Scientists Urge Censorship of Terms Implying Design and Purpose when Describing Life


The fact that design is omnipresent in the living world has created problems for Darwinists who believe that life was not designed but rather evolved. One solution proposed by some evolutionists is to self-censor terms from their writing that imply design. This is a problem because terms that imply design are commonly found in the biological literature, and it has been a problem to replace such terms with more evolution-friendly terms.


Richard Dawkins has defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” (1986, p. 1). A central plank of evolution is the belief that life was not designed nor does life have a purpose except survival, contradicting the common observation that life appears designed and appears to have a purpose. To deal with this problem many evolutionists advocate self-censoring words such as design and purpose when describing life.

Insect behavioral physiologist Graciela Flores published an article in New Scientist in 2005 urging scientists to self-censor terms such as design, gate keeper, and similar expressions in science articles because they convey what she calls “teleological” language. The article was prompted by her reading of a scientific article that used the word “design” in an “unmistakable teleological way,” which she argues is improper. She has “always avoided teleological language, not only because it can be misused when taken out of context, but because it is incorrect.” The reason it is incorrect, she contends, is because “evolution has no purpose” and does not infer an actual designer in the meaning of the commonly used expression “intelligent designer” (Flores 2005, p. 6).

Flores stresses that scientists should be “more careful, in the wake of the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Michael Behe of the Discovery Institute—the most visible arm of the Intelligent Design movement—in which he supports his thesis by using comments of the National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts in the journal Cell” (Flores 2005, p. 12). Behe (2005) deduced that the resemblance of life to engineered mechanisms, such as watches, is “enormously stronger” than what even William Paley imagined. Behe added that in the past half-century science has demonstrated that the cell is powered by millions of nanomachines constructed out of molecules.

An example is the little molecular trucks, called kinesin protein motors, that are used to ferry supplies around the cell (Molloy and Schmitz 2005). These machines literally walk in a bipedal mode along roads in the cell made out of microtubules. Another example Behe cites is the tiny structures resembling outboard motors that push a cell through its watery home.

After observing that a recent issue of a leading science magazine titled Cell was devoted to “molecular machines” and included articles with titles such as, “The Cell as a Collection of Protein Machines” and “Mechanical Devices of the Spliceosome: Motors, Clocks, Springs and Things,” Behe noted that

Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote that “the chemistry that makes life possible is much more elaborate and sophisticated than anything we students had ever considered.” In fact, Dr. Alberts remarked, the entire cell can be viewed as a factory with an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines. He emphasized that the term machine was not some fuzzy analogy; it was meant literally (Behe 2005, p. A-21).

Alberts responded to this article by adding that “the majestic chemistry of life should be astounding to everyone,” but this fact

should not be misrepresented as support for the idea that life’s molecular complexity is a result of “intelligent design.” To the contrary, modern scientific views of the molecular organization of life are entirely consistent with spontaneous variation and natural selection driving a powerful evolutionary process. . . . Because “intelligent design” theories are based on supernatural explanations, they can have nothing to do with science (2005, p. A-16).

Futuyma explains the reason for the aversion against using terms such as “design” in science,

Darwin’s immeasurably important contribution to science was to show how mechanistic causes could also explain all biological phenomena, despite their apparent evidence of design and purpose. By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life process superfluous (1998, p. 5).

Professor Bartelt even recommended that scientists “should become aware that anything they say may be used to further the agenda of the ICR” and other anti-Darwin organizations “and try to write accordingly” (2001, p. 5). In other words, they should self-censor their work to insure that their writings cannot be used to support the case for a designer. The major overriding concern was highlighted at a meeting of leading evolutionary scientists. A dominant political concern of the attendees turned out to be

a fear of attack from fundamentalists. As Gould discovered, creationists seize on any hint of splits in evolutionary theory or dissatisfaction with Darwinism. In the past couple of decades, everyone has become keenly aware of this, regardless of their satisfaction or otherwise with the modern synthesis. “You always feel like you’re trying to cover your rear,” says Love. “If you criticize, it’s like handing ammunition to these folks.” So don’t criticize in a grandstanding way, says Coyne: “People shouldn’t suppress their differences to placate creationists, but to suggest that neo-Darwinism has reached some kind of crisis point plays into creationists’ hands” (Whitfield 2008, p. 284).

Use of Design, Purpose, and Gate Keeper in Science

Examples of terms such as “purpose,” “design,” “invention,” “molecular machine,” and “gate keeper” in the scientific literature are legion. Molecular biologist Saba Valadkhan concluded that the

spliceosome is a huge, quirky molecular machine functioning as the gate keeper of human genetic information. With more than 300 parts, and constantly in flex, it had baffled scientists for two decades (Lempinen 2005, p. 1221, italics mine).

Valadkhan’s research has revolutionized science, holding promise in research areas including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Her work demonstrated that the spliceosome not only helps to copy genetic data and delete introns, but “if something is wrong in the genetic material, the spliceosome usually finds it and discards it” (Lempinen 2005, p. 1221). Specifically, she found that five RNA molecules in the spliceosome are central to the proper functioning of this critically important complex correction system. As a result of her work, she was given the very prestigious Young Scientists Award (Valadakhan 2005, p. 863)

In another example, Neil Shubin and his colleagues at the University of Chicago discussed the role of several “appendices designs” in tetrapods (Shubin 2004, pp. 90–93). Their work illustrates one way to deal with the “problem” of teleological language, namely to use quotes around words that imply teleology, such as in the following example:

Muscle fibers are often depicted as projecting in bundles (fascicles) from an origin on a proximal tendon plate to an insertion more distally. This simply does not do justice to the wide array of muscle “designs” that are apparent throughout the animal kingdom. . . . The varying architectural design of human and other mammalian muscles was used to illustrate the fact that muscles can be “designed” to perform fairly specific functions (Lieber and Fridén 2000, pp. 1647, 1665, italics mine).

Note the word design is used in this quote three times, twice in quotes, evidently to indicate that the muscle just looks like it is designed, but actually is not. Morris explains the reasoning behind this conclusion:

Regardless of how much an organism looks like it had been intelligently designed, evolutionists (without even sounding embarrassed) will insist that natural selection has the power to make it look like it was designed, even though it wasn’t (Morris 2005, p. 1).

In the next example, evolutionists Stephen Hetz and Timothy Bradley, both of the University of California, Irvine, stated that the insect respiratory system was “designed to function most efficiently at high levels of O2 consumption” adding that they “did not intend to imply that the insect’s tracheal system is the result of the work of a designer” (Flores 2005, p. 12). They added that the term design is a “shorthand for an awful lot of ideas, such as that the system has been shaped by selection pressures to have a certain functional consequence” (quoted in Flores 2005, p. 12).

Bradley professes that he prefers the expression “shaped by selection pressure” instead of the word “design.” When such statements by Darwinian scientists are quoted by Darwin critics, the scientists quoted often attempt to claim that they were “misquoted” or “taken out of context” by people who believe structures that look and function like they were designed were actually designed.

Yet another case in point is a paper published in Science observing that “structural materials in nature exhibit remarkable designs” (Aizenberg et al. 2005, p. 275). The authors add that the sponge is “an example of nature’s ability to improve inherently poor building materials” because the sponge design used results in “exceptional mechanical stability” in spite of the poor building materials (Aizenberg et al. 2005, p. 278). The design used is so superior that it produces a textbook example of mechanical engineering and that the Euplectella

skeletal system is designed to provide structural stability at minimum cost, a common theme in biological systems where critical resources are often limited. We believe that the study of the structural complexity of unique biological materials and the underlying mechanisms of their synthesis . . . ultimately will offer new materials concepts and design solutions (Aizenberg et al. 2005, p. 278).

A Cambridge University graduate in natural sciences wrote that “Evolution has been tweaking, adapting, and inventing new forms of complex life for hundreds of millions of years” and of “all the innovations conjured up by evolution” multi-cellular life was the most dramatic (Walker 2003, pp. 8, 201).

Book Titles Use Design Language

Book titles also commonly use teleological language. Professor French explains in his book Invention and Evolution: Design in Nature and Engineering (1988) that “Design for function is even more important than design for appearance. It is also a fascinating pursuit which brings delight and challenge to engineers and others who engage in it.” French then contends that life looks designed, but is not, even though the level of design in life “exceeds” that designed by humans:

Living organisms are examples of design strictly for function, the product of blind evolutionary forces rather than conscious thought, yet far excelling the products of engineering. When the engineer looks at nature he sees familiar principles of design being followed, often in surprising and elegant ways. Sometimes, as in the case of flight, he is inspired to invention: more commonly, he discovers his ideas are already embodied in some animal or plant (French 1988, p. 1).

French adds that the “design in nature” is powerful enough to convince any observer of its “excellence,” yet

so much of it is beyond our understanding at present that we are usually in the position of believing that the design is excellent, without being able to explain it fully. For instance, a cursory examination might suggest that the human knee is a simple pivot or hinge joint, like a door hinge. It is much more complex than that, however (1988, pp. 17–18).

He acknowledged that “while there are cases where natural design does appear to be at fault, it is much more probable that it is our understanding that is lacking when anything seems to us unaccountable or wrong” (1988, pp. 17–18). This observation strongly supports the conclusion that structures that appear designed are, in fact, designed.

Another example is a book titled The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman which is about “The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed” (Tsiaras and Werth 2004). The book explains in text and stunning photographs the “intricately constructed systems and isolated structures” in the human, and freely uses words such as designed, purpose, ingenious, and similar. For instance, the section on page 60 covers the “arterial design” and page 69 describes the “astonishing efficiency” that the “ingenious plumber” used to design the human “sound machine.” Page 80 covers the “brilliantly engineered . . . living skeleton” and page 116 discusses “the wisdom of the body”—the endocrine system.

Reverse Engineering

A major problem with censoring the use of words such as “design” is that scientists in many fields work from a design mind-set called “reverse engineering.” The researcher asks himself, “How was this structure (or system) designed to function?” The thought process is similar to a company purchasing its competitors’ products and then disassembling them to determine how they were engineered with the goal of learning how to improve their own products.

My own experiences in the area of molecular biology were at a major research university from 1986 to date; first as a student, then as a research scientist and associate professor. The foremost question asked is, “How was this cell organelle or structure designed to function?” A whole new field called “systems biology” tries to do just that. Gray explained research on the heat-shock response, which is “the organism’s ability to repair protein damaged by heat or other stresses,” using mathematical modeling to demonstrate how the

complex workings of the heat-shock response reflect features that make the protein repair fast, robust and efficient. “It is how, if you had a good engineer, the process would be designed,” . . . the time is right for systems biology (Gray 2005, p. 4).

Gray recognized that life-science researchers require the use of the analytical tools of engineers

to make sense of data that is just too much for the unaided human brain to handle. But engineers need the data and experiments of biology to test their quantitative models; otherwise, they are just speculating—reverse-engineering natural systems in theory but not in practice. . . . It’s not enough to come up with a design, whether of a spacecraft or a heat-shock reaction. The engineer has to know if the design will work in the real world (2005, p. 4).

In both the scientific and popular literature evolution is often spoken of as having human traits. The reason is that only intelligence can do what evolution has been claimed to have achieved. For this reason writers and scientists have often been forced to personify evolution. Several examples are provided and the reason for this common practice will be discussed in the next section.

The Personification of Evolution

Design is so obvious in life that evolution is commonly spoken of as a person or an entity with human traits such as intelligence, creativity, and even tinkering. For example, Ackerman wrote that “evolution tinkered with creatures immune to oxygen” (2004, p. 252). J. Scott Turner wrote a whole book about evolution as a tinkerer and evolution’s accomplice, homeostasis, which as a pair “eloquently and convincingly” produces design (2007, book jacket). Bridgham et al., wrote that protein evolution occurs by molecular tinkering (2010). Bentley wrote that evolution is both a “creator” and a “designer” (1999). Evolution is also involved in “experimenting” and finds that certain experiments are “very useful” (Man 1978, p. 56). Bentley reckoned that

Evolution has been hard at work creating the myriad forms of life that lived and died on our world for hundreds of millions of years. In that unimaginably vast amount of time, designs of life wholly beyond our current comprehension have emerged. . . . The ability of natural evolution far surpasses our most creative problem solvers” (emphasis added).

Frequent use of the terms “hard at work,” “creating,” “design ability,” and expressions such as “problems to be solved” forced Bentley to remind readers that “Evolution is not a person.”

Other scientists inform us that evolution uses a “strategy” in order to find a “solution” to some problem (Fernald 2001, p. 4). In doing this, evolution has “preserved” things but has also made “quantum leap[s]” where necessary to produce new “creative designs” (Walters 1997, p. 15). Evolution has also “found a solution” to produce “correct outputs” (Sekanina 2005, p. 3). It even is able to “recruit” things, such as “different suites of genes” in order to “solve problems” (Fernald 2004, p. 142). Evolutionary “solutions” to problems in the past included “recruiting existing gene programs” for new functions (Fernald 2004, pp. 142, 146). Along with other human qualities evolution is also ingenious, crafty, and has even managed to have “found a solution” to the problems faced when insects flew into new environments (Iida 2005, p. 36).

The Word Nature

A synonym often used for evolution is the word nature, a term that is likewise commonly personified.1 Expressions such as “nature has created” or “nature has evolved” are common in the scientific and popular literature alike (Walters 1997, p. 20). An example is:

Nature has frequently solved engineering problems that still confound our limited brains. The human eye is nothing more than jelly and sinew, yet its ability to detect contrast far exceeds that of the most sophisticated camera (Sinclair 1985, p. xvii).

If the word nature, or even the term evolution, was replaced with the word God or the words our Creator, the above sentences would make perfect sense in most all cases. Interestingly, a Google search of the word nature or evolution and other terms found the following results: Evolution is “creative” 31,300,000 sites, “ingenious” 1,340,000 sites, “intelligent” 24,100,000 sites, a “designer” 11,900,000 sites, and “solves problems” 2,450,000 sites. Note that many of these sites used these words in different contexts but, nonetheless, a large number of the articles cited did personify biological evolution.

Evolution does “not always behave properly” but can “create problems” just like humans (Walters 1997, p. 8). Nonetheless, evolution is a “relentlessly efficient engineer” and its ingenious design, such as that of smell, creates a “piece of evolutionary wisdom,” which is an example of “nature’s marvel of engineering” (Walters 1997, pp. 3, 11, 13). Hart wrote that, unless one believes

that evolution in humans has reached its ultimate conclusion, the fact that we are not more intelligent than at present does not mean that there is no evolutionary advantage in being more intelligent or that evolution could not boost our capacities in the same way that certain drugs or technology may be able to (2006, p. 22).

University of California evolutionary biologist Michael Rose has observed that children take many risks rough-housing and, to protect them, “evolution has equipped children with parents—who are slower but wiser” (Hamilton 2006). The book titled Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong explained how evolution designed our moral senses (Hauser 2006). There seems to be no limit to the talents and abilities of evolution!


Evolution is spoken of as being a designer hard at work using strategies to find creative solutions to solve problems, such as recruiting genes to deal with some concern, as well as tinkering to solve problems. Evolution also has “foresight” and, for this reason cells evolve “more elaborate . . . mechanisms” to deal with future problems (Walters 1997, p. 20). Furthermore, evolution even has “developed a variety of elaborate signaling systems to maximize the efficiency” of cellular functions (Walters 1997, p. 4). These are merely personification fallacies.

Only a source of infinite intelligence (namely, the God of the Bible) can accomplish what “evolution” purportedly has achieved and, for this reason, many writers find it necessary to personify Darwinism in order to explain the amazingly complex and ingenious feats that they believe evolution has accomplished. One Cambridge PhD even referred to evolution as our “mother” and to time as our “father,” stating that “mother evolution and father time” have “conspired to create a language of different growth factors” (Walters 1997, p. 16). It is difficult to pick up a book on evolution that totally avoids such teleological terminology.


Because of the persistence of those who reject evolution, Flores recommends that scientists never use words such as “design.” She quotes anti-creationist Ken Miller, who states that he would not use the word “design” with students because “they are going to take the language too literally, and it will cause a misunderstanding.” Instead of saying that a structure is designed, Miller stated that expressions like “it evolved” or “was shaped by selection pressure” (to accomplish a certain function) should be used instead.

Michael Ruse even admits that “we all think in terms of design, although not in terms of a hands-on designer,” to refer to the orthodox belief among scientists that “natural selection” or “evolution” designs life. Thus, Flores stresses, it should not be implied in science articles that a “designer” refers to an Intelligent Designer, but rather to the blind watchmaker designer, natural selection.2

Flores adds that “other scientists refuse to self-censor” these words, a position she disagrees with. To support her view she quotes evolutionist Ken Miller who opined that “I wouldn’t like to have to be aware that the enemies are looking over our shoulder” and he emphasized that for this reason scientists must choose their words carefully.3 Note that those who believe intelligent design or are creationists are termed “enemies” of science by these scientists.

These scientists maintain that the universe was not intelligently designed, and claim the conclusion that it was designed is not science, but rather is an attempt to inject one’s philosophy and religion into science. It appears that this is an example where Darwinists have to strain to get around the conclusion that complex nanostructures that clearly appear to be designed are, in fact, designed in the way most of us think of design by intelligence. The controversy is, by their admission, not actually over the question of whether life was designed but rather on the identity of the designer—mutations and natural selection or by an intelligent, omnipotent Designer, whose identity is vastly important.

Acknowledgments: I wish to thank John Woodmorappe, Mary Ann Stewart, and Jody Allen for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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Alberts, Bruce. 2005. Letter to the editor concerning “Intelligent Design.” The New York Times, February 12, p. A-16.

Bartelt, Karen. 2001. Quote mining: The Tradition Continues, Part 2. The Reall News 9 no. 9:1–7.

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______. 2005. Unpublished Letter to Ms. Graciela Flores (the author of the article in The Scientist).

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Bridgham, Jamie T., Geeta N. Eick, Claire Larroux, Kirti Deshpande, Michael J. Harms, Marie E. A. Gauthier, Eric A. Ortlund, Bernard M. Degnan, and Joseph W. Thornton. 2010. Protein Evolution by Molecular Tinkering. PLoS Biology. 8 no. 10:1–13.

Bryant, C. H., S. H. Muggleton, C. D. Page, and M. J. E. Sternberg. 1999. “Combining Active Learning with Inductive Logic Programming to Close the Loop in Machine Learning.” AISB’99 Symposium on Artificial Intelligence and Scientific Creativity.

Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York: Norton.

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______. 2004. Eyes: Variety, Development and Evolution. Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 64 no. 3:141–147.

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Gray, Barbara. 2005. Systems Biology: Real Life. Convergence. The Magazine of Engineering and the Sciences at U.C. Santa Barbara. Summer.

Hamilton, Jon. 2006. “Sluggish Parents and Their Full-Throttle Offspring.” Morning Edition, Sept. 28.

Hart, Andrew. 2006. Evolution’s Botched Job. New Scientist 191 no. 2569:22.

Hauser, Marc D. 2006. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Hetz, Stefen K. and Timothy Bradley. 2005. Insects Breathe Discontinuously to Avoid Oxygen Toxicity. Nature 433 no. 7025:516–519.

Iida, Fumiya. 2005. Cheap Design and Behavioral Diversity for Autonomous Adaptive Robots. Doctor of Natural Science Dissertation, University of Zürich.

Lieber, Richard L. and Jan Fridén. 2000. Functional and Clinical Significance of Skeletal Muscle Architecture. Muscle & Nerve 23 no. 11:1647–1666.

Lempinen, Edward W. 2005. Valadkhan Solves Genetic Puzzle, Wins 2004 Young Scientist Award. Science 307 no. 5713:1221.

Man, John. 1978. The Natural History of the Dinosaur. New York: Gallery Books.

Molloy, Justin and Stephan Schmitz. 2005. Kinesin Steps Back. Nature 435 no. 7040:285–287.

Morris, Henry. 2005. Evolution—Impossible to Embarrass Its Believers. Back to Genesis. August.

Sekanina, Lukás. 2005. “Design Methods for Polymorphic Digital Circuits.” In Proceedings of 8th IEEE Design and Diagnostic of Electronic Circuits and Systems Workshop, Los Alamitos, California: IEEE Computer Society Press.

Sinclair, Sandra. 1985. How Animals See: Other Visions of Our World. New York: Facts on File Publications.

Shubin, Neil. 2004. The Early Evolution of the Tetrapod Humerus. Science 304 no. 5667:90–93.

Tsiaras, Alexander and Barry Werth. 2004. The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed. New York: Doubleday.

Turner, Scott J. 2007. The Tinker’s Accomplice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Valadkhan, Saba. 2005. Young Scientist Award Essay Winner. Construction of a Minimal, Protein-Free Spliceosome. Science 307 no. 5711:863–864.

Walker, Gabrielle. 2003. Snowball Earth: The Story of the Great Catastrophe that Spawned Life as We Know it. New York: Crown.

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Answers in Depth

2011 Volume 6


  1. God is, of course, the God of both the natural and the supernatural, and this is one way people falsely elevate the creation to the level of the Creator and worship “the creature rather than the CreatorRomans 1:20–25.
  2. To understand the absurdity of insisting on a naturalistic view for the sake of “science,” see Must Science Exclude the Supernatural?
  3. What many don’t realize is that this position is in actuality self-contradictory. If there really is no purpose, then why is it so important that only a “non-purpose position” be true, when there is also no absolute “truth”?


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