Slipping Into Design Talk

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It's amazing how often I find people using the language of design to describe evolutionary explanations. Consider the following account of how chameleons evolved the ability to change colors [hat tip: Geek Press]:

However, the reason why they first evolved this ability to flash bright colours was previously unclear.

Scientists report in the journal Plos Biology that it was to allow them to signal to other chameleons.

Pay attention to how that's worded. They evolved the ability to allow them to do something rather than to allow them to do something else. It doesn't say that they developed the ability by random chance, and the ones who had it survived or reproduced more because the ability benefited them in survival or reproduction. It says that they evolved it so that they would be able to stand out among other chameleons. This looks like a purpose statement to me.

Consider also this similarly-framed explanation:

Scientists think vertebrae evolved to help our ancient predecessors swim more powerfully by stiffening the body so attached muscles could generate more force.

This is the language of design. It makes sense to speak of something evolving to help the species accomplish something only if there was something that guided the evolutionary process with such a purpose in mind.

Scientists talk like this all the time. So do philosophers. I heard Kwame Anthony Appiah on NPR's Talk of the Nation this afternoon, and he slipped into this kind of design talk when giving an evolutionary example.

We are exquisitely designed by, I believe, evolution, but I don't want to get into that argument, to be very sensitive to other people's responses to our behavior and to other people's interests. Little children, tiny children, will respond to pain in those around them by seeking to comfort them, often before they can barely speak. So we're exquisitely attuned to one another....

People complain that it's not science when theists draw the conclusion that such language actually implies. If design has occurred, then someone has intended some result. Such views won't even get the honor of being recognized as versions of the classic philosophical argument that appears in many introductory philosophy books. If it's a philsophical argument, then it can't be the religious dogma that many so people are so heavily invested in pretending it is, so there's no chance the anti-ID political movement will recognize these arguments for what they are.

But then people who have no interest whatsoever in theistic or design explanations will slip into design talk whenever they're trying to explain how some beneficial characteristic evolved. Despite all the effort trying to resist any true design in nature, design talk keeps appearing in evolutionary explanations. It's as if we're subconsciously inclined to find design in things even if we consciously strive to avoid doing so. Given the premises of naturalism, this kind of talk is hopelessly confused. Since I'm no naturalist, I'm happy to accept that there is indeed something that such design talk refers to -- divine purposes. But I don't think those who accept naturalistic explanations of the universe have the intellectual right to speak this way. You can't just help yourself to design talk in science if design is something fundamentally unscientific and undetectable by science.


I don't see any problem with using metaphorical language to aid understanding or our predictive/explanatory practices (compare: "the computer believes that it can checkmate me by moving its bishop.") Everyone knows how to cash this loose talk out in more rigorous terms.

I don't think that's what's going on here, though. It's not really a metaphor. It's more like a shorthand to avoid having to speak purely in terms of efficient causes that happen to produce a certain result but not under any guidance. If you just talk of the result as a goal, it's a lot quicker. In other words, it's a kind of linguistic laziness.

I think you're right that there isn't anything wrong with this as long as it's clear to your audience that this is what you're doing. But I'm not sure a lot of people will immediately see that what he literally says isn't what he means. I can easily see people thinking of evolution as a goal-directed process, that certain things happen in order to produce a more beneficial result, as if somehow the process itself calculates what will best produce survival traits or reproduction-conducive traits and then ensures that things will occur to bring such traits into existence.

All I'm asking for is one mention of a naturalistically-accurate explanation before using the shorthand. It seems illegitimate to me to bring in this kind of language without making that clear. It's different with a computer playing chess, since everyone knows the computer program isn't doing what we do when we have beliefs, and most people can cash it out in more accurate terms if they need to. I'm just not convinced the same is true with evolutionary explanations, and I wonder if the temptation to use this particular method of shorthand reveals something about our inner tendency to think in design terms.

I'm sympathetic to the point you're making here, Jeremy, but I have to admit that I don't find it a very compelling argument (beyond my own probable agreement with the conclusion for other reasons). For one, much of our language is influenced by other factors; a lot of people use language of fate or destiny while denying any kind of determinism, but that doesn't mean that they subconsciously affirm it in their use of such language. It might be the case that such language is more poetic, or past ideas that are largely discredited or simply unpopular may have had a holdover: the most obvious example of the latter is our language of sunsets and sunrises. And there seems to be an even better reason for design talk to be so well entrenched: even the staunchest deniers of design admit that design seems to be evident while denying that the apparent design is any more than a superficial feature. So if we have to suspend our initial judgment to get at the real truth under the surface, why wouldn't it be the case that we slip back into language that assumes design (or possibly that anthropomorphizes what we know - so say these defenders - to be an impersonal process)?

I will also admit that part of my hesitance here is also an unwillingness to partake in too much psychoanalyzing of the position, but I might be alone in that worry.


i was at the zoo in toronto a few months back, and listened to the elephant keeper explain to kids how elephants purposefully 'designed' ways of communicating long distances by stamping their feet. i felt like i was in a movie by mel brooks: 'gee, if only we had 'alphabet!' 'gee, if only we had a way to communicate long distances!' i mentioned the implied purposefulness of his language to him when he was done with the kids, and he didn't know what i was talking about. it is easy to slip into this 'purposeful' language. the origin of the very word 'evolution' comes from unrolling, like a scroll, which implies things already written but not revealed.



To be clear, I'm not asserting anything about why we do this. I have an account that a theist will find plausible, but in this post I'm just noticing how easy it is to fall into this and pointing out that it's technically inaccurate and very misleading given that a lot of people really do believe in design in nature, while the people talking this way often don't.

Imagine a U.S. with half the population who believe in a flat earth with the sun moving around the earth every day. Would it be as innocent for people to talk about sunrises and sunsets in science classes as it is in the current situation? I don't think so. That's more like what's going on here.

"I can easily see people thinking of evolution as a goal-directed process, that certain things happen in order to produce a more beneficial result, as if somehow the process itself calculates what will best produce survival traits or reproduction-conducive traits and then ensures that things will occur to bring such traits into existence."

Right, evolutionary theorists complain about this sort of misconception all the time. (E.g. Dennett and Dawkins, if memory serves, are very clear about this in their books.) So really what you're pointing to is the need for better science education in schools. A large portion of the public simply don't understand the theory of evolution, or what theorists mean when they employ this sort of 'design-talk'.

But, contrary to your original post, this talk is not "hopelessly confused", and the non-ignorant have every "intellectual right" to talk amongst themselves this way. It's just that it risks confusing the ignorant, which is a different problem altogether. Your concluding line was: "You can't just help yourself to design talk in science if design is something fundamentally unscientific and undetectable by science." That simply isn't true.

Well, I think I have two points, and I think there's something to both of them. One is that it's mainly in popular-level discussions that I see this kind of talk without the right kind of explanation. What scientists say in science journals or at science conferences isn't the issue. They know what they mean. So this point is like Dennett and Dawkins' point.

But I do think there's something to the other point. I think there could easily be a naturalistic explanation for why we fall into design talk that we don't mean literally. That's not my argument. I also think there's a natural way that slippage into any non-literal talk can happen. Still, I think the fact that we so easily fall into this kind of talk even when we don't mean it says something about our default way of thinking about the universe, the same way our default way of conceiving of our world phenomenologically includes the sun moving around the earth.

Then once we see that, it does seem a little funny to help yourself to this kind of talk as a matter of course given that so many will take it literally, and this is especially so given that it makes the view seem more plausible to those who are design-inclined. In cases where this kind of explanation in a popular-level publication is supposed to help support the view by making it sound more reasonable, it seems completely inappropriate. It's ok to explain chameleon coloring by appealing to natural processes. It's also ok to explain it in that way but to use words that if meant literally would convey the sense that there's some overriding purpose to evolution to make creatures become better in some way. But it's not ok to do that if conveying the sense of an overriding purpose is going to make the view about the coloring of chameleons seem more secure, and I think that's exactly what happens with this kind of argument.

It sounds like you're arguing that the use of design-oriented language undercuts the case for design being superficial rather than actual. Again, I'm sympathetic, but I still have a hard time seeing a relevant difference between geocentrism and the appearance of design in nature. I get what you're saying about a significant number of people believing in design, and certainly the use of such language makes the job of convincing these people that design is illusory much more difficult. But we're back to appearances, not to the core of the issue. Moreover, there might be good reasons to maintain the design talk, despite the good reason to abolish it, so this kind of eliminativist thinking may not be the best approach. Needless to say, I think there is a good case to be made for the opposite position, even though I don't much care for it personally.

I'm ok with not being eliminativist, but I think it requires an Aristotelian view of nature, and that's not what we're getting here. We're getting a reductionist view, but we're getting it in popular contexts without any acknowledgment that it's reductionist in audiences where people won't realize it, so it comes across as inconsistent or simply confused.

I'm not sure I've given any substantive arguments in this whole conversation on the core issue of whether there is design. I thought we were talking about appearance the whole time. Did I say something that sounded like more than appearances?

I think I understand your point more clearly now. I was just assuming there was something more substantive than appearances, since the appearance of design is something that seems to be agreed upon widely. But your contention about reductionist language without the clarification of a reductionist framework seems cogent enough.

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