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The “Newspeak” of Evolutionary Biology Hopes to Banish the term “Design,” by Design

The anti-ID biologist Richard Dawkins once said, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Now some ID critics today are so fearful of lending any credence towards intelligent design that they are recommending that biologists stop using the word “design” entirely.

A recent article in the journal Bioessays by its editor Andrew Moore, titled “We need a new language for evolution. . . everywhere,” suggests that biologists should stop using the term “design.” According to Moore, under “Evolution old-speak” we would say, “Structure X is designed to perform…” but under “Evolution new-speak” we must simply say, “Structure X performs Y.” If there’s any doubt that Moore is worried about the intelligent design implications of the language used by biologists, consider the following passage from his article:

A banal example shows how an apparently trivial change in words can radically change perceived meaning: to accomplish metabolic process X, enzyme Y evolved a specificity for Z. In an objective scientific sense, we should phrase this as ‘in accomplishing X, Y concomitantly evolved a specificity for Z’. It is that innocent little word ‘to’ that transforms the meaning, giving enzyme Y the essence of ‘will’ – ‘to’ being short for ‘in order to’, or ‘with the purpose of’. Purpose can only be exercised by a supernatural entity in this situation.

Apparently Moore is so worried about any implications of language that might be friendly towards intelligent design that he’s unwilling to even state that any particular structure exists “to” perform some function. Clearly this shows that evolutionary thinking is taking biology into the realm of the absurd.

At least Moore is calling his tactic “newspeak”–an entirely appropriate descriptor. In George Orwell’s famous book Nineteen Eighty Four, “Newspeak” was a language created by the authorities to change the meaning of words in order to control the thoughts of the people. The language of course used nonsensical definitions which ran contrary to common sense and reality. The purpose was to distract people from the reality of their world. Could adopting new biology lingo, which disallows the term “design,” have the same goal? Even if you are a neo-Darwinian, to deny the reality that some biological parts appear designed to perform specific functions fits entirely within the standard purview of what we mean by “Newspeak.”

Moore isn’t the first person to suggest that biologists should stop using the word “design.” Last year zoologist John O. Reiss wrote an entire book titled “Not By Design” where he commands biologists to stop using the term. And of course his reasons appear to have everything to do with concerns over lending credence to intelligent design:

Many evolutionary biologists today are in the rather peculiar position of denying design in their battle with “intelligent design” proponents over the teaching of evolution in the schools, while at the same time they embrace a design metaphor for understanding the features of organisms. The basic structure of the approach is simple: because of past natural selection, organisms appear “as if” designed for the end of survival and reproduction, and thus we can think of them “as if they were designed”–but please don’t think that they were actually designed. This position seems uncomfortable, if not absurd. (p. xiii)

If anything here is “absurd,” it’s adopting a paradigm which refuses to permit language to describe biological structures as being designed for a purpose. Such a paradigm would seem antithetical to progress in biology, which is full of structures that have function for some purpose.

But Reiss has bigger concerns than furthering the progress of biology. One of his main concerns is that “Darwinians, by accepting the premise of the argument to design (i.e., the premise that “apparent design” must have some historical explanation), have left the door wide open for the intelligent design enthusiasts.” (p. 355) As a result, he wants Darwinians to stop using the term “design” and instead see that:

Life is not designed, or at least it shows no evidence of design for anything other than continued existence, which needs no designer. … To truly retire the watchmaker, … We must admit that there is not only not design but indeed not even ‘apparent design’ in the biological world, in the sense of entities doing any more than they need to do to continue to exist. (p. 356)

Having read much of Reiss’s book, I’m utterly unconvinced by his argument that something cannot be designed if its purpose is to “continue to exist”–because continued existence is a goal, and in this universe that goal requires extremely complex machinery that can only arise through a goal-directed process like intelligent design. But at least philosopher and biologist John Dupr� isn’t shy about acknowledging Reiss’s motives: “Reiss’s goal is to reassert such a thoroughgoing materialism and remove teleology from our vision of nature.”

Likewise Greg Laden says that we need to remove the word “design” from modern evolutionary biology to avoid lending credence to intelligent design:

The bottom line is this: The word “design” as a whole word or as a root occurs 150 times in Paley’s natural theology. It occurs as a whole word or as a root six times in Darwin’s Origin (first edition).

The word “design” is certainly used quite a bit in modern writing on evolutionary biology (aside from its use in the term “intelligent design”). Sometimes this use is probably not related to the way we mean it here, and thus may be appropriate, but often it is used as a rough synonym for “pattern” or “patterning,” such as in the title of a paper on insect and spider fibers: “Conservation of Essential Design Features in Coiled Coil Silks” (Sutherland et al 2007). A better title may have been “Conserved Patterning in Coiled Coil Silks.” (I won’t address this odd term “coiled coil…”)

Indeed, if you Google for “design evolution biology” and exclude “web interior graphic” (to reduce chaff), you get about 217,000 hits. If you also exclude “intelligent” to get rid of “intelligent design” then the hit yield drops to 179,000. This indicates a strong presence of the term “design” as part of “intelligent design” but also the widespread use of the term “design” in normal science writing (most of the first several dozen hits consist of standard biology writing, including the coiled coil example I cite above).

So, I reject design. Bot [sic] the intelligent kind and the use of the word in standard biological writing.

Perhaps the reason that design language is so hard to avoid in biology is because, as Richard Dawkins suggests, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Of course Dawkins would disagree that biological structures are intelligently designed, but it would seem ID lingo describes biology much better than “Newspeak” of Darwinian evolution, which apparently now refuses to allow biologists to even say that “structure Y exists to perform function Z.”

Which suits biology better: ID-inspired language that allows purpose, or the newspeak of evolutionary biology which disallows any mention of purpose?


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.