Why the idea of design in nature is so hard to shift

The complexity of the universe and evolution can feed into beliefs around a conscious designer


The idea that nature reflects the work of a conscious designer remains a compelling one in the face of the immense complexity we see in the world around us. That such complexity could have arisen via the processes of evolution seems to many to defy logic and constitutes a step too far.

The argument from design, or teleological argument, has a long history, but is probably most associated with William Paley, who utilised it in his book Natural Theology, published in 1802. He used the analogy of a watch found upon the ground to illustrate his point. Its complexity and obvious function imply a creator: the watchmaker. Likewise, he argued, the complexity and obvious design of biological organisms for survival in hostile environments imply a creator: God.

Darwin, in his book On the Origin of Species, commented on the difficulties we have in accepting evolutionary explanations. “The chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to clear and distinct species is that we are always slow in admitting great changes of which we do not see the steps. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of even a million years; it cannot add up and perceive the effects of many single variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.”

There are many examples within science that provoke similar challenges to our ability to comprehend nature: huge spans of time within geology and cosmology; vast distances in astronomy; and minuscule dimensions in the world of subatomic particles are just some.

For example, on a dark night look to the constellation of Andromeda. With the naked eye you can see a fuzzy cloud that is the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. It is nine billion years old and contains an estimated one trillion stars.

In an area of the sky, equivalent to the size of a tennis ball at a distance of 100m, the Hubble Deep Field image shows us almost 3,000 galaxies. These kinds of figures are essentially unimaginable, and the tendency towards teleological explanations is heightened.

So clear and yet so hard
Cameron Smith, in an article in Skeptical Inquirer, outlines other reasons as to how being human makes evolution hard to understand. Outlining the relative simplicity of the mechanisms of evolution, he wonders how something so clear can be so difficult. He says the essence of humanness is the proactive making of things. This contributes to the belief that all made things must therefore have a maker.

“Humanity’s trick” as he terms it, is the ability to adjust speedily to environmental changes via the invention of adaptations. This has facilitated survival in a dizzying variety of environments, not because of our bodies, but in spite of their obvious frailty. The evolving creativity thus produced has to an extent decoupled us from the limitations that would otherwise be imposed by our environments.

Smith argues that “familiarity with proaction has stamped us to intuitively interpret complex design as necessarily the result of similar proaction”. The US psychologist Deborah Kelemen argued on the basis of work carried out in 2004 that such teleological thinking is common in young children. She later demonstrated persistence of the acceptance of teleological explanations in physical scientists from top US universities when they were put under time pressure, which limited their information-processing resources.

Scientists were asked to judge explanations such as “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe”, or “the Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV light”. With more time to process the information, these were rejected.

Kelemen argues that “a religion-consistent, default cognitive bias toward teleological explanation tenaciously persists and may have subtle but profound consequences for scientific progress”. In her earlier work with children she suggested that children’s science failures may in part result from inherent conflicts between intuitive ideas and the basic tenets of contemporary scientific thought.

Scientific, non-teleological thinking is of relatively recent origin, and, given the range of findings referred to above, coupled with results from many general population surveys, it is evident that superstitious and paranormal beliefs persist and are widespread in modern scientific cultures.

Despite advances in theoretical science, technology and medicine, it appears that our tendency towards teleological thinking is impressively resistant to change.

Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. contact@irishskeptics.org

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