As T. Ryan Gregory recently pointed out in his paper “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path,” it is a shame that the English language is so impoverished as to cause the concept of evolution to be so controversial. Within the evolutionary lexicon, “theory,” “saltation,” ” macroevolution,” “direction,” “purpose,” and “design” are among the words that unfortunately seem to conflate rather than enlighten as far as the general public is concerned, and now Ken Miller (of Finding Darwin’s God fame) wants to take back “design” for evolution. I don’t have a good feeling about this one…

As John Wilkins points out, speaking about evolution in terms of “design” goes back to William Paley, at least, and the book Natural Theology strongly influenced Darwin (and his intellectual successors in turn). Presently the term is anathema when speaking about evolution (and rightly so), but intelligent design proponents have successfully used terms that infer a purpose in nature to woo those who are already open to the idea because of their faith.

Based upon the quotes in the article, Miller wishes to speak of design by evolution, but I think this move unnecessarily muddies the issue. The term design infers purpose and some degree of forethought (“What is this being designed ‘for’?”) that evolutionary biologists have worked so hard to kick out of science. Speaking of design in evolution, then, might end up being a short term gain (you get more attention from the faithful) but a long-term loss (the terminology creates more misunderstanding). In fact, the tactic makes me think of one of my main issues with framing; it seems too close to “spin,” being an attempt to get people to agree with rather than understand a particular concept. Miller delivered his presentation yesterday and I have no idea how it was received, but I’d be interested to read the reactions of those present for it.

As an aside, Miller has a new book coming out called Only a Theory this coming June, and Richard Dawkins has reportedly just signed a $3.5 million deal for a forthcoming book about evolution called (drumroll please….) Only a Theory?. I won’t say which I think will be better, but I do appreciate the incredulous question mark at the end of Dawkins’ title that provides the proper perspective about evolution as fact & theory. There will be nearly a year separating the two books, but with the 150th 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth coming up next year (thanks for the correction! what a stupid mistake…) I’m sure there will be a glut of titles about evolution and the famous naturalist over the next year.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 18, 2008

    Hey, thanks for the link!

    A general rule of thumb I’ve heard from various sources (“Hinchliffe’s Rule“) is that when a book or story title ends in a question mark, creating a yes/no question, the answer is intended to be, “No.”

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    February 18, 2008

    It occurs to me that everything I’ve seen come out of that “Communicating Science in a Religious America” has been flawed, or at least needing a good fisking to separate the viable parts from the fluff. You and John Wilkins have ably critiqued Ken Miller’s statement, but there was also Dietram A. Scheufele’s spiel about nanotechnology and Barbara King’s ramble about New Atheist “confessionals”. All of these are addressing important topics and subjects of interest, but they all need a good scrape across the touchstone, and the panel wasn’t set up to give them one.

  3. #3 Chris Harrison
    February 18, 2008

    Thanks for the news about Dawkins’ new book. Glad to see he’s making a return to science (presumably).

    I agree with you and Wilkins here Brian. There is no good reason to “take back” the word design in evolutionary literature. The best it would do is make the word less edgy, which granted, would probably annoy IDists since they rely so heavily on whines of oppression and prejudice (if we’re using the term all the time, then “design” would not longer be a taboo term, like they think it is).

    But all of that misses the point. Modern evolutionary biology rejects teleology (for good reason). Just as modern physics, chemistry and astronomy do. It’s simply an outdated view that serves no heuristic purpose in science.

  4. #4 Chris F.
    February 18, 2008

    You shorted Charles Darwin out of 50 years. Next year will be the 200th anniversary of his birth.

    Unless he was using a fake ID all this time…

  5. #5 more of a tech guy
    February 18, 2008

    It may be possible to re-introduce the concept of design in evolution if the telos is survival. Though not intentional, the processes of natural selection do promote a particular end, their own continuation.

  6. #6 Derek James
    February 18, 2008

    Interesting. I blogged about this issue a while back, after I’d been chided by a fellow grad student for using the word “design” with regard to the structure of the human brain. I don’t think “design” works well at all for describing systems that increase in order via physical laws, without the planning or intent of an agent. I think we have a lexical gap for such a concept, created by religion’s influence in treating everything in the universe as an artifact.

  7. #7 John Pieret
    February 19, 2008

    But it will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin

    As for Miller and Dawkins, don’t forget who spent all that time talking about “the appearance of design” that results from selection. 😉

    Interestingly, the Duke of Argyll made one of the better arguments for design out of the fact that scientists habitually use teleological language, revealing an intuitive recognition of aspects of design in nature that were evident a priori. Well, that just shows how good the arguments for design are.

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