“The wings of a butterfly are meant to avoid” … and other design language

Posted on 01/17/11 18 Comments

My recent flutterby into the symmetical design of a butterfly elicited some fine comments including the following highly informed and articulate comment from Victoria Palmer:

Actually the pattern on the wings of a butterfly is more to deter predators then to attract a mate. Mates are found by smell, or pheromones. In fact, some female butterflies are inseminated by the males while they are still in the chrysalis. The wings of a butterfly are meant to avoid being someones dinner. They may try to trick predators into thinking that the butterfly is actually a bird, by mimicking the patterns of feathers and eyes on each wing, as seen on the wings of Owl and Morpho Butterflies among others. They may also be attempting to make the predator think they are poisonous (bright coloured insects are usually poisonous or pretending to be) like the Viceroy. Another method is camoflauge. The colour and pattern on many types of butterflies wings help them to blend into the their habbitat and stay alive.

I have altered Victoria’s comment in one respect: I added red colored font to the design language. This is hardly unusual (the design language that is, not the adding of red coloring to font, although I suspect that isn’t that unusual either). Indeed, anyone who has spent time watching Lorne Greene’s “New Wilderness” or Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America” a generation ago, or (more recently) anything narrated by David Attenborough (most notably the magisterial “Earth” and “Life in the Undergrowth”) or PBS’ program “Nature” will encounter time and again narrators depending constantly upon recourse to design language. In other words, the tendency to see design written into “the nature of things” (with a nod to Canadian David Suzuki), the ubiquity of our tendency to fall back into design language and explanations, is certainly telling.

A reasonable way to approach epistemology is to treat our belief dispositions as innocent until proven guilty. If we have strong predispositions to believe there are minds other than our own, and that there is an external material world, that moral oughts depends on more than fleeting subjective preference, that the world looks old because it is, that animals feel pain, and so on, then we ought to accept these beliefs unless we have very strong reasons to deny them.

Victoria’s informed discussion of the multiple purposes of butterfly wings illustrates once again that this is also true of design language when thinking about the natural world, be it butterfly wings that are for tricking predators, or an eye that is for seeing, or a heart that is for pumping blood, or a mouth that is for putting a foot into (as I have been known to do).

So with that in mind, what reason do we have to treat such language as a mere facon de parler (apart that is from the changing of theological fashions)?

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    Some interesting thoughts, Randal.

    One thing that I find myself having to think about then, is, how would I rewrite Victoria’s paragraph to remove the “design language”. It might be an interesting exercise. I think it would actually be fairly difficult, which makes me wonder if (at least to a certain extent), there are language limitations forcing us to use design language, rather than a disposition of belief.

    Also, in this particular case, Victoria was raised in a very YEC upbringing, so her disposition of belief leans that way, even when she doesn’t believe it anymore. She now believes the Earth is old, but has mentioned before that when people talk about the Earth being old, she instinctively has a negative reaction to it because of her upbringing. So our disposition of belief is to a great degree caused by the culture we grow up in, and when we can recognize that, it’s at least one reason to be a little extra suspicious of it.

    Not to say I’m really disagreeing with you… just pointing out how there are reasons to not too quickly assume that (a) the design language implies a particular disposition of belief and (b) the disposition of belief should be assumed to be innocent.

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    One other thought – the language you highlight in red seems to me more “purpose” language rather than “design” language.

    Does purpose necessitate design? If so, what do we even mean when we talk about things being used for unintended purposes? When we say “unintended purpose”, we have a disposition of belief that purpose without design is possible – is there any reason to treat such language as a mere facon de parler? ;-)

    • randal

      The phrase “unintended purpose” suggests that one individual has appropriated an object for one purpose when another agent(s) intended it for another purpose. Either way the language of purpose entails design.

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    Well, I’m not sure if “unintended purpose” necessarily suggests that, but either way, if we can talk about something having a purpose without any agent intending that purpose or designing anything for that purpose, then I don’t see the language of purpose antailing design.

    At the very least, it most certainly shows that we can talk about purpose without having a disposition of belief that that purpose was part of a design, and that’s really what’s important in this particular discussion.

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      To clarify myself (as I’m not sure I was clear at all), whether “purpose” technically implies design doesn’t matter. What only matters is whether the person using purpose language believes it entails design. If the person using purpose language does not believe that purpose entails design, then there is no way of saying that the purpose language means that the user has a belief disposition towards design.

      For example, I can say, “The sun rises.” While technically, this phrase entails that the sun is orbiting the Earth, I do not use the language in such a way, and so if I say, “The sun rises”, it in no way means I’m using “helocentric language”, or that I have a belief disposition that the sun goes around the earth. The phrase my technically entail that, but that is not how I’m using it. I am, however, possibly using it, because the English language has been around a lot longer than the knowledge that the sun doesn’t go around the earth, and also because my language is limited in that there really isn’t any other good way to say it within our language in culture that is easy and quick to say and understand.

      In the end, while I have several issues with your argument, I think the big issue is connecting what you call “design language” (but I think would be better called “purpose language”, and connecting that to “belief disposition”. I don’t think such language really means such a belief disposition necessarily (or even likely) exists.

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    Wow. I said “user” instead of “person”. This is what happens when I get on these blogs while I’m at work (as a software QA analyst.) I’m also somewhat drugged because of some recent neck pain issues. So, please take my typos with charity. :-)

    • Alexander

      Users are people. The question is which people are also users.

  • http://thepolemicalmedic.wordpress.com/ Thrasymachus

    Let’s see if I can rise to Palmer’s challenge (I hope Victoria Palmer forgives me for the hackery):

    “Mates are found by smell, or pheromones. In fact, some female butterflies are inseminated by the males while they are still in the chrysalis. But the patterns do have advantages in predator avoidance. They may look similar to a bird, or mimick patterns that token for being poisonous. Alternatively, the colour and pattern on many types of butterflies wings camouflage them in their habitat.”

    I think this avoids the purposive language, at least the purposive language that actually counts (I don’t see “Another method is camouflage” as design language, for example.)

    Of course, if I wanted to go to town here, one could flex one’s evolutionary biology muscles and parse all talk of ‘function’ or ‘role’ in terms of a fitness landscape. So for “some butterfly patterns are an attempt at camouflage”, one could say “in certain environments, there is a filter of predation acting across the morph-space of wing colouration, such that those colourations that are similar to those commonly observed in that environment (in the appropriate respects) are under a lower burden of predation. Hence these phenotypes dominate those that do not, and thus those genotypes that code these phenotypes outcompete the others due to differential survival”.

    But that is quite a mouthful.

    The reason we shouldn’t take design language of this sort is more than fictive in the light of evolutionary biology (perhaps pre-theoretically it would have been reasonable). Is that we are aware of these mechanisms, and how they give the appearance of design. Yet the reason they seem ‘optimized’ for a given biological function is not them being tailor made, but rather a long process of randomization and differential survival trending to the peaks of the fitness landscape.

    Besides, almost all the design-talk used in the above paragraph seems to be imputing designing motive *to the insects*. Taken literally, this is absurd: butterfly’s aren’t somehow designing their wing colours to ‘try and trick’ predators and weighing that up against other evasion strategies: they can’t ‘try to do anything’.

    Of course, careless design talk is misleading, but the more involved explanation, rattled off each time, is tiresome. So we ‘take as read’ that purposive language about various species scheming against each other and developing behaviour strategies almost never means them actually doing this, but rather the roles the mistress of survival has invited them to play. (Another danger is such talk can lead to a rabid adaptionism – that *every* phenotypic feature has an explanation in adaptive advantage. Sometimes ‘just happens’ is closer to the mark.)

  • Shawn

    Design language versus proof of a designer is the issue here (albeit well hidden).

    The innocent until proven guilty analogy sounds reasonable and logical until you look closer at what is being posited as “innocent” i.e. a personal feeling, and what is meant by innocent. i.e. that it is reality or truth.

    Is it reasonable for a person under the influence of LSD to assume his experiences/feelings are accurate reflections of reality? They appear very real to his senses/memory.

    No, you will say that we/he knows that he took a mind altering chemical, which explains his experiences. However, very similar experiences have been described by people meditating, including Christians. Dreaming is also a very close approximation, which many (again including Christian prophets and apostles) choose to interpret as real experiences.

    I’m afraid if one is arguing a case (like ID) based solely on a personal “feeling” that is not provable by any known method of investigation, then I’m afraid automatic acceptance of it’s innocence (read truth) is unreasonable and illogical.

    Bring on the snake oil salesmen if you want me to accept that premise.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’ll try expressing a similar point alongside Thrasymachus.

    The language of intention is used a lot in many fields despite the fact that it doesn’t literally apply. As Daniel Dennett has noted, people even speak of a thermostat ‘wanting’ to keep the temperature stable. (What he calls ‘as-if’ itentionality, where something that does not, in fact, intend anything is spoken of as if it had intentions.)

    Part of this is because humans are social beings, and this colors their perceptions. We like, and intuitively grasp, stories about agents and purposes. (An example here.) It’s a very useful way to get information across.

    Another reason it applies to biology particularly is that a large fraction of the domain of study actually does have intentions.

    But the language above can be cast in ‘design-neutral’ form. E.g. “Actually, butterflies with the class of patterns we see tend to successfully reproduce more frequently than butterflies without such patterns. This is primarily because such butterflies tend not to suffer as much predation. (The patterns, however, do not appear to affect mating to a significant degree.) Thus, genes that result in such patterns generally become more frequent in successive generations, even to the point of fixation.

    While more ‘technically correct’ than the original, like Thrasymachus’ phrasing, it’s kind of a mouthful. We can take advantage of the ‘hardware-accelerated’ intention-modelling ‘modules’ in the human brain by casting the phenomenon in the form of agents with purposes. But we are still ultimately resorting to ‘as-if’ intentionality, in the same way that explaining bimetallic thermal expansion switches is more difficult than telling your three-year-old, “the thermostat wants to keep the temperature stable”.

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      “But we are still ultimately resorting to ‘as-if’ intentionality, in the same way that explaining bimetallic thermal expansion switches is more difficult than telling your three-year-old, “the thermostat wants to keep the temperature stable”.”

      This comment is particularly interesting, as Victoria works as the horticulturalist at a butterfly conservatory and she spends a great deal of time explaining this sort of thing to children who visit.

  • Shawn

    While I’m no biologist, my understanding is that natural selection doesn’t “design” outcomes, but results in certain beneficial (to a species’ ongoing survival) biological features being selected for (and others against).

    A process which could look like an intentional “design” was being followed, when in fact, it is just random improvements being kept and disabilities being rejected.

    If there was any design (and I’m not conceding there is), it is in the fact that there is a possibility for random mutations to occur, not in their results.

  • afpierce

    Launguage, though it liberates, it constrains.

    I am often left bemused by the language used to describe what are meant to be evolutionary processes. It almost invariably expresses a form of intent or purpose as opposed to expressing the pure accident of evolution as noted by Shawn. I do wonder, particularly of the TV hosts, if they hear what they’re saying. They make it sound like the species under scrutiny “changed itself by it’s own design for very specific ends.”

    If we take the underlying presupposition to be “All life intends to survive!” as a basis for this then we still have to explain how evolutionary changes seem to create a higher degree of dependancy and serve to narrow the food chain a species fits into (as though the wings grew eyes so only certain birds would recognise it as food). One could argue that a species intends to survive only in its own self-interest but we insist at the same time that species are too intertwined for that to be the case. Lifting one creature out of it’s food chain affects the whole chain not just that creature — no, it is all too complex am screams to those who are willing to hear, ‘I am created for this’ …

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      Some interesting thoughts, afpierce, but I’m afraid you’re misunderstanding evolution. In evolution, there is no intention, not even an “intention to survive.” It’s simply that mutations that help the species procreate (either by making them survive better or making them sexier in the eyes of others in the species) stick around, simply because the creatures do multiply and create more creatures with that gene.

      Because it lacks this intention, there is plenty of room for species to take suboptimal long term paths… a species could certainly evolve itself to its own doom because of it has no ability to see long term survival.

      Your own argument to me seems to point more towards a blind process, rather than one with intentionality.

      • afpierce

        James, no, I appreciate the ideas of evolution, the interesting bit is the language used by people when describing the effects. That language suggests humans are more comfortable imputing purpose and intent on behalf of changes experienced by a species rather than constantly attributing everything to chance:

        *by chance* the pattern on the wings of a butterfly deter predators. *by chance* mates are found by smell, or pheromones. *by chance* some female butterflies are inseminated by the males while they are still in the chrysalis. *by chance* the wings of a butterfly may avoid a specimen from being someones dinner. *by chance* … the problem is this gets way too unwieldy and, more importantly, unappealing to our concept of what we see (or perhaps want to see around us). So animals, in particular but occasionally plants, are imbued with the ability to ‘think’ and to ‘try’ to impose their purpose on the world. I know this isn’t the theory of evolution but it is the ‘nature’ of the discourse around it and perhaps for a reason …

        • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

          Ah, I see what you’re saying now, afpiece; thanks for clarifying.

          “I know this isn’t the theory of evolution but it is the ‘nature’ of the discourse around it and perhaps for a reason.”

          I’m sure there is a reason for it, and myself and others above had been discussing possible reasons for it.

          Our language is so full of metaphorical and figurative language, we can hardly talk for more than a few seconds without saying something that we don’t mean in a literal sense. Because of this, I find it to be a bit of a stretch to say that in this particular instance, this one specific kind of figurative language, because we use it, we must on some level believe it to be true literally.

          So far I have not seen any argument or evidence as to why this particular form of figurative language must entail that we have a disposition of belief that it’s literal meaning is true. What makes “design” language special and different from all other forms of figurative language?

          So far nobody in this thread has given any reasons why – and that is what I’m looking for.

          As I mentioned in a previous post – I actually agree with Randal’s definition of intelligent design. I just do not see this argument as terribly helpful – there are still a few dots that need to be connected.

  • http://www.atheistspot.com James

    The more interesting question here is not whether there is design but if there is intention. Are the butterfly’s wings designed by evolution, an intelligence, or both? There mere appearance of design alone cannot decide that question.

  • Shawn

    Whilst not wanting to discourage minds inquiring as to the “nature” of the universe, we (logical realists) should be careful not to start treating possibilities as likelihoods.

    In the end, what ID’ers are doing is telling the world they KNOW how the universe was created because it “looks like” or “feels like” some agent must have intentionally caused it’s creation.

    Their evidence? The existence of complexity in the biology of organisms.

    It’s really complicated, so it can’t have happened by “accident”. Accident is a loaded word in itself. Accident implies it wasn’t “meant” to come out that way (which implies it was “meant” to come out a specific way in the first place”).

    Is the effect of gravity on an apple falling to the ground an “accident” or just how things “are”.

    Does a monkey worry about how a banana tree was “created” (maybe, but I assume not).

    If you want to argue you KNOW something is the cause of something, then you should be prepared to provide logical evidence to back up your argument.

    In the arena of ID, the evidence must be:
    1. of the existence of your design agent
    2. of the design agent’s method and results

    Randal seems happy with “we ought to accept these beliefs unless we have very strong reasons to deny them”.

    Reverse onus of evidence = reverse logic = incredible premise.