Watching Intelligent Design

Alexander Nussbaum

How does that creationist parable go—when one finds a watch, one assumes a watchmaker? Actually, Japanese-designed robots built by other robots might be more typical watchmakers today, but watches are a product of intelligent design and are often used as an example of such by creationists in their beloved—and deeply misleading—analogy. In fact, watches are a rather poor analogue for living systems, as they bear one characteristic that is common in products of intelligent design but absent from the products of biological evolution. Watches tend to be engineered for performance far beyond what is needed in use. Evolved living systems never display this kind of overdesign except, arguably, in certain characteristics used for sexual selection.

Biological evolution is an on-the-cheap artist; it makes use of what is already available and generally produces not optimal design, but rather design just good enough to survive. Biological evolution is a master of jerry-building, of making do, and of overlooking design flaws as long as reproduction is achieved before the system falls apart (that is, dies). This fundamental characteristic has tremendous implications for humans, from our endemic back problems and the incidence of maternal death during childbirth (at least in “Edenic times,” before Western man made a muck of everything with unnatural drugs and procedures), to—not least of all—the functioning of the human brain. For the human brain, amazing product of evolution though it is—capable of calculus, creating computers, and even of reaching the Moon (yes, it really happened, once upon a time)—is also a deeply flawed belief machine that is unable to shake itself of delusions like creationism.

When I teach courses in sensation and perception or physiological psychology, I always point out that animals’ senses reflect that which produces fitness advantages in the niche they evolved to fill and at the minimum level needed. Dogs are night hunters of often-camouflaged prey. For them, movement rather than color is important for identification, and light conditions are poor. Thus, the vision of dogs differs from that of humans in predictable ways. By human standards, canine vision is deficient in many ways. It is estimated that dogs have only 20/75 vision and do not see the full range of colors that humans do. Yet in order to see at night, dogs need only one-quarter the light humans do. Poorer color vision is the price dogs pay for this. Dogs have larger visual fields than humans, hence better peripheral vision. They pay for this advantage with a narrower area of three-dimensional vision than humans enjoy. Dogs detect movement better than humans; as a result, they find ordinary television not very interesting because they see flickering lights rather than the illusion of movement.

For living creatures, energy consumed to support a sensory capacity that does not increase survival decreases overall fitness. It becomes a handicap to be ruthlessly weeded out. Blind cavefish are the standard example of this, though hardly the only one. In contrast, products of intelligent design often retain capabilities that exceed usefulness, often by great magnitudes.

There is no evidence that intelligent design exists anywhere but in human artifacts. (Some argue that the extremely basic tools produced by animals, such as twigs stripped by chimpanzees, also qualify as products of intelligent design. I disagree.) For my purposes, human artifacts are our only available models of intelligent design. I will focus specifically on watches, because they were the subjects of William Paley’s analogy that just as a watch means there was a watchmaker, life needed a creator. In addition, I happen to know something about watches.


So, what can watches, as objects of intelligent design, tell us about what intelligent design looks like? Watches often exhibit water-resistance and time-keeping accuracy that far exceed usefulness, and complications that would be profoundly maladaptive in a living system in that they add relatively useless features at great cost and with increased chances of malfunction.

Chronographs (which incorporate a stopwatch function) add cost. Moreover, in mechanical watches they are associated with high failure rates. They are actually used by very few watch owners. Granted, a few people use the stopwatch function—but clearly no one needs the extra dials plus all the complex and costly additional gearing to show the phase of the Moon! Radio-controlled “atomic watches” are intelligently designed to receive time from atomic clocks. Casio, a major maker of atomic watches, advertises them as being accurate to one second per million years. Does anyone actually need such accuracy? Ironically, technological advancement has allowed super-accurate digital watches to sell for a fraction of the cost of far less capable mechanical watches accurate to perhaps two to three minutes a day. I will say more about this below.

It is well known that a minuscule percentage of so-called dive watches, rated water-resistant to 300, 500, 1,000, and even 10,000 meters, ever breaks the surface of the water. The Bell & Ross Hydromax is rated water-resistant to more than 11,100 meters. As such it is purposefully designed to endure a depth just greater than the lowest point in the ocean. As the record for scuba-dive depth is 330 meters, 11,100 meters sounds a mite more than needed for practical purposes.

Products of intelligent design typically have capabilities that exceed usefulness precisely because these can be “intelligently” engineered, not in order to make the product more useful but in order to make it more impressive. In biological evolution, by contrast, “barely good enough” is the highest level that can be reached, because expense that does not improve overall fitness cannot be tolerated. The “barely good enough” standard is also maintained in biological evolution because species characteristics cannot be redesigned from scratch. Human bipedalism is far less than perfect—consider all those endemic back problems! It is clearly the result of a quadruped design being turned into a biped design rather than having been intelligently designed from scratch. This is exactly the mark of the “blind watchmaker” of natural evolution. But the nonblind watchmakers who intelligently design watches can, and do, redesign from scratch.

The balance staff used in early mechanical watches was quite delicate: it would break as a result of even a mild fall. Several different systems were independently developed from scratch to remedy this shortcoming. One utilized spring-loaded jeweled bearings; another used curved elastic arms. The result was the introduction of “shock resistant” watches, able to survive at least a minor fall undamaged. Whole new parts with no precursors were added in order to attain a desired result. No characteristic of a living system has ever evolved in that way.

Let us consider one more difference that distinguishes intelligent design from biological evolution. In biological evolution, a trait that produces lowered fitness at greater cost cannot thrive in the presence of, much less replace, a competing trait that produces higher fitness. In other words, it is a characteristic of biological evolution that once a trait evolves that produces survival benefits in a specific environment, evolution cannot undo it and return to an objectively inferior trait.

Yet this can—and does—happen in objects that are intelligently designed. Once again, the domain of watches offers proof. When quartz watches with digital displays were first introduced, they were extraordinarily accurate and extraordinarily expensive. For a short time it appeared that digital watches would supplant analog watches—featuring hands that spin around a dial—in the marketplace. Before long, analog displays returned to dominance, even on watches with quartz movements that had no need for it.

Why? The analog display was intelligently designed back in. Why? Because people preferred it. Why? Because they were used to it. Why? Because for centuries it had been the only way mechanical watches could display the time. And so quartz watches that had no need for analog dials were intelligently designed to incorporate them anyway—even though the analog system adds mechanical wheels and unnecessary cost and even though the analog dial decreases precision (a digital display can read hundredths of a second, a feat no sweep second hand can match). In countless ways the analog dial is inferior, but no matter; in the world of intelligent design, if enough buyers want a watch with an analog dial, it can be designed.

If you think we have reached the limits of perverse unintended consequences, think again. Today watchmakers have returned to the mass-scale production of mechanical watches—not quartz movements with analog dials, but full-on mechanicals filled with moving parts and technically little different than those made in the 1940s! How did we arrive at this retrograde outcome?

As noted, when inexpensive quartz watches more precise than mechanicals first reached the market, they almost drove mechanical watches to extinction. But then quartz movements became unbelievably cheap. Once multifunction, all-digital sport watches cluttered discount stores at prices below ten dollars, the days of a digital watch as a prestige accessory were over. Thus the cultural trend became for consumers to want mechanical movements, which required expensive “exclusive” craftsmanship—albeit for less precise time-keeping—as they seemed more “fitting” for an upscale watch. No matter how precise or reliable quartz movements might be, no luxury brand could justify charging a hundred or a thousand times the cost of a cheap quartz watch. But mechanical movements could continue to be sold on the basis that they were all about “old world” “Swiss” craftsmanship.

This transition can clearly be seen in one of the barometers of upscale consumer trends: James Bond movies. When Omega became Bond’s official watch (for Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the role in the 1995 GoldenEye), quartz watches were still prestigious. Bond wore a quartz Seamaster in this movie. But the return of mechanicals allowed—indeed required—007 to be issued ever-more expensive mechanical Omega watches in subsequent films. This then allowed Omega to “intelligently design” new features such as co-axial escapement—which improves long-term accuracy but still not to the level of the cheapest quartz watch—into the standard mechanical movements it had been using, taking its watches to an ever-higher price stratosphere.

These ultra-expensive watches are exclusively mechanical, not because that is better than quartz but precisely because it is an incredibly time-consuming (no pun intended) and expensive proposition—in common parlance, “impractical”—to get a mechanical watch to achieve anything near a few seconds a day of quartz-movement accuracy.*


Where does this leave modern-day purveyors of Paley’s watch analogy? Well, what exactly do those who claim that life on Earth shows signs of intelligent design mean? Do they mean that life, like watches, shows the signs of specific, carefully thought-out design improvements that depend on technological progress, the changes characteristic of having many designers, the whole being molded to the whims of cultural style preferences?

Not exactly. We all know what they mean by “intelligent design”: that all life came instantly into existence on the word of an omnipotent being who used magic. But would it not be more fitting for intelligent-design theorists to investigate who the designers were, their technological limitations and progress, the tools they used, and the cultural vagaries they were trying to satisfy?

Because, after all, they believe life was intelligently designed—just like watches are.


* You may have noticed the similarity of this to sexual selection, and notably to Amotz Zahavi’s handicap principle. This principle was designed to explain phenomena like how male peacocks could evolve their cumbersome tails. According to this principle, precisely because these tails are cumbersome, they tell females that the male who carries one around is strong and healthy. In the domain of watches, the corresponding idea is that a Rolex possess such a superb movement that it can keep excellent time despite being mechanical. But of course, isn’t sexual selection why men wear Rolexes in the first place?

Alexander Nussbaum

Alexander Nussbaum teaches in the Department of Psychology at St. John’s University. He has previously written articles for Free Inquiry, his most recent, “In Praise of Statistics,” appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue.

How does that creationist parable go—when one finds a watch, one assumes a watchmaker? Actually, Japanese-designed robots built by other robots might be more typical watchmakers today, but watches are a product of intelligent design and are often used as an example of such by creationists in their beloved—and deeply misleading—analogy. In fact, watches are …

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