Intelligent Design and the Bicycle

ImageIn the debate about intelligent design creationism, attention is usually focused on the evidence for life’s natural origin. In this post I look at it from a designer’s perspective: what is an “intelligent designer” supposed to be, and how is the design process supposed to be different from evolution? As a working example, the bicycle is one of the simplest mechanical inventions, used by billions of people. But some of the most basic physics behind the bicycle is still mysterious. The bicycle was not “intelligently designed” by some solitary brilliant engineer. Instead it’s an example of how knowledge, intelligence and design are woven together in an evolutionary process.

The other day I was listening to an older Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and they discussed some recent research that casts doubt on the conventional explanation of self stability in ordinary bicycles. I happened to be riding my bicycle while listening, and I happened to completely crash, leading me to speculate that my bicycle had been stabilized purely by my faith in it (which was now shattered).

The problem is summarized in this Scientific American article: “A Bicycle Built for None: What Makes a Riderless Bike Stable?” The article has two statements that I find particularly intriguing. First:

“The bicycle has been a perplexing topic for the past century,” says Richard Klein, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign who did not contribute to the new study. “It has so many paradoxes and mysteries and challenges.”

Really? Something as simple as the bicycle remains a perplexing mystery to engineers and physicists? That’s amazing! I love it.


The demonstration of self-stability without gyroscopic or trail effects does not mean that today’s bicycles are somehow flawed. Bikes are highly evolved machines, improved by strategic, incremental advances—as well as trial and error—over the decades, so a new insight into stability is not likely to usurp well-established standards of bicycle design. “If you look at the bicycle they built, it’s a bicycle, yes, but it doesn’t bring us to any design suggestions about ways to build a bicycle better than the ones we have now, I don’t think,” Hubbard says.

This is a really fascinating paragraph because it tells us that incremental improvements are very important to the design process, but a new piece of deep understanding is not immediately helpful. The bicycle illustrates how design is a process: the very first conception is usually a vague idea. If the inventor has some mechanical experience, then the idea may be more carefully described as a design specification. The earliest known bicycle was crudely specified — it had no pedals, and was conceived as a substitute for horses following a famine. The designer evidently didn’t know about stability, since the rider’s feet are supposed to stride along on the ground like this:


The Velocipede, or “fast foot.” Also called a “running machine.”

During the 19th century, there were dozens (if not hundreds) of strange designs, and it wasn’t until about 1890 that designers converged on the basic form that we know today. That’s almost one hundred years of effort — all in the same era that produced steam engines, submarines and aviation. Was the bicycle really as complicated as the steam engine? I say yes, because all design is a process, not a single event. After the design is first specified, a prototype is constructed and tested. No design is ever perfect, so the specification is improved and another prototype produced, and so on. Eventually the design may be manufactured and delivered to a public market, where all kinds of unexpected problems suddenly appear. Pretty soon there are competitors in the market, and then there emerges a sort of ecosystem of competing ideas. When a new technology is evolving, most of the ideas turn out to be losers.

So how does this relate to intelligent design? The ID theory suggests that the features of the natural world show evidence of deliberate design — supposedly we can infer that an intelligent designer was responsible. The argument is embodied by the classic watchmaker scenario: you find a watch on the ground; it would be ridiculous to conclude that the watch is a natural phenomenon. Instead you’re supposed to conclude that the watch had a maker, and that maker is supposed to be the intelligent designer. According to the ID folks, this means we should infer that life had an intelligent designer, because somehow it is equivalent to the watch.

This argument has been debunked a million times over from the standpoint of biology, but it usually isn’t addressed from the standpoint of design. Here’s the key problem: that watch doesn’t have a designer. The watch is the outcome of a design process that evolved over thousands of years. We infer that the watch has a maker because we already know that humans collectively make a lot of watches — but a maker is not an intelligent designer in the ID sense. Suppose the watch comes from an assembly line. Then you might ask, “who designed the assembly line?” Here again, a typical assembly line is a product of incremental evolution based on trial, error and correction by many participants.

So, in order for me to infer that something is the product of intelligent design, I can only think of “design” in terms of the incremental process of trial, error, competition and innovation (and we’ve seen from the bicycles that most of the innovations are not winners). With technological evolution, the designers’ “intelligence” consists mainly in their ability to reproduce previous designs, to be dissatisfied with them, and to tweak them. The tweaks can even be random as long as the designer is persistent. Apart from this, there is no other realistic model for a “designer,” and therefore I don’t see how I can infer anything more magical than this evolutionary process.

In the end we have a process that looks every bit the same as biological evolution, except for one thing: the “intelligent” designer has the capacity to desire some outcome and therefore to be dissatisfied with the incremental results. When I look at the natural world, I see no reason to infer that some invisible being is dissatisfied with it. If we drop that one aspect, then the design inference implies a process of reproduction, with incremental changes which are mostly unhelpful, competition and selection. That sounds pretty much like Darwinian evolution.

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