Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker

Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker

Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker

Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker


More than two centuries ago, William Paley introduced his famous metaphor of the universe as a watch made by the Creator. For Paley, the exquisite structure of the universe necessitated a designer. Today, some 150 years since Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published, the argument of design is seeing a revival. This provocative work tells how Darwin left the door open for this revival--and at the same time argues for a new conceptual framework that avoids the problematic teleology inherent in Darwin's formulation of natural selection. In a wide-ranging discussion of the historical and philosophical dimensions of evolutionary theory from the ancient Greeks to today, John Reiss argues that we should look to the principle of the conditions for existence, first formulated before On the Origin of Species by the French paleontologist Georges Cuvier, to clarify the relation of adaptation to evolution. Reiss suggests that Cuvier's principle can help resolve persistent issues in evolutionary biology, including the proper definition of natural selection, the distinction between natural selection and genetic drift, and the meaning of genetic load. Moreover, he shows how this principle can help unite diverse areas of biology, ranging from quantitative genetics and the theory of the levels of selection to evo-devo, ecology, physiology, and conservation biology.


The metaphor of design, with the organism as artifact, is at the heart of
Darwinian evolutionary biology

—MICHAEL ruse, 2003, darwin and design

Many evolutionary biologists today are in the rather peculiar position of denying design in their battle with “intelligent design” proponents over the teaching of evolution in the schools, while at the same time they embrace a design metaphor for understanding the features of organisms. the basic structure of the approach is simple: because of past natural selection, organisms appear “as if” designed for the end of survival and reproduction, and thus we can think of them “as if” they were designed—but please don’t think that they actually were designed. This position seems uncomfortable, if not absurd.

The relation of current evolutionary biology to the “design problem” is indeed rather strange. We deny evolution any teleology, any goal-directedness; we are convinced that natural selection and mutation are mechanistic evolutionary processes, which can’t foresee the future. Yet we use past natural selection as a way to explain the current adaptedness of organisms, in much the same way that pre-Darwinian natural theologians invoked the past actions of the Creator—as exemplified by Paley’s (1802) famous metaphor of the Creator as divine watchmaker. To put this another way: the general position of evolutionists is that Darwin destroyed the design argument. the implication is that the design argument was valid in the absence of natural selection, that natural selection was needed to fill a void that existed prior to Darwin, a void previously filled by the Creator: “Paley was correct to choose design over chance, but he did not know that there was a natural as well as a transcendent source of design” (Scott 2005, 83).

What I attempt to show in this book is that the analogy between natural selection and a designer is both pernicious and unnecessary. the design argument was not valid before Darwin: it had been destroyed by Lucretius, Hume, and a host of . . .

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