The Language of Evolution: Do we want to use the d-word?

PZ Myers notes that Ken Miller is making a case for the term design in evolutionary biology. Miller simply claims that “design” comes from the usual, expected evolutionary processes (Natural Selection, etc.). PZ is not buying this bill of goods, and neither am I. One way to address this question might be to ask: “What would Darwin do?”

Darwin uses the word quite often in The Voyage (a text I’m closely examining these days) but with only one exception that I found (my search was not perfect) this is typically in connection with cultural things …. the design of a road, for instance. One of the few exceptions I found is where he contrasts the features of a landscape “designed” by humans vs. those “designed” by nature. So he’s being a bit poetic.

In The Origin he uses the term to contrast the very perspective he strives to overturn, in this passage from Page 570 of a 1969 edition:

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for thus only can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

Young naturalists reading this: Commit this paragraph to memory. Facilitate Darwin’s hope.

Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, wrote of design in Zoonomia. There is a wonderful passage that is humbling to read in the 21st century … this is found in a 1794 volume … cataloging a plethora of observations of animal adaptations, contrasting their nature with adaptations found (and previously discussed) in plants.

The colours of insects and many smaller animals contribute to conceal them from the larger ones which prey upon them. Caterpillars which feed on leaves are generally green; earth-worms the colour of the earth which they inhabit; butterflies, which frequent flowers, are coloured like them; small birds which frequent hedges have greenish backs like the leaves, and light coloured bellies like the sky, and are hence less visible to the hawk, who passes under them or over them. Those birds which are much amongst flowers, as the goldfinch (Fringilla carduelis), are furnished with vivid colours. The lark, partridge, hare, are the colour of dry vegetables or earth on which they rest. And frogs vary their colour with the mud of the streams which they frequent; and those which live on trees are green. Fish, which are generally suspended in water, and swallows, which are generally suspended in air have their backs the colour of the distant ground, and their bellies of the sky. In the colder climates many of these become white during the existence of the snows. Hence there is apparent design in the colours of animals, whilst those of vegetables seem consequent to the other properties of the materials which possess them. (transcribed in Krause 1879)

This is the same guy who said:

Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

In other words, E. Darwin was an evolutionist, and when he spoke of “design” he was prenumerating the concept of adaption.

In contrast, if we search through the works of Paley, who really first articulated the concept of Intelligent Design (modern Intelligent Design proponents claim to have added something new, but they have not) we find the term “design” everywhere. This is owing both to Paley’s adherence to the concept of divine design, as well as Paley’s astounding repetitiveness. Paley, in Natural Theology says the same thing, over and over and over again. He is the master of redundancy.

Paley explicitly uses “design” to implicate god, as in his famous “watchmaker” model, in which, when we observe a finely made watch, we infer a designer…

the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Paley rails on and on about the significance of his watch for much of his book…

There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; arrangement, without any thing capable of arranging; subserviency and relation to a purpose, without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, and executing their office, in accomplishing that end, without the end ever having been contemplated, or the means accommodated to it.

But eventually gets to speaking specifically of design in nature, giving a few examples such as the complex workings of the mammalian ear.

Paley spends time also on distinguishing where design is specifically in the form of “rules” which, when ascent or interrupted, produce errors. This is getting vaguely close, roughly, to what we would now call developmental processes (misunderstood by Paley, of course). Paley on skin:

When I speak of the rule being necessary, I mean the formation of the skin upon the surface being produced by a set of causes constituted without design, and acting, as all ignorant causes must act, by a general operation. Were this the case, no account could be given of the operation being suspended at the fingers’ ends, or on the back part of the fingers, and not on the fore part. On the other hand; if the deviation were accidental, an error, an anomalism; were it any thing else than settled by intention; we should meet with nails upon other parts of the body. They would be scattered over the surface, like warts or pimples.

The language that we use, including the terms we select to express evolutionary concepts, should be thoughtful. Ken Miller is a thoughtful guy, and one wonders what he’s thinking. We know he is supportive of the concept of framing and it is actually an attractive idea to usurp the words of one’s enemies much like one might take over their gardens, sleep with their women, or eat their children. But I’d prefer to be less midieval and simply use the words we need to use in the way we need to use them. The discussion of terminology is not pedantic, it is part of the process of knowing and learning.

The bottom line is this: The word “design” as a whole word or as a root occurs 150 times in Paley’s natural theology. It occurs as a whole word or as a root six times in Darwin’s Origin (first edition).

The word “design” is certainly used quite a bit in modern writing on evolutionary biology (aside from its use in the term “intelligent design”). Sometimes this use is probably not related to the way we mean it here, and thus may be appropriate, but often it is used as a rough synonym for “pattern” or “patterning,” such as in the title of a paper on insect and spider fibers: “Conservation of Essential Design Features in Coiled Coil Silks” (Sutherland et al 2007). A better title may have been “Conserved Patterning in Coiled Coil Silks.” (I won’t address this odd term “coiled coil…”)

Indeed, if you Google for “design evolution biology” and exclude “web interior graphic” (to reduce chaff), you get about 217,000 hits. If you also exclude “intelligent” to get rid of “intelligent design” then the hit yield drops to 179,000. This indicates a strong presence of the term “design” as part of “intelligent design” but also the widespread use of the term “design” in normal science writing (most of the first several dozen hits consist of standard biology writing, including the coiled coil example I cite above).

So, I reject design. Bot the intelligent kind and the use of the word in standard biological writing.

Let’s end with the passage from The Voyage where Darwin uses “design” in reference to nature, not because it adds to the argument, but because it is yet another humbling example of how so much of what we think we are discovering now was initially at least mentioned, if not always totally understood, generations ago.

My guides having finished their pipes, we continued our walk. The path led through the same undulating country, the whole uniformly clothed as before with fern. On our right hand, we had a serpentine river, the banks of which were fringed with trees, and here and there on the hill-sides there were clumps of wood. The whole scene, in spite of its green colour, bore rather a desolate aspect. The sight of so much fern impresses the mind with an idea of sterility. This, however, is not the case; for wherever the fern grows thick and breast-high, the land by tillage becomes productive. Some of the residents, with much probability think that all this extensive open country was originally covered with forests, and that it has been cleared by the aid of fire. It is said that by digging in the barest spots, lumps of the kind of resin which flows from the kauri pine, are frequently found. The natives had an evident motive in thus clearing the country; for in such parts the fern, formerly so staple an article of food, flourishes best. The almost entire absence of associated grasses, which forms so remarkable a feature in the vegetation of this island, may perhaps be accounted for, by the open parts being the work of man, while nature had designed the country for forest land.

Darwin, C. R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832-1836. London: Henry Colburn.

Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. 1st edition, 1st issue.

Krause, E., Erasmus Darwin. Translated from the German by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin. London: John Murray.

Paley, W. 1809. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition London: Printed for J. Faulder.

Sutherland, Tara, Sarah Weisman, Holly E. Trueman, Alagacone Sriskantha, John W. H. Trueman and Victoria S. Haritos. 2007. Conservation of Essential Design Features in Coiled Coil Silks. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2007 24(11):2424-2432; doi:10.1093/molbev/msm171.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.