Illustration of me

Semantic Reclamation: Emergent Design Vs Intelligent Design

Sep 13 2021

Professor Ken Miller, who is famous for being the lead expert witness against Intelligent Design at the Dover Trial, has recently proposed that scientists reclaim the word “Design” from the ID movement (ie., the Creationists).

You can listen yourself to his argument for semantic reclamation here in a short discussion he had with James Randerson. I’ve also transcribed a couple of the most relevant quotes here:

ID proponents argue that we can see the hint of design in nature and they use that as evidence against evolution. And that puts scientists in a position of arguing that there is no design in nature — that nature is somehow capricious, arbitrary, random, pointless. Well there is design in nature and we should take that word away from the ID movement and define it in a scientific sense….

Yes design is real but that design emerges from the evolutionary process and the laws of physics and chemistry.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I really like the sound of Emergent Design. Others in comments on PZ Myer’s post have suggested Natural Design or Evolutionary Design or the longer Evolutionary Emergent Design which may work too. However, I prefer the term Emergent Design because I think it sounds better and it can contain more meaning: Emergent Design can also cover such emergent patterns such as evolutionary programming, fractals, Mandelbrot, etc.

PZ Myers, of the ScienceBlog Pharyngula, doesn’t agree with Ken Miller on this:

Look at all the flailings about over the word “theory”; lay people will hear that word being used by scientists and conclude that the creationists must have been right all along long before they get around to remapping their mental connections to design.

Another problem is of even greater concern. The word “design” carries other implications: purpose, planning, calculation. These are not present in evolution!

PZ Myer’s first argument is that it will just give creationists another means to twist our words. And his second argument is that this new use of design differs from current usage. Neither of these arguments are really valid when discussing the pros and cons of semantic reclamation.

Every time a word is reclaimed it is always the dirty word that everyone shies away from. The words are purposefully being twisted from their traditional meanings. Of course, some terms are not so much reclaimed as empowered such as Black and Gay; however, there are several examples of successful semantic reclamations:

  • Punk, something or someone worthless or unimportant; a young hoodlum, becomes the proud Punk rock; and now gets transformed further to a suffix that means a style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking in both fashion and attitude.
  • Queer, disparaging term for homosexuals in the sense of effeminate or unmanly, becomes the proud Queer embracing all who deviate from sexual/gender stereotypes; to now transform and mainstream even further with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
  • Dyke, used disparagingly by many, but like Punk and Queer it is now used proudly by the many of the same people it meant to insult.

Of course, one could point out that the hip hop cultural use of nigger, bitch, and ho haven’t really been all that successfully reclaimed. However, those terms are still also used negatively within the hip hop culture, which makes it hard for these terms to ever take on a new positive meaning.

What does this all have to do with Intelligent Design you might say? Well in this instance, Design isn’t used exactly as an insult, but it is being used as a means of attack. As a result, it has become the dirty word that scientists must shy away from. By being afraid to use the word Design, we are reinforcing the meaning that ID proponents want it to mean. We are empowering it for them not us.

Ken Miller is right. Anyone who looks at nature can plainly see pattern and design. By allowing the ID camp a monopoly on the word Design we are allowing all perceived design to be a win for the creationists. By instead reclaiming Design as Emergent Design we are reclaiming it and empowering it for ourselves.

Back to Blog