Posts Tagged ‘Design Debate’

The design debate: why evolution succeeds where the teleological argument fails – Part 4

September 19, 2011 1 comment

Criticisms of Evolution

Despite the tremendous strength of evolution theory, there are those that contest the its validity as an explanation for living things. But to start, it is important to note that this challenge tends not come from mainstream biologists, but rather from a minority of biologically educated scientists, as well as from theologians and writers. Their arguments typically come in one of two forms.

The first common objection is that biological structures are too improbably complex to have ever arisen by chance. Evolution, it is argued, depends upon luck because the process that generates variation in living things – mutation – occurs randomly. Thus, creationists argue that evolution cannot be responsible for the ordered and complex nature of living things. A classic thought experiment used to support this stance is the smashed watch analogy. This is conducted by imagining a watch (an object with all the characteristics of design) that has been completely disassembled, with its parts scrambled inside a bag. No matter how much you shake the bag, the random process of bumping these pieces into one another will never cause them to re-assemble into the orderly form of that complex watch. Thus, proponents of creationism argue that order cannot come from randomness, and evolution (which they call a random process) cannot have produced ordered, complex life.

I am willing to accept the former assertion; it does seem unlikely that a random, chaotic force could ever produce an ordered and complex object. However, I dispute the subsequent claim that this impossibility applies to evolution. I think that this criticism is indicative of a misunderstanding about how evolution operates. There is certainly a random component to evolution; mutations do tend to occur regardless of how they might affect an organism or its descendants. But it is inaccurate to say that evolution itself is a random process, because mutation is only a part of the picture. The other part of the equation, natural selection, is decidedly non-random, and it provides a directional agent that acts on the consequences of random mutation. Like a ratchet, selection ensures that evolution will tend to develop traits towards more adaptive, and often more complex, forms. While it is certainly unlikely that a random process such as mutation could ever result in the sudden composition of an entire watch, this feat is made feasible by natural selection, which guides this process of assembly one step at a time.

In this issue, my defense of evolution gains support from a computer program made to test whether or not evolution can, in fact, assemble a functional watch (see for a much fuller account than I can provide here). This computer simulation began with the disassembled parts of a watch – gears, hands, a ratchet, and a spring – which were themselves mutable in order to allow for variation. A genetic algorithm was introduced which randomly combined these pieces and selected for whichever combinations were most effective at telling time. These successful variants were then replicated, with mutation, into the subsequent generation. In its very first generation, these simulated watch-organisms were indeed very simple. The products of chance alone, the best were mere pendulums consisting of a gear attached to the end of a hand. But as each subsequent generation passed, selection was allowed to operate. And after approximately 800 generations, this computer simulation had given rise to a functional watch comprised of 14 interconnected pieces, and with hands able to tell time accurately to the sub-second. This computer simulation demonstrates that though mutation is random, and therefore unlikely to produce purposive, ordered complexity, the same is not true of evolution as a whole. Selection, by acting on variation, ratchets this process forward, and allows evolution to act, quite literally in this case, as a blind watchmaker.

The second prototypical argument made against evolution is that of irreducible complexity. The basis of this objection is that, in addition to being complex, biological structures are comprised of interacting parts that depend on one another to function. According to evolutionary theory, biological structures evolve one step at a time, with each step being more adaptive than the previous. But if the parts of a structure are interdependent in their overall function, then they are useless until the entire structure has been formed. So how can such structures have evolved? According to proponents of intelligent design, they must not have, and the presence of irreducibly complex surely refutes evolution.

Perhaps the most famously cited example of an irreducibly complex structure is the eye. Creationist Jonathan Sarfati, for instance, has insisted that its many complex parts, such as the lens, iris, and transparent humor, each rely on one another to produce vision, and thus the eye could not have evolved one part at a time. This claim, however, is simply untrue. The fact of the matter is that the evolution of the eye is well understood by biologists today. Over the past two decades, numerous biologists have studied the origin of the vertebrate eye, and have been successful in mapping out its evolution via several functional, intermediate stages (see for the details of this interesting research). With this evidence in hand, modern science has been able to debunk the notion that the eye is irreducibly complex.

Of course, proponents of intelligent design have pointed to other biological phenomena, too, as cases of irreducible complexity. Michael Behe, for instance, insisted that the blood clotting pathway, and the system of proteins that power the bacterial flagellum, are both irreducibly complex. However, plausible evolutionary pathways for the evolution of both of these have been proposed. And given the success of modern biology in resolving similar questions, I see no reason to doubt that definite answers about the evolution of these two phenomena will soon be found.

As the argument over the irreducible complexity of the eye demonstrates, creationists have tended to prey upon gaps in the knowledge of current biology. They insist that whenever our current biological understanding is unable to completely explain a phenomenon, it is evidence that God must have done it. The trouble with this sort of argument is also the resounding strength of scientific progress: it never stands still. Biologists are continually explaining more and more about the natural world in natural terms; the gaps in our knowledge are constantly closing.

For reasons such as this, the creationist arguments of irreducible complexity and of the inability of evolution to produce order have been rejected by the scientific community at large – and rightfully so. These arguments do not shed any real doubt on the ability of evolution to explain the ordered complexity of living things, and they do not breathe any new life into the teleological argument. Evolution has succeeded, while the teleological argument has failed.

Evolution as the Designer

Bearing these facts in mind, I believe that recognizing evolution as the designing force behind life is valuable, first and foremost, because the truth is important. The very point of scientific investigation is to gain a better understanding of the phenomena we observe around us. We are only doing this properly if our attempts lead us to form accurate beliefs about the natural world. The fact that both evidence and logic point to evolution as an incontrovertible explanation for the ordered complexity of life ought to therefore be enough for it to garner our acceptance.

This aside, I believe that accepting evolution is important because it informs us about the nature of living things. As Jean-Paul Sartre illustrated with his paper-knife analogy, the purpose of an object is derived from the intention of its creator. When a paper-knife was created by a human designer, it was intended to be used for opening letters. Consequently, such is the purpose of this item. But as reason and biological evidence instructs us, this analogy does not apply to living things. The order and complexity that we see in life is the not the product of deliberate design, but is instead the result of evolution, a natural process that operates without intention. As a result, we cannot derive any purpose from the mindless natural forces that are responsible for our “design”.

This is not a scientific principle, mind you, but I think it is a valuable philosophical lesson. By supplanting the teleological argument, evolutionary theory refutes the notion of telos. It reveals to us the absence of a pre-determined end or cosmological goal for living things. And thus, I believe evolution instructs us that purpose and direction in life is our own to make.

References and Further Reading

(2011, April 5). Evolution IS a Blind Watchmaker [Video file]. Retrieved from

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Bergman, Jerry. 2005 “Are ‘defective’ knee joints evidence for Darwinism?” Papers 19 (1): 107-112.

Dawkins, Richard. “Creationism: God’s Gift to the Ignorant.” The Times May 2005.

Dawkins, Richard. “Introduction: the Illusion of Design.” Natural History Nov. 2005.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Toronto: Bantam Books, 2006.

Dawkins, Richard. The Greatest Show on Earth. Toronto: Free Press, 2009.

“Evolution of the Eye.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 28 03 2011. Web. Retrieved 4 April 2011, from

Fernald, Russell. 1997. “The evolution of eyes”. Brain and Behavioural Evolution 50 (4): 253–59.

Hume, David. “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Online Reader. Project Gutenberg, 20 Jun. 2009. Web. Retrieved 29 Mar 2011, from

“Irreducible Complexity.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 29 03 2011. Web. Retrieved 26 Mar 2011, from

“Intelligent Design.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 29 03 2011. Web. Retrieved 28 Mar 2011, from

Lloyd, Geoffrey. Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Lloyd, Geoffrey. Greek Science After Aristotle. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973.

Sarfati, Jonathan. “Irreducible Complexity.” Refuting Evolution 2000. Web. Retrieved April 5 2011, from

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre 1989. Web. Retrieved 7 Apr 2011 from

“Summa Theologica.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 29 03 2011. Web. Retrieved 3 April 2011, from

“Teleological Argument.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 28 03 2011. Web. Retrieved Mar 30 2011, from

“Watchmaker Analogy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 08 03 2011. Web. Retrieved Mar 29, 2011, from

The design debate: why evolution succeeds where the teleological argument fails – Part 3

September 4, 2011 5 comments

Evolution as an Alternative to Design

I base this claim on the fact that evolution provides a mechanism by which life, in all of its order and complexity, can be the product of sheerly physical laws. As Richard Dawkins outlined in his 1986 book “The Blind Watchmaker,” Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection describes how mindless natural forces can come to imitate deliberate design.

This argument begs a look into Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which was built on the three following premises. Variation, now known to arise via mutation, meant that different organisms had different traits. Heritability, now understood to occur via the transmission of genes from parent to offspring, meant that this variation would be passed on from one generation to another. Finally, differential fitness, the notion that some organisms would have more reproductive success than others, meant that some of these variants would leave more descendents than their conspecifics. Over the vast course of geologic time, this meant that those traits that increase reproductive success would be passed on more frequently than others. As a result, populations of living things would, over time, evolve to be better adapted to their surroundings.

This theory of evolution, built upon these three premises, is capable of explaining how mindless physical laws can produce the ordered complexity we see in living things. Mutation is a change in the genetic blueprints of an organism, and is capable of expanding or altering the genome in ways that can increase the complexity of an organism one step at a time. Heritability provides a means of preserving these changes across generations, allowing for evolution to operate over the span of billions of years. Finally, selection acting on differential fitness can direct this process so that organisms with the most adaptive blueprints will be more common in each subsequent generation. Sophistication and a tendency to act towards ends such as growth, survival, and reproduction, are advantageous traits for an organism to incorporate into its blueprint. Consequently, the properties of order, complexity, and purposiveness were selected for and thus evolved in living things. In this way, evolution is quite capable of creating the illusion of design.

Not only is evolution an alternative explanation for the apparent design of living things, but I believe that it is a better one. First and foremost, I base this assertion on the fact that the premises of evolutionary theory are consistent with current knowledge about the biological world. Mutation, heritability, and differential fitness are all observable facts. In addition to being founded in sound premises, evolutionary theory is also buttressed by an unshakable body of evidence gathered from numerous sources. Fossil records, for instance, provide a document of the gradual changes in the phenotypes of species over the course of millions of years. Another type of evidence comes from homologous traits, biological features that function in different ways but which have similar underlying structures. These provide evidence that many disparate organisms share common ancestry. Yet more convincing support comes from cases of biologists observing evolution in action. Take, for instance, the emergence of new and more virulent strains of viruses in response to vaccinations, the evolution of bacterial resistances to antibiotics and other medications, or recorded increases in the average body size of bird populations following harsh winters – these are all documented examples of evolution taking effect in the world around us. The list goes on, and the evidence for evolution is extensive enough to fill entire books. As such, there is no way to do it justice here. But it suffices to say that the biological world is replete with evidence that points, unequivocally, towards evolution as the scientific explanation for the characteristics of living things.

Biological evidence also directly contradicts what we would expect living things to be like if they were the product of a designer. This is because the “design” of many biological structures is rather poor. One example of this is the human knee. Our knee shares its structure with those of numerous other mammals, for whom it performs quite well. But as bipedal organisms, we humans use our knees in very different ways from our quadruped cousins. As a result, the human knee joint is highly susceptible to injury, and often becomes weakened or damaged as we age.

This affliction makes sense with an evolutionary interpretation. The structure of the human knee is probably an artifact from our evolutionary past, when the ancestors of the human species walked on four legs. And because the vulnerability of our knees takes effect as we get older, it tends to only be problematic once we are finished breeding. Consequently, there hasn’t been any strong selective pressure to alter the structure of this joint. Thus, its flaws can be understood as the result of evolutionary negligence.

However, if we assume that life was designed, then this imperfection does not make sense. An intelligent designer engineering the human knee would not have to deal with evolutionary constraints, and would certainly know better than to give us a model that begins to wear out after a few decades. If the human knee was designed, then it seems to serve as an indication of an unintelligent designer. More likely, the knee is the product of evolution. This counter to the teleological argument, known as the argument from poor design, can also be made regarding structures such as the vertebrate eye (which is inside out), and the troublesome arrangement of human wisdom teeth, among many others. As these examples go to show, the flawed design of numerous biological structures provides further evidence that evolution is a more effective explanation than intelligent design for the characteristics of living things.

One further reason for the superiority of evolution is that it is a more parsimonious explanation for life’s order and complexity than deliberate design. According to the law of parsimony, when assessing two competing explanations, the simpler one should be preferred. The proposition of a divine designer requires the existence of a complex and supremely intelligent being. Furthermore, it presumes that this being worked through supernatural means – all of which are completely unbeknownst to modern science – in order to produce ordered and complex life. These are rather considerable assumptions, and are quite beyond the scope of any empirical justification. Evolution, by contrast, assumes remarkably little. Darwin’s premises – heritability, variation, and differential fitness – were only three, and have each been empirically verified time and time again. Evolution is thus a far simpler account for the ordered complexity of living things, and it explains at least as much. Consequently, the law of parsimony rules in the favour of evolution, providing yet another way in which it is superior to the hypothesis of intelligent design.

The design debate: why evolution succeeds where the teleological argument fails – Part 2

August 25, 2011 1 comment

The Formalized Teleological Argument

The first true arguments from design (those that argue for the existence of an intelligent creator) originated during the scholastic period, shortly after the turn of the second millennium AD. Perhaps the most well known of these is Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument, which he presented in the thirteenth century as part of his “Summa Theologica.” Aquinas, just like Aristotle, perceived an apparent purposiveness to living things, and believed that this proved the existence an intelligent creator. As a part of his argument, Aquinas compared life to an arrow in mid-flight. An arrow is mindless, he reasoned, but it flies towards a target because it has been directed by an intelligent archer. Similarly, he argued, living things – even those without minds or intelligence – continuously pursue ends, and must therefore have been directed by an intelligent being.

This latter part of Aquinas’ argument insists that, as with the arrow, the purpose and direction inherent in unintelligent life must be due to an intelligent force. Thus, his argument is predicated on the critical assumption that the purposiveness of living things cannot have arisen via mindless natural forces. This assumption, together with the direction in the natural world, necessitates the existence of an intelligent creator.

A similar presumption exists in the teleological argument proposed by William Paley in 1802. Adapting Cicero’s comparison of life to a timepiece, Paley argued for the existence of God using his own watchmaker analogy. This can be illustrated by comparing a watch to a stone. By looking at a watch, we can see that it is comprised of numerous intricate and detailed parts that have been precisely pieced together – it has order and complexity to it. What’s more, the parts of a watch function in such a way that it tells us the time. This utility is an indication that a watch acts towards an end. And of course, we know that any watch is the product of an intelligent human designer. Thus, our analysis of the watch suggests that order, complexity, and purpose are characteristics of designed objects. By contrast, if we look at a stone we notice that it does not possess the same degree of ordered complexity. A stone typically appears to be just a lump of earthen material. Moreover, there is no indication that a simple stone has any purpose to it. A stone itself does not perform any function or act towards any end; it is instead quite inanimate. And of course, we all know that a simple stone is the product of mindless, natural forces. Thus, we might conclude that lack of ordered complexity, and lack of purpose are characteristic of objects that have not been designed.

This comparison illustrates a crucial piece of logic in Paley’s teleological argument: that all objects can be divided into two categories. One of these categories is for designed objects, which have order, complexity, and purpose; the other is for un-designed objects, which lack each of these qualities. According to Paley’s teleological argument, since life can be seen to have order, complexity, and purposiveness, it fits into the first category, and therefore must have been designed. Consequently, an intelligent designer must exist.

This logic is presented in different ways in different versions of the teleological argument, but the underlying line of reasoning is the same in each instance. The arguments of Paley and of Aquinas, as well as the conjecture of both Cicero and Aristotle, all pre-suppose that order, complexity, and purpose – in short, the appearance of design – cannot have resulted from mindless natural forces, and are instead the product of an intelligent designer. This is the essence of the teleological argument, and underlies all of its forms.

Refutations of the Argument

Counter-arguments against the argument from design have come in three different varieties. The first two of these do not deal directly with the biology at hand, and so I will only touch on them briefly. The third, however, delves straight into how the teleological argument treats living things, and so it is this third objection that will be the primary basis of my criticism.

The first type of complaint lobbied against the argument from design is that it does not provide an adequate resolution to its own problem. According to the teleological argument, ordered complexity indicates design, which in turn necessitates the existence of a designer. This logic is applied to living things, and it is asserted that an intelligent designer must be responsible for life. However, a designer is nearly always more complex than the things that it designs (indeed, a human is exceedingly more complicated than any watch or other timepiece). It therefore stands to reason that whatever being designed life must be even more complex than a human or any other life form. If complexity indicates design, then this begs the question of who designed the designer. Of course, one could always argue that there is another designer behind the first, but this being would be yet more complex, and only magnify the issue further. Layer after layer, this solution leads to an infinite regression of ever more complicated designers and is therefore no solution at all. It is a problem that was noted in the eighteenth century by the philosopher David Hume, in “Dialogues concerning Natural Religion,” and it means that the teleological argument does not provide a viable explanation for the ordered complexity of the natural world.

A second flaw in the argument from design, and specifically concerning Paley’s watchmaker argument, is that it makes use of faulty analogy. It is perfectly possible to distinguish between the characteristics of objects of human design and those that are the result of mindless natural forces, because we can readily find examples of both in the world around us. The case of comparing a watch to a stone is a perfect example of this. We cannot, however, distinguish in the same way between the properties of a designed universe and one that is not designed. The problem lies in the fact that all human experience is confined to the single universe that we inhabit. We have no basis with which to judge our universe against other types of universes, and thus cannot reason if ours is a designed one or not. This, too, was described by Hume, in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding,” and it means that the watchmaker analogy cannot be applied to our universe, nor the living things that it contains.

The final objection to the teleological argument, and the one that I am most interested in espousing, is that the argument from design presents a false dichotomy. The teleological argument depends upon the assumption that all objects can be placed into one of the two categories described above. In doing so, it ignores the fact that a third category of objects exists. Taking the example of crystals, these objects have rigorous order to their chemical composition, and can often grow into elaborate and somewhat complex structures. The same can be said about snowflakes. But both of these objects are the products of natural causes. As these examples go to show, the properties of order and complexity can result from mindless natural processes, and thus are not necessarily an indication of a designer. This demonstrates that there is a third type of category into which objects can be placed: one for those that are ordered and complex, but not designed. I believe that the teleological argument fails because living things belong in this third category.

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

August 22, 2011 Leave a comment

(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.