Friday, June 10, 2005


Intelligent Design and the WatchMaker

From the diaries over on DailyKos, Science Friday-- Can design be intelligent anyway?:
One thing that has puzzled me about the intelligent design movement is its ignorance of how actual design happens. They claim that the existence of a pocket watch in a field implies a watchmaker, but it in fact doesn't - it implies the existence of thousands of watchmakers and a vast industrial system for making watches. It isn't an argument for God, but a nice example of how artifacts themselves evolve.

No one person invented the pocket watch. It came about gradually, through hundreds of small innovations. No one person even invented its core mechanism, the escapement. It first appeared in monastary clocks in the 13th century, was substantially improved by Huygens and Robert Hooke in the 18th, and has been tweaked ever since. There are dozens of hits on escapement even in the current US patent database, 700 years after its invention.

No one person even could invent a pocket watch. Its features are determined by a constant interaction between its makers and its users. Even simple things like how big it should be cannot be known in advance. Some users like it large so that it can be shown off or is easy to read, and some like it small to minimize weight. Some makers find it cheaper to build large because the tolerances are looser, and some to build small to save material. Even Robert Hooke, one of the smartest people of all time, didn't come up with the final form of the escapement, and that's only one part of a watch.

Watches aren't examples of blinding flashes of inspiration. They change gradually over time from one shape to another as their mechanisms change and tastes change. Hmmm, a constant play between form and function, with popular features getting fast widespread adoption - what other process does this remind one of?

/jlr (John Redford,

Hat tip to goatchowder

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