Let's assume that someone is an educated and intelligent person from the 17th or 18th century. They've been through the enlightenment, they know of the scientific method and have a scientific world view, they believe in logic and reason as the ultimate sources of truth, etc...but they still haven't discovered the theory of evolution and don't know about Darwin's strange inversion.

  • Wouldn't such a person be forced to accept the argument from design, based on the empirical fact (from the 18th century perspective) that complex objects require an intelligent/intentional designer to acquire their complex structure?

  • Would the intricate complexity of the biosphere be a legitimate reason to believe in a first cause or creator?

  • How would someone argue against the argument from design without the theory of evolution?

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    17th or 18th century Western. The design theory never was raised in the Eastern religions. In fact, Patanjali (B.C.) put forth a theory of evolution in his Yoga Aphorisms. The design theory was dismissed in arguments ages ago in the East as being illogical. Feb 22, 2016 at 4:19
  • Hegels theory seems both compatible with evolution and some notion of god. Feb 22, 2016 at 5:29
  • @MoziburUllah , I'm fine with that. My question is more specific: The counter argument to the argument from design in most "lay" discussions is "We don't need a designer because evolution shows how there can be design without a designer". I want to know if somehow if the theory of evolution is the only possible counter argument to the argument from design? Feb 22, 2016 at 5:39
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    In the first few pages of "The Blind Watchmaker", Dawkins says that while design may not be a positive argument for the existence of God, without the theory of evolution there is no satisfactory alternative explanation, so an atheist could not really be satisfied with his position.
    – Bumble
    Feb 22, 2016 at 14:26
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    The intelligent and enlightened individual might well realise that a designer is typically far more complex than anything that it might design. While not a formal proof, it may be enough to convince the individual that Occam’s razor should be invoked because it makes the problem more complex rather than solving it.
    – Frog
    Jul 19, 2021 at 19:42

10 Answers 10


Arguably, the historical importance of the argument from design has been distorted by its centrality in the writings of biologist and anti-theologian Richard Dawkins, who has been vocal about his belief that it is unanswerable outside of the Theory of Evolution. It's far from clear that either the religious or the scientific establishment of the time gave it the importance that Dawkins sees in it.

With that said, the choice to see the hand of God in any particular phenomenon is essentially a matter of faith. If you were an atheist of the time, and wanted to reject the argument from design, you could have simply stated that you did not know where the complexity in the world came from, but that you were committed, in principle, to the idea it must have naturalistic causes.

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    "anti-theologian Richard Dawkins, who has been vocal about his belief that it is unanswerable outside of the Theory of Evolution. " I wonder if Dawkins realizes the implications of this position: If it is indeed unanswerable outside of evolution, than for the vast majority of human history theism was the most rational position to adopt and therefore, it can't be trivialized the way he and sam harris do all the time. Feb 22, 2016 at 17:28
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    The following is a direct quote from Dawkins: "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." That seems to support your point. BTW, I happened on the following link while hunting down that quote, you might find it interesting. No endorsement of the site or the contents by me is intended: talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA602_1.html Feb 22, 2016 at 18:11
  • I would suggest that Christopher Hitchens was more influential in this regard.
    – user48488
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:35
  • Indeed. And we don't truly understand abiogenesis, we just expect to one day.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 19, 2021 at 17:14
  • @AlexanderSKing: Excellent point. He has a blind spot on the issue. Brett Weinstein challenged him on the idea of religion as a parasitic meme complex, saying over time parasites tend to symbiotise. But that emergent schools (or cults) are much more likely to parasitic, and cheekily asked if New Atheism is a better candidate for parasitic meme complex. Dawkins edited the question and his floundering spluttering answer out of the debate.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 19, 2021 at 17:19

Swami Vivekananda (late 19th century) commenting on the Design Theory (Complete Works, V6, pp 97-98; available here under the heading Notes of Class Talks and Lectures, subheading The Design Theory - http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_6/vol_6_frame.htm):

The idea that nature in all her orderly arrangements shows design on the part of the Creator of the universe is good as a kindergarten teaching to show the beauty, power, and glory of God, in order to lead children in religion up to a philosophical conception of God; but apart from that, it is not good, and perfectly illogical. As a philosophical idea, it is entirely without foundation, if God is taken to be omnipotent.

If nature shows the power of God in creating the universe, (then) to have a design in so doing also shows His weakness. If God is omnipotent, He needs no design, no scheme, to do anything. He has but to will it, and it is done. No question, no scheme, no plan, of God in nature.

The material universe is the result of the limited consciousness of man. When man becomes conscious of his divinity, all matter, all nature, as we know it, will cease to exist.

The material world, as such, has no place in the consciousness of the All-Presence as a necessity of any end. If it had, God would be limited by the universe. To say that nature exists by His permission is not to say that it exists as a necessity for Him to make man perfect, or for any other reason.

It is a creation for man's necessity, not God's. There, is no scheme of God in the plan of the universe. How could there be any if He is omnipotent? Why should He have need of a plan, or a scheme, or a reason to do anything? To say that He has is to limit Him and to rob Him of His character of omnipotence.

For instance, if you came to a very wide river, so wide that you could not get across it except by building a bridge, the very fact that you would have to build the bridge to get across the river would show your limitation, would show your weakness, even if the ability to build the bridge did show your strength. If you were not limited but could just fly or jump across, you would not be under the necessity of building the bridge; and to build the bridge just to exhibit your power to do so would show your weakness again by showing your vanity, more than it would show anything else.

Monism and dualism are essentially the same. The difference consists in the expression. As the dualists hold the Father and Son to be two, the monists hold them to be really one. Dualism is in nature, in manifestation, and monism is pure spirituality in the essence.

The idea of renunciation and sacrifice is in all religions as a means to reach God.

From our human perspective, monistic traditions have no need for a design theory. It is only in dualistic monotheistic traditions that the concept arises. As Vivekananda points out, the material universe is the result of the limited consciousness of man. In monistic traditions there is no universe, no awareness by the Godhead of the universe. All this is only an apparent manifestation.

The appearance of design is only from our limited consciousness, in a small segment of what is perceived, by us, as time. From what may be conceived as the larger scheme of the universe, infinite space and time, what we may perceive as design is only a series of haphazard events when seen through the lens of infinity.

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    Thanks. Awesome quote. What does Swami Vivekananda say about the problem of evil? It seems that the quote you mention would destroy most western theodicies as well. Feb 22, 2016 at 5:43
  • That there is no plan or design is spoken of in the West in Plotinus' Sixth Ennead, 7th Tractate. He also gives a good perspective on evil in the Six Enneads. Vivekananda spoke in several instances that the 'problem of evil' only arises in monotheistic traditions. There is no problem of evil in monistic traditions as there is no evil. Evil is perception only. There is no absolute evil, no devil. Feb 22, 2016 at 8:51

Just because we evolve, does not mean the evolution is happening due to random chance. There could be force of divine mind behind the evolution. I for one am not convinced that anything in the universe is truly random unless it was specifically designed to be so ( to make it more interesting ) Remember randomness is just a perspective - in other words it makes available more information that was not available previously. So from the point of view of divine (that is omniscient) nothing is random.

  • I am not asking whether evolution and theism are compatible. I am asking a very specific question about the argument from design, please re-read. Feb 22, 2016 at 17:30
  • The non-intelligent hypothesis always put random chance into the mix. Due to probability, everything just happened to turn out the way it did. I don't think ecessarily prove it, just state it. The argument from design is also just stated (or experienced) but not proven. If you make the universe itself intrinsically intelligent, you remove the need for a creator as the creator may be part (or a superset) of the universe. We are going back to the very essence of what we are, not sure you are actually going to get a proof. Just an understanding from observation and experience.
    – kns98
    Feb 22, 2016 at 17:41
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    Illogical and no more probable than the existence of the flying spaghetti monster.
    – user48488
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:37
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    Evolutionary biology says nothing about whether or not the universe is fundamentally deterministic.
    – Sandejo
    Jul 20, 2021 at 2:22

It seems rather simple to answer the first to questions.

To answer the first question, although an individual would likely accept a divine creator of the biosphere, they could merely accept that things were as they were and had always been (a common idea that was present in cosmology before Fr. Lemaître introduced the Big Bang theory into the mix). However, as it serves as a logical bridge, a divine creator seems to be the only answer. Granted, this could be an affect of my own relativism through which my logic influences my conclusion in a way that supports my desired answer, rather than the actual answer. Similarly could an individual believe if they were a pre-Darwin vehement atheist draw a logical conclusion that supports their desired conclusion that no God/first mover exists.

The second question is also one where our answer may be determined by our desired conclusion rather than using true logic to determine the actual conclusion. One might say, "yes because intricate designs cannot occur due to randomness, therefore a divine creator must exist." As well as one might say, "by the laws of mere biology (without any intercession from any higher power), things came to be by a series of creatures were reached and a few survived." The latter assumes a post-Darwin person. Furthermore, someone else might argue that a first mover may not even be responsible for the complexity of the biosphere, whose existence can be proven by the mere existence of anything at all and has no effect of the current state of the universe. So is it a possibility to argue/believe biological complexity for a notion of a divine creator? Yes because it can be argued. Can someone believe in a first creator without looking at the biosphere? Simply, yes. Therefore, it's overall legitimacy is determined by the individual who makes the argument, which can be influenced by other arguments brought forth to the individual. This is not to say that the existence of a first mover is determined by individuals and is not universal, but that an individual can use the biosphere as legitimate or not in their argument.

Lastly, I went over this a little above, but yes, someone can. It's an idea that permeated cosmology for a while when a stagnant universe was assumed. This assumed that the universe just kind of had existed and would continue on into infinity. So the base argument would be that everything had already existed and would continue to exist, if nothing acted upon anything else (e.g. Extinctions could still occur). While there is a clear logical flaw with this argument (cue St. Thomas Aquinas), it was accepted at one point in another field anyway, meaning that as long as it is generally accepted amongst a community of people, the argument can seem to have little to no logical flaws without question from the individuals who actually believe this argument (e.g. Donald Trump and his voters).

Conclusions- 1- not necessarily. It depends on the person. 2- it, again, depends on the person 3- yes, but it would almost seem absurd…


Darwin got his idea presumably from mixing his prior education with observations of nature. At this time, many other people collected observations about nature, much more thoroughly than in previous centuries. The more observations on nature are made, the more likely repeated patterns are discovered.

So one way to answer this question is that every intelligent person, without knowing about the theory of evolution, will eventually come up with a theory of common descent of diverse biological life, if they continuously learn about observations from nature.

So what mankind before Darwin lacked was not a single genius with a brilliant idea, but just all the observations about the millions of plant and animal species on the planet, beyond just knowing a handful of farm animals (as many as would fit a boost in pairs), and a few plants.

And with any theory of common descent (no matter what species are involved), a curious person would investigate on the mechanics of common descent, and eventually discover hereditary trait rules, genetics and mutations (though it might take a few generations to develop the technology and run certain experiments).

If in the other hand an intelligent person was kept in the dark about the wealth of knowledge from observing nature, common descent theories would seem unlikely (e.g. a common ancestor of a duck and a cat does not seem possible to a person without biological knowledge), and without common descent, life form emerging from anything else than design would seem difficult to argue for.

It is not the theory of evolution that supports itself and refutes intelligent design, it is the wealth of knowledge about nature and biology that inevitably leads to the theory of evolution as sufficient and most reasonable explanation for life.

The key guide that leads to unguided design is common descent, which was already suggested before Darwin, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_descent, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence_of_common_descent, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_evolutionary_thought


It might be worth noting that Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution; he popularised it. Common descent was known for a while back then, as discovered by a catholic priest that was trying to figure out how god created everything.

That said; no, even lacking any information on common descent or evolution, assuming a divine creator is not considered scientifically valid untill there is positive evidence that life has, indeed, been specially created. "It exists" does not point to a creator, assuming one exists is a 'god of the gaps' argument. "I don't know how this could be, therefore a diety has done it" (going from that position to any one specific god is an entirely different can of worms). One would need to study life for evidence of special creation before a creator can be assumed. The priest i already mentioned was doing just that when he found the first indication of common descent

  • Common descent was known for a while back then, as discovered by a catholic priest that was trying to figure out how god created everything - I have never heard of this. Can you give some more information so I can read about it?
    – TKoL
    Jul 20, 2021 at 8:50
  • @TKoL; the Augustinian monk "Gregor Mendel" worked on common descent; mainly in plant life (for farming). He realized that you could create entirely new 'breeds' of plants by cross-breeding, and saw the same in animals, giving hints to common descent, since some breed did mix, but others did not. there is an interesting read on this on wikipedia "evolution and the catholic church
    – ThisIsMe
    Jul 20, 2021 at 10:30

Wouldn't such a person be forced to accept the argument from design, based on the empirical fact (from the 18th century perspective) that complex objects require an intelligent/intentional designer to acquire their complex structure?

Would the intricate complexity of the biosphere be a legitimate reason to believe in a first cause or creator?

How would someone argue against the argument from design without the theory of evolution?

In my opinion, there is one contentious point with the idea that life had to have an intelligent creator in the pre-Evolution world, and that is the acknowledgement that minds are themselves complex, much more complex than the meat in our muscles.

How did the complexity of our bodies arise!?! Surely it's too complex to come about naturally, via random chance, so an intelligent creator must have done it! But, then what of the complexity of the intelligent creator? If thought and mind and intelligence itself is complex, then the question is only moved back, not answered - now the question is "How did the complexity of the intelligent creator arise!?! Surely it's too complex to come about naturally."

So the problem with assuming an intelligent creator in this pre-evolution world is that it doesn't answer the question, it just creates a brand new equivalent question.


Not at all. Look at Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion a full 30 years before Darwin and Wallace's Theory of Evolution. For example, he says, (Part 7, paragraph 8):

Right, cries Philo: this is the topic on which I have all along insisted. I have still asserted, that we have no data to establish any system of cosmogony. Our experience, so imperfect in itself, and so limited both in extent and duration, can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things. But if we must needs fix on some hypothesis; by what rule, pray, ought we to determine our choice? Is there any other rule than the greater similarity of the objects compared? And does not a plant or an animal, which springs from vegetation or generation, bear a stronger resemblance to the world, than does any artificial machine, which arises from reason and design?

How can someone living in a universe where everything/nothing is "created" distinguish everything they have ever experienced to something else? We can distinguish between "man made" and "natural", because we have experiences of each. Any attempt at projecting similarity from parts to the whole can only draw from arbitrary properties, (part 2, paragraph 8).

If we see a house, Cleanthes, we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder; because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking, that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause; and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider.

This is one of many places which points out that analogy from a part to the whole can't be maintained across such a large gap. That obviously human made things imply a designer, can't be used as an analogy for the entire universe and for a supposedly infinitely intelligent being.

There are many other parts, but directed more toward the negative religious implications -- that argument from design doesn't necessarily imply a single designer or one which relates to the usual understanding of a deity. For example, he brings up the Hindu story of the Universe being created by a spider's web as being equally valid under this analogy.

  • Thanks. I always thought Hume was much earlier than Darwin. Feb 22, 2016 at 5:41
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    This is answer is confusing in at least one way -- the link doesn't at all seem to show that Hume "completely dismantles argument from design" nor does Hume's Dialogues concerning natural religion Perhaps a more nuanced wording would be in order?
    – virmaior
    Feb 22, 2016 at 9:39
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    The link isn't to Hume's paper, it's to one person's summary of a Hume paper, and that summary doesn't make your point clear. You should cite the paragraph that you think proves your point. Feb 22, 2016 at 21:45

What do you mean by "if it was not for the theory of evolution"?

If nobody had ever come up with the idea of evolution yet, that would obviously not make a difference. A theory is valid even if nobody thought of it yet. So the "intelligent design" theory wouldn't be justified. More people might believe in it, incorrectly, so more people would be mistaken, but it wouldn't be justified.

On the other hand, if the theory of evolution was actually wrong, disproven, then some over theory why life is the way it is would have to be right. If the theory of evolution was wrong, then some facts would have to be different than they are. With these facts different, evidence against intelligent design might not be valid. But that's like saying "if 2 + 2 wasn't 4, then it might be justified to say that 2 + 2 = 5". Sure. But 2 + 2 is 4.

And sorry, but "the intricate complexity of the biosphere" is much more easy to believe than some "first cause or creator". It's much more easy to believe that this intricate complexity has a reason that I don't yet understand, than to believe that there is a creator which would have to be somehow related as well.

  • It seems like you're using "justified" in a non-standard manner, you might want to clarify. Feb 23, 2016 at 17:01
  • @gnasher729 1/2 Information theory has evolved and information theorists now claim natural selection cannot add information, and hence cannot add complexity. It can weed out the unfit but that actually decreases the information in the genome by eliminating forms. Simple changes like longer necks can happen but complex genomes cannot evolve by selection from simple ones. And many mutation-based increases in complexity, even over billions of years, are looking more and more unlikely.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 25, 2021 at 17:05
  • @gnasher729 2/2 Lee Spetner’s book “Not by Chance” outlines this saying “All point mutations that have been studied on the molecular level turn out to reduce the genetic information not to increase it... Not even one mutation has been observed that adds a little information to the genome.” Also, synthetic organic chemist Dr James Tour, who is constantly slandered for pointing this out, makes it clear that, despite claims to the contrary, the best technology and best organic chemists cannot build even some simple building blocks of even single-celled life: youtu.be/r4sP1E1Jd_Y
    – Al Brown
    Jul 25, 2021 at 17:05

We will find out. Information theorists have proven that natural selection can only reduce information in the genome and not increase it, and hence natural selection cannot drive evolution. Intuitively and loosely, yes unfit modes can be weeded out, but new complexity cannot come to be via natural selection (survival of the fittest cannot create anything NEW). Dr Lee Spetner’s book “Not by Chance” outlines this. And as for mutations, he also notes that, “All point mutations that have been studied on the molecular level turn out to reduce the genetic information not to increase it... Not even one mutation has been observed that adds a little information to the genome.”

Also, synthetic organic chemist Dr James Tour, who is constantly slandered for pointing this out, makes it clear that, despite claims to the contrary, the best technology cannot build even some simple building blocks for single-celled life: https://youtu.be/r4sP1E1Jd_Y

Add this to the fine-tuned universe, and I do not know what I thought I did about where this reality came from. We will see if people respond as youve asked in your question. (They may just avoid these inconvenient facts).

Why aren’t more scientists talking about information theory showing natural selection cannot increase genome information? A case:

Dr. James Tour

2007 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS) for his achievements in organic chemistry

2007 the NASA Space Act Award for his development of carbon nanotube reinforced elastomers

2008 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology

2009 Ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade by Thomson Reuters

2009 fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

2012 ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society

2013 "Scientist of the Year" by R&D Magazine

2014 One of "The 50 most Influential Scientists in the World Today" by TheBestSchools.org

2015 inducted into the National Academy of Inventors.

2016 Published work stating evolution creating the cell was impossible.

No more notable awards as of 2020.

  • While mutations may not add "genetic information", this is not the point. Yes, it is known that many simple organisms have much more genomes than humans, so what? The question is which genetic information is expressed, not how much (mostly repetetive) information there is. A huge brain doesn't make a genius either. Thus, I think your suggestive tone is misplaced and the conclusions are flawed. At a minimum, this answer is one-sided.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 19, 2021 at 11:27
  • Complex genomes exist. They were not created from simple genomes via mutations nor natural selection, as I outlined. So we now have no explanation at all where they came from. Thats the point.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 19, 2021 at 11:35
  • Yes, and Spetner himself suggests environment-triggered forms of mutations that involve genetic rearrangements which are not point-mutations. How do you define "complex genomes"? Simply by having the same genome copied some million times and having a mechanism for establishing new sequences as non-repetetive (which are the only ones which have anything to do with organisational complexity of the organism), you can have more complexity from the same "information", especially considering environmental intake.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 19, 2021 at 11:47
  • Youre actually on the internet arguing that complex genomes might not exist, by any definition?
    – Al Brown
    Jul 19, 2021 at 11:56
  • No, I am arguing that you have not provided any meaningful definition of "complex genome" which fits your arguments, probably a pattern borrowed from your sources.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 19, 2021 at 11:58

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