Back when Darwin was a student at Cambridge, he read, and almost memorised the Rev William Paley’s Natural Theology, and thereafter remained impressed by the obvious adaptiveness of the parts of organisms and their interrelations. As is well known, he gave an explanation differently to Paley’s external intelligence that designs all these facets of life – instead he claimed that natural selection, a process like Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” explanation for the functioning of economies, was enough to explain adaptation.
I have long thought that Darwin was too much in thrall to the traditions of the natural theology movement. It was, after all, an English tradition closely allied to the doing of natural theology by gentlemen scholars such as himself. The idea of design ought to be expunged from the vocabulary of biology, in my opinion, and be replaced with selectively favoured and disfavoured (and neither) heritable traits.
To reinforce my views, Ken Miller is going to bow to the intelligent design crowd and try to refurbish design as a biological concept. And why? I ask myself. There’s no need. Design in the absence of information about the manufacturers of an object is a totally otiose notion. Even Dawkins’ “designoids” are unnecessary concessions to natural theology. It’s is not the fact that design is the basic concept, and adaptation the explanation any more. Now adaptation by selection is the basic concept, and design is no longer a fact of the universe as it stands, but a very small subset of the living world on one planet (so far discovered) by only a few tool using species.
There’s no need to call this “design”, any more than there’s a need, in science, to call all functional behaviours by animals “teleological”. They are functions, that’s all, and the traits are adaptations, that’s all. We are constantly misled by our vernacular speech habits and folk psychology to attribute to the biological world properties that are in fact properties of us not it. But in science, and any intellectual enterprise that takes science seriously (yes, this may include theology), there’s no a hint of a need to do so. Forget about design except where you have good reason to think that actual, identifiable, designers were involved. Forget about goals unless the organism is capable of having them, with a faculty of cognition and planning.
Ken, there’s no need to be half hearted about this. If you need design in a metaphysical context, fine, appeal to it. But don’t impute it to the world where it’s not needed.