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From The International Philosophical Quarterly, 28 (1988), 95-104.

Did Darwin Destroy the Design Argument?

James A. Sadowsky, S.J.


Richard Dawkins claims that

. . . although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.1

This is because Darwin presented an alternative explanation for the apparent design in the biological world.  The apparent design is there not because somebody wanted it to be there but rather because of the operation of natural selection upon random variations.  Dawkins claims that

. . . All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way.  A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye.  Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.  It has no mind and no mind’s eye.  It does not plan for the future.  It has no vision no foresight, no sight at all.  If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker, in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.2

Darwin tells us that it was the theory of natural selection that caused him to give up on the design argument.  He says:

. . . The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.  We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by a man.  There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.  Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.  But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domestic Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered.3

How far he had come can be seen from what he says of his one time admiration of Paley.

The logic of this book (Evidences of Christianity) and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid.  The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.  I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.4

Just how is natural selection supposed to rule out design?  As far as I can see, the reasoning is like this.  Variations are in useless as well as useful directions.  The only reason why the latter alone remain is that the former are eliminated by the struggle for existence and competition.  (“Many are called but few are chosen.”)  What accounts for the appearance of design overall is the disappearance of the unfit.  There are no hostile witnesses to testify against design.  They have all been assassinated!  Actually, the idea of natural selection is old.  Aquinas explains it in his summary of Empedocles:

And in all these things only that which happened to be suitable for some utility, as if it were made for that utility, was preserved.  For such things had a disposition which made them suitable for being preserved, not because of some agent’s intending an end, but because of that which is per se purposeless, i.e., by chance.  On the other hand, whatever did not have such a disposition was destroyed, and is destroyed, daily. Thus Empedocles said that in the beginning things which were part ox and part man were generated.5

Flew sums up what he regards as the Darwinian challenge to design in these words:

To the earlier and, if you like, philosophical objections of the last paragraph but one, Darwin supplied massive scientific reinforcement.  For this showed, if only in outline, how eyes and every other organ and organism might, indeed, have evolved without design; unlike the first watches which, along with their successors, we certainly know to have been both designed and manufactured.  And, furthermore, if it is possible on these lines to provide a naturalistic account of the origins of all the species of living things, then there is no other and greater marvel in the universe for which we are forced to postulate supernatural design.  (It is not without reason that Christians of the more old-time kind––Christians, you might say, of the Paley tendency––have seen evolutionary biology as the most dangerous science; nor that, in the opposite camp, enthusiastic members of the Rationalist Press Association have earned the nickname “Darwin’s Witnesses!)6

Unless I misread him, Flew had shortly afterward second thoughts about Darwin’s success.

The two other natural obstacles to a consistent secular naturalism are both proposed sites for particular creative interventions within a universe created “in the beginning.”  These are the origin of life and of the major generic differences.  Ever since Pasteur proved that there is on earth now no natural generation of living things from the non-living, we have needed, but not found, at least an account of how, in some likely past conditions, living cells could have evolved from nonliving matter.  Ever since Darwin we have needed but it seems not yet got, a similar sketch of how some major development––that of flight, for instance––could have occurred through natural selection without the hypothesized necessary succession of small changes at any state constituting a ruinous selective disadvantage.7

Not having the qualifications to decide on whether the biological world could have reached its present stage without the intervention of an intelligent agent, I leave this issue to whatever fate the progress of discovery may have in store for it.  I shall simply assume that the earlier Flew was correct and ask what, if anything, follows from that.

One thing that Darwin is alleged to have shown is that there is no need to postulate mysterious life forces such as entelechies.  How did Darwin show that?  After all not even Paley believed in life forces.  Certainly they are not necessary for the existence of purposeful activity.  Otherwise, a man-made watch would have to have the non-vital equivalent of a life force!  Strictly speaking, non-intelligent things made by intelligent agents do not have purposes.  Their purposes are the purposes of their producers or of those that use them.  When Paley and his followers spoke of the purposes of living beings, they had in mind the purposes of God, their maker.  Moreover, it is difficult to see what these vital principles would accomplish if they did exist.  To say that a being acts for a purpose implies not only that it wants something but also that it produces an effect that enables it to attain that purpose.  It must do something to something.  Just what is it that these vital principles actually do?  I have yet to see a satisfactory attempt to spell out how they have the effect they are supposed to have.  Is the claim being made that given two beings, only one of which possessing a vital principle, but containing the same collocation of molecules, one would act like a living being but the other would not?  Is it a metaphysical battery?  Or is it a necessary condition for the very existence of that collocation of molecules?  Most mysterious!  In any case, how can there be said to be purpose in these organisms unless they have some kind of consciousness that actually produces results?

Leaving aside the question of vital principles as a non-issue, let us turn to the real question.  Suppose a creationist comes to accept the volition of species by natural selection.  Ought he now to conclude that what had served as evidence of design no longer does so?  In my opinion, no.  If the structure of the human eye is evidence that it is there so that there can be sight, then the fact that the process that brought it into being is an unconscious one should not cause him to doubt his original conclusion.  Even the creationist8 does not believe that his eyes are designed.  On his own showing only the eyes of the first human being were designed by the creator.  The eyes of every other human being were brought about by the operation of blind natural forces.  God had nothing directly to do with his eyes.  Of course, he believes that God designed his eyes remotely in the sense that without the designing of the first human body the blind forces that produced his own eyes would never have been in place.  But if when he was a creationist he could accept that the bodies of all but the most remote of his human ancestors were the result of blind activity, why can he not after his conversion apply the same principle to his non-human ancestors?  This point was made many years ago by Asa Gray, the friend and confidant of Darwin.

. . . If the argument from structure to design is convincing when drawn from a particular animal, say a Newfoundland dog, and is not weakened by the knowledge that this dog came from similar parents, would it be at all weakened if it were ascertained that he was a remote descendant of the mastiff or some other breed, or that both these and other breeds came (as is suspected) from some wolf?  If not, how is the argument for design in the structure of our particular dog affected by the supposition that his wolfish progenitor came from a post-tertiary wolf, perhaps less unlike an existing one that the dog in question is to some other of the numerous existing races of dogs, and that this post-tertiary came from an equally or more different tertiary wolf?  And if the argument from structure to design is not invalidated by our present knowledge that our individual dog was developed from a single organic cell, how is it invalidated by the supposition of an analogous natural descent, through a long line of connected forms, from such a cell, or from some simple animal, existing ages before there were any dogs?9

The same idea is advance by Anthony Kenny:

On the other hand, if the argument from design every had any value, it has not been substantially affected by the scientific investigation of living organisms from Descartes through Darwin to the present day.  If Descartes is correct in regarding the activities of animals as mechanistically explicable, then a system may operate teleologically while being mechanistic in structure.  If Darwin is correct in ascribing the origin of species to natural selection, then the production of a teleological structure may be due in the first instance to factors which are purely mechanistic.  But both may be right and yet the ultimate explanation of the phenomena be finalistic.  The only argument refuted by Darwin would be one which said: wherever there is adaptation to environment we must see the immediate activity of an intelligent being.  But the argument from design did not claim this; and indeed it was an essential step in the argument that lower animals and natural agents did not have minds.  The argument was only that the ultimate explanation of such adaptation must be found in intelligence; and if this argument was correct, then any Darwinian success merely inserts an extra step between the phenomena to be explained and their ultimate explanation.10

Thomas Huxley is another witness to this point of view.  He wrote:

The teleology which supposed that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebra, was made with the precise structure it exhibits for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death blow.  Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental principle of Evolution.  This proposition is that the whole world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed.  If this be rue, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of fauna of Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on a cold winter’s day.11

Perhaps it is going a bit too far to say 1869.  If man has free will, then once he comes on the scene events occur that cannot be read off from the primordial set-up of our world.  Not only the chance volitions, but also their non-volitional effects.  The fauna of 1869 are to no small extent the result of volitions that did occur but need not have occurred.  They could not, therefore, have been read off the “cosmic vapour.”

But the rest is true.  Before the coming of humanity and absent the interference of a free outside agent, there were no real alternatives to the events that occurred in the material world.  In the words of William James:

. . . Possibilities that fail to get realized are, for determinism, pure illusions: they never were possibilities at all.  There is nothing inchoate, it says, about this universe of ours, all that was or is or shall be actual in it having been from eternity virtually.  The cloud of alternatives our minds escort this mass of actuality withal is a cloud of sheer deceptions, to which “impossibilities” is the only name that rightfully belongs.12

In particular in the sense in which we can so label our volitions and their effects, there was nothing “chancy” about Darwin’s variations.  (Remember, no one had as yet heard of Heisenberg.)  They, both the favorable and the unfavorable, were precontained in the original “programme.”  They were random only in the sense in which the results of a dice-throw are so.  Given all the circumstances in which the dice are thrown, there is but one possible outcome: the one that occurs.  Once the material world is launched by that once-for-all throw of the dice, there is no turning back.  There are no starts and stops.  Surely, Davies and Lovelock are wrong when they claim:

If there is one solitary fact which emerges distinctly from evolutionary studies, it is that evolution is not the execution of a consummate overall plan, divine or otherwise.  There have been far too many false starts, bosh shots and changes of intention for that.13

Barring outside interventions, there was no stopping what had been started; there was nothing that could correspond to a change of intention.  If the dice were thrown by an omniscient observer, he must have read off from the original state all that would happen until the coming of man.  Every variation would have been foreseen and either chosen or accepted as a by-product of what had been chosen.  One can speak of an effective change of intention only if something that was originally supposed to happen does not.  Such a change requires an intervention from outside––something Davies and Lovelock do not claim to have taken place.  The “useless” variations are not evidence against design unless design is regarded as being inconsistent with foreseen by-products.  But why should that be so?  Maybe the elimination of the by-products would also eliminate the desirable things whose by-products they are.  In that case it is useful to permit the existence of the unselected variation.

With the arrival of man there is another use for unselected variation.  Where the selection occurs directly or indirectly as the result of human choice, it is not up to God which variation gets selected.  The provision of many variations each of which could survive in a different environment improves the possibility of survival for a species despite man’s ability to produce a different environment from what was in the original programme.

Now that we have determined in what sense variations are random in Darwin’s system, we can say that if the present state of the material world bears the marks of intelligence, then it was either produced immediately by an intelligent agent or ultimately derives from some state that was immediately produced by an intelligent agent.  Otherwise, we run into an infinite regress: they cannot all have been mediately produced by an intelligent being.  This does not imply the emergence of order from disorder.  Just as no one would deny that chickens were designed because he found out they evolve from eggs, but would conclude that eggs, themselves, were designed, so we should have to conclude that the original state of material was every bit as orderly and designed as the present state would be if it had been created from nothing.

Perhaps we can see this even more clearly if we consider an unequivocal case of the adaptation means to end.  Suppose I look up in the sky and see the following formation:

Sadowsky, there is a chest of 

gold buried in your garden.

Interpreting the above as a message, I proceed to dig.  Lo and behold, the buried treasure turns up.  I should be hard put to doubt that the formation in the clouds was anything but the result of someone’s intellectual activity.  It would be inconsistent to believe both that these shapes had meaning and that they were merely the result of non-rational forces.14  Remember that symbols do not mean.  Intelligent agents mean by them.  Some intelligence is either immediately or remotely responsible for the fact that these shapes are in the sky.  This conclusion remains even if the shapes that are there now are there because they evolved from some prior set-up, which in turn had evolved from yet a previous set-up, etc.  What we do know is that some prior arrangement was immediately brought about with the intention of conveying someone’s thought.  If I do not accept that, then I cannot interpret the shapes as being a language any more than I can regard a parrot as using a language when it makes the sounds “Polly want a cracker.”

If the situation were the same for the biological world, we should have no choice (it seems to me) but to accept that its original form was what it was because someone wanted what it has evolved into.  But J. J. Mackie has what he regards as an answer to this.  Here it is.

The stock response, however, to the suggestion of alternative, naturalistic, explanations of the supposed marks of design is to say that they only shift the problem further back.  If we explain an organism as having arisen by generation and vegetation––and even if we trace these processes in detail––it is said that we still have to explain the parents or ancestors that produced it.  If we explain whole species by organic evolution, we still have to explain the primeval organisms from which evolution began.  And if we explain these by the action of radiant energy on inorganic mixtures of gases, we still have to explain the atomic structures and the radiation that makes this action possible.  But, on the one hand, we have seen that in such a shifting back the burden of explanation has grown lighter: there is literally less to explain.  And on the other hand, a similar response is available to the naturalist: if you explain the order in the natural world by a divine plan, you still have to explain the order in the divine mind.  As Philo says, “a mental world or universe of ideas requires a cause as much as does a material world or universe of objects.”15

Two remarks are called for.  Why is there “less to explain”?  Because “If, as we are supposing, the future developments are accounted for by the initial conditions and materials and laws alone, then it is only for those initial conditions and materials and laws as they are in themselves that any further explanation could reasonably be sought.  We must not overload the explanandum (sic) by adding to it, even as a potentiality which we can presume it to have accounted for already.”16  Perhaps one or another of my readers can tell me how this is supposed to help.  I honestly do not see how it does.  All I said was that this final stage or else some preceding stage is the work of an intelligent being.  The only explanation that occurs to me is that he is convinced that the material universe does not exhibit real design.  I should like to see if he would treat my example in the same way.

Now to the second point.  If an object needs an explanation because it has attribute X, then its explanation must lie in the class of objects that have the attribute non-X.  So if an object requires an explanation because it is designed, then in that last analysis it will have as its explanation a non-designed object.  And if that non-designed object must be intelligent, then it follows that intelligence as such does not require an explanation.  Likewise if we have to do with a being that is both designed and intelligent, then its cause will be both intelligent and non-designed.  As Flew tells us there is nothing outlandish about accepting the fact that some things lack an explanation:

It is often thought, by naturalists as well as by theists, that it is an unavoidable defect in every naturalistic system, and one which––if only it happened to be true––theism could remedy, that in any such naturalistic system the most fundamental laws of matter an energy cannot be susceptible of any further explanation.  Yet this is not, if the system is true, a defect; nor is it one which, even if theism were true, theism could remedy.  For it is not a contingent fact about one sort of system, but a logical truth about all explanations of facts.  The ultimate facts about God would have to be, for precisely the same reason, equally inexplicable.  In each and every case we must necessarily find at the end of every explanatory road some ultimates which  have simply to be accepted as the fundamental truth about the way things are.  And this itself is a contention, not about the lamentable contingent facts of the human condition, but about what follows necessarily from the nature of explanation.17

Flew seems not to realize it, but he is really presenting the logic of the cosmological argument: beings that needs an explanation (contingent beings) depend on beings that do not have an explanation.  The question is not whether there are things that do not need an explanation but rather how to identify them.  The important thing to retain here is that not everything can be explained and that this is in the very nature of things.  And in particular, designers, as such are not in need of explanation.

To sum up then, I do not see that Darwinism adds any essentially new objections to Paley’s argument.  Most of the objections could have been raised in Paley’s own day.  Typical is the following:

There seems to me too much misery in the world.  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 a mouse.  Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.18

Surely, Darwin could have written this before he ever set out for South America?

The following looks a little more formidable:

When is ask him [Asa Gray] whether he looks at each variation in the rock-pigeon, by which man has made by accumulation a pouter or fantail pigeon, as providentially designed for man’s amusement, he does not know what to answer; and if he, or anyone admits these are accidental, as far as purpose is concerned (of course not accidental as to their source or origin); then I can see no reason why he should rank the accumulated variations by which the beautifully adapted woodpecker has been formed as providentially designed.19

The first point is that this difficulty, for what it is worth, could be raised even in a creationist perspective.  True, there are no new species.  But there are new varieties.  Nature selects some of them and rejects others.  Are we supposed to believe that God designed the selected but did not design the rejected varieties?  Once again, it is independent of the evolution of species.

Secondly, why are we so certain that these rejected varieties are undesigned?  After all, they do manage to put in an appearance.  They must be adapted as long as there continue to be members of those varieties.

A third answer is given by Boedder:

We may put Darwin’s argument in concise form as follows: If some adaptations of certain antecedents to certain consequents are explained by design of the Creator, all must be explained so, however trifling they may appear.  But not all can reasonably be explained so; for instance, it cannot be reasonably referred to creative design that pieces of rock tumbling from a precipice are found fit for building houses, or that man turns rock pigeons artificially into fantail pigeons, or that a flash of lightning kills an innocent man, or that a swallow snaps up a gnat.  There is consequently no sufficient reason for admitting design at all.

What shall we answer to this?  At first sight it might seems reasonable to doubt whether it is necessary to admit design everywhere in nature, if you admit it anywhere.  There is indeed no immediate appearance of intrinsic contradiction in the idea of a universe in which only the more important operations should be guided by design.  Considering, however that the first Designer of the world is self-ex­istent and infinitely perfect, He must know from eternity not only in general, but in detail, all conditionally future results of any plan possible.  Moreover, His infinite wisdom necessarily prevents any event from happening, the occurrence of which would in no way serve His plan. From this it follows that every effect in the universe has been designed by God, inasmuch as He has foreseen it, and has from eternity decreed not to prevent its happening but to make its occurrence serve the end of all creation.  Granting then Darwin’s assertion that we cannot be consistent with ourselves, unless we admit that all effects in nature have been foreseen and preordained, we deny altogether that there is anything repugnant to reason in this admission. . . . But there is nothing intrinsically repugnant in the statement that God by one act of His infinite intellect foresaw all events, and by one act of His infinite will subordinated each of them to a particular good purpose.  On the contrary, this cannot be denied without denying what is logically connect with God’s infinite perfection.20

Granted that Darwin did not really weaken the design argument, we can ask how good it was to begin with.  I have to say that it is not so strong as I should like it to be.  Leon Pearl presents one design argument as follows:

(1) All objects possessing order in which the origin of order is known are human productions.

(2) The order in human products originates from intelligent design.

(3) The universe, its parts, and sub parts possess order.  Therefore,

(4) Probably the order in the universe originated from intelligent design.21

The problem with this argument is that its first premise is not true.  One only has to consider objects like bee hives, spider webs, ant hills, etc., to see that many astonishing “engineering feats” are performed who, it is generally agreed, do not know what they are doing, but are led, as it were, by an invisible hand to produce totally unintended results.  It is not, therefore, simply an empirical fact that observed producers of elaborate “artifacts” are intelligent beings.  One might be tempted to argue that just as the producer of the camera must be intelligent, so also the producer of the eye must be.  But is the camera the proof that its maker is intelligent?  Or is the proof elsewhere?  I think the answer to this last question is in the affirmative.  And that proof would be the sort of proof that might establish the existence of other minds: something like the proof that the indicator of the buried gold was proof of intelligence in action.  It is just this kind of proof we seem to lack when we look at the human eye.

Remember the argument was not that only an intelligent being could have produced the shapes that led me to look for the treasure.  Unless a person had had prior knowledge that these shapes were in fact commonly used by intelligent beings as symbols, he would not have had reason to assume that this is what they were.  It is one thing to say that an arrangement could not serve as a message unless it had been produced with that intention and quite another that the arrangement in and of itself could not have been produced without its being intended.  What follows from its not having been intended is that it cannot be taken as a message.

But the point is that these objections have nothing to do with evolution.  Those who do not regard them as being sound should not let anything that Darwin said deter them from accepting the argument to design.


1  Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Essex: Longman Scientific & Technical, 1986) p. 6.

2  Ibid. p. 5.

3  Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1958), pp. 87, 88.

4  Ibid., p. 59.

5  In Phys., II, #253.

6 Antony Flew, Darwinian Evolution (London: Paladin Books, Granada Publishing, Ltd., 1984), pp. 63, 64.

7 Antony Flew, Free Inquiry, Summer 1985.

8  By “creationist” I mean “one who believes that every member of a given species is either directly created or is a descendent of a member of that species.”

9 Asa Gray, Darwiniana (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 123.

10 Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 118.

11 Thomas Huxley, “On the Reception of the ‘Origin of Species,’” Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, I, pp. 554-55.

12 William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” The Will to Believe (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), p. 151.

13 G. Rattry Taylor, The Great Evolution Mystery (Secker & Warbur, 1983), p. 236.

14 Cf. Richard Taylor, Metaphysics  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983), pp. 100-03.

15 J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 142.

16 Ibid., p. 140.

17 Antony Flew, God: A Critical Enquiry (Lasalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1984), p. 77.

18 Darwin, Life and Letters (1887), 2:105.

19 op. cit., I, p. 309.

20 Bernard Boedder, SJ, Natural Theology (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1891), pp. 185-86.

21 Leon Pearl, “Hume’s Criticism of the Design Argument,” The Monist, 54 (2, 1970), p. 282.

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