Monday, 11 November 2013

Design in nature

I haven't yet weighed in on the controversy over whether adaptations represent real design or merely the appearance of design. Dennett and Bejan claim it is real design - calling it "design without a designer". Dennett writes:

The work of exploring the grand unity of Design Space is distributed between the slow ratcheting of natural selection of genes, and the swift trial-and-error explorations of individual brains (and their numerous artifactual exploration vehicles), so I will continue to use the umbrella term “design” to cover it all.

...and...

I have gone to considerable lengths over the years to show how “design-without-a-designer” is no more a contradiction in terms than “splittable atom”

Bejan complains, in Design in Nature:

Design may be the foundation of the built world, but it is anathema when the conversation turns to nature. Its six letters have become the four-letter word of biology and physics.

By contrast, Richard Dawkins says much adaptation represents merely the appearance of design. He calls many adaptations, designoid. Dawkins wrote:

The world is divided into things that look designed (like birds and airliners) and things that don't (rocks and mountains). Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed (submarines and tin openers) and those that aren't (sharks and hedgehogs).

"Design" is an ordinary English word - so this is mostly an issue for dictionaries. My reading of the dictionary is that Dawkins is correct - while Dennett and Bejan are not. Should we make an exception, and try and redefine the term "design" - or give it a special scientific meaning? I don't see much of a case for that. Scientists have the words "adaptation", "adaptive" and "adapt". These are perfectly good words - indeed, better in many ways than the word "design".

References

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