Few scientists would dispute that evolution provides a far more satisfactory explanation for the workings of living organisms than does 'intelligent design'. But a much more subtle 'design' movement abounds that can distort how they approach their research.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun 'design' means “the thing aimed at; the end in view; the final purpose”. Biologists frequently use 'design' to describe the organization of components in a system — for instance, in a network of signalling molecules, a cell's cytoskeleton, or a protein's domain structure. Readers need look no further than articles in scientific publications and their podcasts for other examples.

It would be easy to dismiss criticism of this as mere pedantry, if it weren't for puzzled researchers voicing concern at the seemingly illogical or counterintuitive 'design' of a biological structure or process. They fail to note that its construction is a consequence of the incremental, biased random walk of evolution, and this can affect their choice of approach in tackling the problem.

Systems that emerge by selection differ fundamentally from those conceived by design. Failing to acknowledge this in our choice of words is lazy, clutters our thinking and does a disservice to those entering biology from disciplines (scientific and non-scientific) in which evolution by selection is not a central theme and the word 'design' carries inherent baggage.