Can Evolved Biological Teleology Provide Evidence of Design?

Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen
Monday 2 May 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion: Four Ways of Relating Design Discourse and Evolutionary Explanations
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Does biological nature give us signs of the Creator? Arguments to that effect have a long history. The Greek philosopher Xenophon portrays Socrates asking us to meditate on nature as follows: “Compare things with regard to which there is no sign of what they are for, and things which evidently serve a beneficial purpose. Which ones do you judge to be the products of chance, and which of design?” (Memorabilia, I 4.2-7). The bodies of animals do not seem to be just a random assembly of unrelated features, but have features that the organisms need for survival. Eyes, hearts, fingers and feet have clear purposes for the animal, so would not then divine design be a better explanation of such features than blind chance?

That features of nature might reveal something of the Creator is also expressed in the Bible, as in Psalm 94:9, “Does he who fashioned the ear not hear? Does he who formed the eye not see?” (NIV) Moreover, the intuitiveness of a design inference from biology has been recognized by many skeptics of religious belief. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume had the skeptical character Philo exclaim that “a purpose, an intention, or design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it” (2001 [1779], XII). Cognitive scientists have thus wondered if design-based interpretations of nature might not have a basis in universal features of human psychology and the human encounter with nature, rather than being just part of one human culture (De Cruz and De Smedt 2014, chapter 4).

Substantial variation in interpreting the purposiveness of nature has, however, existed throughout history. Socrates’ version is not necessarily identical to that of Hindu philosophers (Brown 2008), and St. Thomas’ teleological argument is not quite the same as the design argument of the modern Intelligent Design movement (Newton 2014; Koons and Gage 2011; George 2013). But after Darwin, all talk of biological teleology as showcasing the purposes of the Creator has often been met with skepticism. For instance, philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, while defending the general compatibility of evolution with Christian belief, nevertheless concludes that “after Darwin, the creation no longer sings” of its Creator, but all is laid on faith (Ruse 2016, 282). The Intelligent Design movement and its critics likewise typically understand evolutionary explanations and design-based explanations as being in competition with each other (Kojonen 2016)

Nevertheless, already in Darwin’s day, others disagreed and argued for the compatibility of evolution and perceiving design in biology. Darwin’s friend Asa Gray, for example, held that evolution “leaves the question of design just where it was before […] the issue between the skeptic and the theist is only the old one, long ago argued out – namely, whether organic Nature is a result of design or of chance” (Gray 1876, 96). The puzzle I consider here is, then, to determine how evolution and design arguments could be related.

Note that this is distinct from the question of whether there could be a hidden purpose behind evolution, known through faith or as an inference from a broader religious worldview. The precise relation of such arguments to “revealed theology” and religious faith depends on how we view the relationship of faith and reason in general (Kojonen 2017, 2020); a topic outside the scope of this puzzle. And note that not all will consider such a salvaging operation of the idea of biological design arguments as even valuable. The word “design” invokes, for some, the idea of God as just a very smart and powerful engineer, rather than as the truly transcendent Creator and ground of being. I will assume that such theological concerns can be answered and that salvaging the idea of design could be valuable (Kojonen 2021, chapter 1).

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Design Discourse and Design Arguments

There is a huge variety of interpretations of teleology and design within theology and the philosophy of religion. Some hold that the human recognition of signs of purpose in biology does not require an argument, but is based on an innate human capacity for identifying wisdom and intelligence through their effects. William Whewell famously argued that “when we collect design and purpose from the arrangements of the universe, we do not arrive at our conclusion by a train of deductive reasoning, but by the conviction which such combinations as we perceive, immediately and directly impress upon the mind” (1834, 344). A similar view was defended by Thomas Reid, who argued that we simply must begin from the standpoint of trust in our cognitive faculties in order to get started in gaining knowledge about the world, and our faculty of design detection is the faculty which we need in order to recognize intelligence in our own family members (2002 [1785], V). Alvin Plantinga’s term “design discourse” is a useful umbrella term for such views (2011).

Another way of defending design is through design arguments. Here, it is claimed that even though intuitive or perceptually (or even testimonially) based beliefs in design may be rational, such beliefs can also be supported inferentially. William Paley’s (1802) formulation of the design argument continues to be famous, as are David Hume’s criticisms based on the problem of evil and suffering in nature; that is, problems pertaining to the logic of analogical arguments, and so on (2001 [1779]). Defenders of the argument since Hume have tried to reconstruct the argument using the latest advances in philosophy, utilizing forms of argument like the inference to the best explanation (Ratszch and Koperski 2022).

The intuition of the purposefulness of biology seems quite widely shared. As Mats Wahlberg notes, it is quite paradoxical if living organisms simultaneously (1) indeed appear to be purposeful, so that this the perception of design can feel overwhelming in strength, (2) but this appearance provides no support or hint of perceiving purpose in biology, and yet (3) we then discover through faith that the perception was correct after all (2012, 188). It would seem like an unexplained coincidence, a paradoxical veridical illusion. If we value connecting theology with human experience, would we not do well to accommodate the perception of apparent design in biology as well?

2.2 Evolutionary Explanations of Biological Adaptations

Evolution itself is plausibly broadly compatible with religious belief. Nevertheless, this does not preclude some conflicts. From Darwin onwards, evolutionary explanations of biological adaptations have often been seen to refute the standard biological design argument. Darwin himself concluded in his Autobiography that Paley’s argument is now no longer credible, and “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” (Darwin 1887, 87). Natural selection, argued Darwin, was able to mimic the selective actions of human breeders without possessing any conscious intentionality. Thus, natural selection is able to sift through random heritable variations, and accumulate useful ones over time, resulting (Darwin argued) in new forms of life over time. The specific features of living organisms, then, result from the gradual and unconscious activity of natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms, without need of any divine intervention (Johnson 2015; Sober 2008).

Evolutionary considerations against design also commonly include the phenomenon of dysteleology, meaning both cases of bad design – seemingly less than well designed adaptations of living organisms – and evil design – features of animals and animal behavior that cause suffering to other animals, such as parasitism. In a letter to Asa Gray, Darwin (1860) himself highlighted the existence of such features, arguing that if one cannot see some results of natural selection – such as parasites and cats playing with mice – as directly intentioned by God, then this likewise removes any necessity of thinking that the eye was intentionally designed either. Instead, argued Darwin, it would be better for theists as well to see such features as resulting from designed laws, with the details left up to chance (similarly Ayala 2007).

Evolutionary biology has undergone significant changes since the time of Darwin, with some biologists now even arguing that the role of natural selection in driving evolution is relatively minor in relation to other factors influencing evolution, such as neutral evolution and the diverse mechanisms discussed by proponents of the extended evolutionary synthesis (Pigliucci and Müller 2010). Moreover, structuralist and self-organisation theories of evolution have pointed to the role of physics in constraining and even directing the course of evolution (Kauffman 1996; McShea and Brandon 2010; Dingle et al. 2022). There are also ongoing debates about to what extent phenomena like convergence reveal some directionality in evolution (Conway Morris and Gould 1998; McGhee 2011; Love 2021). Despite such new understanding of evolutionary forces, natural selection working “random” mutations, in the sense of being statistically (mostly) unrelated to the organisms’ fitness (Wagner 2012), remains a key component of biological functionality. Hence, even if the standard view of evolution were displaced, it would still be an interesting thought experiment to consider whether design arguments are compatible with evolution by natural selection, which has commonly been understood as the best refutation of design in nature.

3. Discussion: Four Ways of Relating Design Discourse and Evolutionary Explanations

In the days since Darwin, three main ways of relating design discourse and evolutionary explanations have emerged – assuming that we do not accept the opposition, which would require us to either reject at least portions of evolutionary explanations or reject design arguments. These three ways are not mutually exclusive, but can be thought of as complementary strategies.

The first way is to locate design in the process of evolution itself, and in the background conditions that enable it. Although the Intelligent Design movement and creationists commonly focus on biological design arguments and their apparent competition with evolutionary biology (Kojonen 2016), design arguments and design discourse take place in many other contexts as well. For example, the fine-tuning design argument is based on features like the suitability of the laws and initial conditions of the cosmos for the existence of complex life and scientific discovery (Barnes 2019; Collins 2018). Such arguments are not straightforwardly undermined by evolutionary biology – rather, the possibility of evolution depends on the features of the laws of nature, the “wider teleology” of nature (McGrath 2009).

Similarly, Aquinas’ fifth way is arguably based on the existence of teleology in general, rather than particular examples of teleology. Thus, a theory for explaining some feature of nature (like the apparent teleology of biological organisms) in terms of evolutionary processes does not threaten the Thomistic argument (Newton 2014). As Edward Feser puts the point, Aquinas’ argument only requires that “it is impossible that every apparent causal regularity can be attributed to chance, for chance itself presupposes causal regularity” (2009, 113). Many theistic evolutionists – those who believe God has worked through an evolutionary process of life in his creation – have thus shied away from biological design arguments in favor of other arguments, retaining design discourse on this wider level.

The idea of divinely guided mutations is sometimes presented in this context as well. As Elliott Sober (2011) notes, evolutionary theory only requires that mutations are statistically random, which is compatible with God invisibly guiding mutations. Such divinely guided mutations cannot play a role in evolutionary explanations. But David Glass (2012) has suggested that from a theistic philosophical perspective, guided mutations might function as part of the conjunctive explanation for why evolution has reached certain improbable outcomes.

The second way is to argue that the features of biological organisms themselves still do provide evidence of design, even in an evolutionary cosmos. Thus, on Asa Gray’s view, design can be inferred from the purposeful arrangement of the end result, regardless of whether it was produced by evolution: “if the skeptic was about to seal his verdict in favor of design, and a designer, when Darwin’s book appeared, why should his verdict now be changed or withheld? All the facts about the eye, which convinced him that the organ was designed, remain just as they were. His conviction was not produced through testimony or eyewitness, but design was irresistibly inferred from the evidence of contrivance in the eye itself” (1876, 55). According to Gray, evolution can plausibly be understood as just the secondary cause that God used in creating living organisms. The evidence for the designedness of any process is primarily in the end result.

Properly defending this viewpoint requires defending an account of conjunctive explanation, in which design and evolution answer different explanatory questions or work on different levels of explanations. It needs to be argued that evolution does not eliminate the basis of design arguments. Similarly, arguing against such a designed view of evolution requires a sophisticated account of just why evolution eliminates the need for design. Analogies and thought experiments can be formulated to at least show the possibility that the results of an indirect process could provide evidence of design. For example, Del Ratzsch (2001, 130–131) uses the example of an automated factory, where the products of the factory testify to the designedness of the whole. Wahlberg (2012, 70) provides the example of music-generating algorithms, whereas I have used evolutionary computer algorithms as an analogy of how design could operate through evolution (Kojonen 2021, 106-111).

Finally, the third way is to defend design on a metaphysical level, arguing that the teleological language commonly used (and needed) by biologists is not really at home in a naturalistic cosmos, even with evolutionary explanations in play. (Koons and Pruss 2017; Rea 2004). One strength of this strategy is that it situates design on a metaphysical level, without being dependent on the details of the science. The connection between teleology and theism is intuitive: it does seem that a teleological realism fits theism better. However, defending this claim requires interaction with the complex discussion of the concepts of teleology, function and adaptation in the philosophy of biology. Philosophers have put great effort into explaining how teleology might fit into a naturalistic cosmos, so defending design discourse in this way is not necessarily less challenging than the other ways – although the challenges will be different (Perlman 2004).

4. Conclusion

The three alternatives for relating design discourse and evolutionary explanations all call for robust theological engagement with science and philosophy. But this is particularly needed in the case of identifying whether evolution as a process might display signs of design. For example, further work could be done in analyzing fundamental evolutionary theory on these topics. Here, work on algorithmic evolution (Louis 2016) and the ways in which properties of nature might provide some direction to the evolutionary process (Wagner 2014) are particularly interesting, as are the ongoing work on genetic algorithms (Kojonen 2021, 106–111) and the traditional discussion on whether convergence supports the thesis of directionality in evolution (McGhee 2011; Love 2021).

The other two approaches require more work philosophically. Related to whether design might still be inferred just based on the end result of evolution, even without knowing about the details of the process, this approach would have the benefit of retaining the validity of ordinary theists’ experience of biological nature over the centuries. It would also be paradoxical and problematic to only see design in the fine-tuning of the wider cosmos, but not in the amazing features of the living organisms that the fine-tuning is required for. It also seems clear that there are many cases in which the designedness of some process could indeed be inferred based on the results of that process – so the task is to philosophically investigate whether these conditions also hold in the case of biology or are undercut by some features of evolutionary processes.

The idea that evolutionary explanations and design discourse are compatible is still a minority viewpoint, with the popular discourse influenced by the longstanding opposition between creationism and evolution. Yet the arguments against compatibility are not as strong as commonly assumed, there being multiple promising ways of believing in both design and evolution. If the rationality of design discourse even in an evolutionary cosmos can be successfully defended, then this would dismantle the popular opposition between our intuitive perception of purpose in nature and evolutionary biology.


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Kojonen, Erkki Vesa Rope. 2022. “Can Evolved Biological Teleology Provide Evidence of Design?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 7).

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Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen
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