Also Available in:

A brief history of design

From ancient times to today the signs of a Creator are clearly evident.

By Russell Grigg

For over two millennia, people have argued that the ‘design’ in nature points to a Designer.1 In 44 BC, the Roman writer, orator and statesman, Cicero (106–43 BC), used this concept in his book De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods)2 to challenge the evolutionary ideas of the philosophers of his day.

Greek evolutionism, the gods, and fear of death

The two main schools of philosophy then were Epicureanism3 and Stoicism.4 The Epicureans sought happiness through bodily pleasures and freedom from pain and anxiety. The two chief causes of anxiety were fear of the gods and fear of death, so Epicurus sought to nullify both of these by teaching an evolutionary atomic theory.5

He denied that there was any purpose in nature, because everything was composed of particles (atoma: atoms), all falling downwards. He said that these sometimes spontaneously ‘swerved’ to coalesce and form bodies—non-living, living, human, and divine. The gods were made of finer atoms than humankind. They did not create the world or have any control over it, so they were not concerned with human affairs, and there was therefore no need for man to fear them. At death, the soul disintegrated and became non-existent, so there was no need to fear death or the prospect of judgment after death.

If chance collisions of particles could make a world, why then cannot they build much less difficult objects, like a colonnade, a temple, a house, or a city?

Cicero used the Stoic character in his book to refute these ideas with arguments from design, aimed to show that the universe is governed by an intelligent designer. He argued that a conscious purpose was needed to express art (e.g. to make a picture or a statue) and so, because nature was more perfect than art, nature showed purpose also. He reasoned that the movement of a ship was guided by skilled intelligence, and a sundial or water clock told the time by design rather than by chance. He said that even the barbarians of Britain or Scythia could not fail to see that a model which showed the movements of the sun, stars and planets was the product of conscious intelligence.6

Cicero continued his challenge to the evolutionism of Epicurus by marvelling that anyone could persuade himself that chance collisions of particles could form anything as beautiful as the world. He said that this was on a par with believing that if the letters of the alphabet were thrown on the ground often enough they would spell out the Annals of Ennius.7,8 And he asked: if chance collisions of particles could make a world, why then cannot they build much less difficult objects, like a colonnade, a temple, a house, or a city?9

More recent users of the design argument

In the 18th century, the most notable user of the design argument was William Paley (1743–1805). In his book, Natural Theology, he put the case of someone finding a watch while walking in a barren countryside. From the functions which the various parts of the watch fulfil (e.g. spring, gearwheels, pointer), the only logical conclusion was that it had a maker who ‘comprehended its construction and designed its use’.10 Paley also discussed evidence of design in the eye—that as an instrument for vision it showed intelligent design in the same way that telescopes, microscopes and spectacles do. And he went on to discuss complex design in many other human and animal organs, all pointing to the conclusion that the existence of complex life implies an intelligent Creator.

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish sceptical philosopher, tried to counter the watch argument by pointing out that watches are not living things which reproduce. However, Paley wrote 30 years after Hume, and Paley’s arguments are proof against most of Hume’s objections. For example, a modern philosopher has countered Hume: ‘Paley’s argument about organisms stands on its own, regardless of whether watches and organisms happen to be similar. The point of talking about watches is to help the reader see that the argument about organisms is compelling.’11

National Eye Institute

Charles Darwin and Paley

Charles Darwin was required to read Paley during his theological studies at Cambridge (1828–31). He later said, ‘I do not think that I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology. I could almost formerly have said it by heart.’12

However, he then spent the rest of his life developing and promoting a theory to explain how ‘design’ in nature could occur without God.13 Darwin proposed that small, useful changes could occur by chance, and enable their possessors to survive and pass on these changes—natural selection. Natural selection would work on even the tiniest improvements and, over vast ages, would supposedly accumulate enough small changes to produce all the ‘design’ we see in the living world.

Modern science vs Darwin

Evolutionists, including the stridently atheistic Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, still use Darwin’s theory to oppose the design argument. But now, they believe that natural selection acts on genetic copying mistakes (mutations), some of which are supposed to increase the genetic information content (see aside). But Dawkins’ arguments have been severely critiqued on scientific grounds.14,15,16,17 Dawkins’ neo-Darwinism has several flaws:

  • Natural selection requires self-reproducing entities. Producing even the simplest self-reproducing organism (see aside) by a chance combination of chemicals is even more incredible than producing the Annals of Ennius by dropping letters on the ground. Living things require long molecules with precise arrangements of smaller ‘building blocks’. Not only will the ‘building blocks’ not combine in the right order, but they are unlikely, by natural means, to build up large molecules at all! Rather, large molecules tend to break down into smaller ones.18 Also, the ‘building blocks’ are unstable.19

  • There is complex biological machinery of which Darwin was simply ignorant. Biochemist Dr Michael Behe lists a number of examples: real motors, transport systems, the blood clotting cascade, the complex visual machinery. He argues that they require many parts or they would not function at all, so they could not have been built in small steps by natural selection.20

  • Biophysicist/information theorist Dr Lee Spetner points out that mutations have never been observed to add information, but only reduce it—this includes even the rare helpful mutations. And he points out that natural selection is insufficient to accumulate slight advantages, as it would be too weak to overcome the effects of chance, which would tend to eliminate these mutants.21

The evidence of design in nature is enough to condemn men, but it is not enough to save them.

The Bible and the ‘design argument’

Design is not enough!

The Apostle Paul used the design argument in Romans 1:20, where he declares that God’s eternal power and divine nature can be understood from the things that have been made (i.e. evidences of design in nature). And he says that because of this, the ungodly are ‘without excuse’. But Paul continues that people willingly reject this clear evidence.

This evidence of design in nature is enough to condemn men, but it is not enough to save them. The Bible makes it clear that the preaching of the Gospel is also needed to show how we are to come into a right relationship with the Creator (see next section).22

Cicero lived in the century before Christ and probably had never heard of the God of Genesis; he used design in support of the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses of the Stoics. Today, ‘New Agers’ may attribute design to Mother Nature or Gaia (the Greek goddess of the earth).

Creation Evangelism

When Christians use design and other arguments from science, they are properly engaging in pre-evangelism, i.e. they are seeking to expose the fallacy of the evolutionary presuppositions that blind the eyes of people today to the truth of the Word of God. This is shown by the Apostle Paul’s experience in Athens. Paul ‘preached Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18), which challenged both the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers of his day—i.e. both Cicero’s opponents and his fellow believers. Paul challenged their faulty ideas by pointing them to the one true God who had created everything. But Paul didn’t stop with creation.23

Chris 73/Wikimedia Commons

He urged them to repent, and he said they could know there would be a Day of Judgment because God had appointed the Judge and given assurance of this by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:18–31).

The only way to be saved is to believe in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), the Creator and Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20), who died and rose again to pay the penalty for mankind’s sin. We should follow the way Paul presented the Gospel in 1 Cor. 15—N.B. verses 1–4, 21–22, 26, 45, which make sense only with a literal Genesis—a literal Creation, Fall, death penalty for sin, etc.

Without Christ, the design argument cannot save.

John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel ‘so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name’ (John 20:31). But he began his Gospel by declaring that Jesus is the Creator (John 1:1–3), the Second Person of the Trinity, who took on human nature (John 1:14). Thus evangelism must present Christ as Creator or it is deficient—if Christ is not God, then He cannot be our Saviour (Isaiah 43:11).


Without the message of design and the Creator, ‘gospel preaching’ lacks foundation. Without Christ, the design argument cannot save. We must present a full Gospel, starting with creation by the Triune God, and combine it with the message of Christ’s death for sin and His Resurrection.

Information: A modern scientific design argument

All the design in living things is encoded in a sort of recipe book with lots of information. Information describes the complexity of a sequence—it does not depend on the matter of the sequence. It could be a sequence of ink molecules on paper (book)—however the information is not contained in the molecules of ink but in the patterns. Information can also be stored as sound wave patterns (e.g. speech), but again the information is not the sound waves themselves; electrical impulses (telephone); magnetic patterns (computer hard drive).

The anti-theistic physicist Paul Davies admits: ‘There is no law of physics able to create information from nothing’ (Quantum leap of faith). Information scientist Werner Gitt has demonstrated that the laws of nature pertaining to information show that, in all known cases, information requires an intelligent message sender,1 a conclusion rejected by Davies on purely philosphical (religious) grounds. Thus a modern version of the design argument involves detecting high information content. In fact, this is exactly what the SETI project is all about—the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence involves trying to detect a high-information radio signal, which they would regard as proof of an intelligent message sender, even if we had no idea of the nature of the sender.

In living things, information is all stored in patterns of DNA, which encode the instructions to make proteins, the building blocks for all the machinery of life. There are four types of DNA ‘letters’ called nucleotides, and 20 types of protein ‘letters’ called amino acids. A group (codon) of 3 DNA ‘letters’ codes for one protein ‘letter’. The information is not contained in the chemistry of the ‘letters’ themselves, but in their sequence. DNA is by far the most compact information storage/retrieval system known.

Now consider if we had to write the information of living things in book form. Dawkins admits, ‘[T]here is enough information capacity in a single human cell to store the Encyclopædia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it, three or four times over.2 Even the simplest living organism has 482 protein-coding genes of 580,000 ‘letters’.3

Let’s suppose we had the technology to go the other way, and store books’ information in DNA—this would be the ideal computer technology. The amount of information that could be stored in a pinhead’s volume of DNA is equivalent to a pile of paperback books 500 times as tall as the distance from Earth to the moon, each with a different, yet specific content.4 Putting it another way, a pinhead of DNA would have a billion times more information capacity than a 4 gigabyte hard drive.

Just as letters of the alphabet will not write the Annals of Ennius by themselves, the DNA letters will not form meaningful sequences on their own. And just as the Annals would be meaningless to a person who didn’t understand the language, the DNA ‘letter’ arrangements would be meaningless without the ‘language’ of the DNA code.


  1. Gitt, W., In the beginning was Information, CLV, Bielefeld, Germany, 1997. 
  2. Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton, NY, USA, p. 115, 1986.
  3. Fraser, C.M. et al., The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium, Science 270(5235):397–403, 1995; perspective by Goffeau, A., Life with 482 Genes, same issue, pp. 445–446.
  4. Gitt, W., Dazzling Design in Miniature, Creation 20(1):6, 1997.

References and notes

  1. Philosophers often call this the teleological argument. Return to text.
  2. A fictitious dialogue involving an Epicurean, a Stoic, and a speaker from the Academy (the philosophical school founded by Plato). Return to text.
  3. Based on the teachings of Epicurus (341–270 BC). Return to text.
  4. Based on the teachings of Zeno of Citium (335–263 BC ). The Stoics were pantheists. For them, happiness lay in emulating the calm and order of the universe by enduring hardship and adversity with fortitude and a tranquil mind. The name derives from the porch (Greek: stoa) where Zeno taught. Return to text.
  5. Derived from Democritus (460–361 BC). These philosophies were of Greek origin. Return to text.
  6. Cicero, De Natura Deorum, Book 2, sections 87–88. Return to text.
  7. Ref. 6, Book 2, section 93. Return to text.
  8. Compare Grigg, R., Could monkeys type the 23rd Psalm? Creation 13(1):30–34, 1990; updated in Apologia 3(2):59–64, 1994. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 6, Book 2, section 94. Return to text.
  10. Paley, W., Natural Theology, first published 1802, republished by Bill Cooper as Paley’s Watchmaker, New Wine Press, Chichester, England, pp. 29–31, 1995. Return to text.
  11. Sober, E., Philosophy of Biology, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, p. 34, 1993, cited in Behe, Ref. 20. Return to text.
  12. C. Darwin to John Lubbock, Nov. 15, 1859, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, D. Appleton & Co., 2:15, 1911. Return to text.
  13. Wieland, C., Darwin’s real message: have you missed it? Creation 14(4):16–19, 1992. Return to text.
  14. Gitt, W., Weasel Words, Creation 20(4):20–21, September 1998. Return to text.
  15. Bohlin, R.G., Up the River Without a Paddle—Review of River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Journal of Creation 10(3):322–327, 1996. Return to text.
  16. Sarfati, J.D., Review of Climbing Mount Improbable, Journal of Creation 12(1):29–34, 1998. Return to text.
  17. Truman, R., The problem of information for the Theory of Evolution: Has Dawkins really solved it? 14 July 1999; Return to text.
  18. Sarfati, J., Origin of life: the polymerization problem, Journal of Creation 12(3):281–284, 1998. Return to text.
  19. Sarfati, J., Origin of life: Instability of building blocks, Journal of Creation 13(3):124–127, 1998. Return to text.
  20. Behe, M.J., Darwin’s Black Box, The Free Press, NY, USA, p. 217, 1996. He calls this property: ‘irreducible complexity’. Return to text.
  21. Spetner, L.M., Not By Chance, The Judaica Press, Brooklyn, NY, USA, 1997; see A review of Not by chance!. Return to text.
  22. Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:13–15. Return to text.
  23. For further reading: Morris, H.M., Design is not enough! Back to Genesis No. 127:a–c, July 1999; Return to text.

Helpful Resources

By Design
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $15.00
Discovery of Design
by Donald DeYoung & Derrik Hobbs
US $14.00
Soft cover