Origins & Design 19:2
Issue 37

Debating the Definition of Design

What does “design” mean? As the community of those keenly interested in answering this question grows, the variety of intepretations given to “design” has been correspondingly expanding. One such novel proposal appeared earlier this year, in Michael Denton’s new book Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (Free Press, 1998). In a striking departure from his first book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1985), Denton--a member of the editorial board of this journal--argued that the evolution of earth’s organisms from a common ancestor was true, a view strongly challenged by Denton himself in the first book. However, Denton continued to argue (as he did in Evolution) that Darwinian mechanisms were insufficient to explain the facts. Rather, the existence of life and its manifold forms must have been fine-tuned into the universe from the very beginning. As Denton put the claim, “If the laws of nature are so finely tuned to facilitate life’s being in the form of a unique set of carbon-based organisms, both simple and complex, on the surface of a terraqueous planet like the earth, then it seems conceivable that their becoming through the process of evolution might have been determined also by natural law” (p. xiv).

This conception of design by natural law caught the interest of several members of the editorial board of Origins & Design, not only because Denton’s ideas harked back to conceptions of law-governed design circulating before (and after) Darwin’s Origin of Species, but because their own views of design differed profoundly from Denton’s. In light of this, O&D organized a roundtable discussion on Nature’s Destiny, which we offer to our readers in this issue. While all the participants found much to praise in Nature’s Destiny, each also found areas where they felt Denton’s argument for “design by natural law” fell short of adequately explaining the evidence. The central criticism turned on the inability of natural laws to specify the information required by living things. We welcome your comments on this roundtable.

We also welcome your comments on the other articles in this issue. Michael Denton presents a fresh proposal for looking at the vertebrate retina, one which may illuminate why the structure appears poorly designed; in fact, Denton argues, that appearance of suboptimality is only superficial and disappears on closer inspection. Dennis Feucht discusses the analytical tools developed by engineers for understanding design, and encourages design theorists to travel into concepts and literature they might otherwise ignore.

Two reports bring back interesting news from major science and theology conferences held in 1998, and Lydia McGrew tells a wise story about the proper use of intelligent causation as an explanation. Read, mull, and agree or disagree: whatever your reactions, we look forward to hearing from you.

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File Date: 6.1.99