It’s not often I disagree with Richard Dawkins, but I have to do so today. In the opening pages of Climbing Mount Improbable, he discusses what he calls “designoid” objects:
Designoid objects are living bodies and their products. Designoid objects look designed, so much so that some people – probably, alas, most people – think that they are designed. These people are wrong. But they are right in their conviction that designoid objects cannot be the result of chance. Designoid objects are not accidental. They have in fact been shaped by a magnificently non-random process which creates an almost perfect illusion of design.
With all due respect to Dr. Dawkins, I believe this statement gives the wrong impression. Living things don’t possess an “illusion of design”. They possess real design.
Creationists like to point to exquisite adaptations in nature such as the eye, or the bacterial flagellum, or the bombardier beetle, and say that these are highly complex, highly functional structures which require design to explain. This claim is quite accurate. The odds of a single mutational leap, or even a random walk through possibility space, producing such finely tuned adaptations is indeed miniscule. It’s just not plausible that the well-adapted diversity of living things could have come about by chance.
Where the creationists go wrong, however, is to assume that chance and intelligence exhaust the options. Because they believe this false dilemma, and because they know evolution is not an intelligently guided process, they wrongly conclude that evolution must be a process of pure chance. This is what leads to the many absurd creationist analogies such as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a plane, or an explosion in a print shop creating a dictionary. To anyone who knows how evolution actually works, these analogies simply sound ridiculous.
Evolution and design are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. Evolution is design – that is to say, it is a process that produces design. This design is not illusory, nor is it merely apparent; it is real.
That said, this design is not intelligent. It was not planned out by a conscious process of intentionality and foresight. This is the point I think Richard Dawkins was trying to emphasize, but rather than equating intelligent design with design in general, I believe it’s better to recognize that evolution is a process which also produces design. Dawkins’ words are too easily distorted by creationists who quote-mine them to imply that even evolutionists know there’s design in nature, but have persuaded themselves it’s only “apparent”. A better rhetorical option, to my mind, is to say that both evolutionists and creationists plainly perceive the design in nature. Our difference is about the source of that design.
Evolution is a process that creates design. By filtering random variation through the sieve of non-random selection, the evolutionary process extracts signal from noise, creating living things whose genomes encode information about the environments they exist in. Though it is not intelligently guided, evolution can produce adaptations of surpassing intricacy and complexity when extended over the ranges of geological time. People who accept evolution should not be at all surprised that there is much design in nature. That is precisely what evolutionary theory would lead us to expect.