Design Without a Designer?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Good luck with that attitude…
Dont complain when people misunderstand you.

Thanks for this! This was really well written and I think engaging with Dennett’s description here would really be worth people’s time. I got a lot out of that section.

I am curious about this little bit:

Which battle do we want to fight? Do we want to try to convince lay people that they really don’t see the design that is stunningly obvious at every scale in biology, or would we rather try to persuade them that what Darwin has shown is that there can be design — real design, as real as it gets — without an Intelligent Designer?

I think it’s an interesting proposal but:

  1. Showing that there can be design without a designer doesn’t demonstrate that there isn’t a designer, right?
  2. I’m not sure how Darwin, or any scientist for that matter, will be able to show that there can be design without a designer with any sort of scientific certitude. All one has to do is move the goal posts and say that the whole thing was designed (i.e. evolution was designed to work that way, or the laws of physics were put in place to produce the chemistry needed to drive evolution, etc.)

I like much of what Dennet has to say about design here, but I feel like he’s trying to prove too much (i.e. to refute ID) rather than just focusing on reclaiming ‘design’ and talking about design without a designer. I feel like does a lot of good work and then kind of wastes it on what seems like a false dichotomy (ID vs biology free of any designer whatsoever) to me. As a Christian who is critical of ID I don’t have an a priori problem with there being design without a designer, I just don’t know what it proves since science cannot demonstrate that there is no designer.

I like design as a topic, and it’s fun to consider, I just have very little interest in ID vs atheism. I guess I’m maybe more interested in considering design from a scientific perspective, or maybe even epistemological perspective, than a metaphysical one.


Of course not.

I can’t know what is meant by “any sort of scientific certitude.” I think there are compelling reasons to believe that design can arise in situations where there is no clear designer, discussed before. But I don’t think there is value in arguing about whether/how someone would acquire ‘certitude’ about this, especially if that person already claims to believe in omnipotent gods. To me, this doesn’t matter and isn’t my point.

I guess I have failed to make the interesting point clear, even after explicitly saying what it isn’t.

That makes exactly two of us in this discussion, except that your questions above are mostly about “certitude” and about whether there is “no designer.” My failed quest was to stimulate discussion about design being considered without reference to or need for a designer. It is very striking that believers seem unable to handle this.

I understand your point, and completely agree that clarification is important. Nothing more to add.

I do, and I think I’d have to, since as I understand it, teleology is about purpose instead of origin. Dennett talks about reasons, and about “what for”, and that sounds like teleology to me. Of course this could raise the same tired “whose purpose” question but oh well.

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Sorry, I think I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I was just trying to comment on how it seemed like Dennet was bringing it back to a question of designer-or-not. I should have just left it alone I guess.

I think maybe believers have a harder time with the “without reference to a designer” part, partially because it is at a point of disagreement between theists and atheists, and partially because the designer question is a given for them. In any case, I’m happy to leave the designer part aside and focus on design in biology.

I am interested, for instance, in how biological motors do what they do and the purpose/function behind the various components. I worked on a project to design a molecular motor with ~90 atoms, the scale difference between that and flagella or FTPase is just amazing.


Couldn’t you say that in both cases you have a purposeful arrangement of parts?

Yes, indeed. Hence the strength of the design argument developed by Meyer in Signature in the Cell ».

Depends on what you mean by purposeful. I think there is a way that we can speak coherently about functional purpose without it implying conscious intent.

I would definitely agree you have a functional arrangement of parts, in that what the parts are doing, and their relative positions and mutual interactions, are contributing to the function of the system. And I would agree that the function of a functional flagellum is in some sense also it’s purpose, as a propulsion and adhesion system.

But I don’t think there has to have been someone conscious who had thoughts and intentions about the system and it’s part, for them to have purposeful functions. It is when someone argues there has to have been conscious intent behind the systems origin and existence that I disagree.