Is Design Dead?
by Melissa Cain Travis
So I said to the teacher,
“Please consider design.”
He said, “We haven’t had that thesis here since 1859.”
(Weird Al, are you listening?)
1859 was the year Charles Darwin published his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book is included in the Great Books of the Western World canon, and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written and thoughtful piece of natural philosophy. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. Consider the poetic language of this passage:
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.
Origin, Chapter 4
I find it remarkable that the majority of folks who recite the “design is dead, Darwin killed it” mantra haven’t actually read Darwin; they’ve only read popular (sometimes weirdly slanted) articles or books about Darwin’s work, or heard agenda-driven pop-atheists sing Darwinian praises. I find it all rather strange. How do they know Darwin killed design? How did he do it? These are key questions to ask the design opponent.
Darwin’s scientific work actually did little to nothing to discredit design, properly defined. His philosophical goal (which he makes clear in the Origin) was indeed to demonstrate that there is no need to postulate a Creator to explain the diversity and complexity of living things. He fell prey to the same mistake in thinking we see today: the belief that scientifically elucidating natural history and the workings of the natural mechanism (allegedly) behind it somehow rules out a designer of both the mechanism and the resulting organisms. In other words, thinking that the physical cause of something automatically eliminates the possibility that purpose and intention were involved. But how does that follow? No amount of scientific advancement could ever demonstrate this, because it lies in the realm of metaphysics–it goes beyond the physical…
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