Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Oct 18 2009 - 03:22:20 EDT

Hi Schwarzwald,

Personally, I'm a bit ambivalent about the "designed or evolved" distinction myself.

My reticence with regard to ID - broadly speaking - centres on the tendency to seek design at the level of organisms rather than at the level of processes.

The really critical issue - which underlies the reason one should exercise caution in the use of the language of engineering design in regards to specific organisms - is that there are no analogues within engineering to self-replicating biological organisms which carry their design criteria within themselves. Or, to put it another way, if one really wants to find an engineering analogue to a living organism, then the analogue isn't the just the car (for instance) - it's the car, plus the factory in which it was made, plus the workers who made it, plus the designers, etc.

Biological organisms, again, aren't just *designed* and *manufactured* artefacts, they are *self*-designing and *self*-manufacturing artefacts whose design success is determined not by their correspondence to an engineering blueprint, but by adaptation to their environment. To use the language of engineering *design* only is to enormously under appreciate their complexity (or, alternately, to enormously overestimate the extent to which engineering design is analogous to what happens in biological systems).

All that said, it should be obvious that NOTHING I have said on the point would exclude the notion that evolution, as a system, is designed. Indeed, the more I ponder it, the more I am convinced that neo-Darwinism is substantially correct whilst the claim that its outcome is contingent is substantially wrong. So whilst I have my doubts about certain elements of ID - particularly the notion that we can identify design by looking at specific organisms - I don't thereby share Dawkins' conclusion that evolution excludes purpose.

On that specific Dawkins quote I think my only comment would be that we can actually draw upon the analogy of the engineering design process to put lie to the implication that Dawkins is clearly attempting to draw, viz; that because the the outcomes of evolution are contingent they are therefore entirely unconstrained and humans are, therefore, a cosmic accident (and surely this is ultimate point).

Here I'd offer the following example;

Consider the design department at Ford Motor Co and one of their most classic products, the Mustang. It should be obvious that the design of the Ford Mustang was, in many respects, a matter of historical "accident". That is to say, the Ford Mustang might never have been designed if not for a series of decisions which might easily have been taken otherwise. But it doesn't follow from this that the Ford design department would, instead of the Mustang, have designed the USS Enterprise or the Boeing 747. Their design process - despite being beset with an obvious degree of unpredictability - simply isn't geared to the design of ships or aircraft.

We have to imagine, rather, that if Ford's design process had not given rise to the Mustang, then it would have instead given rise to something very like it. That is something very like the Mustang, or very like the Chevy Camaro, or very like an amalgam of the two. There are, in short, a million ways to meet the Ford design brief, and only one way to design a Ford Mustang. Just because something is designed, it doesn't follow that we can't locate considerable degrees of contingency.

It turns out, upon reflection, that the Ford Mustang is BOTH the result of design AND of historical accident. The ONLY parts of that car which are, strictly speaking, "designed" are those constrained by the design criteria. It's not accidental, for example, that the Mustang has four seats, is sporty, and marketed for around $2500 for these were precisely the constraints set on the design. But many features, the shape of the headlights, the number of gears in the transmission, the shape of the body, and so on, could have gone a hundred different ways. That Ford's design department, at the end of the day, settled on a particular combination of these had NOTHING to do with purposeful selection and everything to do with "random" selection. Apply the same logic to every aspect of the vehicle NOT constrained by the design criteria and you have a rather curious conclusion: the Ford Mustang was, in some very real sense, a purely accidental outcome of the Ford design process. What Fo
rd Motor Co INTENDED to design was a four seat replacement for the T-bird. That they designed the *Mustang* (and not something else) is pure contingency.

So what you have is something rather counter-intuitive: the fact that the Ford *Mustang* is, actually, the result of accident rather than design. That the Mustang was a four seat, sports coupe with a target price of $2500 was no accident, but that the *Mustang* (and not something else) was the four seat sports coupe with a target price of $2500 sent to market by Ford in 1965 WAS an accident.

Getting back to evolution, my point is this: I simply don't agree with those who claim that because we can identify elements of contingency in neo-Darwinism, even ENORMOUS elements of contingency, the outcomes of the process are, therefore, entirely unconstrained. I rather share Conway Morris' sense that there is, contrary to contemporary evolutionary orthodoxy, something inevitable about the outcomes of evolutionary processes. Just as Ford's design department was set to develop a four door sports coupe with a target price of $2500 and "accidentally" settled on that combination of features which was the Mustang, so I think evolution is set to develop intelligent creatures who can transcend the merely biological to enter into relationship with God.

I allow, indeed I even deeply suspect, that there are certain aspects of homo sapiens which ARE somewhat "accidental" but to allow that the the "design process" is "accidental" in part is quite a different thing from saying that it's outcomes are entirely a matter of dumb luck. Certainly, allowing for a degree of randomness - even an inordinately large degree - doesn't force us to the conclusion that there is absence of intelligent input altogether.

Sorry that was so long, but I hope it clarifies where I'm coming from when I'm hesitant regarding identification of design at the level of organisms. I am, as I hope you realize, quite comfortable with the idea that there might be intelligence behind the process of evolution.


Schwarzwald wrote:
> Heya Murray,
> One thing I'd suggest, with your perspective in mind, is this: I don't
> necessarily see a distinction between accepting the presence of (even
> darwinian) evolutionary principles, and at the same time the presence of
> real, intentional design. Speaking as someone who has amateur-level
> experience in programming and procedural content generation,
> 'randomness' and stochastic process are, like anything else, just one
> more tool available to a designer. Sure, as you point out we do not
> 'design' cars in the same way we 'design' a particular breed of cattle -
> but A) Design is present in both scenarios, and B) It depends on the
> level or aspect we're talking about.
> I remember a quote (from Dawkins, perhaps) that biologists "have to keep
> reminding themselves that these things [what they study in their
> profession] are not designed". My response would be not only "how do
> they know they aren't" but "why is it necessary to avoid that conclusion
> anyway?" Perhaps you're actually saying as much here, in which case you
> can consider me on board. I think the "designed or evolved" distinction
> is and always has been a red herring.

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Received on Sun Oct 18 03:22:35 2009

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