Sunday, 4 January 2009

Intelligent design: might there be something in it?

At the heart of the debate about the origins and development of species, the argument goes something like this.

Those who derive their views from Darwin ultimately depend on the random movement of matter. When a configuration of molecules arbitrarily appears that is particularly suited to its physical environment, it persists while others disappear. The longer-lasting forms may occasionally combine. Most such combinations die out, but small numbers are particularly well suited to the circumstances and therefore flourish. This process gave rise to increasingly complex life forms and the process of evolution leading to its pinnacle in basset hounds, the anopheles mosquito and Silvio Berlusconi.

The Intelligent Design people, on the other hand, argue that no random action could have produced anything as perfect as the eye, or the talent of a Michelangelo, or the charm of Dick Cheney. Only an architect of the universe acting on inspired design for his creation could have willed such things into being.

I have to say that these arguments are not all as convincing as each other. For instance, I’ve worn glasses since I was 25. What’s so perfect about the eye?

The debate has tended to be dominated by experts: scientists, theologians, philosophers. I think it’s time for me to give my view of the issues as a marketing man. Because as I look around, what I see is not the kind of design you’d expect from a beneficent, omnipotent being, but the kind of design you get out of a committee. Having been to a lot of that kind of meeting, I have a pretty good idea of how this one went.

Picture a group sat around a conference table. On the table there are coffee cups, notepads, pens, phones. On his feet at the front is Colin, a design engineer, presenting Earth version 1.0 – the first live release version – to his colleagues in Marketing. Most of them are lost in the technicalities and frankly bored, but suddenly something comes up that gets their attention.

‘We decided that we would extend the principle of sexual reproduction, which we think has proved its worth among other animals, into the human species. The mixture of hereditary material that this provides for will ensure a healthy level of variation which should strengthen the species and allow it to adapt better to changing circumstances.’

‘Right,’ says Alice from Communications Marketing. ‘So what you’re saying is that the production of young – of children, as you say – requires a contribution from both a man and…’ she checks her notes, ‘… a woman?’

‘That’s right.’

‘And how do they get together?’

‘Well, we’ve built in a mechanism that attracts them to each other.’

‘Hold on, that’ll never work,’ says Carol from Product Marketing, ‘I mean there could be hundreds – millions – of them. How are they going to sort themselves out?’

Colin has his answer. ‘There will be couples that have particularly high affinity. They’ll be preferentially drawn towards each other.’

‘What,’ says Carol, ‘you’re going to rely on some kind of stronger attraction between a couple among hundreds of millions? How powerful is it going to have to be?’

‘Hold on, hold on,’ interrupts Nick from PR, ‘I can see some possibilities here. What if sometimes the mechanism did fail? Anne was intended for Steve but he got hooked up with Claire instead. There’d be some tension, some dramatic potential that could make for some pretty good plays and poetry, wouldn’t there?’

Alice pursues this idea. ‘What if instead of being attracted to Claire, Steve got caught up with Henry?’

‘With Henry?’ Colin speaks up for Engineering again. ‘Another man? The whole purpose of the mechanism is to favour sexual reproduction. What would be the point of that?’

‘Well,’ says Alice, ‘that’s just the mechanical objective. That would be satisfied anyway – there’d be plenty of other people. This would be a minority. They might be breaching a taboo. You can imagine that in some groups Steve’s behaviour would be regarded as reprehensible and lead to persecution, in others it would be evidence of a finer sensibility. Either way, you can imagine the films, the ballets, the operas.’

‘But… but… hang on,’ Colin feels the meeting slipping away from him. ‘Think of the pain, the suffering. The ill-matched couples. The children whose parents are looking for a soul partner elsewhere. The conflicts, the suffering. What good can come of it?’

‘What good?’ rejoins Alice. ‘Creativity. Exploration of feeling. Jules et Jim. Six Feet Under. Sex and the City. These things have a price you know.’

This feels plausible to me. Engineering gave way to marketing. Utility was subordinated to creativity.

So we end up with a model of development based on design. Just not necessarily intelligent design.

And an afterthought: what sort of design principle gave men a perfect aiming instrument for peeing through, but left them with insufficient precision to hit the bowl with any consistency?

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

That last after thought is something I find myself wanting to ask my flatmate every morning.