Is Design Dead?

So I said to the teacher,

“Please consider design.”

He said, “We haven’t had that thesis here since 1859.”

(Weird Al, are you listening?)

1859 was the year Charles Darwin published his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book is included in the Great Books of the Western World canon, and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written and thoughtful piece of natural philosophy. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. Consider the poetic language of this passage:

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. 

Origin, Chapter 4

I find it remarkable that the majority of folks who recite the “design is dead, Darwin killed it” mantra haven’t actually read Darwin; they’ve only read popular (sometimes weirdly slanted) articles or books about Darwin’s work, or heard agenda-driven pop-atheists sing Darwinian praises. I find it all rather strange. How do they know Darwin killed design? How did he do it? These are key questions to ask the design opponent.

Darwin’s scientific work actually did little to nothing to discredit design, properly defined. His philosophical goal (which he makes clear in the Origin) was indeed to demonstrate that there is no need to postulate a Creator to explain the diversity and complexity of living things. He fell prey to the same mistake in thinking we see today: the belief that scientifically elucidating natural history and the workings of the natural mechanism (allegedly) behind it somehow rules out a designer of both the mechanism and the resulting organisms. In other words, thinking that the physical cause of something automatically eliminates the possibility that purpose and intention were involved. But how does that follow? No amount of scientific advancement could ever demonstrate this, because it lies in the realm of metaphysics–it goes beyond the physical.

One of my favorite early modern philosophers, Thomas Reid, made this point nearly a century before Darwin published the Origin:

A Physical cause is different from a final cause. The physical cause hunts out the laws of Nature from which the phenomena flow…but the final cause again hunts out the end which Nature had in view.

Lectures on Natural Theology, 1780

(Reid was a devout Christian, and his use of the term “Nature” is thoroughly design-oriented, not merely personified. He had insightful things to say about laws needing a law-giver, mechanisms needing an ultimate first cause, and the foresight apparent in the natural world.)

Today’s design advocate may rightfully claim that Darwin’s philosophy failed miserably, but they don’t have to challenge his scientific theory (common descent driven by natural selection) in order to defend their own position. Note: this is not to say that the Darwinian view of biological history and evolutionary change doesn’t have scientific weaknesses. What I’m getting at is that a defense of design doesn’t rely upon pointing out the shortcomings of evolutionary theory. 

Then what, exactly, is the design advocate’s mission? It is an integrated project of science and philosophy; an examination of the features of the natural world and the use of that data to support premises of philosophical arguments. Here are a couple of examples of how this works. The first one is completely irrelevant to Darwinism, as it deals with the origin of the universe itself. I include it to emphasize how broadly design theory should be defined. The second example is related to evolutionary biology, and it demonstrates that biological design theory doesn’t depend upon Darwin’s science being wrong.

1. It is an undisputed scientific fact that the laws and constants of the universe exhibit a stunning level of fine-tuning, such that even minute differences would have prevented the possibility of any life at all in the cosmos. No stars, no planets, no chemistry. The statistical odds of this finely-tuned state occurring by blind chance are effectively zero. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that there was intelligent, conscious governance of the physical event by which the cosmos came into existence.

2. Biochemistry has revealed that the genetic code far exceeds the complexity and multi-level integration of any manmade code ever produced. Think of our most advanced computer software—it’s utterly stone age compared to the genetic code. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that this type of intricacy and level of functionality strongly suggest behind-the-scenes intelligent engineering. Note that this claim has nothing to do with Darwinian common descent, and it doesn’t rule out Natural selection as a mechanism. The opponent of design will respond that the mechanism driving “descent with modification” is blind and autonomous, but this too is a philosophical claim. At the end of the day, the physical evidence is all we have scientific access to.

I’ve greatly simplified the above arguments; many sophisticated versions of these are used and many counter-arguments have been made. But I wanted you to get the gist of exactly what the real issue is.

In the project of scientific apologetics, I believe the best and wisest approach is to take Darwin off the table altogether but be able to explain why his scientific theory is extraneous to the discussion. This allows you to find a common ground starting point in your conversations. Otherwise, you and your interlocutor will end up talking past one another and/or missing the true core of the dispute.


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