Design Without a Designer?

This is a potentially big interesting deep conversation that–in my not even slightly humble opinion–is worthy of a dedicated thread with some clear goals. Someday I’ll propose that, since I believe that we can improve the quality and tone of conversations about biological design by getting at least some unbelievers to agree that design in biology is an interesting and worthy question that need not and should not have inherent religious overtones.

I guess my first question for you as you compare your conception of ‘design’ to mine is this: do you think design is something that is done (by a designer) or do you think it is something that exists and can be detected by humans? Obviously both can be true, but as long as a person believes that ‘design’ necessitates a ‘designer’, then they won’t see design the way I do. Because my view is that design exists whether or not it is linked to a designer. To me, it is axiomatic that a mindless process can generate design, not only because we have seen it happen but because there is no good argument to the contrary. It is instructive, IMO, that the “argument” offered to the contrary is something like “all of our examples of design can be traced back to a mind.” This is not even an argument.

But what do we mean by ‘design’? Here I think we can look at some of the definitions and conceptions offered by the ID movement. I think Behe’s “purposeful arrangement of parts” is a nice start, because it captures something that we all detect when we consider (for example) a molecular machine. Was a bacterial flagellum designed by a designer? I don’t know. Does a bacterial flagellum evince design? To me, the answer is obviously yes. So, I disagree with many fellow unbelievers (materialists for the most part) who use phrases like “apparent design” or words like “designoid” to describe the biological world. My view is that design is design. If I see it, I should call it design. This doesn’t imply a designer. That simply doesn’t follow.

Maybe that gets us started. A bit too long perhaps…


@sfmatheson, how do you manage the distinction between design as a “process of making” vs. “plan or schematic” vs. “product of a designing process”? Is that last one even rightly called design?

1 Like

I wonder if we need two different words, if we hope to have good conversation around this.

To me the word design, implies a designer, with a specific purpose for which the design is created.

I believe what you are saying is that ordered structures can exist that accomplish specific purposes, e;g; a bacterial flagellum, independent of a designer

If we call both “design” it’s very difficult to have good conversation, somehow we need to differentiate between the two. “Appearance of design” works for me - as it implies the same end result, without requiring a designer.

What would you suggest as terminology for the two cases?


I don’t manage that. Those are all conceptions of design, but they’re not what we see when we look at ATP synthase or a flagellum. I think those things are all distractions away from what I (personally) care about, especially since they all assume the presence of a designer.

Sure, why not? Anyone who believes otherwise would have to claim that the sentence “I see design in this thing” is linguistically incorrect. I can respect that, but then it ends the conversation.

Okay, so you are trying to legitimize one understanding of design in its own right, separate from other definitions.

Seems like the same thing would have to be done with the term “purpose.”

Yes, though I think the work of “legitimizing” this understanding is already done. To reject this use of the word/concept is defensible in principle, but there’s nothing revolutionary about saying “design is detectable without knowledge of a designer.”

We can discuss what I take to be an obvious thought experiment if we want to explore design without a designer, but if there is some blanket presumption that this is not coherent, then we can all get back to our day jobs.

Maybe. [shrug]

I don’t think science recognizes design without a model of a designer. So this would be pretty revolutionary.

I tend towards @cdods’s notion of “appearance of design”, and trying to make sense of what defines that appearance. That is, I think, closely aligned with what you are after.


Science has never spoken on this, since it can’t do that. But scientists have. Here are just a few examples from places I know well.

Design Principles of Regulatory Networks: Searching for the Molecular Algorithms of the Cell

Defining the Design Principles of Skin Epidermis Postnatal Growth

Quantitative Operating Principles of Yeast Metabolism during Adaptation to Heat Stress

I don’t see that as closely aligned, because I don’t assume that design requires a designer. “Appearance of design” downgrades ATP synthase to an “appearance” of something I consider obvious. I understand why people do this, and especially why naturalism leads people to do it (that infamous quote about a “divine foot in the door”) but I’m with Dan Dennett here. The biological world is overflowing with design. Calling it “apparent” just encourages the madness of attempting to find the “real” design that isn’t just “apparent” design. Does this give some kind of comfort to ID creationists and their propaganda machines? Maybe, but that just means that they didn’t read to the end of the sentence: “…without a designer.”

But here’s the thought experiment. Suppose I sit down at my supercomputer to predict ways to build a much better version of enzyme Z; let’s even say that my enzyme has a new substrate specificity and is orders of magnitude more stable than enzyme Z. I synthesize the gene and insert it into bacteria. Does this enzyme evince design? Or only apparent design? Is there any way to tell the difference, without knowing that I designed the new enzyme on my supercomputer? Are we going to actually say, “well I can’t tell whether this is design or apparent design until I investigate supercomputer user patterns?”

Adrian Bejan might be someone to add to the conversation about design in biology.

And for a wider audience, the book The Physics of Life.

I think this one is relevant to this topic about design in evolution and biology:
Lehman J, Clune J, Misevic D, et al. The Surprising Creativity of Digital Evolution: A Collection of Anecdotes from the Evolutionary Computation and Artificial Life Research Communities. Artif Life . 2020;26(2):274-306. doi:10.1162/artl_a_00319


Evolution provides a creative fount of complex and subtle adaptations that often surprise the scientists who discover them. However, the creativity of evolution is not limited to the natural world: Artificial organisms evolving in computational environments have also elicited surprise and wonder from the researchers studying them. The process of evolution is an algorithmic process that transcends the substrate in which it occurs. Indeed, many researchers in the field of digital evolution can provide examples of how their evolving algorithms and organisms have creatively subverted their expectations or intentions, exposed unrecognized bugs in their code, produced unexpectedly adaptations, or engaged in behaviors and outcomes, uncannily convergent with ones found in nature. Such stories routinely reveal surprise and creativity by evolution in these digital worlds, but they rarely fit into the standard scientific narrative. Instead they are often treated as mere obstacles to be overcome, rather than results that warrant study in their own right. Bugs are fixed, experiments are refocused, and one-off surprises are collapsed into a single data point. The stories themselves are traded among researchers through oral tradition, but that mode of information transmission is inefficient and prone to error and outright loss. Moreover, the fact that these stories tend to be shared only among practitioners means that many natural scientists do not realize how interesting and lifelike digital organisms are and how natural their evolution can be. To our knowledge, no collection of such anecdotes has been published before. This article is the crowd-sourced product of researchers in the fields of artificial life and evolutionary computation who have provided first-hand accounts of such cases. It thus serves as a written, fact-checked collection of scientifically important and even entertaining stories. In doing so we also present here substantial evidence that the existence and importance of evolutionary surprises extends beyond the natural world, and may indeed be a universal property of all complex evolving systems.

1 Like

Just a couple of quick thoughts before I leave for the day.

  1. In a universe that includes one or more omnipotent gods, it is impossible to argue persuasively that anything came about without a designer, for the straightforward reason that such beings can make anything they want, and make it look any way they want.
  2. To me, the fundamental first question is not “can we have design without a designer?” but “does design detection imply knowledge or assumptions about possible designers?” I am saying an emphatic ‘no’ to that question, but one can coherently circumscribe ‘design’ to essentially require the answer to be ‘yes.’ I think that creates problems, which I’ve mentioned above, but it’s coherent and defensible to limit ‘design’ in that way. I will grant that once you answer ‘no’ to the fundamental question then it’s hard (maybe impossible) to answer ‘no’ to the first question.

It is not unusual in a nature documentary to hear statements such as “the cheetah is designed for speed” and then go on the discuss the various adaptations surrounding that. This is a legitimate usage in English, and no designer is inferred. As always with such common expressions, it is up to the speaker or author to make clear what is the intended communication, and for the hearer or reader to ascertain such.

Of course, there will always be those who quote mine and and use the range of English expression to play word games in order to make an author out as saying he supports something that he does not.

1 Like

First I should said that I don’t know that I would say I have a very firm conception of “design”. I have a pretty dictionary definition idea of what “design” means in general. I’ve not been involved in a lot of ID discussions outside of this forum, but the concept of design in nature is interesting to me for a couple reasons:

  1. As a Christian I do believe God has interacted with the physical world and continues to do so in some way. But what is the nature of God’s activity? ID takes it for granted, it seems, that God’s activity is natural history is detectable in some scientific way. I haven’t seen good evidence for that nor do I see a necessity for it. However, the question remains, what is the best way to understand and describe God’s activity? That it outside the realm of interest for non-theists I think and I’m happy to set that discussion to the side.
  2. As a chemist who’s worked on molecular machinery (nanorotors/motors), I’m curious what the relationship is between artificial and biological machines. I really enjoyed working on the design, synthesis, and testing of artificial molecular machines. I know what I mean when I say “design” there. But when I look at the flagellar motor or other biological machines, I’m not really sure what to think. It doesn’t seemed to be designed in the same way, but when you say “Does a bacterial flagellum evince design? To me, the answer is obviously yes.” I want to agree with you but I don’t know how to justify it exactly. Is there a distinction between “artificial” and “natural” in this context? If there is, is it in nature of the “designer”? These are the types of question I’m hoping to engage in from this discussion. I could use some high-power biologist brain, and this is a great place to get it :slight_smile:

I typically think of ‘design’ as either something done (a verb) or something that exists (a noun) based on my experience and ordinary usage (dictionary). The noun has two definitions, one is a blueprint (i.e. design for a building) and the other is a pattern or arrangement. These cover pretty adequately how I think about design generally. I think it’s much easier for me to think about a pattern or arrangement being “design without a designer” but it’s harder for me to see the “blueprint” definition of design without a designer.

1 Like

The view I am advocating makes no distinction between natural and artificial, because the view asks only about the presence of design. To add “artificial” to the mix is to assume the opposite view, which is that ‘design’ exists in the context of designers. Which is fine but let’s then be clear that you are rejecting the whole premise of what I’m proposing.

That sounds reasonable to me. It may be that I am more comfortable with discussing ‘design’ as a concept and not as a definition rooted in a history.

I don’t need any new words and I don’t share the premise of “design implies a designer” with you. I have tried to document elsewhere in this thread the fact that design is a pretty integrated concept in biology, such that many biologists talk about design and design principles with no worry that they will be misunderstood. I’m afraid I don’t see how the concept of design without a designer is either hard to grasp (conceptually) or hard to understand (linguistically).

People have tried words like “designoid” and phrases like “apparent design.” The subtitle of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is “Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.” I’m well aware that many believers and unbelievers alike are stuck with the word ‘design’ linked to ‘designer’. I have seen only one argument for this approach so far, which is the dictionary. Maybe there are other things going on. But here is Dennett (from this piece) on one reason why it might not be a good idea to refuse to give ATP synthase the honor of showing design:

The second misplaced emphasis is Pinker’s phrase “the illusion of design in the natural world.” Richard Dawkins, in a similar vein, says “the illusion of design conjured by Darwinian natural selection is so breathtakingly powerful” in The Ancestors’ Tale (p457), and elsewhere proposes to speak of “designoid” features of the natural world (eg., Climbing Mount Improbable, p4). I disagree with this policy, which can backfire badly. I recently overheard a conversation among some young people in a bar about the marvels of the nano-machinery discovered inside all cells. “When you see all those fantastic little robots working away, how can you possibly believe in evolution!” one exclaimed, and another nodded wisely. Somehow these folks had gotten the impression that evolutionary biologists thought that the intricacies and ingenuities of life’s processes weren’t all that wonderful. These evolution-doubters were not rednecks; they were Harvard Medical students! They hugely underestimated the power of natural selection because they had been told by evolutionary biologists, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design. This episode strongly suggested to me that one of the themes that has been gaining ground in “common knowledge” is that evolutionary biologists are reluctant to “admit” or “acknowledge” the manifest design in nature. I recommend instead the expository policy of calling nature’s marvels design, as real as any design in the universe, but just not the products of an intelligent designer.

You can read how Dennett describes design here, in his recent cool book From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

Biology shows design. I don’t think that’s confusing or unclear, and I think it’s a mistake to make distinctions based on old dictionaries. YMMV.

Actually, it depends on who is making the comment.
When a theist makes the comment, he is making a reference to God as the designer.
When an atheist is making the comment, he is co-opting the word design to express something it cannot. Design implies a designer with agency.
That’s why scientists sometimes end up talking about nature as if it had agency… talking about it creativity and such.

1 Like

5 posts were split to a new topic: Ashwin and Rumraket on Design and Designers

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

1 Like

Do you think design is at all related to teleology?

I’m not a biologist, so this may very well be true within the sphere of biology. However outside the sphere of biology, and certainly within my sphere of engineering, the fact that there is a design, implies a conscious design process, which in turn implies a designer. I think this understanding is also what is understood in the general public.

I agree with much of what you are saying in your other posts in this thread. However if you have a word that is understood in very different ways by different people, you can’t argue that everyone has to understand your interpretation. If the goal is understanding and discussion, it’s better to add clarifying terminology than insist on using a word that creates misunderstanding.

1 Like