Argument from poor design

The argument from poor design, also known as the dysteleological argument, is an argument against the existence of a creator God, based on the reasoning that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would not create organisms with the types of suboptimal designs that can be seen in nature.

The argument is structured as a basic modus tollens: if "creation" contains many defects, then design is not a plausible theory for the origin of our existence. It is most commonly used in a weaker way, however: not with the aim of disproving the existence of God, but rather as a reductio ad absurdum of the well-known argument from design, which argues that living things are too well-designed to have originated by chance, so must have been deliberately created by an intelligent God.

Although the phrase "argument from poor design" has seen little use, this type of argument has been advanced many times using words and phrases such as "poor design", "suboptimal design", "unintelligent design" or "dysteology/dysteological". The last of these is a term applied by the nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel to the implications of organs so rudimentary as to be useless to the life of an organism.[1] Haeckel, in his book The History of Creation, devoted most of a chapter to the argument, ending with the proposition (perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek) of "a theory of the unsuitability of parts in organisms, as a counter-hypothesis to the old popular doctrine of the suitability of parts".[1] The term "incompetent design", a play on "intelligent design", has been coined by Donald Wise of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to describe aspects of nature that are currently flawed in design.[2]

Traditional theological responses generally posit that God's creation was perfect but that humanity's misuse of its free will to rebel against God has resulted in the corruption of good design.[3][4][5]


Natural selection is expected to push fitness to a peak, but that peak often is not the highest.

The argument runs that:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator God would create organisms that have optimal design.
  2. Organisms have features that are suboptimal.
  3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

It is sometimes used as a reductio ad absurdum of the well-known argument from design, which runs as follows:

  1. Living things are too well-designed to have originated by chance.
  2. Therefore, life must have been created by an intelligent creator.
  3. This creator is God.

"Poor design" is consistent with the predictions of the scientific theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This predicts that features that were evolved for certain uses, are then reused or co-opted for different uses, or abandoned altogether; and that suboptimal state is due to the inability of the hereditary mechanism to eliminate the particular vestiges of the evolutionary process.

In fitness landscape terms, natural selection will always push "up the hill", but a species cannot normally get from a lower peak to a higher peak without first going through a valley.

The argument from poor design is one of the arguments that was used by Charles Darwin;[6] modern proponents have included Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. They argue that such features can be explained as a consequence of the gradual, cumulative nature of the evolutionary process. Theistic evolutionists generally reject the argument from design, but do still maintain belief in the existence of God.


In humans

Fatal flaws

Artist's representation of an ectopic pregnancy. Critics cite such common biological occurrences as contradictory to the 'watchmaker analogy'.

Several defects in human anatomy can result in death, especially without modern medical care:

Other flaws

Other life


Unproven assumptions

Several generic philosophical criticisms can be directed towards the first premise of the argument – that a Creator deity would have designed things 'optimally'. The argument hinges on an assumption that the human concept of 'optimal design' is the same as that of a theistic god, but there is no proof that this is valid. This is, in effect, the argument for the incomprehensibility of the Abrahamic God Yahweh in the Book of Job:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?[17]

The Book of Job goes on to list a number of aspects of the world that seem wonderful or miraculous beyond human understanding. The claim is that, if humans have no understanding of how the wonders of the world were created, they cannot fully understand the things that appear flawed.

Optimal design engineering and trade-offs

Others argue that the observed suboptimality in one system or another is intentional, as a trade-off to improve overall optimal design.[18] A common example from electrical engineering would be in amplifier design: Suppose an electrical engineer uses a negative feedback loop to trade amplifier gain for stability. A naive observer may note the suboptimal gain of the amplifier and conclude the engineer made a mistake, but the low gain was intentional — it appears to be a mistake only because the observer is unaware of the engineer's design goals.

Specific examples

Intelligent design proponent William Dembski questions the first premise of the argument, maintaining a distinction between "intelligent design" and optimal design.[19] An article written by John Woodmorappe on the Creation Ministries International website says that the panda's "thumb" works well for what the panda uses it for – to strip leaves.[20]

While the appendix has been previously credited with very little function, research has shown that it serves an important role in the fetus and young adults. Endocrine cells appear in the appendix of the human fetus at around the 11th week of development, which produce various biogenic amines and peptide hormones, compounds that assist with various biological control (homeostatic) mechanisms. In young adults, the appendix has some immune functions.[21]

Creationist Jonathan Sarfati and ophtalmologist Peter Gurney have both published articles on the Creation Ministries International website which disagree that the human eye is poorly designed, arguing that alternative arrangements would have further complications and that the human eye actually works very well.[22][23]

Responses to criticism

Proponents have responded to many arguments against the argument from poor design. In the case of the panda's thumb, the argument is not that it doesn't work. The argument is that the design is poor, as a real digit would be functionally more effective than modified wrist bones.

In addition, the plantaris muscle does atrophy. Its motor function is so minimal that its long tendon can readily be harvested for reconstruction elsewhere with little functional deficit. "Often mistaken for a nerve by freshman medical students, the muscle was useful to other primates for grasping with their feet. It has disappeared altogether in 9 percent of the population."[8]

In response to the claim that uses have been found for "junk" DNA, proponents note that the fact that some non-coding DNA has a purpose does not establish that all non-coding DNA has a purpose, and that the human genome does include pseudogenes that are nonfunctional "junk", with others noting that some sections of DNA can be randomized, cut, or added to with no apparent effect on the organism in question.[24] The original study that suggested that the Makorin1-p1 served some purpose[25] has been disputed.[26] However, the original study is still frequently cited in newer studies and articles on pseudogenes previously thought to be nonfunctional.[27]

With regard to the last argument, proponents note that nobody has studied the effects of increased efficiency in plants in such a way to make this determination possible. Some plants have more and less efficient photosynthesis reactions, such as the C3, C4, and CAM photosynthesis reactions. No such "damaging chemical reactions" occur in the more effective processes.

The original argument rests on the concept of oxidative stress and ROS – the LHC, light harvesting complex, and other components of the photosynthetic array can absorb only a certain amount of energy from sunlight. Absorbing more results in oxidative damage – a well-documented phenomenon in plants. However, this argument does nothing to invalidate the argument from poor design, as it merely shifts the focus of the question to why those specific components of the photosynthetic apparatus were designed to be unable to cope with commonly encountered levels of solar energy. Natural selection as an explanation fares much better because it posits that photosynthesis originally evolved in an aquatic environment, then later adapted (but imperfectly) to the higher solar energy found in terrestrial environments.

As an argument regarding God

The argument from poor design is sometimes interpreted, by the argumenter or the listener, as an argument against the existence of God, or against characteristics commonly attributed to a creator deity, such as omnipotence, omniscience, or personality. In a weaker form, it is used as an argument for the incompetence of God. The existence of "poor design" (as well as the perceived prodigious "wastefulness" of the evolutionary process) would seem to imply a "poor" designer, or a "blind" designer, or no designer at all. In Gould's words, "If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes. Orchids are not made by an ideal engineer; they are jury-rigged...."[28]

A counter-argument that has been made against this application of the argument – and that can be used against the argument from poor design itself – points out that the argument from poor design assumes that efficiency and neatness are the only criteria upon which the quality of biological design must be judged. The counter-argument maintains that, in addition to (or instead of) being thought of as an engineer, a creator deity is perhaps better thought of as an artist (possessing the ultimate artistic license). Moreover, this application of the argument presupposes the accountability of God to the judgement of humanity, an idea most major religions consider to be an enormous conceit that is diametrically opposed to their doctrines. However, doctrinal distaste should not rule out the moral issue that a benign God would not include design flaws that lead to pain or unnecessary death, such as the appendix, coccyx, our crowded teeth or a proclivity for cancer or the birth of babies through the pelvis. See Problem of Evil. But insufficient human knowledge may make things that actually are useful seem useless. For instance, it was once thought that tonsils were useless, but in fact they have minor disease-preventing properties. Such evidence of poor design would certainly be expected at least to reduce the effectiveness of the argument from design.

The apparently suboptimal design of organisms has also been used by theistic evolutionists to argue in favour of a creator deity who uses natural selection as a mechanism of his creation.[29] Arguers from poor design regard counter-arguments as a false dilemma, imposing that either a creator deity designed life on earth well, or flaws in design indicate the life is not designed. This allows proponents of intelligent design to cherry pick which aspects of life constitute design, leading to the unfalsifiability of the theory. Christian proponents of intelligent design as evidence of the existence of the Abrahamic God Yahweh can claim that good design indicates the creative intelligence of their God, while poor design indicates corruption of the world as a result of free will that caused the Fall (Genesis 3:16 has Yahweh saying to Eve "I will increase your trouble in pregnancy").

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Haeckel, Ernst (1892). The History of Creation. Appleton, New York. p. 331.
  2. Wise, Donald (2005-07-22). ""Intelligent" Design versus Evolution". Science. AAAS. 309 (5734): 556–557. doi:10.1126/science.309.5734.556c. PMID 16040688.
  3. Harry Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Nature in Romans 8, Volume 34
  4. Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict
  5. ed. Charles Taliaferro, Chad Meister, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, page 160
  6. Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species, 6th ed., Ch. 14.
  7. 1 2 3 Colby, Chris; Loren Petrich (1993). "Evidence for Jury-Rigged Design in Nature". Talk.Origins.
  8. 1 2 Selim, Jocelyn (June 2004). "Useless Body Parts". Discover. 25 (6).
  9. "Nervous System Guide by the National Science Teachers Association." Nervous System Guide by the National Science Teachers Association. National Science Teachers Association, n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. <>.
  10. Nishikimi M, Yagi K (December 1991). "Molecular basis for the deficiency in humans of gulonolactone oxidase, a key enzyme for ascorbic acid biosynthesis". Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 54 (6 Suppl): 1203S–1208S. PMID 1962571.
  11. Ohta Y, Nishikimi M (October 1999). "Random nucleotide substitutions in primate nonfunctional gene for L-gulono-gamma-lactone oxidase, the missing enzyme in L-ascorbic acid biosynthesis". Biochim. Biophys. Acta. 1472 (1–2): 408–11. doi:10.1016/S0304-4165(99)00123-3. PMID 10572964.
  12. "Wisdom Teeth." American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS). AAOMS, n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. <>.
  13. Nave, R. "The Retina." of the Human Eye. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. <>.
  14. "Squid Brains, Eyes, and Color." Squid Brains, Eyes, and Color. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. <>.
  15. Spreitzer RJ, Salvucci ME (2002). "Rubisco: structure, regulatory interactions, and possibilities for a better enzyme". Annu Rev Plant Biol. 53: 449–75. doi:10.1146/annurev.arplant.53.100301.135233. PMID 12221984.
  16. Ellis RJ (January 2010). "Biochemistry: Tackling unintelligent design". Nature. 463 (7278): 164–5. doi:10.1038/463164a. PMID 20075906.
  17. King James Bible. Job 38:1
  18. Fazale, Rana. "Responding to a Skeptic". Retrieved 7/9/2011. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  19. Dembski, William (1999). Intelligent design: the bridge between science & theology. InterVarsity Press. p. 261. ISBN 0-8308-2314-X.
  20. Panda thumbs its nose at the dysteleological arguments of the atheist Stephen Jay Gould
  21. Martin, Loren G. (October 21, 1999). "What is the function of the human appendix?". Scientific American.
  22. Is our "inverted retina" really 'bad design'?
  23. Backwardly wired retina "an optimal structure": New eye discovery further demolishes Dawkins
  24. Isaak, Mark (2004). "Claim CB130". Talk.Origins.
  25. Hirotsune, S; Yoshida, N; Chen, A; Garrett, L; Sugiyama, F; Takahashi, S; Yagami, K; Wynshaw-Boris, A; Yoshiki, A.; et al. (2003). "An expressed pseudogene regulates the messenger-RNA stability of its homologous coding gene". Nature. 423 (6935): 91–6. doi:10.1038/nature01535. PMID 12721631.
  26. Gray, TA; Wilson, A; Fortin, PJ; Nicholls, RD (2006). "The putatively functional Mkrn1-p1 pseudogene is neither expressed nor imprinted, nor does it regulate its source gene in trans". Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 103: 12039–12044. doi:10.1073/pnas.0602216103. PMC 1567693Freely accessible. PMID 16882727.
  28. "The Panda's Peculiar Thumb". NATURAL HISTORY. November 1978.
  29. Collins, Francis S. The Language of God (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2006. p 191. ISBN 978-1-4165-4274-2

Further reading

External links

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