Design, as long as it's not intelligent

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I've returned from a research conference and another meeting, but I'll be traveling again next week.

I keep hearing talks at conferences that I find rather amazing. For example, in the areas of systems biology and biological networks, I've heard several talks about how these systems are "designed". Sometimes (as in the talk I just heard) speakers will go beyond saying that the systems "appear designed", and state that the evidence shows that they are designed. This seems scientifically well-received as long as the speakers avoid suggesting that there was actually an intelligent designer who did the designing (and perhaps instead suggest that natural selection was the designer). I find it remarkable that it is scientifically accepted to talk about design in biological systems, as long the designer is left out of the picture or assumed to be unintelligent. But many scientists vehemently oppose any suggestion of an intelligent designer.

I've heard several talks along these lines in the last year. One was by John Doyle (Caltech) and the more recent talk was Chao Tang (now at UC San Francisco). Chao Tang has done some excellent work looking at a particular biological network involved with yeast cell cycles, if I remember correctly. He has done some modeling of the network and discovered that it differs rather dramatically from random networks which could have the same function. The way he put it was that the network is designed to have a robust "superhighway" which leads the network from state to state along the biological cell cycle. If the cell ends up in a state that doesn't correspond to a state in the cell cycle (in his models), it seems able to easily find its way back to the nearest position on the cell cycle. To go back to his analogy, if one gets off the superhighway, there are lots of onramps which allow one to get back on quickly. This is a feature of designed networks, but not one of random networks.

By this, I don't mean to suggest that the majority of scientists are warming to the idea of an intelligent designer. Rather, I find it startling that so many scientists will talk about, or listen with excitement to, evidence of design in nature -- as long as there is no suggestion of an intelligent designer. The evidence of design is so compelling that many scientists find it necessary to talk about how biological systems are designed, even though the word "design" carries connotations of purpose, and natural selection is generally seen as purposeless.

I think this sheds a little light on the Intelligent Design debate. Some scientists still have a problem with even admitting that there is evidence of design in biology. But there is an increasingly large body who are willing to admit that lots of aspects of biology look designed. So the debate is more and more about whether this design is intelligent, or rather unintelligent. The interesting observation, of course, is that if it's unintelligent, it's not really design: It just appears designed, but isn't, because design involves purpose.

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If things just "happened", why would there be an answer to "why" questions? Why the assumption that there is a reason to things? Why would there be any coherent design reasons to the way things are? Read More


Awesome development.

I wonder if you might answer a follow-up question: Do you think that if pressed these same scientists would balk and claim that they're speaking metaphorically about design in natural entities, or would they answer plainly that they do see design?

Also, I think there is a non-theistic third option to explain design (as far as I can tell). If something like Aristotealian metaphysics is true, we might have designed systems that look like they have been created, in the way that artifacts have been created by humans, but which in fact bear their design through the activity of their nature (form), and have not been designed by an external agent (such as God).

Anyhow, very interesting! I look forward to more updates from the field.

I'm going to follow up on this with respect to Aristotle's views. I think it is an attempt to be a third view, but it's not clear to me that Aristotle can get away with it. I do think these scientists are trying to say what Aristotle wanted to say, though he didn't speak of it as design. I didn't want to steer Abednego's post into ancient and medieval philosophy with a really long comment, so I'm saving it for its own post.

I'm not too sure. John Doyle made a comment in his talk I heard several months ago along these lines: "Some people are afraid of talking about design because, well, there are these people who believe in intelligent design. But it doesn't bother me to talk about it." (Paraphrase). I think he also made a snide remark about ID people, but I don't recall what exactly it was. So I think his view is that it's more than a metaphor, but that it doesn't imply an intelligent designer. He made a lot of analogies in his talk between biological systems and engineered systems, quite intentionally so, apparently. So I think he's really saying that it's design but design by nature, not by God.

Chao Tang was a bit harder to read. He might see it just as a metaphor. There are certainly people who will talk about design, or "apparent design", simply because they find it useful to use that language.

A quote from Daniel Dennett, who no one can suspect even remotely of sympathizing with Intelligent Design, which may help to clarify the situation. It's from his response to Fodor's criticism on his work (, and the quote within the quote is from Fodor:

>In part II, he turns to the question of whether Darwinism makes a safe place for teleological talk. Once again, I can hardly believe my eyes:

>>What is not, however, available is the course that Dennett appears to be embarked upon: there was no designer, but the watch was designed all the same. That just makes no sense.

>He seems not to realize that it is not just Dennett who embarks on this course; this is the standard understanding of biologists. Of course there is design in nature, and of course there is no foresighted, intelligent designer. It makes beautiful sense. It's Darwin's point, for goodness sake. Darwin doesn't deny the existence of all the design Paley found in the biosphere, nor does he claim that it needs no explanation; he shows how the design can be there without there being a Designer.


I am aware that there are many people who think this way. But I think there are a couple of problems with this. First, biologists also will often explain that evolution is "purposeless". I know not everyone thinks this, but most do. But the dictionary definition of design involves acting according to a plan or acting with purpose. It seems to me if you're going to talk about something being purposeless and at the same time talk about it being designed, you are operating by a very different definition of design than the one in the dictionary, or the one used by engineers, etc.

Second, John Doyle, in the talk I heard in February, talked about the extensive similarities between biological networks and those designed by good engineers. He didn't distinguish between different sorts of design or different definitions of design. He said the design in the network is like the design of a terrific engineer. Fine, but one of the key features of design by an engineer is that his design is intentionally so.

Your final quote is this: "He shows how the design can be there without there being a Designer". I understand the point you're making, but again, I think there is a terminology problem. According to Darwinism, there is no particular reason why a system should be exactly the way it is. Granted, a given system has to be beneficial to a particular organism, but if Darwin was right, and we could do a re-run of the evolution of the universe using different random events, we would end up with a different solution. That is, the outcome is determined not by some pre-determined plan, but by a sequence of random mutations which happen to lead to the way things presently are. There's no purpose or plan in operation, so one cannot speak about design. In contrast, an engineer facing a problem may have several possible solutions to a problem, but he intentionally chooses a certain design. The outcome is set according to his plan, and therefore is designed.

So again, if you're talking about design without a designer, unless you're using a different definition of design, you're misusing the word. At best, you can talk about "the appearance of design". So let me rephrase your quote. "[Darwin] shows how design can appear to be there without there being a designer."

I think this all is rather interesting, because one of the oft-heard complaints against intelligent design is that there is no scientific evidence for design. (If you don't believe me, see for example this post at Pharyngula, where he says explicitly, "There is no evidence for Design." And this abstract for a talk states: "No evidence for design can be found in the organization of matter on all scales..."

You can't have it both ways. If you're going to talk about how things are designed in a particular way and draw analogies to things designed by engineers, it doesn't make sense to say, "Oh, and by the way, the design was purposeless, unintelligent, and without a plan," or worse, go on to say, "There is no evidence for design." If scientists want to be effective in arguing against intelligent design, they will have admit that yes, things are designed and focus on the intelligent versus unintelligent aspect.

Right now, scientists in systems biology, biological networks, and other areas, are using engineering principles and ideas about good design to understand the systems they study. Engineers act with purpose, so it would be interesting to know why these folks are so sure that the systems they study (and which they see are often well-designed) were created by a purposeless designer.

Abednego, the issue is what caused the appearance of design. William Paley argued that it was God. Darwin discovered, first, that the designs Paley claimed to exist often did not, and second, that there were more local, natural explanations for the appearance of design that obviates the need to say "God did it just so."

So the issue is, how does something come to be "designed" (or appear to be designed) as it is?

Biology says, "Let's look at the environment, at the genes, and at the development of the living thing, and see if we can find proximate causes."

Intelligent design says, "God -- er, ah, some intelligent designer did it -- maybe a green spaceman."

Which path is more likely to lead to a cure for cancer?

Actually, the issue is whether it's ok to call it design if there's no designer. There is a larger issue that can be described as you describe it, but that's not the issue this post is dealing with. It's actually completely irrelevant to the issue this post is dealing with.


I think it is quite clear that there are two senses of "design" involved. The first one, which we may call "lowercase d design", applies whenever we see in nature a charcteristic that seems directed to an end: the eye is designed for seeing, the eagle's wings for flying, etc. In your quotes form Pharyngula and the abstract, "design" means "Design" in its strongest and also more ordinary use, as the result of conscious planification by an intelligent being.

Jeremy's point in the original point was that biologists seem to use the first concept without any implication of a conscious Designer, contrary to ordinary use. My quote from Dennett was intended as evidence that this use is widespread and reasonable. Why force scientists into talk of "appearance of design", even if it would be more in accord to the common use of the term, if they find it expedient to use the word in another sense?

On the same lines, one would have to forbid them to use any teleological vocabulary in biological explanations, unless they want to commit themselves to a radical irreducibility of life to mechanistic physics. But it is perfectly consistemt to assume both that "ultimately" there can be a complete physicalistic description, and that the questions of interest to biology and other higher level sciences are better adressed with their own conceptual frames, which may include concepts such as teleology and small-d design.

I work in Systems biology and have heard the talks about design from e.g. John Doyle. But I also think that they use the word design in an evolutionary context, nature, evolution, has designed the function.

Alejandro and all,

I totally understand that they're using design in a different sense -- design without a designer. And that's precisely my point in this post: The APPEARANCE of design is so compelling that it's scientifically acceptable to talk about design, as long as one believes there is no personal designer (that is, that the designer is nature/evolution). I think it's very interesting that scientists find themselves compelled to use (or at least choose to use) the word "design" to describe a process they describe as purposeless, and I thought non-scientists might be interested in this observation also.

Evolution isn't really purposeless. It has one overwhelming purpose - to pass genes on to the next generation. And any change in the DNA that improves the ability of an organism to pass its genes on will be ruthlessly selected, to the disadvantage of the older "design".

The power of reproduction combined with the teleological purpose of evolution - pass the genes on to the next generation - is enough to make a great, if unintelligent, designer.

If you haven't read Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", get it now. It's still in print after twenty years. Read it once and you'll never see the world the same again. When you finish "Selfish Gene", read "The Blind Watchmaker" to pretty well complete your education.

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