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Argument from poor design

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The dysteleological argument or argument from poor design is an argument against the existence of God, specifically against the existence of a creator God (in the sense of a God that directly created all species of life). It is based on the following chain of reasoning:

  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.

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 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.

The complete phrase "argument from poor design" has rarely been used in the literature, but arguments of this type have appeared many times, sometimes referring to poor design, in other cases to suboptimal design, unintelligent design, or dysteleology; the last 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], p. 331). Haeckel, in his book The History of Creation, devoted most of a chapter to the argument, and ended by proposing, perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek, to set up "a theory of the unsuitability of parts in organisms, as a counter-hypothesis to the old popular doctrine of the suitability of parts" ([1], p. 331). The term Incompetent design has been coined by Donald Wise of the University of Massachusetts to describe aspects of nature that are currently flawed in design. The name stems from the acronym I.D. and is used to counter-balance arguments for intelligent design by a creator that are used by creationists.[2]


Examples of "poor design" cited include:

  • The existence of the blind spot in the human eye [3]
  • In the African locust, nerve cells start in the abdomen but connect to the wing. This leads to unnecessary use of materials. [2]

An artist's representation of an ectopic pregnancy. Critics cite such common biological occurrences as contradictory to the 'Watchmaker analogy'.

The human reproductive system includes the following:

  • In the human female, a fertilized egg can implant into the fallopian tube, cervix or ovary rather than the uterus causing an ectopic pregnancy. The existence of a cavity between the ovary and the fallopian tube could indicate a flawed design in the female reproductive system. Prior to modern surgery, ectopic pregnancy invariably caused the deaths of both mother and baby. Even in modern times, in almost all cases, the pregnancy must be aborted to save the life of the mother.
  • In the human female, the birth canal passes through the pelvis. The prenatal skull will deform to a surprising extent. However, if the baby’s head is significantly larger than the pelvic opening, the baby cannot be born naturally. Prior to the development of modern surgery (caesarean section), such a complication would lead to the death of the mother, the baby or both. Other birthing complications such as breech birth are worsened by this position of the birth canal.
  • In the human male, testes develop initially within the abdomen. Later during gestation, they migrate through the abdominal wall into the scrotum. This causes two weak points in the abdominal wall where hernias can later form. Prior to modern surgical techniques, complications from hernias including intestinal blockage, gangrene, etc., usually resulted in death.[3]

Other arguments:

  • Barely used nerves and muscles, such as the plantaris muscle of the foot[4], that are missing in part of the human population and are routinely harvested as spare parts if needed during operations. Another example is the muscles that move the ears, which some people can learn to control to a degree, but serve no purpose in any case ([1], p. 328).
  • Intricate reproductive devices in orchids, apparently constructed from components commonly having different functions in other flowers.
  • The use by pandas of their enlarged radial sesamoid bones in a manner similar to how other creatures use thumbs.
  • The existence of unnecessary wings in flightless birds, e.g. ostriches ([1], p. 326).
  • The route of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is such that it travels from the brain to the larynx by looping around the aortic arch. This same configuration holds true for many animals, in the case of the giraffe this results in about twenty feet of extra nerve.
  • The prevalence of congenital diseases and genetic disorders such as Huntington's Disease.
  • The common malformation of the human spinal column, leading to scoliosis, sciatica and congenital misalignment of the vertebrae.
  • The existence of the pharynx, a passage used for both ingestion and respiration, with the consequent drastic increase in the risk of choking.
  • The structure of humans' (as well as all mammals') eyes. The retina is 'inside out'. The nerves and blood vessels lie on the surface of the retina instead of behind it as is the case in many invertebrate species. This arrangement forces a number of complex adaptations and gives mammals a blind spot. (See Evolution of the eye). Six muscles move the eye when three would suffice. [4]
  • Crowded teeth and poor sinus drainage, as human faces are significantly flatter than those of other primates and humans share the same tooth set. This results in a number of problems, most notably with wisdom teeth.
  • Almost all animals and plants synthesize their own vitamin C, but humans cannot because the gene for this enzyme is defective (Pseudogene ΨGULO). Lack of vitamin C results in scurvy and eventually death. Defective vitamin synthesis pathways are a hallmark of "higher" animals — of which many are predators — because the prey accumulates vitamins which stem either from the eaten plants or are self-synthesized in the captured individual. Thus, higher animals are mostly unable to return to a purely "vegetarian" lifestyle; while conservation of such pathway genes is of no apparent cost to the animal.
  • The enzyme rubisco is a very slow enzyme, yet remains the key enzyme in carbon fixation and only overcomes this fact by having massive amounts of it inside plant cells. It is also unable to distinguish between carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen and often attempts to fix oxygen. This causes the enzyme to stop functioning until it is able to kick out the oxygen from the binding site and bind with carbon dioxide.
  • The enzyme nitrogenase actually preferentially binds with acetylene over di-nitrogen, despite it being the key enzyme used in nitrogen fixation in many bacteria and archaea.
  • The breathing reflex is stimulated not directly by the absence of oxygen but rather indirectly by the presence of carbon dioxide. A result is that, at high altitudes, oxygen deprivation can occur in unadapted individuals who do not consciously increase their breathing rate. Oxygenless asphyxiation in a pure-nitrogen atmosphere has been proposed as a humane method of execution that exploits this oversight.
  • The unstable hollow bones built for flight in birds like penguins and ostriches, and the Sturdy bones built for non-flight in animals like bats.
  • Vestigial third molar (Commonly known as wisdom teeth) in humans. Some other primates with differing jaw shapes make use of the third molar.
  • The vestigial Femur and pelvis in whales, the ancestor of whales lived on land.

Other critics argue that if these design failures are the deliberate products of an intelligent designer, then the designer must be either inept or sadistic. Or possibly there was a large number of designers, as in the old joke that "a camel is a horse designed by a committee".



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

"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 terms of a fitness landscape, 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[5]; 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.


The argument from poor design has received a fair share of objections.

Unproven assumptions

Several generic philosophical criticisms can be directed towards the first premise of the argument - that a Creator God would have designed things 'optimally'. The argument hinges on an assumption that the human concept of 'optimal design' is the same as those of God, but there is no proof that this is valid. This is, in effect, the argument of 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?[6]

Consequences of sin

Christians argue that because of mankind's sin, the world is fallen, and full of imperfections. It is argued that imperfections and apparent sub-optimal design persist in the world because of sin.[7]

Panda's thumb

The proponents of design question the first premise of the argument, maintaining a distinction between "intelligent design" and optimal design.[8] It is noted that the Panda's "thumb" works excellently for what it does — strip leaves.

Human appendix

While the appendix has been previously credited with very little function, it is now believed that they serve an important role in the fetus and young adults.[9] 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.[10]

Responses to criticism

Many arguments against the argument from poor design have been addressed by its proponents. In the case of the Panda's thumb, the argument isn't that it works, 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." [11]

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. The original study that suggested that the Makorin1-p1 served some purpose (Hirotsune et al., 2003 [5]) has been shown to be entirely wrong (Grey et al., 2006 [6]). They also note that some sections of DNA can be randomized, cut, or added to with no apparent effect on the organism in question. [7]

In regards 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 and other components of the photosynthetic array can only absorb 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 God, 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...."

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, God 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. We can know what God is like to a certain extent, but ultimately we cannot know everything about him because he is of necessity on a higher plane to us. 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. But if we can presume to recognize good design and are at the same time allowed to plead ignorance on apparent bad design, aren't we selecting to use the evidence that supports our claim and ignoring that which contradicts it? Evidence of poor design certainly reduces the effectiveness of the argument from design.

The apparently sub-optimal design of organisms has also been used to argue in favour of a god who uses natural selection as a mechanism of his creation.[12]

Arguers from poor design regard all these counter-arguments as a false dilemma (God designed it, or it's flawed), leading to the unfalsifiability of intelligent design — if it's good design, God did it, if it's bad design, it's a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16 has God saying to Eve "I will increase your trouble in pregnancy").


  • Unintelligent Design (ISBN 1-59102-084-0 – December, 2003) is a book by Mark Perakh addressing Intelligent design and several other variations of creationism, which are alternate "theories" to evolution.
  • Williams, Robyn (1 Feb 2007). Unintelligent Design: Why God Isn't as Smart as She Thinks She Is. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74114-923-1. Robyn Williams uses numerous examples from the natural and scientific world, including sinus blockages, hernias, appendix flare-ups and piles, to argue against fundamentalist religion, creationism and intelligent design.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Haeckel, E. (1892). [1] The History of Creation, Appleton, New York
  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. 
  4. Selim, Jocelyn (2004). Discover. Useless Body Parts
  5. Darwin C. The Origin of Species, 6th ed., ch. 14.
  6. King James Bible. Job 38:1
  8. Dembski, William (1999). Intelligent design: the bridge between science & theology. InterVarsity Press. p. 261. ISBN 083082314X. 
  11. Selim, Jocelyn (June 2004). "Useless Body Parts" ([dead link]Scholar search). Discover 25 (6). Retrieved 2007-02-18. 
  12. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2006. p 191. ISBN 978-1-4165-4274-2

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