The Illusion of Design

By Dawkins, Richard | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Illusion of Design


Dawkins, Richard, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE WORLD IS DIVIDED INTO THINGS that look as though somebody designed them (wings and wagon-wheels, hearts and televisions), and things that just happened through the unintended workings of physics (mountains and rivers, sand dunes, and solar systems). Mount Rushmore belonged firmly in the second category until the sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved it into the first. Charles Darwin moved in the other direction. He discovered a way in which the unaided laws of physics--the laws according to which things "just happen"--could, in the fullness of geologic time, come to mimic deliberate design. The illusion of design is so successful that to this day most Americans (including, significantly, many influential and rich Americans) stubbornly refuse to believe it is an illusion. To such people, if a heart (or an eye or a bacterial flagellum) looks designed, that's proof enough that it is designed.

No wonder Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," was moved to chide himself on reading the Origin of Species. "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that." And Huxley was the least stupid of men. The breathtaking power and reach of Darwin's idea--extensively documented in the field, as Jonathan Weiner reports in "Evolution in Action" [See November 2005 issue of Natural History magazine]--is matched by its audacious simplicity. You can write it out in a phrase: nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary instructions for building embryos. Yet, given the opportunities afforded by deep time, this simple little algorithm generates prodigies of complexity, elegance, and diversity of apparent design. True design, the kind we see in a knapped flint, a jet plane, or a personal computer, turns out to be a manifestation of an entity--the human brain--that itself was never designed, but is an evolved product of Darwin's mill.

Paradoxically, the extreme simplicity of what the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett called Darwin's dangerous idea may be its greatest barrier to acceptance. People have a hard time believing that so simple a mechanism could deliver such powerful results.

The arguments of creationists, including those creationists who cloak their pretensions under the politically devious phrase "intelligent-design theory," repeatedly return to the same big fallacy. Such-and-such looks designed. Therefore it was designed. To pursue my paradox, there is a sense in which the skepticism that often greets Darwin's idea is a measure of its greatness.

Paraphrasing the twentieth-century population geneticist Ronald A. Fisher, natural selection is a mechanism for generating improbability on an enormous scale. Improbable is pretty much a synonym for unbelievable. Any theory that explains the highly improbable is asking to be disbelieved by those who don't understand it.

Yet the highly improbable does exist in the real world, and it must be explained. Adaptive improbability--complexity--is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve and that natural selection, uniquely as far as science knows, does solve. In troth, it is intelligent design that is the biggest victim of the argument from improbability. Any entity capable of deliberately designing a living creature, to say nothing of a universe, would have to be hugely complex in its own right.

If, as the maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle mistakenly thought, the spontaneous origin of life is as improbable as a hurricane blowing through a junkyard and having the luck to assemble a Boeing 747, then a divine designer is the ultimate Boeing 747. The designer's spontaneous origin ex nihilo would have to be even more improbable than the most complex of his alleged creations. Unless, of course, he relied on natural selection to do his work for him! And in that case, one might pardonably wonder (though this is not the place to pursue the question), does he need to exist at all?

The achievement of nonrandom natural selection is to tame chance.

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