recently on an NPR program with skeptic Michael Shermer and paleontologist
Donald Prothero to discuss intelligent design. As the discussion unfolded, it
became clear that they were using the phrase "intelligent design"
in a way quite different from how the emerging intelligent design community
is using it.
The confusion centered on what the adjective "intelligent" is doing
in the phrase "intelligent design." "Intelligent," after
all, can mean nothing more than being the result of an intelligent agent,
even one who acts stupidly. On the other hand, it can mean that an
intelligent agent acted with skill, mastery, and eclat. Shermer and Prothero
understood the "intelligent" in "intelligent design" to
mean the latter, and thus presumed that intelligent design must entail
optimal design. The intelligent design community, on the other hand, means
the former and thus separates intelligent design from questions of
But why then place the adjective "intelligent" in front of the noun
"design"? Doesn't design already include the idea of intelligent
agency, so that juxtaposing the two becomes an exercise in redundancy? Not at
all. Intelligent design needs to be distinguished from apparent
design on the one hand and optimal design on the other. Apparent
design looks designed but really isn't. Optimal design is perfect design and
hence cannot exist except in an idealized realm (sometimes called a
"Platonic heaven"). Apparent and optimal design empty design of all
A common strategy of opponents to design in biology (like Stephen Jay Gould,
Richard Dawkins, and Francisco Ayala) is to assimilate intelligent design to
one of these categories--apparent or optimal design. The problem with this
move is that it constitutes an evasion. Indeed, it utterly sidesteps the
question of intelligent, or actual, design. The automobiles that roll off the
assembly plants in Detroit are intelligently designed in the sense that human
intelligences are responsible for them. Nevertheless, even if we think
Detroit manufactures the best cars in the world, it would still be wrong to
say they are optimally designed. Nor is it correct to say that they are only
Within biology, intelligent design holds that a designing intelligence is
indispensable for explaining the specified complexity of living systems.
Nevertheless, taken strictly as a scientific theory, intelligent design
refuses to speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence. Whereas
optimal design demands a perfectionistic, anal-retentive designer who has to
get everything just right, intelligent design fits our ordinary experience of
design, which is always conditioned by the needs of a situation and therefore
always falls short of some idealized global optimum.
No real designer attempts optimality in the sense of attaining perfect
design. Indeed, there is no such thing as perfect design. Real designers
strive for constrained optimization, which is something completely
different. As Henry Petroski, an engineer and historian at Duke, aptly
remarks in Invention by Design: "All design involves conflicting
objectives and hence compromise, and the best designs will always be those
that come up with the best compromise." Constrained optimization is
the art of compromise between conflicting objectives. This is what design is
all about. To find fault with biological design because it misses an
idealized optimum, as Stephen Jay Gould regularly does, is therefore
gratuitous. Not knowing the objectives of the designer, Gould is in no
position to say whether the designer has come up with a faulty compromise
among those objectives.
Nonetheless, the claim that biological design is suboptimal has been
tremendously successful at shutting down discussion about design.
Interestingly, that success comes not from analyzing a given biological
structure and showing how a constrained optimization for constructing that
structure might have been improved. This would constitute a legitimate
scientific inquiry so long as the proposed improvements can be concretely
implemented and do not degenerate into wish-fulfillment where one imagines
some improvement, but has no idea how it can be effected or whether it might
lead to deficits elsewhere. Just because we can always imagine some
improvement in design doesn't mean that the structure in question wasn't
designed, or that the improvement can be effected, or that the improvement,
even if it could be effected, would not entail deficits elsewhere.
The success of the suboptimality objection comes not from science at all, but
from shifting the terms of the discussion from science to theology. In place
of How specifically can an existing structure be improved? the
question instead becomes What sort of God would create a structure like
that? Darwin, for instance, thought there was just "too much misery
in the world" to accept design: "I cannot persuade myself that a
beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae
with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of
Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Other examples he
pointed to included "ants making slaves" and "the young cuckoo
ejecting its foster-brother." The problem of suboptimal design is
thus transformed into the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is to reconcile the following three propositions: (1) GOD
IS GOOD; (2) GOD IS ALL-POWERFUL; (3) EVIL EXISTS. Since the existence of
evil is taken for granted, the problem is to account for evil given that God
is both good and all-powerful. If God is all-powerful but not good there is
no problem reconciling the existence of evil (in that case God is free to be
nasty). Alternatively, if God is good but fails to be all-powerful, there is
no problem reconciling the existence of evil (in that case God means well but
can't quite pull it off).
Critics who invoke the problem of evil against design have left science
behind and entered the waters of philosophy and theology. A torture chamber
replete with implements of torture is designed, and the evil of its designer
does nothing to undercut the torture chamber's design. The existence of
design is distinct from the morality, aesthetics, goodness, optimality, or
perfection of design. Moreover, there are reliable indicators of design that
work irrespective of whether design includes these additional features (cf.
my previous posts to META).
Some scientists, however, prefer to conflate science and theology (despite
being members of the National Academy of Sciences and professing that these
are separate and mutually exclusive realms). Consider, for instance, the
following criticism of design by Stephen Jay Gould:
If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power,
surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for
other purposes.... Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of
evolution--paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural
process, constrained by history, follows perforce.
Gould is here criticizing what he calls the "panda's thumb," a bony
extrusion that helps the panda strip bamboo of its hard exterior and thus
render the bamboo edible to the panda.
The first question that needs to be answered about the panda's thumb is
whether it displays the clear marks of intelligence. The design theorist is
not committed to every biological structure being designed. Mutation and
section do operate in natural history to adapt organisms to their
environments. Perhaps the panda's thumb is such an adaptation. Nonetheless,
mutation and selection are incapable of generating highly specific,
information-rich structures that pervade biology. Organisms display the
hallmarks of intelligently engineered high-tech systems: information storage
and transfer capability; functioning codes; sorting and delivery systems;
self-regulation and feed-back loops; signal transduction circuitry; and
everywhere, complex, mutually-interdependent networks of parts. For this
reason, University of Chicago molecular biologist James Shapiro regards
Darwinism as almost completely unenlightening for understanding biological
systems and prefers an information processing model. Design theorists take
this one step further, arguing that information processing presupposes a
Once the intelligent design of some structure has been established, it is a
separate question whether a wise, powerful, and beneficent God ought to have
designed a complex information-rich structure one way or another. For the
sake of argument, let's grant that certain designed structures are not just,
as Gould puts it, "odd" or "funny," but even cruel. What
of it? Philosophical theology has abundant resources for dealing with the
problem of evil, maintaining a God who is both omnipotent and benevolent in
the face of evil. The line I find most convincing is that evil always
parasitizes good. Indeed, all our words for evil presuppose a good that has
been perverted. Impurity presupposes purity, unrighteousness presupposes
righteousness, deviation presupposes a way (i.e., a via) from which
we've departed, sin (the Greek hamartia) presupposes a target that was
missed, etc. Boethius put it this way in his Consolation of Philosophy:
"If God exists whence evil; but whence good if God does not
One looks at some biological structure and remarks, "Gee, that sure
looks evil." Did it start out evil? Was that its function when a good
and all-powerful God created it? Objects invented for good purposes are
regularly co-opted and used for evil purposes. Drugs that were meant to
alleviate pain become sources of addiction. Knives that were meant to cut
bread become implements for killing people. Political powers that were meant
to maintain law and order become the means for enslaving citizens.
This is a fallen world. The good that God initially intended is no longer
fully in evidence. Much has been perverted. Dysteleology, the perversion of
design in nature, is a reality. It is evident all around us. But how do we
explain it? The scientific naturalist explains dysteleology by claiming that
the design in nature is only apparent, that it arose through mutation and
natural selection (or some other natural mechanism), and that imperfection,
cruelty, and waste are fully to be expected from such mechanisms. But such
mechanisms cannot explain the complex, information-rich structures in nature
that signal actual and not merely apparent design--that is, intelligent
The design in nature is actual. More often than we would like, that design
has gotten perverted. But the perversion of design--dysteleology--is not
explained by denying design, but by accepting it and meeting the problem of
evil head on. The problem of evil is a theological problem. To force a
resolution of the problem by reducing all design to apparent design is an
evasion. It avoids both the scientific challenge posed by specified
complexity, and it avoids the hard work of faith, whose job is to discern
God's hand in creation despite the occlusions of evil.
 Henry Petroski, Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to
Thing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 30. Petroski
is a professor of civil engineering as well as a professor of history at Duke
 For a critique of Gould's objections to design based on optimality see
Paul Nelson, "The Role of Theology in Current Evolutionary
Reasoning," Biology and Philosophy 11, 1996: 493-517.
 Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol.
II (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888), p. 105.
 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, facsimile 1st ed.
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964 ), pp. 242-244.
 Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb (New York: Norton, 1980), pp.
 See his review of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box in James A.
Shapiro, "In the Details ... What?" National Review, 19
September 1996: 62-65.
 See Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, in Loeb Classical
Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 153. Alvin
Plantinga's free will defense is a resolution of the problem of evil that has
provoked much response from philosophers of religion--for a synopsis see
Kelly James Clark, Return to Reason (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,
1990), ch. 2. Finally, a significant number of contemporary philosophers of
religion resolve the problem of evil by denying traditional accounts of
divine omniscience and omnipotence. Process theologians have taken this view
for some time, but more traditional philosophers and theologians are now
taking this line also--see William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).
 For more in this vein see Diogenes Allen's Spiritual Theology
(Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1997).