The Illusion of Design

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

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Illusion of Design
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.