On Design, Intelligent and Otherwise

I’ve read, and been in, a lot of debates about Intelligent Design (ID).

Leaders of the ID movement famously do not like to come too close to defining what an actual Intelligent Designer would be like (can’t risk hypothesizing something that could be empirically disproven, after all!), leaving actual scientists to worry about the question, if they’ve had a few beers and have reached the very bottom of the list of things worth worrying about.

When scientists (or even just average people, whom scientists closely resemble) try to puzzle out what the ID movement might mean by an “Intelligent Designer” — or even what the universe might mean by it, if that’s the way the universe worked — they tend to concentrate on the “Intelligent” part. Then they like to point out all the ways in which nature is unintelligent or downright broken.

“Look at the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe,” says Richard Dawkins. “Nobody with a whit of sense would design that like that.”

“Plus,” he helpfully adds, “it’s entirely explainable in evolutionary biology as the product of known natural processes.”

So the ‘creator’ or ‘force’ or ‘alien’ who’s responsible certainly can’t have been intelligent, the line goes. He’d have to have been downright stupid, not to mention cruel and maybe a little unusual. Or he’s gonna have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Maybe during that Rapture thing.

But these discussions have largely skirted the “Design” part of “Intelligent Design.” Why should creation have been “designed” rather than evolved? Why must the “force” at the beginning of all things have incorporated “design” as an active process or meaningful mechanism at all?

Why design?

If you take the attributes believed to separate humanity from animal nature, and put them on a spectrum from ‘rationality’ and ‘self-consciousness’ at the coarsest, root level, through ‘awareness of past and future,’ to ‘morality,’ to ‘tool and fire use,’ to ‘language,’ to ‘sense of purpose,’ (all in whatever order your philosophy supports), ‘design’ is in the rarefied heights of humanity’s hegemony. It was chosen as a buzzword to cloak creationists because of its distance from animality and nature (where all that filthy evolution takes place), but everybody seems to have missed the fact that design’s very distance from nature means it is a supremely human conception.

Yes — that Software Requirements Document for the new Budget app is the pinnacle of civilization.

This is where I want to talk as a designer.

Design is about as far from a divine, inspired, or flawless process as I can imagine. Even the process of design itself undergoes design.

Who could look around with Don Norman’s eyes and think that design as a process necessarily produces ineffable beauty, function, and order?

Design is sloppy, messy. Design is iterative. Problematically, for ID proponents, design processes commonly struggle to enunciate ‘purpose,’ or enunciate it early enough, or in the right terms,  so that it can affect the design. And when purposes can be fairly articulated, one often is faced with cross-purposes, resulting in compromise.

We don’t design to circumvent constraints, we design because there are constraints. “You want it cheap, fast, or good? — Pick two” is the famous line. Sometimes you’re lucky to be able to pick one.

Deity, one supposes, need only articulate an end state — a purpose — and voila! A honeybee! A springbok! A flagellum! An orchid! What’s stopping him/her/it? Why stop to design?

Here’s another thing about design: sometimes it fails. Even design done “well” (following all the rules) can fail catastrophically. This is where “intelligent” comes in — it’s the creationists’ cheat. See, deity’s design never sucks. It’s always of the intelligent sort.

But if you’re going to cheat, you could attach the intelligent get-out-of-jail-free card to any creative event or process. Why aren’t we teaching intelligent magic, intelligent birth, or intelligent randomness in our biology classrooms?

Design is human, costly, fallible, and evolves…. Out with the old deity, meet the new deity.