Designer Explanations of Nature


Evolutionary Genetics Laboratory
Department of Zoology
School of Biological Sciences
University of Auckland
New Zealand

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (June 1992): 128.

It is clear in scripture that God is seen as Creator. The metaphor of God as a "Designer," however, has become ubiquitous and dogmatically defended by Christians in their attempts to explain nature. The metaphor of a Designer is distinct from the concept of a Creator, in that the concept of a Creator is the essential explanation of existence, while the concept of a Designer is a metaphor explaining the particulars of nature.

We contend that God is the Creator, but we disagree with the description or metaphor of a Designer, which sees the world having been designed in the same way that humans design artifacts. In this article we outline the history of what we call the Paley-Darwin legacy. We suggest that the concept of God, "the Designer," is similar to the concept of natural selection, the apparent "designer." Such similarity is not surprising, since the two concepts are the same metaphors under different guises. Although questioning design is not a central issue in creationism or neo-Darwinism, we believe there is a time and a place to question the so-called non-negotiables.

Where Did Design Come From?

Aristotle, a student of Plato who is sometimes said to be the "father" of modern biology, argued that nature does nothing in vain, that all things have a purpose. He distinguishes four causes which he thought necessary to explain the complexity of living beings. This causal inference rests upon the assumption that human designing is equivalent in kind to design seen in organisms, which is often likened to a builder constructing a house. The wood to build this house is the material cause (causa materialis); the force that was invested by the builder into his project is the efficient cause (causa efficiens). Before the builder starts his work, he must have some plan or idea for the house: the plan is the formal cause (causa formalis); and the intended use of the house is the final cause (causa finalis). The 17th century philosopher RenČ Descartes typifies this metaphor in his interpretation of the "designed universe," which has dominated Western thought ever since. Descartes saw the organic plus the inorganic world as a machine, a vast clockwork mechanism set in motion by God (Kenny, 1968). Organisms are cogwheels in this mechanism, each part functioning and designed to fulfill a particular task or purpose.

This perspective was extended in one of the most famous arguments for design, William Paley's watch and watchmaker analogy, from his book Natural Theology (1828). Paley saw a beautiful and exquisite design in nature, for which he crafts a detailed and persuasive "proof" for the existence of God, a designer. Paley imagined what his likely reaction would be if one day walking in a field he came across a watch and a stone. The stone would be accounted for as always having been there, but no one, he says, would account for the watch in the same way. An examination of the watch would reveal its precision and intricacy of "design," a mute testimony to the existence of a watchmaker. Paley then argued that the design in the watch is the same that exists in the works of nature, and he often compared biological form (for example, the human eye) with human artifacts, such as the telescope. Today many creationists argue in a similar manner. Wieland (1990), for example, suggests that there is a "clever engineering design in bones"; he likens these to the criss-cross members in the truss of a large bridge. The "braces" in vertebrate bones are placed so that they are exactly coordinated with the lines of stress. Redesign in bone structure to new directions of force that come from age or ability, says Wieland, is programmed in the DNA. To Wieland the mechanistic world of Descartes is probably appealing; the organism becomes the phenomena of the genome, programmed like a computer.

On the other hand, in the middle of the nineteenth century Charles Darwin (who in his youth was influenced by Paley) produced the first widely accepted non-theistic mechanism to account for the apparent design of organisms. Darwin argued that functional adaptations of organisms are not the result of God's hand, nor some mysterious Lamarckian drive, nor are they a simple matter of chance: they are the result of selection (Mayr, 1978). Darwin reinterpreted Paley's prevailing evidence for design, saying that design in nature anticipates the question to which natural selection is the answer. If artificial selection could supposedly manipulate the character of a given species, then, just as man adapted plants and animals to his needs, so nature has adapted them to their needs and environment. Thus, to Darwin, it was logical that those organisms with the most appropriate combination of characteristics for coping with the environment would have the greatest chance of surviving, reproducing, and leaving their traits. Natural selection, to Darwin and his successors, is an extrinsic ordering principle upon variation in populations, explaining the apparent fit of the organism to its environment (ie. design).

Richard Dawkins, a modern proponent of neo-Darwinism, is very explicit about design analysis, even deriving the title of his most recent book, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), from Paley's work. In the first chapter of this book Dawkins remarks on how scholarly Paley's writings are, and how he is right about the apparent design in nature. However, Dawkins states, Paley was fundamentally wrong about the designer. It is not God but natural selection that gives nature the appearance of design. Dawkins changes the teleological view of nature to a teleonomic view--that is, an appearance of design in nature--hence the "blind" and the "Watchmaker." Dawkins goes on to draw out in great detail this apparent "good design" of natural selection, such as echolocation in bats. These bats, Dawkins argues, are like miniature spy planes, packages of miniaturized electronic wizardry. Natural selection has perfected the system over tens of millions of years; sonar and radar pioneers, who were ignorant of nature's invention, designed similar systems in the Second World War for submarines and aircraft. Dawkins, in awe of nature's complexity, humbles us with the sight of "nature's" engineering feats, which he suggests are much more accomplished than our feeble attempts.

The idea of design in nature that has come from Aristotle, Descartes, Paley, Darwin, and Dawkins is central to many of our contemporary perspectives on nature. For Paley and contemporary creationists, design in the natural world is the evidence for a Creator's existence. To Darwin, and proponents of neo-Darwinism, design in nature is a question; natural selection is invoked as the blind watchmaker, not seeing ahead nor planning, but rather "inventing" to the particular need of the present environment. Neo-Darwinism and creationism are often dichotomised, and in many respects this is justified as these represent two different ways of explaining the world. However, we suggest that these two explanations are fundamentally similar in that they share the same axiom: there is (apparent) design. Therefore, according to these theories, the world can be analyzed using design criteria.

Is Design an Appropriate Metaphor?

Science is one way we explain the world, and often such explanations are achieved through analogies and metaphors from our everyday activities. These help us to make the complexity and order in nature more intelligible. However, if the metaphor that we use is inappropriate, our explanations become problematic. We believe the metaphor of design, to a large extent, dictates how we regard our world. Living organisms are seen as the end-product of a central directing agency, so that a "designer" must be used to explain them. Creationists and neo-Darwinists, having constructed their theories upon this metaphor of design, often merely invoke their answer and imagine some story to support it (Gould and Lewontin, 1979): their argument then becomes irrefutable. The victor of the feud between neo-Darwinism and creationism becomes that which can provide the most plausible reason for its "designer's" existence. All-encompassing designer explanations like these become vacuous by being able to explain everything real or even imaginary. That is, no matter what the subject of our inquiries happens to be, the answer becomes that it was "designed" by a central directing agent, and all that is left is to answer the question--what was it designed for?

By contrast, we can see God's creation not as a display of His architectural ability, but, rather, a direct reflection of His character (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:20). God did not have to "design" His creation in the human sense of the word, and nowhere in scripture have we found evidence of this, although there is occasional mention of his "plan" and synonymous phrases. Even then we do not see these latter terms having been meant to be grounds for an anthropocentric interpretation. "Design" in a human sense often implies a time-dependent process of invention or elucidation of the ideal structure of something, given the resources and skill at hand. This is a classic case of the inadequacy of our words to intellectually describe, let alone comprehend, God's attributes.

Creationism and Neo-Darwinism: Confronting the Metaphor of Design

It is widely recognized that there is a tension between creationism and neo-Darwinism, and many authors have tried to resolve this tension only to end up dissatisfied with both schools of thought. This tension occurs because both creationism and neo-Darwinism shared the same keywords--"design" and "purpose,"--yet differ in their central directing agent. We contend that the conflict between creationism and neo-Darwinism will never be resolved because of the very nature of the arguments--God "the Designer" verses natural selection "the apparent designer"--these arguments are diametrically opposed. Therefore, if there is to be progress on this issue, we must trace creationism and neo-Darwinism to the fundamental perspective (way of seeing) that originally generated the theories, and question that. The perspective containing the metaphor of design, which is essentially an intuitive assumption, must be critically assessed.

Taking a step back in history to the sixteenth century, we find there was an Italian astronomer by the name of Galileo who began teaching that the earth moves round the sun. Galileo was eventually imprisoned for such a heresy, because scripture (namely Psalm 93:1) and the "fact" that the earth appeared motionless both contradicted Galileo's conviction. We find this an interesting debate because it was the new and different perspective of Galileo that allowed a fruitful and accurate view of the universe to emerge. We put the question to the reader; what would happen if we took a different perspective of nature, without the Paley-Darwin mentality? Secondly, we ask the question; why is it that biological systems appear to be explained by invoking the concept of a designer? To our amazement, authors such as Pollack (1990) freely admit that students of natural selection are trained as scientists but think like historians. They are not held to any obligation to find laws, but to draw their mission from the simpler hope that a historical record can be recreated, and that we can learn from it. In fact, the case was very different in the 19th century with the rational morphology movement, with influences from Goethe, St. Hilaire, Owen, Driesch, and others (see Webster and Goodwin, 1982, for a discussion of this). The rational morphologists believed that organismal domain could be explained by a lower common denominator, in essence a search for laws of form. However, history shows us that the scientific community decided the Paley-Darwin track was more appropriate, and this is the issue we believe needs challenging.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, we believe that "designer explanations" literally become designer explanations; the fashion of the day, tailor-made for our scientific activities. In these explanations the organism is not important. In fact, one does not need to know anything about organisms in creationism and neo-Darwinism--the answer is merely invoked. We suggest these circular explanations will continue to explain essentially nothing, except maybe to enlighten us with some description of nature. Moreover, the Paley-Darwin legacy has canalized thought about evolution and nature, emphasizing the Aristotelian perspective of design. This brings us to the words of Thomas F. Torrance (1981, p.13) when he said:

... it is because our thought is so powerfully influenced by culture that we must bring its latent assumptions out into the open and put them to the test. Cultural assumptions, after all, are most dangerous when we are unaware of them.

The metaphor of design, we believe, is inappropriate to explain nature, though this should not be confused with the suggestion that the universe in not ordered and logical. Rather, our mode of explanation is inadequate or antiquated, resulting in a futile tension between theories of creation and evolution.


We wish to extend our thanks to the Creation Science Foundations' magazines, for their many articles in which they rephrase their same argument, and in particular thanks to Carl Wieland for his correspondence to us. Plus a special thanks to Neil Broom, Craig Millar, Richard Newcomb, and Rev. John Haverland for their comments on this manuscript.



Dawkins, R. (1986), The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books: London

Gould, S.J. & R.C. Lewontin (1979), "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme", Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 205: 581-598.

Kenny, A. (1968), Descartes: a study of his philosophy, Random House: New York.

Mayr, E. (1978) , "Evolution," Scientific American 239 (3): 47-55.

Paley, W. (1828), Natural Theology, 2nd edn. Oxford: J.Vincent.

Pollack, R. (1990), "Genes and History," New Scientist, 8 September, 44-45.

Torrance, T.F. (1981), Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, Oxford University Press: New York.

Webster, G. & B. Goodwin (1982), "Origin of species: A structuralist approach," J. Social Biol. Struct. 5: 15-47.

Wieland, C (1990), "Bridges and Bones, Girders and Groans", Creation ex Nihil, March-May, 112(2): 20-24.