European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 15–29 | Cite as

Design sans adaptation

  • Sara GreenEmail author
  • Arnon Levy
  • William Bechtel
Original paper in Philosophy of Biology


Design thinking in general, and optimality modeling in particular, have traditionally been associated with adaptationism—a research agenda that gives pride of place to natural selection in shaping biological characters. Our goal is to evaluate the role of design thinking in non-evolutionary analyses. Specifically, we focus on research into abstract design principles that underpin the functional organization of extant organisms. Drawing on case studies from engineering-inspired approaches in biology we show how optimality analysis, and other design-related methods, play a specific methodological role that is tangential to the study of adaptation. To account for the role of these reasoning strategies in contemporary biology, we therefore suggest a reevaluation of the connection between design thinking and adaptationism.


Design thinking Adaptationism Reverse engineering Heuristic Optimality 



We wish to thank Shalev Itzkovitz for oral discussion and written correspondence as well as two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. Sara Green gratefully acknowledges support from the Danish Research Council for Independent Research/Humanities for the grant Philosophy of Contemporary Science in Practice.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Science Studies, Department of Physics and AstronomyAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Program for History and Philosophy of ScienceThe Hebrew UniversityJerusalemIsrael
  3. 3.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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