Against the Argument from Design


Against the Argument from Design


I have a parakeet, Emma, who developed a rather nasty infection about a year ago. Her feet became encrusted with some horrible-looking growth and her beak was discolored and deformed. I took her to the vet who diagnosed a parasite quite common in parakeets (but only in parakeets)—a tiny mite that lives in the feet and beak. A series of injections cured Emma of this ailment by exterminating the invading parasite. This made me think about the argument from design. That argument celebrates the beauty and ingenuity of design found in plants and animals, and argues that only an intelligent designer could explain this excellence of design. It’s like finding a watch in nature and inferring the existence of an intelligent and mighty watchmaker. But don’t parasites put a crimp in that argument? Who would design a creature susceptible to what Emma went through? I don’t mean ethically (though that is a question); I mean rationally. Isn’t it just bad design to make something so vulnerable to breakdown—why not create a parakeet that can’t be hijacked in this way? Suppose the watchmaker constructs a watch that is vulnerable to invasion by a common fungus that clogs up the works when it would be perfectly possible to build in a device that keeps the fungus out. Wouldn’t that be a better design? It is simply unintelligent to design a watch with such a flaw. True, the parakeet itself exhibits excellence of design, but making it the prey of a parasite is a design weakness. It is not that the designer can’t avoid such a flaw because it is an inevitable side effect of good parakeet design; it would be perfectly easy to keep the parasite at bay (after all, no other bird suffers from it). It looks like sloppy workmanship, sheer oversight, rank incompetence. It would be reasonable to infer that there wasno intelligent designer, given the lack of intelligence displayed by the alleged design product. Of course, we know that to be the case, given Darwinian theory—this is just a case of evolved inter-species competition. But what is striking is that the argument from design overlooks such failures of intelligent design, concentrating instead on traits that are good for the animal and beautiful in themselves. There is nothing good or beautiful about the deformed beak and feet suffered by Emma—if that were intentionally installed by a designer, we would think he or she an exceptionally incompetent designer (assuming good intentions). So really the argument from design proves that that there isno intelligent designer of nature—just as Darwin teaches us. From good design we might infer an intelligent designer (except for the alternative explanation provided by Darwin), but from bad design we can only infer the non-existence of an intelligent designer such as God is supposed to be. We might try to refurbish the argument to deliver only sometype of designer, albeit an inept and careless one; but clearly that would not get us to the conclusion envisaged by the classic argument from design. If God designed Emma in such a way as to be susceptible to the mite that plagued and deformed her, he is not the God we had supposed him to be. He is a watchmaker who should be banned from the watchmaking profession. Even if we didn’t have Darwin’s theory to fall back on, the argument from design is therefore flawed on its own terms; if anything it proves that nature is unintelligently designed.[1]


Colin M

[1]Of course, that is just what it is: the process of natural selection is not an intelligence-driven process. It may mimic intelligent design in some respects, but if you look deeper there are signs of the lack of intelligence everywhere (e.g. human anatomy).


14 responses to “Against the Argument from Design”

  1. says:

    “Nature is red in tooth and claw”, as was remarked lo’ those many years ago—kind of relevant to modern academia, no? The disproof of Intelligent Design, as well as of Moral Design, is too obvious to argue. Give us something rather more spiritually uplifting, pertinent, say, to the rise of Coco Gauff at Wimbledon.

  2. Giulio Katis says:

    The modern version of intelligent design I suppose involves puzzling over the apparent fine-tuning of physical constants.

    It’s interesting how Darwin challenges intelligent design more broadly than just it’s application to life: Darwin -> there are things a species will never be able to understand -> appearance of mysteries to a species does not imply Intelligent Design.

    • Are mysteries design defects or just the inevitable by-product of intelligence? Chomsky talks as if he believes the latter. For a theist a mystery is part of God’s (mysterious) design, so neither a defect nor a necessity of nature.

  3. says:

    Physical constants are what they are, equally probable or improbable, originally, as any other. Even if they were in some sense physically or metaphysically necessary, at the beginning, the evolution of our species, given that necessity, was still utterly contingent—so too the evolution of our supposedly unique intellectual profile, both exalting and blinkered as it is.

  4. says:

    Please, chocolate was inevitable.

  5. says:

    Aahh,well. If Coco had to be bounced from the tournament, I’m glad it was at the hands of Simona Halep. Kind of a sympathetic, elfin, look about her —just like my new cat. Halep had a tough road to her first Grand Slam title. Her match today, against a player with a winning record against her, was superior. Else-while, the curious combination of Murray and Serena, in mixed doubles, could not be more compelling. A full stadium on Center court today confirms it.

    • It’s an interesting Wimbledon this year. Both Simona and Coco are very sympathetic figures, with an elfin appeal. We can look forward to Coco’s future appearances. I thought of her when I played yesterday.

      • Dedicated readers may be interested in two videos I just posted on youtube–about drumming! You can find them by searching under “Colin McGinn drumming tutorial”. They are self-explanatory.

  6. says:

    That’s pretty good drumming technique. I wonder whether the tremor I’ve developed in my right hand would help or hinder. But drums aren’t my bag, really One could say neither is guitar-playing, but I’ve stuck with it—to the sonic irritation of all former and current room-mates. Good to see Halep through to the Finals at Wimbledon, but I have ghastly premonitions of her being crushed by Serena.

    • My legacy: the easy one-handed drum roll. Serena versus Simona–should be fascinating (the latter at the top of her game and a big favorite of percussionists everywhere).

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