fact that design is the basic concept, and adaptation the explanation any more. Now adaptation by selection is the basic concept, and design is no longer a fact of the universe as it stands, but a very small subset of the living world on one planet (so far discovered) by only a few tool using species.

There’s no need to call this “design”, any more than there’s a need, in science, to call all functional behaviours by animals “teleological”. They are functions, that’s all, and the traits are adaptations, that’s all. We are constantly misled by our vernacular speech habits and folk psychology to attribute to the biological world properties that are in fact properties of us not it. But in science, and any intellectual enterprise that takes science seriously (yes, this may include theology), there’s no a hint of a need to do so. Forget about design except where you have good reason to think that actual, identifiable, designers were involved. Forget about goals unless the organism is capable of having them, with a faculty of cognition and planning.

Ken, there’s no need to be half hearted about this. If you need design in a metaphysical context, fine, appeal to it. But don’t impute it to the world where it’s not needed.


  1. In a way, I guess it’s like the difference between a blueprint that shows how an object is to be constructed, and a map or photograph that shows an existing arrangement of features.

  2. windy windy

    “He also notes that the human body bears the hallmarks of design, from the ball sockets that allows hips and shoulders to rotate to the “s” curve of the spine that allows for upright walking.”

    Actually, I doubt that most people go around thinking how their spine or joints are “hallmarks of design”, unless they have been exposed to creationists. A lot of them probably think that the spine is more or less straight and are unaware of how the ‘s’ shape allows upright walking. Does Miller think that we should first misinform people (Hey! Ever notice how your spine is shaped so that you can walk upright? Isn’t that good DESIGN??) and then explain how it really is (well, actually it isn’t DESIGN, but…) Isn’t it better to try to inform correctly the first time?
    And the s shape of the spine is only ‘good design’ if you have to start with a four-legged animal and twist it to an upright position… I bet it would be easy to design an upright robot that doesn’t have an ‘s curved spine’.

  3. Tim Tim

    Perhaps we are allowing ourselves to be tyrannized by words; forgetting that many concepts, e.g. design, are used metaphorically. I do not think that admitting that snowflakes are found to occur in many different designs implies that someone designed the snowflakes. Quite the contrary, an artist may make use of the natural design of the snowflake to create something else. Similarly, biomimicry uses designs found in nature to engineer efficient machines for our use.

  4. Brian English Brian English

    David Hume, who was around before Darwin knocked this one on the head I thought. He reckoned that unless you’ve seen the design, the designer and the fabrication, your analogy sucks. Not having seen a human designed, much less a planet, or universe and not having seen the designer and then the fabrication of an animal or whatever, how can you claim design? It’s an extraordinarily weak analogy.
    I think sucks is a philosophical term by the way. I’m sure Hume would’ve used it in his Dialogues on Natural religion if he knew it….

  5. windy windy

    Blake: thx! 😉

  6. I am probably premature here, but I started reading Dennet’s Darwain’s Dangerous Idea, and he makes similar points about design as Miller (at least early on). Dennet’s point is that the complexity and intricacies of life reflect design, the designer being natural selection and a whole shit-load of time. At least that is my take on the reading I have done to date. I wonder if Miller is simply expanding from this point.

  7. paiwan paiwan

    Semantics’ issues very often is indissoluble, we just have to live with them, as Carl Jung’s advice: outgrown from them.
    Science is a compartmentalized technology; religion is a broad context of imagination of reality. The new semantics has not been invented, as an individual we have survived in the community so far. Do we need to understand precisely the mechanism of digestive enzymes before we chew the palatable food?
    Learn from our great-great…grand parents some, and some from our children. Haaa! Life is a non-linear discovery.

  8. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    Say what?

  9. paiwan paiwan

    I say that the languages of science and religion have inherently different dimensions.
    It is an issue of semantics. And we need new wisdom to deal with it. Creation and evolution belongs to different dimensions. What is your interpretation if you wish to disclose yours before my comments?

  10. RBH RBH

    I rather suspect that “creation” is down there on one of those curled up dimensions posited by string theory, going round and round on a wee little Mobius strip.

  11. paiwan paiwan

    As a biology major of 1972 myself, for my past 34 years been immersed in marine virus, I am delighted in seeing people are going to celebrate Darwin’s (19th Century) contribution.
    In my age, two giants thinkers in 20th Century; Albert Einstein and Paul Tillich- a scientist and a theologian. Both were fleeing from Europe to the United States and flourished a bit there. Nevertheless, theological truth has been undermined intentionally.
    If I have the chance to speak so-called science-minded elites, what are thinking now and what are you leading the world forwards by reviewing the last two hundred years.
    Just answer me a simple question; do you think that your intelligence and inspiration are totally possessed by your ego, or something that you are cooperating with an unknown larger which constantly that you do not know when and how It comes to you. Your ownership, the more edge part that you have felt, the less you own it. Am I right?
    If you think that I am talking shit. Don’t bother, I go away. Otherwise, let us move on together from here.
    P.S. RBH: let me read your website first, thanks.

  12. May I lower the tone around here again? Warning to the easily offended the following post contains a sexual innuendo that you might find offensive then again you might find it funny.
    Ian Wallace was a brilliant rock drummer who drummed for King Crimson, Bob Dylan, David Lindley, Warren Zevon and a thousand others, he also wrote a superbly hilarious and highly stimulating pythonesque Internet diary. Through his diary he would often take part in the debates that raged on the Digital Global Mobile Guest Book, one of those debates was on the subject of intelligent design about which Ian wrote an absolute brilliant take down. One of his biting comments was the following, “If the designer was so intelligent how come he put the lunch box next door to the sewage outlet?”

  13. paiwan paiwan

    Thony C/ RBH: To make clear, I am not a creationist, neither pro-design, nor scienticism. I just brought the term of semantics in dialogues, because the host had mentioned about natural theology. It seems that I failed in this attempt. I am sorry.
    ” say what” perhaps is not rude, but intentionally ignore a new perspective is nothing to praise.

  14. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    paiwan, I wasn’t disrespecting you – I really didn’t understand what you wrote.

  15. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    paiwan, I wasn’t disrespecting you – I really didn’t understand what you wrote.

  16. Thony C/ RBH: To make clear, I am not a creationist, neither pro-design, nor scienticism.
    paiwan, you are being over sensitive. My posting was not aimed at you or anybody else on this thread it was purely an attempt to introduce a bit of humour into the proceedings. I will not apologies because I didn’t attack you. My memory of Ian’s, I think, wonderful remark was triggered by the comment on the “design” of the human spine posted by windy and endorsed by Blake. This is a subject close to my heart as I suffer from the ubiquitous bad back. If fact when I finish writing these words I shall mount my velocipede and head off to the physiotherapist to have some of the knots kneaded out of my spine. The only compensation is that my physiotherapist is young, blond and very sexy which helps to make the whole procedure somewhat more tolerable for a randy old goat like myself.

    ” say what” perhaps is not rude, but intentionally ignore a new perspective is nothing to praise.

    paiwan, what do expect from an Aussi, albino gorilla? Eloquent articulation! From a gorilla maybe but not from an Aussi! By the way I didn’t understand your first posting either and although your following comments have been clearer I still don’t really see what your point is. Words have different meanings in different discourses? Is that all you say or is there some deeper meaning that I have missed?

  17. paiwan paiwan

    Thony C: I didn’t mean that I was offended by your post. In fact, I appreciated for your input. I did bring my complaint to John; after my three sincere posts, I was rewarded only two words from him which had made me felt neglected.
    I understand that evolution/ creation/ design topic are very hot topic now, and this is a science blog, nevertheless it has been designed for public, sort of accountability of upgrading our awareness in living (or life). Doubtlessly, it would have crossed science and religion.
    Since I read that John has the background in philosophy, theology, and he put Natural Theology up front, therefore, I thought that this might be a good place for these dialogues.
    The moment of truth for me; I could penetrate directly to the heart (the core concern) of this issue.
    I personally believe that since Charles Darwin until now, they have lots discussions, many queries have been cleared ( Paul Tillich), yet lots un-answered( semantics area).
    I also don’t believe that there is black and white answer regarding the dialogues of evolution and religion. It is John’s decision for facilitating this process. Honestly to say, I have been impressive by his several posts, perhaps also have placed the expectation in his leadership about this.
    An extruder like me, I hope that I have not dragged his courses of development. Sincere apologies if I have disturbed the crowd here.

  18. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    paiwan, I think the problem is that you are using rich language in a language that is not your first. Consequently I find it very hard to understand what you are getting at. I have problems, for example, understanding why Tillich’s (I presume) ground of being is relevant to a matter of design. Now it is thirty years since I read Tillich, but I don’t recall him making any comments about the notion of biological design. If you think he’s relevant, do say how.
    Unanswered questions need not be semantic issues. Sometimes, in fact often, they are substantive issues. So please understand that my two word response was based on a complete lack of understanding what you were getting at, and unfortunately your subsequent posts are no more helpful than the first.
    To make it perfectly clear, I am criticising Miller’s use of the notion of design only in biology, where there is no conceptual, theoretical or observational need for it.

  19. paiwan paiwan

    Dr. Wilkins: IMO, your attitude is worse than rude, it is discriminative against people whose first language is not English. You should not do this blog under Public blog relating to PLoS. Shame!
    I would not do this in your back. In next 12 hours, I will file my complaint to PLoS management.

  20. michael michael

    I have no idea what point or points paiwan was trying to make. For John to suggest it is a language problem is not rude, but honest. How can someone respond to something they can’t understand?

  21. In the next 12 hours, I will file a complaint with EvolvingThoughts for the establishment of a commenter dungeon. Oh nevermind, I guess I already did.

  22. I counted the number of times design appears as a word or a root in The Origin (Darwin) and Paley’s Natural Philosophy. Sort of like a google fight but with books.
    Darwin: 6
    Paley: 150
    (More details:

  23. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    I have thought for a long time that Darwin was too beholden to the natural theology tradition. But that is very whiggish of me – I guess I should say that it is now time to lose that influence. It was a ladder we can kick away now we’ve climbed it. If anybody bothers me on this, it’s Dawkins.

  24. dave dave

    Darwin’s biographer James Moore has described The Origin of Species as the last great work in the history of science in which theology was an active ingredient.
    It’s a fascinating insight into Darwin but, as you say, in today’s context design is an unnecessary source of confusion

  25. ngong ngong

    Learn to control your ego, young padawan.

  26. Paul A Paul A

    On reading paiwan’s comments I was immediately put in mind of Alan Sokal’s great post-modernism hoax. Is it a problem with English as a second language or the fact that the the language is designed to be confusing?

  27. paiwan paiwan

    I decide to post here again, though it was terribly belated. Because I sincerely feel that people here are reasonable and thoughtful; Paul A, ngong, dave, Lorax, Michael, Thony C. are good teachers to me. Lorax was right, it has not been easy to manage a blog, I hope that I shall serve as encouragement to John. So, let me catch up.
    (To let go my feeling of being discriminated because of my language, I did not complain to others, just spend time on reflection. And I hope that this time my English is more readable. 🙂

  28. andrew andrew

    you name it:
    your “natural theology” IS identical to “intelligent design”. Why do you imply a god here with nature? or dou you consider that word here funny? To me it just sounds stupid.

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