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Designing Minds

How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors?

Edward A. Wasserman, Mark S. Blumberg

The basic argument of intelligent design was famously set forth in the watchmaker analogy of William Paley in 1802: The complexity and functionality of a watch imply a watchmaker; analogously, the complexity and functionality of living things also imply a designer, albeit one vastly more potent than a mere watchmaker. This argument rests on a simple analogy between the design of human artifacts and the design of natural forms. For the analogy to work, we must first accept that we design our inventions with purpose and foresight. On this point, most evolutionists and creationists agree. What distinguishes these two camps is that, when accounting for the origin of living things, proponents of intelligent design summon a divine creator, whereas evolutionists credit natural selection. Thus, evolutionists share with creationists the same understanding of design; they differ only in how they invoke it.

Discussions of design are prominent in the writings of evolutionists from Darwin to Dawkins. Pondering the implications of his theory of natural selection for Paley’s “old argument of design in nature,” Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography that we can no longer argue that “the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” A century later, Richard Dawkins pursued the issue of design and divided the world “into things that look designed (such as birds and airliners) and things that don’t (rocks and mountains).” He further divided those things that look designed into “those that really are designed (submarines and tin openers) and those that aren’t (sharks and hedgehogs).”

What did Dawkins mean when he wrote of things that “really are designed”? In The Blind Watchmaker, he provided a clear answer: “All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics….A true watchmaker has foresight: He designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye” [emphasis added].

Such uncritical acceptance of purpose and foresight in human design may well be unwise. After all, do we really know how door hinges and can openers were created? In fact, we may know less about the origins of these everyday contrivances than we know about the origins of bivalve shells, sharks and hedgehogs. By attributing the origins of animals and artifacts to different kinds of designers—one blind, the other intelligent—both Darwin and Dawkins lapse into the same kind of “designer thinking” that ensnared creationists like Paley. Such thinking rests on the familiarity and deceptive simplicity of mentalistic explanations of behavior, as when Dawkins uncritically appeals to the foresight and purpose of the watchmaker rather than entertaining possibly deeper questions about the origins of the watch. He may be giving human designers too much credit.

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