Argument from poor design

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For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
Tsunami damage for which God is ultimately responsible as the designer
For more information, see the TalkOrigins Archive article:
A cat's eye is superior to humans in some ways, therefore human vision is not optimal.

The Dysteleological argument, or argument from poor design, is an argument against the existence of God - specifically a competent creator God.

"Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the résumé of a Supreme Being. This is the kind of shit you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude. And just between you and me, in any decently-run universe, this guy would've been out on his all-powerful ass a long time ago."

George Carlin [1]

"[While the goodness of God] must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. [...Regarding living things,] How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!"

— Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[2]
"The human eye is indeed a marvel, but if it were to be designed from scratch, it’s hard to imagine it would look anything like it does. [...] Before I discuss the puzzling physical design of the eye, let’s start off by making one thing clear: the human eye is fraught with functional problems as well. [3]"

"If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals."

John Stuart Mill

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

Charles Darwin

The implication of the argument is that God is either incompetent, malevolent or non-existent. It can be used as a counter-argument to the fine-tuning argument and the argument from design.



The argument typically goes as follows:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God would create organisms with an optimal design.
  2. Organisms, including humans, have features that are suboptimal. Also natural systems such as weather have unnecessary extremes that are often lethal or inhospitable.
  3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

The argument is usually not proposed as an actual argument, but as a weaker Reductio ad absurdum of the argument from design - the bedrock argument for the Intelligent design movement.

Some of the suboptimal features and designs often touted includes:

  1. The eye
    1. the retina is backwards
    2. Blind spot in human vision
    3. Human vision is inferior to many other species
  2. The laryngeal nerve (seen most spectacularly in the giraffe with a multiple metre detour to reach a displacement of mere centimetres).[4]
  3. Wisdom teeth don't fit in a human jaw
  4. Sections of DNA which has no apparent purpose (so called "junk" DNA)
  5. Breathing and consuming food by the same passage risks choking (whales don't have this problem)
  6. Whales lack gills (which probably would be helpful being a sea creature)
  7. Animals are susceptible to disease (why is disease necessary?)
  8. Many pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion
  9. Congenital disorders, inherited disorders (e.g. cystic fibrosis)
  10. Humans require many years of development to be independent of parents (unlike many other species)
  11. Animals have vestigial organs
  12. Extreme weather, hurricanes and cyclones, droughts
  13. Earthquakes, tsunamis, freak waves and other examples of "natural evil"
  14. Excessively hot or cold climates, most of the universe is hostile to life
  15. The panda's thumb [5]

Speaking of the traditional conception of God, Stendhal wrote: [6]

"The only excuse for God is that He does not exist."

Friedrich Nietzsche speculated that if a loving God existed, he would have died upon seeing the end product of his poor design.

Supporting arguments

Biblical God agrees it was a mistake

Genesis 6:5-6 Bible-icon.png states:

"Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart."

Emotional expression and admission of error also incompatible with God's supposed inerrancy and unchanging nature.

Earth and humans are not distinct

Main Article: Earth the center of the universe

If humans or the Earth were designed by God and are a significant part of creation, we might expect them to be distinct in some tangible way. However, it seems odd that there are many other similar planets (as discovered by Galileo) and humans are animals similar to all the others (as confirmed by Evolutionary theory). Since the humans and Earth are not distinct from the rest of creation, they are not specially privileged or significant. Therefore, claims to the contrary in holy scriptures are false.

Most of the universe is hostile to life

It look billions of years for life to emerge in the universe. Also, most of the universe is uninhabitable and hostile to life. A better design would have more habitable regions and for a greater time period.

"So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it."

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Good design is not optimal design

Even if there is evidence of good design, apologists are actually claiming God is capable of producing optimal designs. That is a far higher standard of design and is not supported by evidence at all.

No protection against misfortune

"An indulgent parent would have bestowed a large stock, in order to guard against accidents, and secure the happiness and welfare of the creature in the most unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. Every course of life would not have been so surrounded with precipices, that the least departure from the true path, by mistake or necessity, must involve us in misery and ruin. Some reserve, some fund, would have been provided to ensure happiness; nor would the powers and the necessities have been adjusted with so rigid an economy.[2]"

Counter arguments

No poor design

For more information, see the TalkOrigins Archive article:
For more information, see the TalkOrigins Archive article:

Apologists counter cases of alleged poor design by saying that when considered more fully, they are actually good designs:

"[Examples of poor design] actually turn out to be elegant instances of good designs when more carefully considered [7]"

The apologist usually backs this up by criticising the possibility of any alternative design, even though better designs are often seen elsewhere in nature. They often cite the trade off argument that makes a design consider multiple factors. Vestigial organs and "junk" DNA are often justified by speculative theories but lack hard evidence.

Designs are always a trade off between various considerations

"all design requires trade-offs. Laptop computers must strike a balance between size, weight, and performance. [...] Likewise, it could be that the design of the panda’s thumb is a trade-off that still achieves intended objectives.[8]"
"In fact, the retina is designed with slightly suboptimal light gathering abilities so that it will be functional for at least several decades. [9]"
"They may be ignorant of good reasons for design tradeoffs between various traits, as well as other traits yet to be discovered. Balancing design tradeoffs is difficult work. It is a powerful indicator of intelligence behind a design.[10]"

An omnipotent designer does not need to make trade-offs since he has unlimited options, since he is apparently not even limited by physical laws.

Also, many design flaws in biological systems are not trade-offs but fundamental flaws that can be directly remedied. Other species often provide examples of superior biological systems and functions.

Apologists criticise alternative designs as impractical but mostly rely on unjustified speculation to do so.

Even if humans cannot say exactly how to specifically improve the design, it is hard to rule out the possibility of a better design to overcome very obvious shortcomings:

"Did I show you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building, were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtlety, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: The alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect.[2]"

It is hard to say humans have optimal eye design when eagles have sharper vision, chameleons can articulate them independently, grazing animals have a better field of view, mantis shrimps are sensitive to a wider range of colors, and owls/cats have better night vision.

God would not necessarily design things optimally

"God did not design organisms to be perfect.[11]"

This calls into question the omnibenevolence of God. What possible reason could god have to design things non-optimally? Does heaven have a non-optimal design too?

Common design across species

"[Poorly design features] is only a problem for design if one assumes design means designed from scratch for each taxon [4]"

Why would a designer not design each species optimally? An omnipotent being has no need to reuse common designs between species. Since human reuse of pre-existing design is intended to save effort and resources, commonality in designs is evidence of a finite designer.

Second law of thermodynamics

For more information, see the TalkOrigins Archive article:
"Life is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Faulty biological designs can result when optimal systems produced by the Creator experience the unrelenting effects of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy causes biological systems (like everything else) to tend toward disorder.[7]"

This is a red herring because God is also responsible for thermodynamics. Being omnipotent, he also could make life that is not subject to thermodynamics.

This is also a misapplication of thermodynamics since humans are not a closed system. If a human was trapped in a small box, their argument might have merit.

Also, thermodynamics really addresses entropy, which is distinct from the concept of design "disorder" used by apologists.

Humans cannot detect poor design

"There is no objective test for poor design. So, how do evolutionists look at a feature and actually “see” poor design?[10]"
"Are we the ones that determine the standards of perfection? What makes a design better or worse? "Better" relative to what? Who decides what level of functionality is acceptable? What man made designs and plans for life have prototypes or have been tested and put in to use?[12]"

While is argument might have validity, it also overturns the argument from design which is exactly what most skeptics are seeking to do. If humans cannot discern poor design, they cannot discern good design.

A divine designer might think differently

"this is only a problem for design if one assumes [...] that the designer would necessarily use the shortest distance between two points (in other words, that the designer thinks like we do)[4]"

Human design is the basis for the analogy in the argument from design (which incidentally risks the spotlight fallacy). If we say "the designer is unlike a human mind" the analogy breaks down and invalidates the argument. It is pointless to compare objects that are completely different, such as a human mind and a divine mind that thinks very differently.

Argument from ignorance

"When they present a “poor design” argument, critics usually demonstrate a profound lack of knowledge of the structures they fault.[10]"
"Perhaps some animals or creatures behave exactly the way they do to enhance the ecology in ways that we don’t know about. Perhaps the “apparent” destructive behavior of some animals provides other animals with an advantage in order to maintain balance in nature or even to change the proportions of the animal population.[13]"

Skeptics need to carefully guard against the argument from ignorance. This may be achieved by comprehensive consideration of a structure's functions and systems. Conclusions based on well understood biological and natural systems do not commit the argument from ignorance.

On the other hand, wide speculation on possible design trade offs is not a substitute for knowledge.

Also, if we cannot evaluate what is poor design, we also cannot evaluate what is good design because there may be shortcomings with the design that we have not considered.

Justification for natural evil

Main Article: Problem of evil

Apologists attempt to justify natural evil in various ways:

  • God punishes sinners with natural disasters
  • God has some warped need to prove himself to Satan, such as when he tested Job. "Satan had accused him of serving God only because God had given him many material blessings. God allowed Satan to take everything away from Job, and even to ruin his health, to prove that Job served from pure motives and love, not for material gain." [14]
  • Irenaean theodicy
"it is quite possible that God uses the suffering to do good. In other words, He produces patience through tribulation (Romans 5:3 Bible-icon.png) [15]"
  • Some reason we cannot understand
"it is possible that God has reasons for allowing evil to exist that we simply cannot understand. [15]"

Humans can't do better

"The quote above saying that an "an engineer starting from scratch could design a better limb in each case" is just plain stupid. No engineer has yet to design any living system from the molecules up. No molecular biologists has designed any biological system without starting with life or the ideas gleaned from what they know of life.[12]"

The fact that humans can or can't do better in designing biological systems from scratch is irrelevant. We can see how a design can be improved and that is enough. While limiting for humans, practical considerations are not an obstacle for an omnipotent God.

We live in a fallen world

Main Article: We live in a fallen world
"This world has changed dramatically since its creation. The world that was very good no longer exists. Life is now in a state of imperfection. Yet even in this state, it still exhibits the harmony, imagination, wisdom and ineluctable genius of the creator.[12]"

There is no way to distinguish a "formerly perfect but now fallen world" from an "imperfectly designed world". In fact, the evidence before us indicates that God is imperfect (or doesn't exist).

This argument contradicts previous arguments that "designs" we observe are actually optimal. Now the apologist says the world is actually imperfect at the current time. They can't have it both ways.

The problem of evil is also an issue for this argument: why would God allow an imperfect world and not intervene?

Just one good design is proof of a designer

"Even if a poor design were shown, it would not counter the other aspects of creation that are unarguably the result of good design; since an absolute rule can be disproved by a single counterexample, a single showing of a biological feature that is unarguably designed and designed well suffices to disprove the argument from poor design.[11]"

The argument from poor design is intended to show either God is imperfect or God does not exist. Either option disproves the popular conception of a monotheistic god. Just one poor design is enough to show that God is an imperfect designer. Just one good design does not demonstrate much at all.

Poor design also rules out evolution

"[...] any supposed design flaw would have been eliminated by natural selection.[11]"

Evolution can develop biological systems to have a relatively good design but it generally would be far from optimal. This is because evolutionary optimisation is prone to "local minima" i.e. it finds a good solution that is similar to a pre-existing design, but still a non-optimal solution. Evolutionary development is based on pre-existing structures and the process does not plan ahead. For this reason, we would expect flaws and shortcomings in evolutionary development.


  1. [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
  3. [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 [3]
  5. [4]
  6. As quoted in "A Sentimental Education" by James Huneker, Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 43 (1908), p. 230
  7. 7.0 7.1 [5]
  8. I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist
  9. [6]
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 [7]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 [8]
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 [9]
  13. [10]
  14. [11]
  15. 15.0 15.1 [12]

See also

External links

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