"Design"? Don't Panic, It's Only a Metaphor! - Evolution News & Views

Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

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"Design"? Don't Panic, It's Only a Metaphor!

In the Darwinist community there's a general acceptance, however uneasy, of the necessity of speaking in design-related metaphors to describe features of organisms. Such language may be regrettable since it attracts the attention of the bogeyman, "creationism," but really it's kind of unavoidable. In Darwin and Design, Michael Ruse sought to offer solace to fellow Darwinians. He asked,

We still talk in terms appropriate to conscious intention....In biology, we still use forward-looking language of a kind that would not be deemed appropriate in physics or chemistry. Why is this?
His answer:
Organisms, produced by natural selection, have adaptations, and these give the appearance of being designed....If organisms did not seem to be designed, they would not work and hence would not survive and reproduce. But organisms do work, they do seem to be designed, and hence the design metaphor, with all the values and forward-looking, causal perspective it entails, seems appropriate.
So it's precisely because organisms are not really designed, but rather built up by natural selection, that they seem designed. Well, comfort must be taken where it's available.

Unfortunately for the Darwin faithful, the discomfort level keeps getting kicked up notch by notch as the design metaphor proves itself increasingly useful to bioengineers -- as a model to be instantiated in very practical, not merely literary, ways. If you were to imagine that life really does reflect an intelligent purpose, then that purpose would probably be reflected somehow in the genetic material, coded in DNA. So it's of interest that a couple of new projects seek to be in relationship to DNA what your local auto parts store or catalogue is to the cars we drive. Keep in mind that cars and their parts are designed products. The Scientist has an item noting the launch of a "DNA factory."

Need a gene promoter? You may soon be able to order one from a catalog. California synthetic biologists are launching a production facility that will provide free, standardized DNA parts for scientists around the world.

The project, called BIOFAB: International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology -- or just BIOFAB for short -- aims to boost the ease of bioengineering with "biological parts" that are shared resources, standardized and reliable enough that they can be switched in and out of a genome like electronic parts in a radio. If BIOFAB's vision is realized, researchers will be able access an online registry and simply order what they need.

Meanwhile a not-for-profit foundation, BioBricks, seeks to make standard DNA parts available:
Using BioBrickâ„¢ standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer. The DNA sequence information and other characteristics of BioBrickâ„¢ standard biological parts are made available to the public free of charge currently via MIT's Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
Normally, with language, it's the way of metaphors to develop from things in the real world that in turn lend themselves, through a certain limited similarity, to describing other things. So you start with a real chicken or a real fox, which in turn lend their names to a cowardly person or an attractive one. Here, what's happened appears to be just the reverse: first comes the metaphor -- which is only a metaphor, remember -- and only then the instantiation into objects in the real world. Can you think of another instance of a mere metaphor behaving so strangely? I can't.

We'll resist the temptation to draw the obvious conclusion that speaking of the DNA sequence., a metaphor -- at all. Sorry, I guess we didn't resist that temptation after all.


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