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.