April 17, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Psychologists Portray I.D. as a Form of Evolution

No need to draw a line between design and evolution, say two psychologists at the University of Iowa.  Intelligent design is really a lot like evolution.  They think we need to “better appreciate the actual forces that unite the processes of change across both evolutionary and developmental timescales.”
    This strange theory was announced by Science Daily this week about a paper in the upcoming issue of American Scientist by Edward Wasserman and Mark Blumberg.1  The press release gave some examples to show how intelligent design evolves:

The authors note that even such grand human engineering achievements as suspension bridges and the space shuttle evolved through a process that owes more to lessons learned from failure than to foresight and purpose.  Similarly, close examination reveals that such behaviors as Olympic high jumping and jockeys’ thoroughbred riding styles can also be found to have originated through trial-and-error learning, in which the inventor may be blissfully unaware of the achievement until only after it has emerged.

They called Richard Dawkins’ argument about drawing a line between things that are designed and things that merely looked designed an “arcane argument.”  That’s because in a way, Wasserman and Blumberg argued, everything evolves.
    At first glance this must strike some as terribly simplistic, or an equivocation that offers no solution at all.  It’s hard to believe no one in the Darwin or I.D. camps has not given such things plenty of thought already – and shot them down, else the battle would not still be raging.  But press releases can sometimes leave out important points.  Did the paper fill in some missing pieces of argument?
    The key point in the paper is that human intelligent design does not usually involve foresight and planning as is usually assumed.  Having introduced William Paley, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, with their evolving ideas about design, the authors aimed their critique at the intuitive but dubious assumption that humans always engineer their contrivances with foresight and purpose.  They referred to engineer Henry Petroski, who wrote in 1993 that human inventions “do not spring fully formed from the mind of some maker but, rather, become shaped and reshaped through the (principally negative) experiences of their users….”  Form doesn’t follow function; it follows failure.

Such uncritical acceptance of purpose and foresight in human design may well be unwise.  After all, do we really know how door hinges and can openers were created?  In fact, we may know less about the origins of these everyday contrivances than we know about the origins of bivalve shells, sharks and hedgehogs.  By attributing the origins of animals and artifacts to different kinds of designers—one blind, the other intelligent—both Darwin and Dawkins lapse into the same kind of “designer thinking” that ensnared creationists like Paley.  Such thinking rests on the familiarity and deceptive simplicity of mentalistic explanations of behavior, as when Dawkins uncritically appeals to the foresight and purpose of the watchmaker rather than entertaining possibly deeper questions about the origins of the watch.  He may be giving human designers too much credit.

From there, Wasserman and Blumberg argued that the history of any human invention is usually a history of failure and modification – a kind of evolutionary history.  They drew from examples in the origin of powered flight, bridges, pyramids, cathedrals and space shuttles.  “It is through this plodding process that today’s designs—typically instantiated in the form of a detailed blueprint—embody all of the hard, painful, but often unacknowledged lessons of the past,” they said.  “Most of us are ignorant of that history, yet we glibly proclaim that the final products were intelligently designed, thereby perpetuating the myth of the creative moment.”  Clearly, though, there have been some cases of invention that did not take this path of failure, but went directly from original concept to plan to product.  Did they list any of those examples?  No.
    Their next step was to evolutionize the mind so as to set the human designer into the context of organic evolution: “Because of the writings of Darwin, Dawkins and other biologists, many of us are now open to understanding the organic world in evolutionary terms—but are we equally willing to apply such evolutionary thinking to that last bastion of designer intelligence, our minds?”  The brave – or fools – follow as Wasserman and Blumberg draw from examples of tool making by crows and chimpanzees.  Do they represent examples of emergent creativity and insight in the animal kingdom, or just collected learning experiences?  The authors declare their skepticism of “mentalistic” explanations for animal tool-making; “Indeed, we are unconvinced that creativity and insight are proper explanations even for human behavior.”  One hopes that creativity and insight were not requirements for writing their paper.

Of course, few people are unnerved when the cognitive prowess of crows or other animals is questioned.  Things get stickier when we express similar skepticism about the human mind.  Yet as with the invention of human artifacts, we see good reason to doubt the prevailing belief that novel human behaviors—what we might call behavioral inventions—are necessarily the products of a designing mind.

For evidence, they went to the world of sports.  High jumpers and jockeys have learned novel ways of achieving better performance sometimes by accident.  Without design or forethought, athletes discover, once in awhile, new moves that work better.  If they work, they are kept: that’s psychologist Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, propounded decades after Darwin’s death: “successful behavioral variations are retained and unsuccessful variations are not.”  Sounds positively Darwinian.  Darwin, who believed everything in nature proceeded according to fixed laws, would have been pleased to see even human intelligent design encompassed by an extension of his own law of natural selection.  Wasserman and Blumberg were pleased, too:

Our prime point here is the importance of the search for originsDarwin has taught us that the search for the origin of species reveals the action of natural mechanisms that do not require guidance from a creative, intelligent designer.  Similarly, Petroski has taught us to look beyond the romance of the iconoclastic inventor and the drama of the creative moment to appreciate the real origins of human artifacts.  Petroski’s insight should free evolutionists from their continuing dispute with creationists over where to draw the line between things that really are designed and things that only appear to be designed.  Belief in the existence of that false line only serves to obscure the powerful selectionist processes that are at work in producing so many of the world’s creations—both organic and synthetic.

It sounds like they have just subsumed all of intelligent design into Darwinism.


1.  Edward Wasserman and Mark Blumberg, “Designing Minds: How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors?” American Scientist 98:3 (May-June 2010), page 183, DOI: 10.1511/2010.84.183.

That’s one way to win a debate: eat your opponent.  I’m afraid Mr. Darwin will find his meal a bit disagreeable and will end up vomiting it up, only to be swallowed up himself by what he disgorged, which, like a Klein bottle, leaves an outside observer wondering who is inside and who is outside.  But if you are looking at a Klein bottle, you are outside it by definition, using your mind to observe it.  This implies that Darwin just swallowed himself.  Q.E.D.
    If anyone can find a sillier thesis than this to explain away intelligent design, published in a serious journal, by all means send it in, but give our readers a week to recover from the abdominal pains of laughter from this one.  Presumably in the Psychology Department of the University of Iowa is some distance from the Engineering Department.  Also, presumably, it is not required of psychology papers to get peer review by engineers.  Anyone who has gone through a design review process and taken a product from concept through design through fabrication, bench test, readiness, field test, delivery and operations will read this paper and go “Huh?  No wonder those guys are in the Psych Bldg. and not over here making the big bucks with the geeks.”  Just because humans learn from failure, and occasionally gain insight by serendipity, does not mean they are following a Darwinian process or fixed law of nature.  And just because humans find ways to continually refine and improve their inventions does not mean it resembles mutation and selection.  Wasserman and Blumberg picked and chose examples to dress up their preconceived notions, but ignored many examples of deliberate, intentional, successful first-time design.  Mozart could write manuscripts of verifiable masterpieces, right out of his mind, with no erasures or cross-outs.  Works of genius like this have no Darwinian explanation.  Even if mistakes in a project are made along the way, as happened often with Edison’s inventions, a hallmark of human invention is the foresight to envision a possibility and to bring together the pieces against their natural tendencies carrying a concept forward to fruition with dogged determination – sometimes against seemingly insurmountable odds.  What on earth does that have to do with Darwinism?  Zippo.  Even a Zippo lighter illustrates intelligent design.  Wasserman and Blumberg really need to go read some basic books on intelligent design before pretending to be ready to talk about it.
Exercise: Think of examples of human design that contradict their portrayal of human invention following a Darwin-like process of tinkering via failure.
    Wasserman and Blumberg understand Darwinism less than they understand intelligent design.  Darwin may have liked the concept of fixed laws of nature, but natural selection is not a law in the usual sense, even assuming the human mind can explicate unambiguously what a “fixed law of nature” could possibly refer to.  Natural selection, at best, is only a constraint, a boundary.  It says, “Can’t go there, or you die.”  It has no power to create anything.  The exquisite contrivances of nature (wings, eyes, livers, limbs, ATP synthase) had to “emerge” by the accumulation of accidents that didn’t cause death.  There it is again: the Stuff Happens Law makes its inevitable appearance in Darwinland, as usual.  Science flies out the window; stuff happens, whatever will be will be, someday over the rainbow a miracle may happen to you if you wish upon a star, and pigs can fly after enough tornadoes run through junkyards.  Keep the stuff that doesn’t die, and that’s Darwinism.  Anyone expect to get a brain by this process?  Notice that Darwinism does not keep the stuff that will someday add up to an eye.  Darwinism knows nothing of eyes.  It is a blind galley slave to the immediate present.  Bad accident: die.  Neutral or good accident: live a day longer.  Nothing adds up in Darwinland.  Nothing has foresight, purpose, or plan.
    Wasserman and Blumberg are half-right on one point: there are no mentalistic explanations in Darwinland.  Darwin cannot say that the crow is thinking ahead to create a tool to get the nut out of the bottle.  Having assumed evolution, they failed to realize they were arguing in a circle to consider crow tool-making as ancestral to human inventiveness, but this is all academic by now, because they already shot the lights out in their little theater of the absurd, so the crowd may as well go home.  They just attributed their own minds to fixed laws of nature.  That includes their own creativity and foresight.  They just shot the credibility, therefore, out of their own thesis; their arguments do not refer to anything that could be true, universal, necessary, or certain.  Good grief.  Why did we waste our time on this?  Well, no experiment is ever a failure, really; it can always be used as a bad example (Rettinger’s Law).

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