Malevolent Design

Ron Cordero

Find intelligent design in nature and what—rejoice? A better reaction might be despair. Those betting with Kierkegaardian fervor that order in nature is the result of intelligent design should be very, very careful: getting what they want could be awful.

The amazing order evident in the universe can, of course, be seen as the result of unplanned interactions among material particles in empty space. Incredible intricacies in nature do not have to be taken as products of intelligent design—like Paley’s famous watch on the heath. The idea of an ateleological universe has been abroad at least since Democritus and Leucippus, and their notion of minimal particles interacting in empty space is not too far from what many physicists hold today. We can interpret the beauty of snowflakes and mineral crystals as the result of particles moving into arrangements dictated by their own physical properties and the properties of their environments. And when a pathogenic microorganism mutates and becomes immune to previously effective antibiotics, we can think of that as the regrettable, unguided result of minimal particles in empty space interacting in the only way physically possible.

Yet we have to admit that the order in nature—even though achieved through the interaction of physical bits in empty space—might also be the result of intelligent design. Even evolution could have been planned, though it is common to think of evolution and intelligent design as mutually exclusive alternatives. Those who assert the development of living forms through the process of evolution usually deny any intelligent control for the process. But the possibility of intelligent design is not automatically excluded when the universe is thought of as developing through the interaction of particles in a void—a point raised by Alan Plantinga some time ago. Even if crystals and orchids and swans evolved through minimal-particle interaction, we have to admit that they might be the result of intelligent planning.

The reason, of course, is that a sufficiently intelligent superdesigner (or design team) could have designed minimal particles in such a way that they would in due time produce precisely the desired results. Why bother to create minerals, vegetables, and animals ex nihilo when they can be produced by creating just the right sort of building blocks and waiting a few billion years for the intended (and inevitable) results to appear? You make the quarks like this, and in thirteen or fourteen billion years they self-assemble into snowflakes, orchids, and swans!

According to this scenario, evolution occurs by design. Whoever designed the minimal particles had a plan to create life-forms and proceeded to carry it out. Suppose, by analogy, that you decide to make a soufflé. After you mix the ingredients and put them into the oven, no one can say that the soufflé that comes out was not planned by you—even though you did not personally control the interaction of the ingredients during the baking process. You knew the batter was going to rise because of the properties of the ingredients you chose and the environment you created in the oven.

When we assume in this way that nature consists of minimal particles interacting in empty space, we must admit at least two possible scenarios—the universe was planned or the universe was not planned. The order in nature may well have developed without the help of intelligent design, but we cannot exclude the possibility that it was planned.

Now suppose we take the position that intelligent design was involved in the framing of the cosmos. What sort of designer can we say it might have been? It certainly does not have to have been the kind described in Western-religion metaphysics.

First of all, if there is intelligent design in the natural universe, it does not have to have been the work of a single designer. As Hume has Philo point out in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a number of designers could have taken part. In twenty-first-century terms, one could say that several planners may have collaborated on design specifications for the quarks—or that dark matter was created by one deity while visible matter was created by another.

Second, if the order we find in nature is the result of design, it is quite possible that the party or parties who did the designing have long since passed out of existence—as Hume has Philo intimate. Where there is design, there must have been at least one designer; but that party need not still be around. If we find a watch on the heath, we can reasonably conclude that someone designed it; but as for whether that party still exists, we may have nothing to go on from the watch itself.

Thus it is indeed possible for us to see nature as full of design—so long as we do not assume that the order came from a single designer or from a designer who still exists. But after admitting this we must go further and ask what—if anything—the order in nature suggests about the character and intellect of the possible designer(s). What sort of person or persons could have produced the universe we inhabit?

To begin with, the complexity of the order in the universe definitely indicates great intelligence and ability. To design minimal particles in just the right way to produce the life-forms we have now could not have been an easy task. The designer(s) could definitely not have gotten swans and orchids right without tremendous ability.

So there may have been one or more designers who may or may not still exist but who must be conceived of as highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Can we go further? Does the order in the universe, if taken to be the result of design, permit us to conclude something more about the designer or designers? I believe it does, but that something more turns out to be something highly unsettling.

Looking objectively at the universe, we have to admit that it includes not only objects of wonder, such as snowflakes and swans, but also some things that are really troubling. There are parts of nature that in fact seem much more like anti-personnel land mines on the heath than watches. We find things that, if taken to be the product of intelligent design, can only be seen as evidence of malevolence. Examples are in order, and they are extremely easy to find.

Take, to begin, the variola virus—the microbe that produces smallpox. If it was designed, it was designed specifically to target human beings, inflicting widespread suffering and damage without regard to innocence or guilt. In the early 1950s an estimated fifty million cases of smallpox were occurring each year. From a human perspective, the world is unquestionably a better place since the disease was eradicated from “wild” (nonlaboratory) environments in 1979. If some intelligent being was responsible for its existence on this planet, that being simply cannot be seen as benevolent.

Before proceeding to other examples, it is important to note that the problem posed by such cases is not how to reconcile the existence of apparent evil in the world with the existence of a deity thought of as having certain properties. Rather, the question is how it is most reasonable to conceive the designer or designers if we take nature to exhibit design. We are not trying to solve the “problem of evil”; we are trying to determine what kind of designer there must have been if there is in fact design in nature.

In addition to smallpox, it is easy to find other examples of disease-producing organisms indicative of malevolent intent if interpreted as products of intelligent design. There is the Ebola virus, the Spanish flu virus that killed fifty million people in 1918, and the malaria-causing parasite that is still responsible for over a million deaths each year. Any designer who arrange
d to have these pathogens in the world would have had to have been extremely bright, extremely powerful, and extremely evil.

To be sure, disease-producing organisms are not the only anti-personnel land mines on the heath. There are other aspects of reality that must be seen in the same light if nature is viewed as the product of design. Consider the painful nature of the process of childbirth. Surely a benevolent and competent designer could have made the process pleasurable. The fact that it is so often so painful, together with the supposition of intelligent design, can only point to a misogynic designer. Why should the production of new humans so routinely involve such suffering for one of the sexes? Might the pain be a punishment for some disobedience on the part of a remote ancestor—as suggested in Genesis 3? It might, conceivably, but then the designer could only be regarded as incredibly unfair.

Another troubling aspect of reality deserves special attention, being nothing less than a prominent part of human nature—our innate propensity for intraspecific violence. Considered dispassionately, our species is remarkable for its self-directed viciousness. Other vertebrates also attack and kill members of their own species: grizzly bears do it occasionally, capuchin monkeys do it frequently enough for it to be a leading cause of death among them, red wolves do it in defense of their territory, and Florida panthers do it. But humans are undeniably outstanding in their use of intraspecific lethal force.

Any examination of human history or any consideration of current events reveals an innately violence-prone species in action. Fighting and killing other members of our species is so common in human relations that it is routinely taken for granted. Though we continually endeavor to reduce intraspecific violence, we are hardly surprised when it continues. We have become accustomed to the “continuation of policy by other means,” to use von Clausewitz’s euphemistic characterization of war, and we are inured to acts of incredible cruelty. Just as we expect wolves to attack sheep, we expect humans to attack humans, agreeing with Hobbes’s remark that “Homo homini lupus.”*

We are so close to this aspect of reality that it is hard to see. But consider how we compare to species that lack this bent. What would we think if flocks of robins, returning north in the spring, began attacking each other, filling the air with battle shrieks, and littering our lawns with bloodied feathers? Or suppose elephants began to hunt each other down, one herd trying to exterminate another—or at least to kill enough members of the other herd to force the survivors to yield to the will of the attackers? We might be embarrassed to find elephants behaving so much like ourselves.

Examples such as these abound. But the obvious conclusion is that what is unreasonable to suppose is not that nature had a designer but that it had a benevolent designer. If we see intelligent design in nature, we absolutely have to see malevolence.

The prospect of living in a world with a highly malevolent designer is of course terrifying. Optimists will hope that there was no designer at all, and that the human-unfriendly aspects of nature are the unplanned results of the insouciant and unguided interaction of mindless particles in the void.


* Hobbes actually contends that the saying applies to cities of men, rather than to men as individuals. De cive: The Latin Version, critical edition by Howard Warrender (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) 73. The phrase goes back at least to the Roman comedic play- wright Plautus, c. 254–184 B.C.E., who does include a qualification: men are wolves to other men when they do not know them— “lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit” (Asinaria, act 2, scene 4, verse 495).


Further Reading

  • “Evolution and Its Rivals.” 2011. Synthèse 178.2, January.
  • Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. 1984. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. 1947. Edited by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Library of Liberal Arts.
  • Lorenz, Konrad. 1955. “Über das Töten von Artgenossen.” Jahrbuch des Max-Planck-Gellschaft.
  • Paley, William. Natural Theology, or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. 1802. London: R. Faulder.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ron Cordero

Ron Cordero is professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. His work focuses on ethics, logic, and social philosophy.

Find intelligent design in nature and what—rejoice? A better reaction might be despair. Those betting with Kierkegaardian fervor that order in nature is the result of intelligent design should be very, very careful: getting what they want could be awful. The amazing order evident in the universe can, of course, be seen as the result …

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