Naturalistic Regress of Design

Naturalistic Regress of Design November 19, 2014

Frequently, when discussing topics with Apologists, the topic of whether DNA is designed, or not comes up. It brings up an interesting question about the nature of design itself.

What if DNA was designed… but it’s not anymore.

Design isn’t a binary yes/no proposition. Typically, when we talk about design, what we mean is that some sort of stuff was arranged, purposely, in a particularity way. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume “design” requires intelligent intent.

Frosty the Snowprimate

Many of thus who were lucky enough to live near the planet’s poles, and did this regularly as children. We’d roll around blobs of snow, if the conditions were right, and the snow wasn’t a stupid granular consistency, and assemble them into a lose approximation of a humanoid. We’d then jab sticks into its sides, sacrifice a carrot for a nose, and if we had one, plop a top hat (Happy Birthday) onto it’s head.

We designed a snowhuman.

Suppose your idiot brother decides to smash it, for reasons unknown. Are the remains of the snowman still designed? Not really, no. Perhaps an original crafted piece remains intact, but only that could be said to have been designed. What if it rains, and the snowman is partially melted? Is the lopsided snowhominid still considered designed?

Design may be better measured as a percentage of the original construction that remains. That snowmonkey could be described as 50% designed, and 50% naturally modified, for instance.

Computer Viruses and Adaptive Robots

Suppose we’re talking about a computer virus – a piece of code that exploits some vulnerability in other computers to replicate itself, and send those copies to other computers, which then repeat the cycle. Could a 1000th-generation copy of that virus be considered to be designed? That much seems reasonable, if it’s essentially identical to the most recent intelligently modified version.

What if that computer virus was programmed to be adaptive? Or, what if you engineered some type of robot that could modify itself, as needed, to navigate through an environment? Setting aside the ambiguity of whether the robot modifying itself qualifies as it designing itself… You might have designed that initial robot, but is the 10th iteration of it modifying itself “design”?

You might be able to take credit for broadly engineering the fact that it’s different than you originally made it… but you can’t claim to have designed its final form. Naturalistic, circumstantial processes largely dictated it’s form.

You can’t say that the naturalistically modified version is your design, any more than the melted, weather-eroded snowentity.


Now we can return to DNA – what if it was designed once, long ago. Is it still designed now?

Random mutations, plus natural selection, destroys that notion. We’d have no way of telling whether it was actually an intended design, or an output of the evolutionary process. We have plenty of laboratory data to understand genetic events, like gene duplication, point insertions/deletions, etc. With such events, any real design would have long been lost.


Creationists love their microevolution. It’s a way of ducking out of being complete reality-denialists, without really having to concede any of the “important” stuff that they’ve relegated to “macroevolution.”

What they’ll say is that, a lineage can vary within certain limits (that they can’t even show exists, mind you), but that dog will always be a dog, and the Raspberry crazy ant will always be a Raspberry crazy ant. This would allow the lineage, like the computer virus that doesn’t (or barely) change, to retain a high percentage of design.

If we set aside the substantial evidence for “macroevolution”, and keep to what’s directly observable, we do have several instances of observed speciation. If a split lineage can genetically separate enough so that they’re now two entirely different species, how does that factor into the design?

Does one lineage keep 50% of the original design, and the other lineage keeps the other half? If so, what’s the 50% non-design from?  How we account for gene duplication, or point insertions/deletions? If additional DNA is added, and then modified through random mutation… where’s the design?

Unless there’s some continual process, like some kind of networked nanotechnology that’s constantly modifying the DNA of different organic lineages, how could we tell the difference between the naturalistically modified DNA, and the designed DNA?

One might say that the naturalistically designed DNA would be “garbage”, but that’s an unjustified presupposition that’s ignoring that the entire mechanism of evolution would produce viable genetics… and that’s the point of it.

Whether it was originally designed or not, we can readily observe that any arbitrarily chosen DNA is replicating on its own, mutating on its own, and being selected against, on its own… and if that’s the case, there’s no reason to think the rest of the history of that lineage wasn’t also naturalistic.

… unless we want to switch topics to Abiogenesis.

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