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Design, by any other name

Robert Camp

March 29, 2007

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?

I remember learning in high school that when Juliet utters these words it doesn’t really mean what it’s often interpreted to mean. Hers is not a question about Romeo’s location, nor even predominantly an expression of distress that he isn’t present. What it is is an ontological question: why, she wonders, must he be not where, but what he is — a Montague who has stolen her heart.

Even so, there have been versions of this scene staged such that Juliet appears to be looking around from the balcony for her lover as she speaks the famous lines. This misdirection obviously fogs the fundamental character of Juliet’s angst.

Well, I’ve got some angst of my own (though in deference to my neighbors I don’t intend to deliver it from my second floor window), and I can’t help but think of the parallels with the above misinterpretation as I observe the debate over “intelligent design” (ID).

I know it’s often an imprudent digression to quibble over words, but in this case my quibble is one that goes to the foundations of how we frame the discussion of ID: Wherefore, I might ask, art thou design?

And of course I mean the question in exactly the same sense Shakespeare intended for Juliet’s plaint. I’m not interested in the “where,” in discovering or dithering over putative examples of design. That is putting the cart before the horse. I am interested in the “what” and the “why” involved in how such phenomena come to be so designated. It seems to me that we regard the question of whether something may reasonably be described as “design,” or even as “looking designed,” with far too little skepticism.

‘Tis but thy name?’

Many, probably most, scientists have at one time or another used convenient language that seems to impute a telos to biological processes (e.g., a gene “wants” to propagate itself). Perhaps it’s this kind of casual reference that allows comfort with “design” language. Nearly everyone is familiar with this from Richard Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker:

“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” (Dawkins, 1986)

This passage has been quoted in many a creationist tome and on many a creationist web page. We all know that Dawkins is not saying that things are designed; he’s saying things look like they are designed. And we all know that The Blind Watchmaker, like many of his books that followed, was an attempt to elucidate this distinction:

“The purpose of this book is to resolve this paradox to the satisfaction of the reader, and the purpose of this chapter is further to impress the reader with the power of the illusion of design.“ (Ibid)

Like Dawkins, many evolutionary pundits seem to believe that the real debate begins subsequent to tacit acquiescence to design (if only “the appearance of”). However, the argument I’d like to make is that the word “design” should be avoided altogether. It should stick in the throat of any critic of ID. My reasons for this are twofold:

First: To someone who already believes in a creative deity the use of the word “design,” even in the context of (what they would perceive as) equivocation over real or apparent, is a very real concession to the “obvious” facts of the matter:

“Design should not be overlooked simply because it’s so obvious.” (Behe, 2005)

“In short, design is “obvious"; the question is only whether it is real or apparent.” (Pearcey, 2000)

“Design is obvious at a glance to anyone, and detailed scientific analysis has not changed that fact.” (Snoke, 2001)

I think a significant portion of this debate is lost when we routinely refer to biological complexity as “designed,” even with appropriate (for those thinking critically) qualification. Ceding the use of that word presents some semantic obstacles, and it supports the believer’s conceit that this phenomenon is plain even to atheists who then manage to don blinders due to arrogance and intransigence. But more fundamentally, I think granting design language leaves creationists on philosophically safe ground. It passes up an opportunity to put them in a position where they have to acknowledge that ideology is informing their perspective on the “design” analogy (more on this to follow). When we use this terminology, we encourage a rhetorical sigh of relief and the attitude that “Now, all we have to do is offer design examples” (of which they, of course, can claim a nearly inexhaustible supply).

And second: The biological world doesn’t even look designed. The word is simply inapt.

What’s design?

It is nor stone, nor stream, Nor fish, nor man, nor any other part belonging to the world. [Apologies to the Bard of Avon]

One finds the quality of “purpose” inherent in any definition of the word design. Design inevitably reflects intent. And we know that this is the use of “design” ID proponents mean to offer. The entire thrust of their ideology, from kvetching about the “mindless purposelessness” of Darwinian evolution to kibbitzing about the unfair restrictions of methodological naturalism, is to clear a little space where they can stuff some transcendent intentionality back into the evolution of life. It’s well understood that there is no empirical warrant for concluding this world’s biota is the result of purpose, and my point in broaching intent is to show that neither is there any logical warrant for suggesting it appears to be so.

To grant the observation that life appears designed is to assert that there are diagnostic hallmarks we can find in designed things (the only examples of which we can evaluate being human derived) that we also discover in the biological world. What might some of these be? Complexity? No, simplicity is every bit as likely to be the result of the designing process. Specificity? Not really. As it is defined and used by ID proponents (an “independently given pattern”) this is a rather meaningless concept that reduces to “I know it when I see it.” And so in trying to adduce “design” in non-human artifacts using specificity as an indicator is essentially an exercise in begging the question. Perhaps irreducibility? Actual design may or may not be overtly irreducible. Irreducibility in a design can be obscured because it may be subject to the purpose of the designer (e.g., an apparently redundant part of a system may actually be entirely necessary based upon the intended life expectancy of the system). Thus irreducibility in design can be enigmatic absent knowledge of purpose. Add to this the fact that undirected natural forces have been shown to be capable of producing irreducibility and it becomes clear that this quality may be present in designed things, but it is not diagnostic of design.

Robustness? Well, of course this is a relative concept, i.e. robust compared to what, and in what sense? That of withstanding physical forces, making slim resources last, or even being long-lived? It’s true that these qualities can be found in things we know to be designed, but so are their opposites. It doesn’t seem that we can say robustness is diagnostic of design. How about redundancy? I don’t think so. Cost/benefit considerations will cause redundancy to be “designed out” wherever it pays to do so. Maybe, then, organization? Well, as with irreducibility we know that there are undirected physical processes that can produce organization in nature, e.g. crystals, concentric circles on water surfaces, or fractal systems. So no, organization won’t work.

Hmm... beauty? No. Convenience? Not necessarily. Ubiquity, rarity? Nope.

The scope of the design act is breathtaking. It can be as simple as enhancing a mood by moving one stone in a Zen garden, or as overwhelming in complexity as conceiving the space shuttle. The diagnostic commonality here has nothing to do with material or manufacture, nothing to do with specificity or irreducibility or organization or any attempted combination of these and other qualities. The diagnostic commonality in design is intent. We know that something is designed when we understand the deliberation that produced it. Design is the expression of purpose. And the truth is there is only one way we can know that purpose is inherent in any act or artifact, and that is to know something of the designer. When we recognize design, it is either because we are familiar with similar systems or structures that we know to be designed, or we are familiar with the design processes that might have produced it. All such familiarity is based, at root, upon knowledge of the designers.

But as we have no evidence whatsoever of ID’s designer, we are left without any insight into putative purpose. We know nothing that justifies an inference to “design” in nature. And except for that which they import from their personal philosophical convictions, neither do ID proponents. So they try to square this circle with the assertion that this intent is “obvious” in all that surrounds us.

There is nothing - not one thing - in the natural structure and development of life that bespeaks intent. Nor is there anything in the natural abiotic world that reflects purpose. These observations are starkly highlighted by the way the acts and artifacts of man stick out like a sore thumb on the landscape. Stand at the shore or fly high above the earth and man’s ambitions frame and are framed by the unconstrained exuberance of undirected nature, wherein one may find complexity and simplicity, robustness and delicacy, beauty and blight. There is even, in some cases, order, but there is not the slightest appearance of design.

Were it not design call’d

None of the foregoing is a conclusive argument that life is not “designed.” It is simply an observation that there are no standards (at least none that survive scrutiny) by which one may reasonably refer to life as looking designed, or suggest that the “design” of life is obvious. It doesn’t, and it isn’t.

So if I am right that “design” is the wrong word to use - even casually - for both ontological and rhetorical reasons, then what do we do on the occasion of its introduction into the conversation? I’m tempted to suggest that we correct the misapprehension by noting that while natural law is not capable of design, it is capable of creativity. But of course such a tactic would be fraught with problems of reference to “creation” and would likely be little improvement over the current situation.

Perhaps what would be best is to simply never concede the point. It may be too much trouble to try and argue labels, “intelligent design” is entrenched terminology and chasing that tail would probably be wasteful and exhausting. But it might serve the debate if, before ever getting around to discussing particular examples of “design,” we note that those qualities which would allow such a designation have not been established in any systematic or analogically revealing fashion. Of course the need to respond to egregious misuse of biological concepts and gaps in our knowledge as evidence of design will sustain as long as the impulse to infer “design” is with us. But it cannot hurt to, at every convenient opportunity, point out that there is no analogical warrant at all for the use of the word.

Mountains out of molehills? I don’t think so. I would note that across the breadth of ID criticism, from theological to philosophical to empirical, it is well understood that “intelligent design” is predominantly a political and marketing enterprise. This understanding obliges attention to the effects of the words they, and we, use. I think that returning the focus to the important context: the “wherefore” that really matters, gets the horse and cart in the correct order, and will more forcefully communicate that “design,” even the appearance of, is a nuanced concept that must be demonstrated, not assumed.


Robert Camp

Robert Camp is a freelance writer living in San Juan Capistrano, California. A selection of his work can be found at the Nightlight Blog.