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Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thinking about the Design Hypothesis

Darwin changed the ground-rules for the philosophical design debate in The Origin of Species. Reversing the proper burden of proof concerning design, he placed it on those who posit design and awarded the presumption of truth to his own bold but risky extrapolation from micro-evolution to macro-evolution, although this depended upon a fallacious shift between saying that he saw no barrier to this extrapolation and saying that there was no barrier (this shift constituted an ‘argument from ignorance’).

Many believers in design subsumed Darwin’s scientific theory within the design hypothesis, pointing out that material process and teleology are logically compatible, highlighting evidence for design in the preconditions of evolution (such as the fine-tuning of the big bang) and even in the overall process of evolution. This project, embraced by influential scholars such as F.R. Tennant and Richard Swinburne, became known as the ‘wider teleology’. Hence, although Darwin didn’t end the design debate, he successfully limited the territory within which debating design was an academically acceptable activity.

Darwin started the trend for scientists to offer vague gestures at a designer in the final paragraph of their books. However, following the rise of Intelligent Design Theory in the late twentieth century, a growing number of philosophers and scientists are calling Darwin’s epistemological bluff. These ‘design theorists’ are arguing, on the basis of advances in information theory and biological knowledge, that nature exhibits certain types of complexity that are both effective barriers to Darwin’s macro-evolutionary extrapolation and reliable indicators of design. For example, ‘irreducibly complex’ molecular machines such as the bacterial flagellum cannot (by definition) gradually evolve via any direct evolutionary pathway, and the odds against their gradual evolution via indirect evolutionary pathways means that they appear to be examples of ‘specified complexity’. In our experience, the only adequate explanation for specified complexity is intelligent design.

On the one hand intelligent design subsumes all the genuine explanatory power of evolution without excluding evidentially motivated explanation by reference to design (a type of explanation considered perfectly ‘proper’ in numerous scientific fields) in advance of looking at the evidence. On the other hand intelligent design supplements the insights of the wider teleology (‘specified complexity’ is an analytical tool applicable to the pre-conditions of evolution) without buying into the assumption that evidence for design can’t exist within the biotic realm.

With these developments, Darwinism joins the distinguished list of scientific theories that have been shown to be right up to a point. As intelligent design continues to gain ground it will increasingly be taken as a scientific starting point for philosophical debates about which metaphysical interpretation of the design inference is best. Theories of infinite naturalistic resources will battle it out with theories of both natural and supernatural designers of various kinds. But hasn’t that always been the way?

The above article is the previously unpublished work of Peter S Williams, MA, MPhil, who is Assistant Professor in Communication and Worldviews, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, NLA University College, Norway.

Website: Twitter: @Williams_PeterS

Image credit:
Thumbnail - composite image: Darwin -, confirmed to be licensed under the terms of "No known copyright restrictions".
Thinking silhouette - courtesy CC0 Public Domain.


Peter S. Williams, 26/08/2016