Home > Biology, Evolution, History, Skepticism > The design debate: why evolution succeeds where the teleological argument fails – Part 1

The design debate: why evolution succeeds where the teleological argument fails – Part 1

(References to be included with the final part of this essay)

Numerous efforts have been made over the course of history to prove the existence of a supernatural creator. The most enduring of these attempts has also been the most formidable: it is the argument from design. Also known as the teleological argument, this line of reasoning holds that the order and purpose of the natural world indicates that it was designed, and that this design necessitates the existence of a designer. The purpose of my essay is to assert that this argument, in all of its historical forms, fails. My goal is to use a combination of both reason and biological evidence to explain why the argument from design is flawed, and to assert that evolution provides a superior explanation for the apparent design of living things. In addition, I will argue that recognizing evolution as the shaping force behind life is not only factually correct, but is essential to accurately understanding life as a phenomenon.

But before I begin, I should clarify the scope of my discussion. Many forms of the argument from design have appeared over the course of the past two-and-a-half millennia, and thus I cannot hope to touch on all, or even most, of them. In this essay, I endeavour to dissect and refute some of the most famous and prototypical examples of the argument from design, in order to demonstrate why teleology in general is an ineffective proof of the existence of a creator. As teleological arguments all share a common line of reasoning, they therefore succeed or fail for similar reasons, and my criticisms can carry over to those particular variants of the argument that I do not have room to discuss here. I should also point out that alternative forms of the teleological argument have been made in both chemistry and physics. My counter-arguments make use of biological evidence, and thus my criticisms are not intended to address the argument from design as applied to these other scientific fields. Rather, my discussion of the teleological argument from this point forward is aimed specifically at how it concerns living things.

Ancient Science and Teleology

I begin my analysis of the argument from design with an examination of its origins. The first formalized versions of the teleological argument come from the scholastic period in the early second millennium, but seeds of the idea can be traced back to Ancient Greece. As with so many other intellectual endeavours, the Greeks pioneered inquiry into causation. They were concerned with understanding telos, a Greek word that can be defined as “the end of a goal-oriented process”, or more succinctly as “purpose”. And it is from their discussions on the causes of natural phenomena that we get the root of the term teleology.

The Greek preoccupation with understanding telos was especially prevalent in their biology, as is evidenced most clearly by the writings of Aristotle in the fourth century BC. In his work “On the Generation of Animals,” Aristotle proposed that living things had four causes. The material cause referred to the substance and physical matter comprising an organism. The formal cause was its shape and form, what biologists today would refer to as morphology. The efficient cause, a subject akin to modern developmental biology, concerned the proximate force responsible for this form. Lastly, and to Aristotle most importantly, the final cause was the purpose behind a living thing – its telos.

Aristotle’s treatment of his four causes illustrates an important fact: he and his contemporaries perceived life as being goal-oriented. It was a conclusion that he drew from relatively simple observations of the natural world. All around himself, Aristotle noticed that living things appeared to have purpose and direction. Plants, for instance, constantly grew taller and wider in pursuit of sunlight. Animals, on the other hand, routinely sought out food and mates in predictable ways. From observations such as these, Aristotle concluded that living things had direction; they acted with purpose, and towards specific ends. What’s more, Aristotle recognized that organisms each possessed traits that made them remarkably well suited for these endeavours. Plants possessed thin, broad leaves that enabled them to more efficiently capture light. Similarly, predators were equipped with sharp fangs and vicious claws, helping them to more readily catch their prey. Noticing this, Aristotle believed that there was order to the natural world, because living things and their characteristics were not random or haphazard in nature. Rather, the natural world appeared to have purpose and direction, a notion encapsulated by the Greek term telos, and one that Aristotle was among the first note.

Telos was also a phenomenon that Aristotle felt compelled to explain. But of course, he had to do so without the tools and understanding afforded by modern biological science. Arguably the father of scientific biology, Aristotle did his work in a near void of previous knowledge about the origins or workings of living things. As a result, Aristotle was ill-equipped to explain the direction and order of the natural world in natural terms. Instead, he had to invent supernatural forces in order to do so.

Thus, Aristotle posited the existence of a Prime Mover. In his work “Metaphysics,” he described this as “self-thinking thought,” a sort of God-like force that was responsible for the change and motion that occurred in the cosmos. Aristotle was not a creationist in any literal sense – he did not believe that the universe or anything in it was the product of deliberate design. But rather, he believed that his supernatural Prime Mover was responsible for providing the direction and order that was inherent in living things.

Aristotle’s belief that a rational force was behind the cosmos was later built upon by Cicero, a Roman writer and philosopher who lived in the first century BC. Inheriting many of his ideas from the Greeks, Cicero added his famous timepiece analogy to the discussion of telos. He compared life to a sundial or a water-clock in his work “On the Nature of the Gods,” and argued that living things, just like a timepiece, appear to have a purpose and an intelligence behind them. As with Aristotle, Cicero was not a strict creationist; he did not think that an intelligent God had deliberately designed the universe. Rather, Cicero believed that his analogy demonstrated something subtler: that just like a timepiece, life was too orderly and rational to be the product of a chaotic universe. Instead, he concluded that the cosmos was guided by divine reason, and that some sort of pervasive intelligence provided its direction and order.

As these two cases indicate, pre-cursive versions of the argument from design were present in the thoughts and writings of ancient thinkers. These examples also illustrate an important point about the origin of these ideas. In the ancient world, the absence of an effective biological account for the telos of living things required the invention of supernatural, intelligent forces as an alternative explanation.

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