Back in 2004, a well-known philosopher appeared in an interview and appeared to make a startling concession – that there was evidence that evolution itself was in some sense designed, and perhaps even directed towards a goal. This let to a lot of buzz on the internet, eventually resulting in back and forth between the philosopher and interviewer – the philosopher backed away from his previous statements and insisted he made no such concession, while the interviewer (himself a self-declared agnostic, even materialist) held to his guns and (armed with the actual interview) argued the philosopher had made this concession and was now changing his story and backing off.
So, who was this philosopher who stood accused of conceding evidence for design and purpose in nature?
Some Theistic Evolutionist, perhaps? A reasonable guess, but no. Besides, many TEs are too good at the fine art of saying nothing noteworthy to find themselves making such a concession.
Maybe Anthony Flew? Again, a good guess, but still no. Besides, when Flew went deist he no longer regarded ‘design’ as a dirty word.
No, the philosopher in question was none other than (once upon a time) fourth horseman of the Atheist Apocalypse Dan Dennett, being interviewed by Robert Wright.
And there’s a lesson to be learned from the whole affair.
Robert Wright has kept his replies to Dennett online, complete with his and Dennett’s responses to the interview, and the original interview itself. The entire back-and-forth is fairly long, but Wright’s argument largely comes down to two exchanges he had with Dennett:
Wright: “So, I’m just saying that to the extent—I think we’ve agreed that observing, what is it, I guess ontogeny is the term, you know, the development of an organism, that it has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design. Would you agree that to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design—to some extent, to any extent?”
Dennett: “Ummm, Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yeah.
Wright [after describing ontogeny, i.e. the maturation of an organism]: “I would submit that if you step back and observe life on this planet in time lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings, but the cultural–including technological–evolution that led to where we are today, the process would look remarkably like that. And in fact you yourself in your most recent book, Freedom Evolves, you say–there’s a sentence something like, `The planet is growing its own nervous system, us.’ And it’s true—it looks like that.”
Dennett: Yeah, absolutely.
Wright: “And there is a functionality about it”
Dennett: Yeah, yeah.
Wright: “And you agree there’s been a directionality about it”
As I said, Dennett reversed himself on this after the fact (or ‘clarified’, if you accept Dennett’s view). I have to agree with Wright, though, that the most natural way to interpret Dennett is the way Wright did: As conceding that there was some evidence that evolution itself was designed, and that it was proceeding as if following some goal. Wright qualifies this heavily – towards what goal we can’t definitely say, designed by what (or who) we can’t be sure – but insofar as that’s the case it has some things in common with ID-style arguments. If we found a Mount Rushmore kind of artifact on Mars, we’d be in a similar situation.
But let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether or not Dennett himself truly was conceding Wright’s point. Notice that Wright describes himself as an agnostic, even as a materialist – he’s not approaching the question as some Theistic Evolutionist trying to somehow import Darwinism into his beliefs. He’s also not bringing in irreducible complexity style arguments, he’s making reference to no religion. Yet when he takes a look at evolutionary history and progress – even a fairly mainstream, orthodox, Darwinian view of it – he finds himself arguing for what amount to design inferences. And really, he’s not even trying very hard; it falls out naturally for him just by going through the past development of life from a cell to multicellular organisms to (eventually) worldwide communications, networks, and perhaps even expansions into space.
This goes far beyond the questions of one man’s psychology (or two men, if we include Dennett.) Despite being a TE of sorts myself, I’m typically disappointed with how most theistic evolutionists engage the design question, to say nothing of the evolution question. But part of that disappointment is the reluctance for many TEs to even go as far as Wright did in this exchange, to say nothing of going far beyond it (as I think they have plenty of license to do.) I’m willing to admit that Wright is, even as an agnostic accepting evolution, considering the question in a way that is ultimately non-Darwinian – if you view Darwinism as necessarily being devoid of design or purpose.
I bring all this up to encourage this simple idea: It is possible that evolution, even macroevolution, is filled with areas, aspects, and developments upon which one could make design inferences, even to the point of identifying teleology in the process at large. Indeed, our knowledge of biology, nature, and even evolution itself has changed drastically since Darwin, and saying “But natural selection is still central!” isn’t enough to safeguard against teleological, directional, or purposeful findings. And I think ID proponents, even ones who reject the sufficiency of macro-evolutionary explanations and elsewise should – if the Big Tent really is big – be willing, even eager, to throw support behind those who make design inferences about evolution itself.
Which brings me back to Dennett. See, even while standing by his claim that his reading of Dennett was the correct one and that Dennett was backtracking from his previous statement, Wright had some speculation for the sudden change.
Still, even if the atheists’ slope isn’t all that slippery, there are reasons for them to balk at the first step. The concession Dennett (in my view) made on that videotape could be enough to move a person from atheist to agnostic. Further, this concession highlights the fact I noted above: that Dennett’s assertions of ultimate purposelessness have never rested on any solid logical or empirical foundation. He says of natural selection (rather as monotheists say of God) that it is the undesigned designer, the prime mover of purpose. Well, maybe so. And maybe not. Neither view is self-evidently true or self-evidently false. That’s why I’ve long thought agnosticism is the most intellectually defensible position one can take: it is just the plain acknowledgment of uncertainty. But some people on both sides of the question—true believers and confirmed atheists—seem to find uncertainty threatening.
Now, I dispute Wright’s claim that agnosticism is the most intellectually defensible position one can take – I think theism is the most defensible position, that the arguments for certain particular theisms are compelling, and that atheism is ultimately the least likely option. But I do agree that a concession like Dennett’s – and a view like Wright’s – could be enough to shift a person in the direction he notes. Indeed, I’ve long thought that one of the greatest fears some atheists have of ID is that it would do precisely that – start advocating a design perspective in evolution itself, either kicking the claims of ateleology into the ‘unknown’ column, or out and out leading to a more teleological reading of evolution. It would disarm them of arguably the only intellectual weapon they have.
Put another way: I think it’s clear that many design-deniers are very emotionally and intellectually invested in evolution, in the broad sense. Many design proponents have seen this as reason to try and sink evolution, reasoning that if they succeed in that capacity they’ll take the design-deniers with them. My own advice? Consider planting the ID flag in evolution as well. I think design proponents will be pleasantly surprised with the results.