It may not be intelligent, but it is design

There may be a good reason why many people, including advocates of Intelligent Design (ID), have the inescapable impression that biological organisms are designed. It’s because evolution appears to share many aspects of the design process. On searching the intertubes for definitions of the design process, one of the first visual representations I found was on a NASA educational webpage on engineering design:


This struck me as having much in common with evolution, so I took the liberty of changing the graphic as follows:

While the correspondence is not exactly one-to-one, there are striking similarities between the two.

Richard Dawkins uses the wonderful analogy of the blind watchmaker, who has no choice but to design watches by trial and error, using a very basic, stripped-down form of the design process, one that can easily be imagined to proceed without an intelligent interlocutor. And whatever sophistication evolution lacks in its design cycle, it amply makes up for by using gobs and gobs of time.

This correlation between evolution and the design process is a potentially powerful weapon against religious apologists’ argument from design. It shows that genuine forms of design can take place without an intelligent mind pulling the strings. Perhaps this is why proponents of the design argument seldom spell out what, exactly, they mean by “design”. Conveniently, there is little consensus to be found on a definition (e.g., Ralph and Wand), making it easier for believers to conjure up images of a hard working, creative genius behind every designed object.

In summary, then, I think the proper response to the argument from design (at least when it’s applied to life forms) is to concede that design has, indeed, taken place. However, the onus is on the believer to show that design can only proceed through the actions of an intelligent being.

Ralph, P. and Wand, Y. (2009). A proposal for a formal definition of the design concept. In Lyytinen, K., Loucopoulos, P., Mylopoulos, J., and Robinson, W., editors, Design Requirements Workshop (LNBIP 14), pp. 103-136. Springer-Verlag.


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