Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, and science writer and broadcaster
Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of 'design'
The scientific principle that I wish everyone understood is Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of 'design'.
The world is divided into things that look designed, like birds and airliners; and things that do not look designed, like rocks and mountains. Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed, like submarines and tin openers; and those that are not really designed, like sharks and hedgehogs. The diagnostic feature of things that look designed is that they are statistically improbable in the functional direction. They do something useful - for instance, they fly. Darwinian natural selection, although it involves no true design at all, can produce an uncanny simulacrum of true design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant.
Not only can natural selection mimic design; it is the only known natural process that can mimic design. And now, here is the most difficult thing that I wish people understood. True design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything, because the designer himself is left unexplained. Designers are statistically improbable things, and trying to explain them as made by prior designers is ultimately futile, because it leads to an infinite regress.
Natural selection escapes the infinite regress, because it starts simple, and works up gradually - step by step - to statistical improbability, and the illusion of design. Engineers and other designers are ultimately made, like all living things, by natural selection.
So distant are many people from understanding this, they seriously believe that the existence of functional improbability is evidence in favour of intelligent design - the greater the improbability, the stronger the evidence. Truly, the precise opposite is the case. I wish that more people understood this.
Richard Dawkins is author of books including The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.