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Design as an evolutionary process that includes
chance, selection, and compromise.

Post of the Month: November 2006


Subject:    | Lessons of Intelligent Design
Date:       | 17 Nov 2006
Message-ID: |

One thing the Intelligent Design movement never talks about is design. Oh, they assert it all the time, but the never say anything *about* it. And it's a shame, really. Looking at life from a design perspective can yield some rather important insights.

For one thing, design is a process, not (as Dembski asserts and other IDists assume) an isolated event. Designs do not appear suddenly. They are built gradually, by adding, subtracting, and modifying parts of the overall design. Almost always, new designs are adapted from previous designs. And no design is ever really done. It reaches a point where useful products can come from it, but then, usually, a designer asks, How can we change it to make it more useful? Either that, or something in the product's environment changes, making it necessary to change the design, perhaps even scrapping it completely and replacing it with something else.

In short, design is evolutionary. You cannot have design without evolution.

Another essential aspect of design is compromise. All designs require multiple compromises. Should it be stronger, or should it be lighter? Broadly applicable or narrowly tailored? Low cost or high quality? There is no way to get everything you could possibly want, because many of the ideals are intrinsically incompatible. There is no way to design something without including some compromises.

This means that life, if designed, must include compromises. Creationists often speak of our state as a fall from a perfect state. But design teaches us that that is impossible, because the perfect state cannot exist in the first place.

The compromise of cost versus quality applies to the design process itself. Short of prohibitive costs (and maybe not even then), one cannot expect all designs to excel immediately. Some designs will need improving; some will need eliminating. Competent designers know this, and they test their designs. Testing, and eliminating the failures which the tests reveal, is a huge part of designing, and many designs have failed because the designers skimped on it. But then, the marketplace itself is a forum which tests designs and eliminates failures.

In short, a process like natural selection is essential.

The topic of creativity in design is one I cannot hope to do justice to, but I must say a few words about it. Most "new" designs are recombinations of existing designs and natural phenomena. For example, PCR is a combination of observed DNA chemistry and some simple electrical technology. One of the best ways to find ideas for designs is to go exploring. Exploration can take many forms, such as looking through technical journals and patent libraries, visiting people in another culture, doing original scientific research, or simply browsing through a hardware store. The important part of exploration, though, is that it produce the unexpected. One process that is sure help with this is random chance. Sometimes chance happens seredipitously, as with Fleming's discovery of pennicilin. Sometimes designers deliberately employ it with programs of trial and error. Not all chance will help with design, which is why selection is important, but some chance is invaluable.

In short, random chance adds novelty to design.

So maybe we should teach design in biology classes -- *real* design and and concepts behind it, not just the buzzword. Teaching about design can perhaps help students understand concepts such as change over time, natural selection, and the importance of random variation in evolution.

And perhaps it can help people appreciate other applications of design as well. It seems to me that a lot of people expect that laws and other public policy can be effectively created de novo, without going through any testing or modification. And some people don't seem to understand that the idea of compromise applies to such designs as vaccines and airport security; thus they require costs far in excess of expected gains. Design is all around us. Just using the word helps nothing. We need to understand it better.

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