On Being an Intelligent DesignerMay 11, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen
I once heard an automotive designer remark on the design quality of a competitor, saying, “They have a factory in Dusseldorf that chews up steel and craps out Porsches.” He was conveying his opinion that the cars were created in a blindly mechanical manner, with no soul or intelligence behind the design. Indirectly, he was communicating his belief that design should be intelligent and purposeful—not mechanical.
I think about this anecdote when I hear myself saying things like “This project has evolved over time.” And it’s not just me: I’ve noticed people conflating the word “evolution” with “progress” in at least two print magazine articles just this month. People do it all the time—if you pay attention over the next week, I bet you’ll notice at least a few occurrences.
So here’s the thing: evolution is exactly the opposite of intelligent design! Evolutionary theory was developed to describe how a “Blind Watchmaker”, acting purely through chance variation with no intelligence whatsoever, could produce the various species of plants and animals. So when I say that my project has “evolved over time”, it literally means, “We randomly threw crap at the wall, and this is what stuck.”
This might be true for some projects, but we normally want people to think we applied some personal intelligence to our work. Try to think of other examples where we commonly use the word “evolve” and none of them really hold up. Did AJAX “evolve”,for example? Not really. AJAX grew through widespread experimentation that was intelligent and purposeful,not through chance variation.
OK, so maybe I’m being extreme. Everyone knows you mean “progress” when you say “evolution”, right? But I can’t help thinking of a gigantic machine, blindly chewing up random piles of steel and crapping out Porsches, every time I catch myself using “evolve” this way.
Horses and Porsches
Let’s invert things, just for the sake of argument. If evolution through blind chance variation has no place in our design projects, why does it have a place in the speciation of plants and animals? Whether you believe the original animal species were created by a blind watchmaker or by an intelligent Designer, it should have little bearing on animals going forward.
Our ancestors were able to achieve amazing results with very little technology, turning wolves and foxes into the crazy variety of domesticated dog breeds we see today. Stand up close to a horse, and try to imagine the centuries of intelligent human design that led to the domestication of this powerful beast whose greatest happiness in life is to go exactly where his human masters want him to go.
All of this animal engineering stopped hundreds of years ago, before the industrial revolution. Why? Today, we have immensely better tools. Not only could we do a much better job at the selection process needed to create new breeds, we could even create entirely new species synthetically from DNA! We talk a lot of smack about how much smarter we are than our ancestors, but I haven’t seen anything as spectacular as a Clydesdale or Weimaraner come out of the post-Darwin age. Because of our ancestors’ courage, we had horses to usher in the industrial age and Chihuahuas to provide comic relief in so many movies. What new innovations will we bequeath upon our descendants?
Doing What You Do
You probably aren’t a position to be creating new species or breeds of animals. But you are in charge of your own creations. Don’t simply go through the motions and then passively expect “evolution” to carry the ball forward. Be purposeful and intelligent, and let your imagination go wild. Whether it’s more like a Clydesdale, Chimera, or the fabled Labradoodle, make your project a reflection of your best ideas.