Evolution Is Design

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ric

    While what you say is technically true, I think there is a little bit of unintentional equivocation going on here. The way that “design” is understood by Americans in the current discussion of evolution, Dawkins is correct and the creationists are wrong: life does only exhibit an illusion of design. Now if your strategy is to coopt the word for the good guys, I think it is a noble one, but I could see it easily failing. The meaning of “design” is so entrenched that it will be difficult to change, and given the penchant the creationists have for quote mining, if Dawkins (or you) were to attempt this strategy, they will simply say, “Look, Dawkins and Ebonmuse both admit that life is designed.” They will not explain further, but they will widely disseminate that one soundbite.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    What Ric said.

    Also, I think the term “design” also implies some sort of intentionality, which evolution does not have. Wind and water don’t design canyons; canyons are the natural result of the natural processes of wind and water errosion on rocks. In the same way, we can say that complex biological structures are the result of natural evolutionary processes, but I wouldn’t say that nature was “designing” or that natural selection was “designing.” It implies intention or an end result.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    I rather agree with Ric and OMGF. Whilst natural objects have the characteristics of design, to say they were “designed” be evolution is a bit athropomorphic for my tastes.

    “Design” also implies a completed process, suggesting that the beasties we see around us are at the apogee of their evolution. In some ways that’s true (after all, if a new species evolved from one of them occupies its predecessors ecological niche, that’s the end of the “design” process for the ousted species), but it suggests a static result, whereas I would argue that evolution is still happening all around us.

  • http://www.asktheatheists.com bitbutter

    I agree with the commentators here that design implies foresight, and a conscious attempt to solve a problem.

    Heres the American heritage dictionary on Design.

    1. a) To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent: design a good excuse for not attending the conference.

    1. b) To formulate a plan for; devise: designed a marketing strategy for the new product.

    2. To plan out in systematic, usually graphic form: design a building; design a computer program.

    3. To create or contrive for a particular purpose or effect: a game designed to appeal to all ages.

    4. To have as a goal or purpose; intend.

    5. To create or execute in an artistic or highly skilled manner.

    None of these fits the action of evolution. All of them fit the creationist claim. I think that attempts to co-opt the word design to mean what evolution does will not succeed.

  • http://www.zx81.org.uk/ Stephen Darlington

    I see where you’re coming from, but I’m with Richard Dawkins on this one. My problem is that “design” implies a particular end result, a solution for something, or a plan to get there. Evolution offers no such promises.

    As Douglas Adams said, “The thing about evolution is that if it hasn’t turned your brain inside out, you haven’t properly understood it.”

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    “Anthropomorphic” is the key in this situation, and I think that’s why Richard Dawkins wrote his original bit the way he did.

    “Self-correcting system” is a better way to discribe this process, not “unintelligent design”. Simply put, if an evolutionary change doesn’t work, it dies off, so we are left with only successes. (I realize I’m preaching to the choir here.)

    It wouldn’t be so dificult to word this, if it wasn’t for those darn Creationists and their anthropomorphic defenition of the word “design”! I think we should demand our word back! >:(

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Sorry Ebonmuse, I’m not buying it. The word “design” does imply a designer, so evolution doesn’t fit. You’re quite right in saying that random chance isn’t a good explanation either. Like TheNerd said, “self-correcting system” would be a good term.

  • 2-D Man

    “Design” also implies a completed process…

    Not to a designer. An ordinary person will say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ An engineer will say, ‘If it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet.’
    While that’s an old joke, it carries a lot of truth. To be fair, though, I guess ‘theory’ means ‘hypothesis’ to a lay person.

    …if a new species evolved from one of them occupies its predecessors ecological niche, that’s the end of the “design” process for the ousted species…

    I still have to take issue with the implications of this statement. Defining and separating off your ousted species is like finding the position of an electron. Just as electrons don’t have a position, so much as a probability density, in nature we observe that species do not have ‘walls’ separating them, so much as a ‘breeding density’. To suggest that a species gets ousted by evolution gives an inadequate impression.
    I still have to agree with Ric; you’re begging to be taken out of context, Ebon. And OMGF is right; design implies some specific intention, some goal.

  • http://sagacious-sycophant.net Tess

    I’ve had a problem with Richard Dawkins’ application of the term ‘designoid.’ In one talk I saw him describing a nest as ‘designoid’ when the creature that made it could be considered a designer.

    But for the reasons that previous commenters have outlined, I don’t think that design is the best word to use for evolution.

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter

    Agreed with all the above (unless someone publishes a post to the contrary while I’m writing this – Tess’s is the last one I’ve seen).

    Using the word “design” definitely implies a designer, and that points to some kind of guiding entity. In that direction lies God, and that’s not a good direction to go in, because, as we all know, God almost certainly doesn’t exist.

    There’s really nothing wrong with using the word “evolved” in this context, and I don’t like “designoid” – it’s an unnecessary coinage, and open to misinterpretation as well as misapplication. I can’t imagine a circumstance under which I’d use it.

    My 2p…

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    That does it Ebon, you’re not getting mentioned in his next book!

  • Grimalkin

    I’m going to have to disagree. “Design” implies a conscious designer. When you design something, you plan out what you are going to do and then execute that design. Even if that’s not what design means in the strictest dictionary sense of the word (though I think that it does), the connotations are most certainly there. If you say that evolution is a process of design, I guarantee you that at least 9 out of 10 people will immediately assume that you mean there is a designer.

    You are right, though, that evolution has very little to do with random chance. Chance comes in with mutations, evolution dictates which mutations are kept and which are not. So yes, it’s very important to explain to people that evolution isn’t “just” chance, but you can’t go right to the other end of the spectrum and say that it’s some sort of non-intentional/non-conscious design because that’s just an oxymoron.

    I think a better term to use would be “selection.” Evolution is not a process of chance and it’s not a process of design – it’s a process of selection and, to get more complex, a process of selecting from choices that were randomly generated.

  • Grimalkin

    TheNerd – I agree with you, but I just have to nitpick. Evolution doesn’t leave us with only successes. The vast majority of mutations that are kept and passed on are neutral (at least in that family’s current environment). It is better to say that what we are NOT left with are the failures.

  • Mark C.

    Even then, Grimalkin, “selection” may make people infer that conscious deliberation occurs in order to make that selection. I’m not sure if there’s a universally satisfying word to use, but despite what I said above, “selection” is an established word in evolutionary lexicon, and I personally have no problem using it.

    Ebon, I have to agree with everyone else regarding design. When I hear the word, what comes to mind is some sort of conscious entity that formed, if not the thing in question, then at the very least the blueprint for the thing in question. I don’t believe there is any exception to this connotation for me, although when “design” is used as a noun instead of a verb, I find that I don’t have as many problems with it, but another word would still be better.

    Like Ric said, I think you’re equivocating. The design you’re talking about isn’t the same one the creationists are talking about, and given the word’s connotations, I have to side with their usage of the term, which I think is probably the standard one.

  • Grimalkin

    Mark C. – true, but we are accustomed to hearing the word “selection” pair with other words that make it explicit that there is no intelligent force behind it, such as “random.” The same cannot be said for “design.” So if we ignore all the doo-doo heads who will distort anything we say to their advantage and focus rather on the average/under-educated individual, I think selection is a much safer word to use than design.

  • Katie

    Re. birds nests – these too are “designoid” as Dawkins would put it. Designoid objects are “objects which appear designed, whether actually designed or not”. In this case, a bird’s nest both looks designed and *is* designed.

    People, on the other hand, don’t look particularly “designed” to me at all. I’ve been drawing fantastic creatures of my own design for a long time, and they simply don’t look natural. They look like there’d be almost no situation in which they would logically evolve, whereas all life as we know it has totally obvious evolutionary underpinnings.

    Compare the dinosaurs to dragons, for example. Why would something really big need to breathe fire and fly? Realistically, these traits would lead to a predator too perfect to long survive, as they would quickly outstrip their resources and die out. The possibility of starting wildfires would only speed the extinction of their primarily herbivorous prey. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, make perfect sense in the environment in which they lived.

    Aside from dietary problems, dragons also have the issue of having six limbs (four arms, two wings — I’m talking about standard European-legend dragons here, obviously) rather than four, which would be an extreme mutation for any animal. While flying dinosaurs did of course eventually show up, they are the much more reasonable pterosaurs, whose wings of course adapted from ordinary forelimbs. (birds are an even better example, but they’re too complex a topic for this comment)

    So I kind of got off topic there, but the point is that we ought not to attribute design (the intellectual process of planning something) to things which truly exhibit no design. I would argue there really isn’t any valid appearance of design, either, except to the exceptionally naive.

    The most interesting facet to the design/evolution thing is that there are some machines which were not designed per se, but evolved. Specifically I’m talking about certain jet engines which were “designed” with an evolutionary algorithm. Although this is the simplest caricature of evolution, it demonstrates things which were shaped by (a simulation of) their environment rather than being directly designed by engineers.

    In the future, I suspect most minor technical adaptations like these will be handled by computer simulations of evolution rather than human designers twiddling knobs. Now *that* adds an interesting angle to a tired debate, don’t you think?

  • Entomologista

    I don’t believe that birds design their nests in the same way that humans design houses. I don’t believe birds possess the capacity to conceptualize and plan that designing something requires. Even demonstrably intelligent birds like parrots probably can’t do this. Nest building is an instinctual process and therefore designoid. Many insects also build nests in the same fashion.

    If things actually were designed, they’d be better. The way we’ve improved crops through directed breeding and genetic manipulation is a good example of this. I just don’t feel like design is an accurate term to describe what evolution does.

  • Polly

    Reading Katie’s post just made me think about how I regret not believing the theory of evolution when I was in college and majoring in biochemistry. Instead, the shape and “design” of proteins and other macromolecules drove me to think of a designer, rather than the process of evolution. No one ever explained to me that chance was only half the story.
    But, looking at life from the level of an organism and its ecological niche, did make me think of evolution. A designer would have to have changed his mind an awful lot given the constantly changing climate and topology of Earth. He’d have to re-engineer all the species constantly.
    The very concept of design, to me, screams designer. And a designer is an intelligent one.
    As an alternate, here’s my clumsy term:
    “Emergent Properties of Embedded, sometimes iterative, naturally occuring Synergistic, Organic Systems”?

    EPESINOSOS for short.

  • jack

    Grimalkin,

    we are accustomed to hearing the word “selection” pair with other words that make it explicit that there is no intelligent force behind it, such as “random.”

    Good point, but “random” should not be paired with “selection”. The better modifier is “natural”. Darwin introduced the phrase natural selection to emphasize both similarities to, and differences from, the much more familiar artificial selection by which pigeon fanciers breed exotic-looking pigeons, dog enthusiasts breed exotic-looking (or performing) dogs, farmers breed cows with huge udders, etc. In artificial selection there is intention at work. In natural selection, there is not. Yet in both artificial and natural selection, there is a highly nonrandom process at work. But neither is natural selection deterministic. I like to describe it as stochastic, meaning that it is a probabilistic process, but not entirely random. Most of the randomness in evolution occurs in mutation and recombination, but even these might not be purely random.

  • Alex Weaver

    Just a quick note: as an aspiring engineer, I’ve always understood the term “design” to connote specific form and arrangement, either of a theoretical or a concrete object, created as a result of deliberate intent. Evolution, manifestly lacking deliberate intent, would not qualify as I and most others understand the term.

    More later.

  • mona

    I agree with the commenters so far, that “design,” as a word, denotes some kind of teleology.

    I think we need to hear more about bad “design.” Let’s emphasize things like vestigial organs, the constraints of history, junk DNA–what designer would create something like this? Looking at an organism, I can’t see this feeling that, “oh, it must be designed.” Granted, some of this is probably because of what I’ve learned about, say, endosymbiosis, exaptations, &c. But, there is the element in it–if you find a watch on the ground, it’s probably not full of gears used in earlier models, or fragments of disused numbers out of dead languages, or an iPod microchip that felt like hopping on for the ride.

    It’s not to say that there aren’t fascinating and elegant pieces of machinery in biology. There are. And, of course, it’s something to keep talking about–just more stuff exists in the world, that should be added. If ID’s central axiom is, “if x looks designed, then everything alive is designed!,” they shouldn’t be able to simply ignore the equally numerous instances of ridiculous, over-complicated design that would get any living human flunked out of art school. Then, as long as “design” is kept subjective, any molecule that has any kind of property will be called “designed.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Well, I guess you can’t win them all. :)

    For OMGF:

    Also, I think the term “design” also implies some sort of intentionality, which evolution does not have. Wind and water don’t design canyons; canyons are the natural result of the natural processes of wind and water errosion on rocks.

    Perhaps, but I think evolution differs from other natural processes in an important way. When it comes to carving canyons or uplifting mountains, you explain the phenomena in question in terms of causes. Evolution is the first natural process for which there are not only causes, but reasons. It has “why”-type explanations as well as “how”-type explanations.

    The Madagascar hawkmoth Xanthopan morganii praedicta has an astonishing twelve-inch-long proboscis. Why does it have this structure? Because generations of natural selection have conferred a survival advantage to the genes of moths with successively longer tongues. That’s the cause. But there’s also a reason – the moth has that tongue because it’s needed to reach the nectar of an orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, whose nectar-producing organs are buried almost a foot inside the flower. This is what Daniel Dennett calls a “free-floating rationale”: a justification for a certain adaptation or behavior that was not explicitly represented in anyone’s mind, but that is real nonetheless.

    For bitbutter:

    None of these fits the action of evolution.

    On the contrary, I think one of your definitions captures the idea I’m putting across: the third one, the one that says “to create or contrive for a particular purpose or effect”. That’s precisely what evolution does – it contrives adaptations that serve a particular purpose or cause a particular effect. Although evolution is not a goal-directed process in the long term, it is a goal-directed process in the immediate term, in the sense that its “goal” is the development of adaptations that promote the survival of their carriers.

    For superhappyjen:

    The word “design” does imply a designer, so evolution doesn’t fit.

    I don’t see this as the case, any more than the phrase “natural law” implies the existence of a sentient lawgiver. The problem, really, is that human language developed before phenomena like this were widely recognized. We just don’t have the terminology to talk about the complexities of nature in accurate, non-anthropomorphic terms.

    What I’m trying to avoid is lines like, “Living things look like they’re designed, but that appearance is just an illusion.” I don’t think this is good tactically. We know what Dawkins meant, but it’s far too easy for creationists to misuse this in the support of claims like, “Even evolutionists recognize the design in nature, they just try to persuade themselves that it isn’t real!” A much better rhetorical strategy, in my mind, is to acknowledge the design – that is, the obvious fit of means to ends which we observe in nature – and point out that where scientists and creationists disagree is in the source of that design.

  • Grimalkin

    Jack – I didn’t mean to say that it should be random selection in this context, merely that selection (in other contexts) is often paired with random, so we are used to the concept of a selection without a selector. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

    Ebon – what do you mean by evolution as “goal-oriented in the short term”? This isn’t my understanding at all. It’s more like, there’s a change in the environment – organisms with a mutation that allows them to live do so and organisms that don’t, die. That’s it. There’s no short term goal, which to me would be “there’s a new predator around. I had better learn to run faster or I will die!”

    I don’t know if we are thinking of this in totally different ways, or if we are just understanding the terms differently. But for me, a goal, like a design, requires intelligence and intention – neither of which are present in evolution.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Shaped would be a better term. Seriously- ebon has a point, he just needs a theasourous to refine it.

  • Grumpy

    I read your original post and thought you were wrong. Then I read your reply in the comments and I now think you are wronger.

    As I see it, the language you have used implies an end-point – “design” and “contrive” imply both a consciousness and a goal. Evolution has neither.

    That’s precisely what evolution does – it contrives adaptations that serve a particular purpose or cause a particular effect.

    No it doesn’t. Genetic mutation produces a range of slightly different organisms. Some are better suited to the environment than their parents – they prosper. Those that are malsuited eventually wither. Evolution does not have a purpose “in mind” and makes an organism to suit it – it makes organisms; those that can survive in the environment they find themselves in do so; those that can’t perish. I think your idea of evolution is arse-about.

  • Kyle

    I think the difference here is as simple as design versus build.

    An architect DESIGNS.
    A construction worker BUILDS.

    I think evolution fits into the second one. It is built by accruing massive amounts of input through millions of years.

    On the other hand, creationists jump straight to DESIGN because design has foresight, forethought, etc. It has it all preconcieved. This fits their model of a supreme being.

    And it is the exact opposite of evolution. Evolution has hindsight. It can see what went wrong and devise a way to fix it. That’s why its dependent upon time.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Ebon,

    The Madagascar hawkmoth Xanthopan morganii praedicta has an astonishing twelve-inch-long proboscis. Why does it have this structure? Because generations of natural selection have conferred a survival advantage to the genes of moths with successively longer tongues. That’s the cause. But there’s also a reason – the moth has that tongue because it’s needed to reach the nectar of an orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, whose nectar-producing organs are buried almost a foot inside the flower.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with this. There wasn’t a reason really. The food source of the moth was also going through changes and the moths had to adapt to keep up. It’s not like evolution or the moth or the flower decided to do any of these changes. There isn’t a “reason” only an outcome or a way of looking back with hindsight and seeing why something worked vs. why the myriad other mutations that may or may not have occurred didn’t work.

    That’s precisely what evolution does – it contrives adaptations that serve a particular purpose or cause a particular effect. Although evolution is not a goal-directed process in the long term, it is a goal-directed process in the immediate term, in the sense that its “goal” is the development of adaptations that promote the survival of their carriers.

    I disagree. Evolution does not seek to attain goals. It is a happy coincidence of the world that mutations happen, and those mutations are then selected by the environment in such a way that favorable mutations win the day. There are no goals, however, even in the short term. Evolution doesn’t “contrive” anything.

    What I’m trying to avoid is lines like, “Living things look like they’re designed, but that appearance is just an illusion.” I don’t think this is good tactically.

    Here I agree with you, I think saying that things “look designed” is a bad move. Where I part ways is that I don’t think that things look designed. Others here have voiced the same idea, that evolution doesn’t produce the illusion of design, not in the least.

  • Ric

    That’s precisely what evolution does – it contrives adaptations that serve a particular purpose or cause a particular effect. Although evolution is not a goal-directed process in the long term, it is a goal-directed process in the immediate term, in the sense that its “goal” is the development of adaptations that promote the survival of their carriers.

    This isn’t true– evolution only has a goal in a metaphorical sense, and this is where I think the root of your error lies, ebon. Dawkins is right.

  • Entomologista

    Evolution has hindsight. It can see what went wrong and devise a way to fix it.

    What? No. That’s not how it works at all.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Tess wrote

    I’ve had a problem with Richard Dawkins’ application of the term ‘designoid.’ In one talk I saw him describing a nest as ‘designoid’ when the creature that made it could be considered a designer.

    Contra Katie, Dawkins was here referring to the description he wrote in The Extended Phenotype, where he characterizes things like bird nests as just as much a part of the bird’s (genetically determined) phenotype as its bill length or feathers. Hence bird nests, beaver dams, termite nests, and so on, are all “designoid” in Dawkins’ usage.

  • Steve Bowen

    Kyle

    Evolution has hindsight. It can see what went wrong and devise a way to fix it. That’s why its dependent upon time.

    Ebon

    That’s precisely what evolution does – it contrives adaptations that serve a particular purpose or cause a particular effect.

    As I understand it Evolution has neither foresight or hindsight. Natural selection operates on the available gene pool, winnowing out those phenotypic variations which are least adapted to the environment, so over generations preserving the “fittest”. The fittest doesn’t mean the best possible, just the best available; there is no push for improvement.
    Sorry Ebon, exapting the word design for your purposes doesn’t work for me either.

  • Katie

    @Entomologista
    Whether or not nest building is instinctual has nothing to do with whether or not it is a design process. Birds may not be terribly intelligent, but they do possess (very limited) intelligence. They are directed by goals, as we are. They have reasons for doing what they do, even if the reasons are simple and the choices are limited. Bird nests have been made out of all sorts of different materials. Birds will often choose a different material when repairing a damaged nest and stick with a material that holds up well. Thus, they demonstrate not only design capacity, but rudimentary experimentation.

    Evolution may have done most of the heavy lifting in the area of bird nests, but they are not purely the product of instinct any more than cars are purely the product of human instinct (I’m aware that cars largely are the product of human instinct, and this is precisely my point)

    More on human instinct: People developed the ability to experiment, use tools, and predict long ago, obviously. Ever since then, humanity has, as a whole, been driven toward understanding everything it can. We endlessly strive to understand the smallest things in the universe, the biggest things in the universe… the universe itself. Although many people seem not to care about the next big scientific achievement, they still are driven toward science in their individual lives every day. They devise ways to increase their fuel economy, they experiment with different ways of eliminating pests from their houses, they try new routes to get to work faster. Humanity seems to be obsessed with efficiency and the gathering and archival of data on every subject.

    This should come as no surprise, because it’s what has led our species to the success it has experienced. Only through culture, learning, and technology have people moved from the trees of Africa to build empires on a scale no other animal can compete with. Knowledge, efficiency, and culture development are basic human instincts of which things like cars and computers are natural products. Even though our drive to understand and simplify the world has led inexorably in the direction of advanced technology, to claim such things are merely “designoid” is laughable.

    I grant you, birds are many orders of magnitude simpler in the brains department, but there is at least a minute quantity of design in bird nests.

    Vaguely-intelligent design, if you will, by vaguely-intelligent avian designers.

  • Steve Bowen

    Even though our drive to understand and simplify the world has led inexorably in the direction of advanced technology, to claim such things are merely “designoid” is laughable.

    No one does! Humans design, in the real sense of the word. Dawkins often makes the point that with the human brain genes have created a phenotype that exceeds the “selfish” gene. The fact that birds adapt nesting materials to what’s available is also an evolved response, this may equate to a level of intelligence as defined by our intelligence (who knows what an ultra-intelligent extra terrestrial would make of us). It is always a mis-application of the the word evolution to equate it to progress, I’ve made the point on other threads that a well adapted bacterium is just as evolved as we are. There is nothing special or supernatural about the evolutionary process, I like to think of it as an algorithm that can be applied to any scenario where variation and selection are able to work in tandem al la Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s dangerous idea”.

  • paradoctor

    Evolution is “self-optimizing”. It shows signs of “self-organization”.
    Perhaps the term you are looking for is “self-design”.

  • watercat

    I guess I was the only one who liked Ebonmuse’s idea, when I first read it, but the comments convinced me otherwise. I still like ‘design’ though, as a noun: “the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art”. Snowflakes have a design, and honeycombs, and everything, in that sense, so I thought “unintelligent design” was a nice description. They weren’t designed, they just have design, as a result of non-random processes. Contra either intelligence or chance.

    Creationists are going to abuse any terms we use, so we shouldn’t let them make the rules. As soon as we say random, and before we get out mutation, they’re already thinking of tornodoes in junkyards, so we never even get as far as the (non-random) selection part of our explanation. So this might be a good tactic to try in an argument.

  • DamienSansBlog

    I don’t like “designed” or “designoid” as a description of evolved beings. Why not just say “adapted” or…well, “evolved”?

    Nevertheless, I applaud any attempt by any atheist anywhere, to develop a personality independent of the ubiquitous Professor Dawkins. So feel free to ignore my quibbles. :)

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    DSB,

    Nevertheless, I applaud any attempt by any atheist anywhere, to develop a personality independent of the ubiquitous Professor Dawkins. So feel free to ignore my quibbles. :)

    Even if that attempt is factually wrong? How objective of you.

  • André Phillips

    OMGF, why do you say “factually wrong?” Was that specifically refering to Ebon, or perhaps someone else, or used in a more general sense?

    I actually agree with just about everyone here on some level. I agree that there’s a very dangerous word-association game that we unfortunately have to play if we want to reach anyone already smothered in religious rhetoric. I also agree that just saying something to the effect that there’s an illusory appearance of design, or calling something designoid can make it appear to certain ears that we’re simply choosing to ignore the signs of God’s truth, or that we’re trying to manipulate religious truth into our own blasphemous lies. I agree with Ebon that in a strictly lexical sense natural design implies no more intelligence than natural law, but the world in which we live does attach connotations to the word that are impossible to ignore. If I can make the suggestion of using structure as sort of a synonymous substitute as in, “the ecosystem is full of naturally-evolved structure.” Or, “true, the moth can’t reach the nectar without a long proboscis, but this relationship displays a structure whose development can be explained without reference to divine influence.” It might not be perfect, but it’s a thought.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Andre,
    I was using it in a couple of senses. One was a general sense, another was a specific reference to a past conversation with DSB. I think I could also extend that to Ebon’s assessment of natural design, but the first two were my main intent with a little equivocation to fit the OP. If you look up the word, “Design,” you’ll find that all the definitions involve some type of initial plan or intention which is just not part of evolution. And, since all the definitions have this, it’s not just an attached connotation – it is the actual definition. Evolution does not design things, period.

  • Steve Bowen

    André

    If I can make the suggestion of using structure as sort of a synonymous substitute

    You can’t really. Structure is often independent of design; think of a sand dune, a deep sea smoker or a mountain range (unless Slartibartfast did it:})

  • André Phillips

    Structure is often independent of design

    Actually, that’s a large part of the reason I picked it. I meant that it’s sort of synonymous with the intent of the OP, not synonymous with the word design. In fact I think it’s appropriate because it points out how nature can be organized in a very specific way but not be intentionally designed that way. I feel like if you talk about the naturally-occurring structure of nature you’re acknowledging the amazing relationships and forms while steering clear of any intent or influence. I hope that makes sense.

  • http://thecooper.wordpress.com Cooper

    Maybe one could draw the distinction between possessing design, and being designed.

    Using terms thus, Darwin’s big idea is that something can have design without being designed.

    The biggest fallacy of creationism is its treatment of passive verb. Use a passive verb, ever, with the natural world, and they take you to be implying an agent. Something designed must have a designer; something built must have a builder; etc. (Of course this reasoning is nonrigorous, but it’s easier to avoid altogether.)

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    What a strange discussion.

    There is no possibility here of this post being “right” or “wrong”. The discussion is not about any factual disagreement – we can define the word “design” either way as we choose. Instead it is about the best way to use language to describe what we agree is going on.

    More specifically, what’s at issue is how our words may best “cleave nature at the joins”. Does the natural join lie along the line of intent by a conscious intender? Or is the word better used to describe what evolved things and human-designed things have in common – being fit for a task in a way that is far beyond the reach of chance?

    Personally, I think the latter – I am persuaded by Dennett’s arguments in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that we should extend the word “design” to what evolution does, if only because we lack words to describe the things that intent and evolution have in common, which is that they are the only mechanisms we know of capable of producing artifacts that are supremely good at what they do. But we have to be aware that as a debate this is only slightly more important than whether submarines can be said to swim (cf Dijkstra).

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    There is no possibility here of this post being “right” or “wrong”. The discussion is not about any factual disagreement – we can define the word “design” either way as we choose.

    I’m being pedantic here, but I disagree. The word “design” already has a well-established defintion as you concede when you bring Dennett into it, since he admits as much by saying that we would need to “extend” the definition. Factually, “design” does not mean what some are trying to make it mean and is therefore the wrong word to use.

  • Brandon

    I haven’t read all of the responses, but one fact works in Ebon’s favor: even creationists feel the need to specify that they believe in an Intelligent Designer. So, why the qualifier of “intelligent” if the word “design” alone can do the job?

  • DamienSansBlog

    Andre, I was using it in a couple of senses. One was a general sense, another was a specific reference to a past conversation with DSB.

    Well, I’m glad we can all put aside our past differences on one topic, when we discuss a completely different topic. Thank you again, OMGF.

    I find it especially ironic, because I agree with you on this one:

    I’m being pedantic here, but I disagree. The word “design” already has a well-established defintion as you concede when you bring Dennett into it, since he admits as much by saying that we would need to “extend” the definition. Factually, “design” does not mean what some are trying to make it mean and is therefore the wrong word to use.

    Which is what I was trying to say. Neither “design” nor “designoid” works for evolution, and since it turns out the English language already has at least two words that do fit — “adapted” and “evolved” — why try to hammer a square peg into a round hole?