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Designing Minds


The authors are slightly correct, but mostly wrong. To the extent that they are correct, they have been pre-empted by the concept of the 'meme', which was intoduced by Richard Dawkins. Perhaps the authors should re-read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and pay close attention to the chapter on memes. (I am assuming they have read it, since they choose to critique Dawkins' concept of 'design'). Human invention certainly undergoes a kind of evolution with successful designs/ideas/behaviors being preserved -- and many of the innovations which bring variation into this process may be random. No one familiar with the concept of memes, or cultural evolution, would dispute that this happens.

The authors suggest that this process of random trials culled by error is sufficient to explain the evolution of human inventions and behaviors. What the authors fail to recognize is that a large portion of this trial-and-error process occurs entirely within the mind. We can imagine a goal, and imagine steps for achieving that goal. The vast majority of possible routes to the goal are so absurdly unlikely to succeed they are rejected without even coming to conscious awareness. The less obviously unsuccessful candidate solutions are considered consciously and most of these are also discarded. Quite often, a novel solution to a problem can be arrived at that has virtual certanty of success. Other times, candiate solutions may need to be manifest in behavior (build it, do it) to see if they succeed. A viable model for creative problem solving is one in which some mental processes generate more or less random variations of an idea, while other mental processes test those ideas in a mental model of reality. The end result of this process is quite often an idea which is successful the first time it is implemented. An excellent example from my own experience is computer programming. I often write whole programs from scratch, to solve new problems, which work the first time. I certainly do not make random trial-and-error changes to some existing program until I get something that works to solve the new problem. Engineers can take ideas about the behavior of known components, mentally put them together in novel ways, and have high confidnece or even certaintly that the new configuration will work. When the first propeller driven ship was built, it was not and accidental discovery. It combined the concept of steam power with a novel use of the water screw for populsion (rather than for pumping water). The important innovation here was made in the mind of the inventor, with full understanding that it would work. The idea of using the water screw may itself have been serendipitous, but the most important trial-and-error processes that resulted in a new ship design occurred within the mind of the inventor, not in a series of failed attempts to build better ships (faster, safer, more fule efficient).

When we say an object is 'designed' we are merely recognizing that a large portion of the random-variation-with-selection went on entirely within the mind(s) of the inventor(s). Quite often the inventor does have a particular goal in mind as well -- in fact it is our goals which set the criterion for success/failure of a design.

The authors are attempting to manufacture a controversy with evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins by proposing that human inventions evolve much as biological organisms do. But evolutionists have been talking about the evolution of 'memes' since Dawkins introduced the concept in the 70's, and have talked about "cultural evolution" for even longer. Furthermore, the authors' propose a mechanism of this evolution of invention which is clearly insufficient to explain the everyday experience of engineers, casual puzzle solvers, or anyone who has simply planned a route from their home to a previously unfamiliar location. Design is simply what we call it when the form of an object (or behavior) evolves mostly within the minds of the inventors. For every surviving line of decent in biological evolution, their are millions of dead ends. If the same were true of human invention, we would long ago have been crushed under the weight of our countless failed contraptions. Fortunately, the overwhelming bulk of those failures have no more substance or permanence than a passing thought.

Finally, I am uncertain what kind of bridge the authors think they are making between creationists and evolutionists. Creationists are not going to be any happier with this notion of evolving designs than they are with evolving organisms. Evolutionists are not in a dispute with creationists over where to draw the line between what is designed and what only appears to be designed. We are in a dispute with creationist over whether biological organisms were designed. Asserting that even human inventions were not 'designed' does nothing to free evolutionists from this dispute.

posted by Scott Graham
April 18, 2010


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